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.

7 responses »

  1. Chris says:

    Since this based on “numbers only compared to others of his generation” and without looking at the numbers myself, I would tend to agree. All three (Favre, Elway and Namath) have the same “legend” or “swagger” quality you mentioned that elevates most people’s opinions of them. I’ll be interested to see where my favorite all-time QB comes up in your rankings.

  2. Byron says:

    Sorry, Chris, but Archie Manning, Aaron Brooks, and Drew Brees don’t make the cut…

  3. Chris says:

    And none of those three are it! 🙂 Of those three, only Manning would even have a shot. He had decent stats for a guy whose teams only won about 50 out of 140 games he played in. That’s sad!

  4. curious says:

    where is the statistical analysis? you simply present a list and ask that we put stock in your methodology without typing out the numbers.

  5. Byron says:


    Here’s the link to the methodology:

    As far as the numbers are concerned, I can give you the totals, if you’d care to know. I also have the tally sheets I used, and the breakdown by years, which I’d be happy to send as a Word doc to anybody who cares.

    It’s funny you should ask this: I decided to google “Greatest Quarterback Ever”, and I found some interesting ideas. One guy said “Dan Marino”, another “Bart Starr”, and there was even a guy—I kid you not—who brought Neil O’Donnell into the equation. I’m not making that up (kind of makes me feel a whole lot better about my results putting Ken Anderson in the discussion!). I found one person who put a poll online asking, “who is the greatest quarterback of all time”, and had both Michael Vick and Daunte Kullpeper (his spelling; I’m not making that up either) as possibilities,but not Otto Graham or Sammy Baugh, among others. I’m going to go back when I have some time and read through their analyses, and see what I think.

    Also, I have done the work on revamping the stats in order to add points for MVP Awards won and All-Pro Teams made, and that shakes things up somewhat (it casts Brett Favre in a bit more favorable light, for instance, as I thought it might). I’ll try to post that soon.

  6. Ian says:

    “He never has led the league in passing, even once in all his years.”

    Incorrect. Favre led the league in passing in both 1995 with 4,413 yards (second-most being Scott Mitchell’s tally of 4,360), as well as 1998, totaling 4,212 yards rivaled only by Steve Young’s 4,170 yard season.

    Another issue I wish to address is your seemingly adamant reliance to the Quarterback rating as to making your judgments in concerns to quarterback greatness, itself an entirely flawed and essentially meaningless statistic in itself.

    One only has to look to the formula’s original implemention as to why it is such a useless formula. When Don Smith originally created the formula in 1973, the “average” score circa the dead-ball era was 66.667, however this has jumped exponentially to 82.8 three seasons ago. The key problem in the formula is that as there is a maximum “score”, it retracks greatly from games in which, while accordingly close in regards to QB rating, are by all means not. One can use this season as an example.

    During the week seven performance by Ben Roethlisberger in which he tallied a “perfect score” -158.3- , he completed 16 of 20 for 261 yards, 3 Touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Compare this to Tom Brady’s performance against the hapless Dolphins in which Brady went 21/25 for 354 yards, 6 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Both had the same “score”, yet Brady threw for twice as many touchdowns, and nearly one hundred yards more, whilst completing 1.4% less passes. I believe it is fairly obvious to gather from the previous example that the passer rating is by no means the bar with witch to judge a quarterback’s “Greatness”.

  7. Byron says:

    Sorry, my friend, but incorrect on both counts. You list Favre’s leading the league in passing on the basis of yardage, which is not what we’re considering here; passer rating is the criterion I’m using to say he never led the league, and I’m correct in that.

    The second issue you raise is actually one with which I agree, but disagree with your analysis. I think that the passer rating is a bit silly, as you point out; what the heck is 158.3?

    But to say it’s “fairly obvious” that passer rating is not the bar by which to measure greatness is, in my opinion, way wide of the mark as well. The fact that it’s a bit of a silly way of doing things doesn’t mean that it doesn’t measure the right things. It may have an impossible-to-understand formula—as I said in a previous post, it’d be fun to try to come up with an easy-to-figure rating system, done on a 1-100 scale, say, and the NFL ought to sponsor such an undertaking. But the point I’d make is that any such system would measure the same things that the current system measures.

    Further, your examples, well-taken as they are as to the differences between “perfect” games, do not serve to in any way disqualify the system, because the ratings I’m using, indeed that the NFL uses, are based on seasonal statistics. If Tom Brady had had a cumulative 158.3 this year, then your point would be valid, but obviously he did not, and I doubt anyone ever will. As a tool to compare one quarterback’s performance to another over the term of an entire season, there’s nothing wrong with the tool at all.

    I believe that the system could obviously be improved, but to use two disparate “perfect” scores in order to invalidate the entire system is a poor example; how often do QBs score such a rating? Almost never. You can’t throw out the system simply because you can find a flaw or two; it’d be like saying that wins for a pitcher shouldn’t count for anything because a guy can pitch 5 innings, allow 8 earned runs, and still get the “win” because the other pitcher was worse.

    There are flaws in any system, but absent something better, how do we objectively rank quarterbacks, without resorting to “he was a gritty performer” or “he played with guts”?

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