Home > FNQB, Hall of Fame, NFL > FNQB: Brady, Eli and the top 25 QBs of All-Time

FNQB: Brady, Eli and the top 25 QBs of All-Time

This Super Bowl 46 edition of Friday Night Quarterback focuses on the Hall of Fame standard for quarterbacks.  There are 25 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame.  I made an off-handed remark the other day that Eli Manning is certainly going to end his career as one of the 25 greatest quarterbacks of all time if only because there are fewer all-time great quarterbacks than it seems like.  When I have done some deeper digging, that may not be entirely accurate.

Eli Manning is certainly a better quarterback than some who are in the Hall of Fame already, but to be one of the 25 best ever to play the game, Eli might need to rank better than some of his peers in the modern game.  Ben Roethlisberger is not going to retire as one of the 25 best ever to play.  There’s an argument to be made for Eli over Big Ben, but not such a convincing one that Eli Manning can easily be placed among the top 25 QBs of all time, while Roethlisberger is given no chance to someday make that list.

Quickly now, I want to sort out the already Hall-of-Famers to determine the quickest path into the brotherhood of hall of fame passers:

The Group of Peyton Manning/Tom Brady comparables is as follows: Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana.  It seems for certain that at the end of their careers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will make this a list of seven (maybe eight, when Drew Brees is done) of the greatest passers of all time.

The top half Hall-of-Famers is a group that really isn’t realistically in the conversation of “greatest to ever play”, but clearly is a step above the rest.  Dan Fouts and Steve Young are right at the top: they could go in the next group up if they had any case — beyond the outdated passer rating statistic — of being the G.O.A.T.  Then after that, Norm Van Brocklin and John Elway come up, along with Sonny Jurgensen, Sid Luckman, Roger Staubach, and Fran Tarkenton.  Finally, I’ll put Len Dawson here because he doesn’t fit neatly into any classification with other Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Brett Favre, when he is finally eligible, belongs in this group.  Philip Rivers will likely someday belong with this group as well.  To make a case for a non-active player in the Hall of Fame, they really have to be able to neatly fit in this group to be considered a true “oversight.”  Kenny Anderson is close to this group, but hasn’t been able to get in.

The legacy picks might be the easiest way for a guy like Big Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning to get into the Hall of Fame: win multiple super bowls.  It worked for Terry Bradshaw and for Troy Aikman, who headline this group, though Jim Plunkett is still waiting on his hall-call.  Joe Namath belongs in this group.  Bart Starr belongs here.  Y.A. Tittle was good at football for a very long time, and should get the nod here.  And Bob Griese definitely belongs with this group, though he might have been the best quarterback of the four.  Bob Waterfield belongs here because of the era he played in: he was no better a quarterback than Daryle Lamonica was 20 years later, but helped revolutionize the position.  The fifth and final member of the legacy picks class is Warren Moon, the most recent inductee of the group.  Warren’s statistical totals at the end of his career were largely unmatched, as is Warren Moon, nine-time pro bowler.  Moon’s rate stats though say “consistently above average for the better part of 20 years.”  I don’t see how that is any different from Namath though.  This is the group where Donovan McNabb or Kurt Warner has their best case for the Hall of Fame.

Timing picks: Bobby Layne and Jim Kelly strike me as two guys who made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of fortunate timing.  Both were excellent players in their time, and multiple time pro bowlers, but I think if they had come eligible in other years, they easily could have been subjected to more of a debate, and then who knows what would have happened to their cases.  Kelly went in on the first ballot.  Len Dawson was on the ballot for seven years before he got in.   Then there is the case of George Blanda, who is by far the least qualified quarterback in the Hall of Fame.  If he had come eligible this year, he’s not even a finalist.

So the breakdown of 25 HoF quartebacks is as such, according to me: 5 in the discussion for greatest ever, 9 in the “top-half”, 8 in perhaps more on their historical legacies than their statistical accomplishments or performance levels, and 3 who might not have been famous or accomplished enough to make it in in a present day vote.  Not a perfectly normal distribution, but it is close.

And while Brady ranks first or second on anyone’s active QB list (for career value), Eli Manning doesn’t rank higher than fifth or sixth on most people’s lists of active players with Hall of Fame cases.  In fact, there are people who — if he fails to win on Sunday — would put him behind guys with no legitimate case such as Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, and Tony Romo.  To make the Hall of Fame, Eli is going to have to separate from guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub, and maybe Aaron Rodgers, and spend the next three years along with Philip Rivers and Drew Brees and Brady as the game’s elite quarterbacks.  If Eli can retire a top ten quarterback in some meaningful statistical categories, then two (or even one) super bowl titles is enough to give him a solid Hall of Fame case.

This post is more concerned with him as one of the 20 to 25 greatest quarterbacks ever.  There are 18 quarterbacks, either active or recently retired, who would qualify as all-time greats, a distinction that separates quarterbacks from merely being Hall of Famers or many-time super bowl winners.  John Elway and Brett Favre are considered by the authorities of this blog to be all-time greats.  Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman are hall-of-fame greats, at least in part to the seasons they had that resulted in titles.  There is a distinction to be made.

Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers are clearly not yet all-time greats of the game the way Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady already are.  But can the be considered among the greatest 25 quarterbacks in the history of the NFL?  That is a little bit hazier.  Let’s continue this activity with a couple of blind resumes.  In all cases, the comparison is between one of the group of four quarterbacks above, and someone from the list of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Parenthesis represent a figure relative to league average

Group 1

Player A 7 twenty TD seasons, 58.4% career completion percentage, 5.9 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 4.7% career sack rate, 2 years QB rating > 90, 4 years QB rating > 80

Player B 6 twenty TD seasons, 56.9% career completion percentage, 5.6 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 6.6% career sack rate, 2 years QB Rating> 90, 7 years QB rating > 80

Group 2

Player C 7 twenty TD seasons, 60.1% career completion percentage, 5.9 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 6.3% career sack rate, 2 years QB rating > 90, 8 years QB rating > 80

Player D 3 twenty TD seasons, 63.1% career completion percentage, 6.4 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 8.7% career sack rate, 6 years QB rating > 90, 7 years QB rating > 80

Group 3

Player F 4 twenty TD seasons, 65.4% career completion percentage, 7.6 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 7.0% career sack rate,  4 years QB rating > 90

Player G 3 twenty TD seasons, 57.0% career completion percentage, 5.7 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 9.6% career sack rate, 3 years QB rating > 90, 5 years QB rating > 80

Group 4

Player H 6 twenty TD seasons, 63.5% career completion percentage, 7.2 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 5.3% career sack rate,  4 seasons QB rating > 90, 6 seasons QB rating > 80

Player J 1 twenty TD season, 61.5% career completion percentage, 5.7 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 5.2% career sack rate, 2 seasons QB rating > 90, 8 seasons QB rating > 80

***answers below the jump***

Group 1: Eli Manning (A) and John Elway (B)
Group 2: Jim Kelly (C) and Ben Roethlisberger (D)
Group 3: Aaron Rodgers (F) and Roger Staubach (G)
Group 4: Philip Rivers (H) and Troy Aikman (J)


The point of that blind resume exercise is not to show in no uncertain terms the difference between passing statistics in the modern game vs passing statistics in the past, which is why I gave both counting stats and rate stats.  It was to justify the idea that we have an unprecedented amount of Hall of Fame level players playing in the current game.  The fourth through seventh most accomplished quarterbacks are all playing at Hall of Fame caliber levels and an eight (Tony Romo) is more accomplished at this point in his career than prospective Hall of Famer Kurt Warner was upon leaving St. Louis.

I happen to prefer a lot of the modern quarterbacks to guys like Bradshaw, Namath, Moon, and Aikman when talking about quarterback accomplishments.  Norv Turner, who coached Aikman for years, is going to admit someday that Philip Rivers is the greatest quarterback he ever coached.  That’s obvious.  Aikman was a six time pro bowler.  Rivers, who has been in the same conference as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger his entire career is at four pro bowls and counting.

Terry Bradshaw is still the greatest quarterback in Steelers history as this blog goes to press, but Ben Roethlisberger sits about two great seasons away from surpassing Bradshaw, and isn’t yet 30 years old.  Roethlisberger will — barring something off the field — retire as the greatest quarterback in Steelers history, which is the automatic Hall of Fame ticket his two super bowl titles aren’t.

On Rodgers, it’s just too early to put his career in historical context.  Rodgers, on the strength of a Super Bowl Title and (presumptively) a league MVP award in 2011 has been the most valuable quarterback in the league since replacing Brett Favre in 2008 because he has started all but one game and has played at such a high level three out of the four seasons.  It’s the next four years that will determine Rodgers’ career path.

But this is an Eli/Brady post in anticipation of an offense-laden super bowl, and you could argue that Eli is going to need this super bowl more than someone like Rodgers will need his second, because Eli’s other historical measures (such as pro bowls) in a relatively weak NFC quarterback field aren’t there.  In fact, there’s a significant number of fans who believe that Eli shouldn’t have gotten in this year over Matthew Stafford.  If Eli is going to make his case to be considered one of the top twenty five quarterbacks of all time over the next five or six years, this second super bowl is incredibly important for justifying the first half of his career as ‘elite’ as he moves into the second half of his career.

But even if Eli can’t separate himself from Roethlisberger et al, I still think he has to be judged as one of the 25 best quarterbacks in the history of the game, so long as he continues the production level he has set over the last three years.  As Brady has catapulted himself into the top five or ten names in NFL history on the back of leading his team through unprecedented offensive levels in the last three seasons, Eli Manning has also reached levels where few have been before.  The only reason that it took this playoff run for everyone to see that is because it is so easy to have extraordinary performances obscured by the current passing landscape which features Brady and Manning above all.

That is the reason why Drew Brees continues to be highly underrated as he enjoys an all-time great career.  It is the reason why Philip Rivers doesn’t consistently get mentioned with the top five quarterbacks in the game despite being a guy who would be a top three quarterback in any year except perhaps 2011.

The truth is that all these guys are among the best 25 quarterbacks of all-time.  They just happen to play at the same time.  There’s no reason to penalize Eli Manning for that.  And if someday, we get a debate about who had the greater career, Brady or Manning — Eli Manning — then it will seem silly that there was ever a question whether there was a spot in the hierarchy of all-time great quarterbacks for the youngest Manning.  After all, didn’t we have the same questions with Tom Brady five years ago?

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