Today, I believe we will watch Peyton Manning play his final NFL game; in fact, given his obviously-declining performance, I hope today is his final game, particularly if the Broncos win the Super Bowl, as I will be cheering hard for them to do. One of the things that has long interested me regarding my two favorite sports, football and baseball, is the question of greatness: who belongs in the Hall of Fame (and who doesn’t) is the type of question I’ve always found fascinating. I also like to toy with questions like “who is the greatest” at various positions and specialties. And let’s face it: most of us approach this topic very subjectively. The supporters of Brett Favre will argue, for instance, that his swashbuckling style makes him one of the greatest of the greats (to me it’s just as obvious that he lost a lot of games because of said style), or they will argue that he played with “heart”, and having seen that Monday night performance after he lost his dad, there’s no argument here. That said, for all we know, Joe Pisarcik played with even more heart, but he just wasn’t a very good NFL quarterback. What we need, instead, is some type of objective system.
Accordingly, a number of years ago, I developed a system** to attempt to determine–objectively, not based upon emotion or subjective preference, and encompassing every decade of the NFL’s existence–the greatest NFL quarterback of all time. Now, let me begin this update by admitting what should be obvious: there is no way to definitively determine the answer to that question, and thus my headline is a bit of a tease. Parenthetically, I would say the same thing about every position on the field, with one seemingly obvious and glaring exception: there seems no plausible argument against the proposition that far and away, Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all time. Really, is anybody even close? No…it’s Jerry–for whom I can make an argument that he is the greatest PLAYER of all time–and everybody else; he is in a class by himself. Is there anybody else so obviously head-and-shoulders above all other players at his position? Tony Gonzalez, possibly…but I digress.
In developing this system, I place emphasis on the answer to this question: how did a quarterback stack up to his contemporaries? How far above the norm was he for his time? This is, effectively, the only way to undertake this task. It is useless to say, “if Sammy Baugh had played today, he would…” because there is just no way possible to answer that question. What we can do, though, is to ask how that player fared against his contemporaries. Further, my system attempts to take into account two measures by which a quarterback is…measured…quarterback rating, and championships. I have a huge bias in one of those two directions, which I will explain in a moment, but that we should take both into account to some degree should be obvious. If our sole measurement is championships, Jim Plunkett is a better QB than Dan Marino, which is patently absurd. If we don’t take championships into account in some way, we leave a guy like Terry Bradshaw off the list. Now that said, I have a very strong bias against judging quarterbacks by Super Bowls. I think that is very superficial, and it ignores some very basic realities about the game of football and the position of quarterback. Hence
A brief rant against judging quarterbacks by championships won
Last year, after Tom Brady won the Super Bowl, I heard/read more than one pundit say, “well, this should settle the Brady/Manning question once-and-for-all: Tom Brady is the better quarterback”. To which I say, “you’ve got to be kidding”. To the contrary, Peyton Manning is the better of the two, though not by a huge margin. There is one main reason why judging a QB by championships is foolish: football is a 22-man sport (and that doesn’t even count special teams). A quarterback is only on the field for roughly 45% of the game, and while he’s out there, he is functioning as part of an 11-man unit; there are just so many other pieces in the puzzle that the best of QBs can be waylaid by a left tackle missing his block at a crucial time or a butter-fingered running back. Now, if you want to argue that the QB is the most important piece in that puzzle, you won’t have a hard time convincing me, but nonetheless, the outcome of NFL games is dependent on many moving parts, and the QB is only one of those moving parts. What percentage of a team’s success can be traced directly to a great QB? Again, no way of knowing, but if your answer is much above 15-20%, I think you are dreaming (and I think that’s generous). So many games are decided based upon happenings beyond the control of the quarterback. Let me illustrate this by rehearsing several events that have taken place in recent years that have impacted championships–and this is only a small sample of games that come to my failing memory:
* Go back to the Giants beating the then-undefeated Patriots a few years back. Tom Brady has another ring but for a dropped interception. Most folks don’t remember that right before David Tyree’s miracle catch, which preceded the winning TD by a few plays, Eli Manning threw a sideline pass that should have been intercepted. CB catches the ball and Brady and the Pats win.
* Peyton Manning makes it to another Super Bowl–maybe he wins, maybe he loses, but he’s in the game–but for first, a crummy coaching decision, and second, a safety (Rahim Moore) who fails “Safety Play 101” and allows a WR to get behind him and catch the game-tying TD.
* Last year, Russell Wilson doesn’t get into the Super Bowl (Aaron Rodgers does instead) if a backup TE successfully recovers an onside kick.
* Last year as well, Tom Brady likely doesn’t win the Super Bowl if the Seattle offensive coordinator doesn’t call perhaps the dumbest play in Super Bowl history.
This is just a sampling, but the point of each of these examples is that the outcomes of these games hinged on events that took place while the QBs in question were standing on the sidelines, having exactly nothing to do with these critical plays. It’s the ULTIMATE TEAM GAME, people; we aren’t talking about golf or tennis, here. And that’s why it is sheer folly to count championships in order to determine greatness (or “wins”, for crying out loud; when I posted about this online several years ago, one John Elway supporter rehearsed the number of wins Elway had and then said, “case closed”). Riiiiiight.
Now back to the subject at hand.
Rather than attempting to determine, on the basis of raw points alone, who is the best QB of all-time, it makes more sense to me to speak in terms of tiers of quarterbacks. The only QBs, for instance, who should be considered for the possible title of “the best of all time” are quarterbacks in the first tier. Of which there are exactly two:
Tier One: Peyton Manning and Joe Montana
If there were one other quarterback I’d be tempted to elevate to this level, it would be Otto Graham. I will say this and leave it: if you don’t know of the incredible record of Otto Graham–and/or if you are surprised he is this high on the list–read my words below. Suffice it to say that Otto had what was almost undeniably the greatest 10-year run in history.
Now to the two contenders.
If you don’t like the long-time quarterback rating system used by the NFL–where a perfect score totaled 158.3–then join the crowd. But I use it because it measures the right things (albeit in a clunky, incomprehensible way). In an attempt to improve on that old system in a more easily-understandable, 100-pt. based way, the Total QBR was developed in 2006. While recognizing its limitations (i.e., not being available to rank quarterbacks prior to 2006), there is one undeniably amazing statistic that leaps off the page. In the ten seasons in which Total QBR has been used, of the top ten quarterback seasons, Peyton Manning has FIVE of them (for the record, no other QB has more than ONE, and those five other QBs are Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, and this season’s winner, Carson Palmer; ironically, Cam Newton is almost certain to win MVP honors, and he finished 9th in Total QBR this season behind, among others, Tyrod Taylor). That five of Manning’s ten seasons since the Total QBR has been used rank in the top ten seasons is very, very telling (more, three more of his ten seasons fall in the top 30, and his other two seasons were his 2011 season lost to injury and this forgettable campaign). Tom Brady has two more seasons that fall in the top 30 (total of three), by the way, while Drew Brees has four (total of five). Simply put, it is really impossible to argue that, as the position is played, Tom Brady (or anyone else, really) is the equal of Peyton Manning. You can only argue for Brady’s superiority if you choose to put an unwarranted and inordinate emphasis upon championships won.
Which brings us to Joe Montana. Montana didn’t have the sheer numbers of Manning; he didn’t dominate the game in the manner of Peyton Manning, but he did win those four impressive championships, and the combination of the two raises Montana to this tier. He is really the only guy legitimately in the argument with Peyton Manning, at least for right now.
Tier Two: Sammy Baugh, Tom Brady, Otto Graham, Len Dawson, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Sid Luckman, Fran Tarkenton
Subjectively, I’d put Otto Graham at the top of this list and Fran Tarkenton at the bottom (he never “won the big one”), and I have no idea how good Baugh and Luckman really were, of course. I have no reservation, though, saying that Bart Starr–and not Brett Favre–was the greatest Packer QB of all time. Len Dawson might be one of the most underrated quarterbacks to ever play the game. Sentimentally, I’d rank Johnny U right under Graham, and that might be accurate, but you can really throw a net over these guys. Of course, if Brady can sustain his level of play for a couple more years, he will move to Tier One.
A brief discourse on the greatness of Otto Graham
To put Otto Graham’s greatness into context, consider the much-maligned QB passer rating system. The system, as I say, measures the right things in an extremely clunky way, but looking at the all-time list illustrates just how much the game of football has evolved into a passer’s game (not to my personal taste, I might add). Eight of the top ten all-time passers, and thirteen of the top twenty, are currently active. Ranking above Graham in the passer ratings are luminaries such as Chad Pennington, Matt Schaub, Daunte Culpepper, and Jeff Garcia. See why we have to rate QBs against their contemporaries? But even in this system weighted so severely against old-time players, Otto Graham ranks twentieth. That fact may not seem like much, but if you understand the context, you will have to concede that it is one of the most astonishing statistics in all of sports–because Otto Graham played in the late 40’s and early-mid 50s. Brett Favre, by contrast, ranks 22nd, even though he played his entire career in the “passing era”. To name a few others, Bart Starr is 59th, Fran Tarkenton 61st, John Elway 67th, and Johnny Unitas 78th. Newly-minted Hall-of-Famer Ken Stabler is tied for 100th with another notable lefty, Scott Mitchell, and lifetime backup Steve Bono. Terry Bradshaw is tied for 138th, just behind Derek Anderson and Rex Grossman (yes, you read that correctly). Joe Namath, possibly the most-overrated player in the history of professional sports, is tied for 163rd. To put Graham’s accomplishments in perspective consider the next-rated contemporary of Graham, the great Norm Van Brocklin (meant sincerely, by the way, see “Tier Four”). Otto Graham ranks 20th; Norm Van Brocklin ranks 103rd (tied with the immortal Tim Couch, by the way). Despite my title above, if I were being completely honest, I’d probably rank Otto Graham at the top, with the only caveat being his relatively short career.
OK, back to the action.
Tier Three: Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Brett Favre, Ken Anderson, Drew Brees, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, Steve Young
If Len Dawson is underrated, then Ken Anderson is doubly-so. No one mentions his name with these other greats, but on the basis of his body of work, he belongs, as does Ben Roethlisberger, who isn’t generally regarded as being in this company, but he has won two Super Bowls, lost another, and consistently been one of the best QBs in the game. Frankly, with more time left on his clock before he calls it a career, Big Ben has a real strong chance to finish his career in the company of the above group–and he even has an outside chance to become first-tier (but of course the latter proposition assumes incredible success in the next several years).
Tier Four: Kurt Warner, John Elway, Y.A. Tittle, Aaron Rodgers, Dan Fouts, Charlie Conerly, Norm Van Brocklin, Terry Bradshaw
All of these QBs either are or will likely be Hall-of-Famers (Kurt Warner should be elected), but after Tier Three–consisting of QBs who all played in my lifetime–we are back to a fairly eclectic mix. One surprise here might be how low John Elway falls, and given the fact that he’s one of my favorites, I hate that, but the numbers don’t lie, and much like Brett Favre above, the gunslinger way he played the position didn’t always translate to success. Favre had a penchant for throwing the stupid interception; Elway wasn’t nearly as accurate a passer as, say, Kenny Anderson.
*Or Joe Montana, or maybe Otto Graham.
**I 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, qualifying 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. I adjusted this formula a little bit for Otto Graham and a few others who played professionally in “sub-NFL” leagues–and Graham still comes very close, after a relatively short career, to compiling the most points. Astonishingly good quarterback, of whom few people even think.