Joe Burrow had never thrown four interceptions in an NFL game. The most he had thrown in a game before he did exactly that on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 23-20 overtime loss was three against the Chicago Bears in a 20-17 loss last September.
Burrow, one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, was going up against Pittsburgh’s Mitch Trubisky, who is… well, not. While it’s uncommon for awesome quarterbacks to barf all over themselves like Burrow did on this day, it’s even less common for them to do it with quarterbacks far below their station on the other team. Brett Favre once threw six interceptions in a game against the St. Louis Rams, but that was in the divisional round of the 2020 playoffs, and the other quarterback was Kurt Warner.
To find a similarly bad performance from one great quarterback with another not-so-great quarterback on the other sideline, you have to get into the Wayback Machine, and travel back in time to two games played by Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers, a Hall of Famer, and one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history.
The first time Fouts threw a ton of picks in an instance like this, he was facing the Houston Oilers on December 29, 1979, in the divisional round of the playoffs. The opposing quarterback was Gifford Nielsen, who you may not know. Nielsen lasted six seasons with the Oilers from 1978 through 1983, throwing 20 touchdowns to 22 interceptions in his NFL career.
Fouts on that day completed 25 of 47 passes for 333 yards, no touchdowns, and five interceptions. His problem was Houston’s ferocious defense, which was an issue for every NFL team at the time. The Oilers won 20-17 without Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell, while Vernon Perry, a free agent safety acquired from the Canadian Football League via Jackson State earlier in the season, had four of those five picks.
“I suppose I should say you’re kidding,” Oilers head coach Bum Phillips said after the game, when informed that Perry’s four picks was a pro football playoff record. “But we knew when we signed him as a free agent out of Canada that the kid was a player. He was a college teammate of [Hall of Fame linebacker] Robert Brazile, who recommended him to us. And like that commercial, when Robert Brazile speaks, people listen.”
Fouts had another game like this in the playoffs a few years later — this time, it was in the divisional round of the 1982 playoffs against the Miami Dolphins, who had a full year to think about Kellen Winslow’s historic game against their defense in the divisional round of the 1982 playoffs.
This time, Miami’s “Killer B’s” defense wasn’t giving Fouts or Winslow any traction. Fouts completed 15 of 34 passes for 191 yards, one touchdown, and five interceptions against a defense that ranked first in DVOA that season. Winslow had one catch for 18 yards this time.
“Their defense is the best I’ve seen,” Fouts said after. “Their entire defense was the factor; it wasn’t just the pass rush. We didn’t get much of anything going the way we wanted to. Miami didn’t give us anything.”
Asked if he even played in the second half, Winslow said mordantly, “I believe so, yes. I know sometimes it was difficult to tell.”
Miami’s quarterback on that day was David Woodley, playing out the strong until the Dolphins selected Dan Marino with the 27th pick in the 1983 draft. The Dolphins did make it to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1982 season, whereupon they were thrashed by the Washington Redskins.
So, Mr. Burrow, if you think you’re the only quarterback to have a game like this with another quarterback far beneath you on the other team, you are not. You are now in the company of a Hall of Famer.