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The Story Behind QB Ratings

The NFL’s Passer Rating System Is Baffling. We Have An Alternative.
By Ken Shouler | From Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012
The Story Behind QB Ratings
Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis Images
Legendary field general Joe Montana fails to crack the top five in the NFL’s confusing, controversial QB passer rating system, which rewards unproven passers of today more than the stars of yesteryear

There is ordinary nonsense, nonsense on stilts and then the ultimate howler: the NFL passer rating system. If you want your biggest belly laugh of this millennium, take a look at how the NFL ranks the all-time greatest quarterbacks. There you will find Aaron Rodgers rated as the greatest passer of all-time.

No misprint. Inexplicably, after just four full seasons as a play caller, Rodgers sits first, perched atop the all-time pecking order, No. 1 in the 92-year history of the league. In fact, Rodgers had already occupied first place after his third full season, following his brilliant 2010 campaign. Keeping him company in the top five are—no joking—Tony Romo (second all-time), Tom Brady (fourth) and Philip Rivers (fifth). The only field general from yesteryear landing in the top five is Steve Young, who ranks third. I bet you didn't know that four active passers are among the greatest five ever.

It gets better.

By now you must have noticed that Joe Montana and Dan Marino are missing from the list. Marino doesn't even land in the top 10. If you snapped one of those kindergarten class photographs of the NFL's greatest passers, as ranked by the league, Marino would be the guy hard to spot. Yeah, that's him, you see that tiny speck in the fourth row, back in 17th place, behind—who's that?—oh, super-luminaries such as Carlson Palmer and Jeff Garcia.

Do you know who else ranks ahead of Marino? Such iconic titans of the airways as Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington and Matt Schaub. Now if I had been assigned public relations duties for the league, I could scarcely do better than pick a statistic that showcases 10 active players in the top 15. But if I wanted a respectable list—based primarily on passing metrics such as total yards and yards per attempt—I would rearrange the pecking order of the pantheon, for the quarterbacks mentioned are no embarrassment, but the system that rates them is.

Three things make this system so inadequate. First, the NFL passer rating system is based on four metrics—yards per attempt, percentage of completions, interception percentage, and touchdown percentage. The last category is useless, since whether a quarterback throws the ball over the goal line or runs it is largely a function of his personnel. If you had a Jimmie Brown or Emmitt Smith in your backfield, it would be prudent to hand the ball off near the goal line. So 5.7 percent of Tony Romo's passes result in touchdowns, compared to 5.1 percent of Montana's tosses. What can be deduced from this? That Montana's 49ers had a more reliable short-yardage game to punch it across the goal line? That Romo began, on average, with better field position than Montana, so that a higher percentage of his tosses were touchdowns? The NFL rating system not only gives touchdown percentage weight, but weighs it equally with the other three statistics. But touchdown percentage reflects no merit on the passer.

A second problem is the percentage of completion statistic. One reason why many contemporary quarterbacks surpass the all-time greats on the NFL rating is that they are rewarded for dink-and-dunk completions. "Anyone can throw short to the side," Terry Bradshaw once said. "I wanted to go deep." But Chad Pennington, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, and Drew Brees are high on the list for being deadly accurate on short patterns. Also, once you have yards per attempt, percentage of completions is redundant. So once you know that Marino had 7.3 yards per attempt, it isn't necessary to use his 59 percent completion rate against him, since the second number is included in the first. Including both counts completion percentage twice.

Finally, the NFL system does not reward longevity. "To get on the list you need only 1,500 [passing] attempts," says Santo Labombarda of the Elias Sports Bureau. Who agreed to this? Current passers can reach 1,500 attempts in three years. So Rodgers tossed 1,552 passes in the three seasons from 2008 to 2010. A quarter of a century ago Marino's exploits were crazier: the Miami quarterback fired 1,754 aerials in his first three full seasons (1984-1986). Detroit's Matt Stafford attempted 663 passes last year. He needs less than 400 attempts this year to reach 1,500 and become eligible for the NFL's All-Time list—at 23 years old! The rating system fails to distinguish between long-term and short-term greatness. Making Stafford eligible in a class with Montana and Young is like comparing a novelist with a three-year run of success with William Shakespeare.

I argue that a better rating system would require a minimum of 3,500 attempts, which would take most quarterbacks between eight and 10 years to reach. In addition, quarterbacks should have a minimum of 20,000 yards to be eligible.

Rating three- and four-year pros above all-time greats is statistically indefensible. I recall baseball fans seeing Ken Griffey Jr.'s first decade and comparing him to Willie Mays, who played 22 years. Time showed how fatuous a comparison that was. Excellence must stand the test of time. We cannot tell from a player's first few years if he will stay great, or fade into mediocrity. Griffey Jr. didn't have a great season after his 30th birthday, proving the assessment of him as an all-time great in Mays' class was premature.

It's no different for the likes of Rodgers, Rivers and Romo. We'll have to wait and see if they can match the accomplishments of Montana, Marino and Otto Graham. The best way to arrive at a top 10 would include giving different weights to three factors: total yards, yards per attempt and interception percentage. Employing these numbers, we end up with a quite different top 10.

1. Joe Montana

Joe Montana was underestimated right from the start. You would think that his senior year comeback against Houston in the Cotton Bowl, when Notre Dame was down 22 points midway through the fourth quarter, was proof positive of his grace under pressure. But NFL scouts were unconvinced. In the 1979 draft, San Francisco waited until the fourth round to select him. Quarterbacks Jack Thompson, Phil Simms and Steve Fuller were all picked ahead of him.

In his third season he faded away, threw off his back foot and connected on a lob pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the endzone, beating Dallas 28-27 in the NFC title game. Two weeks later the 49ers beat Cincinnati for the first of his four Super Bowls.

In short order Montana became a model of consistency. He dominated the 1980s by leading the circuit in completion percentage five times. All told, he surpassed 3,000 yards passing eight times.

Montana's regular season numbers were exceptional, but in some respects no better than those of Dan Marino or Steve Young. What sets him apart is his combination of consistent regular season excellence plus a spellbinding body of work in the playoffs. In the regular season he was accurate enough to hit 63 percent of his passes. Between San Francisco and Kansas City, his won-lost record was 117 and 47. Throw in 17 wins and seven losses for the postseason. In four Super Bowls—all of which San Francisco won—Montana won the MVP three times. In the four games he connected on 83 of 122 passes (68 percent) and posted 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. That gives you the full measure of the man.

"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," said Bill Walsh, Montana's mentor and coach.

2. Dan Marino

It is a testament to our short attention span that we have forgotten how exquisitely good Dan Marino was. A member of the quarterback draft of 1983 that included John Elway and Jim Kelly, Marino was picked 27th overall, behind also-ran signal callers such as Todd Blackledge (Kansas City), Tony Eason (New England) and Ken O'Brien (Jets). Marino exhibited no learning curve, busting out of the gate as few in the history of the game have. He blitzed the league, leading in yards and touchdowns each of his first three full seasons. His high-water mark came in his second season, when he passed for 5,084 yards and hurled 48 touchdowns. He ended up throwing for 4,000 yards six times, and when he retired he owned the all-time records for 300-yard games (63) and 400-yard games (13).

After Marino broke Fran Tarkenton's record of 47,003 yards in 1995, Miami's PR man Harvey Green handed him the play sheet from the game. But Marino refused the paper honor, because Miami had lost the game. Despite shattering most every passing record in his path, Marino said, "I never played the game for numbers. I played the game to win."

And win he did. Miami won 147 and lost 93 in games that he started. Observers think it's clever to point out his absence of "rings," as if that faux insight captures the man's character or his bearing under pressure. It doesn't. Miami not winning a title is no indictment of Marino's career. He won eight and lost 10 in the playoffs. But Marino's Dolphins never went into battle with a balanced attack. Yes, he had the Marks Brothers—Duper and Clayton—to haul in his air-splitting aerials. But, miraculously, it wasn't until his fourteenth year that he had a 1,000-yard rusher to work with. Remember Andra Franklin? Neither do I. He was Marino's leading rusher in 1984, his best season. Franklin averaged a meager 3.3 yards per carry and finished with an unspectacular 746 yards. From there it was Sammie Smith and Mark Higgs, Bernie Parmalee and Karim Abdul-Jabbar. The latter pretentiously named individual rushed for 1,116 yards in 1996. Miami
always paid lip service to featuring the running game, but in the moments that counted, the ball was usually in Marino's hands.

Though Favre broke most of Marino's passing totals, Favre was not his equivalent in yards per attempt or league leading totals. He just played longer. "I was fortunate enough to coach Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino," said coach Don Shula. "And I thought Dan was the best of them."

3. Steve Young

Steve Young cooled his heels forever, playing for the Los Angeles Express of the USFL, then the abysmal Tampa Bay Bucs, before waiting behind legend Joe Montana to get his shot with San Francisco. The direct descendant of Brigham Young didn't get a chance at starting full time until his seventh NFL season in 1991, at the age of 30. In eight seasons as a full-time QB he led the league in yards per attempt five times and connected on 64.3 percent of his passes. 

Young was also a great running quarterback, scampering for an additional 4,000 yards, not to mention 43 touchdowns and a 5.9 yards rushing average. When he finally made it to his own Super Bowl in Miami against San Diego in 1995, after playing in three straight NFL championship games, he threw for a record six touchdowns in the process, obliterating the San Diego defense to the tune of 49 to 26.

Despite not playing full-time until his seventh full season, Young amassed an impressive 33,124 yards. The lefty also averaged a beefy eight yards per attempt, more than Montana, Marino and Unitas.

4. Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning has thrown for more than 4,000 yards 11 times, more than any quarterback in history. In fact, unlike Favre, 

Elway and Unitas, Manning has no weakness in his statistical line. No one can tell him about winning, since the Colts were 131-61 when he started (I'm sure you noticed that they were 2-14 without him in 2011). His 54,828 yards establishes his excellence over time. He owns a career completion percentage of 65, and a stellar 7.6 yards per passing attempt. His touchdowns (399) are more than double his interceptions (198).

But then there are the omnipresent complaints about his postseason performance. This is the lightning rod issue that everyone with a microphone—and every ham-and-egger who hears them—weigh in on. Many broadcasters and scribes reduce Manning to a mere "compiler" of statistics during the regular season and a choke artist in the postseason. Even when they don't use the word "choker" to describe him, it is implied. But let's see how much of Manning's game dissipates come postseason time.

Compare his postseason line with Tom Brady's, who is celebrated as one of the best big-game quarterbacks ever. Consider: Manning has passed for 5,398 yards (284 per game, 52 more than Brady), 7.51 yards per attempt (to Brady's 6.46), a 63.1 completion percentage (to Brady's 62.2), and 29 touchdowns against 19 interceptions, which is less impressive than Brady's 38 and 20. Because Manning's record is nine wins and 10 losses in his 19 career games, there is an erroneous perception about Brady delivering and Manning faltering in the big games. But the case of his detractors is weakened since the numbers show otherwise. His teams faltered, but he didn't.

The 2010 postseason tilt against the Jets was a case in point. Manning completed 18 of 26 passes (69 percent), threw for 225 yards and 8.65 yards per attempt. On his last possession he drove his team for a field goal to put the Colts ahead 16-14 with under two minutes left. He thoroughly outplayed his counterpart Mark Sanchez (18-31, 58 percent, 6.1 yards per attempt), but the Colts defense couldn't hold. The Jets kicked a field goal to win 17-16. Some observers made that Manning's fault, too.

5. Otto Graham

Otto Graham should never be omitted from the list of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. Never again will we see someone reaching 10 championship games in 10 years, which is what Graham accomplished between 1946 and 1955, spread out across four years in the All-America Football Conference and then six more in the NFL.

In 1946 he played a year of professional basketball, teaming with Al Cervi and Bob Davies to help the Rochester Royals to a National Basketball League championship. At the same time, the All-America Football Conference was beginning a new league to challenge the establishment NFL. Cleveland coach Paul Brown lured Graham to the gridiron with a two-year contract for $7,500 per season.

How dominant was Graham? During the four years that the Browns played AAFC football, they went 47-4-3 and won the title each year. "We were a passing team in the era of the run," Graham explained. "But we could dominate with the run, too. In the morning, at practice, we'd work on the run. In the afternoon, we'd work on the pass. My talents? I could throw hard if I had to, I could lay it up soft, I could drill the sideline pass. I had the luxury of having the same receivers almost all my career. We developed the timed sideline pass, the comeback route where the receiver goes to the sideline, stops, and comes back to the ball. Everything thrown on rhythm."

If people choose to throw out his AAFC accomplishments—which makes about as much sense as discarding the accomplishments of Joe Namath and Len Dawson in the AFL—then start with his NFL accomplishments in 1950. NFL commissioner Bert Bell put the ultimate hurdle before Cleveland, pitting them in their first game in the new league against the 1949 champion Philadelphia Eagles, which had finished 11-1 and allowed just 11 points a game.

The Philadelphia press predicted doom for the Cleveland upstarts, calling their running and passing game a "high school offense." A crowd of 72,237 arrived for the expected bloodletting. But Graham threw cold water on the local's expectations, passing for three touchdowns and running for another in 35-10 rout of the Eagles. Philly coach Greasy Neale scoffed that Cleveland won because they threw so much, not because they were more physical. So in a rematch at home, coach Paul Brown insisted that the Browns run the ball. So Graham handed it off to Hall of Famer Marion Motley and the Browns beat Philly again. Three weeks later, in the NFL championship game, Graham hurled four touchdown passes—passing for 298 yards and rushing for 99 more—to lead Cleveland over the Los Angeles Rams 30-28.

In 1951, the Browns lost to the Rams in the title game, 24-17. They lost a heartbreaker in the title game against Detroit in 1953, 17-16, their second straight defeat to the Lions, but avenged those losses in a big way, trouncing Detroit 56-10 in the 1954 title game. Graham passed for three scores and ran for three more. He had announced that he would retire after the 1954 season, and Coach Brown tried unsuccessfully to talk him out of it in the locker room after the game. Three months later Brown offered Graham a raise to a league-high $25,000 a year.

On December 26, 1955 the Browns took the field in their tenth straight championship game. A record crowd of 85,693 packed the Los Angeles Coliseum. It turned out to be a remembrance, but not of the home team's performance. Cleveland won in a 38-14 rout, with Graham rushing for two touchdowns and passing for two more. With the Browns leading 31-7 at the end of the third quarter, Brown took Graham out of the game, and the throng rose to pay him tribute for the game and his singular career.

6. Tom Brady

Tom Brady's life story reads a bit like a footballer's Horatio Alger tale, only better. How can it be that Brady was picked in the sixth round—and 199th overall—in the 2000 NFL draft? From there he led his team to Super Bowl wins three times in four years. Though his postseason numbers are not in Mr. Montana's neighborhood, Brady's career is already historic.

The youngest player on this list at 35, Brady shows little sign of weakening and has miles to go before he sleeps. He should reach 50,000 yards and 400 touchdowns. His three Super Bowl victories are tops among active quarterbacks. His two Super Bowl MVPs tie him with Eli Manning among active players.

7. John Elway

Elway is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but several factors keep him from landing in the top five. His 7.1 yards per attempt ranks low among the greats, as does his 56.9 completion percentage. In addition, his touchdowns (300) to interceptions (226) ratio is poorer than most of the other greats listed here, and in 16 seasons he passed for 4,000 yards just once. In the minds of many, his career was elevated to the highest echelon by his consecutive Super Bowl wins. Sure, it silenced those ill-advised critics who said "he couldn't win the big one" in earlier Super Bowls. But the teams he played against—from the Giants in 1986, to Washington in 1987, to San Francisco in '89—were all better. That said, Elway played well against New York, but was wretched, positively wretched, against Washington and San Francisco.

The larger numbers don't lie. It must be noted that he never averaged eight yards per attempt in any of his 16 seasons. That said, Elway surely belongs in the top 10.

His versatility quotient—including arm strength, running ability, and uncanny comeback ability—place him on the short list of the best ever. All these achievements came courtesy of an outfield prospect who the Yankees signed out of Stanford in 1981. Elway hit .444 in the NCAA Central Regional tournament and might have made a good right-fielder. But no one uses "might have" been great when assessing his career in football. His 48 fourth-quarter comebacks include some of the most exciting games in football history.

8. Johnny Unitas

In 1994, Unitas was voted the greatest player in the first 75 years of the league. A Colts teammate recalled that being in a huddle with Unitas was "like being in a huddle with God." A maestro under center, Unitas engineered a classic, mix-it-up 86-yard drive during regulation time of the 1958 NFL Championship game in New York. He followed that up with another of 80 yards in overtime. A sloped-shouldered gunslinger in black high tops, Unitas was as responsible as anyone for bringing football to the national pastime status it enjoys today.

His twin drives, televised across the nation to 45 million viewers by NBC (the audience would have been larger were it not for a league-imposed blackout in New York), were classic two-minute drills before anyone knew what that meant. Unitas later stated that no one had even seen sudden-death overtime, either. "When the game ended in a tie, we were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, ‘Send the captain out. We're going to flip a coin to see who will receive.' That was the first we heard of the overtime period." After a three-and-out series by New York, Unitas drove his troops 80 yards and Baltimore won on a one-yard plunge by Alan Ameche. He then led Baltimore to another title the following year.

The top colleges passed on Unitas, but Louisville chose him. His hometown Steelers didn't select him until the ninth round of the 1955 draft and then cut him in camp. He worked on a construction crew, and played a game a week for the semipro Bloomfield Rams, earning $6 a game. The Colts then offered him a chance to attend their training camp in 1956 for the league-minimum salary. When George Shaw went down with a knee injury, Unitas had the job. He would repeatedly lead the league in yards, attempts and touchdowns in his early years. He also threw for a touchdown pass in a record 47 consecutive games.

Unitas was a three-time MVP—in 1959, 1964, and 1967—and led his team to two championships.

9. Brett Favre

Brett Favre makes the top 10, but those who rank him in the upper echelon of that top 10 are surely wrong. No doubt they will point to his total yards and touchdowns. Favre is the compiler's compiler, the king of count numbers. He owns the NFL record for yards (71,838) and touchdowns (508), but, revealingly, owns none of the percentage numbers. Take his 7.1 yards per attempt, which ties him with Elway as the lowest on this list. In his 20 seasons Favre failed to reach seven yards per attempt nine times, and he never led the league in that category. Only twice did he lead the league in yards.

Despite this, the media fall over themselves trying to see who can dish out more superlatives. Favre has been called everything from the greatest living quarterback to the greatest quarterback ever. He is neither. But he was good enough early in his career to win three consecutive MVPs with the Packers.

10. Dan Fouts

Dan Fouts is but an inch away from obscurity. Too bad. A third-round draft choice in 1973, Fouts passed nearly every test of throwing greatness with flying colors: total yards (43,040), yards per attempt (7.7), and accuracy (58.8 percent). In the strike season of 1982, when Fouts played just nine games, he set an NFL mark by averaging 320 passing yards a game. His coach Don Coryell came to San Diego in 1978. But it could be argued that Fouts was responsible for putting the Air in "Air" Coryell's offense. By the time he retired in 1987, he was the league's all-time leader in 300-yard games with 51, a mark Dan Marino later eclipsed.

Unreflective types who speak the vernacular that includes "rings" are apt to pass over players who were great most every year. These same people overlook Sonny Jurgensen, Dan Marino and Y. A. Tittle, as if one person can engineer victory week after week and then a championship at season's end. Fouts, like Jurgensen a generation before him, was always up against it, attempting to score enough to overcome the tissue paper defense that San Diego fielded.

His first game for the Chargers, relieving the great Johnny Unitas at halftime of game five in 1973, would be a mere dress rehearsal for the consistent magnificence that followed. By 1993 he had followed Unitas into the Hall of Fame. That's quite a bit better than where the NFL passer rating system would consign him to—51st place.

There are greats not ranked here, including Sonny Jurgensen and Sammy Baugh, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Namath. Lists of this sort evolve and are never complete. But any sound list must be based on achievements over time. That is the primary shortcoming of the NFL passer ranking. Relative newcomers—even positively brilliant newcomers such as Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees—will need to stand the test of time before they are elevated to the top ranks of the NFL's all-time quarterbacks.

Kenneth Shouler is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.