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Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. There are few who have given as much thought to the history of quarterbacks and quarterback ranking systems as Brad has over the years. What follows is Brad’s latest work on the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

Part I: Pre-Modern Era
Part II: 49-101
Part III: 40-48
Part IV: 31-39
Part V: 21-30
Part VI: 11-20
Part VII: 6-10
Part VIII: 1-5


This week, I’m profiling the players who rank 21-30 on my list. The players are ranked in order, but please don’t read too much into that: I consider this a group of quarterbacks, all roughly the same level. If you’re outraged that #26 is higher than #29, you have my blessing to flip them.

30. John Brodie
San Francisco 49ers, 1957-73
31,548 yards, 214 TD, 224 INT, 72.3 rating

John Brodie had the unenviable task of replacing Hall of Fame QB Y.A. Tittle. What’s more, Brodie’s ascension to the starting lineup coincided with the decline of San Francisco’s great running game, led by Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny. The 49ers were a bad team during most of Brodie’s career, and he struggled to win fans over. Brodie told the story that one day, when the fans at Kezar Stadium were riding him particularly hard, he gave them the finger, and they seemed to accept him after that. I guess football culture has changed a little bit in the last 50 years.

Fan reaction notwithstanding, Brodie performed at a high level. He led the NFL in passing yards three times, TDs twice, and rating once. His interception percentage was good for that era, his sack rate was low, and he didn’t fumble a lot. Brodie was the first successful shotgun quarterback, and he forced Tittle out of the lineup because he was mobile, a good runner who gained over 1,000 yards and scored 22 touchdowns, with a 5.0 average. He was second-team all-NFL in 1965, and NFL MVP in 1970.

Brodie not only won the starting job over Tittle, he held off challenges from first-round draft picks Billy Kilmer and Steve Spurrier. Brodie passed for 2,000 yards ten times, and retired as the fourth-leading passer in history, behind only John Unitas, Tittle, and Fran Tarkenton. He was the first 49er quarterback to have his jersey retired, later joined by Joe Montana and Steve Young. Brodie was also a professional golfer, but his legacy is as one of the most prolific passers of his generation.

29. Ken Anderson
Cincinnati Bengals, 1971-86
32,838 yards, 197 TD, 160 INT, 81.9 rating

No player epitomizes the disconnect between stats and conventional wisdom like Kenny Anderson. Statistically, he’s among the top 20 QBs in history. Upon his retirement, Anderson ranked 7th all-time in passing yardage, and he held multiple NFL records for completion percentage, including the single-game and single-season marks. Anderson led the NFL in passing yards twice, and in passer rating four times.

He was also an excellent runner (2,220 yards, 20 TDs). Only John Elway, Fran Tarkenton, Donovan McNabb, and Steve Young have more passing yards and more rushing yards than Anderson. Ten times, Anderson ranked among the NFL’s top 10 rushing QBs, and in his 1981 MVP season, he led all QBs in rushing. His 5.6 career yards per rushing attempt is among the best marks in history.

So here’s a league-leading, record-setting passer, who is also one of the top running QBs in history. It’s a superb résumé. And yet, fans never connected with Anderson as a truly great quarterback. Ask about the top QBs of the 1970s, and you’ll hear Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, Bob Griese, Ken Stabler. Anderson is seldom part of that conversation. To a lot of people, he just didn’t seem like a great QB.

The strange thing is, Anderson did register as an elite QB during his career. He made four Pro Bowls and two AP all-pro teams, including first-team in 1981, when he was also MVP. Bill Walsh, who scouted Anderson out of college and recommended him for Cincinnati, in early 1982 called Anderson “the best pure forward passer the game has seen for many years.” I don’t believe Ken Anderson was as outstanding as a purely statistical analysis would indicate, but I think the statheads are closer to the truth than the people who dismiss Anderson as an unexceptional system QB.

28. Bob Griese
Miami Dolphins, 1967-80
25,092 yards, 192 TD, 172 INT, 77.1 rating

The opposite of Anderson: statistically, Bob Griese is the least impressive quarterback in the Hall of Fame. His passer rating is pretty good for when he played, and he led the NFL in rating one season. He led in TDs once, completion percentage once, yards per attempt once. That’s good. But he never passed for 2,500 yards in a season, he only threw 20 TDs twice (with a career-high of 22), and he only had a passer rating over 90 once (90.9). Even for the 1970s, those are not outstanding numbers.

You could even debit Griese further, because he played on such an exceptional team. The Dolphins of Griese’s era had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, featuring two Hall of Famers (center Jim Langer and guard Larry Little), as well as 6-time Pro Bowler and 8-time HOF Finalist Bob Kuechenberg. Griese played with the greatest wide receiver of that generation (Paul Warfield), a Hall of Fame running back (Larry Csonka), and one of the greatest coaches of all time (Don Shula). Surrounded by so much talent, you expect a player to post good stats.

The Dolphins were a running team, with Csonka joined by Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick. Real life is not like Tecmo Bowl, but if you were playing defense against the 1970s Dolphins in Tecmo, you would never call a pass play. It should be easy to throw against defenses focused on stopping the run, but Miami’s coaches believed their best chance was to run the ball.

It’s natural to compare Troy Aikman with Griese. Both were first-round draft picks who spent their whole careers with one team, and both became broadcasters. Both Aikman and Griese played with a Hall of Fame RB and a Hall of Fame WR, and both played behind the best offensive line of the era. But most of all, they were both efficient QBs on run-first teams that won multiple Super Bowls. The 1970-74 Dolphins were 57-12-1 (.821), with three Super Bowl appearances and two titles. The 1991-95 Cowboys went 60-20 (.750), with three Super Bowl appearances and three titles.

Like Aikman, Griese made plays when he had to. He didn’t get to surprise offenses with a deep pass on first down, because the Dolphins were going to run on first down, and probably second down, too. Although that playing style limited Griese’s statistics, no one doubted his ability. He was an eight-time all-star, twice in the AFL plus six Pro Bowls, and he was first-team all-pro in both 1971 and ’77, a distinction that sets him apart from Aikman (who was never all-pro).

Aikman, however, was the more accomplished postseason player. Ben Roethlisberger and Griese are the only quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins and no Super Bowl MVPs. In Griese’s two championships, his combined passing line was 14-of-21 for 161 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. Griese did not have a great arm, but he was noted for his poise and intelligence; even the caustic Howard Cosell complimented Griese’s brains.

27. Troy Aikman
Dallas Cowboys, 1989-2000
32,942 yards, 165 TD, 141 INT, 81.6 rating

I have argued in the past that Troy Aikman should not be in the Hall of Fame, an argument informed primarily by his pedestrian regular-season statistics. I don’t feel that way any more — I’m fine with Aikman’s spot in Canton — but it’s true his stats don’t compare well to contemporaries:

QuarterbackYardsTDINT+/-RatingNY/A
Brett Favre71,838508336+17286.06.4
Dan Marino61,361420252+16886.46.9
John Elway51,475300226+7479.96.1
Warren Moon49,325291233+5880.96.3
Boomer Esiason37,920247184+6381.16.4
Jim Kelly35,467237175+6284.46.5
Steve Young33,124232107+12596.86.9
Troy Aikman32,942165141+2481.66.3

Out of those eight QBs, Aikman ranks last in passing yards, TDs, and TD/INT +/-, and below-average in passer rating and net yards per attempt. His low TD rate (3.5%) is particularly galling — it’s by far the worst of any HOF QB1 — and it’s hard to see how Aikman could be viewed as a standout.

But that analysis misses some important things Aikman did well. He was an excellent game manager — not in the derogatory sense we usually use that phrase, but in that he did what was needed, and didn’t try to do too much. The Cowboys had a good defense, and the best ground game in the NFL. Aikman was an ego-less QB, who didn’t audible to pass plays or complain that Emmitt Smith got all the goal line work. He’s comparable to Griese and to Bart Starr, fellow Hall of Fame QBs whose workloads were limited on a successful, run-first offense. And like Griese or Starr, when Aikman had to throw, he was productive. Here’s how the same eight players above rank in first down percentage from 1991-96: Young (36.7), Moon (36.0), Aikman (36.0), Marino (34.2), Favre (32.9), Kelly (32.9), Elway (30.9), Esiason (30.7).

Aikman’s yardage totals are low because he played in a run-heavy offense, and because he retired early (34) due to head injuries. His TD percentage is very low, but that’s partly explained by Emmitt Smith; why pass at the goal line when you have the most successful short-yardage run game of all time? Apart from TD%, Aikman’s rate stats are good. His completion percentage, average yards, interception percentage, and sack percentage are all in line with the other HOF QBs of the ’90s.

When you combine that statistical efficiency with a strong peak and his very fine postseason performances, Aikman really does look like a Hall of Famer. He’s not in the same class as Dan Marino and Steve Young, but he was a very good quarterback. Aikman was never all-pro, but he did qualify for six Pro Bowls.

26. Randall Cunningham
Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-95; Minnesota Vikings, 1997-99; Dallas Cowboys, 2000; Baltimore Ravens, 2001
29,979 yards, 207 TD, 134 INT, 81.5 rating

This is my heresy: I think Randall Cunningham was better than Troy Aikman. When you include rushing, their stats are roughly equal, and Cunningham was much more impressive on the field; if you watched a Cowboys-Eagles game in the early ’90s, and someone asked you to pick which QB was bound for the Hall of Fame, you’d say Cunningham. But Aikman was healthy throughout his prime, and supported by Hall of Fame teammates, while Cunningham struggled with injuries and spent most of his career surrounded by mediocre offensive talent. When he finally got to play with a great supporting cast in Minnesota, a 35-year-old Cunningham led the NFL in passer rating (106.0), making his fourth Pro Bowl and third all-pro team. I wish we could see what he might have produced with receivers like Randy Moss and Cris Carter (or Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek) when he was in his prime.

Despite his weak supporting cast, Cunningham has very impressive stats. Even without including rushes, he’s +73 in TD/INT differential, better than contemporaries like Jim Kelly (+62), Warren Moon (+58), and Aikman (+24), and basically the same as John Elway (+74). Of course, rushing is a crucial element of Cunningham’s legacy: 4,928 rushing yards, 6.4 yards per rush, 35 rushing TDs. Six times Cunningham led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yardage, including 1990, when he rushed for 942 yards and five TDs with an 8.0 average.

There are some players who have great stats, but didn’t look impressive as players. That doesn’t apply to Cunningham, who inspired three Sports Illustrated covers (and QB Eagles in Tecmo Super Bowl). He was a joy to watch, a unique talent who paved the way for a generation of QBs making plays with their feet as well as their arms. No one who saw Cunningham play doubted his skills.

Cunningham had very good stats, and he was one of the most exciting quarterbacks of all time. Cunningham has never been a Hall of Fame finalist, and I sometimes wonder why he’s drawn so little interest from the voters. But with or without a bust in Canton, he was an amazing talent.

25. Jim Kelly
Buffalo Bills, 1986-96
35,467 yards, 237 TD, 175 INT, 84.4 rating

Jim Kelly began his pro career in the USFL, playing two seasons with the Houston Gamblers. Kelly passed for 83 TDs with the Gamblers, which is impressive even in 18-game seasons, and he started immediately for the Bills when the rival league collapsed. Kelly’s 3,593 passing yards in 1986 set an NFL rookie record, and he made the Pro Bowl the following season. Kelly was the best quarterback in the USFL — a league which included fellow top-100 QBs Steve Young, Doug Flutie, Greg Landry, Brian Sipe, and Doug Williams — and he validated that performance with immediate success in the established league. When we evaluate Kelly, it’s important to remember that he had two good years which don’t show up in the official stats: he was obviously a good pro QB in 1984-85, he just wasn’t in the NFL.

Kelly was a four-time Pro Bowler, and first-team all-pro in 1991. He is most famous for Buffalo’s four-year run of AFC titles, each one followed by a loss in the Super Bowl. Kelly actually lost the most NFL Championships of any starting quarterback in history. The thing about losing all those Super Bowls is that you have to get to them first. Buffalo made the postseason in eight of Kelly’s 11 seasons, and he went 9-4 as a starter in the AFC playoffs. Kelly was a famously intense competitor, and probably the toughest QB of his era, a quarterback with a linebacker’s mentality.

The Super Bowl-era Bills have produced six HOFers: Kelly, head coach Marv Levy, RB Thurman Thomas, both starting WRs (Andre Reed and James Lofton), and defensive end Bruce Smith. The early-90s Bills have the most Hall of Famers of any team in the last 40 years. That puts the QB in position to succeed, especially in the weak AFC of the early ’90s. Kelly was an accurate passer, courageous in the pocket, and he overcame tough winter weather in Buffalo. He was masterful in the no-huddle offense, and he won a lot of games. But he also threw too many picks, he was surrounded by teammates who helped him look good, and he only played for 13 seasons.

24. Donovan McNabb
Philadelphia Eagles, 1999-2009; Washington, 2010; Minnesota Vikings, 2011
37,276 yards, 234 TD, 117 INT, 85.6 rating

Donovan McNabb was one of the most successful passers of his generation. He threw twice as many TDs as INTs, and he had the lowest interception percentage of the 2000s (2.05%). In that decade, McNabb ranks 3rd in completions and yards (behind Peyton Manning and Brett Favre), and 3rd in TD/INT differential (Manning, Tom Brady). McNabb was also one of the greatest running QBs of his generation. Fran Tarkenton is the only QB with more passing yards and more rushing yards than McNabb. He’s one of the very best dual-threat QBs in history.

The Eagles were bad in the late ’90s: 6-9-1, 3-13, 5-11. When McNabb became the starter in 2000, they went 11-5. McNabb passed for over 3,000 yards, led the team in rushing, and finished second in MVP voting. The improvement wasn’t a fluke: Philadelphia played in the next four NFC Championship Games, and McNabb made five straight Pro Bowls from 2000-04. After several injury-shortened seasons, McNabb in 2008 threw for a career-high 3,916 passing yards and led the Eagles to a fifth NFC Championship Game. In ’09, he made his sixth Pro Bowl.

But all of this undersells McNabb, who for most of his career was the only offensive standout on the team. He played one year with Terrell Owens, and apart from that never teamed with a Pro Bowl receiver or an elite tight end. The one full season he played with Owens, McNabb’s statistics exploded. He had two years with DeSean Jackson near the end of his career, and statistically, they were two of his best seasons. In 10 seasons as the Eagles’ starting quarterback, McNabb’s leading receivers included Chad Lewis, James Thrash, Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis, and Todd Pinkston twice. Among the top 50 passers of all time, McNabb is the only one whose all-time leading receiver (Brian Westbrook) was a running back, and the only one whose leading receiver never actually led the team in receiving yards. There’s absolutely no question that McNabb’s stats and accomplishments were limited by the quality of teammates around him. From 2000-03, McNabb single-handedly generated the offense on a team that won double-digit games every year.

McNabb was better than his numbers show, although his numbers are good. He was a successful passer, outstanding runner, breath-taking playmaker, and every-year Pro Bowler who went to five conference championship games, and did it all without great offensive teammates around him.

23. Len Dawson
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1957-59; Cleveland Browns, 1960-61; Dallas Texans, 1962; Kansas City Chiefs, 1963-75
28,711 yards, 239 TD, 183 INT, 82.6 rating

Len Dawson could have become the NFL’s Sam Bowie. The Steelers selected Dawson first overall in the 1957 draft, ahead of Jim Brown. In his three years with Pittsburgh, Dawson was 6-of-17 for 96 yards, 1 TD, and 2 interceptions. The Steelers traded him to Cleveland, where he didn’t do any better.

Dawson was reborn in the AFL, quickly establishing himself as one of the finest QBs in the league. Dawson was first-team all-AFL in 1962 and ’66, and a six-time AFL all-star, as well as an NFL Pro Bowler in 1971, after the two leagues merged. He was also the MVP of Super Bowl IV, overcoming a baseless gambling scandal on the eve of the big game.

Dawson was praised for his poise and accuracy. He led the AFL in completion percentage seven times, and his 82.58 passer rating is the second-best of his generation, fractions behind Sonny Jurgensen (82.62), but comfortably in front of Bart Starr (80.5), Fran Tarkenton (80.4), Johnny Unitas (78.2), Bob Griese (77.1), Joe Namath (65.5), and George Blanda (60.6). Dawson is particularly noteworthy for his 6.39 TD%, fourth-highest in history. In the AFL, Dawson posted an insane 7.7 TD%, by far the best of that era, and a figure that would rank number one all-time.

That gets to the heart of why Dawson isn’t among my top 20 QBs of all time. His +63 TD/INT differential was the best of the 1960s, but that includes +36 in the early (pre-Super Bowl) AFL, which was barely a major league. In context, Jurgensen’s +53, Tarkenton’s +52, and maybe even Frank Ryan’s +42 are more impressive. Dawson was a great QB. He was the best offensive player on the winningest team in the AFL, a three-time AFL champion and a Super Bowl MVP. He led the AFL in TDs four times and in passer rating six times. He was the best quarterback in the American Football League, and he would have been great in the NFL, too. But the stats wouldn’t make him look like the best QB of his generation.

22. Joe Namath
New York Jets, 1965-76; Los Angeles Rams, 1977
27,663 yards, 173 TD, 220 INT, 65.5 rating

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It’s a trite expression (and a slight misquote), but it’s true. Joe Namath is frequently cited as the most overrated quarterback in history.2 People look at his high interception rate and his low passer rating, and they believe his reputation was built on a flamboyant off-field persona and a Super Bowl victory in which his team ran for its only touchdown. These things are true: Namath did throw a lot of interceptions, and the Jets won Super Bowl III with their defense. But that’s only a little knowledge.

What Namath did better than any other quarterback of his time was to generate yardage. He excelled at this for two main reasons: he threw a great deep ball, and he never took sacks. Several times in this series, I’ve used the statistic net yards per attempt, or NY/A. It’s a simple calculation: passing yards minus sack yards, divided by pass attempts and sacks. It measures how efficiently a passer gains yardage. Namath’s NY/A is the highest of his generation. He’s the highest in AFL history (7.0), and his 6.6 career mark is well ahead of contemporaries like Daryle Lamonica (6.4), John Hadl (6.3), Len Dawson (6.1), and Bob Griese (5.9). He’s ahead of NFL counterparts like Roger Staubach (6.3) and Roman Gabriel (5.5), too. He’s ahead of everybody.

Namath’s greatest strength is not included in the passer rating formula. His quick release was legendary, later compared to Dan Marino’s, and despite his bad knees, Namath made very quick dropbacks. Those factors helped him post the lowest sack rate of his era. Although the statistics are incomplete, it appears that Namath was sacked on only 4.3% of his pass attempts, one of the greatest rates in history. I know some fans still believe that sacks are determined largely or exclusively by the offensively line, but this is demonstrably false. Compare Namath to Griese, for instance. Griese played with the greatest offensive line of the early ’70s, while Namath had Winston Hill and not much else. Despite the superior blocking in front of Griese, he took more than twice as many sacks (8.9%) as Broadway Joe. That great drop, pocket awareness, and superb quick release allowed Namath to avoid negative plays, and saved over 1,000 yards relative to Griese — 1,000 yards he doesn’t get credit for in passer rating.

The other great thing about avoiding sacks is that it typically means avoiding fumbles. Namath threw too many interceptions, but he partly made up for that, by fumbling less than any other QB in football. Namath in 1967 became the first player in history to pass for 4,000 yards in a season, and he fumbled only twice all season. Namath threw nearly 500 passes that year. Everyone else with at least 100 passes fumbled three or more times. The next year, Namath was even better, fumbling only once. He was named AFL MVP, and the Jets won Super Bowl III.

A quick look at the stats makes Namath look like a mediocre QB, just a guy who threw a lot. A closer examination shows Namath as one of the best statistical passers of his time. This is especially true if you value big years. When I evaluate great players, I’m interested in their good seasons: how many good seasons did they have, and how good were they? Namath was terrible at the end of his career. His knees were gone, and he couldn’t play any more. I blame that more on the coach who puts him out there than I do on the player, but either way … let’s say Joe Montana suited up for the Jets in 2015, and threw 4 TDs with 16 INTs (which is what Namath did in 1976). Would that make Montana a lesser player? We judge players on the heart of their careers — and for a decade, in the heart of his career, Joe Namath was a brilliant quarterback. He was a five-time all-star, AFL MVP, and Super Bowl MVP. When the all-time AFL team was chosen in 1970, Namath was a near-unanimous choice at quarterback, easily topping Len Dawson.

21. Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers, 2005-14
28,578 yards, 226 TD, 57 INT, 106.0 rating

It’s easy to understand what Aaron Rodgers does well. He’s an accurate passer, and in particular, he’s an accurate downfield passer. He has the highest touchdown percentage in 50 years, and the lowest interception percentage in history. He’s a good scrambler, who has been among the top 10 rushing QBs every healthy season of his career, including 20 rushing TDs, and two seasons with over 300 rushing yards.

In only seven years as starter, Rodgers has six seasons with a passer rating over 100, five 4,000-yard passing seasons, four 30-TD seasons, three all-pro seasons, two MVP awards, and a Super Bowl MVP. I don’t need to make the case that Rodgers is a great quarterback. It’s obvious.

Rather, my duty is to explain why Rodgers is not yet in my top 20. The operative word is yet. Rodgers has started for seven seasons, at a position where the best players last twice that long. Peyton Manning is entering his 17th season, and he’s played at Rodgers’ level for nearly all of them. Rodgers is awesome, but he needs to be awesome for a little longer before we start comparing him to guys like Manning and Tom Brady.

* * *

We began this series by examining the best pre-Modern Era quarterbacks: Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Ed Danowski, Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sid Luckman, Bernie Masterson, Ace Parker, and Bob Waterfield.

Following that up, we listed the QBs who rank 49-101, with in-depth profiles on Mark Brunell, Trent Green, Phil Simms, and Vinny Testaverde.

We continued with 40-48, a group including Charlie Conerly, Jim Everett, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, Jim Hart, Bert Jones, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, and Joe Theismann.

Last week, we profiled QBs ranked 31-39: Doug Flutie, Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Boomer Esiason, John Hadl, Roman Gabriel, Ben Roethlisberger, and Steve McNair.

Next time, we’ll do 11-20, in order.

  1. Actually, Aikman’s TD% ranks 99th out of the 101 QBs ranked for this project. He’s ahead of Archie Manning and Kerry Collins. []
  2. Of course, regular readers are no doubt familiar with Chase’s analysis of Namath. []
  • sacramento gold miners

    I think we need to be careful about placing too much value on rushing yards from the QB position. In the NFL, the QB run should be dictated by the offense, not out of desperation. In reality, Ken Anderson wasn’t a serious threat as a runner, teams preferred him to run, since Anderson was such an excellent passer. Only twice did Anderson surpass 300 yards rushing in a season, and he didn’t possess the speed of a Steve Young.

    In terms of rating Troy Aikman, I can’t use his lack of rushing yards when comparing him to others. There just wasn’t any reason to run, and take that kind of injury risk. Like all HOF legends, he made everyone around him better, while producing the key plays whenever needed. Took a beating in those early years, but unlike Jeff George, didn’t blame others.

    Randall Cunningham was the Michael Vick of his era, without the off field problems. Several exciting seasons, but not the consistency truly great QBs possess. Horrible postseason player with the Eagles, and didn’t bother to study the game plan in his final appearance as an Eagle, when they lost big at Dallas. Had Cunningham had the maturity he found with Minnesota, we’d be talking better production, and likely more wins.

    • Brahmsian

      Aikman is a very good qb,but he also is one of the worst modern quarterbacks in the HOF.
      His durability and longevity are not great .He is not as efficient as the majority of hall of fame quarterbacks.His career total numbers are not impressive among HOFers.His peak is relatively short.
      Cunningham is a much better passer than Vick.

      • sacramento gold miners

        I thought Aikman was smart to retire when he did, the Cowboys were decaying, and you can’t mess around with concussions. Staubach’s career was cut short because of concussions as well. In terms of Aikman’s career numbers not being as impressive as others, I’d come back with the Terry Bradshaw example. His teams were usually so strong, that passing with a big lead, just didn’t make sense. A typical Aikman game during his peak years would involve timely passing in the first half, and Emmitt Smith wearing down defenses in the second.

        He’s the second best QB in Dallas history, and enjoyed memorable games in the postseason as well. A great QB complements a strong team, makes them better. I’ll take a QB any day over the week who connects on the timely plays, regardless of when they occurred, over a QB who didn’t make those plays, or padded their numbers against prevent defenses. Aikman’s efficiency led Dallas to three SB titles in four years. There’s no doubt in my mind, Aikman would have put up monster numbers on a less successful team like Minnesota, but blended his game with
        Dallas for amazing results.

      • Richie

        “Aikman is a very good qb,but he also is one of the worst modern quarterbacks in the HOF.”

        SOMEBODY has to be the worst modern QB in the HOF. I can’t think of any obvious snubs that are better than him.

  • Brahmsian

    I totally agree that Namath’s efficiency is underrated by passer rating. But his career is not long ,and his durability is not good.That hurts his value.So I don’t think he is greater than Dawson.
    Staying healthy is very important to athletes. Pennington is more efficient than Eli Manning,but Eli is a much more valuable player.Because Eli is a Iron Man,and Chad is a injury-prone qb.

    • For what it’s worth, we have sack data going back quite a bit beyond 1969, just at the team level:

      http://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/1968_AFL/

      Statistically, it seems to me that Dawson was the better player, although it’s close. I have Dawson slightly ahead of Namath: http://www.footballperspective.com/the-greatest-qb-of-all-time-v-part-iii-adjusted-dropbacks/

      I don’t think anyone would argue that Dawson had the better coaching, and other than with the possible exception of that period from ’67 to ’69, the better team. Namath had a HOF WR in Maynard and another great in Sauer, although Dawson had some very good weapons, too, and Otis Taylor was a really good player.

      At the end, it may come down to style or personal preference. Namath was a 2-time AFL MVP*, while Dawson was never selected. Dawson had 3 huge AFL years: ’62 when he lost it to Cookie Gilchrist, ’66 when he lost it to Jim Nance, and ’68 when Namath won the award.

      The voting was close in only one of those years, when the AP voted 13-8 for Gilchrist in ’62, the UPI 14-6, and Dawson won the MVP from The Sporting News.

      In ’66, Nance was a runaway winner, going 20-6 in the AP, 20-5 in the UPI, and winning the Sporting News along with several other organization’s MVP votes.

      1968 wasn’t particularly close: Namath took the AP (15-4),UPI (14-5), Sporting News, NEA, PFW, and a host of others.

      In ’69, Namath took home the NEA MVP (poll of the 10 AFL head coaches), although Lamonica grabbed it from the API (18-3), UPI (19-0), and Sporting News.

      (*I’ll note that many sources, including the NYT in 1969, appeared to view the NEA and the AP as least equal, if not the NEA as the more important source.)

      Perhaps Dawson wasn’t appreciated by fans of his era — his style may have been boring but effective. Or perhaps people in our era can’t really appreciate Namath. Or, where I land, there’s a little bit of both.

      • Brahmsian

        Chase,thank you for your reply.
        I agree that the gap between Dawson and Namath is much closer than many fans think.Although Dawson is the greatest qb in AFL history,he never led AFL in passing yards in any season and never threw more than 2900 yard in a single season.He never led AFL in pass attempts in any season (Only in top 3 once).Guys like Blanda、Handl、Lamonica、Namath had a lot of attempts and threw many yards.Lawson is a very accurate and effective passer in a era filled with exciting high risk/high reward bombers.
        Namath is overrated in his era,and underrated by today’s fans.He is not the worst qb in the HOF,and he is borderline at least.

        • mrh

          Some points omitted from Brad’s analysis: Dawson added more rushing value than Namath, 1293 to 140. Dawson had better postseason stats although in part that penalizes Namath for only playing 3 playoff games (he had an abysmal game vs. KC in the ’69 playoffs – 14/40, 169 yds, 0 Tds, 3 ints). On almost an identical number of attempts, Dawson had both a higher Y/A and comp%. I don’t remember seeing many Jets games as a kid, but my sense from looking at the stats is that Namath may have avoided sacks by throwing incompletions (since he couldn’t really scramble), holding his comp% and his sack% down while Dawson was more mobile and attempted to elude sacks to make a play rather than throw it away. Dawson’s counting stats may have been kept down for the same reason as Aikman and Griese: he had a good running game and excellent defense so he did not need to throw as much as Namath: not counting his PIT/CLE years, Dawson played 183 games and threw 3696 passes while Namath played 140 and threw 3762 times (adding in sacks they probably were about identical in dropbacks).

          Also, funny how the AAFC, CFL and USFL are excused in some QBs’ cases but the AFL is “barely a major league” before the SB era in Dawson’s write-up.

          All that said, great work by Brad, loving this series.

          • Thanks, I’m glad you’re enjoying the series.

            Good comment about Dawson and Namath; the rushing difference is over 1,000 yards. I struggled with who to rate ahead, and as I’ve said about other cases in this series, you’re welcome to flip them and rank Dawson as the greater player. I did the same thing for Adam’s crowd-sourcing project earlier this year, rated Dawson just ahead of Namath. For their careers, they accrued nearly identical net yardage, less than 400 yards apart. Dawson generated fewer turnovers, and many more TDs. But Namath was much more efficient from a yardage standpoint, and he had more big years than Dawson, a greater prime. I doubt anyone would argue that Namath burned brighter but briefly; who you prefer might depend on how you value longevity vs peak. FWIW, Dawson got only one vote in the all-time AFL voting, and Namath was enshrined in Canton two years ahead of Dawson, although Dawson was eligible two years earlier.

            As far as other leagues: I don’t view any of them, except maybe the later-years AFL, as equal to the NFL during times of interleague peace. But the AAFC is close, and I think the USFL was about as strong as the very early AFL. The CFL was far below. If I took stats from those leagues at face value, these rankings would look substantially different. But many analysts entirely ignore the AAFC, USFL, WFL, and CFL, while they treat the AFL as equal to the NFL. I think that inevitably leads to poor conclusions.

        • Dawson benefited from having Hank Stram the way Bart Starr did with Lombardi over in the NFL. There were a lot of games where a QB didn’t have to do much: http://pfref.com/tiny/4nGQI

          But both were really efficient. Dawson had ’62, ’64, ’66, and ’68: http://pfref.com/tiny/4iUJm

          OTOH, what do we make of Mike Livingston leading the Chiefs to a 6-0 record and equaling Dawson’s numbers in ’69? http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/kan/1969.htm

          There are lots of things to say about Namath, but the Jets were usually really bad without him, and their QBs struggled considerably: http://pfref.com/tiny/8OlnB

    • Steve

      I think Namath is one of those that’s been called overrated so many times over the years that he’s actually become underrated but, yeah, I’d have Dawson higher. To me, Dawson vs. Namath is kind of like Anderson vs. Stabler in that Namath at his best > Dawson at his best. However, I don’t Namath (or Stabler) were at their best enough nor was their enough of a difference between his best and Dawson’s best for me to rank him ahead of the qb who had the better overall career. Same with Anderson and Stabler.

  • Clint

    Namath may be the only player to throw for 6 tds in a game and also 6 ints in a game. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/N/NamaJo00/gamelog//
    I’ve never heard an argument for Cunningham being in the HOF. It’s interesting. Who’d he have in Philly? Fred Barnett? He was mostly pretty efficient too.
    McNabb blows my mind. How’d he get rushed out of the league? I never understood what happened to make people think he couldn’t play anymore?

    • Richie

      Yeah, I was surprised that McNabb never got another chance after his season in Minnesota.

      In his first year as coach in Washington, Mike Shanahan went 6-10 with McNabb as the QB in most of those games. And we know that losing season could not possibly have been Shanahan’s fault, so he had to get rid of McNabb and move on to Rex Grossman/John Beck.

      In Minnesota, he had a brutal first game with the Vikings. And then I think he played at least at a replacement level for the next 5 games on a bad team. I seem to recall him maybe talking to another team the following season, but nothing happened. Maybe he wanted too much money? I think some guys aren’t willing to take much of a pay cut in their final years, so they end up not playing at all.

      • Clint

        He definitely could’ve been a good backup for years. Seems like his name was tainted. Like you said, he wasn’t bad towards the end, yet everyone acted like he was awful at the end. Totally could’ve been about the benjamins though as well

  • Kibbles

    If you’re outraged that #26 is higher than #29, you have my blessing to flip them.
    What if I’m outraged that #30 is higher than #32? Do I still have your blessing, or is that just a bridge too far. I’d hate to earn any enmity if I can avoid it. 😉

    • Yes, you have my blessing 🙂
      Brodie and Warner are both really tricky to evaluate, I think, and I won’t pretend a great deal of confidence in their placement.

      • Kibbles

        Those numbers were actually just selected at random. I think I agree with you on those two in particular, I just wanted to know what sorts of mental shuffling was explicitly condoned. I have a feeling it might come up again later.

        • It’s easiest to compare players to their contemporaries. So, using Brodie as an example … I have some confidence that Brodie was better than Gabriel and Hadl, so he’s in a group above them, and I believe Gabriel and Hadl were better than Lamonica, so they’re in a group above.

          I wouldn’t agree with flipping, say, Brodie and Gabriel, or Cunningham and Esiason. Across eras, these judgments are harder. Aikman and Romo? That’s a tough comparison. I’ve done the best I can to assign an order that makes sense, but there’s an uncomfortable amount of guesswork. I also hate rating active players. It’s difficult to avoid projecting into the future, which could overrate them, or to underrate a player who hasn’t put in the years yet, some longevity and consistency and counting stats.

          I guess the short answer is that I’ve put players in the groups where I feel they belong, and other than the top/bottom two or so, no further shuffling is “explicitly condoned”. But my degree of confidence is not always real high. If you wanted to view it within eras (Brodie > Hadl, Rodgers > Rivers), I’m more comfortable with that.

  • zarathustraNU

    I have a bit of a problem with the approach taken in the below excerpt:
    “But Aikman was healthy throughout his prime, and supported by Hall of Fame teammates, while Cunningham struggled with injuries and spent most of his career surrounded by mediocre offensive talent. When he finally got to play with a great supporting cast in Minnesota, a 35-year-old Cunningham led the NFL in passer rating (106.0), making his fourth Pro Bowl and third all-pro team. I wish we could see what he might have produced with receivers likeRandy Moss and Cris Carter (or Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek) when he was in his prime.”

    It feels like here, even more than in the previous Flutie conversation, you are rewarding a player based on what he hypothetically could have accomplished. That’s an interesting discussion to have, but it’s not how we should rank the careers of NFL quarterbacks or decide HoF admission. I think those decisions have to be made based on actual production. So saying “Cunningham would have done such-and-such if he was healthy,” or “Cunningham would have done such-and-such if he had better weapons” if not overly valuable, in my view. Because it’s highly speculative, and in point of fact he did not do those things.

    A player’s actual production is what he provided to his teams in terms of value, and while we should look at it in context and understand the degree of difficulty he faced, we can’t project additional value to him based on what he might have accomplished in different circumstances. Partly because it’s speculative, and partly because doing it for one quarterback in a comparison set while not doing it for others slants the playing field.

    • Kibbles

      I think there’s a misunderstanding here. You seem to be under the impression that these are rankings of the most impressive NFL careers, when all Brad says is that they’re rankings of the “greatest quarterbacks”. Great is a pretty nebulous term, and I don’t really know how Brad is measuring it, but I don’t think it’s at all controversial to say “Player A had the better NFL career, but player B was a greater player.”

      Emmitt Smith had a better career than Barry Sanders, but I’d say that Barry Sanders was a “greater” RB than Emmitt Smith. And part of the way I would defend that point was through the use of counterfactuals and hypotheticals.

      • zarathustraNU

        But in many of these breakdowns, Brad is equating “greatness” here with HoF worthiness. To me, HoF measure has to be based on what a player actually did on the field. It can be a small sample of greatness (e.g. Gale Sayers), but it still has to be actual production. It can’t be hypothetical potential.

        Also, I want to emphasize that it is not intellectually honest to build in all these “what if’s” for one player and not the other. For instance, if I were a staunch Aikman advocate, I could very easily build the same type of argument to place him above Cunningham– e.g. what if Aikman had thrown more because Emmitt Smith wasn’t around, what if he hadn’t inherited a 1-15 team, etc. To leverage these hypotheticals in defense of Cunningham but not do the same for every QB you’re comparing him to is not really fair. That’s why I think it’s best to stick to what players actually produced (and, of course, the context in which they produced it).

        • Kibbles

          First, I agree that Hall of Fame enshrinement should be based solely on what a player accomplished without counterfactuals. Secondly, HoF worthiness *IS* linked to greatness. Inextricably so. It’s a paradox, but like I said, “greatness” is a pretty nebulous term. And, again, this isn’t a list of quarterbacks ranked by Hall of Fame worthiness, it’s a list of quarterbacks ranked by “greatness”, so if your complaint is about Brad O’s thoughts on the HoF worthiness of some players, those complaints seem at best tangential to this particular list.

          Second, who says that Brad isn’t building similar counterfactuals in for other QBs? I’m sure he’s given extensive thought to all of these rankings, and the sum total of his thoughts is not included in each article, or each article would be several hundred thousand words long. These are necessarily summaries of Brad’s thoughts, quick capsules explaining in a nutshell why a quarterback winds up where he wound up.

          Third, regarding your final sentence: “I think it’s best to stick to what players actually produced (and, of course, the context in which they produced it)” What do you think is the basis for every counterfactual if not what a quarterback actually produced and the context in which he produced it? Randall Cunningham produced great numbers. He did so in a crummy situation, with garbage receivers and a head coach who seemed to evince an active antipathy towards his own offense. When Randall Cunningham had quality offensive teammates, he spearheaded the most prolific offense the league had ever seen, (at least by total points). Based on what he produced and the context in which he produced it, I believe that had Randall Cunningham played his entire career in even somewhat reasonable circumstances, he would be widely hailed as an All-Time Great.

          Far be it from me to discourage anyone from disagreeing with Brad O. (In fact, I would highly recommend it in certain cases!) But accusing him of intellectual dishonesty seems well beyond the pale, here.

          • zarathustraNU

            Based on the…let’s say “vigorousness” of your response, I think you took the “intellectual honesty” comment differently than it was intended. It was not meant morally, but academically– I just meant to indicate that to be truly intellectually rigorous in your analysis here, you’ve got to argue in the same way for all your QB candidates.

            First point– what we’re hashing here seems really minor. I’m thinking about greatness in terms of the actual careers and production of the QBs listed, as a HoF panel hopefully would. I believe that’s a reasonable approach. If you’re using different parameters, that’s fine and we have nothing to talk about.

            On your second point– I respond to what is laid out in writing. I don’t know any other way to have a debate– it’s not really possible for me to respond to “several hundred thousand” hypothetical words. What I’m simply stating that it’s not a fair evaluation if you weigh potential accomplishments for Cunningham but not for others.

            Third point– the context for one’s accomplishments is great to consider, I fully agree. Example– “Cunningham threw for 3K yards with bad receivers, that’s impressive.” The point I struggle with is projecting hypotheticals. Example– “If Cunningham had been healthier, he would have accomplished a lot in those additional games.” Fine, but he wasn’t healthier, so let’s stick to what he actually did accomplish.

            That’s what makes a sentence like this very hard for to take any value from if we’re trying to rank QBs: “I believe that had Randall Cunningham played his entire career in even somewhat reasonable circumstances, he would be widely hailed as an All-Time Great.” Fine, and makes for an interesting conversation, but I’m not going to place him above a QB who had superior production based on a hypothetically different circumstance for Cunningham.

            • Kibbles

              Again, it seems like there’s just disagreement on what’s actually being ranked here. It’s not “Hall of Fame worthiness”. I completely agree that Hall of Fame worthiness is based exclusively on what a player actually did, with no counterfactuals allowed. But greatness and Hall of Fame worthiness are not the same thing, and the two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably, in my opinion. There are some quarterbacks who I would not personally enshrine, but who I believe were “greater” than other quarterbacks who I would personally enshrine. In response to this: I’m thinking about greatness in terms of the actual careers and production of the QBs listed, as a HoF panel hopefully would. I believe that’s a reasonable approach. I agree that that’s A reasonable approach, but do not agree that it’s the only reasonable approach, and am not at all convinced that that’s the approach that Brad O. is using.

              I get that we can only respond to what’s being written, I just caution against assuming that what’s being written is all there is. If I tweeted out my top 20 receivers in history, in order, along with a quick explanation of the ranking, you can’t assume that my full thoughts are encapsulated by what was included in the tweet. If I said “5. Randy Moss – raised the level of play of the guys he played with”, it wouldn’t really be fair to say “oh my God, it’s intellectually dishonest of you to not even consider Randy Moss’ Oakland career in your ranking of him.” Actually, I *did* consider Moss’ Oakland career, but I have to work within the constraints of the medium. There’s no way I could fully spell out every single factor I ever considered in the ranking of every player. And even if I could, there’s no way anyone would possibly want to read such a long, tortured, stream-of-consciousness brain dump.

              If Brad O. is writing about counterfactuals for some players and not for others, I do not think it’s safe or logical to assume that Brad O. only considered counterfactuals for some players and not for others. I think it’s more reasonable to assume that he considered counterfactuals for everyone, but only felt the need to include them when he felt they were necessary to explain what might otherwise be a controversial ranking.

              • “I think it’s more reasonable to assume that he considered counterfactuals for everyone, but only felt the need to include them when he felt they were necessary to explain what might otherwise be a controversial ranking.”

                Correct.

              • zarathustraNU

                Okay. We’re using different parameters for evaluation. I’m trying to determine greatness as if I were a HOF voter and am therefore limiting my thinking to actual on-field accomplishments (I think “accomplishments” is a better word than the one I used previously, “production”).

                I certainly understand that different interpretations of quarterback greatness exist, and they’re fun for conversation, they’re just tougher to debate because they become much more subjective.

                • Kibbles

                  I would say that I agree and that debating a player’s Hall of Fame credentials, (let’s call it “meritoriousness”), should be much easier than debating some other vague, nebulous definition of “greatness”… except the actual Hall of Fame seems to struggle so mightily with it.

    • “you are rewarding a player based on what he hypothetically could have accomplished”

      I don’t see it this way. I think he’s providing real context to what each player really did. Cunningham was great and he had mediocre weapons most his career; Troy Aikman was also great and he had really good weapons most his career. There is nothing hypothetical about this. It’s not unreasonable based on this (and everything else) to conclude Cunningham’s greatness was a bit greater than Aikman’s greatness.

      The analogy I would use is park/defensive adjustments when judging pitchers in baseball — context matters.

      • zarathustraNU

        Yes, I totally agree. I think it is very reasonable to incorporate context and “degree of difficulty” when evaluating a player’s production, and I tried to say that above, although probably not clearly. The fact that Cunningham or McNabb elevated average offenses is certainly important to consider.

        Where I have an issue is when we say things like “Cunningham struggled with injuries, but IF he’d been healthy…” or “Cunningham would have produced such-and-such if he’d had a longer career with Randy Moss,” etc. That is much dicier territory to me.

        • I may have been unclear as to what I meant. My point, as JimZornsLemma guessed, was that Cunningham did great things despite his relatively small number of healthy seasons and the total lack of offensive support from his team, not to imagine an alternate reality in which Cunningham never got hurt and played his whole career with Jerry Rice and Lance Alworth. I was just trying to set the context for what Cunningham accomplished — what he really did, and the challenging circumstances under which it happened.

          When I wrote, “I wish we could see what he might have produced with receivers like Randy
          Moss and Cris Carter (or Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek) when he was in his prime,” I meant it literally. I would pay to watch a 1990 Cunningham with some real weapons around him.

  • Kibbles

    I don’t think it’s at all heresy to suggest Cunningham was better than Aikman. I’ve argued in the past that I’d put him in the Hall of Fame as-is, and if he’d gotten a decent coach early in his career he’d be more likely to finish in the top 10 of these rankings than the 21-30 range. Buddy Ryan’s… let’s go with “eccentric”… approach to offense made Cunningham the ’80s version of David Carr. But instead of going into the tank like Carr, Cunningham was a 1-man show. I’d imagine he was the biggest nightmare in the entire NFL for every defensive coordinator in the league.

    • 20% of Cunningham’s career passing yards went to Fred Barnett or Keith Byars, two guys who have combined for just 11,023 receiving yards in the NFL. In ’89 and ’90, Byars was the Eagles leading receiver.

      Sadly, we can’t transport Cunningham to the modern environment, but I have no doubt that he’d fare much better in a modern offense than whatever Kotite and Ryan were doing.

  • Kibbles

    Putting McNabb into context, here are his per-16-game passing stats in 127 games without Owens, in 21 games with Owens, and for comparison, Manning’s per-16-game passing stats for his Indianapolis tenure (minus his rookie year).

    McNabb without Owens: 3402 yards, 21.5 TDs, 11 INTs, 6.8 YPA, 84.3 rating
    McNabb with Owens: 4475 yards, 34 TDs, 11 INTs, 7.8 YPA, 98.3 rating
    Manning 1999-2010: 4257 yards, 31 TDs, 14 INTs, 7.7 YPA, 96.9 rating

    I’m not saying that McNabb was better than Manning. For one thing, 80% of his with-Owens career came during the 2004 season, which was an outlier for passing stats. But, on the other hand, none of this accounts for McNabb’s absurd rushing prowess. It’s crystal clear to me that history would remember McNabb much differently if he’d played with Harrison and Wayne and James instead of Pinkston and Thrash and Staley, though.

    Also, it’s a shame that McNabb’s 2002 season was cut short, because that was well on its way to being perhaps the best two-way season in NFL history. McNabb was on pace for 3650/27/10 passing and another 750/10 rushing (at 7.3 yards per carry!). I don’t know if it would have been enough to get him the MVP over Gannon, but it certainly would have been a fun discussion to have. Either way, McNabb’s 20/25 for 255 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT passing performance on a broken ankle was one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen from a quarterback.

    • zarathustraNU

      Let’s slow down a little bit on the cause-and-effect here. I agreed with most of what Brad said above, but you projecting the Owens-era McNabb as a representation of McNabb’s natural level of play is going too far, in my opinion. Owns is one of the best wide receivers of all time, and McNabb was playing with him in his absolute prime. That is going to elevate a QB. You make the case “When Owens was around, McNabb was able to play at the level he was capable of,” but I think you could also easily argue “Owens made a good QB look truly great, as he did in a couple other stops in his career.”

      After all, you wouldn’t write the same things you did above about Daunte Culpepper, would you? But if you look at his Randy Moss years, during which I’d say he was elevated by playing with a Top 5 All Time receiver, you could put together a similar narrative.

      • sacramento gold miners

        McNabb has a problem concerning his legacy, even though his career had plenty of accomplishments. Anytime a QB has many postseason appearances, it can be a double edged sword. McNabb had a solid 9-7 record, and played well in many of those games. The 4th and 26 conversion was a beauty against the Packers. Only reaching a single SB is an issue when you don’t have the numbers for your era the way Dan Marino or Dan Fouts did for there eras.

        While McNabb could hurt you throwing or running, he wasn’t quite as dynamic in the way we’ve seen other HOF QBs. Lots of those shorter passes, and third down completions just short of those first downs. Those NFC TG losses do affect perception.

        • zarathustraNU

          You’re continuing to use anecdotal stuff here, which makes it difficult to engage in the debate. “Not quite as dynamic in the way we’ve seen other HOF QBs” doesn’t really mean anything.

          It’s possible to measure McNabb’s success on 3rd downs– that’d be more useful than going off top-of-mind recollections that he threw “third down completions just short of first downs.”

          As far as the 9-7 postseason record– It’s a team sport, and wins and losses are team accomplishments. There are much better metrics to use to judge individual players.

          • sacramento gold miners

            In the area of this specific discussion, the postseason records by QBs is very relative. There’s nothing wrong with McNabb’s 9-7 record, it beats Peyton Manning’s and Warren Moon’s, one future and one current HOF member. The QB is the most position on the field, and there has to be some accountability.

            Don’t get me wrong, McNabb had an excellent career, but don’t see how he is ranked this high. The issue of his offense is indeed valid, the yards per attempt doesn’t tell the whole story. He would check down, sometimes on third down, and Andy Reid was a proponent of the short passing game. And in the context of the playoffs, every play gains more importance. While McNabb had a number of strong playoff games, the 2001 NFC TG wasn’t one of them. He threw for only 181 yards, yet the Eagles lost only by five. In the focus of McNabb’s ranking/HOF candidacy, getting that game could have made a world of difference.

            Like Ken Anderson, just feels incomplete when compared with other Canton QBs, and future inductees like the Mannings, Brady, Big Ben, Brees, and Rodgers.

        • Richie

          He’s kind of like a poor man’s Jim Kelly with the 4-straight NFC championship game appearances (3 straight losses).

          • Clint

            True, except McNabb didn’t consistently have the team Kelly had.

        • Kibbles

          I question how many Hall of Fame quarterbacks had a season as “dynamic” as McNabb was in 2002.

      • Richie

        I think he did a good job of pumping the brakes on his comparison. Basically, it was just an interesting way to point out that maybe McNabb was just handicapped a bit by his lack of receiving options.

      • Kibbles

        I think the cause-and-effect is obvious. Playing with better teammates was the cause. Posting better numbers was the effect.

        As for which sample is a better representation of McNabb’s “true ability”… of course playing with Owens is an above-average situation, just as playing with Pinkston and Thrash is a below-average situation. Were McNabb’s 2004-2005 receiving weapons as far above average as his 2000-2003 receiving weapons were below average? I don’t think so. I think McNabb’s true “neutral” level of play lies somewhere between those two averages, but closer to the Owens numbers than the Pinkston numbers. (Notwithstanding that the Owens numbers came in an anomalous offensive environment.)

        At the same time, it’s not like Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis numbers, which I provided for context, were produced in a “neutral” environment, either. Marvin Harrison can make an argument that he’s as great as Terrell Owens. (It’s not an argument that I would buy, but many others would.) Reggie Wayne was miles better than any #2 option McNabb ever had. (He was miles better than any #1 option McNabb ever had, sans those 21 games with Owens.)

        I would also be cautious in making assumptions about what I would or would not write about other players, too. I would certainly defend Daunte Culpepper, (and I would point out that far and away his best season came in a year where Moss was banged up and had fewer than 800 yards; Culpepper’s leading receiver in 2004, at least as measured by receptions and yards, was Nate Burleson.) The big difference between Culpepper and McNabb, in my eyes, is that Culpepper’s career as a productive NFL starter essentially spanned about 70 games, while McNabb’s was over 140 games. And, of course, McNabb had far fewer entanglement issues- I’m much more confident in the percentage of McNabb’s success that I attribute to McNabb himself, because we saw him with vastly more different sets of teammates over his career.

        McNabb was obviously a much “greater” quarterback than Culpepper, to me. But Culpepper is wildly underrated by people who assume he was just a product of Randy Moss.

        • zarathustraNU

          “I think McNabb’s true “neutral” level of play lies somewhere between those two averages”

          Yes, this is what I’m saying. The first post made it seem like we were assuming the Owens-era as McNabb’s natural average level of play (at least the way I read it).

          Beyond that, I won’t debate McNabb’s placement in the above list– I’ve got a negative opinion that has likely been unfairly colored by his buffoonery as an “analyst” in his post-playing years (and his odd and unnecessary shots at Tony Romo).

          • Kibbles

            No, I do think the Owens-level stats are “overheated” a bit. More because of the “2004 season” thing than the “Terrell Owens” thing, actually- quarterbacks play with great receivers all the time, and it’s not like anyone on that offense outside of Owens was really all that exceptional. (Westbrook was great, but a stellar receiving RB is no replacement for a quality receiver: Westbrook contributed 700 yards and at fewer than 10 yards per reception). I think “2004 Philly Offense” was a good situation, but not an anomalously good situation. Just a garden-variety good situation. But everyone’s stats were up in 2004, and I suspect that McNabb’s raw per-16-game stats would be slightly less impressive, (not a ton, but slightly), if they were adjusted to a more neutral offensive era.

            It’s also worth noting that Andy Reid is a great offensive mind, and should surely be counted in the “assets” category for McNabb. And his defenses were stellar, which don’t help his stats all that much, but did wonders for his wins and losses.

            My point in posting his Owens Stats was just to call attention to just how bad his non-Owens receivers were, and to suggest that conventional statistics are going to underrate him a bit as a result.

            Also, Donovan McNabb’s shot in the media that Romo had only won one playoff game was seven levels of bizarre. One level is that McNabb and Romo are probably the two most-hated “great quarterbacks” of all time, so you’d think they’d stick together. But the biggest irony, in my mind, is that Donovan McNabb should have been quite familiar with Tony Romo’s one playoff win, since he was the quarterback standing on the losing sideline that afternoon.

    • Clint

      I feel like the “what if” game is never-ending. I could say “What if Marvin Harrison were drafted by the Lions?” or “What if Peyton Manning were drafted by… the Lions?”. I bet they wouldn’t have had the same careers. So much of what happens in the NFL is circumstance. One bad lineman can create one bad QB -see Brian Hoyer before Alex Mack’s injury and after it in ’14 (though I know he’s not the most amazing example, he was playing very well). Good receivers can create good QBs, good QBs can create good receivers, good qbs can create amazing receivers, and many other combinations. The truth is, it’s all circumstantial. If Kurt Warner would’ve been taken by the Browns in the expansion draft, does he have the same career? Very doubtful. What if McNabb were taken by the Browns? They had no line, no run game -no running back with 600 yards in his first 3 seasons as a starter. Not exactly a RBBC situation either- and although they drafted a receiver in the 2nd round from 99-02, none of them had particularly good careers, especially outside of Cleveland.
      Nobody is who they are without the right situation.
      Having said that…. for McNabb to do what he did with what he had is amazing.
      -End of spastic rant
      Most importantly, Duce Staley was a good back when he was healthy. How dare you lump him in with Pinkston and Thrash. 😛

      • Kibbles

        I will agree that the “what if” game is never ending. When evaluating a player’s production, no counterfactuals are required. They produced what they produced, and it’s easy enough to evaluate that on its own merits. If this were a list of the 100 “most productive” quarterbacks in history, I’d imagine it would be much easier to compile.

        But evaluating “greatness” requires going one step further. You need to look at production, but you also need to assign credit and blame for it. How much of the production was a result of the player, and how much was the result of his circumstances. And the only really effective away to parse that data would be through a series of counterfactuals, much like the one you proposed. Marvin Harrison is one of the most productive receivers in history. Is he one of the greatest? Well, how *WOULD* he have done if he’d landed with the Lions? How would Peyton have done if he landed with the Lions? How would Brian Hoyer have done if Alex Mack had stayed healthy?

        All of the answers to these questions are obviously going to be best guesses. And those guesses will be subjective. And many of them will be wrong. But that’s what goes into creating a “greatest ever” list- a bunch of baseless, subjective, probably-wrong guesses about things we can never know because they never happened.

        For what it’s worth, I think that Brad’s random, baseless, subjective, probably-wrong guesses are better than most random, baseless, subjective, probably-wrong guesses I’ve seen.

        • Clint

          I’m definitely not knocking the list or any person. I feel like a lot of the great QBs WOULD have been Vinny Testaverde had they been drafted onto bad teams. If he were Steve Young and went to San Francisco, would he have still won the SB in ’94? They’re all very talented, but usually the ones with the right guys on their team are the ones who accomplish the most. QB is the most important position, but everything else has to be in place too. I do, however, think the guys who were still good in spite of their awful situations are the most interesting… like McNabb.
          Manning may have been great no matter what, but who knows? The Lions were in such disarray for so many years, he could’ve just had a “good but not great” career and bounced around like Vinny did.
          Also, the Browns would’ve won 10 games if Mack doesn’t get hurt! BUT injuries happen, and the greats can find a way to deal with it. #ForeverCursed

          • Kibbles

            It’s actually interesting you mention Vinny specifically. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jason Lisk’s definative Vinny Testaverde apologia on the old PFR blog, but it’s certainly a relevant read to this particular discussion: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=5449

        • A mostly trivial complaint: I realize this is from like two weeks ago, and I think you were trying to compliment me. But you called these rankings “random, baseless, subjective, probably-wrong guesses”. They aren’t random, and they aren’t baseless. They are subjective, and I suppose probably-wrong is in the eye of the beholder. I realize I’m nit-picking a device that you used for effect, but you mischaracterize the amount of research that informs these articles. The fact that guesswork is involved doesn’t make them random or baseless, and if you allow for some margin of error, I’d dispute probably-wrong as well. [/takes things too literally and too seriously]

          • Kibbles

            For what it’s worth, if you re-read my comment, I wasn’t calling your rankings “random, baseless, subjective, probably-wrong guesses”. I was calling counterfactuals in particular “random, baseless, subjective, probably-wrong guesses”. The kind of random, baseless, subjective, probably-wrong guesswork that is necessary to compile a thorough, detailed, well-researched set of rankings of something as arbitrary and nebulous as “greatness”.

            For instance, I wouldn’t call ranking Randall Cunningham at 26 either “random” or “baseless”, and I certainly wouldn’t call it “probably wrong”. (I might be inclined to put him even higher still). But I do think speculation about what he would have done if he’d had Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and the Dallas offensive line is random, baseless, and probably wrong. I say this as someone who comes from a fantasy football background. I see people every year attempt to forecast how players will perform in actual situations they’ve actually played in before, and I see how often even the best in the industry get it wrong. Predicting reality is fraught. It’s hard. Predicting unreality must necessarily be harder still.

            It’s just that we can’t ever create decent rankings until we’ve considered these silly, arbitrary, and entirely unknowable hypotheticals.

            I’m a John Elway fan. I sometimes like to play the “what if San Francisco had traded Joe Montana for the #1 overall pick in 1983 like Bill Walsh was considering” game. I think Elway would have won two or three super bowls in San Francisco. I don’t think Montana would have won any in Denver. But this isn’t really an informed opinion, because it’s impossible to be informed about things that didn’t happen. These are just guesses. Largely random guesses with little-to-no basis in known reality. As a result, they’re probably wrong. Doesn’t mean this doesn’t impact my relative rankings of John Elway and Joe Montana. Maybe your guesses in this hypothetical would be different. If they are, it’s not really something we could debate reasonably. I can’t say whether yours are better than mine or vice versa. All the research of history will only take us so far once we step off the beaten path and start venturing into non-history.

            • That makes sense. I definitely misunderstood your previous post, and I’m now prepared to agree with you.

    • zarathustraNU

      If you’re looking to play the “What if” game like this, wide receiver WOWY scores (from Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight) are a helpful input to have:
      http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/randy-moss-may-well-have-been-the-greatest-receiver-of-all-time/#ss-1

      The article does not break out Owens’ score specifically, but you should be able to get a fairly meaningful one for him since he played with a lot of QBs.

      On the Cunningham topic, the article linked above indicates that Randy Moss’ singular talents may have been a bigger reason for Cunningham’s insane Vikings season than Cunningham finally getting to play with quality teammates.

  • Re: Aikman, one thing we can do is see how he performed in losses. http://www.footballperspective.com/checkdowns-career-passing-stats-in-wins-and-losses/

    Those numbers, unfortunately, are dragged down by his rookie year, but his Y/A took a pretty big hit in losses compared to other QBs. Given the context, it may not mean much. 47 of Aikman’s career 71 losses came outside of the years from ’91 to ’96, and that’s the Aikman we think of when we think of Aikman.

    Aikman also didn’t do well when his teams allowed 21+ points: http://www.footballperspective.com/quarterback-records-when-their-team-allows-21-points/

    OTOH, let’s look at Aikman from ’91 to ’96. There were some very good QBs in what was their prime years or pretty close to it:

    http://pfref.com/tiny/J9jdE

    Sure, Aikman ranked only 8th in yards and 9th in TDs, but he was 3rd in ANY/A behind Young and Marino. He had a noticeable edge over Favre, Elway, Kelly, and Moon in ANY/A, and those guys are all HOFers.

    Since I look at ANY/A and not counting stats, I don’t need to play any counterfactual games of how Aikman would have performed if he was asked to throw more. He *was* a really good, really efficient quarterback in his prime. It was a short prime — really just 6 years, from ages 25 to 30 — but a good one.

    From 1970 to 2014, Aikman’s ANY/A+ during his age 25 to 30 years ranks inside the top 16: http://pfref.com/tiny/qjSPC

    No, he wasn’t Manning or Rodgers or Fouts or Montana or Brees or Marino or even Romo or Rypien, but he was on the same level or better than just about everyone else. Being a full standard deviation above average in ANY/A for a 6-year period is pretty darn good.

    On the other hand, he was basically producing slightly less effective numbers during his peak years than Rivers, despite having a better supporting cast. And then Rivers has all the production from 2013 and 2014 to put on top of that. Aikman certainly is remembered fondly because he got to play on those great Dallas teams, but he was still a legitimately great quarterback. He was a number one overall pick for a reason, and he still exceeded expectations.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Would have to put a HOF lock like Aikman above Rypien and Romo, although the latter has time to improve his credentials. Rivers is close to HOF quality, but the big drawback has been only a single AFC TG appearance. He played that game on a torn ACL, which was a shame, and couldn’t overcome that strong New England team. Rivers has the advantage of being younger than Romo, without the back issues. If I had to handicap the HOF chances, I would put Rivers at 50-50, and Romo at 30-70 for entering Canton.

      • Adam Steele

        I believe Rivers and Romo are slightly better players than Aikman, but have dealt with far worse situations. Not sure why you’re judging QB’s by team accomplishments when there are SO many variables that contribute to wins and losses outside of the QB’s control.

        • Kibbles

          For what it’s worth, Troy Aikman believes that Tony Romo is a better player than Troy Aikman, too. http://espn.go.com/blog/dallas/cowboys/post/_/id/4691075/troy-aikman-tony-romo-better-than-i-was

          • Richie

            While I think Aikman may be right (I’m not 100% sure), I am not sure whether Aikman really believes that. It just sounds like a good thing to say as a public commentator, and as a guy who wants to try to throw the current Cowboys QB a bone.

            • Kibbles

              I think that’s possible, but whether or not Aikman believes he’s right, I believe he’s right.

              (Also, for whatever this is worth, I actually get the feeling he’s genuine on this one. He’s not above criticising players, and he’s consistently gone out of his way to defend Romo even when he hasn’t been asked to.)

              • zarathustraNU

                Agree with the sentiment that Aikman is genuine with this one. He is not a guy who cares much about his place in all-time rankings, and he is a stalwart Cowboys and Romo supporter.

    • Brahmsian

      Aikman had a srong peak and was an outstanding passer in his generation,so he’s in the Canton.But he was awful before 1991 and became medicore since 1996(Althoug he was very effective in 1998 season,but he only started in 11 games ). Farve was more effective than Aikman with worse supporting cast.Kelly was more effective than Aikman,too.Moon and Elway were not famous for their efficiency,and their effeciency were not good among HOFers.But they had much more impressive total numbers than Aikman(Even though Moon only became nfl starter in his late twenties).Also,Elway’s rushing ability is much better.They are greater quarterbacks than Aikman.
      Besides the hof quaterbacks Chase mentioned,Graham,Brocklin,Unitas,Tarkenton,Starr,Staubach,Dawson,Jurgensen and Young are all more effective and greater than Aikman.In my opinion,only two modern hof quarterbacks (Blanda and Waterfield) are significantly worse than Aikman.Also,Blanda and Waterfield are not pure quarterbacks.
      Future HOFers like Manning,Brady,Brees and Rodgers are better than him.Rivers,Big Ben and Romo will be greater than him when they retire.Rivers had some decline in recent years,but he’s a much more effective passer than Aikman and extremely durable.
      Rypien had srong peak.His performance in 1991 was extremely great.But his peak was too short,and his only started in 78 games in his entire nfl career.He’s not a great quarterback.

  • Adam Steele

    I’m not entirely comfortable with Aikman and Griese in the top 30. While their counting stats are depressed by virtue of playing on strong teams during their primes, I’d argue that their efficiency stats are inflated for the same reason. In addition to playing behind two of the best o-lines in history, Aikman and Griese were rarely asked to carry the load offensively. They were allowed the benefit of passing in optimal situations (from ahead and/or the defense focused on stopping the run), which undoubtedly helped boost their rate stats. It’s far easier to be efficient over 20 attempts per game than 35 or 40.

    I would drop both of these guys about 10 positions in the rankings.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Adam, you hit upon one of the topics we discuss here frequently. It’s the chicken or the egg argument, does the fact a QB on a championship team have it easier with a strong supporting cast, or is it the QB which helps lift the supporting cast?

      The championship level QBs may not have had the same opportunities to carry the load offensively, but more often than not, in key situations they delivered. I would counter it would have been more beneficial from a stats perspective for those guys to put up numbers in losing situations(like a Testaverde), when the pressure is reduced. Fewer attempts doesn’t equate to weakness when we look at the context of those winning games. Aikman and Griese just seemed to hit on those important passes consistently, even when their running game was bottled up, or a pass rusher did penetrate those strong offensive lines.

      • Adam Steele

        Your anecdotal “evidence” that Aikman and Griese just seemed to make plays when it mattered is not a persuasive argument. It’s easy to remember it that way because their teams won, but do you have any factual evidence?

        Are you seriously suggesting that Testaverde’s numbers were HELPED by playing for a losing franchise like the Bucs? Pressure or not, he had a horrendous supporting cast that dragged him down with it.

        • Yes, Testaverde was certainly harmed by his teammates. I don’t think there’s much argument to the contrary that his supporting cast was below average for the majority of his career.

          • Clint

            Just imagine if a QB threw 13 tds and 35 interceptions in a season now… or even 15 years ago. Seems like guys didn’t have as much pressure to be amazing right away back then, otherwise Vinny never would’ve lived been given the chances he was given

            • Kibbles

              I think a lot of it was a lack of better options for Tampa. As bad as Vinny Testeverde was, it’s not like Tampa would have been all that much better with a 38-year-old Joe Ferguson under center.

              • Clint

                That’s true. Mark Carrier was decent but I really don’t know anything about his other receivers from back then.

        • sacramento gold miners

          There’s a ton of evidence about Aikman and Griese, and two come to mind immediately. In Aikman’s first SB, it was Buffalo taking the lead, and Emmitt Smith was being contained early on. Cowboys have the ball at midfield, 3rd and 16, Troy delivers a 20 yard strike to Irvin, picking up a crucial first down which led to an eventual TD which tied the game. The Ken Anderson/Donovan McNabb type of QB would frequently throw the 12 yard completion in that situation, which looks good on the stat line, but doesn’t lead to a score.

          Bob Griese delivered for the Dolphins, coming in relief for Earl Morrall. At that point, the undefeated Dolphins were in trouble at Pittsburgh. Griese, cold off the bench, promptly threw a long gainer to Paul Warfield, as the Dolphins regained the momentum. I don’t know what Griese’s final stats were, but the importance of that play was huge.

          I saw Testaverde up close during those years, and he played a big role in dragging down those Bucs teams. Disinterested, maybe things came too easy for him at Miami. Countless times, Testaverde failed to produce in the early stages of those games, Bucs fell well behind, and Vinny padded his numbers against prevent defenses in futile efforts. Teams played soft with a sizable lead, and those are easy completions to make. 300 yard passing games aren’t equal.

          • Kibbles

            It’s funny how you mention Aikman picking up the first down on a 3rd-and-16 in the playoffs as evidence he’s better than Donovan McNabb. Even if we accept that this is what qualifies as “evidence”, try googling the phrase “4th and 26” sometime.

            • sacramento gold miners

              I did cite that great play by McNabb earlier, he deserves full credit. My larger point was how overall, Aikman was more dynamic, and hit on those key plays in the big games. McNabb, not so much.

              Close to the HOF, just needed a little more.

              • Kibbles

                I noticed later that you brought it up, which makes it doubly-bizarre that you’d bring up McNabb as an example of a guy who couldn’t convert 3rd-and-long in the playoffs. Also, I’m pretty sure you’re the only person I’ve ever seen who would call Troy Aikman more “dynamic” than this guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-bPBAYdGEo

                I also believe three things. 1) Troy Aikman deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. 2) Donovan McNabb does not deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. 3) Donovan McNabb was a “greater” quarterback than Troy Aikman. I do not think the “greatness” is the only relevant consideration for the Hall of Fame, (even if it is certainly one of the biggest ones).

                • sacramento gold miners

                  It’s all about context, and the numbers can be deceiving. The overall numbers are offset by when you do it, the yards per completion is another example of this. Hitting the long completion and having that drive not result in any points can happen, along with getting yardage when the game is out of hand. While McNabb was definitely the better runner, Aikman was more dangerous and dynamic with that passing game. In those NFC TG defeats, it just wasn’t enough.

                • Delevie

                  What made that play one of the best of all time is “One of the best plays you will ever see” was said in the same sentence as “Freddy Mitchell”.

              • Kibbles

                Also, for whatever it’s worth: Donovan McNabb- 11.8 career yards per completion. Troy Aikman- 11.4 career yards per completion. Despite the league-wide yards per completion average being slightly higher during Aikman’s career than McNabb’s. So if we’re defining “dynamism” strictly as “ability to complete long passes”, it seems McNabb was slightly more “dynamic”. Unless you want to say that a higher percentage of his yardage came after the catch, in which case I say… ummm… so? It’s not like anyone is going to argue that Todd Pinkston and James Thrash and Freddie Mitchell and L.J. Miller made Donovan McNabb, right?

                And even if you do want to make that argument, I’d say Desean Jackson’s first three seasons are pretty damn compelling evidence that Donovan McNabb could hit the deep ball just fine, provided he actually had a halfway-decent receiver capable of getting open downfield to catch it.

                • Richie

                  Looking at Aikman’s yard per completion on a season-by-season basis is impressive. From 1989 through 1995 his y/c was between 11.3 and 11.8 every season. He fluctuated a bit more after that, but still between 10.5 and 12.5.

                  Meanwhile, McNabb was between 8.9 and 14.7 (2006 – inflated by Reggie Brown, Donte Stallworth and Hank Baskett).

        • sn0mm1s

          IIRC, PFR rates Aikman pretty high when it comes to DVOA. That would support (if you like their methodology) that Aikman was pretty adept at making plays.

      • “From a stats perspective” doesn’t mean counting stats. I think Adam has a good point (although I’m not entirely sure I agree) that “from a stats perspective” Griese and Aikman actually both benefited from their strong teams. By not having to “carry the load offensively” it was easier for both quarterbacks to stand out “from a stats perspective” when that means things like ANY/A.

        • Kibbles

          Here’s a paper on Braess’ paradox which does make the argument that the more a quarterback is asked the throw, the less effective he is with each pass, (and, conversely, that the less often he is asked the throw the more efficient you could expect him to be).

          http://www.sph.umn.edu/faculty1/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/rr2012-004.pdf

          • sacramento gold miners

            The frequency of pass attempts still boils down to winning, and that specific game situation. A great QB may have to vary the number of pass attempts depending on the type of game. I don’t believe in cookie cutter solutions.

            • Kibbles

              I wasn’t talking about solutions. I was just saying, being a standard deviation above league average on YPA with 600 pass attempts is a lot harder / more impressive than being a standard deviation above league average on YPA with 400 pass attempts. Players are naturally less efficient on high volume than they are on low volume. To that effect, Aikman’s rate stats are likely helped by the fact that he played on an offense that asked him to throw so infrequently.

              • sacramento gold miners

                It’s interesting to speculate on what the scenario would be for Aikman, I see him being highly effective with much seasonal pass attempts had the scheme been different in Dallas. In my view, the great QBs could adapt had they been required to throw more, and tjose teams would have still enjoyed successful years. I would agree in the sense we see many losing, lesser QBs with a ton of passing attempts, as they are forced to pass most of the season.

    • Certainly a fair argument. For whatever reason, I’m more inclined to drop Griese more than I am Aikman.

      • Kibbles

        I do have to say that Griese’s 8 career pro bowls is very impressive, especially given how many fewer QBs made the pro bowl every year in the ’70s. In Aikman’s first pro bowl season, there were 28 teams in the league and 8 QBs made the pro bowl. In Griese’s final pro bowl season, there were still 28 teams in the league, but only 4 quarterbacks made the pro bowl. Add in the two first-team AP All Pros, and I think I might prefer Griese in the battle between underwhelming statistical HoFers on juggernaut teams.

        • It is weird, that’s for sure.

          Griese’s Pro Bowl berth in ’67 you can disregard. It was not a worthy one by any standard, given that it was a 10-team league and he was clearly not one of the top 4 QBs.

          His Pro Bowl in ’70 is really weird. He was barely above league average in ANY/A, and he didn’t even have any 4th quarter comebacks to wow voters. His team won games, sure, but Griese seemed to benefit from the majority of the top QBs that year being in the NFC — Brodie, Morton, Jurgensen, Tarkenton, and Gabriel were 5 of the top 7 QBs in ANY/A. Lamonica was the AFC’s best QB, and then it was Bill Nelson (6-6, 5.22 ANY/A), Hadl (4-5-3, 4.95), Unitas (10-2-1, 4.49), and Griese (10-4, 4.39). Was there a reason Unitas didn’t make the Pro Bowl? Was Griese an injury replacement for Unitas, who was hurt in the Super Bowl, or was there such Unitas fatigue that a “down” year for him wasn’t enough for a Pro Bowl? It seems odd that a more famous player with better stats and a better record would be passed over for the Pro Bowl.

          Ironically, Griese’s 2nd best season by ANY/A and RANY/A was ’75, a year he did NOT make the Pro Bowl.

      • Adam Steele

        I would also put Aikman a few spots ahead of Griese. Maybe this isn’t fair, but the QB position was arguably less important from ’70 – ’77 than in any other era. The game was centered around running and defense, and QB’s simply weren’t asked to do as much. I don’t see Griese as a vital player during the Dolphins’ run; they probably would have done just as well with a generic above average starter. IIRC, Griese only attempted 8 passes in one of those SB victories.

        • Richie
          • Adam Steele

            He’s exactly who I had in mind 😉

        • sacramento gold miners

          Griese was more important than people realize, I admit his postseason stats look underwhelming, but the nature of those Dolphin teams was the running attack. There were still vital situations when a HOF QB like Griese had to step forward, and I mentioned Griese’s relief appearance in the 1972 AFC TG, when Morrall simply couldn’t cut it anymore.

          A year earlier, Griese also played well on a bum shoulder in the 1971 Christmas Day Classic at Kansas City. Miami’s great running attack was stopped for much of the game, and it was Griese getting it down against a Chiefs team some thought was stronger than the 1969 version. The ’71 Dolphins went on to crush Baltimore for their first AFC crown. Decades later, many players credit that huge KC playoff win as the catalyst for the Dolphin SB wins.

          If we deleted Griese and inserted an above average starter(like a Vinny Testaverde) in those type of situations, in my opinion, would have been suicidal. Later in his career, when the team changed, and Griese had to pass more, he was very successful.

          • Yazan Gable

            Based on the Testaverde article give years ago he might have been just as good if not better than Griese.
            http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=5449

            • sacramento gold miners

              That article strengthens my view that Griese was easily the better QB than Vinny. I don’t know why the author talked about the 1996 Ravens, which finished 4-12. That’s a problem for Testaverde, and kind of sums up his career. A few good seasons, lots of numbers, but not the results everyone thought coming out of college. Put Testaverde on those early 70s Dolphins teams, I don’t think they’re as successful.

              I saw roughly 60 games of Testaverde, don’t know how many the author saw, but it’s just inaccurate to suggest the supporting cast was the major problem on those Bucs teams. Vinny was part of the problem, and even with good teams, couldn’t lead them to a Super Bowl. By contrast, Griese helped to lift his team to new heights. A QB doesn’t need a ton of pass attempts to be effective, the Dolphins were smart during that era to mold their team around the rules. Strong defense, and three talented RBs.

              It’s worth noting, it was Griese returning from injury to bail out Earl Morrall in the ’72 AFC TG, Morrall just wasn’t good enough to finish the job, and Don Shula knew it.

              • Yazan Gable

                The author mentions the 4-12 Ravens because it is an example of a team where the cast around Testaverde wasn’t complete garbage unlike all those years in Tampa Bay and how well he performed when he had not-garbage supporting cast. As football is a team sport, however, this happens to be the one year the Ravens had a great offense and a garbage defense which explains the 4-12. As you can see in this article (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/dvoa-ratings/2007/1996-dvoa-ratings-and-commentary), going by DVOA the Ravens had the best offense in the NFL and the 2nd worst defense.

                • sacramento gold miners

                  Testaverde will never earn HOF consideration, five good years out of 20 just won’t get it done. Very much of a compiler, I can’t mention him with the superior QBs. Even with more help, Testaverde couldn’t get get those Jets and Browns teams over the hump. Wasn’t exceptional in the playoffs, either. .

  • Richie

    “[Aikman’s] TD percentage is very low, but that’s partly explained by Emmitt Smith;
    why pass at the goal line when you have the most successful
    short-yardage run game of all time?”

    Another example in my quest to devalue the worth of touchdowns in rating individual players. I’ve never been able to fully sort this out, and I’ve mentioned it here a few times, but I have long felt that the “bonus” individual players get for scoring (or throwing) touchdowns is just too high. Aikman, Smith and Irvin can have an awesome 80-yard scoring drive, with each of them accumulating a huge chunk of the yardage and first down conversions. But just because the ball is given to Smith at the 1-yard line for the score, does that make Aikman and/or Irvin worse players?

    • Clint

      Similar to Joe Namath’s Super Bowl performance. He actually played pretty well. Just happened to not be the one scoring TDs

      • The other thing to keep in mind is how the QB position has evolved over time. Because Namath was calling his own plays in that Super Bowl, it’s as though he was a combo QB/OC. Namath’s game-planning that day was widely praised, and while that doesn’t mean much in his legacy as a passer, it does, and should, impact his legacy as a quarterback.

    • I hear ya, Richie. We do need to always keep context in mind when looking at any player’s statistics. The flip side here would be that Aikman posted outstanding completion percentage numbers — http://pfref.com/tiny/qPfbY — in part because he was throwing in advantage situations because of Smith (and also, he wasn’t throwing much near the goal line, where completion percentages are naturally lower).

    • Just to point out the other side — while fiddling with Aikman’s ranking, I wanted to see how much Emmitt might have affected his goal line work. Aikman threw fewer 1-2 yards TDs than the other top QBs of that era, but it’s a difference of, like, 5 touchdowns.

      From 1989-2000, a time frame tailored to Aikman’s career, he ranks 9th in 1-2 yard TDs, tied for 6th in 3-10 yard TDs, and 13th in TDs of more than 10 yards. At the risk of undercutting my own argument for him, Aikman’s TD problem is mostly that he didn’t create a lot of explosive plays downfield. Just another reason the Bucs shouldn’t have signed Harper!

      • Richie

        “Aikman threw fewer 1-2 yards TDs than the other top QBs of that era, but it’s a difference of, like, 5 touchdowns.”

        You say 5, but Aikman had 11 fewer than Brett Favre.

        I think Emmitt probably vultured more than just 1-2 yard TD’s from Aikman. Smith has scored 132 TD’s of 10 yards or fewer, 16 more than 2nd-best since the merger.

        So I figured I would compare Aikman’s 1-10 yard TD’s to Favre (the leader from 1989-2000).

        Aikman threw 76 1-10 yard TDs and Dallas ran for 162 1-10 yard TDs, for 238 total touchdowns.

        Green Bay QBs threw 143 1-10 yard TD’s (from 89-00) and ran for 101, for a total of 244 1-10 yard touchdowns.

        Dallas and Green Bay had almost the same number of 1-10 yard TD’s over that time period. (Actually, Dallas had more if you add in the 13 non-Aikman passing TD’s.)

        So it looks like the Dallas running game (mostly Emmitt Smith) “cost” Aikman around 70 1-10 yard passing touchdowns.

        Of course, all the typical “what if” disclaimers apply.

        But, even if we gave Aikman those 70 touchdowns, his ANY/A only jumps from 5.66 to 5.94.

        • I can’t say I agree with your methodology here. You’re comparing two extremes, a team that had a legendary RB and leaned on its run game, with a team that had a legendary QB and no run game. Green Bay doesn’t represent an average, it represents the alternate extreme. If you had chosen Marino or Elway or Kelly or Moon or anyone except Brett Favre, then 5 is a generous figure. Using Favre as a baseline is incredibly misleading.

          Both the Cowboys and Packers scored a lot of touchdowns, period: they had more opportunities than, say, Vinny Testaverde. Incidentally, from 1989-2000, Aikman had fewer goal-to-go TDs than Testaverde.

          And as I noted above, the largest discrepancy comes from Aikman’s low number of 11+ yard TDs. He lost some short-yardage TDs to Emmitt, no doubt. But that’s not nearly the most important factor in his low TD rate.

          • I think Richie’s main point was not about 5 or 11, but about 5 or 70. And I think he has a good point.

            That said, perhaps the most appropriate way to look at it is using this query: http://pfref.com/tiny/mRbYC

            Aikman ranks just 16th in passing TDs of 11+ yards from ’91 to ’96, otherwise known as The Good Years.

            For his career, his average/median length of TD pass was pretty low, too: http://www.footballperspective.com/norm-van-brocklin-is-the-leader-in-average-length-of-passing-touchdown/

            On the other hand, how big of a deal was this really? From ’91 to ’96, the Cowboys ranked 2nd in points scored and 3rd in first downs.

            • Holy crap, he’s behind Neil O’Donnell.

              I think we’re all mostly on the same page — this discussion began when Richie agreed with what I wrote in the article — but the ’70 TDs’ figure is not an honest standard, and it dodges the main issue: Aikman didn’t create long scoring plays. Even in his best seasons, he ranks behind Chris Miller, Stan Humphries, Scott Mitchell, and yes, Neil O’Donnell.

              This doesn’t mean Aikman was a poor QB — I ranked him 27th all-time — but his low TD rate was not just about Emmitt Smith, or even mostly about Emmitt. I don’t think that’s disputable: the deficit comes primarily from 11+ yard TD passes.

              • It really is weird. Aikman is the only real modern era HOFer (well, him and Waterfield if you count him) with fewer than 100 TD passes of 11+ yards

                http://pfref.com/tiny/z1BdZ

              • Richie

                Of guys who threw 75+ touchdowns from 1989-2000 (there are 34 of them), Aikman ranks 32nd in percentage of touchdown passes of 11+ yards. 54% of Aikman’s TD passes were “long” (11+ yards).

                Just ahead of Mark Brunell and Drew Bledsoe.

                Jim Kelly was best with 71%. The rest of the top 10 is: Stan Humphries, Chris Miller, Chris Chandler, Scott Mitchell, John Elway, Elvis Grbac, Peyton Manning, Neil O’Donnell, Jim Harbaugh.

                (Remember, that is for the specific period of 1989-2000 – not necessarily career numbers for these guys.) League average was around 60%.

                Favre was at 58% and Marino is at 55%.

                • Of those 34 QBs, Aikman also ranks 32nd in just plain old TD rate at 3.5% (ahead of Kerry Collins and Jim Harbaugh).

                  Of the 25 QBs with 45+ PTDs from ’91 to ’96, Aikman ranks… 18th in TD rate. That’s obviously pretty yucky.

                  On the other hand, of that group, he ranks 4th in INT rate, and two of the 3 guys ahead of him (Bono, O’Donnell) ranked 22nd and 23rd in TD rate. So his INT rate really balances things out. Aikman ranks 3rd in NY/A over this era at 6.75, and his INT rate so balances out his TD rate that he also ranks 3rd in ANY/A over this era at 6.37. For a contrary example, Jim Kelly was a TD king but also a high INT guy: he ranks 4th in NY/A but 7th in ANY/A.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Ken Anderson’s case for Canton has grown exponentially since his retirement, few were talking about the HOF after waching many games of his career. I’m not big on Pro Bowls, Wes Welker has five, but won’t sniff Canton. Bill Walsh was indeed complimentary of Anderson in 1982, keep in mind, Walsh coached Anderson up to 1975. And Walsh later compared Rick Mirer to Joe Montana.

    Very efficient has always been the catch phrase when talking about Anderson, and while he wasn’t the first Bengal QB to succeed with the West Coast offense, he had the much greater success for those winning Bengal teams. The question is whether a QB best known for being highly efficient did enough to earn the highest honor. It’s also where just looking at numbers has a downside, because there are stats about Anderson which damage his case.

    He was a very structured, smart, tough, player. Could run, but that didn’t compare to his passing ability. Teams actually preferred Anderson running since he wasn’t fast. A conservative passer, while Anderson did connect with Isacc Curtis on deep passes, he would often take the eight yard completion on third and nine. Sometimes, that’s smart, but often, it would have been wiser to try a riskier pass in that situation. First down conversions are so important to keeping and taking a lead in the NFL. Anderson’s big weakness was his lack of comeback ability, once you had a lead on the Bengals, especially late, the game was virtually over. How many fans know a journeyman like Steve Buerline(spelling?) led more game-winning career drives? For a QB rated so high on this list, that’s a problem. Russell Wilson has already equaled Anderson’s 15 year output in this important category.

    Anderson is kind of between a great QB and a system QB, and people who watched him live did regard him highly, but just wasn’t that special. Kenny Stabler was a more dangerous QB, for all his faults. I’m not sure if leading in a few single season categories, and the passer rating is enough. The passer rating is more of a general metric, in my view. Proponents like to play up a spectacular 20-22 day against the Steelers, but like Timmy Smith’s SB rushing record, it was only one game. The rest of the time, Anderson was ineffective against the Steelers with Bill Walsh as coordinator. The West Coast attack was reduced to rubble in most of those other games, and Anderson never came close to that level of performance.

    Watching the games really gives the context behind the numbers, and Super Bowl 16 was a perfect summary of how Anderson usually played on the biggest stage. Just looking at the box score you might think Anderson had a good game, but it was only slightly above average. Coming off an outstanding regular season, he was stifled in the first half, throwing a pick, and passing for only about 75 yards, as the Niners broke out to a 20-0 lead. He finally woke up in the second half, but trailing 20-7 with three minutes left in the third quarter, Anderson failed to get the Bengals into the end zone, a major mistake. In the fourth quarter, Anderson padded his numbers, as the Niners allowed shorter range completions in the middle of the field. Cincinnati scored a basically meaningless TD at the end of the defeat.

    Wrapping up, Kenny Anderson has some HOF attributes, but his numbers don’t tell the whole story. HOF QBs just can’t be very efficient, and he falls just short of Canton. Maybe in the 40-50 range all time, but I just think he’s been overrated by fans who didn’t see him play.

  • Jim Kelly hasn’t generated much discussion here. What do people think of Brad ranking him 25th?

    • Kibbles

      I’d have him lower. His teams were so, so stacked, and his stats really just don’t stand out from the pack as much as you’d expect given that fact. Statistically, he looks a lot like Mark Brunell without the wheels. In Buffalo’s four Super Bowl seasons, Kelly played with SIXTEEN pro bowl teammates on offense. As a point of comparison, Elway didn’t play with his 16th pro bowl teammate until 1996, his fifteenth season as an NFL quarterback. Which, yeah, I get it- that’s why Elway is in the top 20 and Kelly is not. I just think I’d be more likely to put Kelly in the 31-40 bucket than the 21-30 bucket. So not far enough off to raise a fuss about, but far enough for me to mention it when you ask specifically.

    • Steve

      I think 25th is about right, but I’d have Namath and McNabb lower.

  • Thomas

    The info on McNabb is interesting. When you really take a deep dive into his statistics and teammate situation, he has an increasingly strong case for the HOF. The Philly Front Office really dropped the ball on surrounding him with top level offensive skill players. They should have gone to more than one Super Bowl after going to five NFC Championship Games. As soon as they acquired a young, explosive set of skill players (Jackson, Maclin, Celek, and McCoy), they shipped him off. They should have given him at least one more year with those guys.

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  • I was going to talk about Aikman, but it sure appears there’s no need for that based on the comments.

    I know you were trying to justify Cunningham’s high ranking, but, and I don’t see this brought up in the comments…those sacks. They are hard for me to get past. It’s my impression, though I’ve never studied it, that scramblers get sacked more often than non-scramblers. Even so, Cunningham got dropped 10.1% of the time. That is just extraordinarily high, even compared to scramblers like Young or Rodgers. Cunningham led the league in times sacked on 5 occasions (and 6 times in yards lost). He had a career 82 Sack%+. And not to hold Cunningham’s first couple seasons too much against him, but in 1985 and ’86 Jaworski was sacked 7.7% of the time compared to Cunningham’s unbelievable 24.1% mark (a negative-6 Sack%+).

    Cunningham was definitely great, but I do not have him ahead of Aikman or Anderson.