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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.

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.

Young labored in a city grown accustomed to winning in January—primarily due to Montana—but he finally got past the Dallas Cowboys in the National Football Conference Championship game and, in 1995, led his team to a 49-26 drubbing of San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX.

 

#2 Otto Graham: 7.27

It is highly unlikely that any quarterback will even come close to Otto Graham's record of appearing in 10 championship games in 10 years. From 1946 through 1955—four years in the All-America Football Conference and then six more in the NFL—Graham brought the world championship home to Cleveland seven times.

What places Otto Graham so high on this list was his 8.98 yards per attempt—more than a full yard ahead of anyone else. What keeps him from the number one spot is a high interception percentage (5.14) and a low number of total yards (23,584).

"Otto Graham was the key to the whole team," Browns head coach Paul Brown once said. "He had the finest peripheral vision I've ever witnessed. He had the ability to find whatever receiver was going to come open, and the arm and athletic ability to get the ball to him."

Graham was an outstanding tailback for Northwestern and then the Chapel Hill, North Carolina Pre-Flight team [a college squad] in the early 1940s. Before players were heavily recruited, Graham was "discovered" playing intramural football as a freshman. While he posted three fine varsity seasons, he had no experience in the
T-formation that Brown employed. But when Brown began planning his new AAFC team in 1946, he thought Graham would be perfectly suited for the T-formation.

Al Wistert, now 82, was an offensive tackle on the Philadelphia Eagles 1950 championship team that lost to Graham's Browns in their NFL debut. He thought Graham was tough for two reasons. "He was a great athlete, and Cleveland had a great offensive line, which allowed him to hold on to the ball longer and allowed his receivers to run longer routes." Wistert thought that Graham and Sammy Baugh were the two quarterback titans of his era.

With Graham, the Browns won four consecutive AAFC titles and compiled a sizzling 52-4-3 mark (including the post-season). The "experts" thought the Browns would get their comeuppance when they joined the NFL in 1950 and faced the big boys. But Graham threw four touchdown passes and led Cleveland to a 30-28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950 NFL title game.

Nearly a half century later, no one has matched his rate of success. "The quarterback's biggest job is helping his team win," said Peter King, senior football writer for Sports Illustrated. "That is why Otto Graham is the greatest quarterback of all time."

 

#3 Joe Montana: 7.08

Bill Walsh once said of Joe Montana, "When the game is on the line, and you need someone to go in there and win it right now, I would rather have Joe Montana as my quarterback than anyone who ever played the game."

In 23 post-season games, he won 16, including four Super Bowls without a loss. In Super Bowls alone, Montana connected on 83 of 122 passes for 1,142 yards—an astounding 9.36 yards per attempt—with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. His superb play in the post-season earned him the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award a record three times.

Montana is one of eight quarterbacks to reach 40,000 yards, finishing at 40,551. He threw interceptions on just 2.58 percent of his passes and passed for 7.52 yards per attempt for his career—ahead of greats like Dan Marino and John Elway. It is often noted that he had astoundingly good mates on his side of the ball, like Jerry Rice and Roger Craig, but what helped his yards per attempt even more than Rice's catch-and-run ability was his uncanny knack for putting the ball in the receiver's hands.

 

#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.

 

#10 Roger Staubach: 6.637

If Starr was the most frequent winner in the 1960s, Roger Staubach (and Terry Bradshaw) picked up that title in the 1970s. Staubach was a Heisman Trophy winner as a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963, but then spent a mandatory four years on active duty, including service in Vietnam, before returning to football.

Already 29 when he took over as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in 1971, Staubach finished his career in 1979 with a 95-35 record. The run included competing in six NFL championship games and winning Super Bowls VI and XII.

Like Starr, Staubach didn't reach 30,000 yards. Still, his 7.67 YPA ranks high. In addition, his ability to bring the Cowboys back from near certain defeats earned him the nickname Captain Comeback. None of those rallies was more famous than the one capped by his "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson with seconds remaining that beat Minnesota in the 1975 playoffs. A teammate, safety Charlie Waters, said that he always believed that "Roger was going to win every time."

 

Kenneth Shouler, from Harrison, New York, is managing editor of the forthcoming Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia. Steven Shouler provided database research for this article.

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