Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels posted some pretty impressive numbers over a season’s worth of passes: He completed 333 of 549 passes for 3,804 yards (6.9 per attempt), 30 touchdowns (against just eight interceptions) and a 93.6 passer rating. Particularly during the 2000s, when Rosenfels played, those stats were good enough to draw recognition from around the league.
Of course, the recognition was from sparse crowds and lonely scouts checking out opposing reserves during games that, technically speaking, didn’t count.
Rosenfels’s “season” of passes actually came during the preseason, where he stands out as the league’s best quarterback since 2000 among those who threw fewer than 1,000 career regular-season passes. With the NFL’s annual Hall of Fame Game kicking off the 2019 preseason tonight, a fresh crop of backup passers will get their chance to come for Rosenfels’s crown as No. 1 — but none has managed to top him yet.
To measure the best exhibition passers, we gathered preseason data from the NFL going back to 2000 and paired it with a player’s regular-season stats. Limiting our list to QBs who didn’t get substantial playing time during the games that counted,1 we computed an estimate of QBR yards above replacement2 for each passer. In our ranking, Rosenfels edges out fellow longtime backups Luke McCown, Billy Volek and FiveThirtyEight favorite Chase Daniel.
If we didn’t put a cap on regular-season playing time, Rosenfels’s preseason value would be supplanted by some of the game’s all-time greats — namely Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning — in addition to Matt Schaub (for whom Rosenfels was the understudy with Houston in 2007 and 2008) and Daunte Culpepper. But those guys got plenty of chances in games that mattered, too. The true all-stars of the exhibition season are the players who perform well despite not knowing whether they’ll eventually get a shot at bigger and better things.
Rosenfels certainly fit that description — not that he noticed how great his numbers were at the time. “I didn’t realize it until afterwards,” he told me. “I would sort of get lost in the game, and I would really have no idea how I played until I checked the stat sheet after the game. In my mind it was all about, ‘Did we score on that drive?’ … ‘Did we get a field goal or a touchdown?’ How we got there, I didn’t really know and I didn’t really care.”
But Rosenfels did recognize that others were watching his work in the preseason. He credits former Washington coach Steve Spurrier for giving him the chance as a second-year QB to compete with his older teammates for playing time and to throw plenty of preseason passes. Rosenfels’s exhibition performance for D.C. in 2002 — he had a passer rating of 103.6 — led to a late-August trade to the Miami Dolphins, where he would catch on as a backup for the next four regular seasons.
“A hundred percent, my preseasons helped me get a chance,” Rosenfels said. “I thankfully played well in the preseason under Steve Spurrier, and that got me another job. … Playing well in the preseason literally got me traded to a team that needed a third-string quarterback.”
From that point on, Rosenfels established himself as a perennial preseason star. From 2002 through 2012, he posted a passer rating of at least 99.2 in seven of his 11 exhibition seasons. He also rose up the Dolphins’ depth chart, going from the third string in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to the team’s No. 2 quarterback in 2005, even starting a pair of regular-season games during his final two seasons with Miami. His preseason numbers weren’t the only reason — but they didn’t hurt.
“There’s a chance I actually [got] to start mostly because of my preseason action,” Rosenfels said. “I feel like I worked my way up the ladder and got to [a] point where I had earned, because of a lot of my preseason and regular-season work, the ability to start.”
The top of that gradual climb ultimately led Rosenfels to Houston, where he started 10 games for the Texans across the 2007 and 2008 seasons before returning to emergency QB duty with the Vikings (twice), Giants and Dolphins (again) at the end of his career. His lifetime regular-season passer rating of 81.2 wasn’t quite as impressive as his exhibition mark, but it wasn’t too far off, either — and Rosenfels credits the preseason with helping him prepare, at least physically, for the games that counted.
“In the preseason, a lot of times the defenses aren’t as complex,” Rosenfels said. “They don’t blitz quite as much, and the coverages are sometimes a little bit more simple, particularly in the second half of these [games].
“But I’ll tell you what, when you’re standing in the pocket in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, you might have a guy who’s 6-foot-5, 265 [pounds] sacking you. That feels the same as Dwight Freeney sacking you. It’s still chaos in the pocket; it’s still an extremely violent game.”
In an era when the NFL is considering phasing out the preseason and teams are playing fewer starters than ever, exhibition games might seem like they matter less and less. But for players on the fringe, they still represent a major opportunity to put extra information about their skills in the hands of coaches and general managers.
“I think [teams] take everything into account,” Rosenfels said. “They’re taking in practice. They’re taking in how guys have progressed or not progressed. What [other options are] out there. And obviously the preseason games, too. The nice thing for me was, I always thought I was a better ‘gamer’ than a practice guy. It’s hard to consistently practice well all the time, but I always played better once I got in those preseason games.”
And regardless of whether a player ends up making one particular team’s final roster, the preseason represents a chance to audition in front of the entire league as a whole.
“Preseason games are the time that you add to your resume for all 32 NFL teams,” Rosenfels said. “They’ll tell you early on, you don’t really play for one team — you play for 32. You’re really playing for a job in the NFL. And there’s a scout on every team watching every preseason game. What you put on film there is what other teams think of you, because they don’t see all the practice days in the offseason and things like that.”
Rosenfels consistently added to his resume by putting up the best preseason statistics of any journeyman quarterback. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it was enough to keep the fourth-round draft pick from Iowa State in pro football for more than a decade.
“Every year, you’re auditioning to make the team that year. But if for some reason it doesn’t work out, you hope that somebody else picks you up,” Rosenfels said. “I always felt like I was auditioning to make the NFL every single year for 12 years.”