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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)

Finally, quarterbacks who have high interception percentages, such as Unitas and Graham, must pay a statistical price for it, and players who are rarely picked off during their careers are rewarded.

Let's get specific. Compare Marino (fourth on my list) to Brett Favre (15th). Marino's YPA was 7.34; Favre's, 7.05. For total yards, we use a graded scale. Since Marino is the only passer to surpass 60,000 yards in the NFL, we give him a 1 rating for total yards. If a passer finishes between 50,000 and 59,999 yards, we multiply his YPA by .98; between 40,000 and 49,999, we multiply by .96; between 30,000 to 39,999, we multiply by .94, and so on, with the yard rating coming down as his total yards decrease. Since Favre finished with 42,285, we multiply his 7.05 by .96.

To factor in interceptions, a quarterback such as Mark Brunell, with an interception percentage between 2.00 and 2.49, receives a 1 rating. A passer between 2.50 and 2.99 receives a .98 rating; between 3.00 and 3.49—like Marino and Favre—a .96 rating, and so on. Using all three numbers for Favre, we multiply 7.05 x .96 x .96 for an overall rating of 6.497 or 6.50. For Marino, we multiply 7.34 x 1 x .96 to get 7.046 or 7.05.

It goes without saying that some great quarterbacks don't make the Top 10, usually because of a poor rating in one of the three measures. Buffalo's Jim Kelly finished 11th all-time, mostly because of a 3.66 interception percentage. Sonny Jurgensen, (13th, with a 4.4 interception percentage) and Troy Aikman (19th, with just 6.98 yards per attempt) are two others. Greats, like Sammy Baugh, who led the league in passing six times, also deserve a mention in the all-time accounting.

Here is the all-time Top 10.


#1 Steve Young: 7.35

Waiting for a chance was a constant in the career of Steve Young. Acquired by the San Francisco 49ers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987, he watched from the sidelines as Joe Montana orchestrated one of the greatest offenses ever to march down a field.

Years before, he was an All-American at Brigham Young University, rising from eighth-string quarterback to runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1983. Upon graduating, he bypassed the NFL, spending a season with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League before joining the Buccaneers in 1985. During his two years in Tampa, Young, playing behind an offensive line that protected him about as well as an open vault protects cash, was sacked 68 times in 19 games.

By the time 49ers coach Bill Walsh traded for him, Young was 26 years old, and after Montana won Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV, he was 28. It wasn't until 1992, at the age of 31, that Young got his first full-time chance. He won the MVP that year and again two
seasons later.

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