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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

(continued from page 1)

 

#4 Dan Marino: 7.05

Few things in life are quite as aggravating as a broadcaster ranting about "how many rings" a player has, and since Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl during his tenure with the Miami Dolphins, the talk always surfaces when his name is mentioned.

Forget it. Marino didn't win because Miami was usually shortchanged on running backs and just as frequently deficient on defense. Just consider the 18 post-season games he played. Miami won eight and lost 10, and in those 10 losses, the defense allowed 345 points for an average of 34.5 per game. That kind of "defense" spells an early exit in the playoffs.

In this ranking, Marino is rewarded for three virtues: effective longevity—an astounding 61,361 yards; 7.34 yards per attempt; and a low interception rate of 2.58.

In 1984, just his second year in the league, he set single-
season marks for completions (362), yards (5,084) and touchdown passes (48). Then there are the all-time markers. Marino ranked first all-time in passes (8,352), completions (4,967), yards and touchdowns (420).

With numbers like these, there's little question that Marino is—and will remain for a long time to come—the most prolific passer in NFL history.

 

#5 Dan Fouts: 6.78

Dan Fouts is another passer missing from the NFL Top 20. How can this be? He passed for more than 43,000 yards at a rate of 7.68 per attempt. Still, the NFL ranking puts him behind quarterbacks with less than half that many yards and nowhere near the same yards per attempt.

For his aerial splendor, Fouts gives credit to his coach Don "Air" Coryell. "It was the system," Fouts concluded. "If you check back through Don Coryell's history as a coach, you'll find he had success throwing the ball wherever he went. From the head man down to the water boys, everybody knew we were going to throw the ball and be successful doing it."

Among other things, the system relied on spot passes and exploiting mismatches. Coryell relied on his quarterback to deliver the ball not to where the receiver was, but to where the receiver would likely finish his route. The defensive line couldn't harass the quarterback since the ball was in the air so quickly. Neither linebackers nor defensive backs had time to react. It was a "ball-control" game—airborne style.

Sure it helped that Fouts had wide receivers like Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler and Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. But Fouts was stellar, leading the league in yards in four consecutive years, 1979ñ82, and racking up more than 4,000 yards in three of those years. He made the Hall of Fame in 1993, his first year of eligibility.

 

#6 Johnny Unitas: 6.70

Johnny Unitas holds a permanent place in football lore for a mother lode of reasons. The Horatio Alger thread in his life is one of football's best tales. The ninth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, he was cut and played semipro for a year. In 1956, the Colts signed him as a free agent and he got his chance when regular quarterback George Shaw was injured in the fourth game.

Just two years later, Unitas directed the Colts to victory in the ultimate mix-it-up drive in sudden death in the 1958 championship game against the Giants at Yankee Stadium. That drive, and that game, is considered by some to be the best ever and catapulted the NFL to hitherto unseen success.

Unitas followed his masterful drive with a repeat title performance at Baltimore the following year, dunking New York, 31-16. He also played in title games in 1964, 1969 and 1971.

He threw touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games (an NFL record) and had an impressive 7.76 YPA. For many, this was a result of Johnny U's singular gift: an uncanny ability to read defenses. "The game was a science to Unitas," said Bill Walsh. "He was so detailed, so disciplined, and he could unload the ball quicker and more accurately than anyone who every played."

 

#7 John Elway: 6.68

Did any defense want any part of John Elway with three minutes to play and 80 yards to go? Probably not. Equipped with a rifle arm, Elway may have been the most athletic quarterback of his generation, save for Steve Young.

Elway's route to NFL success was circuitous. He attended Stanford University because "it was the only school that encouraged me to play baseball." Playing in the outfield for a New York Yankees farm team in Oneonta, New York, in 1982, he earned $140,000 for 42 games. As inconsequential as that sounds, baseball gave him bargaining power in football. The Colts picked him first overall in the 1983 draft, but he threatened to play full-time for the Yankees if he wasn't traded to a western team. Thus, Baltimore traded its rights to Elway to Denver.

His first defining moment came in 1986 in what is known as "The Drive." In the American Football Conference championship game, Denver was trailing Cleveland, 20-13, with 5:32 remaining and the ball on its own two-yard line. With a mix of runs and passes—culminating in a five-yard bullet to Mark Jackson—Elway tied the game. A field goal in overtime clinched it.

Elway led the Broncos to the Super Bowl three times from 1987 to 1990. In those games, against the Giants, Washington, and San Francisco, Denver lost all three by a combined score of 136-40—an average score of 45-13. As if nursing his wounds, Elway didn't return to the Super Bowl for another eight years. Denver upset Green Bay in 1998 and defended its title with a victory over Atlanta in 1999.

 

#8 Warren Moon: 6.66

If you add Warren Moon's Canadian Football League (CFL) yards (21,228) to his NFL total (49,325), his combined professional yardage is 70,553—some 9,000 more than Dan Marino and 19,000 ahead of anyone else.

Moon left the CFL because winning was getting boring. He led the Edmonton Eskimos to five championships in six years. Moon then played with four NFL teams, none of which was terribly good. Thus, he was better known for individual feats than team accomplishments. He passed for 527 yards in one game in 1990. Seven times he passed for more than 400 yards.

In 17 NFL seasons (1984ñ2000) he played in only 10 playoff games. In four of those, he surpassed 300 yards passing, but lost all four. Against Buffalo in 1992, he completed 36 passes—a playoff record—but his Houston Oilers lost in overtime, 41-38.

His ranking here is bumped up because he threw for 7.3 yards per attempt with a 3.41 interception percentage.

 

#9 Bart Starr: 6.643

There's an impression that all Bart Starr had to do for the Packers was to hand the ball off to a back and watch him run the sweep. Not once did he have to throw 300 passes in a year. However, when he did throw, he averaged 7.85 yards per attempt, third behind Graham and Young on this list.

He started as a 17th-round draft choice in 1956 and was hardly playing three years later. But when Vince Lombardi took over as head coach in 1959, he decided to build the team around Starr. Over an eight-year period, from 1960 through 1967, Green Bay won 82, lost 24 and tied four. The Packers won five NFL championships in seven years and Starr was awarded the MVP in the first two Super Bowls.


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