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FNQB: The Ten Best Quarterbacks Ever

When the NFL Network did it’s immensely popular Top 100 series, where they tried to determine the greatest players ever to play professional football, as well as build a viewing base for the Thursday Night Football TV slot.  Oh, those crazy executives.

Today I wanted to look at the top ten quarterbacks on that list and compare them to an objectively examined, subjectively picked top ten quarterbacks of all time list.  To do this first, you need the NFL list and their place on the Top 100.

That’s your all-time top ten, according to the NFL Network’s panel of experts.  The first thing I did and went back and looked at the old-timey quarterbacks to see who deserves and who doesn’t.  The first thing that sticks out in my analysis is that Unitas had a few voter biases in his favor.  Clearly, when talking about pre-merger quarterbacks, it’s Baugh and Graham, and it’s everyone else.  Unitas falls in that everyone-else category.

Pre-Modern Quarterback Analysis

I would imagine that unless you have a list based on the premise that it’s exponentially more difficult for a modern QB to be successful than it was for an early QB, Baugh and Graham are both easy inclusions in a top five list.  I don’t think you can say that about Unitas.  Here’s the bias: many of the NFL network voters grew up watching Unitas dominate the NFL.  Few are old enough to clearly remember Baugh and Graham at their best.

Here’s the argument for guys like Luckman and Unitas over Graham and Baugh: the stats showed that both Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham had a fumbling problem.  However, Baugh was the first player who had a low enough INT rate to justify a passing offense over a rushing offense, and then Graham was the first quarterback to actually push that rate to around 1 INT every 20 passes.  Now, in today’s game a rate like that would be rather high, but for Graham and Baugh, those guys won a number of championships on the strength of those passing games by keeping picks to a minimum for their era.

When I really analyze Luckman, you see a guy who was one of the greatest touchdown throwers of all time, but also a guy who would have needed to hand the ball off 30+ times per game.  He only averaged about fifteen throws per game, usually one of which would go for six points.  Baugh, Graham, and Unitas all had a little bit of a fumbling problem, which Luckman didn’t show if only because he never threw as much as the other three.  Graham and Unitas could both run a little bit, where Baugh and Luckman more or less played the role of statues.  To rank these four, in order: 1) Graham, 2) Baugh, 3) Unitas, 4) Luckman.  At the end of the day, the Bears threw about 35% of the time with Luckman, while the Redskins threw a more balanced 50% of the time with Baugh.  It was a different era by the time Graham retired, but that 50’s Browns team was the first team to win by throwing in NFL history (exception, perhaps, to Baugh’s Redskins).

There are perhaps four other quarterbacks who deserve to be in the pre-merger greatest ever discussion: Los Angeles’ Norm Van Brocklin, Green Bay’s Bart Starr, Washington’s Sonny Jurgensen, and Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica.  Lamonica had the “mad-bomber reputation”, but between being one of the best ball handlers, one of the least sacked players, and positing a 5.1% INT rate as a Raider in the pre-merger era, he was actually one of the least turnover prone QBs of the pre-modern era.  I think Van Brocklin may have been the best quarterback of this group.  Starr was sacked-fumbled a lot over the course of his career, and the Packers were a pretty good team, so he’s probably not a top ten QB of all time.  Jurgensen and Lamonica were two equally great players who played in two very different offenses.  Sonny probably did a slight amount more than Daryle with regard to using the help he had; Lamonica was great, and a lot of that was the great vertical ability of the Raiders receivers.  Both were great, so I’m giving it to Sonny by a hair.

Van Brocklin and Unitas were similar offensive players, throwing it about 50% of the time in their formative years and about 55% of their time at peak development.  Unitas offered the element of running to assist his passing, where Van Brocklin almost did everything with his passing abilities.  Was Van Brocklin a better passer than Unitas?  Unitas was a little better in his formative years, and if nothing else, I suspect Baltimore played against more elite competition than Los Angeles did back in the day.  When you add to that Van Brocklin’s three really terrible seasons to end his LA career before enjoying a rebound with the Eagles, it’s easy to give a slight advantage to Unitas.

My list of the top eight pre-merger QBs is as follows:

  1. Otto Graham
  2. Sammy Baugh
  3. John Unitas
  4. Norm Van Brocklin
  5. Sonny Jurgensen
  6. Daryle Lamonica
  7. Sid Luckman
  8. Bart Starr

The only other thing to do before looking at the modern quarterbacks is trying to figure out what to do with Fran Tarkenton, who played long enough to have an entire career before the merger, and an entire career after it.  He’s a lot like Brett Favre in that way: Favre could have retired after the 2002 season and made the hall of fame.  You could argue that a QB who played eight seasons like Favre between 2003-2010 would be a nice hall of fame candidate, with two near MVP seasons in 2007 and 2009.  Likewise, Tarkenton could have made the hall just on his contributions after returning to the Vikings in 1972.  He was much less of a scrambler at that point, and when he didn’t scramble, Tarkenton was actually pretty good.  Formative-era Tarkenton was a pretty mediocre quarterback.  Too many mid-efficiency seasons where his gross totals look nice because it was a true pass-to-win offense.  I think I’d probably rate pre-merger Tarkenton below Bart Starr, but his career as a whole, I think he accomplished more.  He played in three super bowls, which is more than Starr was able to despite playing in the same era.

Modern Quarterback Analysis

Back to the NFLN top ten list.  You have the top six modern QBs on the NFL list according to NFL Network: Montana, Manning, Favre, Brady, Elway, Marino.  In addition to those guys, the next four post-merger QBs on the NFL’s list were:

To determine the best post-merger quarterbacks of all-time, we have sufficient statistical measures to make conclusions and separate the most productive winners from the other winners who are lumped together of a group of winners.  For example: Steve Young was the best quarterback in football for eight consecutive seasons between 1991 and 1998.  Young had flaws, in that he took sacks for most of his career and had issues with negative plays throughout even those great seasons.  They were big play seasons with big play receivers with Jerry Rice and later Terrell Owens.  And outside of those 8 seasons, Young wasn’t particularly effective.  But when you consider the voters named Joe Montana the greatest quarterback ever, it’s hard to dock Steve Young points because he stepped into a proven system and took it to levels Montana hadn’t taken it to before.

Staubach was essentially the Steve Young of the 70s, in that he took over a great team seven years after coming into the league, and running with it late into his thirties.  By the 90’s, QBs were throwing up to 100 times more per season than in the 70’s, but the efficiencies and situational considerations for Young and Stabach were similar: they were the best of their eras, and they didn’t play much in their formative years.  I feel they both need to be ranked higher.

It’s different with Bradshaw and Aikman, who are both difficult choices to be on a top 100 players of all time list.  Both quarterbacked great NFL dynasties, and Aikman’s QB rating would be higher if Emmitt Smith didn’t score a disproportional amount of the team’s touchdowns on the ground.  In other words, they have similar era-adjusted QB ratings, but Aikman was much better because his offenses scored as consistently as the Steelers of the 70’s did, they just did it with more Emmitt Smith than the Steelers did with Franco Harris.

Obviously, I don’t feel Bradshaw belongs anywhere near the greatest 100 players of all time.  Greatest 100 quarterbacks?  He probably belongs somewhere on that list.  Bradshaw reached elite player status in 1977, the year prior to the Steelers’ third title.  He remained at that level through the 1982 season.  If not for the first two titles credited to Bradshaw, that career looks pretty much identical to Trent Green’s or Drew Bledsoe’s.  Troy Aikman seemed to play well more consistently with the strength of his team, but his overall greatness vs. simple effectiveness appeared to be a product of how good his team was.  I wouldn’t move either Aikman or Bradshaw ahead of any of the ten best modern QBs, and there are probably a few others who deserve to be ahead of them.

I think sometimes when people, specifically the voters in this exercise, talk about Brett Favre as an all time great, we lose sight of how many other high efficiency players like Favre were able to accomplish their feats without being a turnover machine.  Favre, I believe, deserves to be ranked above John Elway because in similar situations (not a great team around them, inconsistent coaching quality), Favre performed just a little bit better than Elway.  Neither, however, was as good over any five year period as Tom Brady has been these last five years.  Brady could keep playing at this level for many years into the future, which makes it easy to suggest he needs to be above Favre and Elway both.  I think both Favre and Elway are a little high on the list, and given that, I don’t think you can justify Aikman above them.  Favre and Elway should be in the 60-80 range, with Aikman closer to Joe Namath up around the 90th-100th players on the list.

Marino is too low.  If there really is a gulf of 17 players in between Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, it’s a testament to how great Manning is, no knock on Marino.  Marino needs to be in the top fifteen, if not higher in the top ten greatest players of all time.  Along with Manning, Baugh, and Graham, Marino is a top five or six quarterback of all time.  Beyond the top five, we can’t let Young, Staubach, or Unitas slip too far away to where they fall out of the top ten.  Joe Montana is fine rated where he is, but I think we’ll entertain the argument that he’s not the greatest to ever play in a second.

I then decided to consider some other players who could arguably be in the top ten QBs of all time, but were either in the bottom 20 of the NFL network list or missed the list altogether.  I looked at: Dan Fouts, Kurt Warner, Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Chad Pennington, and Jim Kelly.  I immediately eliminated the lower efficiency passers from that list, and looked deeper at Fouts, Warner, and Kelly.  Fouts is the one who could be considered among the best of all time.  He compares favorably to Tom Brady, though a Brady that improves just a little bit while playing at a higher level in the next decade would bump him over Fouts.

The other group of players that need to be considered is active players who are neither Manning nor Brady.  I looked over the numbers for the following players: Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, and Philip Rivers.  I was looking for a minimum of 4 and a half high efficiency seasons, which eliminates guys like Matt Schaub, Chad Pennington, Matt Hasselbeck, Eli Manning, and Aaron Rodgers from the ‘greatest ever’ discussion.  Roethlisberger doesn’t quite match-up in a lot of statistical categories, but what’s interesting about this is that Drew Brees compares favorably to Tom Brady, and probably isn’t going to finish his career as strongly as either Tony Romo or Philip Rivers will.  The five best active players (including Manning) might someday be considered five of the best ten quarterbacks ever.

Brees has the best hall of fame resume to date, and would probably grade out right about where Brady does.  Watch for the career progressions of Romo and of Rivers: those are the guys who could bust the top ten ever list.

I would re-order the modern QBs ranking list as such:

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Joe Montana
  3. Dan Marino
  4. Dan Fouts
  5. Roger Staubach
  6. Steve Young
  7. Tom Brady
  8. Drew Brees
  9. Fran Tarkenton
  10. Brett Favre
  11. John Elway
  12. Troy Aikman

With Philip Rivers and Tony Romo likely climbing the list every year from here on out.

Proportionality

It’s hard to say with great confidence how many pre-merger quarterbacks we should put in the all-time top ten.  A perfect non-discriminatory proportionality would put 5 and 5 in.  But the merger is becoming an ancient event in NFL history.  There were 50 years between the start of professional football and now 40 years since the mergers.  For the first 15 years of pro football, forward passing was hardly ever used.  The “wildcat” of it’s time.  Of course, the single wing formation that the wildcat is based on was a fairly common formation then.

So I don’t think it should be completely proportional.  I think that Baugh, Graham, and Unitas all deserve to be in the top ten, and I don’t think you can leave any of the top six modern players off the list: Manning, Montana, Marino, Fouts, Staubach, and Young.  That’s nine out of 10.  How in the world can we tell of Tom Brady was a better quarterback than Norm Van Brocklin?  They are nearly identical players historically.  Brady won a little bit more, doing it on a better team.  Van Brocklin played for multiple teams, and had some lulls in his career.  Brady’s not unfamiliar to periods of struggle.

I think Van Brocklin should have a small edge over Brady.  If for no other reason than he was one of the best ball-protectors in professional football history.  And plus, Brady might do something over the second half of his career to just make this debate seem silly.  Maybe he ends up as a top five quarterback of all time.  Right now, I’m putting Van Brocklin on my list of the ten best quarterbacks of all time:
LiveBall Sports’ Greatest of All Time Quarterbacks

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Joe Montana
  3. Otto Graham
  4. Sammy Baugh
  5. Johnny Unitas
  6. Dan Marino
  7. Dan Fouts
  8. Norm Van Brocklin
  9. Roger Staubach
  10. Steve Young
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