We come to the conclusion of the matter of the top QBs of all time, statistically-speaking. To review, I sought a system whereby QBs would be ranked relative to the time in which they played the game, instead of undertaking the impossible task of ranking QBs across decades. I was interested in who was the statistically-best QBs, and who won championships as well, remembering that Trent Dilfer won one more Super Bowl than did Dan Marino, but that Terry Bradshaw, for all his Super Bowls, never led the league in passing. How do we crunch these numbers and make sense of the data, getting beyond the subjective (which is heavily influenced by the facts that we are fans—and that fans are anything but objective—and that we have a natural bias toward QBs we have seen, as opposed to Sid Luckman, about whom we’ve only heard stories). So, I gave a point for every season that a QB was ranked in the top half of passers in the league, a second point for every year that a QB was in the top quarter, and a third point for the winner of the passing championship. I gave a bonus point for any year in which the passing winner’s rating exceeded the second-place finisher by a greater margin than the second-place finisher’s rating exceeded the fifth-placed passer. I gave a point for each championship game appearance, and another point for each championship. So, with that as the criteria, here are the passers rated 20th-4th:

20 (T) Terry Bradshaw
20 (T) Norm Van Brocklin
20 (T) Dan Fouts
19 Tom Brady
17 (T) Charlie Conerly
17 (T) John Elway
16 Y.A. Tittle
15 Brett Favre
14 Dan Marino
13 Steve Young
10 (T) Ken Anderson
10 (T) Bob Griese
10 (T) Peyton Manning
9 Roger Staubach
6 (T) Sid Luckman
6 (T) Fran Tarkenton
6 (T) Johnny Unitas
4 (T) Bart Starr
4 (T) Len Dawson

Now, before I reveal the final three, as I said in a recent post, I think I’m going to see what would happen if I gave a point for each Pro Bowl team made, and another point for every MVP Award. I’m sure it’d tweak things a bit, but probably not a great deal. I will just go back and add the points in and post on it in one post, instead of posting 20 more posts on the subject.

OK, without further ado, the #3 QB of all time is Otto Graham. Remember, I decided to only count half-points for Graham’s four years in the AAFC (as well as doing the same for the first four years of the AFL). This decision lowered Graham’s final score; he’d at least have been second were it not for this. But in describing the greatness of Otto Graham, besides the fact that he appeared in league championships in nine of his ten playing years (four in the AAFC, winning all four championships with the Cleveland Browns, and then five championship appearances in six NFL years, winning the NFL championship three times), there is one utterly incredible fact. If you look at the all-time NFL passer rating (and as I’ve said clearly, this is a flawed approach to determine who is best, since the thing is massively, irretrievably skewed toward modern players), the second-highest rated passer who retired before I was born (1960) is Sid Luckman. Sid is 84th all-time. This puts him almost halfway down the list of all QBs who’ve tossed 1500 career NFL passes—and Sid is tied for the 6th-best of all time, in my rankings. Otto Graham, who retired in 1955, is 14th all-time. That is astonishing, absolutely riveting, unbelievable, incredible, one of the most astounding sports facts I’ve come across in my life. Playing in the era in which he did, to compile a lifetime passer rating of 86.6 is something like Babe Ruth hitting 714 home runs: it’s beyond belief (a far more impressive stat for the Babe than Hank Aaron’s 755, which itself is far more impressive than The Cheater’s “record”…but I digress.). By the way, did you happen to notice where Brett Favre ranks? You’d be correct if you said, “19th all-time”, but you’d also be correct if you happened to notice that Brett Favre is only 15th among currently-active players in passer ranking. Yeah, yeah, there’s more to it than passer rating, I acknowledge…but how under the sun anybody can, with a straight face, argue that the 15th-ranked passer of his own generation is one of the top five QBs of all time, I do not know.

Otto Graham only played pro football for ten seasons, and then he retired, still on top. If he’d played only a couple of more years, he’d almost certainly be at the top of this list, and when you put everything together about this remarkable player’s career, if you remember my words about this ranking being only good enough to give us a rough estimate of where a QB should fall in the conversation, it’s my opinion that Otto Graham is the greatest quarterback ever to play the game.

But here, he’s only third. Second is Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, who was the first truly exceptional quarterback in the NFL. He was a perennially highly-rated passer, and he won NFL championships as well. What would Sammy Baugh do against today’s defenses? Who knows? It’s impossible to make those kind of assessments; all we can ask is, how far above the competition of his day was Sammy Baugh? And the answer is that, statistically, he is only topped by the greatest quarterback of all-time (statistically):

Joe Montana. The whole package. The stats, the championships, cool under pressure, the legend. A genius on the football field. Joe played the game with class and panache, with style and substance, with nerve and verve. The consummate professional. Joe Montana is the man.

Coming soon: let me do the work on MVP Awards and Pro Bowl teams elected to, and I’ll get back to you with the adjusted rankings.

3 responses »

  1. Chris says:

    You commented to me a couple of days ago that you’re surprised that there’s not more discussion on this subject. I think that’s because you’ve given clearly defined guidelines of how the rankings work. There’s really no “arguing” that can be done. In my heart, Kenny Stabler will always be the greatest of all-time. In my mind, this survey makes sense. I’d bet it’s the same way for everyone else who reads it.

  2. Byron says:

    Am I crazy? No, I’m just objective, which you obviously aren’t. Do you have any idea who Otto Graham is? Or Sammy Baugh? Have you studied up on either of them? I wouldn’t have ranked them that highly either, and then I ran the numbers. The numbers are pretty clear, if the criterion is, “how did a QB rank in his era”? And that’s really the only way we can rank them.

    Did you even read my post? Otto Graham ranks higher in passer rating than Favre; 70 spots higher than any other QB from his generation, whereas Favre is only 15th among active QBs. Otto Graham won 7 championships (counting AAFC; “only” 3 in the NFL), whereas Favre won one. Favre made it to one other NFL championship game; Graham made it to two others.

    Elway, a personal favorite of mine, doesn’t measure up either. And really, the only way you can come up with the list you do is to pretend that the NFL didn’t exist before 1960, or that anybody who played back then is simply inferior to today’s QBs.

  3. John Everett says:

    Are you crazy? I have a couple problems with your list.
    otto graham and Sammy Baugh? who are they? Oh, that otto graham and sammy baugh. they were good, but definetely not better than elway, starr, unitas, bradshaw, or Favre.
    Montana should be 1
    Elway Should be 2
    Favre should be 3
    Unitas 5
    Marino 6
    Bradshaw 7
    Dawson 8
    Tarkenton 9
    Steve young at 10

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