Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Best QBs in History: 21-30
I've been studying NFL history my whole life. It's a journey that began the first time I watched my dad's copy of NFL's Greatest Hits on VHS, accelerating when I read Total Football II, and continuing when I began sportswriting over a decade ago.
Something I've never done is to publish my list of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. I'm finally stepping into the ring, but because I've done so much research over the years, I'm presenting my choices as a series of articles, highlighting about 10 players per list, and counting down to number one. We began with pre-Modern Era QBs, then entered the Modern Era with nos. 49-101. Since then, we've also looked at 40-48 and 31-39.
This week, I'm profiling the players who rank 21-30 on my list. The players are ranked in order, but please don't read too much into that: I consider this a group of quarterbacks, all roughly the same level. If you're outraged that #26 is higher than #29, you have my blessing to flip them
30. John Brodie
San Francisco 49ers, 1957-73
31,548 yards, 214 TD, 224 INT, 72.3 rating
John Brodie had the unenviable task of replacing Hall of Fame QB Y.A. Tittle. What's more, Brodie's ascension to the starting lineup coincided with the decline of San Francisco's great running game, led by Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny. The 49ers were a bad team during most of Brodie's career, and he struggled to win fans over. Brodie told the story that one day, when the fans at Kezar Stadium were riding him particularly hard, he gave them the finger, and they seemed to accept him after that. I guess football culture has changed a little bit in the last 50 years.
Fan reaction notwithstanding, Brodie performed at a high level. He led the NFL in passing yards three times, TDs twice, and rating once. His interception percentage was good for that era, his sack rate was low, and he didn't fumble a lot. Brodie was the first successful shotgun quarterback, and he forced Tittle out of the lineup because he was mobile, a good runner who gained over 1,000 yards and scored 22 touchdowns, with a 5.0 average. He was second-team all-NFL in 1965, and NFL MVP in 1970.
Brodie not only won the starting job over Tittle, he held off challenges from first-round draft picks Billy Kilmer and Steve Spurrier. Brodie passed for 2,000 yards ten times, and retired as the fourth-leading passer in history, behind only John Unitas, Tittle, and Fran Tarkenton. He was the first 49er quarterback to have his jersey retired, later joined by Joe Montana and Steve Young. Brodie was also a professional golfer, but his legacy is as one of the most prolific passers of his generation.
29. Ken Anderson
Cincinnati Bengals, 1971-86
32,838 yards, 197 TD, 160 INT, 81.9 rating
No player epitomizes the disconnect between stats and conventional wisdom like Kenny Anderson. Statistically, he's among the top 20 QBs in history. Upon his retirement, Anderson ranked 7th all-time in passing yardage, and he held multiple NFL records for completion percentage, including the single-game and single-season marks. Anderson led the NFL in passing yards twice, and in passer rating four times.
He was also an excellent runner (2,220 yards, 20 TDs). Only John Elway, Fran Tarkenton, Donovan McNabb, and Steve Young have more passing yards and more rushing yards than Anderson. Ten times, Anderson ranked among the NFL's top 10 rushing QBs, and in his 1981 MVP season, he led all QBs in rushing. His 5.6 career yards per rushing attempt is among the best marks in history.
So here's a league-leading, record-setting passer, who is also one of the top running QBs in history. It's a superb résumé. And yet, fans never connected with Anderson as a truly great quarterback. Ask about the top QBs of the 1970s, and you'll hear Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, Bob Griese, Ken Stabler. Anderson is seldom part of that conversation. To a lot of people, he just didn't seem like a great QB.
The strange thing is, Anderson did register as an elite QB during his career. He made four Pro Bowls and two AP all-pro teams, including first-team in 1981, when he was also MVP. Bill Walsh, who scouted Anderson out of college and recommended him for Cincinnati, in early 1982 called Anderson "the best pure forward passer the game has seen for many years." I don't believe Ken Anderson was as outstanding as a purely statistical analysis would indicate, but I think the statheads are closer to the truth than the people who dismiss Anderson as an unexceptional system QB.
28. Bob Griese
Miami Dolphins, 1967-80
25,092 yards, 192 TD, 172 INT, 77.1 rating
The opposite of Anderson: statistically, Bob Griese is the least impressive quarterback in the Hall of Fame. His passer rating is pretty good for when he played, and he led the NFL in rating one season. He led in TDs once, completion percentage once, yards per attempt once. That's good. But he never passed for 2,500 yards in a season, he only threw 20 TDs twice (with a career-high of 22), and he only had a passer rating over 90 once (90.9). Even for the 1970s, those are not outstanding numbers.
You could even debit Griese further, because he played on such an exceptional team. The Dolphins of Griese's era had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, featuring two Hall of Famers (center Jim Langer and guard Larry Little), as well as 6-time Pro Bowler and 8-time HOF Finalist Bob Kuechenberg. Griese played with the greatest wide receiver of that generation (Paul Warfield), a Hall of Fame running back (Larry Csonka), and one of the greatest coaches of all time (Don Shula). Surrounded by so much talent, you expect a player to post good stats.
The Dolphins were a running team, with Csonka joined by Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick. Real life is not like Tecmo Bowl, but if you were playing defense against the 1970s Dolphins in Tecmo, you would never call a pass play. It should be easy to throw against defenses focused on stopping the run, but Miami's coaches believed their best chance was to run the ball.
It's natural to compare Troy Aikman with Griese. Both were first-round draft picks who spent their whole careers with one team, and both became broadcasters. Both Aikman and Griese played with a Hall of Fame RB and a Hall of Fame WR, and both played behind the best offensive line of the era. But most of all, they were both efficient QBs on run-first teams that won multiple Super Bowls. The 1970-74 Dolphins were 57-12-1 (.821), with three Super Bowl appearances and two titles. The 1991-95 Cowboys went 60-20 (.750), with three Super Bowl appearances and three titles.
Like Aikman, Griese made plays when he had to. He didn't get to surprise offenses with a deep pass on first down, because the Dolphins were going to run on first down, and probably second down, too. Although that playing style limited Griese's statistics, no one doubted his ability. He was an eight-time all-star, twice in the AFL plus six Pro Bowls, and he was first-team all-pro in both 1971 and '77, a distinction that sets him apart from Aikman (who was never all-pro).
Aikman, however, was the more accomplished postseason player. Ben Roethlisberger and Griese are the only quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins and no Super Bowl MVPs. In Griese's two championships, his combined passing line was 14-of-21 for 161 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. Griese did not have a great arm, but he was noted for his poise and intelligence; even the caustic Howard Cosell complimented Griese's brains.
27. Troy Aikman
Dallas Cowboys, 1989-2000
32,942 yards, 165 TD, 141 INT, 81.6 rating
I have argued in the past that Troy Aikman should not be in the Hall of Fame, an argument informed primarily by his pedestrian regular-season statistics. I don't feel that way any more — I'm fine with Aikman's spot in Canton — but it's true his stats don't compare well to contemporaries:
Out of those eight QBs, Aikman ranks last in passing yards, TDs, and TD/INT +/-, and below-average in passer rating and net yards per attempt. His low TD rate (3.5%) is particularly galling — it's by far the worst of any HOF QB* — and it's hard to see how Aikman could be viewed as a standout.
But that analysis misses some important things Aikman did well. He was an excellent game manager — not in the derogatory sense we usually use that phrase, but in that he did what was needed, and didn't try to do too much. The Cowboys had a good defense, and the best ground game in the NFL. Aikman was an ego-less QB, who didn't audible to pass plays or complain that Emmitt Smith got all the goal line work. He's comparable to Griese and to Bart Starr, fellow Hall of Fame QBs whose workloads were limited on a successful, run-first offense. And like Griese or Starr, when Aikman had to throw, he was productive. Here's how the same eight players above rank in first down percentage from 1991-96: Young (36.7), Moon (36.0), Aikman (36.0), Marino (34.2), Favre (32.9), Kelly (32.9), Elway (30.9), Esiason (30.7).
Aikman's yardage totals are low because he played in a run-heavy offense, and because he retired early (34) due to head injuries. His TD percentage is very low, but that's partly explained by Emmitt Smith; why pass at the goal line when you have the most successful short-yardage run game of all time? Apart from TD%, Aikman's rate stats are good. His completion percentage, average yards, interception percentage, and sack percentage are all in line with the other HOF QBs of the '90s.
When you combine that statistical efficiency with a strong peak and his very fine postseason performances, Aikman really does look like a Hall of Famer. He's not in the same class as Dan Marino and Steve Young, but he was a very good quarterback. Aikman was never all-pro, but he did qualify for six Pro Bowls.
* Actually, Aikman's TD% ranks 99th out of the 101 QBs ranked for this project. He's ahead of Archie Manning and Kerry Collins.
26. Randall Cunningham
Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-95; Minnesota Vikings, 1997-99; Dallas Cowboys, 2000; Baltimore Ravens, 2001
29,979 yards, 207 TD, 134 INT, 81.5 rating
This is my heresy: I think Randall Cunningham was better than Troy Aikman. When you include rushing, their stats are roughly equal, and Cunningham was much more impressive on the field; if you watched a Cowboys-Eagles game in the early '90s, and someone asked you to pick which QB was bound for the Hall of Fame, you'd say Cunningham. But Aikman was healthy throughout his prime, and supported by Hall of Fame teammates, while Cunningham struggled with injuries and spent most of his career surrounded by mediocre offensive talent. When he finally got to play with a great supporting cast in Minnesota, a 35-year-old Cunningham led the NFL in passer rating (106.0), making his fourth Pro Bowl and third all-pro team. I wish we could see what he might have produced with receivers like Randy Moss and Cris Carter (or Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek) when he was in his prime.
Despite his weak supporting cast, Cunningham has very impressive stats. Even without including rushes, he's +73 in TD/INT differential, better than contemporaries like Jim Kelly (+62), Warren Moon (+58), and Aikman (+24), and basically the same as John Elway (+74). Of course, rushing is a crucial element of Cunningham's legacy: 4,928 rushing yards, 6.4 yards per rush, 35 rushing TDs. Six times Cunningham led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yardage, including 1990, when he rushed for 942 yards and five TDs with an 8.0 average.
There are some players who have great stats, but didn't look impressive as players. That doesn't apply to Cunningham, who inspired three Sports Illustrated covers (and QB Eagles in Tecmo Super Bowl). He was a joy to watch, a unique talent who paved the way for a generation of QBs making plays with their feet as well as their arms. No one who saw Cunningham play doubted his skills.
Cunningham had very good stats, and he was one of the most exciting quarterbacks of all time. Cunningham has never been a Hall of Fame finalist, and I sometimes wonder why he's drawn so little interest from the voters. But with or without a bust in Canton, he was an amazing talent.
25. Jim Kelly
Buffalo Bills, 1986-96
35,467 yards, 237 TD, 175 INT, 84.4 rating
Jim Kelly began his pro career in the USFL, playing two seasons with the Houston Gamblers. Kelly passed for 83 TDs with the Gamblers, which is impressive even in 18-game seasons, and he started immediately for the Bills when the rival league collapsed. Kelly's 3,593 passing yards in 1986 set an NFL rookie record, and he made the Pro Bowl the following season. Kelly was the best quarterback in the USFL — a league which included fellow top-100 QBs Steve Young, Doug Flutie, Greg Landry, Brian Sipe, and Doug Williams — and he validated that performance with immediate success in the established league. When we evaluate Kelly, it's important to remember that he had two good years which don't show up in the official stats: he was obviously a good pro QB in 1984-85, he just wasn't in the NFL.
Kelly was a four-time Pro Bowler, and first-team all-pro in 1991. He is most famous for Buffalo's four-year run of AFC titles, each one followed by a loss in the Super Bowl. Kelly actually lost the most NFL Championships of any starting quarterback in history. The thing about losing all those Super Bowls is that you have to get to them first. Buffalo made the postseason in eight of Kelly's 11 seasons, and he went 9-4 as a starter in the AFC playoffs. Kelly was a famously intense competitor, and probably the toughest QB of his era, a quarterback with a linebacker's mentality.
The Super Bowl-era Bills have produced six HOFers: Kelly, head coach Marv Levy, RB Thurman Thomas, both starting WRs (Andre Reed and James Lofton), and defensive end Bruce Smith. The early-90s Bills have the most Hall of Famers of any team in the last 40 years. That puts the QB in position to succeed, especially in the weak AFC of the early '90s. Kelly was an accurate passer, courageous in the pocket, and he overcame tough winter weather in Buffalo. He was masterful in the no-huddle offense, and he won a lot of games. But he also threw too many picks, he was surrounded by teammates who helped him look good, and he only played for 13 seasons.
24. Donovan McNabb
Philadelphia Eagles, 1999-2009; Washington, 2010; Minnesota Vikings, 2011
37,276 yards, 234 TD, 117 INT, 85.6 rating
Donovan McNabb was one of the most successful 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. Fran Tarkenton is the only QB with more passing yards and more rushing yards than McNabb. He's one of the very best dual-threat QBs in history.
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 the team in rushing, and finished second in MVP voting. The improvement wasn't a fluke: Philadelphia played in the next four NFC Championship Games, and McNabb made five straight Pro Bowls from 2000-04. After several injury-shortened seasons, McNabb in 2008 threw for a career-high 3,916 passing yards and led the Eagles to a fifth NFC Championship Game. In '09, he made his sixth Pro Bowl.
But all of this undersells McNabb, who for most of his career was the only offensive standout on the team. He played one year with Terrell Owens, and apart from that never teamed 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. In 10 seasons as the Eagles' starting quarterback, McNabb's leading receivers included Chad Lewis, James Thrash, Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis, and Todd Pinkston twice. Among the top 50 passers of all time, McNabb is the only one whose all-time leading receiver (Brian Westbrook) was a running back, and the only one whose leading receiver never actually led the team in receiving yards. There's absolutely no question that McNabb's stats and accomplishments were limited by the quality of teammates around him. From 2000-03, McNabb single-handedly generated the offense on a team that won double-digit games every year.
McNabb was better than his numbers show, although his numbers are good. He was a successful passer, outstanding runner, breath-taking playmaker, and every-year Pro Bowler who went to five conference championship games, and did it all without great offensive teammates around him.
23. Len Dawson
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1957-59; Cleveland Browns, 1960-61; Dallas Texans, 1962; Kansas City Chiefs, 1963-75
28,711 yards, 239 TD, 183 INT, 82.6 rating
Len Dawson could have become the NFL's Sam Bowie. The Steelers selected Dawson first overall in the 1957 draft, ahead of Jim Brown. In his three years with Pittsburgh, Dawson was 6-of-17 for 96 yards, 1 TD, and 2 interceptions. The Steelers traded him to Cleveland, where he didn't do any better.
Dawson was reborn in the AFL, quickly establishing himself as one of the finest QBs in the league. Dawson was first-team all-AFL in 1962 and '66, and a six-time AFL all-star, as well as an NFL Pro Bowler in 1971, after the two leagues merged. He was also the MVP of Super Bowl IV, overcoming a baseless gambling scandal on the eve of the big game.
Dawson was praised for his poise and accuracy. He led the AFL in completion percentage seven times, and his 82.58 passer rating is the second-best of his generation, fractions behind Sonny Jurgensen (82.62), but comfortably in front of Bart Starr (80.5), Fran Tarkenton (80.4), Johnny Unitas (78.2), Bob Griese (77.1), Joe Namath (65.5), and George Blanda (60.6). Dawson is particularly noteworthy for his 6.39 TD%, fourth-highest in history. In the AFL, Dawson posted an insane 7.7 TD%, by far the best of that era, and a figure that would rank number one all-time.
That gets to the heart of why Dawson isn't among my top 20 QBs of all time. His +63 TD/INT differential was the best of the 1960s, but that includes +36 in the early (pre-Super Bowl) AFL, which was barely a major league. In context, Jurgensen's +53, Tarkenton's +52, and maybe even Frank Ryan's +42 are more impressive. Dawson was a great QB. He was the best offensive player on the winningest team in the AFL, a three-time AFL champion and a Super Bowl MVP. He led the AFL in TDs four times and in passer rating six times. He was the best quarterback in the American Football League, and he would have been great in the NFL, too. But the stats wouldn't make him look like the best QB of his generation.
22. Joe Namath
New York Jets, 1965-76; Los Angeles Rams, 1977
27,663 yards, 173 TD, 220 INT, 65.5 rating
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It's a trite expression (and a slight misquote), but it's true. Joe Namath is frequently cited as the most overrated quarterback in history. People look at his high interception rate and his low passer rating, and they believe his reputation was built on a flamboyant off-field persona and a Super Bowl victory in which his team ran for its only touchdown. These things are true: Namath did throw a lot of interceptions, and the Jets won Super Bowl III with their defense. But that's only a little knowledge.
What Namath did better than any other quarterback of his time was to generate yardage. He excelled at this for two main reasons: he threw a great deep ball, and he never took sacks. Several times in this series, I've used the statistic net yards per attempt, or NY/A. It's a simple calculation: passing yards minus sack yards, divided by pass attempts and sacks. It measures how efficiently a passer gains yardage. Namath's NY/A is the highest of his generation. He's the highest in AFL history (7.0), and his 6.6 career mark is well ahead of contemporaries like Daryle Lamonica (6.4), John Hadl (6.3), Len Dawson (6.1), and Bob Griese (5.9). He's ahead of NFL counterparts like Roger Staubach (6.3) and Roman Gabriel (5.5), too. He's ahead of everybody.
Namath's greatest strength is not included in the passer rating formula. His quick release was legendary, later compared to Dan Marino's, and despite his bad knees, Namath made very quick dropbacks. Those factors helped him post the lowest sack rate of his era. Although the statistics are incomplete, it appears that Namath was sacked on only 4.3% of his pass attempts, one of the greatest rates in history. I know some fans still believe that sacks are determined largely or exclusively by the offensively line, but this is demonstrably false. Compare Namath to Griese, for instance. Griese played with the greatest offensive line of the early '70s, while Namath had Winston Hill and not much else. Despite the superior blocking in front of Griese, he took more than twice as many sacks (8.9%) as Broadway Joe. That great drop, pocket awareness, and superb quick release allowed Namath to avoid negative plays, and saved over 1,000 yards relative to Griese — 1,000 yards he doesn't get credit for in passer rating.
The other great thing about avoiding sacks is that it typically means avoiding fumbles. Namath threw too many interceptions, but he partly made up for that, by fumbling less than any other QB in football. Namath in 1967 became the first player in history to pass for 4,000 yards in a season, and he fumbled only twice all season. Namath threw nearly 500 passes that year. Everyone else with at least 100 passes fumbled three or more times. The next year, Namath was even better, fumbling only once. He was named AFL MVP, and the Jets won Super Bowl III.
A quick look at the stats makes Namath look like a mediocre QB, just a guy who threw a lot. A closer examination shows Namath as one of the best statistical passers of his time. This is especially true if you value big years. When I evaluate great players, I'm interested in their good seasons: how many good seasons did they have, and how good were they? Namath was terrible at the end of his career. His knees were gone, and he couldn't play any more. I blame that more on the coach who puts him out there than I do on the player, but either way ... let's say Joe Montana suited up for the Jets in 2015, and threw 4 TDs with 16 INTs (which is what Namath did in 1976). Would that make Montana a lesser player? We judge players on the heart of their careers — and for a decade, in the heart of his career, Joe Namath was a brilliant quarterback. He was a five-time all-star, AFL MVP, and Super Bowl MVP. When the all-time AFL team was chosen in 1970, Namath was a near-unanimous choice at quarterback, easily topping Len Dawson.
21. Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers, 2005-14
28,578 yards, 226 TD, 57 INT, 106.0 rating
It's easy to understand what Aaron Rodgers does well. He's an accurate passer, and in particular, he's an accurate downfield passer. He has the highest touchdown percentage in 50 years, and the lowest interception percentage in history. He's a good scrambler, who has been among the top 10 rushing QBs every healthy season of his career, including 20 rushing TDs, and two seasons with over 300 rushing yards.
In only seven years as starter, Rodgers has six seasons with a passer rating over 100, five 4,000-yard passing seasons, four 30-TD seasons, three all-pro seasons, two MVP awards, and a Super Bowl MVP. I don't need to make the case that Rodgers is a great quarterback. It's obvious.
Rather, my duty is to explain why Rodgers is not yet in my top 20. The operative word is yet. Rodgers has started for seven seasons, at a position where the best players last twice that long. Peyton Manning is entering his 17th season, and he's played at Rodgers' level for nearly all of them. Rodgers is awesome, but he needs to be awesome for a little longer before we start comparing him to guys like Manning and Tom Brady.
* * *
We began this series by examining the best pre-Modern Era quarterbacks: Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Ed Danowski, Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sid Luckman, Bernie Masterson, Ace Parker, and Bob Waterfield.
The following week, we listed the QBs who rank 49-101 all-time, with profiles on Mark Brunell, Trent Green, Phil Simms, and Vinny Testaverde.
In the 40-48 range, we profiled Charlie Conerly, Jim Everett, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, Jim Hart, Bert Jones, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, and Joe Theismann.
And last week, we counted down with 31-39: Doug Flutie, Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Boomer Esiason, John Hadl, Roman Gabriel, Ben Roethlisberger, and Steve McNair.
Next time, we'll do 11-20, in order.