There are some people who are going to read this post who are going to hate it. Violently. Few things are more enraging to sports fans than seeing their heroes demeaned in their eyes, and if hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, it doesn’t have much to compare with a sports fan “insulted” by his hero being critiqued negatively.
Which is exactly what I’m about to do with two quarterbacks who fall well outside the top ten in my all-time quarterback rankings.
But before we get to that, let’s review: I undertook to determine a means whereby an objective analysis could be rendered regarding the historical standings of NFL quarterbacks. Remember, objective is the key word. And “objective” is the last thing that most sports fans are (myself included, as you’ll see in a minute, because one of the two most overrated QBs is a real favorite of mine). Why do we tend to lose our objectivity? Several thoughts come to mind: we are first and foremost fans, not critics. We develop emotional bonds to certain players, and we delude ourselves into believing that the guys we like are actually better than the other guys, or at least anybody remotely comparable to “our guy”. Second, we are not historically objective because we are inundated with coverage of contemporary players, while we have little knowledge of/interest in guys who played before we were alive. How many passes have you ever seen Otto Graham throw? Third, sometimes we are swayed unduly by the wrong things. We like a guy’s swagger, his flair for the dramatic, his cannon arm, his late-game heroics (never thinking that, perhaps, he wouldn’t have to bring his team from behind if he’d played better in the first three quarters), etc. You can think of more reasons why there will be some people who will call for my head after I calmly explain the results of my findings, because those findings won’t make their arguments stronger; they won’t give them the emotional lift of being agreed with, etc.
Finally, let’s review the methodology I used in my rankings. Basically, what I wanted to do was to compare quarterbacks against the competition of their day, first of all. As we said when we began, you can’t prove anything by looking at all-time QB ranking, because the game has changed so much. Matt Hasselbeck is not a better quarterback than Bart Starr; he couldn’t carry Bart’s gym bag. But you couldn’t tell that by looking at all-time passer rating. So what we have to do is to ask “how high did a given quarterback rise in comparison to the other quarterbacks of his time?” Second, and I’ve voiced my reservations about this, but people place a huge emphasis on “how many championships did he win?” I’ve thus included championships won (and championship games played in) as a significant factor in my rating system. You’ve got to have both, because if you favor one, you’ve got Dan Marino as the greatest QB of all time, and if you favor another, you might have Terry Bradshaw. No, the truth is that both QB quality and championships won matter. I tend to think that the former matters more than the latter in rating passers, but I’ve said that enough that I’ll leave it alone from here on out. What isn’t rated in my rankings is “intangibles”—and I can already hear that argument from some people, but spare me: it doesn’t fly. I don’t care what a guy overcame to be a great QB. I don’t care if he had to throw to Todd Pinkston and Jerome Pathon for half of his career. I don’t care that he had a penchant for the dramatic, or that he was great in comeback victories, or that his mother overcame cancer to watch him win his third Super Bowl, and then died in his arms during the celebration. Sing that song elsewhere. No, passer rating, as complicated as it is, measures the right things about what a QB does with the ball, and championship wins measures, at least to some degree, how much of a winner he is. Everything else you can toss.
We posted yesterday about the QBs tied at 20th: Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, and Norm van Brocklin. We also mentioned that at the moment, Tom Brady is 19th; he’ll jump to about 16th when (yes, “when”) the Patriots win the Super Bowl. It’s now time to reveal the next four, which will include the two most overrated QBs of all time (besides Joe Namath). Tied for 17th all-time are Charlie Conerly and John Elway. I’m not going to talk about Charlie Conerly, because I don’t give a flying rip about him, and neither do you. What I will talk about is how painful it is to discover that John Elway ranks this low. Now, “low” is a relative term, of course; the 17th-best QB in history deserves, of course, to be in the Hall of Fame, so in no way am I dissing Elway here as a mediocrity. But the fact is, as much as I hate to admit it, John Elway does not belong in a discussion about the best QB of all time. His numbers just do not justify it. Yes, he was a great QB; yes, he got the Broncos to five Super Bowls; yes, he won two of them. He had a cannon of an arm; he was exciting to watch; he would complete passes that most quarterbacks wouldn’t even throw. But here’s the simple truth: he never won a passing title. In fact, in all of his years as a QB, he only ranked in the top quarter of QBs three times, and in the top half a handful of others. Yes, “he” won a lot of games—but I’ve already hashed that out; similarly, he passed for a bunch of yards, but remember, we’re not just measuring longevity, but longevity in greatness. John Elway was a very good quarterback; yeah, I guess 17th qualifies you as a “great quarterback”, and as a huge Elway fan, that’s what I want to think of him. And as I said in yesterday’s post, placing 17th means he might be the 25th-best, but it might mean he was about 10th. But let’s be done with any talk of John Elway as the best QB of all time: the facts simply do not support that contention.
Sixteenth all time is Y.A. Tittle. Y.A. was in his heyday when I was in diapers, and therefore I know little of him. He played a lot of years, and was pretty good for awhile, and won two MVP awards. He never won a championship, so his passing numbers are what got him ranked this highly. My dad loved Y.A. (Yelberton Abraham), but that might have been as much because of the name “Yelberton” than anything else.
And the fifteenth all-time quarterback is none other than Brett Favre. Yep, it shocked me too. He just got the all-time yardage record, and the wins record, and passing TDs, and all that stuff. He’s a cowboy; he’s a legend. And I honestly believe that more than any other guy in the rankings, he belongs higher on the list than his ranking. But the fact is that he is not the greatest QB of all time, and doesn’t really even belong in the discussion. His strengths are that he is unstoppable, having never missed a start; he is gutty (the Monday night win after his dad died was incredible drama); he has won one Super Bowl (and lost another, to the Elway-led Broncos); he quarterbacks one of the NFL’s storied franchises. But he’s also had some pretty average seasons; he makes some great throws, but he’s always thrown a whole bunch of interceptions, many at inopportune times. He never has led the league in passing, even once in all his years. He’s a great quarterback; I think he’s better than 15th, all-time, but he isn’t in the top five, when we do that most difficult of tasks for NFL fans, look at the subject objectively.
And it’s for these reasons that Brett Favre and John Elway, both of whom are considered by many as being “the best quarterback of all time”, are instead, after Joe Namath, the two most overrated quarterbacks of all time.
UPDATE: Further Evidence Against Brett Favre
Anybody care to guess, without looking, where Brett Favre stands in all-time passer ranking among currently-active NFL quarterbacks (at least heading into the 2007 season)? He’s 11th. He’s not even in the top ten of active QBs. So please, if you’re singing the “Brett Favre is the greatest QB of all time” song, sing it elsewhere, dude.