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.
This week, I’m profiling the players who rank about 40-48 on my list, in alphabetical order:
New York Giants, 1948-61
19,488 yards, 173 TD, 167 INT, 68.2 rating
The hype was always there for Chuck Conerly. He was a star at Ole Miss, and he was the Giants’ quarterback when they were the only team in New York. Playing for a coaching staff that included Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, alongside Hall of Fame players like Rosey Brown, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, and Emlen Tunnell, Conerly was set up for success. The Giants were competitive every season, and they won an NFL championship in 1956.
Conerly had a brilliant rookie season, with the most total touchdowns (22 pass, 5 rush) of any quarterback in the league. He struggled to replicate that success, and was a pretty average QB until Lombardi’s arrival as offensive coordinator. He had several more good seasons, including shared MVP recognition in 1959 with John Unitas. Conerly was an effective QB for over a decade, but he’s sometimes overrated due to (1) publicity in New York, (2) publicity as the QB of a successful team, and (3) the size of the NFL in the 1950s. Conerly was the 5th-best QB in a 12-team league. He was a good player, but the occasional Hall of Fame campaigns on his behalf are misguided.
Los Angeles Rams, 1986-93; New Orleans Saints, 1994-96; San Diego Chargers, 1997
34,837 yards, 203 TD, 175 INT, 78.6 rating
Jim Everett made the Pro Bowl following the 1990 season. It was the only Pro Bowl appearance of his career.
That is totally nuts. In 1988, Everett had the second-highest passer rating in the NFC, led the NFC in passing yards, led the NFL in TDs, and took the Rams to the playoffs. Randall Cunningham and Wade Wilson represented the NFC in the Pro Bowl. In ’89, Everett ranked first or second in the NFC in yards, TDs, and passer rating — for the second year in a row. Joe Montana, Don Majkowski, Mark Rypien, and Cunningham all made the Pro Bowl ahead of him. Everett was repeatedly underrated and disrespected, and not just by Jim Rome.
Everett played in an era of great QBs, and it’s true he wasn’t as impressive as Montana or Cunningham. But at a certain point, the numbers demand respect. Everett passed for 3,000 yards seven times, and twice led the NFL in passing TDs. Between 1980-99, eight QBs had seven or more 3,000-yard passing seasons, and all of the other seven are ranked higher than Everett in this project. Seven QBs had at least six 20-TD seasons, and all of the other six are ranked higher than this. Among the 13 players who passed for 30,000 yards during those two decades, Everett’s efficiency is about average, comparable to Warren Moon and John Elway.
Everett was aggressive under pressure, throwing a high rate of interceptions, but with a low sack rate and not many fumbles. I’m not saying he was a Hall of Famer, but top-50 seems fair.
Minnesota Vikings, 1987-92; Washington, 1993; Kansas City Chiefs, 1995-98; Oakland Raiders, 1999-2004
28,743 yards, 180 TD, 104 INT, 84.7 rating
Gannon’s stats are remarkably similar to Mark Brunell’s. Like Brunell, he was distinguished by a very low interception rate, the best of his era. Best INT%, 1995-2004 (min 2,000 att):
Gannon was also an excellent scrambler and runner, who rushed for 2,449 yards and 21 TDs. He spent his athletic prime as a backup, or he’d surely have rushed for 3,000 yards, maybe 4,000. At age 34, Gannon rushed for 529 yards and four TDs with a 5.9 average. That’s more yardage than he gained from ages 26-31 combined.
Gannon’s best years came with the Raiders, in his 30s. In his four full seasons with Oakland, Gannon passed for 115 TDs and only 44 INTs. He was first-team all-pro in 2000 and NFL MVP in 2002. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, 11 quarterbacks have earned Associated Press first-team all-pro honors more than once: Bob Griese, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Gannon. Gannon had a great career, but he’s also a what-might-have-been story, who didn’t start regularly until he was 32. When he was actually on the field, Gannon excelled.
San Francisco 49ers, 1999-2003; Cleveland Browns, 2004; Detroit Lions, 2005; Philadelphia Eagles, 2006, 2009; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2007-08
25,537 yards, 161 TD, 83 INT, 87.5 rating
Jeff Garcia was a four-time all-star in the Canadian Football League who didn’t start in the NFL until he was 29. Nonetheless, he made four Pro Bowls stateside, as well. He also led three different teams to the playoffs: the 49ers from 2000-02, the Eagles in ’06, and the Bucs in ’07. His success, at an advanced age and despite frequent injuries, was remarkable. Garcia rushed for 2,140 yards and 26 TDs in the NFL, including 1,909 yards and 24 TDs after turning 30. Garcia struggled with injuries in part because he consistently put his body on the line to help his team; I was always struck by his competitive drive and his will to win.
Kurt Warner won NFL MVP in 2001. The year before, Garcia tied for 5th in all-pro QB voting (3 out of 50). But it’s not obvious to me that Warner had a better year in ’01 than Garcia in ’00.
QB/Yr Yds TD INT Rating RushYds TD Garcia '00 4,278 31 10 97.6 414 4 Warner '01 4,830 36 22 101.4 60 0
Warner threw for more yards (on about the same number of attempts), but with sacks and rushing, it’s nearly equal. The difference is turnovers. Warner threw more than twice as many interceptions, and he had more fumbles than Garcia. And while the Niners had a nice enough team (Jerry Rice was gone, but Terrell Owens hadn’t gone crazy yet), Warner was playing with Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk, and Orlando Pace. In context, I might lean towards believing that Garcia had the better year. He was underrated because he wasn’t Steve Young.
St. Louis Cardinals, 1966-83; Washington, 1984
34,665 yards, 209 TD, 247 INT, 66.6 rating
Jim Hart was never the best quarterback in the NFL, but he was one of the best for a long time. Hart retired as the third-leading passer of all time, behind only Fran Tarkenton and Unitas. A four-time Pro Bowler, Hart’s best seasons were 1974, when he was second-team all-pro, and 1976, when he ranked 2nd in net passing yards and 5th in passer rating. The Cardinals of the mid-’70s played exciting football. Coached by offensive mastermind Don Coryell, the team featured all-purpose back Terry Metcalf and explosive wideout Mel Gray, plus heavy-duty RB Jim Otis and a terrific offensive line led by Dan Dierdorf. Hart was in his 30s by then, but it was the one time in his career that he played on a team stacked with talent. His passer rating was 10 points above his career average in those seasons, and it makes me wonder what his career would have looked like on a better team.
Hart was distinguished by three factors: his long, productive career; his high number of pass attempts; and his excellence avoiding sacks, the best of the 1970s. The Cardinals have had three straight winning seasons three times in their history: 1922-25, 1946-49 … and 1974-76, the best years of Hart’s career, when the team went 31-11, with two NFC East titles.1 The Cardinals had seven winning seasons during Hart’s tenure, compared to six in the three decades since he retired.
Baltimore Colts, 1973-81; Los Angeles Rams, 1982
18,190 yards, 124 TD, 101 INT, 78.2 rating
Bert Jones was NFL MVP in 1976, and second-team all-pro in ’77, but like Gannon and Garcia, he’s a what-might-have-been story. Jones was a tremendous athlete: he had a cannon for an arm, and he rushed for 200 yards three times, with a 5.8 career average on the ground. Several years ago, Bill Belichick told reporters, “As a pure passer I don’t think I could put anybody ahead of Bert Jones. I know he had a short career and the shoulder injury, but when I was there and he was just starting his career, the success that he had and his ability to throw the ball as a pure passer and as an athlete, it would be hard to put anybody ahead of Bert Jones at that point in time.”
However, Jones did have a short career and the shoulder injury. He has the fewest professional passing yards of anyone I ranked in the top 50, the fewest TDs, and he made only one Pro Bowl, tied for the fewest. In the playoffs, Jones went 0-3 as starter and posted a 59.8 passer rating.
What Jones has is an amazing three-year peak (1975-77), during which he was the best overall QB in football, leading the Colts to three consecutive division titles, their only playoff appearances between 1972-86. The Rams gave up first- and second-round draft choices to acquire Jones in 1982, but injuries ended his career before Jones could capitalize on his ability.
Buffalo Bills, 1963-66; Oakland Raiders, 1967-74
19,154 yards, 164 TD, 138 INT, 72.9 rating
Daryle Lamonica has the best nickname in the history of quarterbacks, maybe the history of football: The Mad Bomber. Even if you never saw Lamonica play, the nickname immediately paints a vivid picture. And it’s not just The Bomber, it’s The Mad Bomber. It’s colorful and evocative, and it’s the perfect AFL nickname. Lamonica’s 14.9 yards per completion and 6.31% touchdown percentage are both among the top 10 in history. Lamonica was the greatest downfield passer of his generation, other than maybe Joe Namath.
Lamonica had a great connection with HOF receiver Fred Biletnikoff, but his true muse was Warren Wells. During his four years in Oakland (1967-70), Wells averaged 23.3 yards per reception and led the AFL in receiving TDs twice. In 1969, Lamonica passed for 200 more yards and 10 more TDs than anyone else in the nation; compared to his nearest AFL rival (Namath), Lamonica passed for nearly 600 more yards, and almost twice as many touchdowns.
Lamonica was a five-time all-star (three AFL all-star games, two NFL Pro Bowls), and the only two-time MVP in AFL history. He only started for six seasons (because of Jack Kemp in Buffalo and Ken Stabler in Oakland), but for those six seasons, Lamonica was as successful as any QB this side of Fran Tarkenton.
Oakland Raiders, 1970-79; Houston Oilers, 1980-81; New Orleans Saints, 1982-84
27,938 yards, 194 TD, 222 INT, 75.3 rating
The second left-handed quarterback profiled in this series, Kenny Stabler was the most accurate passer of the 1970s. He led all QBs of the decade in completion percentage (59.9), yards per attempt (7.69) and net yards per attempt (6.51), and TD% (6.0). He threw too many interceptions, but you’ll live with that for all the positive plays he created.
Stabler was NFL MVP in 1974, and in 1976, he led the Raiders to a 13-1 record and their first Super Bowl victory. Stabler was at the heart of three famous plays: the Sea of Hands, Ghost to the Post, and The Holy Roller. He’s the only player in history to be associated with three plays that have names.
Stabler’s own nickname, Snake, was given by his high school coach after a long, winding touchdown run. Knee injuries limited his running in the pros, but he was a fearless passer, a four-time Pro Bowler and second-team All-70s, tied with Terry Bradshaw.
Stabler’s off-field partying was legendary, and some of his teammates loved him, but others were appalled by his lack of effort. Stabler seldom read the game plan, and Dave Casper complained that the Snake didn’t seem to care about losing. Stabler himself told Peter Richmond, “I skipped practices. I got kicked off my high-school team. I got kicked off my college team. I [quit] pro football in 1969.” That kind of player, who gets by on moxie and natural ability, couldn’t exist today. Stabler was probably the last really good pro QB with that attitude.
I think of Stabler like a smart-but-lazy student. He could get A’s if he studied, but getting B’s is easy, and it’s not worth the extra effort to get top marks. Stabler could drink and party and still be a good quarterback. But if he had committed himself to greatness, he might have been the best QB of his generation. I don’t downgrade Snake for lost potential, but some people try to rank Stabler according to the times he exerted himself, rather than on his overall profile. Stabler at his best wasn’t the real Stabler. The real Stabler was a B student.
25,206 yards, 160 TD, 138 INT, 77.4 rating
Joe Theismann was so fast that he was used as a punt returner early in his career. In 1974, Theismann returned 15 punts for 157 yards, a respectable 10.5 average. A decade later, in 1984 — the year before his gruesome career-ending injury — Theismann led all quarterbacks in rushing yards. He bears some similarity to Gannon and Garcia in that his greatest strengths were rushing effectively and limiting interceptions.
Coincidentally, most of the QBs in this section of the rankings didn’t become starters until their mid-20s or later. It’s hard not to think that some of them might have ranked among the greatest QBs of all time if they’d gotten more opportunities. Theismann was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1970 and a two-time CFL All-Star from 1971-73. He joined Washington in ’74 and finally won the starting job in 1978, when he was 29 years old. Theismann was only a full-time starter in the NFL for seven seasons. It seems obvious that with more playing time, he’d have an even stronger legacy.
Fourteen players have won a league MVP Award (Associated Press) and won a Super Bowl as starting quarterback: Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, Joe Theismann, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. That’s seven Hall of Famers, three obvious future Hall of Famers (Favre, Manning, and Brady), and two likely Hall of Famers (Warner and Rodgers), plus Stabler and Theismann. The 1983 MVP Award wasn’t just a gift for leading Washington to a record-setting point total and a 14-2 record: Theismann’s +18 TD/INT differential (29 TD, 11 INT) was the third-best in history.
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Two weeks ago, we examined the best pre-Modern Era QBs: Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Ed Danowski, Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sid Luckman, Bernie Masterson, Ace Parker, and Bob Waterfield.
Next week, we’ll profile the QBs ranked 31-39
- With the 2013-2015 Cardinals perhaps on the verge of joining that list. [↩]