Thursday, March 13, 2008

PV's Quarterback Pantheon

Inspired by this Dave Anderson column in The New York Times, RK and I were discussing via email the futility of "ranking" all-time great quarterbacks; once you've got a list of all-time great QBs, it's meaningless to try put them in order. We're better off just lumping the true greats into a group and saying there, there's our Pantheon, rather than trying to rank them in any sort of order. Dave Anderson calls this his "top shelf."

But what criteria do we use to decide which QBs belong in the Pantheon, and which don't? I have a way. If I could make a reasonable argument that a quarterback is the greatest quarterback of all-time, then he goes in the Pantheon. If a quarterback is really great but I can't make a reasonable argument he's the greatest quarterback of all-time, then he doesn't go in.

I've come up with 10 quarterbacks in history for whom I believe I could make a legitimate, fair argument for #1. I'll provide the unranked list with a brief explanation, and then name a few great quarterbacks that I didn't include. Remember, the entire point is that this is an unranked list--I don't want to try say any one of these quarterbacks is better than any other. What I am saying is that each of these quarterbacks could make a fair claim as the all-time greatest.

Let me note that I'm big on the black ink test: I like quarterbacks that proved themselves statistically superior to their contemporaries, meaning they led the league in significant categories frequently. For quarterbacks, I'll look at completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and (reluctantly) passer rating. I also appreciate a quarterback's team success, even as I recognize team success is not entirely dependent on the quarterback.

PV's Quarterback Pantheon

Otto Graham
Graham played ten years of professional football. In his first four years, he led the Cleveland Browns to four AAFC championships. In his next six years, he led the Browns to six NFL championship games, winning three of them. That's 10 years, 10 championship games, 7 championships. And combine his performances in both the AAFC and the NFL, and he led the league in completion percentage four times, passing yards five times, passing touchdowns three times, and passer rating four times.

Steve Young
We should not forget how sickly good Steve Young was. In the eight seasons from 1991 to 1998, Young led the league in completion percentage five times, touchdown passes four times, and passer rating six times. In that time, the San Francisco 49ers led the league in scoring four consecutive years, ranked third in scoring three times, and ranked fifth once. They averaged 11.88 wins per season. Young was also a good running quarterback.

Sammy Baugh
All Baugh did was lead the league in yards four times, touchdowns twice, rating four times, and completion percentage NINE TIMES. Yeah, Sammy Baugh was the league's most accurate passer in nine different seasons. During Baugh's reign, Washington played in five NFL championship games, winning two of them. He beats out Sid Luckman as the greatest quarterback of the NFL's first 35 years, and could still be considered the best to ever play.

Joe Montana
Montana has great regular season statistics. He's also the greatest playoff quarterback of all-time. In the playoffs, his teams were 16-7, and Montana threw 45 touchdown passes and 5,772 yards.

Dan Marino
Marino is the only QB to throw 40+ TD passes in two different seasons (48 in 1984, 44 in 1986). He still has a single-season record 5,084 passing yards. He led the league in touchdown passes three times and passing yards five times. The quickest release and the best pure passer ever.

Brett Favre
To me, Favre's most impressive record is his eight seasons with 30+ TD passes; Marino and Peyton Manning are tied for second with four. I think you could argue that from 1995 through 1997, nobody ever played quarterback better. Plus he has the longevity to hold all the big career records.

Peyton Manning
After ten seasons, I already believe there's a good argument Manning is the best ever. Ten seasons makes his season average easy to figure out: 4,163 yards and 30.6 touchdown passes, with the Colts winning 10.5 regular season games. That's a season average maintained over ten seasons. Think about that.

John Elway
The numbers aren't there. But if you watched Elway play, you saw a strong-armed quarterback that consistently made big plays and won a lot of games. He led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning two of them. He's got 14 playoff wins to his name--if anybody is going to make my Pantheon simply as a winner, it's Elway.

Johnny Unitas
Unitas led the league in touchdown passes four straight years; he retired as the career leader with 290. He led in passing yards four times, completion percentage once, and rating three times. He won championships, and he's known for clutch performances.

Bart Starr
Starr has a 9-1 playoff record with 5 championships. He led the league in completion percentage three times and rating three times. He rarely made mistakes, three times leading the league in low interception percentage.

Here are some of the great QBs that I just couldn't argue as the greatest.

Roger Staubach He was an incredibly efficient quarterback, a playmaker, and a winner.

Sid Luckman I think Luckman's great, but I can't claim he's the greatest. He won a lot of games and the Bears won four championships with Luckman as their leading passer. In 1943 threw a ridiculous 28 touchdown passes in 10 games.

Warren Moon We've been debating Moon's merits on this site lately, but I can't claim he's the best.

Len Dawson The AFL's finest passer, leading that league in completion percentage six times, touchdown passes four times, and passer rating six times.

Tom Brady Not yet. Team success: 12.3 wins per year since becoming starter, and a 14-3 playoff record with 3 championships. Statistical success: he's led the league in TD passes twice, passing yards twice, completion percentage once, and rating once. I'm just not ready to argue Brady is the greatest ever--yet.

Fran Tarkenton The scrambler came into the league on a crappy expansion team, got traded to another crappy team, then got traded back to his original team and led it to three NFC championships. He retired with all the career records, including 342 TD passes and 47,003 yards.

Terry Bradshaw The first quarterback to win four Super Bowls; he's great, but it was the defense that gave the Steelers their identity. And for a guy that played with two Hall of Fame wide receivers and a Hall of Fame running back, the numbers aren't really that strong. He deserves mention for the team success (and he did come through in big games), but he's not the greatest ever.

Your thoughts? How many QBs could you make an argument as the greatest ever? Who is on your "top shelf"?


  1. Ya got a nice list of Q.B.s there each brings their own style into play.Glad you didnt pick one and numbered down from there.Kilmer and Stabler kind of belong in the bunch tho.Staubach even though I hated Dallas had a unique way of stealing the game with a minute or so left.Hated his team but some of my earliest memorys of football was him doing some impossible comebacks.

  2. Tell me you didn't just say Kilmer.

  3. Anonymous7:19 AM

    I agree with your criteria. I think 12 is a good number: favre, unitas, bough, graham, bradshaw, marino, p manning, montana, jurgensen, elway, starr, brady.

    I don't think Bart Starr was good enough and I honestly will never believe Tom Brady belongs in that group or Peyton (or Montana) but I can see where the argument could be made--and in the case of Montana and Starr I have too often heard the argument made. So this is a nice way to get around my... issues. My personal taste is for Steve Mcnair to make the list. I thought he was a great great player. Elway-lite with a little Favre thrown in. Aikman was not a consideration. Young was ... but I think Brady takes his place now.


  4. I forgot about Sonny Jurgensen: he should have been in my "just missed" list.

    After making the list, I already started wondering whether Brady's eight years as a very successful starter is already enough, considering I'm including Young based on eight seasons. Brady has more team success in those 8 years, but Young had just ridiculous individual and offensive success in those years. I think Young is better, but I'm just about ready to add Brady to the Pantheon to make 11.

  5. Anonymous12:59 PM

    I am curious RK, why don't you think Peyton Manning belongs in that group? Please explain.

  6. Anonymous1:55 PM

    It may seem funny that I'd put Jurgensen on the list--this pure passer who never really won, never even made the play offs-- considering my disdain for pure passers who don't win. But his numbers were so extraordinary plus Lombardi saying the Packers would never have lost with Jurgensen really stuck in my mind. Actually, the number of QBs I've heard ex-Lombardi era QB's say "If we'd had that guy we'd of never lost" is pretty high--Favre, Jurgensen, Unitas. You have to figure Elway, Marino also fit into that group. No doubt a quarterback like Peyton Manning is the ultimate improvement upon the Bart Starr model except for Starr's courage and grit. And maybe Manning has those (I can't see them but I hold a terrible bias).

    There are reasons why I don't think Manning fits on that list but they are mostly subjective and theoretical. What QB on that list didn't have a bad play off game once or twice? Lately Tom Brady is racking them up himself.

    I also want to say that Brett Favre's teams averaged 10 wins a season over 16 years which is close to Peyton's mark.


  7. Anonymous5:44 PM

    I personally think Favre and Manning are similar QB's, but I give Manning the edge with the lower int%, higher completion percentage, etc.

    Manning in the playoffs is currently 7-7, Favre is 12-10. Of course Favre has more years, and in time we will tell if Manning ends up the better playoff QB. Both of them have won a Super Bowl and both have stunk it up in playoff games.

    Fact is this Manning (if he remains healthy) will shatter all of Favre's records (except that INT record).

    Favre is great, but so is Manning.

  8. Anonymous6:55 PM

    That's a pretty good list, but I think it's lacking. Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts and Joe Namath are at least worth mentioning if they don't make the final cut.