I love sports statistics; always have, always will. And I love big sports questions; among my favorites, until I lost most of my interest in baseball, involved who belonged in the baseball Hall of Fame, and who didn’t. By the way, would you believe that the all-time leader in doubles by a catcher, the leader by a huge margin, a great lifetime hitter for average and power, is not only not in the Hall of Fame, but his vote total was so low in his first year on the ballot that he didn’t even make it to a second year? It’s a travesty, an utter travesty. If you don’t know his name, I’ll let you guess it, in your comments, if you care.
OK, back to the point at hand, which is this: who really is the greatest QB of all time? Actually, the first question, and the point of this post, is how do you measure, statistically, the best QB of all time? I mean, most of us have our subjective feelings, but how do you know, or at least get real close, in an objective way? Well, I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, and with this being my day off, I’ve not only worked out a formula, but begun to do the research (and it honestly won’t take that long).
First, though, the problem, and that’s this: you can’t compare very well at all across eras. Passer rating, which will play significantly into my formula, is of itself quite inadequate, because it doesn’t take into account the differences in eras. Heading into this season, for instance, in the all-time top ten of passers were Marc Bulger, Daunte Culpepper, Trent Green, and Chad Pennington. I shouldn’t have to go any further to make that point. Pure passing yardage doesn’t do the trick, of course, because Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde are in the top ten there. Nice careers they each had (Vinny will apparently play ’til he’s 90), but longevity in quasi-mediocrity isn’t what we’re looking for either. Another category that most people instinctively say should be figured in, when it comes to comparing QBs, is championships won. I think that this is an overrated category, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant either. But we have to arrive at a way to give due consideration to each category, including this one. Terry Bradshaw is deservedly in the Hall of Fame with his four wins, but he’s not a better QB than Dan Marino, who never won one. Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl, for Pete’s sake, and we’ll give the Dilfer his due, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it was the Ravens’ D that won the thing, ya know? So, how do we factor these things? I’ve got a system, and this post is an invitation to ask any interested readers what they think of my system.
I’m going to use passer rating (which I think is a good indicator, even if it’s a lousy system; that’s my next project, designing a more easily understandable QB rating system that doesn’t have “perfect” as 158.3, as the current system does. NFL fans, for a good laugh, google “NFL quarterback passer rating system”, and look at how they figure it.). It’s a clumsy system, but it rates the right things, and tells us who the best passers are each year, even if we can’t understand it. I’m also going to use championships played in, and championships won. Finally, I’m going to rate each passer against the passers of his day. How will the system work? Here we go; critique away:
I’m going to give one point for every QB that finished the season ranked in the top half of passer rating for that given season. In other words, if there are 32 teams in the NFL, QBs ranked in the top 16 get a point. QBs ranked in the top quarter (8 in this scenario) get another point. The passing champion gets a third point. Then, if the passing champion leads the second-place finisher by more than the second-place finisher leads the fifth-place finisher, I’m going to give a bonus point for an off-the-charts exceptional season. I’m going to give the championship winning QB two points, and the championship losing QB one point. Thus, the most a QB can get in a given season is 6 points. Currently, and I’ve worked my way back to 1992, there are two 6-point seasons and one 5-point season on record: Peyton Manning had a six-point season last year, and Kurt Warner had one in 1999. Warner, by the way, had the five-pointer, in 2001.
Anyway, this system will measure QBs against their competition at the time (instead of measuring Sammy Baugh against Bart Starr against Tom Brady), will reward longevity (but only as long as it’s quality longevity), and will factor in championships as well. I think it’s a pretty good system. What do you think? And what do you think a top five or top ten might look like when I’m done?
UPDATE: I’ve finished working my way through the entire Super Bowl era, and while I’m not going to give away the rankings for a few days, one thing has become clear: if my system has validity—and I think it does—then within the Super Bowl era, the race for “greatest quarterback” isn’t even close. There’s one far-and-away winner. You can practically throw a net over the guys ranked 2-10, but way, way out in front is one man. I’ll let that tantalize you for a bit. But as far as I’m concerned, the argument is over.