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The consensus view on John Elway is clear. He was the greatest draft prospect ever, a league MVP, a two-time Super Bowl champion, a Hall of Famer, and one of the most clutch quarterbacks in football history.

But that’s not necessarily what the numbers say. In my quarterback ranking system, which rewards efficiency and longevity and adjusts for era, Elway only ranked as the 26th best regular-season quarterback of all time. If you’re so inclined, it’s not hard to find the numbers to argue that Elway – at least until Mike Shanahan returned to Denver as head coach in 1995 — was overrated. Consider:

  • Over the first 10 years of his career, Elway threw 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions.
  • Elway never led the NFL in passer rating, completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt, or Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Elway didn’t finish in the top ten in passer rating until his eleventh season in the league. In Net Yards per Attempt, Elway ranked in the top 10 just once from 1983 to 1994 (a first-place finish in ’87); in ANY/A, Elway’s only top ten finishes during his first ten seasons were in ’86 (10th) and ’87 (4th).
  • Elway ranks fourth all-time in passing yards, but that’s because he ranks fourth in career pass attempts. While he led the NFL in passing yards in 1993, Elway only finished in the top five in passing yards four times in his career: 1985 (2nd), 1987 (4th), 1990 (5th), and 1995 (5th).
  • Elway ranked 2nd in passing touchdowns in 1993, the only time he finished in the top 5 in that metric from 1983 to 1995. Despite throwing the fourth most pass attempts in NFL history, he ranks only 7th in passing touchdowns. In eight of sixteen seasons, including seven of his first ten years, Elway produced a below-average touchdown rate.

Here’s another interesting stat: from 1983 to 1992, the Broncos were slightly better on defense than offense. Over that time period, Denver’s Offensive SRS average was +1.01 while their Defensive SRS was +1.32. On average, the Broncos ranked 12th in points scored and 11th in points allowed. Those Denver teams are remembered as Elway’s teams — and perhaps rightly so — but the defense was just as valuable as the offense.1

Still, consider the following: There are 84 quarterbacks who started at least 80 games and threw 2,000+ passes during their age 23 through age 32 seasons. Elway had a perfectly league average Adjusted Yards per Attempt average during those years, which places him 67th among that group in AY/A+. There are 64 quarterbacks who met those same criteria since 1970: Elway ranks 47th among that group in ANY/A+, tied with Aaron Brooks, Jay Cutler, and Stan Humphries. Statistically, Elway was an average passer in his first ten seasons.

So how do we reconcile the Elway legend with the Elway numbers? The same way I reconciled the legend of Dick Butkus with the underwhelming objective evidence.

Jason Lisk did his typically excellent job examining Elway’s teammates three years ago. Lisk looked at the Approximate Value of Elway’s offensive supporting cast and found that he had the least support among modern Hall of Fame quarterbacks.2 Well, since Neil came up with the concept of True Receiving Yards and used TRY to measure the quality of each team’s receiving corps, I thought it would be interesting to measure the quality of Elway’s receivers (which includes his tight ends and running backs) using those concepts.

In Breaking Bad style, the open of this post had no explanation. Let me bring you up to speed: that picture represents the (weighted-average version of the) True Receiving Yards of Elway’s receivers during each season of his career. For over a decade, Elway was dealing with a pretty mediocre set of receivers, highlighted by Steve Watson, Vance Johnson, and Mark Jackson (if you’re nostalgic, we can include the third amigo, Ricky Nattiel). Once an older Elway was playing with Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith, and Ed McCaffrey, his numbers improved significantly.

The graph below shows the quality of the receivers that Elway, Dan Marino, and Jimmy Kelly played with in their age 23 through age 38 seasons.3 As you can see, Elway was playing with a much weaker set of targets than his draft classmates:

Elway Marino Kelly

Neil mentioned the huge caveat in using TRY to measure the quality of a set of receivers — their numbers are impacted by the quality of the quarterback, so measuring the quarterback’s targets when discussing quarterbacks involves some circular reasoning. But when we’re talking about three Hall of Fame quarterbacks, this concern is muted, and we can see that Marino enjoyed playing with Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, Kelly had Andre Reed and (for three good years) James Lofton, and Elway…. well, his targets (until he turned 35) show up as a distant third.

What if we compare Elway’s targets to those of the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks he met in the Super Bowl?

Elway Montana Favre

Montana, even before he got Jerry Rice (at age 28), was throwing to players like Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, and Roger Craig. Favre had a rotating group of players, but his targets rate as much better than Elway’s, too. Some would say that Favre “made” less-than-star receivers into star receivers; if that’s the case, you would have to conclude that Elway was playing with receivers a couple of tiers below “less-than-star” or that Favre was so much better than Elway that he was able to do so much more with the same.

Next, let’s compare Elway’s receiving corps to two other star quarterbacks of the ’90s: Troy Aikman and Steve Young. As before, we’re comparing the quality of the receivers based on the quarterback’s age, not any specific year:

Elway Aikman Young

Much has been made about how Aikman struggled his first two seasons: perhaps that’s because his number one receiver was Kelvin Martin. Similarly, Young struggled in Tampa Bay — perhaps traced to that dot in the bottom left of the picture — and then was blessed with outstanding receivers the rest of his career.

Finally, let’s compare Elway’s targets to two other rival AFC quarterbacks during his era, Boomer Esiason and Warren Moon:

Elway Moon Esiason

We see more of the same — when Esiason was playing at MVP-levels, he had great receivers. Moon was blessed with strong receivers for almost his entire career. Elway, during his prime, was a one-man show when it came to his team’s passing game.

The proper response to those who bash Elway isn’t to argue that Elway’s numbers from 1983 to 1994 were actually very good; the appropriate answer is that he was plagued with mediocre teammates. I’m not sure how bad his receivers need to have been to “make up” for Elway’s league-average numbers, but consider the final four years of his career. From 1995 to 1998, Elway played with the best teammates of his career. And he put up outstanding numbers despite playing at an age where most quarterbacks are on a steady decline. Elway was one of the best 35-to-38-year-old quarterbacks in NFL history. That’s an irrefutable statement, and considering his two rings during this time period, one could argue that he was the best ever over those ages (and with those rings he even has a leg up on where Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will finish).

In some ways, it feels like people have tried to invent reasons to explain why Elway was so good despite his merely solid numbers.4 I think the more intellectually honest explanation is to understand that the NFL is a team game, and the quarterback is only responsible for a portion of his team’s offensive production. Compared to the other star quarterbacks of his era, the evidence indicates that Elway had the least support from his teammates. In the ’80s, the only skill-position teammate of his to make the Pro Bowl was running back Sammy Winder.

Once Elway started playing with star teammates, his production was outstanding, and even better once you consider his age. His raw numbers pale in comparison to players like Montana, Young, Favre, and Marino. I’m not sure if he was a better player than any of those great quarterbacks, but I do think much of the gap is best explained by each player’s supporting cast, and not by each player’s ability.

  1. On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that the ’83-’92 Broncos won more games than their Pythagorean record would have predicted, so perhaps Elway was responsible for more wins than his passing numbers would indicate. []
  2. Actually, Lisk found that Elway had the second worst supporting cast, behind Brett Favre, who Lisk included in the list on principle. However, as Lisk noted, that was going to change over time as Favre’s teammates accumulated more AV. []
  3. Note that I included all seasons where the quarterback led his team in pass attempts. I then used a weighted-average on the season level of all receiving yards, so it’s not a game-by-game average of those games when these quarterbacks started. This is most clearly seen in the dips for Marino at age 26 and Elway at age 27, which was the 1987 season. The strike makes it appear that those teams’ supporting casts were weaker, since 20% of the games were played with replacement players. []
  4. Scott Kacsmar has done a great job dispelling the myth that John Elway holds the all-time record for 4th quarter comebacks. Elway did not record 47 4th quarter comebacks; in reality, he had 34 4QCs and 46 game-winning drives, marks which place him behind Peyton Manning and Dan Marino on both counts. More importantly, when trailing in the 4th quarter by one score with possession, Elway’s teams went 34-46-1 in those games, nearly identical (but slightly worse than) the records of Marino and Manning. []
  • It’s certainly not a perfect comparison, but I think this is a version of the Tom Brady argument. When Brady had no one to throw to, his passing stats were good; give him Moss and Welker, and he puts up one of the greatest passing seasons ever. (Granted, he was on an upward trend before 2007, but the leap was practically exponential from 2003-2006 to 2007.)

    p.s. Are there really people out there who bash Elway? Seriously? To me, the proper response to those who bash Elway is to immediately disregard any opinion of theirs from that point forward.

    • I had an argument with someone (I believe at FO) once where I said that John Elway was far better than his statistics indicated because of his poor offensive teammates and coaching. In support, I posted a list of his offensive teammates pre-Shanahan listed by AV and pointed out that the best players on the list weren’t impressive. I was told, “Elway’s poor production makes everyone else look worse than they were.”

      Anytime you mention Elway as being one of the greatest somewhere, there are some for lack of a better term “stats people” who argue based on traditional numbers and a few weirdos who just say, “Three-time Super Bowl loser John Elway was dragged to two wins by Terrell Davis,” making his rings not count and teh ringz are all that matter.

    • Danish

      I never saw Elway play, and I initially had a hard time figuring out why Elway was regarded so highly. So I can certainly imagine people my age, not having seen Elway (or his teammates) play, come to the conclusion of Elway being overrated – based on not only raw numbers but also more advanced metrics like ANY/A and so on.

      • bill

        You really had to see him play. He could escape the most intense pass rush, whirl around and throw a 50 yard dart downfield.

      • TWAndrews

        A lot of the difference has to be down to coaching as well. Dan Reeves was an old-school, run-first, smash-mouth coach. Many games involved 3 quarters of run, run, pass, punt, followed by cutting Elway loose in the 4th quarter to try and win the game, and as a fan growing up, it felt like he won a lot of games that, based on the first 3 quarters, the Broncos shouldn’t have won.

        Once Shannahan took over as head coach and both drafted and game planned to take advantage of Elway’s talent, it felt like the Broncos were a juggernaut.

    • Chase Stuart
    • Kibbles

      I know a guy who calls John Elway the most overrated player in history and says he’s not a top-10 QB. The guy’s a Cal fan, though. Has some other opinions worth listening to, but on Elway, he’s totally irrational.

      • Chase Stuart

        To be fair, top 10 is a pretty high threshold. I don’t blame anyone who puts Baugh or Luckman over Elway, and I think most would put Brady and Manning ahead of him, too. So that’s 4 quarterbacks who a lot of great historical lists written five years ago might left out. Add in Montana and Unitas, and that leaves only four spots left.

        Marino, Young, Starr, Tarkenton, Fouts, Brees, Van Brocklin, Graham, Favre, Staubach, Tittle, Dawson, Aikman, and maybe even Aaron Rodgers all can make legitimate claims to being ahead of Elway, I think. Choosing four of those 15 QBs ahead of Elway doesn’t bother me at all.

        • Kibbles

          Aikman? Starr? Van Brocklin? Tittle? Len freaking Dawson? If these guys have a legitimate case, I would love to hear it. Len Dawson had to wait seven years to make it into the Hall of Fame. He wasn’t even a finalist for four of them.

          • Ed

            KJibbles, that leaves only 9 on the list that Chase Stuart thinks might be ahead of Elway for the final 4 slots. doesn’t seem to prove your point…..

    • James

      That should make this season a good test case for Brady, right? I guess we already knew that with Chase’s contest, but this should be the by far worst receiving cast Brady has had since 2007.

  • Unsurprisingly, this is an absolutely perfect post, especially the summation.

    I love John Elway. I was 13 when he retired, and my football team had never had another quarterback. He was also my beloved grandmother’s favorite player, and she was such a big Bronco fan that she was actually buried with her ashes wrapped in a Bronco flag. I have always thought that I probably overestimate him but also felt convinced that my simple argument that his numbers were depressed by coaching and teammates was true and if anything I was probably just overestimating the extent of it. I’m glad to read that my favorite football writer on the planet agrees with at least the basic idea, because it means I’m not completely being driven by my bias.

  • Great stuff, Chase. As a good little Patriots fan, I second Danny’s thought about Brady in the same vein — would love to see a graph of his career receiver quality over time as well. 🙂

    As always, it’s important to remember that when a QB doesn’t have a great ANY/A or whatever, it means the team didn’t have a great passing offense — nothing necessarily more or less. We know the majority of the responsibility for that falls on the QB, but there are obviously a lot of other moving parts involved.

  • Eh Steve

    Another factor was the extremely conservative nature of Dan Reeves’ offense. They didn’t have a powerhouse running attack, but ran plays as if they did. So when Elway did drop back to pass, he was most likely facing 3rd and long.

    • Kibbles

      This is most easily demonstrated by looking at Elway’s age 33 season. Looking at the chart above, Elway’s receivers were no better at age 33 than at any other point during his career. Despite this, in 1993, John Elway set career bests in completions, attempts, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, ints, int%, TD:INT ratio, QB rating, and tied his career best A/YA. In the categories where he didn’t set new career marks (TD%, YPA, NY/A, ANY/A), he finished second behind only his 1987 MVP season. What changed in 1993 that saw Elway see such a big increase across the board? That was the first season of the post-Dan Reeves era, with Wade Phillips and Jim Fassel running the offense instead.

  • Orange_and_Blue

    Elway was great PERIOD.

    Although his growth as a passer is what really helped him become one. He came into the league as an extraordinary athlete with a cannon and an uncanny ability to avoid pressure and make plays when needed, but his short touch throws (ie-half back screens in the flat) were abysmal for the seemingly his first 5 yrs (or thereabouts).

    He’s going to get passed over by many stats-wise thanks to the advent of the passing offenses and rules changes, but he should always be in the pantheon of great QBs discussion.

  • Laverneus Dinglefoot

    I’m too young to remember Elway in the 80s, but I recall Bubby Brister going 4-0 with that 98 team and putting up arguably better numbers. According to PFR, other QBs went 8-4 in Broncos starts from 1983-1989; some put up better numbers than Elway, and some put up worse numbers. I can’t say for certain if that means anything, but it does seem that the overall “badness” of those 80s teams is overstated, as DeBerg and Kubiak won games even when playing poorly.

    The 90s are a little different. Outside of Brister, Elway’s backups went 0-7 in starts. Of course, there are variables to take into account, like more conservative play calling when backups are playing, but the play of the team when the star is out seems worthy of a look.

    • Danish

      Just because I happened to look it up:
      Bristers opponents i ’98 had an average SRS of -7.95.
      Elways opponents in ’98: AvgSRS of -1.51.

      So Bristers opponents were 6.44 points worse than Elways – that explains at least some of it.

      • Laverneus Dinglefoot

        That is definitely a huge difference. If I had time, I would do a more thorough study on backup performance. It could yield interesting results…in a vacuum, of course.

        • Rob Harrison

          I don’t think *any* quarterback plays well in a vacuum.

          • Mister B

            Yikes, how about some real feedback here. Brock took Tom out behind the woodshed, over and over. With all of his evidence and logic, Brock gives the appearance that he knew exactly what he was talking about -and- how to support it with fact. Tom on the other hand, continually used *words* in his attempts to rebut Brock’s *numbers*. The funny thing about “perspective” is that depending upon where you stand, it changes. I believe that Tom’s observations are clouded by where he stands: the evidence is (1) Brock’s well-supported arguments, and (2) Tom’s foolish choice to begin deploying the logically fallacious “Appeal to Authority” tactic. And I quote: “I’ll let the readers digest and decide – Whether they view John Madden and Mel Kiper – two NFL experts – more credible than someone like you.” TOM — that statement confirmed to me that you were/are incapable of responding adequately to Brock’s statements of fact. And sometimes those facts were reminding you of YOUR VERY OWN WORDS. Tom, you lost in this thread big time, repeatedly, in this reader’s opinion.

      • Brock

        It’s closer when you focus in on DSRS. Comparing the opponent DSRSs for Elway’s 12 starts against those for Brister’s 4 starts and the game at Oakland, when he saw substantial backup action, you get the following:

        Elway Opp. AvgDSRS: .08
        Brister Opp. AvgDSRS: -2.18

        The defenses Brister faced were 2.26 points worse than the defenses Elway faced. Excluding just the Miami game—the Dolphins’ DSRS was 6.5—swings Elway’s Opp. AvgDSRS negative (-.46) and closes the gap with Brister to 1.72 points.

        Brister had the easier road. Whether it was easier enough to offset his superior numbers or not, that the comparison is even that close is, I think, telling.

  • Richie

    Just seeing Warren Moon’s baby blue and red graph makes me miss the Oilers.

  • Richie

    Chase, how about a list showing the TRY of Elway’s Super Bowl teams, compared to all other Super Bowl teams.

    I think one of the reasons people “bash” Elway was because he was a Super Bowl loser. (I think the bashing was much louder before he finally won.) My argument was always that he guided a lot of teams to the Super Bowl, despite a lack of help on offense.

    • Chase Stuart

      Based on our behind the scenes discussions, Neil would tell you that Phil Simms is going to dominate that thing.

      • Richie

        Yeah, that would make sense. I just looked at the 86 Giants. Simms actually had a negative TD-INT differential. That has to be pretty rare for a Super Bowl winning QB. I remember going into that Super Bowl and I think SI predicted that Simms would win the MVP. I thought that was crazy. I figured if the Giants won, that Simms wouldn’t have much to do with it. But, of course, he had a really good game.

        Leading receivers:
        Mark Bavaro 66-1001
        Bobby Johnson (who?) 31-534
        Stacy Robinson 29-494
        Phil McConkey 16-279

        Not exactly the 99 Rams.

  • Great piece. Simms had terrible receivers to work with haha! I defend Elway constantly – and bash Matt Ryan based on similar ideas.

  • Brock

    This piece is pretty weak and disappointing in terms of the high-quality analysis one has come to expect from FP. It reads like nothing more than an apologia for Elway’s career mediocrity. Without proof of causation (does the QB make the receivers or do the receivers make the QB?), the graphs are meaningless in explaining why Elway’s statistics, basic and advanced alike, are so lackluster. What’s more, even if we assume for the sake of argument that Elway’s numbers were depressed by a supposedly weak supporting cast during the first half of his career and give him credit for that, then by that same logic he loses credit on the back end for having his stats inflated by a fantastic supporting cast. It’s hard to see, then, how making those adjustments changes much the overall book on Elway. It’s also important to note that even with all that offensive talent backing him up, Elway nonetheless never led the league in a passing category under Shanahan.

    Among contemporaries, Montana, Marino, Young, and Favre are demonstrably in an altogether different stratosphere than Elway. Nor does Elway quite measure up with Kelly as a distant 5th. He’s about even with Aikman and Moon, vying for 6th/7th/8th best QB of the era. With that in mind, placing Elway even in the top 20 all-time is probably a reach.

    • Chase Stuart

      Statistically, I put Elway 26th, and:

      Marino – 2nd
      Young – 3rd
      Montana – 4th; and
      Favre – 9th

      Kelly and Aikman were both below Elway. This post doesn’t claim that Elway vaults those players, but that the huge gulf in the rankings, which does not conform to popular opinion, is explained by Elway’s weaker supporting cast. Do you disagree?

      • Brock

        I think your rankings are well on-target, though I disagree about where Kelly and Aikman rank in relation to Elway—strongly in the former case, humbly in the latter.

        Kelly lost 3 years in the USFL and retired two seasons earlier, but his career QBR, NY/A, and ANY/A are all substantially better than Elway’s and his peak (89-90-91) was greater, even though both had the benefit of playing with fantastic offensive support during those respective periods. Kelly also leads Elway in career completion %, TD%, and sack %; Elway had the better INT%. Kelly led the league in three different major categories (TD, QBR, completion %); Elway had only his solitary yardage title. Elway was the better runner, but that aspect of his game tends to be overrated: he was only good for ~250 rushing yards per season and was never a scrambler of the magnitude of Cunningham or Young, or certainly what we see today from guys like RGIII and Vick. Kelly and Elway both played in cold weather, though with Buffalo receiving 50% more annual snowfall than Denver, Kelly had the worse of it.

        In terms of who was the better or greater QB, the objective data give a clear-cut edge to Kelly. Only if one makes it a study in longevity and goes by straight career value does Elway, with his 5 more seasons played, get the better of the comparison.

        Aikman has similar but smaller advantages over Elway in career QBR, NY/A, and ANY/A and, like Kelly, his peak (93-94-95) was also superior. Aikman also has advantages in completion %, sack %, and (very slightly) in INT%; Elway has the better TD%. Both led the league in exactly one major passing category during their careers. Aikman had the advantage of playing in a quasi-dome. Aikman played in the tougher conference and in its toughest division, though it should be noted that both the Redskins and Giants entered periods of decline early in his career and the NFC East was not what it was during the ’80s. Unquestionably, Aikman was surrounded by elite offensive talent for a greater share of his career than Elway. On the other hand, Aikman played with some substandard supporting casts himself during his early- and late-career, and for peak-to-peak comparison, Davis-Smith-McCaffrey-Sharpe was not that far off from Emmitt-Irvin-Harper-Novacek.

        The gap is much closer than with Kelly—so close that it would not be unreasonable to allow Elway’s superior mobility, generally inferior supporting cast, harsher home climate, etc. to offset Aikman’s statistical advantages. That still leaves Aikman’s superior peak, however, and on that basis I’d give him the edge. I can certainly understand one preferring Elway instead.

        For the record, I thought your piece defending Namath last year was brilliant in that it placed him in his proper historical context and used advanced metrics to illuminate very important and valuable aspects of his game that go uncredited when one looks solely and unsophisticatedly at his relatively lackluster career QBR, TD-INT ratio, and completion percentage. It scratched beneath the surface of traditional statistics and used objective data to uncover hidden truths about both what makes a quarterback effective and why Namath is deserving of his reputation.

        This piece, by contrast, reveals no unrecognized or unappreciated facets of Elway’s game, as the traditional and advanced metrics are in agreement and do not permit it. Unlike with Namath, there are no hidden efficiencies or yardage to be found. Instead, it tries to reconcile the image with the objective data by way of a vague, unquantifiable, and possibly circular variable, the effect of which would be somewhat mitigated anyway by the reality that nearly all quarterbacks play with a mixture of good, bad, and mediocre supporting casts over the course of their careers.

        Consequently, the supporting cast argument is only relevant at the margins (i.e., to make fine distinctions between QBs who are very closely situated statistically). Citing it to make the case for Elway over Aikman is reasonable; citing it to try-and-close the Pacific Ocean-sized chasm that exists between him and Marino, Montana, Young, Favre, Unitas, Peyton, Brady, etc., or get him into the top 10 or 20, as some of the other commenters seem eager to do, is not. I gather from your rankings that you would agree.

  • Guru

    It would be nice for either Chase or Neil Paine to chime in here, because Brock made some valid points. It’s a bit circular to claim that Elway’s mediocre teammates held him back in the 80s and early 90s, then rave about his production when he was fitted with talent. That’s always the conundrum with ranking quarterbacks; their successes and failures are (seemingly) inextricably linked to their receiving core.

    IMHO, Elway does tend to be overrated in football circles; and yes I have watched him play for those who want to claim otherwise. But he’s still great enough to be mentioned among the upper-tier quarterbacks of NFL history.

  • Guru

    Not at all, Chase. Thanks for clarifying things.

  • TomT

    I will cite John Madden first — “…John Elway was the closest thing The NFL ever saw to being a one man gang..”. Then I will ask anyone considering these arguments to look up the Pro Bowl Player statistics of the teams that Elway, Marino, and Montana played with during those years 1983 – 1990 when Elway almost SINGLE-HANDEDLY took THREE – just better than average teams to the Super Bowl where he WAS THE OFFENSE. To do this just a single time is noteworthy, to do it three times is something HUGELY significant and unparalleled in the History of the NFL.
    For the record here are the Pro Bowl stats —

    In the years 1983 -1990 Joe Montana’s teammates had;
    ď‚· 38 Pro Bowl awards to his teamates
    ď‚· 18 Offensive Pro Bowlers,
    ď‚· 5 Offensive Lineman,
    ď‚· 3 Hall Of Fame teammates
    ď‚· The #2 Alltime ReceivingTandem in history according to SI
    ď‚· and Roger Craig and Jerry Rice BOTH won Offensive Player Of The Year awards.
    ď‚· Played For A Hall Of fame Genius Coach
    & Jerry Rice has been voted in numerous forums as the greatest Football player of all time

    Marino, during that period;
    ď‚· played with The #4 Alltime Receiving Tandem in History (SI)
    ď‚· One of the Best Offensive lines in History
    ď‚· 31 Pro Bowlers on his sideline (29 if you discount Kicking)
    ď‚· 17 Offensive Pro Bowlers
    ď‚· 10 Offensive Lineman.
    ď‚· 1 Hall Of Fame teammate (Offensive Line)
    ď‚· Played For A Hall Of fame Coach

    Elway, in the same time span;
    ď‚· 21 Pro Bowlers (19 if you consider 2 of them were kickers)
    ď‚· 5 Offensive Pro Bowlers
    ď‚· 2 Offensive Line Pro Bowl awards
    ď‚· (0) Zero Pro Bowl Receivers or Tight Ends and
    ď‚· (0) ZeroHall Of Famers.

    This would seem to CLEARLY indicate a very large difference in supporting casts – not only did Elway not have the supporting playmaker casts, he had a severely different disadvantage in Offensive Line support. The real problem is that all of the detractors did not watch Elways career and see how incredible he was at taking the opponents best defensive play and turning it into a John Elway specatacular big play. Before the Super Bowl in 1998, Don Shula was interviewed on TV and asked what the other team had to do to beat Denver. He immediately said “…They have to stop Denver’s big play quarterback John Elway…” No mention whatsoever of any other factor.

    • Brock

      First, the claim that Elway “singlehandedly [took] three just better than average teams to the Super Bowl” is, like so much of what is repeated by keepers of the Elway Myth, pure nonsense that cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny.

      The ’89 Broncos were #1 in scoring defense, #3 in total defense, #6 in rushing, and #2 in point differential. They were a juggernaut, not a “just better than average team.” What’s more, far from Elway “singlehandedly” taking them to the Super Bowl, he was, in reality, the weak link, with Denver ranking #23 in passing, #15 in INTs thrown, and #16 in NY/A. On this dominant team, Elway turned in nothing short of an abysmal season: 3051 yards, 53.6%, 18 TD, 18 INT, 73.7 Rate, 5.11 ANY/A.

      Likewise, the ’87 Broncos were #7 in scoring defense, #9 in total defense, #4 in scoring differential, and had an above-average running game (#12). While Elway had, by his career standards, a “good” season (3198 yards, 54.6%, 19 TD, 12 INT, 83.4 Rate, 6.74 ANY/A) and Denver, with some assistance from Ken Karcher, finished #3 in passing, claiming Elway “singlehandedly” took a team with a top-10 defense and a solid running game to the Super Bowl is patently ridiculous.

      The only season for which the “Elway elevated mediocre teams to the Super Bowl” canard could be said to carry even the slightest hint of truth is 1986. Denver’s defense and offense were mirror images of each other that season: the defense ranked a pedestrian 15th in scoring but was top-ten in total defense (9th), while the offense ranked 6th in scoring but was a middling 15th in total offense. The defense excelled at stopping the run (5th in rush defense) while, conversely, the offense was ineffective at rushing (20th). Elway, for his part, had a career-average year: he threw for enough yardage for Denver to finish 10th in passing and had a respectable 19-13 TD:INT ratio, but he was not very efficient and his ANY/A (5.68) was less than Boomer Esiason’s career average (for point of comparison, Marino had but 2 seasons in his entire career in which his ANY/A was less than 6 and those came when he was 37 and 38). In the playoffs, Elway stunk it up against New England (13-32, 257, 1 TD, 2 INT), but Denver was able to win because their defense held the Patriots to under 300 yards of total offense and sacked Eason 6 times. Against Cleveland the next week, Elway (22-38, 244, 1 TD, 1 INT) played well and the Denver defense forced 3 crucial turnovers. While the ’86 Super Bowl team was the one with an offense most reliant on Elway, he had a “good” but hardly “great” year and got plenty of help along the way from both his defense and a weak AFC.

      Second, aside from Pro Bowl selections being subjective honors that are bestowed before the regular season is even complete, you’re blatantly cherry-picking. Why stop at 1990 when Elway still had half his career to go and Marino played one season more after that point than before? Doing so conveniently includes the best offenses Marino played on while excluding the best ones that surrounded Elway.

      Over the course of their careers (excluding ’93, when Marino missed all but 5 games with a torn Achilles), Marino’s offensive teammates accounted for 30 Pro Bowl selections and Elway’s accounted for 25. Pretty comparable.

      You also fail to mention that while Elway had a Pro Bowl running back 7 times, Marino never had one. Additionally, Elway played with three Hall of Famers— Sharpe, Zimmerman, and Dorsett—while Marino played with but one (Dwight Stephenson). Furthermore, Rod Smith is a borderline Hall of Famer and a better receiver than anyone Marino ever threw to, including Duper and Clayton, and Davis was a 2,000 yard rusher headed to the Hall of Fame as one of the best running backs of all-time before he injured his knee the year after Elway retired.

      Regarding head coaches, Elway had both a potential Hall of Famer in Mike Shanahan and a guy in Dan Reeves who went to 4 Super Bowls with two different teams.

      To summarize, Elway was supported during his career by:

      *(7) Pro Bowl running backs (Terrell Davis 3x, Sammy Winder 2x, Bobby Humphrey, Gaston Green),
      *(8) 1,000-yard rushers (Davis 4x, Humphrey 2x, Winder, Green),
      *(11) 1,000-yard receivers,
      *(9) Top-ten defenses in scoring,
      *(3) Hall of Famers (Shannon Sharpe, Gary Zimmerman, Tony Dorsett),
      *(1) Borderline Hall of Fame receiver (Rod Smith),
      *(1) 2,000 yard rusher who was headed for the Hall of Fame before injury (Davis), and
      *(2) head coaches who combined to win 2 Super Bowls and appear in 6.

      All of this is to say that the notion that Elway was “severely disadvantaged” by his supporting cast and coaching is bogus—indeed, contrafactual. Elway was blessed in both regards and yet the objective data, traditional and advanced alike, is what it is: Among Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Elway is comparatively mediocre and much closer to the back of the line than he is the front.

      • brun thompson

        Here’s my 2 cents,, I watched elway play from 1983 till he retired.. To this day I haven’t seen a qb that could do the things he did.. He won games, that’s what he did! I don’t care what your numbers say, the guys he had in the 80s were not like the guys on other teams,, talent wise I mean.. He was the toughest qb iI’ve seen play the game.. He would run for a first down and dive head first for the first down, not just in that Superbowl.. He closed out games by not letting the offense get the ball back.. Against teernship game he told Shannon sharp,, get open! Sharp said what play is that? Elway told him go for the 1st down marker and turn around, the ball will be there. He said if we don’t get this 1st down the coach said he’s going to make us punt. Elway looked sharp off and then threw a laser to sharp that almost got stuck in sharps visor,1st down game over run out the clock.. He rushed for 3400 yards that was a big part if his game. It allowed him to get 1st downs on 3 and 8 out of the shotgun, he would have 4 or 5 wide receivers and run it himself.. Played with a knee brace his whole career with no acl, he was sacked because he didn’t want to take chances throwing picks like favre.. 1 season elway threw 20 picks! Favre threw 20 or more half his career.. I’ve seen elway 4th and 9 punt the ball to the 5 yard line out of the shotgun. Not just one time but a half a dozen times.. Missed very few games ran the ball so many times, took lots of sacks,, and still found ways to win. I called some of his comebacks one was against the vikings in 96 he took them right down the field and threw the touchdown to McCaffrey with no time left. I was at the game!! The guy played baseball for the Yankees.. And could have played basketball! It was his will to win and never give up that made him! Those comebacks in the NFLddidn’t start there, they started in highschool.. Dan reeves did hold him back, they never agreed on the play calling.. And reeves didn’t win a sb with Vick, chandler, he lost to elway in the sb.. Yes,, the falcons said Davis is not going to beat us today. They dared elway to beat them, and he did 336 yards passing a rushing td. The big picture is when elway got a great supporting cast he won back to back Superbowls. When a qb has a 1500yard back he shouldn’t be losing. Ala Brett favre! To say elway couldn’t read a defense is just absurd. I’ve seen him audible out of a look tons of times, or know that the blitz is coming and step out and up to burn the defense.. Montana was not as durable as elway by a million miles. To say you don’t know what Montana’s wins losses, would have been if he didn’t have back surgery, like saying if elway played in San Fran and Montana in Denver that Montana would have been in a wheelchair after 4 years and elway would have won 6 Superbowls.. And that didn’t happen, but it could be true! A pocket passer is boring for me to watch. Elway was a duel threat qb run or pass and the most durable running qb ever, Vick broke his leg, aikman tried to run against Denver in mile high and romanowski broke his collar bone. Elway would take a hit and get back up.. Not sure but I think always record of 3000plus passing and 200plus rushing 7 years in a row is still a record. No,,, he was no Vick,, or tebow! Elway was a smart runner. Elway reminded me of a football Marciano, he could and would beat you down, when you thought you had him beaten. And he did carry those teams of the 80s to the Superbowls, rich Carlos, mark Jackson, all told him thank you for getting us to the super bowl.. On the drive 98 yards agianst the browns he played with a sprained ankle and still ran for 34yards on that drive! He was a leader! And its sad that he didn’t have a sharp, and smith, or Davis in the 80s.. The truth is his teams of the 80s were not on the level of the NFC.. His running backs would go airborne for 1st downs at the goaline and get stopped. The were coached not to do that but still would. Elway made it look easy with a minute and a half left , to march down field and win the game. Favre had his chance in the sb with 2 minutes to go, but yet he throws it to chumura expecting him to break 6 tackles and run 60yard for a touchdown. Come on chumura had the best hands and worst feet! Shannon sharp said if elway played in San Fran or Miami he wouldn’t have lost Superbowls. Those 3400 rushing yards of always don’t look like a lot but it helped him control the clock and win games. Even when he had 2000 yard back, he ran for 1st downs head first. He said you hurt yourself sliding, twist an ankle or something.. He retired 11-0 against new England, and a bunch of other teams he was undefeated.. Mark Jackson, Sammywinder, gGaston green come on. Average players. Reeves was a thorn in his side.. Brady lost 2 superbowls after throwing 50 some touchdowns, in a season.. Get real.. Those numbers don’t mean anything if elway had moss then he wouldn’t have lost with new england. Or manning with 55 touchdowns losing a Superbowl. Vince Lombardi said, its not all about winning, it everything. And 2nd place is the 1st loser. Elway lost with his team, he passed for over 300 yards against the giants and lead his team in rushing in that Superbowl loss to Simms! His team fell apart he played good.

        • John

          Great points, especially about how he played against the Giants in the SB. He staked his teams to leads in those first two SB losses, and he went down with them when they weren’t strong enough to stand up to the NFC East bullies. And, against the 49ers, Bill Walsh said that he knew that game was going to be over five minutes in because everyone was open. Denver’s D couldn’t cover them to save their lives. I don’t know why there are fans who blame Elway for any of that.

      • John

        Brock, I hate to break it to you, but a defense that gives up 55 points in a Super Bowl is not a juggernaut. That defense was good, but it wasn’t an all-time 2000 Ravens-style defense.

        Denver’s 1986 and 1987 defenses were smoke and mirror units. This one guy I know said that the Broncos looked pedestrian when Joe Collier stopped having his D-linemen stunt as much about halfway through the 1986 season. They were most effective at forcing turnovers, but when they didn’t do that, they had a hard time. Those rankings don’t tell the whole story, especially in 87, which was a strike-shortened year. Those defenses gave up over 400 yards rushing, and only forced one turnover in their first two SB losses. Hardly anything special.

        Also, I am looking at that list of people that supported Elway during his career. In the late-90’s, he had a great cast. However, in the 80’s and early 90’s, not so much. Sammy Winder did make two Pro Bowls, but he was an alternate in 1986 (he didn’t even rush for 900 yards that year). He also had another one-hit wonder 1,000 yard man in Gaston Green. Before Davis, his only great RB was Humphrey. Also, during the Reeves Era, Keith Bishop was the only offensive lineman he played with that made the Pro Bowl.

        And, to top it off, he was in an antiquated offense that ex-Bronco WR Steve Watson called the Edsel System. Steve basically said that Dan was more concerned with pass protection than attacking a defense. In college, Elway had two seasons with over 60% completion. Then, after a decade of playing in Reeves’ pitiful excuse for an offense, he hooks up again with Jim Fassel, his former coach at Stanford. And, what do you know: He puts up the best numbers of his career. So you see, when you say that his disadvantages were counter-factual, you don’t know what you are talking about.

  • TomT

    Additionally -In the years when Elway DID have the Players on his Sideline -1996,
    97, 98 -Elway went 13-2-0, 12-4-0, 10-2-0 in games he started, a collective 35-8-0.
    This is a 3 year record unmatched by any 3 year period in the careers of Montana,
    Marino or Favre and if one examines the dropoff in Joe Montana’s Passing stats and
    Quarterback rating in the two years after he left Bill Walsh and Jerry Rice they look
    remarkably like Elways with the exception that he was unable to load a very good
    Kansas City Team, with an outstanding defense, onto his shoulders and take them to
    a Super Bowl -which is exactly what John Elway did THREEtimes.
    Montana’s Pro Bowlers support in those 1993 & 94 years looking very much like
    Elway’sdid in 86, 87 and 89 when Elway took Denver to Super Bowls.
    1993 Montana played w/ 4 Pro Bowlers RB Marcus Allen -T John Alt -DE Neil Smith
    -LB Derrick Thomas
    1994 with DE – Neil Smith -LB – Derrick Thomas -DB – Dale Carter
    It’s my contention that Elway has never received his appropriate due for what he did
    with those teams in spite of playing for a coach utterly lacking in offensive
    imagination or the ability to understand how to make best use of an inestimable
    talent. Put Elway on Walsh and Rice’s Team -They win it all a bunch of times, put
    Montana on those Denver teams and he does not survive the beating.
    Don Shula, widely considered the best coach in history, immediately began securing
    the pieces to surround his rookie phenom Dan Marino. If Dan Reeves had the eye
    and imagination of either Don Shula or Bill Walsh, John Elway would own every
    Quarterback record in the book.

    • Brock

      Montana went 33-8 from 1988 through 1990, all while competing against the likes of the Giants, Redskins, and Bears during the heyday of NFC dominance. He also missed all of 1991 with a back injury, so we’ll never know what his three-year record from 1989-1991 would have been. What’s more, he went a remarkable 43-9 during the four-year period from 1987 through 1990, which far surpasses Elway’s best four-year record (43-16 from ’95 through ’98).

      Marino, for his part, went an a-okay 33-9 during his first three seasons…without the luxuries of a 2,000 yard rusher, Hall of Fame target, or three top-ten defenses.

      As for Montana’s stint in Kansas City, he was a 37 and 38-year old quarterback coming off a TWO-YEAR LAYOFF caused by a serious back injury. That, more than the absence of Walsh and Rice, was responsible for his statistical decline—especially when you consider that, oh yeah, Joe had already played exceptionally well without Walsh and Rice, winning 1 Super Bowl without the former and 2 without the latter. It’s also absurd to suggest Montana’s Kansas City teams were “very good” and comparable to the Broncos teams that made the Super Bowl in the ’80s. Not only did Kansas City have to contend with a historically dominant conference obstacle in Buffalo that Denver of the ’80s did not, but the ’93 Chiefs ranked just 14th in scoring defense and 11th in total defense, and the ’94 Chiefs were little better (7th and 12th, respectively). Classifying those KC defenses as “outstanding” or even comparable to Denver’s top-ten defenses in ’87 and ’89 flies in the face of reality.

  • Tom T

    Dear Brock,

    That four year period from 87 – 90 will you at least be as go0d to admit that Montana was playing with TWO all world talents in his huddle beside him. And That Sports Illustrated has rated the tandem Of Rice and Taylor as the second best receiving tandem in NFL history. RAC was virtually identified as a result of Jerry Rice. Rice and Craig BOTH winning Offensive player of the year awards during that time. Just curious – does that matter at all??

    Have you looked at the quarterback ratings this week?? Do you think that Tom Brady deserves his ranking at #23 in the league?? Or might that possibly be more representative of the talent on his offensive team. BTW I never said that those Denver teams that Elway took to those Super Bowls were not solid defensive teams – they were – They were good, not great which is clearly shown by the number of points scored against them in Super Bowls (obviously a very good Phil Simms and All World Doug Williams exposed that defense as nothing more than good ) and I never said anything indicating that Joe Montana wasn’t great – only that he was not gifted with the singular talent to load a mediocre offense on his back and manage to take it to a Super Bowl (ahem THREE times). Naturally all of the Montana worshipers who think Elway was nowhere near Montana as a quarterback always demur from discussion of the relative talent.

    And if I am conveniently cherry picking where is your reference to Elway taking 5 teams to Super Bowls and your admission that Young’s stats were even better than Montana’s and that SF and the Walsh system won another Super Bowl after Super Joe left. That same system being the one Denver used to win 2 Super Bowls. Denver meanwhile went immediately downhill when Elway left.

    Lastly – obviously you discount the opinions of John Madden (Elway the closest thing to a one man gang the NFL ever saw) and Mel Kiper (who made his living evaluating drafts – and said that Elway was the greatest #1 Draft pick in NFL history – even above Peyton Manning)

    I NEVER make any contention whatsoever that Joe Montana was not one of the greatest Quarterbacks who ever lived, he was. I have always said he would not have taken and survived the physical pounding that Elway did in Denver and would not have taken those Denver teams to three super bowls.

    I have no problem whatsoever conceding that Elway won two Super Bowls playing with Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, and Gary Zimmerman – nor to admit that those were superlative teams. But it’s a certainty that people like you will NEVER admit that Montana could not take three less than great teams to Super Bowls – which Elway absolutely did.

    • Brock

      (1) Tom, I’m glad you went there with your first paragraph, as it perfectly encapsulates the logical incoherence that underlines the Elway Myth. You first cited Elway’s 35-8 record from ’96-’98 as a personal feather in his cap that was “unmatched by any 3 year period in the careers of Montana, Marino or Favre” and somehow evidence to support the fantasy that Elway was as good as Montana when he “ha[d] the players on his sideline.”

      Rather than note what should be painfully obvious—that W-L record is a TEAM accomplishment, not an individual one—I responded by pointing out that (1) Marino had a comparable 33-10 run during what were his very first three seasons in the league (I’ll now add that Favre had a similar 37-11 3-year record from both ’95-’97 and ’96-’98, and that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady both have 39-9 runs to their name, so…not that special); (2) Montana would in all probability have had a superior 3-year record than Elway had he not been injured in ’91, as his combined record in ’89 and ’90 was 25-3; and (3) Montana had a far superior 4-year run (43-9 from ’87-’90) than Elway (43-16 from ’95-’98).

      Faced with that last inconvenient fact, what do you do?

      Contradict your whole argument and ask rhetorically whether Montana’s stellar won-loss record during that period was due to the 49ers being a very, very good team.

      Of course it was—just as that 35-8 record of Elway’s that you cited was the product of the Broncos being a very, very good team, which is why it was so silly and pointless for you to drag won-loss record into this discussion in the first place.

      What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, though: You can’t sit here and trumpet Elway’s won-loss record on a loaded Broncos team as some great personal accomplishment and then turn around and write-off Montana’s superior record on a loaded 49ers team as a team accomplishment.

      Won-loss record is not selectively relevant to the extent it assists John Elway in comparisons. Either we credit quarterbacks for their won-loss records, or we recognize that as measurements of TEAM success, won-loss records are irrelevant to PLAYER analysis.

      Of course, acknowledging that latter truth leaves only the harsh reality of Elway’s comparatively underwhelming individual performance, so what we get instead from Elway idolators like yourself is a perverse narrative whereby Elway gets credited for his team’s successes while the team gets blamed for Elway’s own inferiorities. To support that flagrant offense against logic, there are lots of vague references to mystical and “singular” abilities to conjure Super Bowl appearances out of “mediocr[ity]” and contrafactual assertions as to the Broncos’ wretched woefulness, but nothing in the way of actual evidentiary support.

      The key to understanding the Cult of Elway’s mentality is the famous line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

      Denver, of course, is in the West. Anything to maintain the Elway Myth.

      (2) How Denver’s defenses performed in the Super Bowl is not at all relevant to how integral they were in getting the Broncos there in the first place—which is the subject of your debunked claim that Elway “almost singlehandedly took three just better than average teams to the Super Bowl where he was the offense.”

      What’s more, you seem oblivious to the fact that by your rationale, one would be just as justified in using Elway’s miserable Super Bowl performances to argue he wasn’t that integral to Denver’s success up to that point (e.g., Elway’s awful play in those Super Bowls “exposed” him as “not great” / “nothing more than good”).

      (3) Continuing to nakedly assert the “mediocr[ity]” of Denver’s offense in those Super Bowl years does not make it so. As I noted previously, Denver had a good running game in ’87 (12th), when Elway had one of his best years, and an excellent one in ’89 (6th), when Elway had one of his worst.

      The only Super Bowl year for which Denver had a middling offense was ’86, when the rushing game ranked only 20th. While that was the offense that was clearly the most reliant on Elway, it would be a gross overstatement to say he “loaded” that offense on his back a la Kurt Warner in ’08 or Eli Manning in ’11: Denver finished a “good, not great” 10th in both passing and ANY/A. One would expect a QB who was supposedly carrying a team on his back “almost singlehandedly” to outperform such luminaries as Tommy Kramer, Jay Schroeder, Dave Krieg, Tony Eason, Kosar, and Esiason, let alone the big boys like Marino and Montana, but Elway didn’t in ’86.

      To sum up, there was one Super Bowl year where Denver’s offense was reliant on a solid, if unexceptional, Elway (’86), one year where it was well-balanced (’87), and one year where the running game carried Elway (’89).

      Add in the fact that Denver had a top ten defense in both scoring and yardage in ’87 and ’89, and a top ten scoring defense in ’86, and the notion that Elway was “almost singlehandedly” carrying “mediocre” teams to the Super Bowl is exposed as laughably absurd.

      Those Denver teams were well-balanced and quite good, particularly relative to a historically-weak AFC at the time.

      (4) Why would I be expected to note Steve Young’s stats are better than Montana’s in a discussion about JOHN ELWAY?

      For some odd reason, you seem to be fixated on Montana. Whatever, I’ll play along.

      Steve Young’s stats are better than Montana’s in most categories. They’re also relatively close. Closer still when one considers + stats that account for era and other advanced metrics. Close enough that it would not be patently unreasonable to rank either one over the other because of X, Y, or Z—unlike ranking Elway anywhere near Montana, Young, Marino, and Favre.

      Regardless of where exactly Montana and Young rank relative to each other, the important point for our present discussion is that both rank much, much higher than Elway, as do Marino and Favre.

      (5) Denver “went immediately downhill” when Elway left because Brian Griese wasn’t Steve Young and their 2,000-yard rusher blew out his knee. The 49ers just happened to be wiser than the Broncos in whom they groomed as their quarterback heir. Pretty simple.

      And if we’re going to judge quarterbacks according to how long their former teams struggled to replace them, Marino wins that contest in a landslide. It’s been 14 years and Miami still hasn’t been able to replace him.

      (6) No, I don’t put much stock in John Madden and Mel Kiper quotes when analyzing players. Doing so is the equivalent of assessing a movie’s merit on the basis of critic quotes (“Must see!” “A non-stop thrill ride!”) featured in its trailer. Such superlatives are a dime-a-dozen for pretty much any player in the PFHOF. One could fill the phone book just with Madden hyperbole about Favre.

      And lest one forget, Kiper is the guy who compared JaMarcus Russell to Elway. For all of Elway’s shortcomings as a quarterback, the poor guy doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as JaMarcus Russell. But maybe you’ll be back here in 20 years, quoting Kiper’s opinion that Russell was “Elway-like” as evidence that Russell was unappreciated like John and actually one of the very best quarterbacks of all-time.

      (7) “People like me” won’t ever admit that Montana “would not have taken three less than great teams to Super Bowls” because the premise is false (the ’89 Broncos were a juggernaut: 9.3 SRS, 6th in rushing, 1st in scoring defense, 3rd in total defense, 3rd in pass defense, 6th in rush defense) and the proposition is entirely speculative and subjective.

      Montana played for the 49ers, not the Broncos. Making definitive statements about what he would not have been able to accomplish in Elway’s shoes is the height of ignorance.

  • Tom T

    Dear Brock,

    My last comments on this subject – you may have the forum all to yourself after this.

    Passing Stats Do Not Tell The story, particularly on mediocre teams. So please stop talking about whether Elway won any passing titles or not and whether Jim Kelly ( unbelievable that anyone would attempt to make that comparison – Only someone completely wrapped up in Box scores, who never watched football games, would do so )

    I listed the Pro Bowls in those years only because my primary gripe is that Elway never got the appropriate recognition for taking those three teams to the Super Bowl and he received all of the blame for the losses it seemed.

    If you check my statement, I said that Elway ALMOST single handedly took those teams and that he was essentially their offense over those years – And this is absolutely true. Yes Bobby Humphries had one good year with Elway – and he was a threat to be considered – Sammy Winder, who won two of those pro Bowl awards on Offense that is recognized in the stats I posted, was a very dependable 3.5 yards running back who could be counted on to do whatever down in the trench mud dirty work was asked of him. For anyone to indicate that he was a threat to be game planned for is ridiculous. Sammy’s career long run may well have been less than 15 yards. You may go and look up his stats and find something longer but nobody who watched Denver in those years would argue with this.

    I love that you make mention Of Hall Of Fame Shannon Sharpe and Borderline HOF Rod Smith who were clearly the best receivers John Elway ever played with. And two of my favorite Broncos. And since you love to look at raw passing stats as a leading measure, let us now look at the raw receiving stats of the TWO best Receivers John Elway ever had – incidentally NEITHER of these guys were there in the years 86 – 89.

    Sharpe – 10,060 yards 62 Touchdowns Smith – 11,389 yards 68 Touchdowns
    Rice – 22,895 yards 197 touchdowns

    using the type of statistical analysis you are so fond of I conclude that Elways TWO best receivers are worth almost as much 1 Jerry Rice in Yardage and roughly 65% as much in Touchdowns as the 1 Jerry Rice. I am curious what response you make to this.

    And PLEASE do respond whether you think Tom Brady is actually now the 23 Best QB in the NFL, (Because that’s what his passing stats say now that he is not throwing to Moss and Welker) and not even worthy of mention in the same breath as Peyton Manning – Please DO make a statistical analysis that proves what a lousy QB he now is despite his team being 5 – 1

    • Brock

      (1) Objective data like passing stats tell us what actually happened rather than what we wish happened, would like to remember happened, or mistakenly remember happened.

      To quote Bill James, that’s the “difference between knowledge and [b.s.]; knowledge is something that can be objectively demonstrated to be true, and [b.s.] is something that you just ‘know’.”

      That John Elway compares unfavorably to most of the other quarterbacks in the PFHOF can be objectively demonstrated to be true and is therefore knowledge.

      That John Elway was the “closest thing the NFL ever saw to being a one man gang” or was “incredible at taking the opponent’s best defensive play and turning it into a John Elway spectacular big play” or whatever else is likewise taken as an article faith in Denver cannot be objectively demonstrated and consequently classifies as b.s.

      (2) There’s no evidence that passing statistics are biased against mediocre teams (which, in any event, Denver was not relative to the AFC during the ’80s). To the contrary, that the Dolphins were consistently a top-ranked passing offense in the mid-and-late-’80s despite never winning more than 8 games in that period ought to dispel the notion.

      (3) I can see why you might not like to be reminded that Elway only led the league once in a passing category during his 16 seasons, but though it might be inconvenient, it is nonetheless a fact and relevant to an objective analysis of his career.

      It’s reasonable to expect that a true upper-echelon HOF QB would have substantial black ink to his name. Elway does not and that’s a rather significant mark against him in terms of his all-time ranking.

      (4) Let’s do a blind comparison of two QBs using ANY/A+, Rate+, TD%+, and Y/A+.

      QB1 109 ANY/A+; 111 Rate+; 112 TD%+; 111 Y/A+
      QB2 106 ANY/A+; 105 Rate+; 102 TD%+; 104 Y/A+

      QB1 is significantly better, across-the-board. That’s not a statement of opinion but one of fact.

      QB1 is Jim Kelly. QB2 is John Elway.

      (5) Bobby Humphrey (not Humphries—as a Broncos fan, you ought to know his name) had two good seasons for Elway, not one, before he ruined his career with the hold out.

      Humphrey rushed for 1,151 yards in ’89 and was runner-up to Barry Sanders for ROY. He followed that up by rushing for 1,202 yards the next season and earning a selection to the Pro Bowl.

      (6) Sammy Winder was a 4 ypc back when he rushed for 1,153 yards and made the Pro Bowl in ’84. His longest career run was 52 yards, not 15. You are correct that in ’86 he was basically a grinder.

      (7) Bobby Humphrey was replaced by Gaston Green, who immediately went on to rush for 1,000 yards on 4 ypc and make the Pro Bowl himself.

      (8) Then came Terrell Davis and the rest is history.

      As I noted previously, Elway had a 1,000 yard rusher in his backfield for half his career (8 seasons) and had a Pro Bowl running back behind him for 7 seasons.

      That kind of rushing support would be the envy of most any QB.

      (9) I can only assume that you are being deliberately obtuse when you use career statistics to support your conclusion that Rice was worth more to Montana’s career than Sharpe and Smith, combined, were to Elway’s.

      Why in the world would the 14 years worth of statistics Rice compiled with Young, Garcia, and Gannon be relevant to an assessment of his impact on Montana’s career? The same goes for Sharpe and Smith’s post-Elway years. What is relevant to that inquiry is how much production those targets gave Montana and Elway specifically.

      So, let’s compare Rice’s production with Montana to Sharpe’s and Smith’s, combined, with Elway.

      Montana and Rice played together for 6 seasons—substantially less than that when you consider the ’87 season was strike-shortened and Montana missed 15 games during that period due to injury (including half of ’86).

      Elway played 9 seasons with Sharpe (8 if you exclude his rookie year, when he barely played) and 4 seasons with Smith (more like 2, since he didn’t see the field much his first two years).

      For the sake of ease, I’ll include all of Rice’s statistics in the years he played with Montana, not just those produced when Montana was actually on the field. I’ll do the same for Sharpe and Smith. Elway missed 11 games from the start of Sharpe’s career in ’90 to his own retirement to the 15 Montana missed from the start of Rice’s career to the effective end of his own 49ers career, so doing so slightly overstates the impact Rice had on Montana’s numbers (i.e., the numbers reflect four more games worth of phantom Montana/Rice production than phantom Elway/Sharpe/Smith production).

      Here are the numbers:

      446 receptions
      7,866 yards
      79 TDs

      Sharpe & Smith
      529 receptions (Sharpe) + 178 receptions (Smith) = 707 receptions
      6,759 yards (Sharpe) + 2,791 yards (Smith) = 9.550 yards
      44 TDs (Sharpe) + 21 TDs (Smith) = 65 TDs

      The tandem of Sharpe & Smith provided Elway with 261 more receptions and 1,684 more yards than Rice did Montana, while Rice scored 14 more touchdowns with Montana than Sharpe & Smith did with Elway. With the yardage value of a touchdown being established at 19, the 14 extra touchdowns for Montana-Rice equate to 266 yards. Subtracting that yardage from Elway-Sharpe-Smith’s 1,684-yard advantage leaves the Broncos triumvirate with a 1,418 yard advantage.

      That alone shows 8 effective years with Sharpe combined with 2 effective years with Smith were “worth more” to Elway’s career than 5 effective years with Rice were to Montana’s.

      The difference becomes even more pronounced when one adjusts Rice’s numbers to account for the extra 4 phantom Montana/Rice games. Using Rice’s per game averages during the years he played with Montana—5 rpg, 86 ypg, and .85 TD/g—we can conservatively estimate that those extra 4 phantom games result in the numbers above overstating Montana/Rice production by 20 receptions, 344 yards, and 3 touchdowns. With those adjustments taken into account, Sharpe & Smith’s advantage in receptions and yardage grows to 281 and 2,028, respectively, while Rice’s TD advantage shrinks to 10. Subtracting the yardage value of Montana-Rice’s TD advantage (190 yards) from 2,028 leaves Elway-Sharpe-Smith ahead by 1,838 yards—the equivalent, essentially, of 2 years of elite receiver production.

      Jerry Rice was great, but not even he was great enough to offset a combined 10+ years of production from a HOF tight end and a should-be HOF wide receiver.

      10) That Tom Brady currently ranks 26th in QB rating (and 25rd in ANY/A, DYAR, and DVOA, each) is objective evidence that he has been a below-average QB through 7 games this season. Nothing more. Since he has an entire career’s worth of work in which he’s played very well with both talented and not-so talented receivers (e.g., 2001-06), we have a good idea as to his baseline talent.

      Players have slumps. Players have off-years. Aberrations are common in small sample sizes. Any of those three is a much more likely explanation for Brady’s struggles thus far than that he has suddenly been exposed as a product of great receivers despite the fact he previously thrived when surrounded by underwhelming targets.

      That last part is quite significant for our present purposes. Compare Brady’s numbers when his top targets were the likes of Deion Branch, David Givens, and David Patten to when Elway was throwing to guys like Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson, Steve Watson, and Ricky Nattiel. Do the same with Marino for the years when his top receivers were O.J. McDuffie, Troy Drayton, and Randal Hill, and for Favre for the years when he was surrounded with relative dreck like Antonio Freeman, Bill Schroeder, and Corey Bradford. Since you’re so fixated on Montana, we can throw him in there, too, and use his Kansas City years, when he was throwing to the immortal tandem of Willie Davis and J.J. Birden.

      Of those five, the only one who could not play at a consistently high-level without stud receivers was Elway. Heck, Elway couldn’t even play at a consistently league-average level during those years, finishing with a sub-100 ANY/A+ and Rate+ more often than not prior to Shannon Sharpe’s arrival.

      That Elway needed to play alongside a stud target in order to maintain even a league-average level of quarterback play is a damning indictment.

  • Tom T

    OK – I could not resist one last post against Brock’s incredibly distorted view when comparing Montana/Elway.

    I wish someone would gather data for how many 25 yard + Touchdown plays were recorded by The Top 100 receivers of all Time.

    Since Quarterback Ratings depend to some significant degree on passing yards and also on touchdowns (which are both clearly affected By Run After catch yards) it might clarify to some extent just how much the Quarterback ratings are affected by the ability of the receivers.

    This does seem relatively easy to discern when one looks at Tom Brady’s career that looks like a bell curve, with the time spent with Moss/Welker at the top of the curve, and incidentally at the top of the league stats.

    In the 80’s I probably only saw 1/20 of the number of SF 49er games that I saw of The Denver Broncos. What I remember more than anything about those SF teams was just how often Jerry Rice would take a quite simple crossing pattern/Pick pass play, that was thrown a quite short distance and turn it into a 25 + yards Touchdown.
    That is somewhat due to the difference in the abilities of the receivers (that Jerry Rice had a freakish predilection for this is easily noted in his touchdown stats) But it is also relative to the creativeness, imagination and execution of an Offensive system.

    This virtually NEVER happened for Denver in the 80’s. It’s one of the primary reasons that using passing statistics as a comparison of Montana/Elway or Marino/Elway is misleading of the truth.

    I cite two paragraphs from Wikipedia about Bill Walsh

    “…In 1968, Walsh moved to the AFL expansion Cincinnati Bengals, joining the staff of legendary coach Paul Brown. It was there that Walsh developed the philosophy now known as the “West Coast Offense”, as a matter of necessity. Cincinnati’s new quarterback, Virgil Carter, was known for his great mobility and accuracy but lacked a strong arm necessary to throw deep passes. Thus, Walsh modified the vertical passing scheme he had learned during his time with the Raiders, designing a horizontal passing system that relied on quick, short throws – often spreading the ball across the entire width of the field.[4] The new offense was much better suited to Carter’s physical abilities; he led the league in pass completion percentage in 1971.

    Under Walsh the 49ers won Super Bowl championships in 1981, 1984 and 1988. Walsh served as 49ers head coach for ten years, and during his tenure he and his coaching staff perfected the style of play known popularly as the West Coast offense. Walsh was nicknamed “The Genius” for both his innovative play calling and design…”

    Denver’s creative offensive imagination during those years was to put John Elway in the shotgun so that he could more easily evade the defensive lineman who were continually breaching Denvers somewhat porous Offensive Line. This partly due to his somewhat less than great receivers ability to get open.

    And Dan Reeves was without question the single most predictable coach in the league inside the 10 yard line. They were going to run on first and second down and everyone in the world knew it.

    So Brock – it’s not just me saying these things – Anyone who knows anything about football agrees that Bill Walsh was an Offensive Genius whose West Coast system REVOLUTIONIZED passing stats and tremendously increased the effectiveness of it’s quarterback.

    Anyone who knows anything about Football knows that Jerry Rice was the greatest wide receiver in History. No small leap in intelligence to deduce that being quarterback in that system and with that asset – completely skews comparison by passing rating.

    And since a relatively non descript and forgettable Virgil Carter could lead the league in passing completion percentage under that system, it might seem to follow that the system tremendously enhanced the STATISTICS compiled by greater players playing within it!

    And Brock – you explain away Montana’s reduced statistics after leaving Walsh and Rice to his advanced age – an age at which John Elway, now operating with many Pro Bowl players, won 2 Super Bowls yet without a Jerry Rice, nor Roger Craig – (yes please point out that Terrell Davis was a great running back in those years – as a rusher few were as good – but he did not catch John Elway passes and turn them into yardage or touchdowns which padded Elways stats and rating, he was a rather poor receiver).

    • Brock

      The only one with an incredibly distorted view here is you, because you choose to ignore objective data (i.e., fact/knowledge) in favor of a narrative composed of a pastiche of fable, belief, and speculation.

      (1) Your obsession with Joe Montana in a discussion about John Elway is a little strange.

      As Chase’s rankings reflect, there are 20+ quarterbacks, Montana included, who rank ahead of Elway.


      When you had a less productive career than John Hadl, Joe Montana is the least of your problems.

      And yet you’ve latched onto Montana with a Javerian zeal.

      Sort of like a C-list celebrity who repeatedly tries to get his picture taken next to A-listers as a means of increasing his own fame, it’s as if you think the mere act of mentioning Montana and Elway in conjunction with each other as often as you can increases Elway’s standing.

      It doesn’t. To the contrary, it only brings Elway’s inadequacies into relief.

      (2) Elway isn’t just a back-of-the-pack HOF QB according to QB rating, but according to ANY/A+, the single most important QB stat—as well as every other efficiency metric, advanced and traditional.

      No matter how you break it down, Elway does not measure up as a top-20 all-time QB.

      (3) Tom Brady doesn’t help Elway’s cause. As previously noted, Brady played markedly better when his top targets were guys like Patten, Givens, Branch, and Brown than did Elway when his top targets were of similarly middling caliber, and Tom Brady played markedly better when his top targets were studs like Moss and than did Elway when his top targets were studs like Smith, Sharpe, and McCaffrey.

      Like Montana, Marino, Favre, and Young, Brady has been consistently decidedly better than Elway, all things being equal.

      (4) Objective data >>> anecdotes about the occasional 49ers’ game you watched in the ’80s

      (5) Yes, Montana was so completely dependent on Walsh that Montana both won a Super Bowl and turned in his finest season *without* his supposed puppet master, while Walsh never so much as sniffed a winning season without Montana.

      (6) Elway was having to “continually” evade defensive linemen because he was not particularly adept at reading defenses and held the ball interminably long, not because of his “porous” offensive line.

      Between the QB and the offensive line, research has shown that the QB is most responsible for the sack rate. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=4152

      John Elway’s sack rate was terrible throughout his career mostly because John Elway was terrible at avoiding sacks. Even when he was playing behind an offensive line populated by a HOFer and a bunch of Pro Bowlers, his sack rate was still atrocious.

      (7) If Dan Reeves was such a God-awful, QB-killer of a head coach who was responsible for handicapping Elway to the point that he consistently played at a below-league-average level, how come Reeves did not have that same deleterious effect on the other QBs he coached?

      Why were Phil Simms, Chris Chandler, and even Michael Vick (in the one full season he started under Reeves) all able to thrive where the “great” John Elway could not?

      (8) Your premise is incorrect: Montana did not suffer “reduced statistics” after leaving Walsh.

      Montana had the finest season of his career in ’89 under Seifert, then followed it up with a strong ’90 in which his ANY/A was over a full standard deviation better than league average.

      Then he suffered a debilitating back injury that caused him to miss 2 whole seasons, went to a KC team where his top targets were Willie Davis and J.J. Birden, and in his first year played even better than he did in his last year with the 49ers, finishing 4th in ANY/A. His ANY/A+ in ’93 also happened to be tied for the 5th highest of his career.

      Then in ’94, his last season, he posted an ANY/A+ that was still well above league average.

      Contrary to your assertion, Montana actually performed slightly better without Walsh than he did with him:

      Avg. ANY/A+ w/ Walsh – 120
      Avg. ANY/A+ w/o Walsh – 121.5

      (9) I referenced Montana’s advanced age as a complicating factor in his comeback from a debilitating back injury and a 2-year layoff, not as significant to his performance in-and-of-itself.

      That’s because research has been done into the subject of QB aging and it has shown that they experience virtually no age-related decline until their final season, when the bottom drops out (i.e., the decline is sudden and drastic, not progressive).


      Elway never experienced that decline because the Broncos winning the Super Bowl enabled him to end his career in storybook fashion and avoid hanging around for one season too many.

      Thus, your implication that Elway deserves extra credit for his advanced age is unfounded.

      (10) No, the Broncos didn’t have Jerry Rice or Roger Craig; what they did have was Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, a HOF tackle, and an offensive line full of Pro Bowlers.

      Those Broncos teams had at least as much talent on the offensive side of the ball as any Montana ever played on. Probably more.

      (11) Davis’ pass catching abilities were largely irrelevant, since he was rushing for 2,000 yards, commanding the focus of opposing defenses, and opening the field for the passing game.

      Regardless, he was a pretty good pass catcher for a running back, averaging 7.6 y/c for his career. Not quite Thurman Thomas/Marshall Faulk/Tiki Barber, but better than Emmitt Smith and as effective as LaDainian Tomlinson.

  • Tom T

    Yes – I have now apparently become, at least temporarily, every bit as fanatically driven to support my case with statistics as Brock has been. So I will now submit the latest piece of statistical data for consideration.

    In relation to teammates support – Brock, mentioned that, Let me use his words now “…All of this is to say that the notion that Elway was “severely disadvantaged” by his supporting cast and coaching is bogus—indeed, contrafactual. Elway was blessed in both regards…”

    First I never said Elway was “severely disadvantaged” by his supporting cast. What I did IMPLY and will say directly here, was that a comparison of teammate support afforded Montana vs Elway, during the 80’s when Montana was winning Super Bowls and Elway was losing them, shows a GREAT difference of advantage for Montana, and that a comparison of teammate support for Marino vs Elway during the same period shows a clear advantage for Marino. And even more-so when OFFENSIVE teammate support is considered (since Brock is intent on showing Montana’s superiority by his passing statistics.)

    Brock refers to Elway being “blessed” – I am actually laughing now when I consider that he considers Elway “Blessed” but not disadvantaged in teammate support in comparison to Montana. SO I looked at some statistics between Jerry Rice and Rod Smith – the best Wide Receivers that Elway and Montana played with respectively. And Please keep in mind that Rod Smith WAS really a tremendous receiver and a three time Pro Bowler. But every receiver in NFL history pales by comparison to Rice, and only Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison, in post 1970’s era can even reach the spot two rungs below him on the ladder Everyone else isn’t even worthy of being included in the conversation. Simply – The Best NFL football player ever. This purpose is NOT to short sell Montana’s greatness, only to set the record straight over comparative support.

    In Rod Smith’s career log of 68 touchdown receptions, 9 went for 45 + yards. In Rice’s log of 197 receiving touchdowns – (he also rushed for 10 Touchdowns, Smith for 1) 50 of those TD’s went for 45 + yards. So then I thought, well maybe this is somewhat reflective of great quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young making Jerry Rice a great receiver (and to some extent it it is a factor, the quarterback must read the defense, decide and then accurately deliver, before the defense rush reaches him – this of course being either aided or impeded by his Offensive line protection, his receivers ability to get open and his Offensive co-ordinators system and play calling effectiveness in keeping the defense guessing) . Here’s the laughing part — 14 of those 45 + yard Touchdowns to Jerry Rice were thrown by quarterbacks named Jeff Kemp, Harry Sydney, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Garcia and Rick Mirer. One might be given to say that throwing a 45 + yard touchdown to Jerry Rice requires, really, not so much more talent than what is required to make an NFL team and virtually any quarterback immediately becomes better by association with him. Given this statistical data I wonder how many 45 + yard touchdowns Brock thinks Rod Smith, playing in Denvers 1980’s system might have received from quarterbacks of those names?

    Lastly I will concede one point, but only slightly – If one were to assemble the greatest team of all time and have them run a pass control West Coast Offense, I would rather have Joe Montana over Elway. In this scenario I would rate Joe a 10 over Elways 9. Conversely – If I were to pick the first player on my team, without knowing the makeup or talent level of any other player on that team – John Elway is my pick. If you have a mediocre or even bad team Elway wins more games just on his unbelievable athletic ability to make something happen where nothing exists. And he takes the licking and keeps on ticking and is never out of a game. He had very likely the best arm and very likely the best feet, and CERTAINLY the best combination of the two, of any quarterback to play the position. I can only imagine what Jerry Rice and John Elway might have done together.

  • Brock

    Methinks the lady doth protest too much, Tom.

    As to your “fanatica[l]” obsession with “support[ing] [your] case with statistics,” if only!

    Thus far, your Elway apologias have been wholly devoid of objective, verifiable support.

    (1) After referring to “a very large difference in supporting casts,” you then referred to a “severely different disadvantage in Offensive Line (sic) support.”

    “Severely disadvantage[d]” is taken directly from that second statement and is synonymous with the first. It is in no way a mischaracterization of the claims you made on behalf of Elway.

    (2) You’ve made a claim that is demonstrably false in asserting that Marino had a “clear advantage” over Elway in “teammate support” during the ’80s: Elway was the one with the decided advantage.

    From ’83 through ’89, the Dolphins’ average league ranks were as follows:

    Rushing – 21st
    Scoring Defense – 15th
    Total Defense – 22nd

    The Broncos’ average league ranks were:

    Rushing – 15th
    Scoring Defense – 10th
    Total Defense – 16th

    In a 28 team league, Marino’s teams ranked, on average, 21% worse in rushing, 18% worse in scoring defense, and 21% worse in total defense.

    By SRS, Marino’s defenses rated as follows:

    ’83 – 5.2
    ’84 – 1.5
    ’85 – 0.9
    ’86 – -5.7
    ’87 – -1.1
    ’88 – -3.9
    ’89 – -4.2

    Avg. = -1.0

    Elway’s defenses by SRS:

    ’83 – 1.3
    ’84 – 6.7
    ’85 – 1.9
    ’86 – 1.8
    ’87 – 0.9
    ’88 – -3.4
    ’89 – 5.7

    Avg. = +2.13

    Measured by SRS, Denver’s defenses were, on average, an entire FG+ (3.13) better than Miami’s during the ’80s, and were below league-average for a season just once.

    (3) Yes, Elway was blessed in terms of offensive support over his career. It is patently ridiculous for you to deny it.

    Consider the following…

    *1,000-Yard Rushers
    -Elway, 8
    -Montana, 4
    -Marino, 1

    *Avg. Rushing Game Rank
    -Elway, 13th
    -Montana, 13th
    -Marino, 22nd

    *1,000-Yard Receivers
    -Marino, 12
    -Elway, 11
    -Montana, 8

    *Targets in Top 100 in Receiving TDs
    -Favre, 6 (Rison, Clayton, St. Sharpe, Freeman, Driver, Jennings)
    -Marino, 5 (Clayton, Fryar, Duper, Martin, N. Moore)
    -Elway, 4 (Smith, Miller, Sharpe, McCaffrey)
    -Kelly, 2 (Reed, Lofton)
    -Young, 2 (Rice, Owens)
    -Montana, 1 (Rice)

    *Receivers in FB Perspective’s 150 Greatest Wide Receivers Ever Rankings
    -Favre, 8 (#38 St. Sharpe, #50 Rison, #65 Clayton, #103 Freeman, #105 Jennings, #125 Driver, #130 Glenn, #144 Brooks)
    -Marino, 5 (#65 Clayton, #76 N. Moore, #91 Duper, #120 Fryar, #134 Martin)
    -Elway, 4 (#18 Smith, #84 Miller, #89 Watson, #140 McCaffrey)
    -Kelly, 3 (#13 Lofton, #41 Reed, #66 Moulds)
    -Montana, 2 (#1 Rice, #77 D. Clark)
    -Young, 2 (#1 Rice, #4 Owens)

    (Favre, Montana, and Young played insubstantial amounts of time with Randy Moss, Wes Chandler, and McCaffrey, respectively.)


    *Targets in “QB WOWY” Top 100 (measures receivers who elevate their QBs the most)
    -Favre, 6 (#7 Harvin, #9 S. Rice, #28 Ingram, #52 J. Jones, #57 J. Walker, #100 Jennings
    -Young, 6 (#13 Taylor, #15 Kirby, #21 B. Jones, #43 Rice, #70 Watters, #79 Stokes)
    -Elway, 5 (#1 McCaffrey, #2 Smith, #25 Sh. Sharpe, #93 Dorsett)
    -Montana, 5 (#4 Birden, #13 Taylor, #21 B. Jones, #43 Rice, #44 Allen)
    -Marino, 3 (#15 Kirby, #28 Ingram, #90 Martin)
    -Kelly, 1 (#48 Lofton)


    *Targets in Top 100 in True Receiving Yards
    -Favre, 5 (#36 Rison, #45 Driver, #59 Clayton, #77 Glenn, #79 St. Sharpe)
    -Marino, 5 (#17 Fryar, #38 Moore, #59 Clayton, #61 Martin, #75 Duper)
    -Elway, 4 (#25 Smith, #37 Sh. Sharpe, #54 Miller, #92 McCaffrey)
    -Kelly, 3 (#9 Lofton, #11 Reed, #40 Moulds)
    -Young, 2 (#1 Rice, #2 Owens)
    -Montana, 1 (#1 Rice)


    *HOF Teammates (Offense)
    -Elway, 3
    -Montana, 3
    -Kelly, 2
    -Marino, 1
    -Young, 1
    -Favre, 0

    (4) What’s laughable, Tom, is not that Rice caught all of 14 long touchdowns from Jeff Garcia (a pretty decent QB with a substantially better ANY/A+ and QB rating+ than Elway, in fact), Elvis Grbac (an above-average QB), Steve Bono (an average QB), backups Mirer and Kemp, and a running back (Sydney) during a long 20-year career, but that Bubby Brister—he of the career 93 ANY/A+ and 97 QB rating+—outperformed your hero Elway on his own Super Bowl team.

    That’s right: BUBBY BRISTER(!) played better behind center for the ’98 Broncos than did the “great” John Elway.

    One might be given to say that quarterbacking the Davis-Sharpe-Smith-McCaffrey-Zimmerman-Nalen-Schelereth machine required, really, not so much more talent than is required to carry a clipboard for an NFL team and any quarterback immediately became Pro Bowl caliber by association with them.

    Given this statistical data, one can only wonder how much higher Bubby could have “elevated” the ’80s Broncos than did John.

    (5) Being a Broncos fan, it’s unsurprising that you would profess to select Elway first in some make-believe all-time draft and evidently believe he could consume opposing defenses with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his rear. Unfortunately, those aren’t legitimate, verifiable arguments in his defense and are indicative of nothing more than your subjective bias.

    As far as Elway having “very likely the best arm,” well, Favre, Marino, Jeff George, Jay Schroeder, and Kyle Boller, to name but a few, would have something to say about that, while the claim that Elway had “very likely the best feet” is downright ludicrous with guys like Young, Cunningham, Vick, Staubach, Tarkenton, McNabb, and McNair in existence.

    The best combination of the two is “clearly” either Vick, Staubach, or, in a few more years, Rodgers—end of discussion.

  • Tom T

    Dear Brock – I’ll let the readers digest and decide – Whether they view John Madden and Mel Kiper – two NFL experts – more credible than someone like you. Anyone who would use the word “Blessed” in comparing John Elways cast of supporting Offensive players and coaching staff throughout his career, in comparison with Marino and Montana is truly playing with a queer deck.

    Elway played his Best prime years under Dan Reeves and with significantly less offensive support during his prime years (Reeves was FIRED – If Walsh or Shula were ever fired whilst coaching their HOF QB’s I am unaware of it – yet you say Elway was “Blessed” with his supporting cast and coaching in comparison to Montana and Marino) . The Pro Bowl numbers are irrefutable here.

    Sorry Brock, if you started out with an astute Football mind, then it has become addled from WAY TOO much time falling in love with sheer numbers. ALL of the numbers show clearly that the supporting playing cast significantly changes the passing stats. And there are still ONLY two quarterbacks who have gone to 5 super bowls. One of them took THREE teams with VERY LITTLE offensive support. Only a neophyte would attempt the arguments you are making.

    You excuse the Saint Montana’s dropoff in stats upon leaving Walsh and Rice yet blame Elway and Brady for having low stats when playing with mediocre supporting casts. You completely ignore the basis of this article which well supports with facts the opinions of NFL experts.

    Against virtually all other expert views you would rate Elway below Troy Aikman and Jim Kelly. THAT alone makes your voice less than credible.

    • Brock

      (1) Tom, once again you’ve offered nothing to refute the objective evidence that Elway was quite privileged in offensive support throughout his career, just your misguided conviction that he was not. That being the case, I’ll reiterate—again—the facts:

      Elway played with a 1,000-yard rusher 8 times in his career. Montana played with 4. Marino played with 1.

      Elway’s running game’s average rank was 13th. Montana’s was also 13th. Marino’s was 22nd.

      Elway played with 11 1,000-yard receivers. Montana played with 8. Marino played with 12.

      Elway played with 4 receivers who rank in the top-100 in receiving touchdowns. Montana played with 1. Marino played with 5.

      Elway played with 4 of FBP’s 150 greatest receivers of all-time. Montana played with 2. Marino played with 5.

      Elway played with 5 targets in the top-100 in “QB WOWY” (including Nos. 1 and 2). Montana played with 5. Marino played with 3.

      Elway played with 4 targets in the top-100 in True Receiving Yards. Montana played with 1. Marino played with 5.

      Elway was backed by 3 offensive teammates in the PFHOF. Montana was backed by 3. Marino was backed by 1.

      Those are the facts and they are incontrovertible.

      (2) As for Reeves, scapegoating him for Elway’s decade of mediocrity doesn’t hold water. Not when Reeves failed to have the same fantasized deleterious affect on Simms, Chandler, and Vick—all of whom thrived in his system and under his tutelage.

      (3) Using caps does not make your claim that Elway took “THREE teams with VERY LITTLE offensive support” to the Super Bowl any less bogus. Once again, the ’89 Broncos were 6th in the league in rushing and the ’87 Broncos were 12th and, in a game in which Kosar actually outpeformed Elway, ran over the Browns to get to the Super Bowl.

      Beyond that, every Denver Super Bowl team in the ’80s also featured a top-10 defense.

      The ’80s Broncos were well-balanced and Elway had plenty of help, on both sides of the ball.

      (4) One also wonders why, if Elway had such mystical powers to “elevate” his teammates and conjure Super Bowl berths from supposed mediocrity, those abilities mysteriously abandoned him in the actual Super Bowl. I suppose they had a mid-January expiration date.

      Or maybe those Broncos teams were actually very good relative to a historically-weak AFC and that’s why they made it to three Super Bowls? And that once they got there, they were simply overmatched by superior foes from the NFC?

      Could that be it?

      Nah, couldn’t possibly! It must be the occult, instead—Elway Magic!

      (5) Once again, you’ve asserted something that is demonstrably false: Montana did not suffer a “dropoff in stats” upon leaving Walsh. To the contrary, Montana played slightly better without Walsh, had the finest single season of his career without him, and won a Super Bowl without him.

      These are Montana’s average ANY/A+s with and without Walsh:
      W/ Walsh – 120
      W/o Walsh – 121.5

      (6) Nor did Montana suffer a “dropoff in stats upon leaving…Rice”: Montana’s ANY/A+ actually *increased* from 1990 (his last season in San Francisco) to 1993 (his first season in KC):
      1990 – 117
      1993 – 119

      (7) Where did I ever “blame…Brady for having low stats when playing with mediocre supporting casts?”

      Quite the opposite, I pointed out that mediocre supporting casts never kept Brady from playing well—unlike Elway.

      To that end, I told you to compare Brady’s numbers when his top targets were Branch, Givens, and Patten to when Elway was throwing to guys like Johnson, Jackson, and Nattiel.

      Brady trounces him in every regard. Even when Brady was surrounded by Branch, Givens, Patten, Brown, etc., his ANY/A+ was *always* above league-average (100+). Elway, meanwhile, was so abysmal that he was below league-average 5 times in his first 10 years.

      Brady shows how lame the “supporting cast” argument is as a defense for Elway’s comparatively underwhelming performance.

      (8) Your credibility was lost when you continued to insist on things that are demonstrably not true (e.g., Elway “almost singlehandedly” took three “mediocre” teams to the Super Bowl; Montana suffered a “dropoff in stats” without Walsh; Marino had a “clear advantage” over Elway in “teammate support” during the ’80s; Elway had “very likely the best feet” of any quarterback; Rice was worth more to Montana than Sharpe & Smith were, combined, to Elway; etc.). The list of outright hogwash emanating from your fingertips is extensive, staggering, and enough to make one seriously question your knowledge of the game.

      • Ajit

        Brock made a good point in the beginning, but took it way too far and overextended it. The measurement system itself is flawed. Say for arguments sake, Elway was a god but given awful teammates. The net production would look like an average passing game with 1 or no pro bowl skill players. Now instead, suppose Elway was the modern day Andy Dalton and his receiving core was very good. The end result would again be an average passing game and 1 to no probowlers. So which one is Elway? Without going off reputation and just looking at his numbers via a spreadsheet, we can’t tell.

        I have to admit, I hate the nostalgic attitude people have with qbs. They remember the play where the qb escaped three defenders and hurled a pass into the arms of a receiver in the end zone 50 yards away. Those players are memorable, but to me, the qb position is far more about what you do with the rest of your 500 dropbacks than what you do with a handful of wowzers. It’s why I’ve been historically against rating players off nostalgia. They lose sight of the mundane but far more relevant 500 “other” drop backs.

        As to Elway. I never saw him play personally, so I’m left asking people who did. The general suggestion was that the offensive talent and coaching staff were poor. Since I’ve heard this from many people, not just denver fans, I’m inclined to believe it’s true.

        Finally, as to Montana. He had a lot of talent around him, but I don’t think people realize just how much. If you examine Dr.Z’s old all pro teams, so many of them include 49ers both on offense and defense. They were a talented juggernaught coached by a very brilliant offensive mind. Montana may be the greatest qb ever, but this vision that he willed a team to 4 sbs and that makes him the goat is completely wrong. Having asked some 49er fans I trust, they actually all say that Young was probably the better overall qb.

  • Tom T

    Lastly -And this is my last post I promise – debating with fanaticism is always a waste of time.

    I do appreciate that you acknowledge Rice scoring 14 more touchdowns for Montana than Elways TWO Best receivers. Please do a statistical comparison that displays how much advantage in points per game, having Jerry Rice in your huddle is worth. Please do include some allowance for how much better he makes every one else on the team over and above the 5.5 DIRECT points per game he brings with him.

    This line “…That alone shows 8 effective years with Sharpe combined with 2 effective years with Smith were “worth more” to Elway’s career than 5 effective years with Rice were to Montana’s…” is ridiculous on it’s face and ignores that there was another receiver playing alongside Joe Montana. DISINGENOUS is the nicest moniker I could ascribe. ONLY an idiot would not trade Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith for Jerry Rice, and at a million miles an hour. The same idiot who would compare the advantage of playing for Dan Reeves with that of playing for Bill Walsh. Rice being the biggest game changer and nightmare for opposing coaches the game has ever seen.

    Your supposed KNOWLEDGE. That objective data that tells us what actually happened, does NOT interestingly enough, tell us how many times the receiver dropped the ball, broke a tackle, ran blindingly by the astonished defender. Nor does it it tell us how often the imagination challenged coach decided to run on first down, when everyone knew he would, nor does it provide any factoring for a genius coach bringing in a completely new system never before seen in the NFL. It does not not reveal how often the Quarterback can scan the field for 4-5 seconds to find an open receiver nor how often that time is reduced to 2-3 seconds. It does not tell us how often the Left Tackle was beaten by the defensive end and the quarterback took a beating. You do agree that being forced to double team a Jerry Rice those 5 years that Montana played with him makes the GREAT Roger Craig and the remaining backs and receivers much better targets to throw to?? Or do your spreadsheet numbers belay that feeling that I and every NFL coach in the league had, during that time?
    These facts are completely unrevealed by your stats Brock – therefore I conclude your KNOWLEDGE to be suspect and flawed, as are most data driven reports that do not show ALL of the pertinent factors driving the data. Go back to your spreadsheet Brock. Somewhere in there you ought to be able to make a case that Jerry Rice would not have caught those touchdowns were it not for the greatness of Montana. Or that playing with Roger Craig AND Jerry Rice at the same time Bill Walsh is calling the plays, has very little to do with the stats the quarterback in the huddle will achieve.

    It was not Denver fans that took 5 teams to Super Bowls. And the facts that this article began with are much closer to the truth than anything you have offered, particularly as they are buttressed with the opinions of experts well known in NFL circles and those making their living in the NFL.

    • Mister B.

      Yikes, how about some real feedback here. Brock took Tom out behind the woodshed, over and over. With all of his evidence and logic, Brock gives the appearance that he knew exactly what he was talking about -and- how to support it with fact. Tom on the other hand, continually used *words* in his attempts to rebut Brock’s *numbers*. The funny thing about “perspective” is that depending upon where you stand, it changes. I believe that Tom’s observations are clouded by where he stands: the evidence is (1) Brock’s well-supported arguments, and (2) Tom’s foolish choice to begin deploying the logically fallacious “Appeal to Authority” tactic. And I quote: “I’ll let the readers digest and decide – Whether they view John Madden and Mel Kiper – two NFL experts – more credible than someone like you.” TOM — that statement confirmed to me that you were/are incapable of responding adequately to Brock’s statements of fact. And sometimes those facts were reminding you of YOUR VERY OWN WORDS. Tom, you lost in this thread big time, repeatedly, in this reader’s opinion.

  • Brock

    (1) That comparison was already made. The yardage value of a touchdown itself is 19 yards. Multiplying 19 by Rice’s 14 touchdown advantage over Sharpe & Smith yields a product of 266. Subtracting 266 from Sharpe & Smith’s 1,684-yard advantage makes it a 1,418-yard advantage for Sharpe & Smith.

    That alone establishes that Sharpe & Smith, combined, were worth more to Elway’s career than Rice was to Montana’s—1,418 yards more.

    Of course, as I explained previously, including all of Rice’s stats from 1985 through 1990 and all of Sharpe & Smith’s from 1990 through Elway’s retirement in ’98 overstates Montana/Rice production, as Montana missed 15 games during his years with Rice, while Elway only missed 11 from the start of Sharpe’s career in ’90.

    Using Rice’s per game averages during the ’85-’90 period (85 ypg, .85 TD/g) to adjust for those 4 extra “phantom” Montana-Rice games, we see that those 4 extra games overstate Montana-Rice production by 340 yards and 3 touchdowns. With the yardage value of the three touchdowns being 57, that’s a total of 397 yards (19*3). Add 397 to 1,418 and you get a total advantage of 1,815 yards for Sharpe & Smith.

    Sharpe & Smith were worth 1,815 yards more to Elway than Rice was to Montana.

    (2) To the extent the comparison is “ridiculous” and “ignores” that there was another receiver playing alongside Montana, it’s because YOU WERE THE ONE WHO DECIDED TO DRAW THE COMPARISON IN THE FIRST PLACE: “I conclude that Elways (sic) TWO best receivers are worth almost as much (sic) 1 Jerry Rice in Yardage.”

    To paraphrase you, only an idiot would set the parameters of a comparison and then, when their premise is disproved, complain about the parameters being “disingenuous.”

    (In case you missed it, you called yourself disingenuous. Good job!)

    (3) What’s more, the comparison doesn’t actually ignore the second receiver, since it tells us precisely how much more Sharpe & Smith were worth, cumulatively, to Elway’s career than Rice was to Montana’s—1,815 yards. Or a little less than John Taylor’s 2 full seasons with Montana (1,825 yards + 17*19 = 2,148).

    (4) The question is not whether or not someone would make a hypothetical Rice-for-Sharpe-&-Smith trade—aside from being entirely speculative and subjective, it ignores how long each played with Montana and Elway, respectively.

    The question is whether 128 games with Sharpe and 54 games with Smith were more valuable than 76 games with Rice.

    The answer, as we have seen, is yes.

    (5) Actually, there are stats for dropped passes, broken tackles, YAC, QB pressures, etc.

    (6) If you want to continue to pretend that Dan Reeves was responsible for Elway’s struggles, even though Simms, Chandler, and Vick had no such problems under the supposedly “imagination challenged coach”…

    If you want to continue to pretend that Montana was Walsh’s puppet, even though Montana played better without Walsh than he did with him…

    If you want to continue to pretend that Montana’s success was due to Rice, even though Montana had plenty of success both Before Rice and After Rice…

    If you want to continue to pretend that Elway did not spend the better part of a decade as a below league-average quarterback…

    If you want to continue to pretend Elway was “almost singlehandedly” leading “mediocr[e]” teams to the Super Bowl in the ’80s, even though he always had a top-10 defense and usually a good running game behind him…

    If you want to continue to blame everyone and everything else under the Sun for Elway’s inadequacies and failures but Elway himself…

    Go right ahead. You are entitled to your delusions and fantasies, just as little children are entitled to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Just know the Elway Myth doesn’t comport with reality and I will always feel compelled to point out as much.

  • Brock

    I thought it would be interesting to compare how the 9 QBs Chase graphed above—Elway, Marino, Kelly, Montana, Favre, Young, Aikman, Moon, and Esiason—performed when given similar levels of support (according to TRY, as in the graphs). This would give us some insight into how reliant each was upon his supporting cast and help answer the question of who did the most with the least, who did the most with the most, etc.

    I used ANY/A+ and took the TRY data directly from the graphs. Since Chase only graphed ages 23-38 to correspond with Elway’s career, Marino gets hurt a little, since his strong rookie year (130 ANY/A+) is excluded due to his only being 22 when he entered the league. On the other end, Favre’s tenures with the Jets and Vikings are excluded due to him playing past the age of 38, as are Moon’s final 4 seasons. The data covers the entirety of all of the others’ careers.

    Suffice to say, the results don’t do much to improve Elway’s standing. At none of the 5 support levels does he rank above the 50th-percentile. All things being equal, he was always below-average-to-average among this select group of 9 contemporaries: many did more with more, and many did more with less.

    < 700 TRY
    1. Marino (4 seasons) – 115 (Hi/Low: 125/104)
    2. Montana (2 seasons) – 114 (119/109)
    3. Kelly (1 season) – 107
    4. Moon (1 season) – 103
    5. Elway (11 seasons) – 101 (124/79)
    6. Favre (1 season) – 88
    7. Aikman (3 seasons) – 86 (105/82)
    8. Young (1 season) – 83
    9. Esiason (2 seasons) – 76 (82/69)

    700-799 TRY
    1. Marino (5 seasons) – 111 (118(2x)/96)
    2. Favre (6 seasons) – 110 (125/97)
    3. Kelly (3 seasons) – 107 (109/106)
    4. Elway (1 season) – 105
    5. Esiason (4 seasons) – 101 (107/96)
    6. Moon (2 seasons) – 100 (109/90)
    7. Aikman (2 seasons) – 93 (104/81)
    *Montana and Young did not play any seasons with this support level.

    800-899 TRY
    1. Montana (2 seasons) – 130 (138/122)
    2. Young (1 season) – 128
    3. Esiason (5 seasons) – 125 (136/116)
    4. Marino (4 seasons) – 119 (128/116)
    5. Elway (1 season) – 118
    6. Favre (7 seasons) – 114 (131/102)
    7t. Aikman (2 seasons) – 111 (122/100)
    7t. Kelly (7 seasons) – 111 (130/91)
    9. Moon (5 seasons) – 109 (127/97)

    900-999 TRY
    1. Marino (2 seasons) – 135 (150/119)
    2. Young (7 seasons) – 130 (141/116)
    3t. Favre (1 season) – 120
    3t. Montana (4 seasons) – 120 (127/115)
    5. Aikman (5 seasons) – 118 (129/108)
    6t. Elway (1 season) – 114
    6t. Moon (3 seasons) – 114 (128/104)
    8. Esiason (1 season) – 99
    *Kelly did not play any seasons with this support level.

    1,000+ TRY
    1. Montana (4 seasons) – 123 (141/113)
    2. Elway (2 seasons) – 119 (122/116)
    3. Favre (1 season) – 90
    *Aikman, Esiason, Kelly, Marino, Moon, Young did not play any seasons with this support level.

    To the extent TRY is a reliable indicator of target support, the results suggest:

    *Marino and Montana were the least dependent on their receivers and were exceptional across every support level. Of the 4 support levels for which he had a data point, Marino ranked 1st in 3, was in the top-half of each, remained a full-standard deviation above league-average even when playing with lowest-level support, and had the highest single average of any group (135) even though he never played with top-of-the-chart (1,000+ TRY) support. Montana likewise ranked 1st in 2 of the 4 support levels for which he had a data point, was in the top-half of each, and was almost as good as Marino when playing with a <700 supporting cast. Marino and Montana ranked ahead of Elway across-the-board.

    *Kelly was also remarkably stable across the 3 support levels for which he had a data point, performed very well at the two lowest support levels, and was the only QB never to receive 900+ TRY support. Kelly outperformed Elway within 2 of the 3 support levels for which he was ranked.

    *Young was spectacular when surrounded by good targets, as he almost always was. He played basically his entire career with 900-999 TRY support, where his performance was surpassed only by Marino. He performed miserably in Tampa in his 1 season with <700 support. Young ranked ahead of Elway in 2 of the 3 groups for which he had a data point.

    *Favre and Elway are surprisingly similar and are essentially mirror images of each other. Elway performed better with support at the highest and lowest ends, while Favre had the better of it in between. Elway ranked ahead of Favre in 3 of the 5 groups.

    *Esiason, Aikman, and Moon were heavily dependent upon their supporting casts for their greatness. At 800+ support, Esiason was exceptional, Aikman was very good, and Moon was good. At 700-799 support, all three were eminently average and filled the bottom 3 spots. At <700 support, Esiason and Aikman were utterly miserable and Moon was decent. Esiason, Aikman, and Moon each had data points for 4 of the 5 support levels and Elway ranked higher than Esiason in 3, Aikman in 3, and Moon in 3.

    The upshot seems to be that there is little variance in relative performance given comparable target quality—the same names tend to be at the top (Marino, Montana, Kelly, Young), in the middle (Elway), and on the bottom at each support level (Esiason, Aikman, Moon). Favre is the wild card: he's as likely to be near the top as he is in the middle, and he also appears once at the bottom. Kind of sums up his career.

    This ought to put another (final?) nail in the coffin to Elway's supporting cast being offered as an excuse for why he compares so unfavorably to Montana, Marino, Kelly, Young, etc. Even with equal target support, Elway did not play nearly as well.

    • Ryanmcel

      They Did have similar levels of support! I was a kid during that era, so I know all their stats by heart and looking though that graph I immediately noticed it just rises and falls with the QB’s rating for that particular season, so the numbers that guy tried to distinguish receiving level by do not show you a thing. Look every season up- if the QB rating was poor, the graph shows the receivers were bad that year. If the QB rating’s good, it tells you the receivers were good that year! If Elway was any good, he’d have dominated with Any NFL-level receivers, like Manning and Brady, and Montana have. The receivers we know as stars from those guys, were made 50% better by the QB. Edelman wouldn’t even be in the league without Brady! And there is No Way Eric Decker goes All-Pro level without Manning! If you can make it to the NFL, you’re nearly as talented as the next receiver. Think about it, 1/10 of a second separates them in 40 yards. A half a step separates them on a route. Elway got a below average 79.9 career rating, when 82.1 was the average from his era because of HIMSELF!

      • John

        Edelman wouldn’t be in the league without Brady? I don’t think so. It’s more like this: Brady and Edelman wouldn’t be in the league without Belichick and Ernie Adams.

  • The one comment I basically agree with is the one that stated, “you had to see him play. He could escape the most intense pass rush and then throw a 50 yard dart.” When it comes to John Elway, you can throw at statistics and Super Bowl wins and all of that. We’re talking about the Mozart of quarterbacking. John Elway was the greatest to ever play the position. The support arguments are true: weak supporting cast, wasted for 10 years in the Reeves system, targeted because of his exceptional athletic ability. But let’s be clear: John Elway could do it all and in a way and to a degree that no other quarterback ever could. Arm strength? Could Montana, or Steve Young, or even Tom Brady throw like that? Tom Brady isn’t anywhere near the overall athlete John Elway was. Brady is a great team player, but he is a product of Belichick’s genius just as Montana/Young were products of Walsh. John Unitas, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees–all great quarterbacks but are they the single-handed quarterbacking monster that John Elway was? Not a chance. Marino and Aikman had those quick releases, but they couldn’t do it all like Elway could. Tarkenton and Staubach were great scamblers, but not the overall playmaker Elway was. Favre and Bradshaw were both tough, but neither can match Elway’s grit with the game on the line and how he brought his team back so many times. And forget the runners–Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham, Vince Young, Cordell Stewart, et al. Those are running backs/wide receivers dressed up to play quarterbacks. True NFL quarterbacks are mobile, but don’t run like backs/receivers–because they’re quarterbacks! Aaron Rodgers has a great combination of mobility and arm strength, but Elway had more of both. Montana was extremely accurate–but how many times did we see Elway make an impossible throw–running under heat to his right and then throw back across his body, a 40-yard laser in between three defenders that hits the receiver right on the numbers, and given the apparent shock that anyone could put the ball in that window, the receiver drops it. Elway was not only extremely accurate, but also made very few mistakes given the impossible risks he had to take to make those plays. Just an unbelievable player. Having said all of this, I have to say that none of this really captures what John Elway was about on the field. It was really about the beauty of the movements–he had a “rightness” to how he played the position that I’ve never seen in anyone else. He is the most unique individual I’ve ever seen at the position. I’ve seen guys “like” Brady and Manning and Montana, et al., but I’ve never seen anyone like Elway. In conclusion, I just don’t see why people can’t see what an incredible quarterback that guy was, and why he isn’t understood to be the greatest ever. I think he’s the greatest player in the history of the NFL. Who else? Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, LT? Nah. Never seen anything like John Elway.

    • Ryanmcel

      Why did you have to see him play?(I did, though ….. ……) His rating was below the NFL average of 82.1 from his era, so what does the sight of him doing exactly what his numbers say he did have to do with anything? He had a 79.9 rating, Even with all his amazing plays added in. So he must have been Really Bad the rest of the time, right? All the other QB’s who made up that average were factored in in the Same way- it didn’t matter how it looked. It’s a fact they played better when all the good looking and bad looking crap was factored in… Another thing he gets all this credit for is forth quarter comebacks. That’s not a good thing that you kept playing so badly you were always behind, when other QBs didn’t even have the chance to get a forth quarter comeback since they were ahead. You Have to be really average to even have a chance to be at the top of that list.

  • james

    Unless you put your eyeballs on what Elway did you cannot remotely appreciate what he was. This is really a very simple test. What do your eyeballs tell you. My eyes tell me he was in every respect the single greatest play-maker in the history of the sport. Quarterback statistics are a joke because of the innumerable variables presented by different eras and rules, teammates on offense defense and special teams, coaching styles and systems etc. I know what I saw, and I have never seen anything like it before or since. Unparalleled arm strength from any platform and in any direction, incredible athletic ability with his feet scrambling or just flat out running (I used to just wait for third down and goal to go and watch Elway simply roll out and run it in…basically unstoppable-I remember him taking on linebackers while running, putting his shoulder down and getting significant yards after contact), great vision, great reaction time and coolness in the clutch and clutch performances over and over. Ask yourself, who would you rather have with a third down and 15+ to go? There are only a few individuals in the history of the game who could get that first down in any one of the imaginable ways. No one could do it as often in as many different ways as Elway. Watching him I had no concern that he would be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat with his arm, feet, vision, or head. I have enjoyed reading the dialogue above and certainly respect the overall football knowledge of the contributors. Unless you watched the miracle that was John Elway game after game, year after year, it is difficult to understand those of us who did. I was not a Bronco fan before Elway arrived. I heard what the pro draft scouts said about him and paid attention. It only took a few games to see his play-making ability, even in his first year. I was hooked immediately and became a fan of John Elway. He transformed the position and is the precursor of the great athletes we are currently seeing play the position. Even so, I still have not seen anything like him. In the history of sports I cannot think of another instance in which there has been such a disconnect between statistics and reality. I am not surprised that it occurs in pro football regarding quarterbacks given the variable mentioned above. The greatest ever? I do not believe it is a close question and I have been watching since 1960. We are all entitled to our opinions, but anyone who is relying heavily on statistics in this sport respecting this position is, respectfully, a tad myopic. Perhaps you would be better off sticking to sports that are more susceptible to such analyses, e.g., baseball.

    • Michael

      I Agree with you James 100 percent. The game has turned into a stat race rating instead of the intangible miracles that happens in the most classic form of Football. John Elway’s play making was like Football candy to the Eyes. Ask any Professional Athlete that understands the sport. F… this Stat race BS. Many QBs with Great Stats that never won close to the number of games John Elway did. You Don’t win Superbowls when your Defense gives up 35 points in 1 Quarter.

    • kelly walsh

      Amen James. Unless you watched Elway play, you can’t really understand the greatness. He was must see tv, a magician on the field. What made him so great, besides his cannon arm and ability to run circles around defenders, was something you can’t teach, pocket awareness. I have never seen before, during or after a QB that just had a 6th sense to know where the rush was going from, and than with like eyes in the back of his head escape at the last second, when it was behind him and no way he could have seen it.
      And for the people griping about him not being good or not winning a super bowl until he had a great coach and team around him, than we should reevaluate the careers of Joe Montana, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw, guys that won many superbowls between them, but also had all the talent and coaching in the world. Based on these metrics, give Elway those teams when he was in his prime, and we are talking 5 at least and probably more than that rings. You see what he did at 37-38. And for anyone that says it was all Davis in the superbowls, I remember Elway held his own when TD was out of the game when he was having those migraines.

      And kudus as well to you for posting such good history on Elway, whether by stats or the eye test, and putting Brock in his place. He wrote so much, not sure if he ever watched Elway live or not, if he did, the guy knows football even less.

  • theganggreen

    Brock makes some good points. Having seen all of Elway’s career, I can say that he is often overrated. For every thing Elway was good at, he was at least equally bad at something on the flip side and that made him a real mixed bag as a quarterback. He had a strong arm, but his accuracy was erratic and he had little touch. He could scramble well, but he lacked pocket presence and took way too many sacks. He could improvise on broken plays, but he was poor at reading defenses and was very interception prone.

    He never lived up to the hype out of Stanford, in part because the hype was so unreal but also because of his own shortcomings as a passer. It’s easy to forget, but he was considered a disappointment until Shannahan and Davis arrived in Denver and at one point was in danger of losing his job to Tommy Maddox.

    Elway was a good quarterback for his era, but not an exceptional one. More Roethlisberger than Manning or Brady. In fact that’s probably the perfect comparison: Elway was the Ben Roethlisberger of his generation.

    • kelly walsh

      *and at one point was in danger of losing his job to Tommy Maddox

      So Elway was going to lose his job after going 12-4? They drafted Maddox because the weren’t sure of Elway’s health at the time, not because of performance issues.

      He had great touch, for every bullet he through, he could lob a perfect strike over defenders heads on the run with great precision.
      And he got sacked because he was under constant pressure, most qb’s wouldn’t have survived, let alone thrive like Elway did.
      A disappointment, like Dan Marino? No one ever would say that about Marino, and he didn’t win one superbowl.
      Than non educated people like yourself state that he wasn’t good till he had a good coach and good players around him.
      So by that definition, Joe Montana was just an “average Joe” because he was surrounded by all pros on both offense and defense the majority of his career.
      And I think he did live up to the hype, anyone that watched the majority of his games knows that and respects it.

      • John

        I think the Broncos drafted Maddox because of a rift between Elway and Reeves. In 1991, Dan tried to trade John to Washington. He asked for Jim Lachey, and the Skins said no. No matter what the reason, though, it was the wrong pick. You are a minute away from the SB with no talent on offense. Taking Maddox was inexcusable. Carl Pickens was the guy that should have been taken.

  • Gras

    Let’s not forget that Elway played his whole career without an ACL. Crazy to think about. Imagine what he could have done with two ACLs!!!

    • Ryanmcel

      Maybe he would’ve even been average, and gotten up to the average 82.1 rating from his era, rather than being below average with a 79.9 then!

  • Tom McNeill

    I was 13 when Elway was drafted and followed his whole career. There is no argument that he was an average passer during the Dan Reeves era. That was due to his inaccuracy and Reeves insistence on setting up 3 and 7 after 2 failed running plays. I would look at the stats back then and envy how Joe Montana and others were putting up much better stats.

    But name me an average passer who pretty much single handedly took his team to a Super Bowl, let alone 3. For reference, let’s take recent Bronco QB – Kyle Orton. He had a 3800 and 3600 yd seasons with few INT’s, (His numbers are better than any of Elway’s first 10 seasons.) but he did he win football games, let alone get his team to the playoffs, let alone win in the playoffs? Heck no, he put up numbers but lost like crazy. The object of the game is to win. Stats are secondary. Elway was bad to poor until year 4, the year of The Drive. (Incidentally Favre was bad until year 4 as well) After that, he carried that team to all those wins and Super Bowls.

    So while his passing numbers for years 1-10 were average, his wins were not. And if you saw the Broncos, there no argument that they won because of him. It was his running ability and his ability in crunch time to avoid a drive ending sack and convert it to a first down. He was magical to watch in the 4th quarter. After Reeves left, he was fun to watch for all 4 quarters.

  • Vince

    This guys is from a lifelong Bronco fan, I have lived in Colorado all my life, watched John Elway get drafted, so first Brock is a troll you can never compare eras the game Manning and Brady play now cannot and should not even be compared to when Elway and Marino came into the league, The NFL has gone to the extremes to make sure that offense will prevail in the league, secondly all those supposedly hall of fame people Elway lined up with et al.. Tony Dorsett he played one year in denver then retired, Shannon Sharpe his best years happened after Elway retired, Zimmerman built his hall of fame career in Minnesota before he came to denver and that was only because of a trade, the pro bowlers same thing. The Broncos of the eighties were good but as Tom everyone knew what was coming. your so budsy looking at numbers that you forgot to look at the coach, oh and before you say anything that Dan Reeves did well in Atlanta that team was built before Reeves got there as well as the Giants, big Dan could not put his hands in to mess it up, he did that afterward.

  • Ed

    Some digging on the same data for Y.A. Tittle may or may not give a similar result. He was already retired a decade before I ever was old enough to be a football fan, but I have read some things to suggest he might also had an even longer percentage of career with mediocre receiving support. A similar article on QB’s from the 50’s , 60’s, and 70’s would be interesting.

  • welshpete

    What an interesting afternoon spent getting through this monster debate (it pays to look at those “recently posted” links).
    With fear of reprisal from both sides, I’ll state the case for the middle ground. Stats don’t tell the whole story. Neither do opinions. Almost without exception, any discussion/debate/argument/sh*t-flinging contest (seems like what this is/was) needs balance.
    One side seems to think Elway was Our Lord and Saviour, the other aims to statistically prove he was Mark Malone in disguise.
    Being the wrong side of the Atlantic, I’ve watched football since ’84; (I’ve watched almost every bit of NFL related output on UK TV for 30 years, so I do have a clue) and been a bit of a stats nerd since (this site is like crack for me!) and while it’s easy to pick and chose catagories to prove a point, they aren’t the be all and end all of a player’s make-up. I remember those Sunday evenings watching Elway come back to win games (I still feel sorry for Earnest Byner btw, and remembered the name Jeremiah Castille (sp?) without having to look it up); watched him blow up in 3 Superbowls; watch him complete his career in the other 2, including an undoubtedly gutsy overall display and THAT run. I also recall plenty of mistakes, overthrows, bad decisions and everything else. That TD/INT ratio over that long a career can’t be a fluke. I would guess (I’m not committed to doing the research right now) that most of the stats that you think Elway is Top 10 for, he’s probably not as high as you thought. Sure the career volume is there, but I’ not sure the efficiency is. He was a good scrambling QB for the era; but if era allows for adjustments, then enter Tarkenton and Staubach; if it isn’t then Vick/Wilson/Stewart/about 50% of the current crop.
    The advanced stats that the guys provide here must point to something, though definitely not everything, but just shouting “HE’S THE BEST EVER EVER EVEEERRRRRR” does make it true either.
    So after a call for sanity, my opinion? It is my OPINION remember, you’re allowed to have a different one.
    Better than his stats might say? Yes.
    One of the best of his era? Undoubtedly.
    A great Career? Indeed
    HOF? Fully deserved
    Top 30 All time? Hmmmm, maybe….
    Top 10 All time? Um, sorry no (write ten on a bit of paper at least in the same bracket or better right now…easy wasn’t it!)
    Best ever? Don’t make me laugh.

    Montana better? Yup – supporting cast or otherwise. He was great without Rice, greater with him. With or without Walsh – with SF or KC. Also finishes at the top in the Terry Bradshaw career statistic (we all get this reference, right?)
    While in this debate I’d clearly state that stats don’t tell the FULL story; they do provide a compelling starting point…and that point is Elway in his blocks as Montana closes in on the finishing tape….and if you are going to use “intangibles” as an arguing point – does Elway really beat Montana in those catagories? Closing out games, performance under pressure or on the biggest stage, poise, utilizing the tools around him all that sort of stuff – JM did it as well as JE didn’t he?? And as for the “natural athlete” question….if I went out and threw for 400 yards and 6 TD’s for the Packers this weekend, is that a bigger or smaller achievement that Rogers doing it? He’s got the natural gifts, I don’t (I’m Russell Wilson’s height and Jerome Bettis’ weight; and Warren Moon’s retirement age!)…so surely I’d be proving more by being successful than someone who is big, strong, fast, great arm etc….(I’ve never understood why being gifted enhances a player’s reputation, other than acknowledging that they probably worked really hard to be that “naturally” talented – Rice is a perfect example)
    Don’t get me wrong, while I’m sure you have to look further than the stats, you can’t argue with correlation between the advanced stats and overall success…I place a lot of belief in them, and the guys who pick the Hall of Fame guys do too….otherwise, Canton would have far more linemen and less backs and receivers (don’t get me started!)

    Overall, I think it’s fair to say Elway might well be statistically under-represented, but possibly overplayed by some in the adulation he received for his career…I’d have him way down the all time depth chart, unless you want to throw a RB option pass back to the QB every play (but Russell Wilson is ready to take over that space!)
    Montana (who seems to have become the bad guy in all this?!) In my Top 5 all time, I won’t start another fire debating the other 4 there; only that I don’t consider him the best (that would be a guy I’ve never seen play….10 championship games in 10 years anyone?)

    I think more than anything else, we should all just try and get along!

    Loving the site and will post more and lurk less!


  • John

    The way you talk about John Elway, you make him out to be like Tim Tebow or something, saying that he was very inaccurate, and that he couldn’t read defenses. I don’t know what the evidence is for the former.

    As for the latter, though (his inaccuracy), I will point out this: In college, he threw for 60% completion in two seasons. Then, he goes to Denver, and is under Dan Reeves’ conservative offense. He never throws for over 60% in his time with Reeves.

    However, in 1993, Reeves leaves, Jim Fassel comes in, and he throws for over 60 percent again. I point that out because Fassel was an assistant with Stanford when Elway was there.

    As for Reeves, his offense was called the Edsel System by former Bronco WR Steve Watson. Steve said something once about how Reeves wasn’t concerned about attacking a defense, and how they would only send three receivers out into a pattern a lot of the time. That is probably why John had lower accuracy numbers under Dan. When you have a suspect O-line, and you aren’t sending that many people out to catch a pass, you are going to have trouble throwing it to the right guy.

    Also, you brought up Chris Chandler and Phil Simms, and how they did under Reeves. Simms didn’t put up his best year under Reeves, even though it was good. And, Chandler gives Jerry Rhome the credit for his career turnaround when he worked with him in Houston.

    Reeves was a good coach, especially with discipline and organization, but he shouldn’t have been allowed within 1,000 miles of a team’s offense.

  • This is an extraordinarily well-researched, well-written article. I also agree that the coaching change was *crucial* in Elway’s numbers changing.

  • Brandorf Largon

    Seriously, label the axes on your graphs.

    • Thanks for the comment. I prefer not to.

      • Adam

        Chase, would you be interested in doing an update on Neil’s receiving corps quality experiment? It would be cool to see the yearly breakdown of receiver quality for all of the big name quarterbacks.

  • Clint

    Steve Watson seemed to be a productive receiver for Elway in his first few years. Had 177 yards in a playoff game too!
    I really like this article. Even though it portrays Elway in a decent light (sad face), it is accurate. I don’t feel like many people are aware of how bad he was for all of those years. Like the saying goes “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish”

    • Adam

      When you say Elway was “bad” for all of those years, do you mean that literally or in comparison to his reputation?

      • Clint

        Not sure exactly what I was referring to A YEAR AGO, but his statlines look anywhere from ugly to kindof good until his last few seasons.

        • Adam

          Even as a Broncos fan, I have a hard time reconciling Elway’s stats in comparison to his reputation. He probably is a bit overrated, but still a HoF caliber QB. I think ranking Elway somewhere between 8th and 12th all time is fair.

          • Clint

            As long as he’s not too high.
            Of course, when he became surrounded with good/great players on offense, he started to thrive. Before age 33, I don’t know how he was getting those teams to the playoffs. With those stats, and with SAMMY WINDER AND STEVE SEWELL. Haha.

            • Adam

              Out of curiosity, where would you rank Elway in the historical pantheon on quarterbacks?

              • Clint


                I have done a search on PFR that shows QBs with 2000 passing attempts during Elway’s career. It’s staggering how pedestrian his stats are. 2nd in TD s, but yet middle of the pack in TD%. Statistically, he’s an accumulator. I think it’s hard to put a QB in a pantheon of anything if he’s (hilariously) behind JEFF HOSTETLER in as many categories as he is (Comp%, TD%, INT%, passer rating).

                I also tried to answer my question of how he got those teams to the playoffs. No matter what the box score says, that has to be quite the feat, right?


                His defenses were always very good. Not ’85 Bears or anything, but they were great. Elway mostly just had to not screw it up. Before the age of 33, he was comparable to Bobby Hebert

                (A similar search, but this one stops at 1992, right before Elway started to heat up…..at 33)

                In short, before the age of 33 he was an average starting QB who was given the longest leash in the world partially thanks to a few clutch moments and some great defense. To me, the only great seasons were at the very end of his career. In 1997, he FINALLY played like the HOF QB everyone thinks he had been the entire time.

                We should really question whether he’s a HOF QB or not. Similar to Jim Plunkett and Eli Manning. Other QBs who won 2 Super Bowls, but otherwise had rocky careers. That’s where John Elway deserves to be. The second you look deeper than totals and look at any kind of rating, it’s obvious.

                No matter what, I think we can at least agree that his status is overinflated in comparison to what is should be.

                • Adam

                  Elway level of play and reputation are eerily similar to what we currently have with Andrew Luck. Both #1 picks, and possibly the two most highly touted QB prospects of all time. Both produce mediocre stats, followed by a litany of excuses attempting to justify their tepid production. People insist Luck will end up in the HoF, just like they did with Elway before he proved much of anything. Classic cases of confirmation bias, and people not wanting to let go of their preconceived opinions.

                  Pretty funny that Elway’s career efficiency is behind Hostetler’s 🙂

                  • Clint

                    Him and Luck are definitely similar.
                    Very cute, but obviously that does nothing to negate my points. Disappointing career before his last few seasons. The perception about him is off-base.

                    • Adam

                      I’m saying that we we’ve seen from Luck validates your opinion of Elway. Hype does not always equal results.

                    • John

                      Disappointing career? Elway was the only reason those Bronco teams were in the SB in the 80’s. People like you look way too much at stats, especially completion percentage and rating.

                • Richie

                  In 86 and 87 when the Broncos went to the Super Bowl, SRS says it was the offense that was the stronger side of the ball. (The Broncos were 2-1 in replacement games. Second place Seattle also went 2-1, so I don’t think that had a huge impact.) Those also happened to be the top 2 ANY/A+ seasons of the first decade of Elway’s career (110, 124). In 1989 it looks like it was much more about their defense that got them to the Super Bowl. They had the best DSRS in the league, and only Cleveland came close in the AFC.

                  So I think Elway’s early years were kind of up and down, with the up years leading to Super Bowl appearances. Coupled with many late-game heroics, that is quite a combination to build a HOF resume.

                  And then in the 1990’s (immediately after Reeves left) he really improved his passing efficiency. From 1993-1998, he was 3rd (behind Young and Aikman) in ANY/A+ at 115. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/tiny/EO1mR

                  Compared to the 1984-1992 stretch where he was 23rd with a 102 ANY/A+. (I excluded his atrocious rookie season.)

                  • Clint

                    Like I’ve said, At 33 he finally started to have the Hall of Fame career people choose to remember him for. Maybe Reeves leaving did contribute to that. Never thought of it.

  • Ryanmcel

    Elway was Not responsible for more wins than projections indicate because another stat you didn’t include is that QB’s have a 5% total impact on a game, with 32 positional players each having approximately 3% to do with a win or loss beside him. Of the game’s 145 plays, during Elway’s time, only 65 were one team’s offensive plays and only 30 of those were passes! And of those 30 of the game’s 145 plays where the QB was even involved, those passes still only had 50% to do with the QB himself!- not only that, but ANY NFL QB is competent enough to do at least 50% what the Best QB can do, and that leaves you with an entire 5% impact that a QB has on a win or loss AT Most, if that QB is playing extraordinarily above or below average…so Elway, should not be judged on the 5% impact he had on the games, during his team’s two SB winning seasons, but rather his 79.9 career rating, which was below the 82.1 NFL starting QB average from his era! He was bad by definition!

    • John

      Ryan, passer rating is a whore for completion percentage. In his first 10 years, Elway played in a running offense, basically. Ex-Bronco WR Steve Watson once referred to Reeves’ Dallas offense as the Edsel System, and said that it was more concerned with protection than attacking a defense. QB’s like Montana, Young, and Brady have higher ratings because they were/are playing in these offenses which send four to five WR’s in the pattern on almost every play, and where there are a lot of short passes being thrown.

  • Ryanmcel

    Another thing- FORTH QTR Comebacks ARE NOT a Good thing, people! Sure it’s 50% good- the part that you came back successfully. But you have to be bad to even get in that position in the first place! So good QBs don’t even have a shot at being anywhere close to the top of that list. You have to be extremely average to get a lot of 4th qtr comebacks, as Elway was(82.1 was the average rating from his time…he got 79.9), because if you’re really bad, you get too far behind to come back, and if you’re really good, then you’re ahead by then! So that’s a stat for Average QB’s, not good ones as it’s always presented!
    (also, this article said Elway was clutch in crucial moments, and 90% of everyone remembers him that way. No he wasn’t! No more than anyone else! Does everyone just forget he lost those 4 SB’s before winning ONE due to his merit, and one due to his D carrying him, when his QBing was of the same rating as Manning’s terrible last SB?). He wasn’t very good!

    • Adam

      I agree that 4th quarter comebacks aren’t a reliable indicator of QB skill, but it’s not fair to say a QB has to be “extremely average” to have a lot of comebacks. Do you consider Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Dan Marino extremely average?

  • Ryanmcel

    And one more thing, yet lol….think about this. We always have all these idiots arguing about SB rings- like Favre has one, so he’s good, but no one ever thinks about how Favre, or Anyone who’s even at all above average SHOULD have one if they play at least 16 seasons, just due to longevity odds! There are 32 teams and one team wins each year, right? So after 16 seasons, a player has had a 50% chance at it. So if he is even At All above average, then he should barely push the odds in his teams favor to a 51% likelihood instead of 50% over the course of 16 seasons. So Any QB(or player, period) Should win One single ring in 16 seasons, if they’re even barely above average. It’s Not a feat, like we treat it. It’s the averages.

    • Ryanmcel

      Which is another reason(beside the math I did below to prove a QB has just a 5% impact on his team’s wins) why we should hardly give any weight to rings

    • It’s not quite that simple.

      With 32 teams, there’s a 3.125% chance of each team winning the Super Bowl. Let’s bump that up to 3.333% for a slightly above-average team. In that case, that team has a 96.667% chance of *not* winning the Super Bowl. Therefore, the odds of that team not winning the Super Bowl in 16 straight years is .966667^32, which is 0.581. So there’s only a 42% chance a team that’s slightly above-average each year would win at least one Super Bowl.

  • Mr. Dunwich

    Necro posting, sorry. In response to Brock:

    Elway played with a 1,000-yard rusher 8 times in
    his career. Montana played with 4. Marino played with 1. ((Both Montana and
    Marino played in systems which stressed passing (especially Marino), Reeves ran
    a conservative Smashmouth system which favored the run. Going further still, Reeves failed at getting
    top shelf running backs that could make a run-first Smashmouth successful. Afterall, four of those eight 1,000-yard
    seasons came from Davis, and going further, a running back who has one or two
    1,000-yard seasons does not equal “talented” or
    “great”. Collectively, Winder,
    Humphrey, and Green (all with at least one 1,000-yard season in Denver)
    averaged 3.9 Y/A while playing for Denver.
    If they were a single person, they would rank very low on the all-time
    Y/A list (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/rush_yds_per_att_career.htm)))

    Elway’s running game’s average rank was 13th.
    Montana’s was also 13th. Marino’s was 22nd. ((Again, as mentioned above
    “run-first” system, which makes that 13th place look even worse. Further,
    John Elway routinely added two or three hundred yards of rushing each season,
    as well as an average of 2 TD’s a season to it))

    Elway played with 11 1,000-yard receivers.
    Montana played with 8. Marino played with 12. ((Ughh….Montana’s career as an active starter was much shorter, 12 seasons as opposed to Elway/Marino with 16 seasons. Further, a receiver or rusher getting a thousand yards in a season does not necessarily equal a great player. So this continual throwing out of simplistic stats means little. However to humor you…..From 83′ to 92′, only three
    receivers gained 1,000-yards. Elway’s
    primary targets prior to Sharpe were Watson, Jackson, and Johnson. Their career weighted AV’s puts them at
    1538th overall (Watson), 1926th (Jackson), 1690th (Johnson). Once Elway moved out of the terrible system
    Reeve’s had in place and moved to a much better system (West Coast), he
    connected with Miller and Sharpe for 1,000-yard seasons (94′), Miller (95′),
    Sharpe (96′), Sharpe and Smith (97′), Smith and McCaffrey (98′).))

    Elway played with 4 receivers who rank in the
    top-100 in receiving touchdowns. Montana played with 1. Marino played with 5.
    ((Why do you think these simplistic numbers mean anything? Seriously, does the fact that McCaffrey eeked his way into the top 100 mean anything? He is somehow better with his 55 TD’s than Antonio Brown with his measly 50? Are you really trying to argue Ed McCaffrey is anywhere in the same league as Jerry Rice, just because they are
    in the top 100 of receiving TD’s? Or that because they aren’t in the top 100 it invalidates Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, or Roger Craig? They somehow become lesser players? Let’s continue on with this simplistic game your playing.
    Though I did not say it earlier, Elway did not get receiving talent until
    Sharpe came along, and was not able to utilize that talent until Reeve’s was
    fired. So all these numbers are
    meaningless when you consider that Montana and Marino had receiving talent from
    the get-go and were allowed to actually use them from the get-go. Again, four receivers who he got late in his
    career (really late if you count when Smith and McCaffrey actually attained
    1,000-yard seasons) and lo-and-behold his numbers become not only similar, but
    superior, to Montana and Marino in that same period of time. Strange, when he had talent and an offensive
    system which allowed him to actually pass, he was as good as the best
    quarterbacks of the time….strange indeed.))

    Elway played with 4 of FBP’s 150 greatest
    receivers of all-time. Montana played with 2. Marino played with 5. ((Again, more simplistic and selective nonsense here. Because 4 of Elway’s receivers made it in, where as only two of Montana’s did, Elway
    had a more blessed career talent wise? Montana had Jerry
    Rice for six highly productive seasons, Elway only had Anthony Miller for two (maybe 3), Smith for 2, McCaffrey for 1. Since you are fond of using simplistic measures and stats, this must clearly mean Rice was worth more than all 3 of those receivers combined? Right? So we have just cut the list down to 2 for Elway; Sharpe and The Three Headed Beast “MiSmMc”.
    Let’s not stop being selective though, why stop at FBP’s top 150, let’s also focus on FBP’s best single seasons by those receivers. In the Top 50 seasons (being selective, because clearly it’s how you debate), Montana had Rice post 3 seasons, and Clark post 1. Elway had zero, and Marino had 1 season from Clayton. Conclusions? Stop using simplistic measures.
    The fact is, Montana through the vast majority of his career had talented receivers, and running backs who were used frequently and exceptionally in the receiving role. He further had the freedom to actually use them. It wasn’t until 1993 through 1998 that Elway had truly talented receivers and the

    freedom from a restrictive Smashmouth offense and a coach who hated him, to actually
    use those receivers.))

    Elway played with 5 targets in the top-100 in
    “QB WOWY” (including Nos. 1 and 2). Montana played with 5. Marino
    played with 3. ((Elway’s greatest seasons, 93-98, were the result of switching
    to a West Coast system which allowed him to pass in a system far more conducive
    to passing, than a super conservative, run-first, pass restrictive Smashmouth
    system that Reeve’s ran. The WOWY really
    failed to grasp that.))

    Elway played with 4 targets in the top-100 in
    True Receiving Yards. Montana played with 1. Marino played with 5. ((Volume
    stats…..yawn. Yet again, Smith and
    McCaffrey weren’t truly productive until the last couple years of Elway’s
    career. Further still, Smith generated only roughly 24% of his total career receiving yards, with Elway as the QB throwing to him. Along with McCaffrey and Miller, the three picked up 8385 combined yds with Elway as the QB. Rice picked up 7866 yds with Montana, just 519 yds shy of what three receivers produced under Elway. Roger Craig picked up 4442 receiving yds during Montana’s time as the starting QB in SFO, more than the individual outputs of Smith, McCaffrey, or Miller, by more than a thousand yards in each of the three cases.
    So what have you learned? That the simple stats, especially those based on volume, that you’re throwing around don’t directly equate to how good the players were? Or to how much they truly provided to any of these QB’s?))

    Elway was backed by 3 offensive teammates in the
    PFHOF. Montana was backed by 3. Marino was backed by 1. ((Montana had one of the
    top 5 greatest coaches of all-time, using one of the greatest offensive and
    passing systems ever created, a system which was revolutionary for the 80’s,
    throwing to the arguably greatest receiver of all-time, backed up with one of
    the best dual-threat backs of all-time and an excellent, do-it-all FB, had a
    future HOFer as a backup QB, and had, thanks to George Siefert, the
    consistently best defense of the 80’s and 90’s, loaded with defensive talent
    (Lott & Haley to name a couple, coincidentally HoFers).
    Montana had all of that for the majority of his career. Elway had nothing even remotely comparable
    under Reeve’s. Further, Elway did not have Sharpe until 90′, Zimmerman until 93′, and Davis until 95′. To even suggest his career was loaded with talent throughout even half of it, is absurd, especially when comparing against Montana’s.))

    Those are the facts and they are
    incontrovertible. ((Any time someone says “incontrovertible”, when
    it’s not a discussion about scientifically proven things, really makes me

    (2) As for Reeves, scapegoating him for Elway’s
    decade of mediocrity doesn’t hold water. Not when Reeves failed to have the
    same fantasized deleterious affect on Simms, Chandler, and Vick—all of whom
    thrived in his system and under his tutelage. ((Chandler did not thrive as you
    state, in fact his last three seasons under Reeve’s were stagnant. Simms played one season under Reeve’s, hardly
    compelling evidence, but I will play along with it. I would rate Simms’s 84, 87, and 90 seasons
    as better. Given this, was it Reeves leadership or was it Simms simply doing
    good? Further, if Reeve’s coaching and systems were so
    good, why did Dave Brown fail to flourish, and the Giants end up with a losing
    win rate under Reeve’s? Reeve’s record
    in Atlanta was also a losing record.
    Speaking of Vick, under Reeve’s his completion percentage was 49.7%, TD%
    3.2, AY/A of 6.1, and rating of 71.1.
    Thriving under Reeve’s tutelage huh? Then why was Vick’s numbers markedly better in Philly? 58.7% cmp, 4.2% TD, 7.5 AY/A, and 87.4 rating.))

    Beyond that, every Denver Super Bowl team in the
    ’80s also featured a top-10 defense. ((Every Superbowl team Montana had, his
    defense ranked top-10, 3 of those teams ranked top-3, and on average were
    ranked 3.5 in the league over those 4 seasons.
    Further, every team Montana went to the Superbowl with, were top-10
    offensively, with an average league rank of 4.25. The 49ers Defenses held up in those
    Superbowls, where as the Broncos D crumbled terribly. So regardless of what the Broncos-D achieved
    in the regular season, they weren’t as good in reality as they were on paper.))

    The ’80s Broncos were well-balanced and Elway had
    plenty of help, on both sides of the ball. ((They were balanced yes, no debating
    that, but balanced and phenomenal are two separate things. Montana had phenomenal teams on both sides of
    the ball. Elway had adequately balanced,
    and the Broncos won by a combination of clock control and keeping the game
    close, with Elway often times being the deciding factor in getting the late
    game scoring drive done.))

    (4) One also wonders why, if Elway had such
    mystical powers to “elevate” his teammates and conjure Super Bowl
    berths from supposed mediocrity, those abilities mysteriously abandoned him in
    the actual Super Bowl. I suppose they had a mid-January expiration date.

    Or maybe those Broncos teams were actually very
    good relative to a historically-weak AFC and that’s why they made it to three
    Super Bowls? And that once they got there, they were simply overmatched by
    superior foes from the NFC? ((Why did you answer your own question, and further
    invalidate some of your argument above?
    Your hostility for this football player is profound enough that you are
    screwing up your own argument. You admit
    that the Broncos teams under Dan Reeves weren’t great relative to the NFC teams
    and thus were better on paper than reality, but yet your whole argument is that
    Elway had great teams throughout his career (and thus under Dan Reeves as
    well)? Further, did you even watch those
    games? The Broncos Defense was utterly
    destroyed in all three of those Superbowls.
    Even the magical Montana or Brady are not going to win if their defense
    gives up 39, 42, and 55 points. Elway
    was doing pretty well against the Giants, but his defense was so weak that
    Simms went on to have one of the most perfect performances of a QB in Superbowl
    history, he almost had a 100% completion rate!
    Against the Redskins, again Elway was doing okay, and then his defense crumbles
    and gives up 35 points in a SINGLE QUARTER! Can’t blame him for not regaining his composure after that quarter.
    Against the 49ers, the defense yet again fell completely apart, giving up roughly 14 points in each of the
    four quarters. The 49ers scored 5
    passing TD’s and 3 Rushing TD’s!

    1940, there have been 1487 teams that have given up 39 or more points in a
    game, guess how many won those games?
    Coincidentally, 39. That is a win
    rate of only 2.7%. At 42 or more points
    scored, it drops to 1.5%, and at 55 or more it drops to exactly 0%. It doesn’t matter who the QB is, there is
    extremely little to no chance of overcoming those odds.))

    I am sorry Brock, but whatever nasty hatred of
    Elway and/or the Broncos that you have, is clearly clouding your vision. You clearly can’t separate your intelligence
    from your emotion, and have rendered your argument invalid. That argument states that Elway had lots of
    talent around him throughout his career, but evidence clearly points to that
    not being the case.

    His stats suffered when he had to exist under
    Reeves, a coach who publicly did not like him and drafted backs instead of
    better O-line players or better receivers, and who even went so far as to draft
    Maddox while Elway was still relatively young.

    This paints a picture of a coach, who along with
    his losing records with two different teams (NYG,ATL) over 11 seasons, was
    clearly a bad coach. Shula adapted his
    offense to Marino’s strengths, because Shula was a great coach who recognized
    talent, and wasn’t so stubborn, proud, and inflexible as to force Marino into a
    system he clearly wasn’t meant for. That
    is exactly what Reeves did with Elway.

    He wanted to run a conservative traditional
    Smashmouth system which was outdated even by the 80’s, picks up one of the most
    athletic and talented QB’s of all-time, whose strength was in the passing game at Stanford,
    and instead of adapt his system around this young talent, he forces him into
    this stifling system for 10 seasons and keeps primarily drafting players which
    weren’t directly helpful to the QB’s passing ability.
    Is it any wonder that Elway’s passing stats suck so terribly in this period? Marino had Shula and some receiving talent
    from the get go, Montana had Walsh and some receiving talent from the get
    go. Both offensive systems stressed
    passing and were high-power systems which outscored the Broncos (from 83 to 87)
    by 72 points (SFO) and 66 points (MIA).

    A run-first system by itself isn’t bad for a QB, but
    one that is extremely conservative and is designed solely around clock control,
    is anything but helpful however, especially when that system fails to actually offer up any talented running backs.

    systems use dynamic and explosive running to help open up the passing game, but
    that is not what Reeve’s system produced in the end.
    Despite being run focused, he failed at finding talented and
    lasting backs for his system, or creating a powerful defense. To have a truly successful Smashmouth, you
    have to have a great running game and a great defense, otherwise it fails to
    truly produce. Another nail in the
    coffin for Elway.

    You kept bringing up Montana and Marino, so let’s
    delve deeper shall we. Montana had one
    of the greatest coaches of all-time (in my personal top 5 list), who was a QB
    coach early on and was influential on Ken Anderson previously (who went on to
    be, for his time, one of the most accurate passers). When he got to San Francisco after having
    tested his systems at Stanford, he installed a revolutionary offensive system
    which would dominate the league for the next two decades, and inspire most all
    systems in the current era. It was a
    passing system first and foremost, designed around short to mid field passing
    to help open up the run game and open up the deep passing, while also minimizing the need for strong arm quarterbacks. There is likely no other system as relatively
    efficient and dominate as it was in the 80’s (and 90’s honestly), with
    exception to possibly a T-Formation system upon first introduction.

    This is the system to which Montana was put into, a system to which Walsh had contemplated acquiring Elway for. Those who don’t do their research, won’t understand why Walsh was somewhat keen on Elway. To shed some light on it though, Walsh went to Stanford to test out and refine the passing system, and ultimately offensive system, that he had put into motion many years earlier with Cincinnati, and to which he would reintroduce in a better format in the NFL upon becoming the HC of the 49’ers. He went to Stanford as the head coach, because (by his account anyways) he felt that he was being blacklisted based upon Paul Brown’s dislike of him. Brown of course, had passed up Walsh for the HC job with the Bengals, and Walsh struggled to get into that role within the confines of the NFL. He eventually managed to become the HC for Stanford, where he had previously worked briefly as an assistant coach in his early years. Here he tested his systems and was successful with them, picking up two Bowl wins. After leaving Stanford for the 49’ers, Walsh continued to watch Stanford play, which is of course where Elway enters the picture. Walsh watched as Elway went on to become, by some accounts, the greatest Collegiate QB to have played the game (to that point in time).
    Elway had all the necessary athleticism and skill to fit Walsh’s system, and he had the 4th highest career Cmp% upon the end of his college career.
    This is why Walsh had contemplated, at least a little, as to trading Montana (who had won a Superbowl in 81′) for Elway. Walsh’s belief in Elway eventually became a reality, when an older Elway was finally able to switch to a West Coast system upon the removal of Reeve’s. In 93′, under Phillips and without Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, Terrel Davis, or Mike Shannahan, Elway had arguably the most efficient season of his career as a passer. Passing/Offensive Systems matter people!

    Back to Montana, he had been a previously uninspiring college QB, but
    quickly gained success in the new “West Coast” system, having been
    taught the footwork and system by Walsh.
    He started out his career with Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark, both
    pretty decent receivers. He would
    shortly into his career as a starter, get Roger Craig, one of the best
    dual-back threats to have played the game.
    Eventually, the 49ers would pull in arguably one of, if not the
    greatest, receiver to have played the game of football. Montana was not without offensive talent at
    any point of his career in San Francisco, his O-Lines weren’t considered the
    best, but they were never really considered bad. Hell, his backup QB would become a future
    HOFer. Further still, when Walsh brought
    in Defensive Coordinator George Siefert, Siefert would go on to create a
    roughly two decade dynasty of excellent defenses, with Ronnie Lott as the star
    defenseman. Only Bill Cowler’s
    90’s/2000’s Steelers have a claim on best “two-decade defense”.

    From the get go Montana was setup to succeed both
    in terms of winning and putting up excellent stats. He was in a system conducive to quality
    passing, which created accurate passers, and which rewarded already accurate
    passers. He had talent all-around him in
    San Francisco, on both sides of the ball.
    The 49ers ranked #1 overall in offensive points in the league, from 82′ through
    98′. They also ranked #1 overall in fewest
    points allowed from 83′ to 98′.

    Marino certainly did not have it so lucky. He did have Don Shula, who might not have been
    as magical as he was when younger, but was still a great coach who understood
    how to win (regular season anyways….).
    He adapted his previously more run focused Dolphins around the talent of
    Dan Marino’s arm and vision, and lo and behold, they were very successful
    especially in the early years. However,
    Shula failed to build a great team around Marino, something that Montana never
    lacked. The Mark’s Brothers worked
    exceptionally well with Marino, but he had no great or consistent backs that
    could help take some of the pressure off his shoulders. He had pretty solid O-Lines, which were a
    necessity given Marino’s lack of mobility and Miami’s lack of a run game, which
    made defensive planning against the Dolphins easier for opposing teams.

    Further, Miami lacked a great defense through
    Marino’s years. They were at best
    average. Given this it is easy to
    understand why the best part of Marino’s career is the first half of it, the
    lack of tools and weapons hadn’t yet slowed him down, and he thrived in the ‘Shula
    System’. As the years went on though, he
    became less and less impressive. Still
    though, early on he succeeded like very few others because he had receiving
    talent and the love of a legendary coach, who was keen on adapting his system
    to Marino’s strengths.

    That gets us back to John Elway. What did he have under Dan Reeves? A Bad coach?
    Check. A stubborn/prideful/inflexible/unimaginative
    coach? Check. A coach who actively worked against him? Check.
    An offensive system not conducive to passing? Check.
    A failed offensive system because it lacked quality backs, despite that
    being a required strength? Check. A defense which was great in conference, but
    failed miserably in post-season play against NFC teams?
    Check. Three receivers that a non-Bronco fan could likely name, two of which did not actually get going until the very end of his career? Check. An O-Line that was suspect
    through many years? Check.

    So what did Elway achieve in those years? Wins.
    His passing stats weren’t great, it’s clear to see, but if you still
    fail to see why, then I feel genuinely sorry for you.

    Elway won, his drive to win was palpable, and the
    reason he had so many 4QC’s and GWD’s speaks both to the failure of Reeve’s
    failed offensive system, and to Elway’s need to win. He was often only let loose when the game was
    near completion and on the line, forced to overcome what Reeves had sowed.

    Yet what happened when he was finally freed from
    Reeve’s coaching and put into a pass friendly system? His stats skyrocketed from what they were
    under Reeve’s, and it didn’t happen solely in 95 through 98, when Elway would
    finally have all the talent he needed to go all the way and win the big
    one. No, it started in 93 and continued
    through the rest of his career.
    Offensive systems, coaches, and the collective teams, mean so much more
    than stat heads and other casual observers understand.

    Elway was finally allowed to play in a system (West Coast)
    worthy of his talents , and under a coach (Phillips and eventually Shannahan)
    who did not stymie him or actively work against him. As such, the numbers speak for themselves.

    Elway w/Reeves:
    CMP= 54.4%, TD= 3.6%, INT= 3.8%, TDtoINT Ratio= 1.0, AY/A= 6.0, Passer
    Rating= 72.9

    Elway w/o Reeves:
    CMP= 60.0%, TD= 4.95%, INT= 2.4%, TDtoINT Ratio= 2.05, AY/A= 7.2, Passer
    Rating= 89.1

    It didn’t end there though, all of the boosted
    stats were similar in the playoffs/championships;

    Under Reeves:
    12 games started, 369 Att, 51.74% CMP, 2896yds, 16 TDs, 16 INTs, 6.4
    AY/A, 72.4 Rating

    Without Reeves:
    9 games started, 267 Att, 59.5% CMP, 1945yds, 11 TDs, 4 INTs, 7.3 AY/A,
    90.4 Rating.

    Is it not clear yet, how stifling Reeves
    was? Elway was arguably the 2nd
    or 3rd best QB in the league, behind only the ridiculously great
    Steve Young and possibly the young Favre, in the combined seasons of 93 through
    98. He was better than Marino, Moon,
    Kelly, Montana, Favre, Aikman, Esiason, Testaverde, George, Chandler, Everett,
    Harbaugh, Gannon, Cunningham, Testaverde, Bledsoe, etc.

    If his career stats were only the 93 through 98
    seasons, they would compare favorably to the career stats of the other greatest
    QB’s of all-time like Montana.

    Under the same conditions, honestly, how can you
    without claiming bias, argue that another QB would have put up great stats in
    Elways position? Belichik works with
    Brady. Shula worked with Marino. Walsh worked with Montana, and so on. They did not force their QB’s into systems to which they would suffer, but instead taught them systems to work with, and adapted the systems around their strengths. Take Tom Brady and throw him into a traditional West Coast system that will require him to scramble and run, and see what you get. Then give him a coach who he does not like and who does not like him, and see what you get. If you really think he will have the same results (wins & stats) like he does under Belichik in New England, then Vishnu help you.

    Dan Reeve’s worked against John Elway. Yet Elway still won, and would go on to have
    a better last 3rd of his career than nearly any other QB in history (there are
    very few), having exceptional stats in the years free of Reeve’s, plus two
    super bowl championships, and one superbowl MVP. Haters gonna hate.