Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Breaking Down the Best QBs By Decade

By Brad Oremland

Who is the best quarterback? It's a classic sports question, and it's fun to think about. You can do detailed analysis, or you can argue with your friends over fries and a beer.

After a few beers (and plenty of fries), maybe you agree to disagree on Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and you remember guys like Joe Montana, who might have been better than any of them. And your buddy brings up Randall Cunningham; man, no one was more fun to watch than Cunningham. You never saw Johnny Unitas, but your grandfather swears he was the best ever. Or maybe he says Unitas was the best, but no one threw the deep ball like Joe Namath. Hey, we can talk about quarterbacks all night.

I have studied NFL history throughout my adult life, and I've talked football with so many people I've lost count. Below is the condensed version of what I'd say from that first plate of fries until last call. We'll go by decade, beginning in the 1950s, which is roughly when the quarterback position became what it is today. And for each decade, we'll name the best downfield passer. This is not only who threw the best deep ball, but who really used it as a weapon. Who made you worry about the deep pass?

We'll also cover the most accurate passer. There's no one statistic that captures this. Accurate passers have high completion percentage, but they also have low interception rates, and they hit receivers in stride, facilitating yards after the catch and high average per attempt. Accuracy doesn't show up in one category, it shows up in every category.

Perhaps no QB is more exciting than the one who can attack you with his legs as well as his arm. For each decade, we'll name not only the best running QB, but also the greatest dual-threat, the player who could beat you through the air and on the ground.

Few things are more frustrating to fans than watching their quarterback get sacked because he holds onto the ball too long. Whether he has a slow release, trouble reading coverages and making decisions, or just poor movement in the pocket, some quarterbacks kill their teams' field position taking coverage sacks. On the other side of the spectrum are the players who never seem to take unnecessary sacks: quick release, evading pressure, whatever it takes. For each decade, we'll name the QB best at avoiding sacks.

Maybe the most intense question in any QB debate is who you'd want at the end of a close game. With your timeouts gone and the clock running out, who's going to drive you into scoring position? From the '50s to the present, we'll look at the best two-minute drill of each generation.

And of course, we won't skip the obvious: every decade's best overall QB. At the end of each section, I'll add a few notes, including close calls and explanations.

1950s

Best Downfield Passer: Otto Graham or Norm Van Brocklin

Most Accurate Passer: Otto Graham

Best Runner: Tobin Rote

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat: Bobby Layne

Best Avoiding Sacks: Norm Van Brocklin

Best Two-Minute Drill: Johnny Unitas

Best Overall QB: see below

It's hard to identify the greatest quarterbacks of the 1950s, because of a quirk in timing. Otto Graham retired in 1955, and John Unitas debuted in 1956. Graham and Unitas were the two best QBs of the decade, but only playing about five years each. Van Brocklin was probably the greatest QB who played throughout the decade.

One name that doesn't show up here is Y.A. Tittle. He was a highly accurate passer, but not on the same level as Graham and Van Brocklin. Tittle also had three of his best seasons in the early '60s. The best QB of this era not in the Hall of Fame is the Giants' Charlie Conerly, followed by Rote. Van Brocklin and Rote are the only quarterbacks to win a major league championship with two different teams: Van Brocklin with the Rams (1951) and Eagles (1960), Rote with the Lions (1957) and Chargers (1963).

I'm not doing half-decades here, but the best quarterback from 1955-64 was certainly John Unitas.

1960s

Best Downfield Passer: Joe Namath

Most Accurate Passer: Bart Starr

Best Runner: Fran Tarkenton

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat: Fran Tarkenton

Best Avoiding Sacks: Joe Namath

Best Two-Minute Drill: Johnny Unitas

Best Overall QB: Johnny Unitas or Sonny Jurgensen

Some of the names here are obvious: Namath, Starr, Tarkenton, and Unitas are still famous fifty years later. Sonny Jurgensen is not.

Most passing yards, 1960-69:

1. John Unitas, 26,548
2. Sonny Jurgensen, 26,222
3. Fran Tarkenton, 23,140

Most passing TDs:

1. Sonny Jurgensen, 207
2. Fran Tarkenton, 186
3. Len Dawson, 183

Best passer rating:

1. Bart Starr, 87.7
2. Len Dawson, 87.2
3. Sonny Jurgensen, 82.4

Sonny did everything well. He threw for yardage and touchdowns, kept his INT rate low, and was universally hailed as the best pure passer of his generation. Unitas had a greater career, but some of his best seasons were in the '50s. For the 1960s, you wouldn't go wrong with either one.

I listed Joe Namath as the finest downfield thrower of the decade, and he probably was. But if you wanted to argue for Raiders QB Daryle Lamonica, the Mad Bomber, I couldn't mount a compelling argument to the contrary. They were both phenomenal big-play QBs, maybe the two most exciting passers in the high-octane AFL.

In between decades, Fran Tarkenton was the best quarterback from 1965-74.

1970s

Best Downfield Passer: Terry Bradshaw

Most Accurate Passer: Ken Stabler or Roger Staubach

Best Runner: Bobby Douglass

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat: Roger Staubach

Best Avoiding Sacks: Jim Hart

Best Two-Minute Drill: Roger Staubach

Best Overall QB: Roger Staubach

This was a great decade for mobile quarterbacks. Bobby Douglass wasn't an NFL-level passer, but Staubach, Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, Ken Anderson, Archie Manning, Greg Landry, and Steve Grogan all rank among the great dual-threat QBs. Every one of those seven ranks among the top 20 rushing QBs in NFL history. All rushed for over 2,000 yards in their careers and averaged over five yards per attempt, all except Manning rushed for at least 20 TDs, and all except Landry passed for over 20,000 yards and 100 touchdowns.

Perhaps the most underrated, and unjustly forgotten, QB of this era was Jim Hart. Today, Air Coryell means Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers. But in the mid-70s, Don Coryell coached the Cardinals, featuring Hart, Mel Gray, and Terry Metcalf. It was the most exciting offense outside of Oakland, and Hart was the on-field general. Only Tarkenton passed for more yards in the '70s, and Hart took 700 fewer sack yards than Tarkenton. Hart sometimes threw interceptions because he got rid of the ball when pressure closed in, but he also saved his team a lot of yardage.

Sticking with the Coryell theme, Dan Fouts was the best QB from 1975-84.

1980s

Best Downfield Passer: Dan Fouts or Dan Marino

Most Accurate Passer: Joe Montana

Best Runner: Randall Cunningham

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat: Joe Montana or John Elway

Best Avoiding Sacks: Dan Marino

Best Two-Minute Drill: Joe Montana

Best Overall QB: Joe Montana

I may be wrong about the best downfield passer. Certainly, conventional wisdom says Fouts or Marino, and that's probably right. But in the late '80s, no one did it quite like Boomer Esiason. The nickname had nothing to do with his passing style — he was called Boomer before he was born, because he kicked so much during his mother's pregnancy — but it would have fit. In the '80s, Esiason averaged the second-most yards per completion (to Jay Schroeder) and second-highest TD% (to Marino).

People forget that Joe Montana could run. He didn't run as often as Elway or as dynamically as Randall Cunningham, but for the total package, he was it. The 49ers were going to win Super Bowl XIX anyway, but Montana's running in that game befuddled and demoralized the Dolphins' defense. Montana's two-minute drill in Super Bowl XXIII is among the most famous in history, and his game-winning TD pass to John Taylor remains the latest lead change in Super Bowl history, just :34 remaining. John Elway and Dan Marino ran great two-minute drills, as well.

The best non-HOF QB of this era was Ken Anderson in the early '80s, Cunningham or Esiason in the late '80s. From 1985-94, you've got half a dozen Hall of Famers in or near their primes, but the very best in those years was Dan Marino. He threw 260 TD passes in that 10-year span. Esiason ranks second, with 204.

1990s

Best Downfield Passer: see below

Most Accurate Passer: Steve Young

Best Runner: Randall Cunningham

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat: Steve Young

Best Avoiding Sacks: Dan Marino

Best Two-Minute Drill: Dan Marino

Best Overall QB: Steve Young

Naming the best downfield passer of the 1990s was the hardest choice in this whole project. I considered a dozen different players, narrowed it down to John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and Steve Young, and gave up. Gun to my head, I might take Young, even though we remember him more for his short-passing efficiency.

In the '90s, Steve Young was the best at everything. While true, this is a little boring. Let's find the second-bests. For downfield passer, Jim Kelly's short throws to Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas were balanced by deep bombs to James Lofton and Don Beebe. Most accurate might be Troy Aikman, and the best dual threat would revert to Cunningham. As best overall QB, there's a case to be made for Aikman or Elway or Marino, but I'll go with three-time MVP Brett Favre. He's also the top quarterback from 1995-2004.

Cunningham and Marino are the first QBs listed at the same position (Best Runner and Best Avoiding Sacks, respectively) in two decades. Cunningham was the greatest running quarterback before Michael Vick, and he was a better passer than Vick. Marino's sack rates, relative to league average, are the best in recorded history. Famously slow, he sensed pressure well and had the quickest release of his generation. I know some fans still think sacks are all about the offensive line. It's not that the line doesn't matter — of course it does — but Marino was the best at avoiding sacks in 1983, and he was the best in 1999. Those teams had completely different offensive lines. If you really believe the Dolphins had the best line in the NFL for 17 years in a row, and it suddenly collapsed when Marino retired, maybe you're not thinking this through.

2000s

Best Downfield Passer: Peyton Manning

Most Accurate Passer: Peyton Manning

Best Runner: Michael Vick

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat: Donovan McNabb

Best Avoiding Sacks: Peyton Manning

Best Two-Minute Drill: Peyton Manning

Best Overall QB: Peyton Manning

Most of these are obvious. The one I suspect people might dispute is best two-minute drill. People regard Tom Brady as a better clutch player because of his results in the playoffs, but at the end of games, no one equaled Manning. He is the greatest comeback QB of all time. Peyton has the most game-winning drives of any QB in history, but it's not just the sheer numbers, it's the magnitude of the comebacks. Just between 2000-09, Manning led:

* One of the two 17-point comebacks in the last 5:00 of a game
* And the other one
* The biggest comeback in Conference Championship Game history (18 points)
* Five straight wins after trailing in the fourth quarter
* A 15-point second-half comeback
* A 17-point fourth quarter to come back from 10 down
* The game when Bill Belichick was so scared of Manning that he went for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 28-yard line

There are dozens more. A few of these are legendary: 21 points in 3 minutes MNF against the Bucs in '03, the AFC Championship against the Patriots, the biggest comeback in MNF history (2012) ... There are two distinct clutch situations: [1] big games, and [2] the late moments of close games. You might prefer Brady in the playoffs, but for a two-minute drill, you definitely want Peyton Manning.

I recently named my 2005-14 NFL All-Decade Team, with Manning edging Tom Brady and Drew Brees. It's the closest call in any of the half-decades.

2010s

Best Downfield Passer: Aaron Rodgers

Most Accurate Passer: Drew Brees or Peyton Manning

Best Runner: Cam Newton

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat: Aaron Rodgers

Best Avoiding Sacks: Peyton Manning

Best Two-Minute Drill: Peyton Manning

Best Overall QB: Aaron Rodgers

Obviously, this decade is only half-over. With a few more years experience, Russell Wilson will probably become the finest dual-threat, and possibly surpass Newton as a runner. It's hard to see Andrew Luck or Wilson threatening Rodgers and Manning in the other categories, but it's not out of the question.

The closest call right now is most accurate passer. Brees and Manning are terrifically accurate, but so are Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. You could pick any of them and it would be reasonable. We'll probably have a clear answer by 2020.

Some of you, if you're interested in the history of the game, may wish to follow the chronology of the categories we've been tracking. Below are the same lists, by category rather than decade. I added two bonus categories, strongest arm and best pure passer.

Best Downfield Passer

1950s: Otto Graham or Norm Van Brocklin
1960s: Joe Namath or Daryle Lamonica
1970s: Terry Bradshaw
1980s: Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason
1990s: Steve Young
2000s: Peyton Manning
2010s: Aaron Rodgers

Best downfield passer of all time: Terry Bradshaw

Most Accurate Passer

1950s: Otto Graham
1960s: Bart Starr
1970s: Roger Staubach or Ken Stabler
1980s: Joe Montana
1990s: Steve Young
2000s: Peyton Manning
2010s: Peyton Manning or Drew Brees

Most accurate passer of all time: Steve Young

Strongest Arm

1950s: Bobby Layne
1960s: Roman Gabriel
1970s: Terry Bradshaw
1980s: John Elway
1990s: Brett Favre or Jeff George
2000s: Michael Vick
2010s: Aaron Rodgers

Best arm in history: John Elway

Best Pure Passer

1950s: Norm Van Brocklin
1960s: Sonny Jurgensen
1970s: Kenny Anderson
1980s: Dan Marino
1990s: Dan Marino
2000s: Peyton Manning
2010s: Aaron Rodgers

Greatest pure passer: Sonny Jurgensen or Dan Marino

Best Pure Runner

1950s: Tobin Rote
1960s: Fran Tarkenton
1970s: Bobby Douglass
1980s: Randall Cunningham
1990s: Randall Cunningham
2000s: Michael Vick
2010s: Cam Newton

Greatest pure running quarterback: Michael Vick

Best Run/Pass Dual-Threat

1950s: Bobby Layne
1960s: Fran Tarkenton
1970s: Roger Staubach
1980s: Joe Montana or John Elway
1990s: Steve Young
2000s: Donovan McNabb
2010s: Aaron Rodgers

Most dangerous dual threat: Steve Young

Best Avoiding Sacks

1950s: Norm Van Brocklin
1960s: Joe Namath
1970s: Jim Hart
1980s: Dan Marino
1990s: Dan Marino
2000s: Peyton Manning
2010s: Peyton Manning

Best avoiding sacks: Dan Marino

Best Two-Minute Drill

1950s: Johnny Unitas
1960s: Johnny Unitas
1970s: Roger Staubach
1980s: Joe Montana
1990s: Dan Marino
2000s: Peyton Manning
2010s: Peyton Manning

Best two-minute drill of all time: Peyton Manning

Best Overall QB

1945-54: Otto Graham
1950-59: Norm Van Brocklin
1955-64: Johnny Unitas
1960-69: Johnny Unitas or Sonny Jurgensen
1965-74: Fran Tarkenton
1970-79: Roger Staubach
1975-84: Dan Fouts
1980-89: Joe Montana
1985-94: Dan Marino
1990-99: Steve Young
1995-04: Brett Favre
2000-09: Peyton Manning
2005-14: Peyton Manning
2010-14: Aaron Rodgers

Best quarterback of all time is a pretty big topic. Let's save that for the next time we go out for beer and fries.

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