Last week, Shea Serrano tweeted at me asking whether I’d ever ranked the best movie and TV quarterbacks. While Bill Simmons ranked the NFL quarterbacks by fictitious counterparts, amazingly, I had never done a full movie and TV ranking. Obviously, we need to rectify this … Before we rank those quarterbacks, though, we have to hand out a few awards. There are some quarterbacks who might not appear in our top 10, but who nonetheless deserve recognition for some tiny aspect of their performance. And, really, there are others who will show up in the top 10 I just want to focus more on anyway. Are we sure there are only two movies in which James Van Der Beek plays a quarterback? There’s got to be more.
Shea Serrano: Easy. The best line ever delivered by any quarterback in any movie or TV show belongs to Matt Saracen from the Friday Night Lights series. (You can read Grantland’s oral history of the show here.) If you’re unfamiliar with Friday Night Lights, it’s set in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and is mostly about Dillon’s high school football team. Saracen is the most unstoppably heartbreaking/charming character on the show. He’s built to be a forever backup (slight, humble, insecure), but gets shoved into the starting spot when the true quarterback gets his spine snapped during a game in the first episode of the first season. Saracen is a tragic figure. He exists to be pummeled. Every single good thing that happens to him — every tiny morsel of happiness he’s handed by the universe — is given to him only so someone can yank it away in a particularly crushing manner. His mom left him (for a better life), his dad leaves him (to serve in the military), his first girlfriend leaves him (for another guy), his second girlfriend leaves him (for another country), his coach leaves him (for a better job), his teammates philosophically leave him (for what they think is a better quarterback), and his grandmother unintentionally leaves him (she has dementia, which gets worse as the show moves forward). Which leads to the Best Line.
In the 14th episode of the much-maligned second season, Saracen gets into a drunken shouting match with his coach. (The coach has thrown him into a cold shower and begun berating him after a week or so of Saracen dodging practice and getting drunk.) Saracen finally cracks, firing through an inventory of the people who have abandoned him, ending it with a devastating, “Everybody leaves me … What’s wrong with me?”
Oh, great, now I’m crying again.
Bill Barnwell: I’ve just started watching Friday Night Lights (spoiled for me long before that paragraph above), and I share your Saracenic sympathies, Shea. But there’s no way the best line delivered by a quarterback in a movie isn’t “I don’t want your life!” as spoken by Jonathon “Mox” Moxon in Varsity Blues. I find myself thinking about it entirely out of context all the time. Some lady will be ordering a sandwich in front of me at the deli and begin a sentence with “I don’t want” and it’s all I can do to not mutter “your layfe” under my breath. The full clip preceding the line above is even better because JVDB puts more effort, with his troublesome accent, into saying the word “opportunity” than I have ever put into any endeavor in my entire life.
Shea: This is even easier — the Best Monologue also belongs to Matt Saracen. In the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, after Saracen has graduated and abandoned his dream of attending school in Chicago to take care of his grandmother (“You’re the only person who’s never left me,” he explains to her), he finds himself milling about in the hopelessly circular Dillon. That’s when he finds out his dad was killed while serving in Iraq after stepping on a land mine. The whole episode is perfectly acted and definitely the saddest hour of television I have ever experienced, culminating in a very bleak, uncommonly rattling monologue Saracen delivers while attempting to eat dinner at his girlfriend’s house. When he’s done, he walks out of the house, then begins to run down the street before breaking down entirely. I don’t know. Watching it, it was almost too much. No quarterback has ever been humanized more wonderfully than Matt Saracen as portrayed by Zach Gilford, and at no point in the series was he ever more believable than when he was standing in the middle of that road letting everything that was in him out.
Oh, great, now I’m crying again.
Bill: I went ahead and watched this clip, and why can’t we just give Matt Saracen a hug? All of us. Just at once. It would be the best thing for everyone involved. We agree here.
MOST UNDERRATED PASSER
Bill: I had to seriously give some thought to this one, because there are so many benched movie quarterbacks out there who were probably only slumping in a small sample size and likely deserved to keep their jobs. But when I started looking over the candidates, one quarterback really jumped out. Josh Framm was a quarterback who faced tougher competition than any other: He had to throw to a dog in Air Bud: Golden Receiver. It takes dogs months to learn a proper route tree, let alone the ability to actually execute those routes on demand. If you can hit a dog in stride, chances are you can work with some human targets.
That being said, in doing my research for this piece, I was alerted to a stunning fact. Did you know that Air Bud was Comet, the dog from Full House? They should have given that dog his own “In Memoriam” video at the goddamned Oscars when he died, Shea.
Shea: When I was in college I had a dog. He was very excellent. I used to take him everywhere. I took him to the lake with me once back when he was a year or so old. It was the first time he’d ever been around a natural body of water. He loved it. He ran all up and down the man-made beach, and even bounced around in the water a bit. He never bothered to go anywhere past where his own legs would allow his head to remain above water, though. But I assumed he’d be good at swimming, what with him being a dog and all. So I figured I would help him if I scooped him up and carried him out to where the water was about three feet deep. I looked at him and said something overly sensational (probably something like, “Now’s your chance to be a real dog!” or whatever). Then I let him go. And he sank like a goddamn stone. He sunk all the way to the lake floor, and then looked up at me. Like, he looked up through the water, right into my eyes. He didn’t even think about trying to swim. He sat there for, like, at least four seconds and didn’t do anything except wait to die by drowning. It’s like he just said, “Well, this is an unsolvable problem. There’s no way out of this. I’ll just die now.” When I realized what was happening, I reached down, picked him up, then carried him back to the shore. It was disappointing, but in that very unique way that dogs disappoint you, which is to say it was just a blurry version of charming.
Anyway, the point: Dogs ain’t that smart. Matt Schaub has trouble completing a pass to Andre Johnson. I can’t even imagine throwing a fade route to a German shepherd or Saint Bernard. Getting a dog to catch a ball has to earn you the Most Underrated Passer award. I agree with you. Josh Framm wins.
Bill: Almost by default, the best single released by any of these quarterbacks was “My Name Is Willie” by Willie Beamen from Any Given Sunday. (That video is NSFW unless your office has an incredibly liberal opinion of butts.) This song somehow doesn’t have a RapGenius page, which is probably why Google got so angry at them a couple months ago. It also goes from no. 13 in the charts to no. 1 during the montage, despite seemingly having only a chorus and maybe four bars of a verse.
Willie Beamen is the clear winner there. But Shea, if any other fictional quarterback of your choosing could release a song, who would it be and why?
Shea: I guess I’m gonna vote for Kurt Russell’s Reno Hightower in The Best of Times. I mean, Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China helped defeat a centuries-old sorcerer. He could probably string together a few words that rhymed.
Related: You know what I never understood? Why didn’t Kurt Russell ever get deified like weak-ass Chuck Norris did? He’s way more impressive. Consider just four of his movies: Big Trouble in Little China (brilliant), Tombstone (fantastic), Tango & Cash (amazing), Overboard (mesmerizing). What else do you want the man to do?
Bill: Chuck Norris had twins at 61. Although, I just found out that Kurt Russell’s in the seventh Fast & Furious movie, so now I don’t really care about Chuck Norris’s twins anymore.
MOST REALISTIC-LOOKING QUARTERBACK
Bill: This also has to go to Jamie Foxx’s Willie Beamen. I’m convinced the Browns would be better off signing him right now, especially after watching “My Name Is Willie” about 20 times in a row. Could it really be that much worse than Brandon Weeden? Maybe the Colts would get excited and trade them a midround pick and we’d get a music video from Jamie Foxx and Jim Irsay.
Shea: I suppose I am OK with this.
LEAST REALISTIC-LOOKING QUARTERBACK
Shea: Johnny Walker from Johnny Be Good. It’s not even close. Every time I look at him, I think about him crying about making that elephant lamp that wouldn’t turn on. There’s no way I want that kid throwing the ball on third-and-8.
Bill: Anthony Michael Hall? I could believe that. I also want to throw in Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, who threw submarine — although that might have been related to some arm injuries. He used to have the arm strength in ’82 to throw a pigskin a quarter mile, though, which must have gotten Ken Whisenhunt’s dander up.
Shea: That’s such a great line, the “throw a pigskin a quarter mile” thing. Every uncle I have has said some variation of that line to me. One of my uncles told me he once ran a mile in under three minutes in high school. Another told me he once ripped a rattlesnake in half with his bare hands. Uncles lie about shit all day long. I’m super pumped to be an uncle.
MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED AFTER THE EVENTS DEPICTED
Shea: Johnny Utah.
Bill: I dunno. I’m not an expert on the FBI, but I’m pretty sure you can’t just quit by throwing your badge into the ocean. He probably got into some trouble for that. At the very least, there’s going to be a pretty big gap in his résumé that’s not going to be fun to explain in interviews. I think it’s only right to at least consider Frank “Cush” Cushman from Jerry Maguire, as played by Jerry O’Connell. Sure, Cush fires Jerry Maguire, but is it even really clear that Maguire is much of an agent? That might not have been a bad move by Cush.
And yeah, OK: His father insists on him playing with the Broncos, but in terms of the football draft, meddlesome dads are a good thing! John Elway refused to play for the Colts and ended up winning two Super Bowls and basically becoming the king of Denver, and Archie Manning ran interference for Eli Manning on his way to New York and two Super Bowls of his own, not to mention being the patron saint of Grantland before Giannis Antetokounmpo1 came around. I think Cushman wins two Super Bowls, probably runs a really successful business, and eventually becomes a senator.
Shea: Disagree. I guess I’m looking at “most likely to succeed” a bit more philosophically than I should. At the end of Point Break, Johnny Utah is happy. Like, he’s all the way happy. He understands life. He understands the universe. He won’t be in the FBI anymore, but that’s only because it’s not in his best interest. And were it up to me, the only way anyone would ever be allowed to quit something is if they threw it into the ocean. No more FBI badge? Boom! Throw it in the ocean. Quitting soda? Boom! Throw it in the ocean. Giving your baby up for adoption? Boom! Toss that little B right TF into the Pacific.
Bill: That sounds real True Detective fan-fiction-y to me, and that wound is too raw to reopen right now.
BEST FEUD A QUARTERBACK PARTICIPATED IN
Shea: At first I was going to say that the best QB feud was Jamie Foxx versus his own forehead in Any Given Sunday, but devastating as that battle was, it falls second to Jason Street vs. Coach Taylor. Street sued Taylor for failing to teach him how to tackle, which resulted in the injury that paralyzed him in the very first episode of Friday Night Lights. That was just too much.
Bill: Correct. Although, if we expanded this out past quarterbacks to football players, it would be the Icebox from Little Giants versus the broader world in which she lived.
THE QUARTERBACKS WHO MOST DESERVED TO BE TRADED (BETWEEN MOVIES)
Shea: Tami Maida in Quarterback Princess for Leon Hayes in Gridiron Gang because they both had braids, I guess. That’s my pick. Just know this: No team is ever winning a championship if it’s got a significant2 player with cornrows. That’s why the Spurs lost the championship last year to the Heat. They couldn’t overcome Kawhi’s cornrows.
Bill: I can’t compete with that. The only thing I’m going to say is this: What if we trade Joe Kingman from The Game Plan to Knute Rockne All-American for George Gipp?3 Then instead of the “Win One for the Gipper” speech from a dying Ronald Reagan, we get that same speech from Dwayne Johnson, and then eventually, the Rock becomes president of the United State— What’s that? That’s going to happen in real life anyway? OK.
MOST ATTRACTIVE QUARTERBACK
Shea: I think it’s pretty clear here that it’s Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass in Remember the Titans, right? Or is it Brendan Fraser in School Ties? Or the guy who played Stan Gable in Revenge of the Nerds? Or Keanu Reeves in Point Break? Or Paul Walker in Varsity Blues? Yeah. There it is. Paul Walker in Varsity Blues. His face was perfect.
Bill: As much as we all love Paul Walker and will forever, I have to go with Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues. It was an extremely tough choice, but only because James Van Der Beek is also, as I referenced earlier, a handsome quarterback in Angus. His accent is far worse in Varsity Blues, but he plays the heavy in Angus, and cruelty is never attractive, even if it’s with a better accent.
Shea: I can’t believe you just said that to me.
LEAST ATTRACTIVE QUARTERBACK
Shea: Van Der Beek.
Bill: WHAT SHEA NO.
Shea: Van Der Beek very much looks like he should’ve been an extra on The Hills Have Eyes. Have you even seen his head? It’s like a mile long.
Bill: That’s the most handsome mile ever, Shea. If that mile had its trash picked up by a sponsor, the cosponsors would be Pantene Pro-V and the abstract concept of making out.
The Top 10
Bill: So, to figure out the top 10, Shea and I put together a list of 45 quarterbacks from popular culture. We independently each picked a top 20 from that group, which yielded exactly 10 quarterbacks who appeared on both our lists. These are those 10 quarterbacks, ranked in relative order of where they appeared on our respective combined lists. This seems like a pretty lean, foolproof process for creating an entirely arbitrary set of rankings.
There are a number of ways to grade these quarterbacks, all of which are problematic. I’m not sure how you compare Helen Hunt in Quarterback Princess to Charlton Heston in Number One, but it’s not going to involve breaking down their mechanics or analyzing their acting ability. In the end, the best way to do it was to compare the “It” factor of the quarterbacks in their respective worlds, which conveniently requires as much justification as we want.
In the process of combining our lists, we had to make some tough choices on whom to leave out. Here are the three Honorable Mentions we’re each very angry at each other for not including:
Shea: Paul Crewe in The Longest Yard (Sandler version), Paul Blake in Necessary Roughness, and Vince Howard in Friday Night Lights.
Bill: Paul Crewe in The Longest Yard (Reynolds version), Seth Maxwell in North Dallas Forty, and Rick Sanford in Angus.
That Paul Crewe fight is going to haunt us for a long time. I’m still recovering from the scratches. Let’s get to the top 10, though. Shea, who is the 10th-best quarterback in fake football history?
10. Uncle Rico, “Napoleon Dynamite”
Shea: Uncle Rico slides in here for two reasons:
1. Because he has videos of himself throwing footballs as an adult, which is a thing that I have definitely done. I have self-filmed videos of me doing all kinds of stuff. A list from least embarrassing to re-watch now to most embarrassing to re-watch now: (5) throwing a football to nobody, (4) lifting weights in my underwear, (3) trying to do a kick flip (as a 27-year-old), (2) having sex, (1) doing street magic.
Street magic, bro. That’s really real.
2. Because of that one part in the movie when Uncle Rico hit Napoleon in the face with a steak as Napoleon was riding his bike in the street. I’m saying, Rico was standing by the porch when he threw it. That was at least a 40-foot throw. And he hit Napoleon square TF in the face. He literally knocked his glasses off. And again: HE WAS THROWING A STEAK. That’s real talent. Basically everyone on this list was good at throwing pigskin. Only one was good at throwing cow meat.
Bill: My favorite thing about Uncle Rico is that he’s not even the high school quarterback who washed out and dreams of repeating his glory days amid a brutally futile existence. He’s the backup to that guy. It’s like if Don Draper delivered the “Carousel” speech about his family from The Sims.
9. Jason Street, Friday Night Lights
Bill: As tragic as the story of Jason Street is, he was about to play quarterback for Notre Dame, so it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have had much of a professional future following that path. Truth be told, he probably ends up as an agent either way.
Shea: Bite your tongue, you heathen. Jason Street is a saint. I actually didn’t start the Friday Night Lights series until a couple months ago. I was surprised by how much I grew to care about Street, particularly since he was wiped from the football field during the first episode. He slides in here at the nine spot, though, because of all of the “FIRE ’EM UP!” speeches he gave over the course of FNL. The first one (when he was coaching up an insecure Matt Saracen) was the best (by the end of it I was doing push-ups in the living room), but they were all wonderful. Praying for an FNL prequel where we get to see all the characters playing middle school football. I need that to happen.
8. Reno Hightower, The Best of Times
Bill: I watched The Best of Times for the first time in preparation for this story, and I was genuinely surprised at how great Kurt Russell was. His credibility was so strong that it propped up the people around him; I actually bought Robin Williams as a high school wide receiver. (Also, who knew Robin Williams was a human being once?) Russell’s majestic hair doesn’t hurt either.
Shea: I actually watched Big Trouble in Little China in preparation for this story, which is not the same.
7. Junior Floyd, Little Giants
Bill: IMDb notes that Devon Sawa was five years older than most of his costars, which renders the romantic interlude kinda weird, but gets to the key point here. When I was 15, I was a pretty middling athlete when matched up against other 15-year-olds. But if you put me on a basketball court against a bunch of 10-year-olds? Not only would I have been better, I would have been so much better that I would have suddenly developed skills I never had. Like, I’d be dunking with two hands on 10-foot rims. It’s no surprise, then, that Devon Sawa looked like a serious quarterback in this movie.
Shea: The best acting I ever saw in my whole life was the scene in Little Giants when, after Sawa gets illegally smashed by Spike and is knocked out of the game, he’s sitting on the sideline. The Icebox comes in and does something great, and Sawa is jacked so he jumps up to cheer, but then remembers that his back is hurt and immediately grabs at it. That’s crazy to me that he did that. I knew right then I was looking at the White Denzel Washington.
6. Jonathon “Mox” Moxon, Varsity Blues
Bill: I’m genuinely hurt he ended up this low on the list, Shea. Think about all he accomplished! He overthrew the corrupt, dangerous Jon Voight regime and installed Paul Walker as the rightful replacement to lead West Canaan High into the 21st century. (On the other hand, unlike Jason Street, Lance Harbor was about to go to Florida State, so he definitely had a lot of money and a pro career coming to him, probably in that order.) He saved Billy Bob’s life. He saved Wendell from the evil painkiller shot and got him to Grambling State. He even somehow managed to take part in the whipped-cream bikini scene and stay faithful to his girlfriend, which seems counterintuitive, but actually happened. Moxon even went to Brown, where, given his background as a Texas quarterback, he probably would have been the best passer they ever had. (This Twitter account sadly self-destructed before we could find out.)
Shea: I watched Varsity Blues twice in the last week. I didn’t realize he was responsible for all the stuff that you mentioned here. I just couldn’t get past his stupid, stupid face. I hate it so much.
5. Joe Kane, The Program
Shea: Three things here:
1. Kane is a Heisman candidate in the movie (and a sophomore), which means he’s tough tamales. He also has a very serious drinking problem, which is why he can’t get any higher than fifth place on this list. Sorry, ESU.
2. My uncle Brian took me to see this movie at the actual theater. I was 12 years old. Uncle Brian also took me to see Kickboxer when I was 9, taught me how to break-dance and how to play Mortal Kombat, and had a ferret for a pet. He was the coolest person I knew for, like, five years straight.
3. On the last play of the last game of The Program, Omar Epps catches a touchdown pass to win the game. Right before he does, he does this silly little juke move to gain some space from his defender. When he does, he says, “See ya. Closing time, baby.” But if you look closely at his mouth, it never moves. Not even a little. In fact, his lips are doing their very best just to keep his mouthpiece in. Which means the director and all his bros were looking at that final scene like, “This really needs something here. But what?” And it was totally quiet in there for a second. And then someone in the background was very meekly like, “… I know.” Then everyone turned around to look at that person and that person said, “You should dub in Omar saying, ‘Closing time, baby.'” And then it was all the way silent again. And then BLAMMO! The people all just went nuts. “YES! YES! THAT’S IT! YES! PERFECT!” And they all high-fived and hugged and cried from joy. And guess what? Do you know who that person was who suggested “Closing time, baby”? A young Martin Scorsese. That’s how he got his start directing movies. That’s a very true story.
4. Johnny Utah, Point Break
Shea: This feels wrong to me. Johnny Utah definitely had to have been a better quarterback than Shane Falco. There’s a technical argument, sure. (As SI noted, Utah took his team to the Rose Bowl and Falco took his to the Sugar Bowl, which means Utah won the Big Ten and Falco didn’t.) But mostly it’s about feel. Utah just FELT like a more imposing figure. He jumped out of a goddamn airplane with no parachute, man. Falco jumped out of zero planes in his movie. Utah learned to surf. Falco learned the electric slide. Utah got in a fight with Anthony Kiedis. Falco went on a date with a cheerleader.
I’m saying, you could look at their post-football careers and see which one was full of fight and which one was full of quit. These two should be flip-flopped.
3. Shane Falco, The Replacements
Bill: I’m really happy it worked out this way, because Shane Falco is surely the superior performance. There are a precious handful of movies where Keanu’s character is actually relatable to some semblance of reality, and this is somehow one of them. Even the movies where Keanu is supposed to be playing an everyday typical guy — Speed, the beginning scenes in The Matrix, hell, when he’s playing bass for Dogstar4 — there’s something perpetually detached about him. This movie is the lone exception for me. Falco replaced Brett Cullen, who has perhaps the greatest IMDb biography ever. Oh, and if we were going to do a list of the best kickers in movies, I’m pretty sure Nigel Gruff wins running away.
Shea: I actually have a Nigel Gruff tattoo on the back of my thigh, so …
2. Matt Saracen, Friday Night Lights
Shea: So close. So very close. I prayed and prayed and prayed that Saracen would somehow, through divine intervention or even just by miscounting the score, wiggle his way up to the no. 1 spot of this countdown. He is, in my estimation, the most perfectly portrayed quarterback in the history of fictional quarterbacks. I believe that for real. Maybe it’s because he was around for longer than basically all the other guys here and so I just got to know him better, or maybe it’s because he benefited from his own anonymity (Matt Saracen is really Matt Saracen, whereas Willie Beamen is really just Jamie Foxx in a do-rag). Maybe it’s because I have sons who are sensitive and so my natural instinct is to just protect every person younger than I am who ever looks sad about anything. Or maybe it’s because he really was the very best of all. I don’t know. Either way, he falls short by one. But I suppose that makes sense, given that his entire existence on Friday Night Lights is him falling short by one.
The best Saracen moments from the show that nobody ever mentions:
The scene when he and Julie are about to have sex, and she makes a remark about how dirty the bottom of his feet are, and he says it’s no biggie because he was planning on having sex with his socks on anyway.
The scene when Smash tries to tell him that the way to get a woman is to tell her what she wants and so then Saracen tries to tell the girl at the ice cream shop where he works what she wants and she’s like, “Nope.”
The scene when Matt tells Julie that she doesn’t have to worry about him if there’s a fight because he just stands at the back and yells things.
The scene when he showed up at my house and picked me up and drove us straight to Belize and we got married and then I had like five of his babies oh wait never mind never mind never mind that hasn’t happened yet where are you Matt WHERE ARE YOU MATT RESCUE ME.
1. Willie Beamen, Any Given Sunday
Bill: What else could you ask for from a fake quarterback? Willie Beamen had a realistic backstory and a feasible character arc. He was wildly entertaining. He looked the part athletically, because Jamie Foxx is the world’s most talented man. When he retires, you can basically just show Willie Beamen, Ray, and his Tony Blair impersonation on a reel. I’m not sure the ending makes a lot of sense — simultaneously pulling the Belichick “I quit” move while sneaking an unsigned player onto somebody else’s roster seems pretty difficult — but that’s not Willie’s fault.
Tidbits! Wikipedia tells me Puffy was originally supposed to play Willie Beamen and got kicked out because he couldn’t convincingly throw a football, all of which I want very badly to believe, so I’ll suggest Wikipedia is accurate. With that being said, if Puff had actually been able to pull that off, there would be no point in putting together this ballot because we would both have had Willie Beamen in spots 1-10.
I’m sorry it worked out this way, Shea. Are you going to be OK with this?
Shea: Matt and I will be just fine, thank you.