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
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- 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. [↩]