The 10 best quarterbacks in the history of the Cleveland Browns

Who are the best quarterbacks to play for the Cleveland Browns?
Cleveland Browns, Bernie Kosar
Cleveland Browns, Bernie Kosar / RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns haven't been known historically as a team that airs out the football. That hasn't been by accident either. Playing in a cold-weather city and on the shores of Lake Erie, football in the Hardland is typically described as "ground and pound."

Head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry have attempted to change this since the NFL is such a pass-happy league, but they're still at their best when they control the clock with the ground game. Having said that, the teams that have the best quarterbacks typically win the most Super Bowls, which is why they gambled on Deshaun Watson.

Cleveland, who has yet to win a Super Bowl, has still had its share of solid quarterbacks during its storied existence. These 10 quarterbacks are proof of that as they have each made a name for themselves as the best to ever suit up for the Browns.

Criteria for selection

  • Statistical achievements
  • Impact on success
  • Longevity
  • Memorable moments

The top 10 quarterbacks in Cleveland Browns history

10. Mike Phipps

Tenure with the Browns: 1970-76
Regular season record: 24-25-2
Playoff Record: 0-3

Despite going 10-3-1 and making it to the Championship Game with Bill Nelson under center, the Browns swung a huge trade for a premium quarterback in the 1970 NFL Draft. They even traded a fan favorite in the process.

Wide receiver Paul Warfield was sent to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for the third overall selection. That pick was used on Mike Phipps out of Purdue.

Phipps spent two seasons behind Nelson, finally taking over as the full-time starter in 1972. He led Cleveland to a record of 10-3 and then 7-5-2 in 1973. Those were the only two winning seasons he had as the starter. Phipps also struggled in his lone playoff start, going 9-for-23 for 131 yards with a touchdown and five picks.

In 1977, he was traded to the Chicago Bears. Phipps finished his time in Cleveland with 51 starts in seven seasons, leading the Browns to a record of 24-25-2. He still stands ninth in team history with 7,770 yards and 11th with 40 touchdown passes.

9. Tim Couch

Tenure with the Browns: 1999-2003
Regular season record: 22-37

Tim Couch will forever be known as the leader of the Browns' re-birth. In 1999, the franchise returned to the NFL, and as an expansion team, it had the No. 1 pick in the draft. That selection was used to bring in Couch, who had a stellar career at Kentucky.

Facing the impossible task of leading a roster devoid of depth, Couch has been unfairly labeled a bust by pundits outside of Cleveland. The truth, however, is that he was a good quarterback who took a beating behind a poor offensive line.

Despite a 2-12 record as the starter during his rookie campaign, Couch had several memorable moments to prove he had the talent. None were more memorable than when he delivered the city its first NFL win in 1,409 days. Dramatically, Couch threw a Hail Mary to Kevin Johnson to knock off the New Orleans Saints on Halloween.

The Browns continued to move in the right direction with Couch, who led them to a 7-9 mark in 2001 and then 8-6 in 2002. They made the playoffs that season, but Couch was sidelined and Kelly Holcomb was under center. He had a heroic effort of his own, but the Browns still fell short.

Couch is sixth in franchise history with 11,131 yards and eighth in touchdowns with 64. He deserves praise for the work he did during his short five seasons.

8. Vinny Testaverde

Tenure with the Browns: 1993-95
Regular season record: 16-15
Playoff Record: 1-1

Despite having some success during his short tenure with Cleveland, Vinny Testaverde is often remembered for pushing one of the more beloved players in franchise history out the door.

The 1987 No. 1 overall pick out of Miami, Testaverde spent six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He hit free agency in 1993 and was signed by Bill Belichick. Originally the backup to Bernie Kosar, a former teammate at Miami, Testaverde was moved into the starting lineup after six games.

Following a 3-3 record as the starter in 1993, Testaverde and the Browns improved in 1994. That year, they won 10 games and were 9-4 with the veteran quarterback starting. That was enough to make it into the postseason, where they secured a win over the New England Patriots on the road. Testaverde was impressive in that victory, throwing for 268 yards and a touchdown on 20-for-30 passing.

In just 37 games (31 starts) with the franchise, Testaverde made it into the top 10 with 7,255 passing yards and was ninth with 47 touchdowns. Still, the most impressive stat on his resume was the road win in the postseason, which was the final one the franchise had until January 2021.

7. Milt Plum

Tenure with the Browns: 1957-61
Regular season record: 33-16-2
Playoff Record: 0-2
Pro Bowl Selections: 2 (1960-61)

Just a couple of years after Otto Graham rode off into the sunset, the Browns added Milt Plum in the second round of the NFL Draft. There were fewer teams in the 1950s, so Plum was still just the 17th overall selection.

Originally, Plum split snaps with Tommy O’Connell but took over in 1958. He led the Browns to a record of 9-2 in his 11 starts but leaned heavily on Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell in the run game.

By his third season, he had become a refined passer and led the NFL in completion percentage in 1959, 1960, and 1961. He played just five years with the Browns but finished eighth in team history with 8,914 yards while boasting an impressive 66-to-39 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Plum was traded to the Detroit Lions in 1962 ,and his numbers dropped. It was clear he benefited from the ground attack in Cleveland since he never recaptured the magic.

6. Baker Mayfield

Tenure with the Browns: 2018-21
Regular season record: 29-30
Playoff Record: 1-1

Taken first overall out of Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield joined the Browns ready to help them turn their image around. They were coming off a 1-31 stretch and needed a shot in the arm. He provided that in his first appearance, coming in to replace an injured Tyrod Taylor in Week 3. The rookie led his team to a comeback win over the New York Jets on Thursday Night Football.

It was the first win the franchise had in 600 days, and it helped them go from a team that couldn’t find a win to one that had the confidence to go toe-to-toe with anyone.

Cleveland was 6-8 in games Mayfield started (plus the win when he came in off the bench), and he set a new rookie record with 26 touchdown passes.

By 2020, he led the Browns to an 11-5 record and their first playoff berth since 2002. Cleveland even handed the Pittsburgh Steelers a loss in the Wild Card Round — their first road playoff win since Vinny Testaverde got it done against the Patriots following the 1993 campaign.

Things soured for Mayfield in 2021, and he was traded to the Carolina Panthers after the Browns landed Deshaun Watson. Despite the way things ended, Mayfield went 29-30 as a starter for a team that was struggling to find a single win every season. He should be recognized for the way he helped improve the image and confidence.

5. Bill Nelson

Tenure with the Browns: 1968-72
Regular season record: 34-16-1
Playoff Record: 2-3
Pro Bowl Selections: 1 (1969)

A former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Bill Nelsen was traded to Cleveland ahead of the 1968 campaign. The Browns landed him and defensive back Jim Bradshaw in exchange for defensive tackle Frank Parker and quarterback Dick Shiner. 

Both teams were thrilled with the move as they each ended up with a new starting signal-caller. Nelson, who began as a backup to Frank Ryan, took over after three games. He quickly asserted himself by leading his new team to a massive upset over the then-undefeated Baltimore Colts.

In 1969, Nelsen again shocked the league by taking out an undefeated team. This time, it was the Dallas Cowboys as he threw five touchdowns in the Browns’ 42-10 victory.

Nelsen’s time with Cleveland was short-lived as injuries began to slow him down. A pinched nerve in his throwing arm and a knee injury both took a toll on him. By 1972, he found himself benched in favor of Mike Phipps. The 31-year-old started just one game that year, which was his last in the NFL.

He finished with an impressive record of 34-16-1 in the regular season and was 2-3 in the playoffs. He's also seventh in team history with 9,725 yards passing.

4. Frank Ryan

Tenure with the Browns: 1962-68
Regular season record: 52-22-2
Playoff Record: 1-3
Pro Bowl Selections: 2 (1964, 1966)

After spending the first four seasons of his career as a backup with the Los Angeles Rams, Frank Ryan was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1962. He was the No. 2 quarterback once again but didn't sit behind Jim Ninowski for long before being forced into action.

Ninowski suffered a broken collarbone in late October, and Ryan took the reins. He started seven games that year, leading Cleveland to a 3-3-1 record. He didn't fill up the stat sheet but had a respectable 1,541 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven picks.

While those numbers were fine, it was the leadership he showed that kept him under center. Ryan went on to start the following five seasons, twice leading the Browns to double-digit wins while making four playoff appearances.

None were as memorable as his first run, however, as Ryan took Cleveland all the way to the championship game, where he threw three touchdowns in a 27-0 shutout win over Baltimore.

Ryan, who earned his doctorate while playing football, is fifth all-time in franchise history with 13,361 passing yards and third in touchdowns.

3. Brian Sipe

Tenure with the Browns: 1974-83
Regular season record: 57-55
Playoff Record: 0-1
Pro Bowl Selections: 1 (1980)
All-Pro Selections: First-Team 1980
NFL MVP: 1980

To this day, the Cleveland Browns are looking for their first trip to the Super Bowl. While they were a dominant franchise in the early days of the NFL — as well as the short existence of the AAFC — they haven't been in the title game during the Super Bowl era.

That nearly changed in 1980.

The Browns boasted one of the best teams in the NFL — and the most resilient. Nicknamed the Kardiac Kids, the Browns defense was lights out, and their offense had a knack for pulling off game-winning drives under quarterback Brian Sipe (they orchestrated 11 in 1979 and 1980).

Sipe guided them to the playoffs following the 1980 season after winning the NFL MVP Award on the heels of a 4,132-yard, 30-touchdown campaign. They were on their way to another victory, but disaster happened in the playoffs. Facing the Oakland Raiders, Sipe and the Browns trailed 14-12 with 49 seconds remaining. Looking for a touchdown, they called the infamous "Red Right 88" play, which was supposed to be thrown out of the end zone if no one was open.

That's not what happened as Sipe threw an ill-advised ball that was intercepted by Mike Davis to seal the game. Oakland went on to win it all, but it's hard not to think the Browns couldn't have done so if they had kept the ball and kicked the field goal.

While Sipe is often remembered for this moment, he should get more credit for the work he did on the field. He remains first in franchise history with 23,713 yards and second with 154 touchdowns.

2. Bernie Kosar

Tenure with the Browns: 1985–93
Regular season record: 53-51-1
Playoff Record: 3-4
Pro Bowl Selections: 1 (1987)

The hometown kid who became the face of the franchise, Bernie Kosar was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and made no secret of his desire to play for the Browns. He even found an interesting way to make that happen.

In 1985, the NFL wouldn't allow underclassmen to enter the NFL Draft, so Kosar got his degree after the season ended but didn't declare for the draft. The Minnesota Vikings had moved up to the No. 1 spot in order to land Kosar, but he ended up in the supplemental draft instead.

Cleveland traded its first- and third-round picks in 1985 and its first and sixth in 1986 to the Buffalo Bills in order to get the top pick in that supplemental draft, and Kosar wound up being the most popular selection in the oft-forgotten process.

His desire to play in Cleveland helped him become the most popular player in recent memory. He spent nine seasons at the helm, leading the Browns to a record of 53-51-1 with four playoff appearances. Kosar was 3-4 in the postseason, and while he never led them to a title, they had a shot whenever he was under center.

Kosar was uncerimoniously released by Bill Belichik in 1993 in favor of Vinny Testaverde. It was disheartening to see him leave, but he did at least get a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys as their backup quarterback. As for his time in Cleveland, he's third in the record books with 21,904 yards passing and fourth with 116 touchdowns.

1. Otto Graham

Tenure with the Browns: 1946-55
Regular season record: 57-13-1 (AAFC win total not included)
Playoff Record: 10-3
Pro Bowl Selections: 5 (1950-1954)

It's impossible to debate who belongs at No. 1 in any Cleveland Browns quarterback ranking. The legendary Graham was the first superstar this organization ever had. Originally selected by the Detroit Lions in the 1944 NFL Draft, the Northwestern product spent two years in the Coast Guard before returning to football, where he signed with Cleveland.

He was late to arrive to camp once the Coast Guard discharged him, which left him behind Cliff Lewis on the depth chart. Graham was sprinkled into the offense, and after a few games, they were unable to keep him off the field.

He started nine games as a rookie and led the league with 17 touchdown passes while throwing just five picks. A league dominated by the run wasn't ready to defend Graham, who continued to air it out. He was the yardage leader in his second season, an honor he held onto from 1947 through 1949 in the AAFC. He was also a four-time AAFC MVP and led his team to the title four years in a row.

When Cleveland moved to the NFL, Graham continued to dominate. He won the NFL MVP three times (1951, 1953, and 1955) and led the squad to three titles (195, 1954, and 1955). None meant as much as the 1950 win, however, since it flew in the face of the narrative the Browns didn't belong in the NFL.

Graham retired following that year and left with an impressive resume. He lost just 13 games in 71 appearances in the NFL and never missed the playoffs, where he was 10-3. He made the All-Pro First-Team eight times and had seven championships and five MVPs between the two leagues. A statue of Graham cam be found in front of Cleveland Browns Stadium, reminding us all how great he was.

 The 3 best quarterbacks in Browns history by yardage



Years with team



Team Record


Brian Sipe






Otto Graham






Bernie Kosar





More Browns coverage