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Today’s guest post comes from hscer, a frequent commenter here at Football Perspective. Hscer is starting a project on his website, MVPQB.Blogspot.com, where he is working on his most valuable quarterback for each season since 1951. Here’s a sample chapter today: as always, we thank our guest posters for their contributions.

“Say What?” – Was Ken O’Brien really better than Dan Marino at any point in time? For one season, he at least had an argument.

The Stats

Marino (AP1): 336-567 (59.3%) 4137 yards (7.30 y/a) 30 TD 21 INT, 84.1 rating, sacked 18-157, 6.21 ANY/A, 12-4 record in starts (4 4QB, 6 GWD). Rushing: -24 yards on 26 attempts (-0.9 avg.), 0 TD, 9 fumbles.

O’Brien (MVQB): 297-488 (60.9%) 3888 yards (7.97 y/a) 25 TD 8 INT, 96.2 rating, sacked 62-399, 6.60 ANY/A, 11-5 record in starts (1 4QC, 1 GWD). Rushing: 58 yards on 25 attempts (2.3 avg., 0 TD, 14 fumbles.

The Argument

Yes, really. Even though Ken O’Brien took far too many sacks in ’85—62 to be exact, losing 399 yards—when he got the ball off, he was better than Marino. Even when he didn’t, his passing edge was large enough to secure a higher ANY/A than The Man in Miami. Dan Fouts was another reasonable selection despite missing four games by throwing for 3638 yards and 27 TD with a league-leading 7.02 ANY/A in the games he did play, but this year comes down to Marino and O’Brien.

Dan Marino was coming off of the greatest season an NFL quarterback has ever enjoyed in 1984, still the best ever in my opinion. This likely helped his cause. It didn’t help O’Brien’s cause that he had one of the ugliest season debuts you can imagine. In a 31-0 loss to the Raiders, he was 16-29 for 192 yards, 0 TD, 2 interceptions, and sacked a whopping 10 times for -61 yards, producing an adjusted net yards per attempt of 1.05. In the final 15 games, his ANY/A was 7.14, but the first game counts all the same.

When comparing these two, it’s easy to think about how the Jets and Dolphins had some ridiculous shootouts in the 80’s.1 Well, 1985 was not a year that featured one; the Jets won 23-7 in New York first and then the Dolphins won 21-17 in Miami. O’Brien arguably outclassed Marino in both games:

  • October 14: O’Brien 18-28-239-1-0, sacked 1-7; Marino 13-23-136-0-1, sacked 1-10
  • November 10: O’Brien 26-43-393-2-0, sacked 5-22; Marino 21-37-362-3-3, sacked 3-15

Despite the head-to-head outcomes, passer rating and ANY/A are O’Brien’s main arguments.

Since sacks were an issue for O’Brien and rarely for Marino, you might expect far more fumbles for O’Brien. But while O’Brien had 14,2 Marino had 9 of his own despite being sacked just 18 times.3 Counting a fumble as half a turnover, O’Brien had a 2.6% turnover rate compared to 4.2% for Marino.4 The same method gives O’Brien a 1.67-1 (25-15) TD-to-turnover ratio vs. 1.18-1 (30-25.5) for Marino.

For a short period of time, O’Brien looked like the next great member of the class of ’83.

While O’Brien was sacked a lot throughout his career (8.9% of the time), his sack rates were never too much in excess of those of his backups in spot duty. Pat Ryan, his main backup, was very good at avoiding sacks (although they were sacked at about equal rates in 1984, Ryan’s largest one-season sample size); his other backups, not so much. Troy Taylor, Kyle Mackey, and Tony Eason took 16 sacks on 125 dropbacks during O’Brien’s time as the main starter, from 1985-91.5 In that same period, not a single Jets offensive lineman made the Pro Bowl. The cause and effect of O’Brien’s sack numbers is tough to untangle, although anecdotally the Jets offensive line was below-average during those years.6

In 1985 specifically, O’Brien’s offensive line was:

  • LT Reggie McElroy, who missed five games and was moved to right tackle the next season
  • LG Jim Sweeney, a second-year player at the time who ended up never missing a game from 1985-95
  • C Joe Fields, a 1982 Pro Bowler who after 1985 would start 19 more games in 3 more seasons with the Jets and Giants
  • RG Dan Alexander, who started 183 games from 1977-89 but never made a Pro Bowl
  • and RT Marvin Powell, a 5-time Pro Bowler from 1979-83 but who was in his final season as a starting lineman, and would only start 3 games for the 1986 Buccaneers.

Marino had two Pro Bowl linemen in 1985, LG Roy Foster and legendary center Dwight Stephenson. Marino gets a lot of well-deserved credit for his ability to avoid the sack, but the Dolphins were also the least sacked team in 1982 and ’83.7 Miami definitely had the better line than the Jets in 1985, although by just how much is less clear.

The rest of this chapter might sound a lot like an argument for Marino. This season is killing me.

Marino was throwing more to overcome a weaker defense. Miami allowed 5.6 yards per play and 320 points; the Jets only 4.8 and 264, respectively.8

Freeman McNeil ran for 1331 yards on a 4.5 average for the Jets while Tony Nathan led the Dolphins with 667 yards, but this isn’t as major an issue as it might seem. Even though the Jets ran the ball far more often, they did it with about equal effectiveness to the Dolphins. How each team’s non-quarterbacks ran the ball:

  • Miami 416 attempts, 1759 yards (4.23 average), 19 TD, 22 fumbles.
  • New York 536 attempts, 2259 yards (4.21 average), 18 TD, 21 fumbles.

Miami fumbled the ball somewhat more often but the yards per carry are effectively identical. That said, Marino clearly was the driver of Miami’s team. O’Brien, with a defense that allowed 16.5 points a game and a team that ran the ball 33.5 times a game, had less to do. That can’t be an explanation for why he ended up more efficient, but it probably helped.

As for the receivers, Al Toon was a rookie and Wesley Walker missed four games, while Mark Clayton had a down year (996 yards in 16 games) and Mark Duper missed seven games. Neither quarterback was operating with a full-capacity passing attack.

Recap: Miami had the better offensive line. The receiving corps were about equal. New York had the better defense and running game, or at least an equally effective but more-used one. Quarterback? The numbers are divided; circumstantial evidence would determine the answer. In this situation, I’m going with the better ANY/A—for now.

I got so deep in the weeds for 1985 I even looked at how often each team kicked.9

The quarterback isn’t wholly responsible for how often a team doesn’t convert on third down, but the Jets punted 74 times and the Dolphins only 59. The Jets also attempted more field goals, 34 for Pat Leahy to 27 for Fuad Reveiz. This would appear to be another point in Miami’s favor.

I would counter that how often the teams resorted to kicking may well be a function of New York running the ball much more often. Considering the effectiveness of their 1985 passing game, perhaps if they had thrown the ball more often, they’d have avoided some third downs, made more manageable third downs, and/or converted more third downs. (Or maybe O’Brien would have taken another sack.)

I might change my mind regarding this selection. Despite committing more turnovers per play, Marino averaged 0.6 more yards per pass play on 35 more dropbacks. It is utterly inarguable that Marino was the more established quarterback entering 1985 and went on to have the better career.

For now, however, Ken O’Brien is your MVQB for 1985.

Signature Game: November 17, 1985: The Jets annihilate the Buccaneers, 62-28. Two early Steve DeBerg touchdown passes give Tampa Bay a 14-0 lead. From there, the onslaught is on. By halftime, the Jets are ahead, 41-21, behind 4 O’Brien scoring passes. O’Brien then throws his fifth, longest (78 yards), and final touchdown of the day to Al Toon in the third quarter to open the second half scoring. On the day, O’Brien is 23 of 30 for 367 yards.

  1. The greatest of those shootouts had to be the game of September 21, 1986. New York defeated Miami in overtime, 51-45. O’Brien had 479 yards and 4 touchdowns (1 interception), all of the scores to Wesley Walker, while Marino went for 448 yards and 6 scores (2 INT) to 5 different receivers. The Jets also won by scores of 44-30 and 38-34 in 1988. []
  2. Somehow, this total did not even lead O’Brien’s city. His counterpart in New York, Phil Simms, led the league with 16 fumbles. []
  3. I’ve begun to wonder whether Marino got sacked so rarely because he knew he was fumble prone. []
  4. The numerator here is interceptions + half the fumble total. The denominator is pass attempts + times sacked + rushing attempts. []
  5. This excludes replacement QB David Norrie. []
  6. For what it’s worth, there is a YouTube video out there of a 1985 Jets-Patriots game. On a couple sacks, O’Brien shows a decent ability to elude the first pass rusher, but still doesn’t have a receiver to unload the ball to, and gets sacked by the second rusher. There are also some plays where he has time but no receivers and just gets sacked by the first man there who finally broke through. It would be nice to have All-22 footage to see if O’Brien was really taking coverage sacks, or simply not taking advantage of narrower passing lanes. Either way, it doesn’t seem leaving the pocket and throwing the ball away is ever much of an option. However, I don’t want to base too many opinions off of one game. []
  7. And to be fair, in 1983, Marino was sacked far less than David Woodley or Don Strock had been. []
  8. The QB who really overcame an awful defense in ’85 was Fouts. He started in wins of 44-41, 40-34, and 54-44 as well as losses of 49-35 and 37-35—playing a couple extra games could really have helped his cause. Overall, San Diego ranked 1st in points scored and 25th in points allowed in 1985. []
  9. The only time that’s happened. This project is not supposed to be a 500-page opus. []
  • WR

    For the Signature Games feature, I would suggest highlighting performances against tougher competition. For the 2000 Peyton Manning article, you chose an impressive game against a bad Jacksonville defense. In this case, I’m sure O’Brien looked great against Tampa Bay, but that team finished last in the league in net yards per attempt allowed.

    • I looked for those kinds of games first and if none particularly stood out, I went for a demolition, which is what should happen against weaker teams anyway. In this specific case, while the Bucs were bad in ’85, it turns out nobody did to them what O’Brien did, let alone in just over a half: http://pfref.com/tiny/Yibab

  • sacramento gold miners

    No doubt, O’Brien has a strong case for the MVP in 1985. Beating the Bears decisively really must have helped Dan Marino that season. Chicago had thrashed Joe Montana, and were unbeaten heading into that Monday Night showdown.

  • Richie

    How do you have time for a guest post, between posting 3 new Sporcle quizzes every day?!?!?!

  • Richie

    It looks like Marino wasn’t a bad fumbler. Amongst the 79 QB’s with 3,000+ pass attempts since the merger, Marino is the 17th least-frequent fumbler. Marino fumbled once every 78 dropbacks.

    Peyton Manning was best (by a pretty good margin) at once every 125 dropbacks.

    Manning 125
    Tarkenton 115
    Ryan 108
    Montana 107
    Stafford 98
    Brady 80
    Marino 78
    Warner 42
    Dilfer 41
    Krieg 37
    Vick 36
    Culpepper 34

    • Richie

      OK, I guess most fumbles probably happen during sacks. So, comparing fumbles to sacks, Marino doesn’t look so good. Only Kerry Collins fumbled more often.

      Collins fumbled once every 2.4 sacks, and Marino fumbled once ever 2.5 sacks.

      Theismann was the best:

      Theismann 8.1
      Ken Anderson 7.7
      Tarkenton 7.4
      Plunkett 6.1
      Morton 6.1
      Manning 3.9
      Brady 3.9
      Esiason 2.6
      McNair 2.6
      Warner 2.5
      Marino 2.5
      Collins 2.4

      • Josh Sanford

        It cracks me up that they have this term for a sack/fumble when we all know that if you have been sacked, that means your knee has touched the ground, and if your knee has touched the ground, you cannot be charged with a fumble. You heard it here: the sack/fumble is a ruse!

        • Richie

          Haha agreed. That’s always kind of bugged me.

          • Josh Sanford

            Causing a fumble behind the line of scrimmage is wrecking a special kind of havoc, but we don’t have to pretend that it was also a sack. It wasn’t. (And soon someone will point out that the sneaky NFL has a rule that a ‘sack’ is not just when the QB gets tackled behind the LOS, but also includes any bad non-pass outcome for the QB.)

  • Richie

    For anybody else wondering, Marcus Allen was the AP MVP in 1985. (hscer’s articles are only looking at QB’s.)

    Also, Joe Montana had a down year (for him). The team went 10-6 and lost the division to the Rams. Montana posted a 6.36 ANY/A and 91.3 passer rating, which were both below his eventual career averages.

    • Mark Growcott

      I know Allen was MVP but I would like to know how the voting went, who else garnered votes? Unfortunately I only have details of MVP voting going back to the 2000 season.

      • Richie

        I don’t know if this is accurate, but I found this site: https://mvpvoting.wordpress.com/1981-1990/

        They have Allen with 33 votes and Walter Payton with 25. Roger Craig and Marino had an unknown number of votes.

        If true, I am surprised Eric Dickerson didn’t get any votes. The Rams went 11-5 and got the #2 seed in the NFC, with Dieter Brock at QB. Dickerson ran for 1200 yards and 12 TD, though it looks like the Rams’ strength was their defense.

        • Mark Growcott

          Fantastic, thanks. Given there were probably approx. 80 votes up for grabs, then Marino and Craig would have shared roughly 22 between them given there supposedly was no one else. Craig of course became the first player to have 1000 Yds both Rushing and Receiving in a Season.

  • kevin trammo

    As a Jets fan, who also was a big Ken O’Brien fan, I think he should have been in the conversation possibly for that season, but too many things I think eliminate him. The Jets were 3rd in rushing yards allowed, 2nd in rushing yards per attempt allowed and 3 in points allowed, so the defense was above average that year. The Jets O-Line, while not as good as Miami’s was still pretty solid. Sweeney (who was Marino’s center in college at Pitt) was an extremely steady player for most of his Jets career as was Dan Alexander. Powell and Fields may have been on the downside of their careers but still very good. Remember, Powell and McElroy were both holding out week 1 when the Jets got crushed 31-0 at the Raiders, and O’Brien was sacked 10 times that game, which convinced the Jets to get both McElroy and Powell under contract before week 2. Wesley Walker missed that game as well. So Kenny did get quite a bit of help around him. Also, the thanksgiving day loss to the mediocre Lions was particularly disturbing. O’Brien got sacked 7 times by a Lions team that had only 38 sacks in the other 15 games combined. At some point some of the blame has to be put on Kenny as well. I will always be a huge O’Brien fan, and feel he gets dismissed a bit due being drafted in the same class with 3 HOF QBs but I can only back him up so far.

  • Jack Stavely

    Hahaha.were you bored or stoned? Nobody gives a rat’s ass about Ken O’Brien. not even Jet fans

  • Ryan

    Thanks for the good stuff again hscer, a fun and enlightening read.

  • While he was certainly not Dan Marino in his career, Ken O’Brien seems to me to get mistreated historically. He was a solidly above-average quarterback in spite of his proclivity for taking sacks–he just didn’t last too long.

    It does also tell you something about how good Marino was that he put up those numbers in a relatively down season.

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