Top 100 QBs: 1-20

This is part five 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 a recent 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 the previous entries of this series.

Best Statistical QBs: 81-100 Best Statistical QBs: 61-80 Best Statistical QBs: 41-60 Best Statistical QBs: 21-40

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. This week, we examine the top 20 quarterbacks of the Modern Era.

Questions and comments are encouraged, but please understand that this series is a product of extensive research and analysis, not whim or guess or hot take, and it was produced with no agenda except to inform and explain. Thanks for reading.

20. John Brodie — 17,839 — 27.9 — 6 - 38 - 228

Like Ken Anderson, a great ball-control QB who was very good but overrated on this list. Brodie's yards per completion and touchdown percentage are the lowest of his generation:


Overshadowed by fellow 49er QBs Joe Montana and Steve Young, Brodie won the team's starting job over (at various times) Y.A. Tittle, Billy Kilmer, and Steve Spurrier. He was the first 49er quarterback to have his jersey retired, later joined by Montana and Young. Brodie led the NFL in passing yards three times, TDs twice, and rating once. He was NFL MVP in 1970.

19. Roger Staubach — 15,770 — 28.5 — 8 - 68 - 544

By TSP, Roger Staubach rates [1] lower than one would expect, and [2] lower than I would like. Does TSP underrate the 1970s? The decade was dominated by defense, with historically low scores inspiring dramatic rule changes. The decade featured half a dozen defenses so dominant they earned nicknames: Steel Curtain (PIT), Purple People Eaters (MIN), Doomsday Defense (DAL), No-Name Defense (MIA), Grits Blitz (ATL), Orange Crush (DEN) ... does TSP adequately account for this?

I checked the leading QB-TSP score for every season of the Modern Era. Broken down by decade, here are the averages:

1946-55: 2369 1950-59: 2268 1955-64: 2490 1960-69: 2477 1965-74: 2325 1970-79: 2395 1975-84: 2684 1980-89: 2649 1985-94: 2507 1990-99: 2527 1995-04: 2501 2000-09: 2566 2005-14: 2567 2010-17: 2486

The average of those scores is 2486.5, with a standard deviation of 112.3. The scores for the '70s are a little low, certainly lower than following the 1978 rule changes, but within one standard deviation of average.

Top scores can be a little flukey, especially in small samples (n = 10), so let's add a look at the top 10 each season. I averaged the mean and median of the top 10 to determine the value for each season, then took the average of those over each decade.

1946-55: 1523 1950-59: 1620 1955-64: 1611 1960-69: 1670 1965-74: 1657 1970-79: 1602 1975-84: 1684 1980-89: 1722 1985-94: 1710 1990-99: 1690 1995-04: 1710 2000-09: 1720 2005-14: 1685 2010-17: 1701

This time, the average is 1664.7, with a standard deviation of 54.7. The '70s are a full standard deviation below average this time, but that's only a difference of about 60 TSP, which is not a big deal. While the '70s are lower than the surrounding decades, they're not a major outlier.

Final measure: how many QBs scored negative TSP in a given decade? Each season, I used the top n passers, where n equals 1.25 times the number of teams whose players are eligible for the sample. For instance, 15 in 1956, 28 in 1964, 35 in 1990, and 40 in 2008.

1946-55: 5.1 1950-59: 3.5 1955-64: 3.0 1960-69: 3.0 1965-74: 3.1 1970-79: 4.3 1975-84: 3.4 1980-89: 1.3 1985-94: 1.0 1990-99: 1.9 1995-04: 3.3 2000-09: 5.6 2005-14: 5.6 2010-17: 3.8

Those are raw numbers, not a percentage of the league. The average is 3.4, with a standard deviation of 1.4. While it appears that the TSP formula may be slightly over-generous toward QBs from the 1980s, there is no real evidence that the '70s are treated too harshly.

Roger Staubach's CV is limited by his short career and by the ceiling on his best seasons, which — statistically — were great but not historically exceptional. His excellent rushing is also slightly underrated by TSP, and his postseason success doesn't register at all. However, his ranking here is not limited by chronological bias.

18. Warren Moon — 19,322 — 28.6 — 9 - 40 - 360

Underappreciated. Here you've got a guy with a 23-year professional career, who could still play at a high level in his 40s. He passed the eye test, ran well and threw maybe the most perfect spiral in history. His NFL stats are basically the same as John Elway's, and he made nine Pro Bowls. He was Rose Bowl MVP, he won five Grey Cups, and his passer rating in the NFL playoffs was higher (84.9) than in the regular season (80.9), so no reasonable person could accuse him of choking in big games. Moon's Oilers made seven straight playoff appearances from 1987-93. When Moon went to Minnesota, the Oilers dropped from 12-4 to 2-14, from 4th in scoring (368) to dead last (226). After seven consecutive playoff seasons with Moon, they missed the playoffs for the next five years. He was the critical player for a perennial contender with few other standouts, and the team disintegrated without him. Moon didn't play for the Cowboys or 49ers, but what more do you want from him?

17. Aaron Rodgers — 17,508 — 31.46 — 7 - 55 - 385

Aaron Rodgers' net yards per attempt, from 2008-17, with his MVP seasons bolded: 6.7, 7.0, 7.4, 8.2, 6.6, 7.8, 7.7, 5.7, 6.5, 5.8. His three lowest figures have come in the last three seasons, averaging nearly two yards below his MVP standard. Rodgers is 34 and coming off a serious injury, and he just lost his favorite receiver. It's reasonable to wonder whether his best years are already behind him.

16. Y.A. Tittle — 19,087 — 31.52 — 7 - 50 - 350

Three years ago, in the greatest QBs of all time series, I noted, "There's a comparison to be drawn between Tittle, whose Giants lost three straight NFL Championship Games, and Jim Kelly, whose Buffalo Bills lost four straight title games in the early '90s." For the version of this article that appeared on Football Perspective, Chase Stuart added a footnote: "Tittle never won a playoff game in his career."

That's true, of course, but potentially misleading. There were no playoffs to speak of in the early '60s. Whichever team had the best record won its conference, and barring a tie, the Eastern Conference champ would play the Western Conference champ in the title game. That was the NFL postseason: one game. Tittle's Giants — unlike Kelly's Bills — never got a bye to rest, followed by a home game in freezing weather against a wild card team from Florida, and never padded the record against an overmatched foe.

So while it is true that Kelly's teams won a number of playoff games and Tittle's teams never did, it is also true that Kelly's teams lost twice as many postseason games as Tittle's. Their postseason fates are comparable. Chase just as easily could have written that Kelly's teams lost in the postseason four times to teams that failed to win a title, which Tittle's teams never did.

15. Norm Van Brocklin — 19,204 — 31.9 — 10 - 70 - 700

Prior to 1967, some of the sack data in this project is estimated. When individual sack yardage and/or team sack data is available, I infer individual sack totals from that. Otherwise, I assume 8% sack rates and 8 yards lost per sack. According to my estimates, Norm Van Brocklin had a 3.69% sack rate, 5th-best in the top 100. The top four are Peyton Manning (3.13%), Dan Marino (also 3.13%), Doug Williams (3.24%) and Mark Rypien (3.56%).

Including sack yardage and estimated sacks, I credit Van Brocklin with 22,722 net passing yards on 3,006 attempts and sacks. That's 7.56 net yards per attempt, by far the best in history.

14. Sonny Jurgensen — 20,228 — 33.3 — 7 - 59 - 413

Christian Adolph Jurgensen III became the Eagles' starting quarterback in 1961, when Norm Van Brocklin retired, and promptly led pro football in QB-TSP (2,748). The next season, he ranked 2nd, behind Y.A. Tittle. He was hurt in '63 and missed half the year. In '64, his first season with Washington, Jurgensen ranked 2nd in TSP again, behind only John Unitas. After a down year in '65, he ranked 4th in '66 and 1st again in '67. He was injured in '68, but bounced back to rank 4th in TSP in both '69 and '70. After that he was never healthy more than intermittently, but he had seven seasons among the top 5 in QB-TSP.

Most top-five seasons:

Peyton Manning, 14
Fran Tarkenton, 11
Drew Brees, 10
Tom Brady, 8
Brett Favre, 8
Dan Marino, 8
Joe Montana, 8
Roger Staubach, 8
John Unitas, 8
Norm Van Brocklin, 8
Dan Fouts, 7
Otto Graham, 7
Sonny Jurgensen, 7
Bobby Layne, 6
Aaron Rodgers, 6
Steve Young, 6

No one else has more than five. While Jurgensen's total is obviously very good (tied for 11th), he is distinguished less by that total than by his consistent excellence. Unique on this list, Sonny never ranked lower than 4th, unless he was outside the top 10 altogether. He was essentially a top-five QB every year he was the full-time starter.

13. John Elway — 22,258 — 33.8 — 11 - 59 - 649

One of the principles that drives my subjective QB rankings is my belief that players who continue to perform well at an age when most of their peers are retired were also very good players in their primes. John Elway made five Pro Bowls in his last six seasons, retired following back-to-back Super Bowl victories, and was named Super Bowl MVP in the final game of his career. He set a career best for NY/A (7.14) in his final, age-38 season.

I don't believe that playing well in one's late 30s is more important than doing so in one's mid-20s, but I do believe it tells us more about the player. A QB who's still effective when his hair's going gray may have had his previous opportunities limited by playing time, coaching philosophies, or quality of teammates. In contrast, a QB who makes a big splash his first few seasons and then drags towards an early retirement ... well, I have comparably less faith in that player's true talent level.

12. Ken Anderson — 20,133 — 34.3 — 8 - 57 - 456

One of the challenges for anyone who's interested in football statistics is how to interpret Ken Anderson's numbers. They are unquestionably Hall of Fame caliber. How do you reconcile his excellent stats with a good-not-great reputation?

There are a lot of angles worth considering, but here's a quote that's always interested me, from The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman:

"A team can pad the stats for its passer," Bill Walsh says, "by letting him throw a lot of dink passes at the end of a game ... I know. I did it for Ken Anderson in his first few years, when I was the Bengals' offensive coach."

Anderson's stats support the idea that he threw "a lot of dink passes." From 1975-84, fourteen quarterbacks attempted at least 2,500 passes. Among those 14 QBs, Anderson ranked 3rd in completion percentage and 2nd in lowest INT percentage, but 10th in touchdown percentage and 12th in yards per completion.

I think Ken Anderson should be in the Hall of Fame. His stats, padded or not, preclude mediocrity. However, a stat-based analysis is the only one that suggests Anderson as an HOFer. I'll repeat the caution I urged last year: "Anderson is underrated outside the analytics community, but if you rank him among the top 20 QBs of all time, you're essentially rejecting methodological pluralism, saying stats tell the whole story ... I would really discourage you from such a credulous approach."

Anderson was a great quarterback, but he's not nearly the 12th-best of all time.

11. Dan Fouts — 21,885 — 38.4 — 9 - 63 - 567

Dan Fouts played for offensive mastermind Don Coryell. He played with Hall of Fame wide receiver Charlie Joiner, Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, four-time Pro Bowl wide receivers Wes Chandler and John Jefferson, and offensive linemen (Russ Washington, Ed White, and Doug Wilkerson) who combined to make 12 Pro Bowls. Running back Chuck Muncie made three Pro Bowls. The Chargers were a record-breaking offense, but how do you assign credit among so many contributors?

Coryell was a successful coach before coming to San Diego, an architect of potent offenses and the winningest coach in Cardinals history. The Charger offense was even nicknamed "Air Coryell." Joiner was a good receiver with the Oilers and Bengals, and with the Chargers before Coryell. Jefferson and Chandler both made Pro Bowls without Fouts. So did Muncie and White.

Despite all that talent, the Chargers' four best seasons were Fouts' four best seasons. Was Fouts the critical piece, or a beneficiary of the system and talent surrounding him? Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf, who worked for the division rival Raiders during Fouts' prime years, remarked that when the Raiders played the Chargers, "I never had the feeling that ... the one guy we have to worry about is the one throwing the ball."

Football is the ultimate team game, and every great QB is to some extent a product of the coaches and players around him, but Fouts was unusually blessed. He was an accurate passer, with a quick drop and a strong arm, and very intelligent. He had a reputation for toughness and leadership. On a different team, he still would have been a good quarterback. But I'm not confident that he would have been a great one.

10. Steve Young — 20,573 — 39.0 — 8 - 61 - 488

One of the easily debunked narratives that persists in our sports culture is this: "running QBs don't win championships." Steve Young is the greatest pass-run double-threat of all time, almost beyond any question, and he was a Super Bowl MVP. Russell Wilson and Young are the most obvious counters to this argument, but Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, and Aaron Rodgers further illustrate its absurdity.

Now, I know that at this point some readers are thinking that players like Bradshaw and Rodgers weren't really running quarterbacks. I've even known people to make that claim about Steve Young. In 1994, when Young led the 49ers to a Super Bowl win, he led all QBs in rushing yardage and rush TDs. He was also the leading rusher in Super Bowl XXIX.

There are three common mistakes that people get pulled into when they restate the "running QBs don't win championships" trope. The first is that they use a tiny sample size in which "running QBs" just means Michael Vick, Kordell Stewart, and Bobby Douglass, maybe a handful of others. You can't make broad generalizations based on a sample size in the single digits.

The second mistake is using skin color, consciously or unconsciously, to determine who counts as a running QB. Thus, Cunningham (4,928 yds, 35 TD) counts as a running QB, but Young (4,239 yds, 43 TD) does not. Roger Staubach ranked among the top 10 rushing QBs every full season of his career, and ran more frequently (11.1% of plays) than Donovan McNabb (9.6%), but he wasn't a running QB because "running QB" is code for "black guy." People have a mental image of what "running QBs" look like, and it's usually not a white person.

The third mistake, and probably the most common, is to blindly trust journalists, pundits, and talking heads whose goal is not to educate but to maximize viewership. People uncritically repeat what they hear on ESPN. Some yutz in a suit, misguided by one or both of the mistakes above, says that running QBs don't win championships. Viewers hear this a few times, and they assume it's true. They begin to repeat it themselves. It enters conventional wisdom, something so well-known that no one thinks to question its obvious falseness.

I took the 100 QBs profiled in this series and calculated how many Super Bowls (1966-2017) or league titles (1946-65) each player won as his team's primary QB. Then I ranked them by rushing percentage: rush attempts / (pass attempts + sacks + rush attempts). I sorted that list into groups of 10, with the most frequent runners at the top (1-10) and the least frequent at the bottom (91-100). Here's how many championships each group won:

1-10: 6
11-20: 11
21-30: 7
31-40: 10
41-50: 9
51-60: 10
61-70: 6
71-80: 0
81-90: 5
91-100: 7.5

The last group has 0.5 because of the 1951 Rams, for whom Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield split QB duties almost 50-50. The top 100 QBs above account for 72 of 82 modern major league championships. The others winners were teams quarterbacked by Sid Luckman (2.0%), Paul Christman (2.5%), Tommy Thompson (8.5%), Thompson again, Jack Kemp (9.7%), Kemp again, Jim McMahon (10.8%), Trent Dilfer (7.3%), Joe Flacco (5.5%), and Carson Wentz (9.0%).

The winningest group is the second-most-frequent runners (including Otto Graham, Roger Staubach, Frank Ryan, and Billy Wade), and the top 50 runners combined to win 43 championships, compared to 29 for the bottom 50 runners. I know some people are thinking right now, Yeah, but the most frequent runners won slightly less often than average. I'll say again, a 10-player sample is meaningless. Furthermore, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are still in mid-career and could easily add to the current total.

Eighteen of the 100 QBs had rush attempts comprise 10% or more of their plays. It might be reasonable to consider 10% as a cutoff for "running QB," though that would exclude famous scramblers like Donovan McNabb (9.6%) and Fran Tarkenton (8.7%). Nine of 52 Super Bowl-winning QBs rushed on at least 10% of their attempts in the championship-winning season. That's 17.3%, almost exactly what you'd expect if rushing were no factor at all. Not only do running QBs win championships, they do so with the same frequency as non-running QBs do.

I addressed this in more depth at the beginning of my 2014 Week 4 Power Rankings.

9. Brett Favre — 26,386 — 41.5 — 11 - 75 - 825

Let's talk Packer QBs ... Aaron Rodgers is the most fun quarterback to watch in today's game, the most visibly exceptional. His stats back that up: he has led the league in TD/INT +/- four times, and he has the highest passer rating of all time (103.8). He's also a Super Bowl MVP with terrific performances in the postseason.

But we're all prone to recency bias, in particular allowing it to underrate the significance of sustaining greatness. The notion that Aaron Rodgers has had a better career than his former teammate Brett Favre is not supported by objective evidence.

Favre started 298 games, more than twice as many as Rodgers (142). Favre made almost twice as many Pro Bowls (11) as Rodgers (6), actually made more Pro Bowls than Rodgers has seasons as a starter (9). Favre made twice as many Associated Press All-Pro teams (6) as Rodgers (3), including more first-team selections and more MVP awards (both 3-2).

Rodgers has passed for 38,502 yards and 313 TDs. Favre passed for 71,838 yards and 508 TDs. That's an advantage of 33,000 yards and 200 TDs for the passer who played in a more challenging league environment. Judged by TSP, Favre had 11 top-10 seasons, compared to seven for Rodgers. Favre had eight top-5 seasons, and three years leading the league. Rodgers has six top-5 seasons, and two years leading the league. Favre rates significantly ahead in Adjusted TSP (+8,878), Career Value (+10.1), Top-10 Points (+20), and Year-Points (+440). He has more black ink and more gray ink.

Aaron Rodgers is a great player, and he may have several more great years in front of him; he has more natural talent than Favre, and conceivably could surpass Favre's Career Value in as little as two or three seasons. But the suggestion that he has already been better than Favre is ill-informed.

Favre was the most prolific passer of his generation, setting all-time records for completions, yards, and TDs, and he was the best quarterback in the league for at least three years. During his long career in Green Bay, he never played with an offensive teammate who is in the Hall of Fame, and his leading receivers were Donald Driver (9%), Antonio Freeman (9%), and Robert Brooks (6%).

8. Otto Graham — 21,285 — 43.5 — 9 - 72 - 648

"Automatic Otto" led pro football in QB-TSP six times in 10 seasons. Even in small leagues, that level of excellence distinguishes Graham among the very best quarterbacks ever to play. Most years leading in QB-TSP:

1] Otto Graham, 6
2] Peyton Manning, 5
t3] Roger Staubach and Steve Young, 4
t5] Tom Brady, Brett Favre, John Unitas, 3

7. Joe Montana — 24,331 — 43.6 — 11 - 77 - 847

I guess a lot of people don't remember this, but Dan Marino was so dominant that Joe Montana fans took to calling him the best regular-season quarterback of all time, leaving the door open for Montana as the greatest overall, based on his exceptional postseason performances. Montana was probably the greatest quarterback in postseason history.

Montana directed the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins, without throwing an interception in any of the four games: 83/122, 1142 yards, 11 TDs, no picks — plus 105 yards and 2 TDs on the ground. Projected to a 16-game season, Montana's Super Bowl performances would yield 4,568 yards, 44 touchdowns, still no interceptions, 420 rushing yards, and 8 rushing TDs.

Montana was often as effective in the earlier rounds of the playoffs as he was with a ring on the line. Consider the playoffs of the 1989 season. In a 41-13 win over the NFC Central champion Vikings, Montana passed for 4 touchdowns and a 142.5 rating. The next week, in the NFC Championship Game, he completed 26 of 30 passes for 262 yards and 2 TDs. In Super Bowl XXIV, 297 yards, 5 TDs, 147.6 rating.

Notwithstanding the 92-yard game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII, the touchdown pass to John Taylor, and The Catch in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, perhaps Montana's finest moment came in Super Bowl XIX, when Montana out-dueled Marino, passing for 331 yards and 3 scores, plus keeping the Miami defense off-balance by rushing for 59 yards and a touchdown.

Montana also led the Chiefs to two of their few postseason wins under Marty Schottenheimer (2-2 with Montana, 1-5 without him). Altogether, Montana's teams were a combined 16-7 in postseason play, including four Super Bowl wins. Compressed into a 16-game schedule, Montana's postseason stats look like this: 320/511, 4015 yards, 31 TDs, 15 INTs, 95.6 passer rating.

Montana and Marino have now settled into memory for most fans, their who-was-greater debate overshadowed by the acrimony of Manning-vs-Brady. For Montana, that has allowed his consistent excellence to gently resurface, but it has simultaneously dimmed his reputation as the greatest big-game quarterback who ever lived.

6. Fran Tarkenton — 28,550 — 46.7 — 12 - 91 - 1092

Sixth all-time in career value, which is phenomenal, but he ranks even higher in Year-Points (4th) and Adjusted TSP (3rd). Subjectively, I'd rank him as the 7th-best QB of the Modern Era, but if you go exclusively by regular-season statistics, I think he's top-5.

Every QB in the top 100, sorted by number of 500-TSP seasons:

18: Fran Tarkenton
17: Dan Marino
16: Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning
15: Drew Brees, John Unitas
14: John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger
13: Dan Fouts, Joe Montana, Vinny Testaverde
12: Roman Gabriel, Steve Grogan, Jim Hart, Sonny Jurgensen, Dave Krieg, Warren Moon, Carson Palmer, Norm Van Brocklin
11: Ken Anderson, John Brodie, Charlie Conerly, Len Dawson, Boomer Esiason, John Hadl, Jim Kelly, Craig Morton, Philip Rivers, Bart Starr, Y.A. Tittle
10: Terry Bradshaw, Mark Brunell, Steve DeBerg, Otto Graham, Bob Griese, Bobby Layne, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, Matt Ryan, Steve Young
9: Troy Aikman, Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins, Ron Jaworski, Charley Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Norm Snead, Billy Wade
8: Chris Chandler, Jim Everett, Joe Ferguson, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, Brad Johnson, Joe Namath, Jim Plunkett, Tobin Rote, Phil Simms, Ken Stabler, Roger Staubach
7: Steve Bartkowski, Randall Cunningham, Trent Green, Bobby Hebert, Billy Kilmer, Daryle Lamonica, Cam Newton, Ken O'Brien, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, Joe Theismann, Kurt Warner, Danny White, Jim Zorn
6: George Blanda, Matt Hasselbeck, Tommy Kramer, Neil Lomax, Don Meredith, Earl Morrall, Milt Plum, Frank Ryan, Matt Schaub, Brian Sipe, Doug Williams, Russell Wilson
5: Daunte Culpepper, Lynn Dickey, Jeff George, Bert Jones, Bernie Kosar, Greg Landry, Archie Manning, Jake Plummer, Mark Rypien
4: Ed Brown, Johnny Lujack

5. Johnny Unitas — 25,981 — 46.9 — 11 - 82 - 902

John Unitas has passing stats that look pedestrian by today's standards: 40,239 yards, 290 TD, 253 INT, 78.2 rating. He never passed for 3,500 yards in a season, never had a passer rating over 100. Unitas not only played before the Tom Brady rule and defenseless receiver policies reshaped passing offense, he played when offensive linemen weren't allowed to use their hands, defensive linemen were allowed to use the head slap, and receivers could be hit anywhere on the field. It was a substantially different game. But comparing Unitas to his contemporaries, he stood out dramatically. I'll measure this with black ink, years leading the league in eight major statistical categories. I used pass completions, yards, TDs, TD/INT +/-, net yards per attempt, TD%, TD-INT %, and passer rating. I counted the NFL and AFL as a single league, and did the same thing for the NFL and AAFC in the late '40s, using per-game numbers where necessary. In the 1950s, with a league of only 12 teams, black ink is calculated normally, but should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, since it's easier to dominate a smaller league. Most black ink, 1946-2017:

Johnny Unitas - 28
Peyton Manning - 25
Dan Marino - 23
Steve Young - 23
Drew Brees - 21
Otto Graham - 21
Tom Brady - 18
Brett Favre - 18

Measured by statistical dominance against his peers, Johnny Unitas was the greatest passer of all time.

4. Drew Brees — 28,003 — 49.5 — 13 - 96 - 1248

I haven't done the research to back this up, so maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that Drew Brees has padded his numbers in low-leverage situations (like the closing minutes of a blowout) more often than peers like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers. I looked at the top 50 players in regular-season passing yards, and calculated their Passing Yards per Win As Starting Quarterback (Yds/W) and Passing Touchdowns per Win As Starting Quarterback (TD/W). Among those 50 players, here's how Brees and his contemporaries rank; lower ranks indicate fewer yards or TDs per win.


I don't know that this proves anything — wins are a team stat, and everyone agrees that Brees has spent much of his career saddled with atrocious defenses — but Brees' outstanding statistical production hasn't translated to outstanding team success. To the extent this data shows anything relevant — and I'm not claiming that it does — it supports the idea that Brees has produced in lower-leverage situations than his peers. Drew Brees is an all-time great, a no-questions-asked, first-ballot Hall of Famer. I don't believe he's as exceptional as a purely statistical analysis would imply.

3. Tom Brady — 28,475 — 50.7 — 13 - 83 - 1079

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning aren't quarterbacks so much as religious figures. People believe in one or the other, to the point of hating people whose beliefs differ from their own, and at this point everyone has made up their minds. People who believe Manning was better will do so with or without any arguments I might make on his behalf, and people who prefer Brady will continue to do so regardless of any points I might make in Manning's favor. That's a discouraging position for any writer.

Both religions use what analytics pioneer Bill James called "bullshit dumps" to advance their candidates. "All subjects worthy of discussion are too complicated to be fully encased in logic. Thus, in all discussions, the least precise areas become bullshit dumps, elements of the discussion which are used to reconcile our formal logic to our intuitive sense of right and wrong." These imprecise areas of the debate, James observes, are easy to assert but nearly impossible to disprove. (The New Bill James Historical Abstract, p. 349)

Manning's advocates can cite his poor defensive units, or Bill Belichick's influence on Brady's success, or Manning's revolutionary control of the line of the scrimmage. Brady's believers can bring up Manning's Hall of Fame receivers, the dome in Indianapolis, and the Patriots' postseason success, which they attribute primarily or even solely to Brady. It's easy to use Belichick as an excuse for the Patriots' unprecedented success, or the dome as an excuse for Manning's statistical dominance. Those arguments are mostly bullshit, and I've lost my passion for them. If you think Brady is greater than Manning, I disagree, but I don't care enough to waste my time preaching for conversions.

2. Dan Marino — 31,474 — 59.3 — 14 - 91 - 1274

The NFL has changed dramatically since Dan Marino retired. No major passing record, single-season or career, is more than seven years old. Coaching strategies and rule changes — most notably the policies on illegal contact and defenseless receivers — have fundamentally changed the nature of the game in a way that makes it impossible to compare contemporary passers to those of Marino's generation. Dan Marino retired 18 years ago, so it's easy to forget how unbelievably dominant he was and how dramatically he re-defined our ideas of what a quarterback could accomplish. When Marino retired following the 1999 season, he held NFL records for each of the following stats. The number in parenthesis indicates the second-place figure, followed by Marino's lead as a percentage.

Highest Passer Rating, Rookie Season — 96.0 (Greg Cook, 88.3, 9%)
Most Passes Completed, Career — 4,967 (John Elway, 4,123, 20%)
Most Passing Yards, Career — 61,361 (John Elway, 51,475, 19%)
Most Touchdown Passes, Career — 420 (Fran Tarkenton, 342, 23%)
Highest Touchdown/Interception Differential, Career — +168 (Joe Montana, +134, 25%)
Most Passing Yards, Season — 5,084 (Dan Fouts, 4,802, 6%)
Most Touchdown Passes, Season — 48 (Kurt Warner, 41, 17%)
Highest Touchdown/Interception Differential, Season — +31 (Kurt Warner, +28, 11%)
Most Seasons Leading League, Pass Completions — 6 (Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen, 4, 33%)
Most Seasons Leading League, Passing Yards — 5 (tie with Sonny Jurgensen)
Most Seasons 3,000 or More Yards Passing — 13 (John Elway, 12, 8%)
Most Games, 400 or More Yards Passing, Career — 13 (Joe Montana and Warren Moon, 7, 86%)
Most Games, 400 or More Yards Passing, Season — 4 (many players, 2, 100%)
Most Games, 300 or More Yards Passing, Career — 63 (Dan Fouts, 51, 24%)
Most Games, 300 or More Yards Passing, Season — 9 (tie with Warren Moon and Kurt Warner)
Most Games, Four or More Touchdown Passes, Career — 21 (Johnny Unitas, 17, 24%)
Most Games, Four or More Touchdown Passes, Season — 6 (Brett Favre, 5, 20%)

Marino held most of those records by at least 20% — he was in a different stratosphere of production than his peers and predecessors. Until the new illegal contact policy in 2004, Marino still had more 40-TD seasons than every other player in history combined, including the top two of all time. He also held dozens of less significant records, like most consecutive games with 400 passing yards, or most consecutive postseason games with a touchdown pass. Marino went to nine Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro by a major press outlet eight times, as well as Rookie of the Year, MVP, and Comeback Player of the Year. By TSP, Marino had 14 top-10 seasons (second only to Peyton Manning), including seven top-3 seasons.

1. Peyton Manning — 34,057 — 67.7 — 15 - 124 - 1860

As I wrote above in the Tom Brady section, I understand that people have settled beliefs about Manning-vs-Brady, and that I'm not going to change anyone's convictions. But here's one illustration of why I prefer Manning: a (subjective) year-by-year list of which QB was better.

1998: Manning
1999: Manning
2000: Manning
2001: tie
2002: Manning
2003: Manning
2004: Manning
2005: Manning
2006: Manning
2007: Brady
2008: Manning
2009: Manning
2010: Brady
2011: Brady
2012: tie
2013: Manning
2014: Manning
2015: Brady
2016: Brady
2017: Brady

Maybe you want to argue with a couple of those, but most of them are pretty straightforward, and Manning leads 12-6. This is quick-and-dirty, not a rigorous analysis, but that's not especially close, and it's hard for me to see which years I was unfair to Brady.

This is not the final article in this series. I'll be back next week with a data post focused on Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and some cursory analysis of PFHOF candidates like Ken Anderson, Donovan McNabb, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. The following week I'll present an update of my personal top 100 QBs of the Modern Era. I hope you'll stick around for that.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site