Greatest NFL Quarterbacks: All-Underrated List

Earlier this month, Football Perspective hosted a Greatest QB of All-Time crowd-sourcing project, coordinated by Adam Steele. Readers named their top 25 quarterbacks, in order, and Adam tallied the votes to produce a list of the best QBs in history. There's some really interesting work at Football Perspective — you should check it out, especially if your interests lean toward stats — and its readers tend to be knowledgeable about football history, so the results of the crowd-sourcing made more sense than most such lists. There were a few people who got confused, and thought including Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana among a list full of guys from the last 20 years made it an all-time list, but by and large, the results of the exercise reflect a solid knowledge of the league.

However, there were several truly great quarterbacks who did not receive their due recognition among the voters. I want to highlight five of those players — four Hall of Famers and one not yet eligible — but all underrated by modern fans.

Norm Van Brocklin
Los Angeles Rams, 1949-57, Philadelphia Eagles, 1958-60
Crowd-sourced rank: 25

As time goes on, we simplify the past. The only quarterbacks of the pre-Super Bowl Era who get mentioned regularly on television are John Unitas and Bart Starr (both of whom actually played in multiple Super Bowls), and maybe Otto Graham or Sammy Baugh. Even more recent players, like Warren Moon and Jim Kelly, are dimly understood among many younger fans. Norm Van Brocklin was probably the best quarterback of the 1950s, given that Graham and Unitas only played half the decade apiece. But Graham and Unitas are the representatives of that era, and if you ever hear Van Brocklin's name on a telecast, it's probably in reference to his 63-year-old single-game record for passing yards (554), by far the oldest passing record in any category you'd actually want.

Van Brocklin was one of the great deep passers of all time. He led the NFL in yards per attempt four times, and he passed for the most yardage of the 1950s. He was also masterful at avoiding sacks. Although precise sack data for those years does not exist, sack yardage does, and it appears that Van Brocklin took sacks at less than half the rate of his contemporaries, by far the best of his era. Van Brocklin wasn't a scrambler, but like Dan Marino or Peyton Manning, he was exceptional at getting rid of the ball before pressure arrived.

It's a shame we don't talk much about Van Brocklin any more, because he distinguished himself in our favorite setting — championship games. The 1951 NFL Championship Game was tied, 17-17, in the fourth quarter, when Van Brocklin threw a 73-yard, game-winning touchdown pass. Nine years later, he led the Eagles to an NFL Championship, the only team ever to defeat Vince Lombardi's Packers in a championship game. Norm Van Brocklin (Rams and Eagles) and Tobin Rote (Lions and Chargers) are the only quarterbacks to win championships with two different teams.

Compare his style to: young Peyton Manning
Compare his career to: Warren Moon

For each of the quarterbacks in this article, I'll compare him to two more recent players: one with a similar playing style, and one with a similar career shape. Today's passing environment is so different from the 1950s, it's hard to compare anyone to Van Brocklin, but early-career Peyton Manning is a pretty good proxy: slow-footed but quick-witted, fast release and great at avoiding sacks, superb deep ball. Van Brocklin's career is much shorter than Moon's, but it's similar in that both were overshadowed by contemporaries. Moon, playing at the same time as Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and John Elway, was often overlooked, while Van Brocklin was less celebrated than Otto Graham and Bobby Layne. Both Moon and Van Brocklin were 9-time Pro Bowlers.

Appropriate All-Time Rank: about 15th

Over half the voters in Adam's project omitted Van Brocklin from their ballots. I don't expect everyone to rate players the same as I do, but if you don't recognize Van Brocklin as a top-25 all-time QB, you probably aren't qualified to compose a true all-time list.

Sonny Jurgensen
Philadelphia Eagles, 1957-63, Washington, 1964-74
Crowd-sourced rank: 27

The reason for Jurgensen's relative lack of recognition is obvious: his teams never won a championship. And yet, by every other measure, he is one of the greatest passers in history. I wrote about Jurgensen just last year, so I hope you'll forgive that I'm repeating myself.

Jurgensen was universally hailed as the best pure passer of his generation. Unitas said, "If I threw as much as Jurgensen, my arm would fall off. And if I could throw as well, my head would swell up too big to get into a helmet." Don Shula was in awe of his quick release: "Only Sonny Jurgensen and Joe Namath have been able to get rid of the ball as quickly as Marino." Vince Lombardi called Jurgensen "the best I have seen."

Jurgensen led the NFL in passing yards five times, twice setting the single-season record. He led in touchdowns twice, and his career passer rating (82.6) is the highest of his generation. Jurgensen (1957-74) and Unitas (1956-73) were contemporaries, but Jurgensen's TD/INT differential (+66) is substantially better than Johnny U's (+37). I don't believe Jurgensen was as good as Unitas, but it defies reason to rank Unitas 4th and Jurgensen 27th. Unitas is not overrated, but Jurgensen should rate a lot better than 27.

Jurgensen played on bad teams. He seldom had a rushing game, and most of his defenses were terrible. So he threw. And he threw beautifully: perfect spirals delivered to precisely the right location, reaching the receiver quickly but soft in his hands and easy to catch. Jurgensen wasn't a scrambler, and he never got to prove himself in the postseason — he never started a playoff game — so he fell behind Unitas, Fran Tarkenton, and Bart Starr in the overall "best quarterback" conversation, but his was the first (and usually only) name mentioned as the best pure passer.

After his retirement, NFL rules changes (such as the 16-game schedule and 5-yard bump rule) contributed to an explosion of passing stats, so Jurgensen's numbers no longer look impressive. Dan Fouts broke his records, and people started talking about Dan Marino as the greatest pure passer ever. And so Jurgensen's excellence has been largely forgotten. NFL Films did a 15-minute feature, which is available free online, Did You Ever See Sonny Play? If not, you're missing one of the finest quarterbacks ever.

Compare his style to: Dan Marino
Compare his career to: Steve Young

In terms of playing style, Marino is a terrific fit: the greatest passers of their generation, both with lightning-quick releases and exceptional downfield accuracy. The shape of Jurgensen's playing career, however, is eerily similar to Young's. Both spent four years backing up an established Hall of Famer, and each had some trouble staying healthy. But both quarterbacks, at the height of their powers, were dazzling. In an era of HOF QBs, Jurgensen stood out. He threw the most touchdown passes (207) of the 1960s, for a team that didn't score a lot of touchdowns.

Appropriate All-Time Rank: around 10-15

Jurgensen had nine surgeries during his career, and if he'd been healthy the whole time, he might be top-five. Jurgensen had an unusual number of great seasons, but his limited playing time means he didn't have an opportunity to pad the numbers with "regular-good" seasons. You would probably rank him a touch below where you place Roger Staubach and Steve Young, two other QBs who were brilliant players with brief starting careers.

Y.A. Tittle
Baltimore Colts, 1948-50, San Francisco 49ers, 1951-60, New York Giants, 1961-64
Crowd-sourced rank: 28

Yelberton Abraham Tittle (I know, right?) was a four-time Pro Bowl QB with the 49ers, but his Hall of Fame legacy was built in New York, where Tittle led the Giants to three straight NFL Championship Games — only to lose each one. The most important All-Pro teams in the early '60s were the United Press and Associated Press. UP named Tittle NFL MVP in '62, and AP named him NFL MVP in '63. He was a consensus All-Pro both years. Tittle threw 36 TD passes in 1963, a single-season record that lasted more than 20 years.

Tittle retired as the all-time leader in passing yards and passing TDs. Those are holy marks, passed from Tittle to Unitas, then to Fran Tarkenton and Dan Marino, on to Brett Favre and now on their way to Peyton Manning. Tittle was not as exceptional as Unitas and Tarkenton and his other successors, but he was a productive QB for the better part of 18 seasons, a couple of them really outstanding.

In the reader rankings at Football Perspective, Tittle came in far behind Kurt Warner (17th). I don't see how you arrive at that, if you know about Tittle. Warner had something like 4-7 healthy seasons, depending on how you define healthy. Tittle had 18 healthy seasons. Warner succeeded with both the Rams and Cardinals, and had two or three great years. Tittle succeeded with both the Niners and Giants, and had two or three great years. Both played in three championship games, and that's where Warner has the edge — Tittle lost all three, and Warner has a win — but was that one game, and Mike Jones' tackle at the one-yard line, worth more than Tittle's longevity, and a decade as one of the better QBs in pro football? I just can't see it.

Compare his style to: Drew Brees, maybe
Compare his career to: Jim Kelly

Much more than most of his peers, Tittle relied on shorter, high-percentage pass plays. He did throw deep, especially when paired with Del Shofner in New York, but his game was more about accuracy than explosiveness. The Jim Kelly comparison is too obvious. Tittle's Giants went to three consecutive NFL Championship Games, and lost all three, none particularly close. Thirty years later, Kelly's Bills played in four straight Super Bowls, losing all four. Tittle played a lot longer than Kelly, so you could also compare him to someone like John Elway, who was a productive quarterback for years, and had most success near the end of his career.

Appropriate All-Time Rank: 15-30

If you really value longevity and production, Tittle is probably close to 15th. If you believe quarterbacks win championships, probably closer to 30th. With a broader approach, he's likely somewhere in the middle, maybe 20-25.

Bobby Layne
Chicago Bears, 1948, New York Bulldogs, 1949, Detroit Lions, 1950-58, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1958-62
Crowd-sourced rank: 31

Bobby Layne is one of those players who couldn't exist today. There are dozens of great Bobby Layne stories, and most of them involve alcohol. He had no respect for curfew, but he always had the respect of his teammates. Hall of Famer Yale Lary described Layne's leadership, "When Bobby said block, you blocked. When Bobby said drink, you drank." But Layne's partying never interfered with his on-field performance, and he was respected throughout the league. Rival coach Paul Brown called Layne "the best third-down quarterback in the game".

A colorful off-field persona can be a blessing or a curse, or sometimes both. When young fans begin to explore NFL history, their picture of Joe Namath is often as the flamboyant Broadway Joe, whose stats (173 TD, 220 INT, 65.5 rating) don't back up his Hall of Fame reputation. Namath's larger-than-life personality has come to define our memories of him, more so than his legendary quick release and the best deep ball of his generation. It's easy to make the same mistake with Layne, to focus on his drinking and his wobbly passes, ignoring his arm strength, athleticism, and leadership. It's hard to overstate Layne's reputation as a winner. Another Hall of Fame teammate, Doak Walker, gave the most famous quote on Layne: "Bobby Layne never lost a game in his life. Time just ran out on him."

On-field results support the idea of Layne as a guy who helped his teams win. The Lions won back-to-back NFL championships in 1952-53, and when Layne was traded to Pittsburgh, the Steelers recorded back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. Layne was also an exceptional athlete. He was a brilliant pitcher in college, he kicked field goals in the NFL (and led the league in scoring in 1956), and he was a highly successful runner, probably the greatest all-around QB of the 1950s.

Compare his style to: John Elway
Compare his career to: Troy Aikman

There's no one else who really played like Bobby Layne, but Elway's intensity as a competitor, and his willingness to tuck the ball and run, probably compare the best among QBs of the last 25 years or so. Layne's leadership style couldn't have been more different from Aikman's, but they both commanded the respect of teammates and won multiple championships. Layne played for longer than Aikman, and he was more central to the offense — the Cowboys were a running team, while the Lions were a passing team.

Appropriate All-Time Rank: 10-30

Layne has very good stats, he was highly regarded around the league, and his team won multiple championships. No matter what criteria you prefer, he was a great player.

Donovan McNabb
Philadelphia Eagles, 1999-2009, Washington, 2010, Minnesota Vikings, 2011
Crowd-sourced rank: N/A

McNabb technically has no rank from the crowd-sourcing project, because a player needed to appear on at least 6.25% of ballots to qualify, and McNabb didn't. On the one hand, I understand that: McNabb isn't in my top 25, either. But the voting favored recent players, and McNabb ranked behind contemporaries like Kurt Warner (17th), Ben Roethlisberger (26th), Philip Rivers (30th), Tony Romo (32nd), Eli Manning (37th), Steve McNair (39th), and Drew Bledsoe (42nd). I might rank McNabb over all those players — though that could change in the near future. Several of those guys are still playing at a high level, and moving up the list quickly.

McNabb was one of the greatest passers of his generation. He threw twice as many TDs as INTs, and he had the lowest interception percentage of the 2000s (2.05%). In that decade, McNabb ranks 3rd in completions and yards (behind Peyton Manning and Brett Favre), and 3rd in TD/INT differential (Manning, Tom Brady).

McNabb was also one of the greatest running QBs of his generation. He is one of only five players with 30,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, joining John Elway, Steve McNair, Fran Tarkenton, and Steve Young. We usually evaluate QBs by their passing stats, but McNabb added 3,459 yards and 29 TDs as a rusher. That's a Pro Bowl quality season we're leaving out of his passing numbers.

The other really interesting thing about McNabb is his success on the team level. The Eagles were bad in the late '90s: 6-9-1, 3-13, 5-11. When McNabb became the starter in 2000, they went 11-5. McNabb passed for over 3,000 yards, led all QBs in rushing, and finished second in MVP voting. The 11-5 record wasn't a fluke; Philadelphia played in the next four NFC Championship Games. McNabb was sometimes seen as a choker because the team never won a Super Bowl, but his teams won a lot of playoff games.

If you have a guy with some of the best passing statistics of his era, who is also one of the best running quarterbacks in history, made five straight Pro Bowls before injuries became a problem, and took his team to five conference championship games, you might think it would be obvious that such a player was among the best of his generation. But we're still selling McNabb short, because unlike most productive QBs, he was not surrounded with talent.

McNabb had one season with Terrell Owens, and apart from that never played with a Pro Bowl receiver or an elite tight end. The one full season he played with Owens, McNabb's statistics exploded. He had two years with DeSean Jackson near the end of his career, and statistically, they were two of his best seasons. How much better would McNabb's stats be if he had thrown to Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, or Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne? How many Super Bowls might the Eagles have made if McNabb were handing off to Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James instead of Duce Staley? In 2000, Staley got hurt and McNabb himself led the Eagles in rushing. From 2000-03, McNabb single-handedly generated the offense on a team that won double-digit games every year.

I also wonder how differently we would view McNabb if he hadn't gotten hurt in 2002 and 2006. Both seasons, he was an MVP candidate until missing the final six games. In '02, he returned for the playoffs, but didn't look healthy in Philly's loss to the Buccaneers. If McNabb had stayed healthy, he might have won an MVP and a Super Bowl that year. Of course, he did get injured, and I don't advocate grading players on what they might have done — but I think we tend to forget how good McNabb looked, in both of those seasons. He might have been the best QB in the league.

McNabb is one of those guys who is better than his numbers show. He was a great passer, great runner, breath-taking playmaker, and every-year Pro Bowler who went to five conference championship games, and did all of it without great offensive teammates around him. He probably wasn't one of the top 25 QBs in history, but he's in the top 40, and among the very best of his generation.

No comparisons here. You remember McNabb.

Appropriate All-Time Rank: 20-40

It's so hard to judge recent players, before we really have perspective on their careers. I'd rank McNabb around 30-35 all-time, but it's plausible that I'm understating how much better he might have seemed with decent talent around him.

Comments and Conversation

March 1, 2015

Joseph:

Nice to see Sonny getting some long overdue recognition here. I think the lead article and cover from the Pro Football Almanac of 1968 says it all:

“Who’s No.1? Johnny Unitas vs. Sonny Jurgensen”

Other magazines of the day were likewise consistent in putting Sonny at or near the top of list, and the only thing that held him back in some years was the injury factor.

July 16, 2015

Interested:

I’ve ranked the best qbs ever, and sonny gets second. He was the best pure passer ever, and he statistically blows away Unitas, Starr, and all others from his era

December 26, 2016

Steve:

Great article. Seeing all these quarterbacks play, few were better than Unitas, Jurgensen, or Van Brocklin. All had great arms and great accuracy. Bobby Layne was great in his own right. Great field leader, great athlete and runner. His arm was not as good as the other three, but he got the job done.

Tom Brady reminds me of Van Brocklin. Not a good runner, but stays in the pocket and a quick release.

Steve McNair, joe Kapp, and Billy Kilmer reminded me of Layne. None of them prototypical quarterbacks. All rugged and all threw a wobbly football.

As for Unitas. There was only one johnny U. He was the best!

Leave a Comment

Featured Site