NFL Draft History: 1st Round Quarterbacks, 1999-2000

Many players come along and change the game, sometimes in the smallest ways. Quarterbacks are uniquely able to do this far more often, even if their career is ultimately unsuccessful. We’ve already seen how the run-and-shoot (aka chuck-and-duck) offense allowed Andre Ware and David Klingler to stack amateur accolades on their way to being 1st round picks. But NFL defenses quickly adjusted, and the zone blitz sent the offensive scheme straight to the bin. The run-and-shoot is gone, but the zone blitz remains, and the game changed.

In the previous entry, we saw how Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf both changed the game, despite one winning 5 MVPs and the other not even playing 5 seasons.

If you’d like to go back and learn more about those players and how we got here, click the Shiny Red Button to see everything from 1990-1998.

If not, carry on. In 1999, we were treated to a QB-heavy 1st round, the first time more than 2 QBs were taken in the 1st round since 1987. 5 quarterbacks were not only taken in the first round, but in the first 12 picks, including all of the top 3. Teams decided it was time to roll the dice.

We open with the tale of the expansion Browns, same as the old Browns but also kinda not, and how their 1st overall pick was both underwhelming and changed the game.


1st Overall – Tim Couch

Tim Couch changed the game. A little. He was the 1st overall pick and immediate starter for the expansion Browns, who were awarded a new franchise by the league after Art Modell picked up the last one and moved to Baltimore. Cleveland retained their history, though perhaps some hoped it would be a fresh start. With the top pick, Cleveland reportedly went back and forth with Couch and Akili Smith, both traditional pocket passers, and ultimately settled on Couch.

While at Kentucky, Couch led a new offense that would eventually be called the Air Raid. Typically it consisted of a QB in shotgun with 4-5 WRs spread out and no more than a single back. Much like the run-and-shoot, and sharing many characteristics with that failed scheme, the air raid led to massive college statistics, which can definitely happen when the QB has time to find one of those many WRs.

Upon reaching the NFL, Tim Couch did not get that time. New head coach Chris Palmer came from a Houston Oilers coaching tree that had some run-and-shoot/air raid success behind Warren Moon and a spectacular group of receivers. But they also had multiple Hall-of-Famers on the offensive line that kept Moon upright. Couch had no such luck, and his ability to escape the pocket was non-existent. He was sacked a league-leading 56 times that season en route to a 2-14 record. Statistically, his TD-INT was 15:13 and the team’s record wasn’t that different from Peyton Manning‘s rookie year, so optimism was high-ish.

That optimism didn’t last long. After a 2-5 start, Couch fractured a bone in his thumb and was out for the season. The team finished 3-13, and Palmer was fired. As the Browns went looking for their new coach, ESPN reported the wide net being cast:

Among potential candidates for the job are New Orleans offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, Tampa Bay assistant head coach Herman Edwards, Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and New York Giants offensive coordinator Sean Payton.

They hired Butch Davis. Oops.

Couch sputtered through 3 more seasons, one that actually got the new version of the Browns to the playoffs for the first time. But his 42 TDs in those seasons were accompanied by 45 INTs and more injuries, most notably one in the 2002 season finale that got them into the playoffs. In his place, Kelly Holcomb threw for 429 yards and 3 TDs, setting up a 2003 QB competition.

Holcomb won that competition, but inconsistency from both led to the 2 QBs splitting starts down the middle in 2003. Under Holcomb, they were 2-6, and with Couch, they were 3-5. In the 2004 offseason, the team signed Jeff Garcia and officially moved on from Couch. After failing to catch on with the Packers and Jaguars, Couch had played his last snap.

For most of us, he disappeared from football, occasionally popping up to call a game we’re watching. Then this happened last year and his popularity peaked, possibly higher than it ever did as a player. On a scale of 1 to that 46 year old probably runs a faster 40 than his 5.08 combine time at half that age, I give him a 4.6.

2nd Overall – Donovan McNabb

Donovan McNabb changed the game. But this time, it came with immense success.

McNabb came out of Syracuse as a 4-year starter who got better every year. After an exciting freshman year in 1995, he was the Big East Offensive Player of the Year from ’96-’98. His consistent college career, along with near-prototypical size and 4.6 40 speed landed him as the 2nd overall pick by Philadelphia.

The mobility that would’ve been wasted on him in Cleveland fit perfectly with the West Coast style brought to the Eagles by new head coach Andy Reid. They started the year with Doug Pederson at QB and let McNabb learn the offense and step in for a few snaps for the first half of the season. But in week 10, he finally got the start and led them to a 35-28 win over the Football Team.

Despite the ’99 season ending 5-11, McNabb had shown enough to Reid to be handed the reins in 2000, and it paid off big. The Eagles quickly flipped their fortunes, finishing 11-5 and 2nd in the NFC East. McNabb had his first winning season, first playoff berth, and then first playoff win. Despite losing in the divisional round, he capped off his sophomore NFL season with a 2nd place finish in MVP voting.

As McNabb’s star rose, so did Reid’s and the Eagles. In 2001, they won the NFC East and made it to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the Rams. 2002, they were 12-4, and lost the NFC Championship Game. But then, in 2003, they went 12-4 and… lost the NFC Championship Game. I maintain that last failure was a direct result of angering the football gods by converting an unacceptable 4th down and ending the Packers miracle season a week earlier. Seriously, that single play has its own Wikipedia page. I refuse to link to it here. As impartial as I try to be, there are limits.

Back on topic, is that all the NFC Championship losses? *counts on fingers* okay yeah, now they’re ready. The 2004 Eagles had finally fully atoned for their football sins, and they were near unbeatable. They started with 7 straight wins and were 13-1 before they lost the last 2 games with starters resting. McNabb was unstoppable, throwing 31:8 in just 15 games. 14 of those TDs were to his top target, Terrell Owens.

donovan mcnabb score trading card
Photo credit: 2022 Score Donovan McNabb by Richard Bartlaga under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But then, in week 15, Owens broke his leg and tore a ligament in his right ankle. It seemed as though his season was finished, but as the Eagles trampled through the playoffs, the rumblings got louder. Make the Super Bowl, and TO would be there. It seemed impossible, but just 7 weeks after such a major injury, Owens caught 9 of McNabb’s throws for 122 yards. Such a great storyline seemed like destiny, but unfortunately for them, they were facing Tom Brady and the Pats. McNabb threw 3 TDs, but paired it with 3 picks, and the Eagles lost 24-21.

McNabb’s career was never quite the same after that. Injuries derailed several of his seasons, and he made just one Pro Bowl the rest of his career. After a couple rough stints in Washington in 2010 and Minnesota in 2011, McNabb retired after 13 seasons with over 37,000 passing yards and a 2:1 TD/Int ratio. On a scale of 1 to 4th & 26, I give him Brett Favre’s welfare check (please don’t sue me).

3rd Overall – Akili Smith

Akili Smith was a special prospect coming out of high school. But not for football. Smith was drafted in the 7th round of the 1993 MLB Draft and spent his late teen years as an outfielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. Despite his multisport talent, Smith never took completely to America’s pastime, once telling his father that every time he threw a baseball, he thought of football. After topping out at Class A with the Erie Seawolves, Smith was released by the Pirates.

Getting back to football wasn’t easy, as Smith first had to spend 2 years at a small community school called Grossmont College. He wasted no time developing and displaying his QB skills, throwing 49 TDs in 2 years at Grossmont and entering his junior year as the nation’s top JUCO recruit. With just 2 more years of eligibility left, Smith went to play for Oregon.

After splitting time in his junior year, Smith as a senior was the Ducks full-time starter in 1998, and he absolutely dominated. He was a classic dropback passer in a classic system, and he delivered over 3,763 yards and 32:8 TD/Int under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford (Tedford also coached Trent Dilfer, and would go on to coach 3 more 1st round QBs, including Aaron Rodgers).

Despite just one full season as a starter, Smith showed enough ability to run an offense to pique NFL interest. At the NFL Combine, he flashed his athleticism with a 4.66 40, even though he rarely ran the ball in college. At the very least, unlike Couch, Smith could escape the pocket if needed, which was an important trait in emerging NFL offenses.

In the ’99 NFL Draft, the Browns went back and forth between Couch and Smith, but ultimately settled on Couch. After the Eagles took McNabb, The Bengals were made an offer. Mike Ditka and the Saints badly wanted Heisman winner Ricky Williams and offered Cincinnati all of their 1999 picks, their 1st and 2nd round picks in 2000, and their 2nd round pick in 2001. The Bengals declined and chose Smith, and the Saints were still able to get Williams by offering the same farm for the 5th pick.

Unfortunately for Smith, his NFL career barely had a chance. After a 27-day contract holdout that kept him out of training camp and the first 2 preseason games, he got his first start in week 5 of his rookie year, but was benched after week 8. After struggling through 11 starts in his second season, he started just once in each of the next 2 years. He tried out for the Packers in 2003 (a year before the Packers tried to resurrect Couch) and the Bucs in 2005. After a few stints in NFL Europe and Canada, his professional playing career was over.

He has since taken coaching positions at high school and college levels, and his name lives on at the quarterback position as his son, Akili Smith, Jr. is entering his junior year of high school and already has offers from major schools. Among them is the elder Akili’s alma mater, Oregon, as well as Fresno St., coached by none other than Jeff Tedford. On a scale of 1 to Tedford 5, I give Akili Sr. a 5. A missed opportunity for a team that, despite the advances in offensive schemes, still didn’t know how to use his skillset.

11th Overall – Daunte Culpepper

As a 4-year starter at Central Florida, Culpepper showed early on his ability to improve each year. His final year at UCF included a staggering 73.6% completion percentage and a 6th place finish in Heisman voting. The Vikings, coming off a 15-1 season behind Randall Cunningham, traded former starting QB Brad Johnson to the Football Team for 3 picks, the first of which was 11th overall. With Cunningham entering the other side of his 30s and also aging Jeff George as his backup, the team used the pick on Culpepper, then sent him to the bench with a playbook.

With his redshirt season behind him, Cunningham backing up Troy Aikman in Dallas and George headed to play in D.C., it was Culpepper’s turn. And he lit it up. In his first year as the starter, he led the team to an 11-5 record with 33:16 TD/Int and just under 4,000 yards passing, plus 470 yards and 7 TDs on the ground. This earned him his first Pro Bowl, and he got the team to the NFC Championship game, where he threw 3 picks and the team put up a goose egg in a 41-0 thrashing from the Giants. Unfortunately for Culpepper, that would be the closest he would ever get to a Super Bowl.

2001 through 2003 brought ups and downs, coaching changes, and few injuries, and no playoff games. Then in 2004, Culpepper was back to his Pro Bowl version, throwing 39:11 and over 4,700 yards. Despite just barely reaching 8-8, the Vikings snuck into the playoffs, where they beat rival Green Bay on the road before falling to the Eagles in the divisional round (which still needs a new name). Unfortunately for Culpepper, that would be his last playoff game.

After a difficult start to the 2006 season, tragedy struck. After scampering for 18 yards, Culpepper took a hit from cornerback Chris Gamble. The hit damaged his ACL, PCL, and MCL, and while it didn’t officially end his career, it might as well have.

The following March, after moving on from another head coach, and after a bitter back-and-forth narrative between team and player, the Vikings parted ways with Culpepper. Eventually, the Dolphins sent a 2nd round pick to the Vikings for Culpepper (this was their backup plan after refusing to pony up the contract Drew Brees wanted).

Culpepper signed a 2 year deal with the Dolphins, but played only 4 games in 2006 before his reconstructed knee started causing problems. The Dolphins terminated the remainder of his contract. After short stints with Oakland and Detroit, Culpepper hung up his cleats after the 2009 season, though most feel his career ended at the end of that 18 yard run. Culpepper’s career will forever grace the what could have been list of NFL almost-greats. On a scale of 1 to how much of his knee is even still his, I give him a 2.5.

12th Overall – Cade McNown

4 QB picks in the 1999 draft and the results are roughly split, so Cade McNown is here for the tiebreaker. Spoiler: It’s not good.

McNown was a 4-year starter at UCLA, where he put together increasingly impressive seasons all the way to and through his senior year when he was a 1st team All-American and finished 3rd in Heisman voting. Then things just got weird.

After a 12-day contract holdout, which always seems to be a career ender-before-it-starts, McNown finally signed a 5 year, $22 million deal, the highest ever for a Bears player. Hours later, McNown was headed to Platteville, Wisconsin, where the Bears held their training camp until 2001. On the way, McNown came up to a 75 cent toll booth, where the new millionaire realized he had no cash. In the midst of a few weak performances and lingering injuries, he found some time to plead no contest to applying for and using a handicap parking pass when he was at UCLA.

After two poor seasons, the Bears traded their former 1st round pick and a future 7th round pick to the Dolphins for a 6th round pick. Never a good sign for your career when you’re only worth an end of day 3 pick swap. After a year as the Dolphins 3rd string QB, he was traded to the 49ers for a conditional 7th round pick, a condition not met after season-ending shoulder surgery. He was released before the 2003 season, never playing a snap for a team outside Chicago.

It’s easy to see his numbers and 3-12 record and assume the Bears originally moved on for performance reasons, but it went deeper than that. His weirdness wasn’t just weird, it grew into awkward, and kinda mean. He was known to brag to older, minimum salary players about his $6.1 million signing bonus. After fumbling a snap from center Casey Wiegmann, McNown said Wiegmann didn’t know the snap count. He once said he overthrew his receivers because they were too tired to run after his passes. After QB draft class buddy Tim Couch introduced him to his girlfriend, Playboy model Heather Kozar, McNown stole her from Couch (Couch and Kozar later married in 2005 and are still together). That wasn’t his only tryst with a Playmate, though. The other one was Brande Roderick, one of Hugh Hefner’s 3 girlfriends at the time. It seems due to that incident, McNown is permanently banned from the Playboy Mansion. This dude was just so unlikeable. The final straw for fans was when he infamously addressed their booing at Soldier Field by telling them to stay home.

That was a long paragraph, and I get it. What you need to know is how much I cut out of it. A lot. Hef’s other 2 girlfriends were twins, and the 3 were called the triplets, and that didn’t even make the first cut.

McNown’s 2 years in the NFL included 2 decades worth of weirdness and almost no football. Even if it takes you away from my site, if you like piecing together wild stories, I urge you to go down an hour long Cade McNown rabbit hole. Lefties are weird. On a scale of 1 to number of times he took personal responsibility during his playing days, I give him a 0.

Other Notable QBs from 1999 Draft


18th Overall – Chad Pennington

With no other QB warranting a 1st round draft grade by teams across the league, it was finally time for a long-asked question to receive an answer. Was Marshall’s Chad Pennington good, or just a product of throwing to Randy Moss against MAC opponents.

The question received some kind of answer after Pennington put together 2 solid seasons post-Moss. But he never reached the numbers he had with Moss, who had 26 of his 42 TDs and nearly half his passing yards in 1997.

Some wondered if it was just lingering confidence and a weak schedule, but Pennington put together TD/Int years of 28:7 and 37:11 in ’98 and ’99 in an effort to prove his chops. More importantly, his completion percentage increased dramatically as he had to find spots to throw to receivers, rather than toss it to a general area and let Moss go get it.

In the 2000 the Jets came in with major draft capital, and they put it to use. With 4 picks in the 1st round, NYJ was primed to add a ton of talent, and they didn’t disappoint. Their first 2 picks were Shaun Ellis and John Abraham, defensive lineman who combined for 25 years and over 200 sacks in their careers (though half of Abraham’s was with Atlanta). Then, with pick 18, they took Pennington, and followed it up with a late 1st round pick of Anthony Becht, a highly touted tight end and presumably a big target for their young QB.

However, Pennington would have to wait and learn. He spent his first 2 years on the bench behind veteran Vinny Testaverde, who led the team to winning records in both years. But in 2002, after starting 1-3, head coach Herm Edwards made the decision to pass the torch to Pennington. That turned out to be the right call, as Pennington won 8 of the next 12 games to take the Jets to 9-7 and the AFC East title (which they haven’t won since).

That year, which ended with a divisional round loss to the eventual champion Raiders, would prove to be the highlight of Pennington’s career. Injuries and inconsistent play derailed the next 3 seasons, one of which included a playoff run that ended, once again, in the divisional round.

2006 was the first time he put in a full 16 game season and led the Jets to a 10-6 record and earned him the Comeback Player of the Year award, but it ended quickly with a wildcard loss. Injuries got him off to a rough start in 2007, and he ultimately only started 8 games, during which the team went 1-7. After the season, the Jets made the wild trade for Brett Favre, and rather than bench Pennington, they released him.

In 2008, at age 32, Pennington signed a new deal with the Dolphins, where he immediately picked up another Comeback Player of the Year Award to go along with a 2nd place finish in MVP voting. Miami went 11-5 but lost in the wildcard round. Despite bringing back much of the same team in 2009, Pennington struggled through the first 3 weeks of 2009 en route to an 0-3 start. In the last of those losses, he injured his shoulder and was out for the season.

His final year in 2010, Pennington was slated to be the backup to Chad Henne, and was eventually given the starting job for week 10 against the Titans. But on the first play, he suffered another shoulder injury, and his season was over. He made one more attempt to come back in 2011, but tore his ACL in a pickup basketball game.

Though he never even made it to a conference championship game, Pennington’s career was full of good football and great stories. From the multiple comeback player awards to Spygate (he was on the Jets team that accused Belichick and the Pats of spying on them) to being tossed aside for Favre and then delivering a better season than the Hall of Famer, Pennington’s career took the many twists and turns that so often result when a 1st round QB is given the future of a franchise. On a scale of 1 to good even without Moss, I give Pennington a healthy 8.

Other Notable QBs from 2000 Draft

Up Next: 2001-2002, with Michael Vick, David Carr, Joey Harrington, and Patrick Ramsey

3 thoughts on “NFL Draft History: 1st Round Quarterbacks, 1999-2000”

  1. If Chad Pennington is the gem of a QB draft, you probably didn’t have the greatest QB draft ever is all I’m saying. Of course, Chad had some good years, including the one that ended in Miami stealing the division when Brady was injured.

    All you need to know if you knew nothing about the Browns? It was between Smith and Couch. Ouch!

    I remember when the decision was Culpepper or Brees for Miami. I thought it was a no brainer when we went with Dante. He was bigger and stronger and nope.

    1. Yeah, the Culpepper-Brees ordeal is definitely a hindsight thing. I don’t know if fans knew back then just how significant Culpepper’s injury was, so there was a lot of hope.

      I always find it interesting to see how groups of 1st rounders go through a lot of the same teams. Culpepper, Pennington, and McNown all spent time in Miami. Smith and Couch both tried out in Green Bay.

      1. I was expecting the Vikings Culpepper but that’s not how it worked out. And so Saban left and the rest is history.

        That’s nuts!

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