Top 100 QBs: 41-60

This is part three of a seven-part series. It is a supplement to my 2015 series on the greatest quarterbacks of all time, last year's article on the top-ranked QBs in Total Statistical Production, and last month's post about QB-TSP in the 2017 season and another way of using TSP. I strongly encourage you to read those pieces if you haven't done so already. You may also be interested in parts one and two of this series.

In this series, I present the top 100 pro football quarterbacks as ranked by QB-TSP. This is a purely statistical ranking, with all the drawbacks that entails, and in many places it is not reflective of my subjective evaluations. Each week, we'll examine 20 players, continuing this week with ranks 41-60.

60. Bernie Kosar — 9,914 — 14.0 — 4 - 25 - 100

Bernie Kosar's ranking here is founded on his 1986 and 1987 seasons. Over those two seasons, Kosar ranked 3rd in passing yardage (behind Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason), 2nd in TD/INT differential (Marino), and 3rd in passer rating (behind Joe Montana and Marino). You could make a reasonable argument that for those two years, Bernie Kosar was the second-best quarterback on the planet. He had 1,600 more yards than Montana, and he didn't have Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig, or Bill Walsh. He had half as many interceptions as Esiason, and half as many fumbles. He threw for more yards and TDs than John Elway, with fewer INTs and a better passer rating.

The Browns' leading receiver in 1987 was running back Earnest Byner, followed by Webster Slaughter and Brian Brennan. The year before, it was Brennan, followed by Herman Fontenot, Slaughter, and Reggie Langhorne. That's not the worst receiving corps ever assembled, but it didn't do the passer many favors.

These stats don't even account for Kosar's postseason performances, or his role in turning around the Browns. In 1984, Cleveland went 5-11, and scored 250 points, tied for 25th in the 28-team NFL. In '85, with the rookie Kosar starting for two-thirds of the season, the Browns scored 287 and improved to 8-8. In '86, Kosar's first full season, Cleveland scored 391 points and went 12-4 — its best record since 1969 — losing the AFC Championship Game in overtime. In '87, 10-5, 390 points (which led the AFC), and another AFC Championship appearance.

In the 1986 postseason, Kosar led Cleveland to a double-overtime victory against the Jets, leading two scoring drives in the final 4:14 of regulation and setting a playoff record for passing yards (489). In the conference championship, Kosar threw a go-ahead TD pass with 5:43 remaining. In the next year's playoffs, the Browns scored 38 in the divisional round and 33 in their heart-breaking AFC Championship defeat. Kosar threw 3 TDs in each game.

Bernie Kosar only had about 4½ good seasons, but in his prime he was a great quarterback.

59. Phil Simms — 12,333 — 14.21 — 5 - 17 - 85

Over the course of his career, Phil Simms' leading receivers were Lionel Manuel, Mark Bavaro, Bobby Johnson, Earnest Gray, Stephen Baker, and Zeke Mowatt. This is a statistical ranking, but Simms' stats were produced in a black hole of receiving talent; he was a lot better than his numbers suggest.

58. Eli Manning — 12,113 — 14.22 — 6 - 11 - 66

Among players projected as starters in 2018, there are nine QBs within 10 points of the top 50 in Career Value (15.74) —

Eli Manning, 14.2
Matthew Stafford, 13.0
Russell Wilson, 12.9
Cam Newton, 11.8
Alex Smith, 9.6
Andy Dalton, 8.4
Andrew Luck, 8.1
Kirk Cousins, 7.2
Joe Flacco, 6.2

Manning scored 0.8 in 2016 (859 TSP) and 0.1 in 2017 (256 TSP), so he's not making much progress at his current pace. It would probably take at least two seasons to add another 1.52 of Value, and it's not clear that Eli has two years left as a starter. Two years from now, Stafford and Wilson, at least, will have probably entered the top 50, pushing the bar to 16.20. If Manning does reach the top 50, it's unlikely he'd stay there for long.

These rankings are statistical, but this is about where I'd rank Manning subjectively, as well. He played well in the '07 and '11 postseasons, but his "winner" reputation is largely a myth. The Giants are 111-103 in games started by Manning, and his teams have never won a playoff game in which they allowed more than 20 points. The Giants have won a playoff game in only two of Manning's 14 seasons.

57. Billy Wade — 10,535 — 14.3 — 4 - 24 - 96

I always compare Billy Wade to Milt Plum. Wade played for the Rams and Bears from 1954-66, Plum for the Browns and Lions from 1957-69. Both had their best years between 1958-63. Both were two-time Pro Bowlers, and both played in one NFL Championship Game (Wade's Bears won, behind arguably the greatest defense in history, while Plum's Browns lost). Even their stats are incredibly similar:


Plum rates ahead on this list because his best season (1960) was better than Wade's best season (1961). In 1960, Plum led the NFL in TD/INT differential (+16) and passer rating (110.4). The second-place marks were +7 and 86.5 (both Norm Van Brocklin); Plum was all alone. He led in QB-TSP, 2501, good for 5.5 Career Value. Wade, the next season, had an NFL-best 93.7 rating and ranked 4th in TSP, with 1848 (3.1 CV).

That distinction notwithstanding, the two players have many more similarities than differences. In a subjective ranking, I'd have them back-to-back, with Wade ahead. He was a better rusher than Plum, with an edge of over 800 yards, and twice as many TDs. He rushed for both Chicago touchdowns in the 1963 NFL Championship victory.

56. Charley Johnson — 11,910 — 14.7 — 6 - 20 - 120

Mostly a compiler, Charley Johnson started 10 or more games in 11 seasons. His career has a strange shape, though. Johnson had seven 1,000-TSP seasons: from 1962-65, with the St. Louis Cardinals, and 1972-74, with the Denver Broncos. What was happening in between?

Injuries and the emergence of Jim Hart limited Johnson's playing time in his final years with the Cardinals (1966-69), then he spent two seasons in Houston when the Oilers were a disaster — they went 9-45-2 (.179) from 1970-73 — before a renaissance in Denver. He wasn't a great player, but he was an above-average starter for a long time. He made the Pro Bowl in 1963 and led the NFL in completions and pass yards in 1964.

55. Drew Bledsoe — 12,406 — 14.8 — 5 - 20 - 100

From John Madden's 1996 book All Madden:

Just watching Dan [Marino] throw the ball on film — I know it's videotape, but I still call it film — I get mesmerized. He's had some good receivers on the Dolphins, but they've never had a good enough defense. Neither has Drew Bledsoe, who I think is going to be the next great quarterback. Before the Patriots got into the 1994 playoffs, I called Bill Parcells to wish him well and he barked at me like he always does.

"We're not that good," he said. "We don't have any defense."

"But you've got that Bledsoe kid," I said. "If I had him, I'd have him go back and chuck it every play. I'd throw it every down."

"Who am I talking to? Is this John Madden? You can't be the same John Madden I know. You never went back and threw it every down."

"I never had Bledsoe."

Bledsoe consistently played with mediocre receivers, and usually with poor ground games and leaky defenses. He spent his prime in arguably the two most hostile weather stadiums in the National Football League. To more fully understand the challenges Bledsoe overcame, I'd encourage you to read my short essay on Bledsoe in the best quarterbacks ever series.

54. Charlie Conerly — 11,431 — 15.1 — 4 - 18 - 72

Last year, I rated the best quarterbacks in the history of every modern NFL franchise. This project had its genesis in my article on the top-ranked QBs in Total Statistical Production. I pointed out that by CV, the New York Giants' top two QBs were Y.A. Tittle and Fran Tarkenton. Both were great players with the Giants, but they weren't great Giants, exactly. Tittle is remembered mostly as a 49er, and Tarkenton as a Viking. They played a combined nine seasons in New York, compared to 14 for Conerly, 14 for Eli Manning, and 15 for Phil Simms. That prompted the best-in-franchise-history project.

In 1959, Conerly led the NFL in passer rating (102.7) and was named league MVP by both AP and NEA. He led the Giants to three championship appearances, including a 47-7 victory in the 1956 championship game.

53. Mark Brunell — 12,138 — 15.2 — 4 - 22 - 88

The only quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in passing yards and lead all QBs in rushing the same season (1996). Brunell ranked 3rd in TSP that season. From 1996-2000, Brunell averaged over 1,500 TSP per season; only Brett Favre was higher. Brunell ranked 3rd in yards and TDs, behind Favre and Drew Bledsoe, but surpassed Bledsoe based on average yardage, turnovers, and rushing.

52. Ken Stabler — 11,234 — 15.3 — 5 - 22 - 110

Records by starting QBs in conference championship games, 1966-2017 (min. 4 games)...

John Elway, .833 [5-1]
Jim Kelly, .800 [4-1]
Peyton Manning, .800 [4-1]
Troy Aikman, .750 [3-1]
Tom Brady, .667 [8-4]
Terry Bradshaw, .667 [4-2]
Roger Staubach, .667 [4-2]
Ben Roethlisberger, .600 [3-2]
Joe Montana, .571 [4-3]
Brett Favre, .400 [2-3]
Daryle Lamonica, .250 [1-3]
Steve Young, .250 [1-3]
Donovan McNabb, .200 [1-4]
Ken Stabler, .200 [1-4]

Stabler was an exciting player on a good team, with a cool nickname and some memorable plays, but I'm not aware of any method of objective analysis that would suggest he was a Hall of Fame-quality player. He compares unfavorably to Kurt Warner, whom I think most fans agree is a borderline HOFer.

51. Milt Plum — 9,869 — 15.5 — 6 - 24 - 144
50. Daunte Culpepper — 8,772 — 15.7 — 3 - 24 - 72

Let's do Milt Plum and Daunte Culpepper together. This series is organized by Career Value, which in turn is derived from QB-TSP. Culpepper is the highest-ranked player with under 10,000 TSP; Plum is the second-highest. This is a function of statistically-dominant seasons. Both players had three seasons that earned at least 2.5 CV, and they combined for three seasons over 4.5 TSP, but they had relatively few medium- and low-to-medium-impact seasons. Plum only had six seasons with over 300 TSP; Culpepper only had five.

Selecting the better player, I'd choose Plum. He played with lesser receivers and had twice as many top-10 TSP seasons as Daunte.

49. Joe Theismann — 11,069 — 16.0 — 4 - 25 - 100

Fourteen players have won a league MVP Award (Associated Press) and won a Super Bowl as starting quarterback: Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, Joe Theismann, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers.

This group divides into three categories:

1. Hall of Famers
2. Future Hall of Famers who aren't eligible yet
3. Joe Theismann

I'm not suggesting that Joe Theismann should be in the Hall of Fame — I wouldn't vote for him — but he accomplished things that normally get you into Canton. His statistics were limited by a very late beginning to his career as a starter (he was already 29), but I don't think anyone doubts that he could have been a productive player before that.

48. Steve McNair — 12,716 — 16.2 — 6 - 24 - 144

One of TSP's greatest weaknesses is its failure to properly reward excellent play in partial seasons. In his 2003 co-MVP season, Steve McNair missed 2½ games. He scored 1,892 TSP that season, so an additional 2½ games likely would have added about 350. With TSP's exponent-based system, that would boost McNair's Value score that season from 3.3 to 4.5. The exponent is designed to reward truly great seasons, and prevent compilers from dominating the rankings, but it also harshly punishes elite players who miss time. McNair had a similar problem in 1999, when he missed five games, and actually started 16 games only four times in his career. Subjectively, I'd have him higher than this.

47. Vinny Testaverde — 14,297 — 16.39 — 2 - 17 - 34

A dramatic outlier in Year-Points. Vinny only had two top-10 seasons (1996 and 1998), but he played 21 seasons in the NFL, finally retiring when he was 44. Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Warren Moon, and Testaverde are the only players with a 3,000-yard passing season after age 40, which is pretty sharp company, and Testaverde is the oldest starting quarterback to win a game in the NFL. A quarterback's abilities decline rapidly around his mid-30s, so a guy who could still play in his mid-40s was obviously pretty good before the decline.

46. Norm Snead — 12,784 — 16.42 — 6 - 25 - 150

Norm Snead had top-6 TSP seasons with three different teams: Washington (1962), Philadelphia (1965), and the Giants (1972). He was a 13-year starter, a 4-time Pro Bowler, and in 1966 he led the Eagles to their only winning season between 1962-77.

Snead coaxed career seasons out of Bobby Mitchell, Pete Retzlaff, and Harold Jackson. I don't know that any other passer in history has gotten the best season (by receiving yardage) out of three receivers of that caliber.

45. Bart Starr — 13,829 — 16.6 — 7 - 26 - 182

There are at least three pretty striking reasons to believe Starr is underrated by Career Value.

1. By Year-Points, he's tied for 32nd. He has more top-10 seasons and more top-10-points than anyone ranked below him.

2. He quarterbacked five championship-winning teams, more than anyone except Otto Graham and Tom Brady.

3. His excellent play was a big part of the Packers' postseason success. Starr is perhaps the greatest postseason quarterback of all-time. Playing on frozen tundra, Starr passed for 15 TDs, 3 INT, and a record 104.8 rating in the postseason, with his teams going 9-1.

Starr is massively underrated here, mostly because the Packers ran a ball control offense in which Starr produced stats that look like a game manager's. His career highs were 2,438 passing yards and 16 TDs. TSP notices that Starr wasn't really the driving force behind Green Bay's offense; while true, that puts a ceiling on his scores even though his efficiency was very good. This is why you can't make educated judgements about players based exclusively on their stats. If you know of a statistical system that ranks Bart Starr fairly without overrating game managers, or perceiving Nick Foles' 2013 season among the greatest in history, please tell me about it.

Every stat-based system has strengths and weaknesses (well, they all have weaknesses; most of them have strengths, too), and one of TSP's weaknesses is the Bob Griese Problem: it underrates high-efficiency, low-volume passers on great teams. More on this in the Ben Roethlisberger essay yet to come, but please proceed understanding that Starr is substantially underrated by Career Value.

44. Carson Palmer — 13,360 — 16.8 — 4 - 27 - 108

You probably don't think of Carson Palmer as a compiler, but he had nine seasons with 414-1,003 TSP. Some are partial seasons, but most are just years when he was a little below average statistically. Take 2013, his first year in Arizona, when Palmer scored 768 TSP. He started every game and passed for 4,274 yards — but with 24 TDs and 22 INT, plus he took a career-high 41 sacks. What about 2009? Palmer averaged under 6 net yards per attempt. His last year in Cincinnati? Under 4,000 yards with 20 interceptions. 2016, the year after his MVP-caliber 2015? Way too many negative plays: 14 INTs, 14 fumbles, 40 sacks.

He also had four very good seasons (2005-07 and 2015), but not the consistent excellence of players like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, or even Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. 44th seems generous to me.

43. Trent Green — 11,087 — 17.17 — 4 - 31 - 124

Trent Green has excellent statistics, implying a more dominant player than he really was. From 2002-05, Green ranked 2nd, 2nd, 4th, and 5th in QB-TSP. He benefitted, however, from a magnificent supporting cast; there was a consensus around the league that Green was a product of his team, and not the key player.

In those four seasons (2002-05), 211 offensive players were selected to the Pro Bowl, about 6.5 per team. The teams with the most selections were the Colts (13), Packers (14), Seahawks (14), and Chiefs (21). Kansas City was a massive outlier, stacked with historic offensive talent.

Green made two Pro Bowls, which is not bad, but certainly not reflective of his statistical excellence, and he never received an All-Pro vote from any member of the Associated Press. Here are AP All-Pro votes for the Chiefs' offensive players from 2002-05: Will Shields, 88; Tony Gonzalez, 67; Priest Holmes, 66; Willie Roaf, 54; Brian Waters, 37; Casey Wiegmann, 18; Tony Richardson, 17; Larry Johnson, 4; John Tait, 2. Seven different QBs received votes during those years, and Green was not among them.

When Damon Huard replaced Green in '06, the team didn't miss a beat. Huard posted a 98.0 passer rating and led Kansas City to the playoffs. The year before Green joined the team, Elvis Grbac made the Pro Bowl, with 2,002 TSP. Trent Green's stats with the Chiefs, compared to all non-Green KC passers from 2000-06:

Green: 61.9 comp%, 4.2 TD%, 3.1 INT%, 87.3 rating, 5.9 sack%, 6.9 NY/A, 6.4 ANY/A

Others: 59.3 comp%, 4.7 TD%, 2.1 INT%, 90.3 rating, 5.6 sack%, 6.8 NY/A, 6.8 ANY/A

I'm not comparing Green to Kurt Warner here. This is Elvis Grbac, Damon Huard, Todd Collins, 40-year-old Warren Moon — journeymen. Green didn't outplay them, just like he didn't outplay Gus Frerotte and Brad Johnson in Washington, or Warner in St. Louis. This isn't just passing stats, though all those players had better stats than Green when playing with the same teammates. Frerotte went 15-15-1 as Washington's starter from 1996-98; Johnson was 17-10. Green was 6-8 with the same team. Grbac and Huard went a combined 12-11 with KC in '00 and '06. Green was 48-40, basically the same. Green went 2-3 starting for a Rams team that was 34-8 with Kurt Warner. Individually, those are small samples, but this is a pattern that follows Green throughout his career.

I believe Trent Green was a good quarterback. I don't believe he was ever a great one.

42. Terry Bradshaw — 13,342 — 17.19 — 6 - 30 - 180

Similar to Bart Starr. Like Starr, he ranks significantly higher by Year-Points (34th), he won a lot of championships (4), and he was one of the great postseason passers of all-time. Bradshaw had a passer rating over 100 in all four Super Bowls he played, and he had a perfect passer in a 1976 playoff win over the Colts (14/18, 264 yards, 3 TDs). Like Starr, Bradshaw played mostly on excellent teams that won with rushing and defense, and like Starr, he made a limited number of Pro Bowls (4 for Starr, 3 for Terry).

Bradshaw played on hopeless teams early in his career, and run-oriented teams in the middle of his career, before getting a chance to shine, mostly from 1977-82. During that 6-year stretch, he ranks second only to Dan Fouts in TSP. Bradshaw ranks 2nd in passing yards and leads all passers in touchdowns. In 1978, Bradshaw led the league in TDs, ranking 2nd by tiny margins in TD/INT +/- (1 behind Roger Staubach), passer rating (0.2 behind Staubach), and NY/A (0.2 behind Fouts). He was named league MVP and Super Bowl MVP.

Choosing between Starr and Bradshaw, I'd choose Starr as the better player, but they were both truly great, and much better than their rankings here imply.

41. Jeff Garcia — 11,605 — 17.20 — 3 - 24 - 72

Lost huge swaths of his prime to factors largely outside his control. He was a four-time all-star in the Canadian Football League, who didn't start in the NFL until he was 29. And from 2003-07, Garcia played for five different teams in five years, never getting a chance to master new systems or establish relationships with his receivers and coaches.

In 2003, Garcia had a disappointing season that turned out to be the best by any 49ers QB for the next decade. In '04 and '05, respectively, he played for the hopeless Browns and the hopeless Lions. In '06, he backed up Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, posting a 95.8 passer rating down the stretch after McNabb got injured. The Eagles went 5-1 with Garcia starting, and he led them to a wild card playoff win. In '07, with Tampa Bay, Garcia recorded a 94.6 rating and led the Buccaneers to the playoffs. He was still a good player, but in his last five seasons he had totaled just 3.3 Career Value.

Despite the lost years, Garcia was a four-time Pro Bowler and led three different teams to the playoffs. He had two genuinely great seasons (2000 and '01), and he was one of the toughest, most motivated quarterbacks I've ever seen, a fun player to watch and an easy guy to root for.

Next week we'll begin the top 40, looking mostly at Hall of Famers and Hall of Fame-caliber players.

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