Best Cincinnati Bengals Quarterbacks of All Time: From Jon Kitna to Joe Burrow

In just four seasons, Joe Burrow has thrust himself into the conversation of best Bengals quarterback of all time, but he's not all the way there yet.

Joe Burrow is speeding unencumbered in the express lane on his way to being the greatest quarterback in Cincinnati Bengals history.

And it’s not crazy to think his drive could end up in Canton if the final six seasons of his current contract look anything like what he’s produced in the last three.

But there is a long way to go and a growing list of injury issues, so you have to pump the brakes on slotting him any higher. Plus there are other elite passers in Cincinnati history who have a significant milestone on their résumé that Burrow has yet to accomplish.

So where does his incomplete résumé rank among the franchise greats?

Here are the top seven – because 10 would have been a stretch – quarterbacks in Bengals history.

Ranking the Greatest QBs in Cincinnati Bengals History

Honorable mention: Greg Cook, Sam Wyche, Virgil Carter

7) Jon Kitna (2001-05)

The Bengals signed Kitna as a free agent in 2001 to end the Akili Smith disaster and help star receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh get their careers starter before ushering in the Marvin Lewis era.

Kitna has the best season of his career when Lewis took over in 2003, throwing for 26 touchdowns, which would stand as his career high, and 3,591 yards, which was his single-season high at that time.

Kitna’s performance helped the Bengals take a patient approach by sitting 2003 No. 1 pick Carson Palmer for the entire season, and his mentorship helped prepare Palmer for his starting role.

Kitna ranks seventh on the franchise’s career passing list with 10,707 yards. The next-highest total is 3,880 by David Klinger. Kitna also ranks seventh in touchdown passes (59) and wins (18).

6) Jeff Blake (1994-99)

During the darkest period of Bengals history, Blake was a bolt of light and hope.

Cincinnati had lost 44 of its previous 55 games, including a 0-7 start in 1994, when head coach David Shula benched Klinger and named Blake the starter.

In his first career start, he threw for 247 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions as the winless Bengals nearly upset the two-time defending champion Dallas Cowboys, falling 23-20.

Blake led Cincinnati to back-to-back wins in the weeks that followed, and Blake Mania – or Shake and Blake, depending on your preference – was born. There were T-shirts, songs and, most of all, hope.

The losing eventually returned, but Blake’s patented, high-arching deep balls made the offense fun to watch. He led the team to a 7-9 mark in 1995 and 8-8 in 1996.

When he left Cincinnati to go to New Orleans in 2000, Blake ranked third in team history in every major passing category. He remains fifth in passing yards (15,134) and sixth in passing touchdowns (93).

5) Andy Dalton (2011-19)

The No. 5 spot was the toughest position battle on the list, as a case could be made for Carson Palmer or Dalton to be No. 4.

Dalton is the franchise’s career leader in passing touchdowns with 204, yet he only ranks third in interceptions (118). Among quarterbacks with at least 12 starts, he is second in passing yards (31,594) and victories (46), fourth in completion percentage (62.0) and second in passer rating (87.5).

He had a better winning percentage (.534) than Palmer (.474), but he also had much better defenses.

During Palmer’s tenure as the starting quarterback from 2004-10, the Bengals finished in the top 10 in defense once (fourth in 2009). During Dalton’s time from 2011-19, they had a top 10 defense three times (seventh in 2011, sixth in 2012, third in 2013) and were 11th in 2015.

Perhaps the most telling factor is looking at where each quarterback ranked amongst his peers in any given season. In the five categories of passer rating, completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passing yards per attempt, Palmer finished in the top five in the league seven times and was in the top 10 another seven times.

Dalton was top five three times and top 10 three times.

4) Carson Palmer (2003-2010)

Palmer remains one of the biggest villains in Bengals history and presented owner Mike Brown with a “trade me or I’ll retire” ultimatum following the 2010 season.

He’s been reviled in Cincinnati ever since, even though Brown’s decision to trade him in October 2011 led to the Bengals fleecing the Raiders for a first- and second-round pick, which were parlayed into Dre Kirkpatrick and Giovani Bernard.

But hurt feelings and “quitter” accusations aside, Palmer was one of the top quarterbacks in the league during his seven seasons as Cincinnati’s starter – and well beyond.

He led the league in touchdown passes in 2005 and was second in 2006. He also finished second in passer rating and completion percentage in 2005 and was fourth in yards.

In his final season as the starter when the Bengals were a dismal 4-12, Palmer still was sixth in yards and touchdowns.

Among quarterbacks with at least 12 starts in Cincinnati history, Palmer ranks second in completion percentage (62.9), third in passer rating (86.9), fourth in yards (22,694), touchdowns (154) and wins (46), and fifth in yards per attempt (7.1).

3) Joe Burrow (2020-Present)

One of three quarterbacks to lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl, Burrow did it in just his second season.

In just four seasons, the 2020 No. 1 pick has climbed to the top of the franchise leaderboard, or near it, in every major category.

Among Cincinnati quarterbacks with at least 12 starts, Burrow ranks first in passer rating (98.6), completion percentage (68.0), and postseason victories (five), second in yards per attempt (7.4), fifth in touchdowns (97) and wins (29), and sixth in passing yards (14,083).

He also owns the team’s single-season record for yards (4,611 in 2021) and also holds the No. 2 spot in that category (4,475 in 2022). Burrow is likewise ranked first and second in single-season touchdown passes (35 in 2022, 34 in 2021). And he owns the single-season completion record (414 in 2022).

The one thing the two men ahead of Burrow on this list have – beyond greater career volume numbers due to their longer careers – is an NFL MVP award.

2) Boomer Esiason (1984-97)

The 1988 NFL MVP led the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII and was 34 seconds away from helping the franchise lift its first Lombardi Trophy.

Esiason ended his career on one the wildest, most successful runs in team history, replacing Blake as the starter in Week 13 and guiding a 3-8 team to a 4-1 finish. He threw 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in that stretch, which saw the Bengals score at least 31 points in four of the five games.

When Esiason walked away, he was the franchise leader in passer rating (83.1) and yards per attempt (7.6), and he ranked second in passing yards (27,149, touchdowns (187) and completion percentage (56.5).

His three postseason victories also were a team high until Burrow surpassed him with five.

Esiason earned three of his four Pro Bowl nominations and lone All-Pro nod during his time with the Bengals. The other came with the Jets, along with a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

He finished in the top five three times during his time in Cincinnati and was in the top 10 five times. He was second in touchdown passes three times, including his rookie year, and in the top four five times.

A Bengals Ring of Honor inductee, Esiason led the league in passer rating once and finished second twice.

1 Ken Anderson (1971-86)

One of the most egregious Pro Football Hall of Fame omissions for any franchise in any era, Anderson was a first-ballot inductee into the team’s Ring of Honor and an easy choice for the top spot on this list.

As impressive as his volume statistics are – franchise leader in passing yards (32,838) and wins (91) and second in touchdowns (197) – you have to look at his year-by-year performances for a true measure of what a great quarterback Anderson was.

The third-round pick out of Augustana College, Anderson led the league in passing yards in back-to-back seasons (1974-75). The only other quarterbacks to lead the league in successive years are Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, and Drew Brees. Three of the four are in the Hall of Fame, and Brees will be a lock when eligible.

Five times he finished in the top five in yards, and seven times he placed in the top 10.

Anderson led the league in passer rating four times. Only Steve Young (six) has done it more often in the Super Bowl era.

Anderson also was in the top five in touchdowns five times.

In 1981, he won both the NFL MVP and NFL Comeback Player of the Year Awards, and in 1975, he won the Man of the Year Award (the honor which had yet to add Walter Payton’s name).

Listen to the PFN Bengals Podcast

Listen to the PFN Bengals Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Bengals Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review! Rather watch instead? Check out the PFN Bengals Podcast on our NFL YouTube channel.

Related Articles