Friday, March 28, 2008

The Best NFL Quarterback of All-time (Revisited)

Back in September of 2006, I did a blog post on "The best quarterback of all time". At the time, I did not include active quarterbacks. Now that Brett Favre has retired, it is time to revisit this subject.

This time around, I decided to come up with a list of all possible contenders for the best of all-time (feel free to mention in the comments if I overlooked a reasonable contender). As before, I am NOT considering active quarterbacks (sorry Tom Brady and Peyton Manning fans).

The contenders (in alphabetical order by first name): Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Roger Staubach, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and Warren Moon.

The criteria:

ACCURACY
Accuracy is an area where it is difficult to compare quarterbacks from the modern era, where short passes are more frequently thrown, with those from previous eras. on the other hand, quarterbacks from previous eras tended to throw longer passes, so this category tends to balance out with the "arm strength" category below.

Completion percentage is the simplest statistic for accuracy. The top five from the list are:
1. Steve Young - 64.3%
2. Joe Montana - 63.2%
3. Troy Aikman - 61.5%
4. Brett Favre - 61.4%
5. Dan Marino - 59.4%

ARM STRENGTH
By itself, arm strength is nice, but it won't win games.

Early in his career, Doug Williams had the strongest arm I have ever seen. Unfortunately, when he threw little passes into the flat, the ball would bounce off the receiver because it was uncatchable.

For arm strength to be effective, it has to be combined with touch on shorter passes.

In this category, average gain per pass attempted tells us the quarterback is using his arm strength to its ultimate advantage. The top five of all-time:
1. Otto Graham - 8.98 yards/attempt
2. Sid Luckman - 8.42
3. Steve Young - 7.98
4. Bart Starr - 7.85
5. Johnny Unitas - 7.76

CHAMPIONSHIPS
In a team sport, the championship stands out as the ultimate test of how much a quarterback is helping his team.

The top five championship winning quarterbacks of all-time:
1. Otto Graham - 8
2. Bart Starr - 5
3t. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, and Sid Luckman - 4

GAME MANAGEMENT
The first quality all rookie quarterbacks must learn is game management. By this I mean the ability to avoid mistakes, specifically interceptions.

The top five in lowest career interception percentage:
1. Joe Montana - 2.5783%
2. Steve Young - 2.5789%
3. Troy Aikman - 2.99%
4. Dan Marino - 3.01%
5. John Elway - 3.12%

RELEASE
A quick release is not necessary to be a great quarterback, but it seems the great ones tend to have quicker releases than most quarterbacks.

The reason for this is the quicker the ball is gone, and the fewer hits the quarterback has to take, thereby cutting down on fumbles (as well as sacks).

If you take the number of fumbles and divide it by the total number of rush and pass attempts, the overall result shows the two quarterbacks generally considered to have the quickest releases of all-time: Dan Marino and Joe Namath.

The top five quickest releases of all-time (based on fumbles/rush + pass attempts):
1. Dan Marino - 0.48%
2. Joe Namath - 0.86%
3. Joe Montana - 0.91%
4. Troy Aikman - 1.15%
5. Fran Tarkenton - 1.18%

RUSHING
The key to any quarterback's running ability is how many times do they score touchdowns? More specifically, does the defense have to respect a quarterback's ability to run with the ball?

The best way to judge this is to take the number of rushing touchdowns and divide it by the number of rushing attempts AND passing attempts. The top five running quarterbacks of all-time:
1. Otto Graham - 1.45% rushing td's/total attempts
2. Steve Young - 0.88%
3. Terry Bradshaw - 0.74%
4. Roger Staubach - 0.59%
5. Fran Tarkenton - 0.45%

TOUCHDOWNS
In order to throw a lot of touchdowns, you have to be able to throw the ball in the red zone. You won't make a career out of only lobbing 70 yard bombs. You also have to be able to toss the little two yard pass to the tackle eligible in the end zone.

The top five all-time in touchdown percentage:
1. Sid Luckman - 7.24%
2. Otto Graham - 7.19%
3. Sammy Baugh - 5.91%
4. Steve Young - 5.65%
5. Terry Bradshaw - 5.62%

WHO IS THE BEST QUARTERBACK OF ALL-TIME?
If you sum the rankings of all the quarterbacks on the list, the final ranking would then be determined by the lowest total (assuming all categories are weighted equally) of ranking values.

The final ranking of the 17 quarterbacks:
Rank. QB - Overall score (lower is better)
1. Steve Young - 29
2. Joe Montana - 34
3. Otto Graham - 38
4. Roger Staubach - 54
5. Bart Starr - 56
6t. Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton - 61
8. Johnny Unitas - 64
9t. Sid Luckman, Troy Aikman - 65
11. Terry Bradshaw - 69
12t. Brett Favre, John Elway - 73
14. Dan Fouts - 74
15. Sammy Baugh - 77
16t. Joe Namath, Warren Moon - 81

Before everyone starts crying about how their favorite quarterback played on a lot of bad teams or didn't have enough talent around them, consider two things. How good would Archie Manning have been if he had played on a good team instead of the horrible Saints teams of the 70's? Also, if championships are removed as a criteria, the top 4 remain the same (and Steve Young gets an even better score).

As I stated in my previous post, Steve Young is the best of all-time. And now that Brett Favre is retired, we can put to bed the notion that he was somehow the best of all-time.

Let the argument commence.

16 comments:

Myrhaf said...

What about Kenny Stabler? Your statistics can't measure leadership and the will to win.

William R. Barker said...

Beautiful job, Ed; quite impressive. Yet...

I have to echo myrhaf: What about the intangibles? Is football an art or a science? Obviously it's both - so how do you account for "leadership, the will to win, the ability to excite the fan base and add that energy to your offense?"

I'm not saying you're wrong. In fact, since I don't know the answers (or if there are answers) to my own question, that leaves me with your "scientific" stats-generated results. (*SHRUG*)

There must be symposiums on this sort of thing - not just examining the stats, but getting these great quarterbacks and great receivers and great coaches and great centers together to hash it all out and share viewpoints. (At least I would HOPE that this sort of thing has been done!)

If only a few professional football players would stumble upon P&P and give their opinions.

Anyway... good job.

BILL

daveja vu said...

I've always thought that what makes the best quarterback is an intangible, unmeasurable quality. It probably would fit in the leadership category, but there seems to be a lot of things involved. More specifically, how often can a good quarterback make good things happen for his team? How good is he bringing back the team when the chips are down and he's already thrown three interceptions earlier in the game? Does he give off the "this guy can win it if he can just get his hands on the ball" aura to his teammates, his coaches, and the fans? Does he avoid killer mistakes that costs his team games? And, of course, does he bring out the best in his teammates, or vice versa? Or both? And, of course, getting to and winning championships.

Using this (very) loose criteria, my personal favorites would be (not necessarily in this order) Montana, Bradshaw, Unitas, Staubach, and Starr. If I knew more about Otto Graham, I'd probably include him too. Dan Fouts, for his time, was one of the best leaders out there but couldn't quite get his team over the championship hump, though largely due to a porous defense. Kenny Stabler too definitely had the leadership qualities but was able to get his team over the hump once in his career (Super Bowl XI).

A word about Steve Young. From a statistical standpoint, the man is untouchable by anyone else on the list. And when he got on a REALLY hot streak, he displayed an ability to totally demoralize opposing teams with his skills, which is how he became MVP in the Super Bowl vs. San Diego. Yet, once again, he only got his team over the hump once, and that was with a team packed from top to bottom with all-stars. He didn't have that consistent come-from behind mystique that Montana, Staubach, and Unitas had, and he never got a chance to display his best in the biggest games that counted, which is how Bradshaw won three of his four Super Bowls (the first, vs. Minnesota, was mostly a defensive showcase that totally shut down Minnesota's offense to the point of futility). And Young probably had better offensive weapons to work with in his prime than Montana did in his early years (though Dwight Clark was no slouch as a receiver). And I always thought that SF's system is what brought out the best in Young, and I'm not sure if any other team could have done that. He was regarded as a bust in Tampa Bay, though to be fair he had absolutely no supporting cast at all. And it took some tutelage, and chances to play when Montana got hurt, before Young became the feared passer that he was.

Hopefully the above isn't taken as a bash on Steve Young. The man rightly deserves his status in the Hall of Fame as much as the others, and he cannot be denied his abilities and his accomplishments. If he was the QB that won all of Montana's championships instead of Montana, I'd rate him even higher. But we'll never know if he could have done the same things or better than his predecessor. I just happen to think that there were a few others that were a little bit better than Young. Maybe because they got more chances, or with better teams at the right time. Maybe they were even slightly luckier. But mileage may vary. Others may well disagree with my opinions, and that's fine. That's what makes it so hard to truly measure the greatest, it's largely a matter of opinion and perception.

Sorry this is longer than I intended. I tend to ramble too much.

EdMcGon said...

Myrhaf,
Next time I update this, I'll add Stabler. However, I don't think he will do that much statistically. As for leadership and will to win, would you really rank him with Montana (4 Super Bowls), Otto Graham (5 AAFC and 3 NFL championships), or Bart Starr (3 NFL championships and 2 Super Bowls)?

Also, Stabler's only Super Bowl win came in a year when the Steelers best two running backs were hurt in the AFC championship game.

I may be a Raiders fan, but Stabler was kind of an old school Brett Favre. Like Favre, Stabler took too many chances and threw too many interceptions.

EdMcGon said...

Bill,
I see the statistics as a first step in arguing the best quarterback of all-time.

For example, most of us would agree that Jerry Rice was the greatest receiver of all-time. The stats bear that out. But isn't it ironic that the top two statistical quarterbacks of all-time played with Rice? So was it Young and Montana that made Rice better, or was it vice versa, or was it just an anomoly that all three happened to play together?

If you say that Young and Montana shouldn't be included because they played with Rice, does that mean Otto Graham was the greatest of all-time?

My main point in this exercise is to come up with an objective criteria for the argument. That way, we can eliminate some quarterbacks before we begin.

EdMcGon said...

Dave,
Thanks for stopping by.

One thing people seem to forget about Steve Young is that he rarely left his teams in a situation where he had to arrange a dramatic comeback. However, a lot of the 49er teams he played on didn't have the quality defenses that Montana enjoyed. Also, by the time Young was starting, most of the league had defenses to counter the West Coast Offense, as opposed to Montana's early years when defensive coordinators were still struggling against it.

That said, I would still take Young over Montana. Young had a stronger arm, could do more damage running the ball, and he scored more touchdowns per pass attempt than Montana. Considering they both played in the same system with roughly the same talent, it is hard to ignore the statistical differences between the two of them.

Of all the quarterbacks you listed, I would have to say the strongest case might be made for Staubach. Even though the Cowboys teams of the 70's were overall good teams, arguably even great, twice they went into the Super Bowl against the stellar defense of the Steelers, and twice they lost, even though the Cowboys gave them a game both times losing by only 4 points each time.

Also, those Cowboy teams were "run first" teams, although Staubach displayed an impressive ability to bring them back when needed. If you'd put Staubach in the West Coast Offense, I wonder what he could have done?

Another thing to consider with Staubach: When Danny White took over as quarterback, he had more impressive passing numbers than Staubach, but he could never get the Boys back into the Super Bowl. THAT is the definition of quarterbacking intangibles that Staubach had.

daveja vu said...

Interesting you mention Danny White. A couple of things stick out for me concerning him.

The first was his comeback victory against Atlanta in the 1980 playoffs, helped a lot by the Falcons using their "prevent" defense too soon when their regular defense was doing a fine job of limiting the Cowboy offense. Very traumatic for a 12-year old Falcon fan at the time, which I was.

The second could have propelled White into the elite list, had his luck been better. After Dwight Clark's famous leaping catch that was to send San Francisco to their first Super Bowl, White nearly pulled off a miraculous, last second comeback again. From their own 20, and with about 45 seconds left on the clock, White hit Drew Pearson on a deep post pattern that would've gone all the way for the winning TD had the covering cornerback not reached out and snagged Pearson by his shoulder pads, dragging him off his feet. Across midfield and only a single first down from easy field goal range, White got blitzed and had the ball stripped from him, preserving SF's victory and sending Montana on his way to immortality. Had White won that game and gone to the Super Bowl (I had no doubt they would have beaten Cincinnati) would that have set the tone for future successes for Danny White?

I point this out because any of these great quarterbacks listed could have stood out even more, or faded into obscurity, because of fortunate or unfortunate circumstances in a few key games. (Note: I wonder how the last Super Bowl will affect the rest of Tom Brady's career). Personally, if he had been able to get a couple of championships under his belt, I would probably have considered Dan Marino far and away to be the greatest, due to his talents and exceptional level of play regardless of his supporting cast.

EdMcGon said...

Dave,
Along that same line, I found it interesting that when championships were removed as a criteria, both Marino and Tarkenton moved ahead of Bart Starr into fifth place, yet no higher.

Myrhaf said...

I'm sure you're right that Stabler does not match up statistically to the greatest QB's. But damn, he was fun to watch! (Unless perhaps one was a Steelers fan.)

How does Roman Gabriel match up in the stats?

EdMcGon said...

Myrhaf,
For the record, I am going to repost this next week with the following quarterbacks added:

Ken Stabler
Danny White
Roman Gabriel
Jim Kelly
Len Dawson
Sonny Jurgensen
Randall Cunningham
Neil O'Donnell

Stay tuned!

Myrhaf said...

Don't forget George Blanda. From his Wikipedia entry:

Blanda finished his 26 NFL seasons having completed 1,911 of 4,007 pass attempts for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns. Blanda also held the NFL record for most interceptions thrown with 277, until Brett Favre broke it on October 14, 2007. He rushed for 344 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground, kicked 335 of 641 field goals, and 943 of 959 extra points, giving him 2,002 total points. Additional stats include 1 interception, 2 kickoff returns for 19 yards, 22 punts for 809 yards, and 23 fumble recoveries.

The interceptions are not so good.

daveja vu said...

I always thought of George Blanda as much better in the relief pitching role, so to speak, than as a starting quarterback. His best role was to bail out the easily rattled Daryle Lamonica late in tight games.

EdMcGon said...

Myrhaf,
Blanda was a football anomoly. As an overall football player, the guy was incredible. As a quarterback, he was ok, but I wouldn't rate him among the all-time greats.

Even as a Raider fan, I wouldn't rate him as the greatest Raider quarterback. I'll have to do a post on that someday.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ed,

I do not understand why or how anyone can rate Young ahead of Montana. Young had the same cast as Montana, probably a better offensive cast than Montana did in his later years. Montana really did not the running game Young had Waters and Hearst. Roger craig had 3 good years. That was it. Young did inherit a great defense. They where top 10 every year. I watched tons of game film of Young and Montana. Young does not have a better arm. Are you comparing this to 93 Montana or the 84 Montana? The bombs that Young threw where wobbly and off target, usually the wr would have to adjust to the throw. Not true in Montana's case in almost all his throws. Look for yourself, and if Young is better, how is it that Montana beat Young's team in 93 with Willie Davis wr and Marcus Allen who was like 37 at the time, and a bunch of no name on offense. He even took them to the championship game with no namers except marcus allen, and he was old. If we reverserd this and put Young in KC with the same team, I do not believe that Young would have come close. You forgot also, that Montana was mobile. At one point he held the record for the most rushing yards by a qb in a superbowl.

I think your statistical analogy is correct that Young had great statics, but that does not mean he is the greatest. I believe a part of it was the system. It is a proven system. Another part is you need smart qb's. They where both supersmart. What you cannot rate statistically is leadership. Young proved that he lacked this with his Tampa Years and then Dallas and Green Bay. He could never get passed that hump, he did once in Dallas.

There is a reason why Montana has 4 superbowls and Young 1. He was the better leader. Look at gamefilm. Where guys new on defense if they can get the ball back, Montana would win the game for them. Lott said this many times.

There where hardly last minute heroics with Young. Unless it is a fg, aka Tom Brady style. Anything over a fg game over. If your team needs a td in the last minute, who you gonna strap in? I tell you what its not Young. He would be at least ten deep on my list of qb's to win in the final minutes.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I shall respond to you, since some of what you said was incorrect:

"I do not understand why or how anyone can rate Young ahead of Montana. Young had the same cast as Montana, probably a better offensive cast than Montana did in his later years."

Montana had a better offensive line, per the times.

"Montana really did not the running game Young had Waters and Hearst. Roger craig had 3 good years. That was it."

Roger Craig + Tom Rathman was better than Ricky Watters + Mark Logan. There was only two seasons where Young had a good FB (Floyd) and good RB: 1994 and 1997, but in 97 Young didn't have Rice.

Avg per rush:

Joe Montana Years:



1980: 4.2

1981: 4.6

1982: (strike season = No Joe)

1983: 4.4

1984: 4.6

1985: 4.7

1986: 3.9

1987: 4.3

1988: 4.8

1989: 4.0

1990: 3.8

Steve Young Years:

1991: 4.2

1992: 4.8

1993: 4.6

1994: 3.9

1995: 3.6

1996: 4.1

1997: 3.8

1998: 5.2


So, while Young did enjoy one season with a better running game than any other 49er QB, Montana had 80% of his seasons with a running game averaging at least 4 y/c (only TWO seasons with an under 4 y/c team rushing), while Young only had 62.5% of the seasons he played with a team y/c average at least 4.

So WHO had the better running game? Statistically, it seems MONTANA did, year in and year out.




"Young did inherit a great defense. They where top 10 every year."

No they weren't.

49er defensive rankings during Young years:

1991: 6

1992: 15 (below median- 28 teams)

1993: 15 (below median rank)

1994: 8

1995: 1

1996: 7

1997: 1

1998: 23 (below median rank)

But nothing has meaning apart from comparison to something else, so:

49er defense during Montana years:

1980: 27 (2nd to last)

1981: 2

1983: 10

1984: 10

1985: 14 (median)

1986: 6

1987: 1

1988: 3

1989: 4

1990: 3


Average D rank under Joe: 8th

Average D rank under Steve: 9.5 th

Therefore, you are WRONG in saying that Young had a better defense. Montana did. That is the simple statistical fact.



"I watched tons of game film of Young and Montana. Young does not have a better arm. Are you comparing this to 93 Montana or the 84 Montana? The bombs that Young threw where wobbly and off target, usually the wr would have to adjust to the throw. Not true in Montana's case in almost all his throws. Look for yourself,"

Statistically Young is the highest rated DEEP passer in NFL history as well as the highest in general.
To say that most of Young's deep throws were wobbly is asinine. It's true he didn't throw it pretty as consistently as Montana (NO ONE did), but he did it more often than most other QBs ever did. How much film have you watched, honestly? Plus, most agree that he had a stronger arm.

"and if Young is better, how is it that Montana beat Young's team in 93 with Willie Davis wr and Marcus Allen who was like 37 at the time, and a bunch of no name on offense."

a.) it was 1994, not 93.

b.) the niners had FOUR injured offensive linemen, and they WERE driving for the win when John Taylor fumbled. Can't pin that one on Young.

"He even took them to the championship game with no namers except marcus allen, and he was old. If we reverserd this and put Young in KC with the same team, I do not believe that Young would have come close."

That cannot be known.

But, what did the Chiefs do before and after Montana got there?:

Chiefs 1992: 10-6, 2nd in AFC west, wild card appearance.

Chiefs 1995: 13-3 home field advantage. Lost in playoffs.

Yeah... the Chiefs sucked without Montana...

Sorry, but you fail on this point too.

"You forgot also, that Montana was mobile. At one point he held the record for the most rushing yards by a qb in a superbowl."

Yes, he was also mobile.

"I think your statistical analogy is correct that Young had great statics, but that does not mean he is the greatest. I believe a part of it was the system. It is a proven system. Another part is you need smart qb's. They where both supersmart. What you cannot rate statistically is leadership. Young proved that he lacked this with his Tampa Years and then Dallas and Green Bay. He could never get passed that hump, he did once in Dallas."

He beat Green Bay once too, but you are leaving out two important things:

1.) Dallas was a better TEAM, especially on defense (49ers ranked below average on defense those two seasons)

2.) During much of the Green Bay years, the 49ers leading RUSHER was Steve Young... that should tell you something about how good the teams were during that time. The 49er offensive line during that time was rather weak. And of course, Steve Young only actually lost TWO of those games against Green Bay (1995 and 1997. He was injured all the rest).

"There is a reason why Montana has 4 superbowls and Young 1. He was the better leader. Look at gamefilm. Where guys new on defense if they can get the ball back, Montana would win the game for them. Lott said this many times."

Yeah, Montana wins in leadership. No one is arguing that. But Montana ALSO wins on strength of team- as in statistically, you are WRONG in saying that the teams Young played with were as good as the teams Montana played with.

Montana played on better teams. That is simply the fact of the matter. Statistically Young wins and he did it with weaker teams. These are indisputable facts (facts that you were incorrect on).

Anonymous said...

Ed McGonigal


How are each of these stat categories weighted?