Jack Thompson: #7 NFL Draft Bust

Are you thinking about someone else?  Don’t worry, he’s coming.

Synopsis: Jack Thompson was a heralded quarterback from Washington State whose career will always be evaluated in the rear-view mirror of the greatest post-season quarterback in NFL history. As a foreshadowing, the previous sentence can be used to introduce a completely different Top 10 Bust simply by changing the highlighted word. If NFL draft busts were evaluated like NBA draft busts seem to be, Thompson would be as well know as Sam Bowie. Instead, Thompson hasn’t received his due credit as an all-time bust. With career totals of 5,300 passing yards and 33 touchdowns, he has the highest totals of any Top 10 Bust. At the same time, he had a record of 4-17 as a starter and a total of 45 interceptions. Unlike Bowie, Thompson  completely failed as professional en route to becoming the #7 NFL Draft Bust.


As the 3rd pick in the 1979 NFL Draft, Jack Thompson went before two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. Specifically, the Cincinnati Bengals took him five spots ahead of Phil Simms and 79 spots ahead of Joe Montana. Making matters worse, Montana won two of his four Super Bowls against the Bengals. Convinced of his bust status yet? Don’t worry, there’s more.

Frankly, I’m surprised that Thompson has escaped the same attention that Sam Bowie has received for being drafted ahead of Michael Jordan. Unlike the vilified Trail Blazers, the Bengals avoided the same condemnation. Perhaps, they received a pass due to the fact that every other team overlooked Montana too. In any event, Thompson didn’t get one from the folks at T10B (i.e. me).

The following table shows how Thompson’s NFL career compares with the careers of both Simms and Montana.

(Draft Pick)
Record Yards TD INT Passer Rating Weighted Avg Value (WAV)
Jack Thompson (#3) 4-17 5,315 33 45 63.4 13
Phil Simms (#9) 95-64 33,462 199 157 78.5 91
Joe Montana (#82) 117-47 40,551 273 139 92.3 123

Rushing totals: 

  • Thompson (262 yards / 6 touchdowns).
  • Simms (1,252 yards / 6 touchdowns).
  • Montana (1,676 yards / 20 touchdowns).

I remembered Montana being mobile (especially during a certain rollout), but I didn’t realize that he gained so many yards with his feet.

As a 3-year starter for the Washington State Cougars, Thompson threw for 7,818 yards with 53 touchdowns. During those seasons, he ranked as an NCAA leader in yards and TDs multiple times. When breaking down Thompson’s college career further, I noticed an interesting trend that others may have overlooked.

Year Yards TD INT Efficiency Rating NCAA Ranking
Season 1 2,333 17 20 111.2  #4 – Yards / #4 – TDs
Season 2 2,372 13 13 124.1  #6 – Yards
Season 3 2,762 20 14 134.7 #3 -Yards / #5 – TDs

At first glance, this table shows nice progression from one season to the next. However, I listed the seasons in reverse chronological order. Specifically, Season 1 represents Thompson’s senior year while Season 3 represents his sophomore year. Perhaps, the regression in these statistics, as well as Thompson’s poor 12-20-1 record as a starter, should have factored more into the Bengals’ decision.


As Thompson generated big numbers on losing teams, Montana put up less prodigious numbers on winning teams. Arguably a game manager on Notre Dame’s 1977 National Championship team, Montana took center stage in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. Of note, Montana revealed his penchant for excelling in high pressure moments. The Comeback Kid’s passing line of 163 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions wasn’t impressive, but his legend-creating influence on the game cannot be underestimated. Despite suffering from the flu during a game with a wind-chill factor of -6°, Montana led the Fighting Irish to a dramatic comeback from a 22-point deficit with less than eight minutes to go.

To set the stage properly, it’s important to note that Notre Dame didn’t even have the ball when the comeback started. Instead, the defense returned a blocked punt for a touchdown with 7:25 on the clock. With the team down by 16, Montana converted a two-point conversion.

After getting the ball back with 5:37 left, Montana needed only 1 minute and 22 seconds to culminate a 61-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. Montana then converted another 2-point conversion to leave Notre Dame down by six with 4:15 left.

Notre Dame got the ball for a final time with only 28 seconds to go. Montana completed the comeback with a 6-yard touchdown pass as time expired. After the extra point (which had some drama of its own), Notre Dame ended up defeating Houston 35-34. Check out the following clip to get an early glimpse of Montana’s true greatness.

chicken soup
Notice the empty stands. Clearly, most fans thought the game was over.

By taking Thompson, the Bengals hoped to get a replacement for an aging Ken Anderson. After going 37-17 as a starter from 1973-76, Anderson went 11-14 from 1977-78. Based on the decline, it seemed reasonable to go after a quarterback early in the draft. Unfortunately, the team took the wrong QB.

Even though Anderson continued to perform poorly during Thompson’s first two season with the Bengals, the young QB couldn’t replace the old one. Of note, Anderson went 9-18 as a starter with 22 TDs and 23 INTs while Thompson went 1-4 with 12 TDs and 17 INTs.

In Thompson’s third season, Anderson found the Fountain of Youth and rebounded with an MVP regular season. Furthermore, he led the Bengals to the Super Bowl against the 49ers. As Thompson sat on the bench, Montana became the Super Bowl MVP en route to winning his first of four rings.

Given Anderson’s resurgence, Thompson became expendable. As a result, the Bengals traded their young quarterback to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Importantly, the Bucs needed a replacement for Doug Williams, who went to the USFL due to a contract dispute.

Despite getting a fresh start with Tampa Bay, Thompson fumbled away the opportunity.

Thompson proved ineffective as Williams’ replacement. Then again, so was every other quarterback for the Buccaneers over the next decade. The following table highlights the stats of Tampa Bay quarterbacks in five-year increments from the late 1970s to early 1990s.

Player Seasons Record Win % Yards TD INT
Doug Williams 1978-82 33-33-1 50.0% 12,648 73 73
4 Different QBs* 1983-87 14-63 18.4% 17,479 97 105
Vinny Testaverde 1988-92 24-44 35.3% 13,739 72 106

* Includes quarterbacks with at least four starts during time period: Jack Thompson; Steve DeBerg; Steve Young; and Vinny Testaverde.

As shown by the table, Williams put up perfectly average numbers. Specifically, he had a 50.0% winning percentage and a 1.00 TD/INT ratio. In contrast, his replacements performed significantly worse. As a starter for five seasons, Williams led the Bucs to three playoff appearances and one NFC Championship Game. Perhaps needless to say, Tampa Bay never sniffed the playoffs for the next decade after Williams left. Furthermore, Williams got the last laugh in leading Washington to a victory in Super Bowl XXI.

Player Seasons Record Win % Yards TD INT Passer Rating
Jack Thompson 1983-84 3-13 18.8% 3,243 20 26 69.8
Steve DeBerg 1984-87 8-29 21.6% 9,939 61 62 73.9
Quarterback 3 1985-86 3-16 15.8% 3,217 11 21 63.1
Vinny Testaverde 1987 0-4 0.0% 1,081 5 6 60.2

As previously mentioned, Tampa Bay brought in Jack Thompson as a replacement for Doug Williams. When Thompson didn’t pan out, the team brought in Steve DeBerg. Of note, DeBerg had been the 49ers’ starter before getting replaced by Montana. In case you need me to connect the dots, Thompson was benched for the guy, who was benched for the guy drafted 79 spots after Thompson.

DeBerg put up decent numbers, but he just couldn’t win games. In response, Tampa Bay brought in a “Young” QB (Quarterback 3) to lead the team. As you can tell, he actually did worse than the player he had replaced. Still in need of a starting QB, the Buccaneers decided to take Vinny Testaverde with the 1987 #1 overall pick. After the change of scenery, Quarterback 3 actually went on have a productive career. Do you have a guess?

Player Seasons Record Yards TD INT Rating
Quarterback 3 1987-99 91-33 29,907 221 86 101.4

Hint: Quarterback 3 also rushed for 3,581 yards and 37 touchdowns from 1987-99. Also, I included his name in an earlier footnote.

Give up? Well, Quarterback 3 was none other than Steve Young. Interestingly, Young served as Montana’s apprentice for a few years before taking the reins. When given a chance to start, Young proved his own greatest and even won his own Super Bowl MVP trophy.


Young’s success in San Francisco despite failing at Tampa Bay leads to an interesting question. Could Thompson have succeeded in a different situation? For instance, could Bill Walsh have made something of #7 NFL Draft Bust? If so, Thompson may deserve the Rich Campbell Exemption.

Alternatively, I could reasonably argue that the Bengals took Thompson too early. Specifically, his losing record and declining performance in college should have been red flags. If so, he may deserve the Troy Williamson Exemption.

Furthermore, you could say that a quarterback who survived six years in the NFL with over 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns just wasn’t bad enough to be an all-time bust. If so, Thompson may deserve the Tony Mandarich Exemption. However, the former Washington State QB also threw 45 interceptions and went 4-17 as an NFL starter. As such, he doesn’t deserve the “not bad enough” exemption.

Overall, Thompson’s poor performance earned him the bust label. As a bust who went ahead of one of the all-time greats, he showed up on the T10B radar screen.  Specifically, he sits at #7 in my ranking of Top 10 NFL Draft Busts. To be fair, he’s the most likely to fall out if I ever revisit my countdown. Specifically, if/when a certain Patriots’ QB takes over the G.O.A.T. title, Thompson may become an unlikely beneficiary.

[After leading the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to win Super Bowl LI, Tom Brady has taken the G.O.A.T. title from Joe Montana. At a minimum, Brady has become the NFL’s greatest post-season quarterback. As recognized above, I may need to update my ranking of Top 10 NFL Draft Busts. I would have to change a criterion, but 2012 #3 pick Trent Richardson seems the most likely replacement for now.]