I’ve now finished my NFL quarterback analysis, but with the end of the regular season only 4 days away—and with the fact that one quarterback who is not now in the Top Ten will crack that figure, most likely, by the end of play Sunday (and his name is not “Tom Brady”, by the way)—I’m going to wait to release my list. First, though, a few random thoughts:
1. When I posted my subjective list of the Top Five quarterbacks of all time, a few months back, one guy wrote in to say that it had to be John Elway, hands down, because of one thing: Elway holds the mark for most QB “wins” of all time. Now…I am a huge Elway fan. I have a huge John Elway collection. He is one of my 3 favorite quarterbacks of all time, and made my subjective Top Five list. That said, the fellow is way, way wide of the mark in suggesting that the fact that Elway has the most “wins” all-time makes him the best QB. The fact of the matter is that wins is the very best determiner, perhaps (along with championships) of the quality of a team, but as a determiner of the best quarterback, it’s a singularly crummy way to make the call. Think about it: football, we’re always told, is a team sport. It is in fact more of a team sport than any other; there are 22 starters, and that doesn’t even count a separate unit called “special teams”. In soccer, the number is 11; baseball, 9; hockey, 6; basketball, 5. Other than baseball, and now hockey (ranking “goalies” by wins), we don’t think in terms of crediting individual players with team wins (and probably shouldn’t in those other sports; as we all know, if we are baseball fans at all, a pitcher can pitch a magnificent game and take a loss, whereas he can stink the place up and get credit for a win.). I’m not saying that there’s no correlation between a QB’s performance and a team winning; that’d be foolish, just like it’d be foolish to say, of a pitcher or goalie, that a team’s winning had no correlation to their performances. But it doesn’t have a high correlation; there are so many factors in a team sport that one individual can be a magnificent performer, and in any given game rack up incredible stats, and the team still lose. We don’t give “wins” to a point guard or a strong forward; we don’t judge a linebacker by how many games his team wins. It’s silly to judge a QB thusly, and even though in my rating system I did give some nice points for quarterbacks winning championships, I’m not all that certain I can really justify it logically.
2. What would you expect the results of such an undertaking to show? Well, you’d want a system where players from different eras of the sport would be more or less equally represented. My system, as I’ll show you now that I’ve done the work, has accomplished just this. My top ten has players that span every decade of the NFL’s existence. Further, you’d expect that any such system would end up with something approaching what you expected. Any system that would rank Boomer Esiason as a Top Five all-time NFL QB would be a flawed system; it’d say more about itself (in a derogatory way) than it ever could say in a positive way about Boomer Esiason. I remember a baseball statistical analysis done a few years back (back when I cared) that showed that a guy who was like the #2 pitcher on an above-average team was actually the best player in baseball (what that showed was that the system was a joke), or when Elizabeth Taylor said in an interview a few years back that Michael Jackson was “the most normal man she’d ever known”, and I thought to myself, “well, Liz, you haven’t really said much about Michael Jackson, but you’ve told us everything we ever need to know about you, honey!” So, any system should come in with results that don’t shock us, but in the next breath, I’m going to suggest that any good system like this should put somebody higher in the rankings than we’d have guessed, and place someone else lower. My system has done this as well. I’m not real surprised by nine of the guys in my top ten, but one is a real surprise to me. Similarly, there are two or three guys outside of the Top Ten whom I”d have thought were shoo-ins…and as I said, I’ll be revealing my list after Sunday’s games, when I can update with this year’s stats (save the playoffs, when couple players will get bumped up).
3. There is one surprise that I will go ahead and reveal, kind of like opening up one gift on Christmas Eve. Where would you put Broadway Joe Willie Namath in your all-time listing of quarterbacks? Such is the Namath legend that we’d figure he’d be reasonably highly-rated, right? Well…he’s not as good as Boomer Esiason (not really close), nor Kurt Warner, Phil Simms, Joe Theismann, Donovan McNabb (after this year), Bob Waterfield, Cecil Isbell (yes, the Cecil Isbell) or Tobin Rote. And frankly, the system works on this one. Joe Namath really wasn’t all that great a QB, roughly the equivalent of Marc Bulger. But Marc Bulger never won a Super Bowl or wore panty hose in a commercial. Now, to be fair, Namath would have likely been a little better if not for the injuries he suffered mid-career. But if you just look at the numbers, and forget the Bunnies and “The Guarantee”, he’s a lot more legend than he is reality.
4. Finally, I have two remaining questions in order to perfect the system: one is the “NFL Lite Conundrum”, and the other is the “Otto Graham Predicament”. The first question revolves around the fact that if you dig back far enough, the NFL had only a few teams, and those teams ran such different offenses, that in some years, you might only have 3-4 quarterbacks who threw 100 passes. Leading the league in that situation isn’t really much of an accomplishment. One or two of my top ten guys benefited from this scenario. I’m not quite sure how to compensate. I didn’t count any years prior to 1934, for this reason and the fact that teams didn’t all play the same number of games before this (actually, they didn’t for 2-3 of the early years I included). Not sure quite how to treat those guys. The second question revolves around one man: Otto Graham. Otto Graham was a tremendous quarterback. You can make a good argument that Otto Graham is the greatest quarterback of all time, and to boot, he wore #60, which is a great number for a quarterback (if I were giving “Cool Number Points”, he’d get several). The problem is that he played his first four years (1946-1949) in the All-America Football Conference, which then had a couple of teams swallowed up by the NFL, but not quite the way the AFL did (where all AFL teams were absorbed by the NFL). The AAFC was essentially the “CBKBL”, or “Cleveland Browns Kick Butt League”, because the Browns were 4-for-4 in “opening up a can” on the AAFC “competition”, winning all four championships. The Browns went 52-4-3 in their four years, the four losses probably coming when Otto was, I don’t know, in bed with 107-degree temperature or something. Then, in 1950 when the Browns came into the league, all that Otto did for an encore was to lead the Browns to the championship (throwing for four TDs in the championship game), and another two more in his remaining five years in the league. He was named first-team “All Pro” (or the equivalent in the AAFC) nine out of his ten years, and the Browns played in the championship game all ten years of Otto Graham’s career. By my rating system, not counting the four years he played in the AAFC (and it’s hard to find stats for that league), Otto Graham still finishes in the Top Fifteen or so; in six years, he kicks major bottom. So the “Otto Graham Predicament” is this: do I count his AAFC years, if I can find them (and then he’ll likely be the best of all time)? Or does the fact that the Browns so easily won the league all four years signal that the competition wasn’t worth squat (which it probably wasn’t, but when they got to the NFL, they managed to acquit themselves quite nicely, thank you).
OK, ‘nuf for now. Wait ’til the season ends, and next week, I’ll be posting the results of my findings. Again, in the Super Bowl era, one QB is head-and-shoulders above the rest—and that same guy is the best of all time, though a few older QBs get in the ballpark.