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The Arms Race

The NFL has seen its share of great passers, but who's the best? We crunch the numbers for the top 10 of all time
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

Take a glance at the all-time quarterback rankings in the National Football League record book and you might walk away cursing. At the least, you'll be flabbergasted at the number of legendary quarterbacks who are absent from the all-time Top 20 list. Not only are Johnny Unitas and Dan Fouts missing, try finding Otto Graham, John Elway and Bart Starr.

So who do we find there ahead of these legends? If you insist, I'll tell you, but I hope you haven't just finished a meal. Kurt Warner is first, Jeff Garcia is fourth and Peyton Manning is seventh. Had enough? How about Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson being ranked eighth and 10th, respectively? Is someone calculating all this with a straight face?

As the league's 84th season begins, you'd think the powers that be—or at least the powers that calculate—would have divined a rating system that does more than shine a light on the current crop of quarterbacks, most of whom seem fashioned from the same mold. You know the type: the please-don't-intercept-me, six-yards-per-attempt, 65 percent accurate passers. No thanks. Give me Sammy Baugh slingin' or Johnny U. in high tops over these guys any day of the week and thrice on Sunday.

The problem with the "NFL Passer Rating System" is twofold. One, it uses four measures to rate passers—passing yards per attempt (YPA), percentage of completions, touchdown percentage and interception percentage—two of which are suspect. The second problem is that the system fails to give the greatest weight to yards per attempt. So, what can be done to better reflect a quarterback's achievements?

First things first. Touchdown percentage should be eliminated because the percentage and interception percentage—two of which are suspect. The second problem is that the system fails to give the greatest weight to yards per attempt. So, what can be done to better reflect a quarterback's achievements?

First things first. Touchdown percentage should be eliminated because the percentage of a quarterback's passes resulting in touchdowns can depend on factors other than superior passing ability. If 6.2 percent of Warner's career passes result in touchdowns, compared with 5.1 percent for Joe Montana, what can we deduce from this? Very little. It might be that, on average, Warner started with slightly better field position so that a greater percentage of his passes resulted in touchdowns. Or, San Francisco might have possessed a superior short-yardage running game, so that Montana handed off at the goal line instead of passing for the score. Either way, touchdown percentage, which the NFL rates as heavily as YPA and interception percentage, isn't necessarily to the passer's credit. So let's borrow Occam's razor and cut if off.

Completion percentage is also unessential. Once you're rating YPA, which naturally goes up or down depending on the percentage of passes completed, it's redundant to rate completion percentage. For example, once I know that Steve Young's YPA is 7.98, there's no earthly use knowing that he completed 64.3 percent of his passes. This is because YPA subsumes his completion percentage. In other words, to count YPA and then completion percentage is like counting the latter twice. Hand me that razor again, will you?

One point bears mentioning. We're rating passers, not quarterbacks. There is no way to give a numerical quarterback rating for field generalship or comeback ability, knowing when to audible, or avoiding the rush. And, if we are going to rate passers, we must use the right numbers. These are YPA, total yards and interception percentage.

The paramount number for passers is YPA. After all, the idea is to eat up yardage, preferably in large chunks, and not to dump off passes that net 5.3 yards each. A load of passers can do as much. It's a high-percentage, low-yield completion. However, the difference between the common six-yard-per-attempt quarterback and the extraordinary nine-yard guy is like the difference between the Punch-and-Judy hitter who hits singles and slugs .400 and the guy who hits home runs and slugs .600. Just as batting average is better known but overrated in baseball, so too is completion percentage in football.

Players also ought to be rewarded for having passed for more yards, especially since this means they've been effective over a longer time. Dan Marino passed for 61,361 yards. If he passes for 7.34 yards per attempt, he gets more credit than a quarterback does with the same YPA for 20,000 yards. This deflates the argument that Warner, who has played just 51 games in his five-year career, netting 14,082 yards, is the number oneñrated quarterback of all time, ahead of people who have been effective for 15 years with three and four times as many yards.


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