# The Best Playoff Quarterbacks In The Super Bowl Era

by on January 28, 2014

On Friday, I explained the idea behind Playoff Leverage. That post is required reading before diving in today, but the summary is that the Super Bowl counts for more than the conference championship games, which count for more than the division round games, which count for more than the wild card games. The value that is assigned to each game — the Super Bowl is currently worth 3.14 times as much as the average playoff game — is then used to adjust the stats of the players in those games.

For quarterbacks, the main stat used to measure passing performance is Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. In case you forgot, ANY/A is defined as

$PassYards+20*PassTDs-45*INTs-SackYards)/(Attempts+Sacks)$

Today, we’re going to look at every quarterback since 1966. Players like Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas who played before 1966 will count, but their stats from 1965 and earlier will not be included. This obviously is a serious disservice to Starr in particular, but for now, I’m going to only focus on the Super Bowl era.

Joe Cool earned his playoff reputation.

Comparing across eras requires an era adjustment, and ideally, an adjustment for opponent strength. Fortunately, we can do that in one step: for each quarterback, he only receives positive grades for the ANY/A provided by that passer above expectation, which is defined as the average ANY/A allowed by the opposing defense in that year. Then we adjust for leverage and give credit for yards provided above (or below) average.

The table below shows the 105 quarterbacks to start at least three playoff games since 1966.1 You will not be surprised to see Joe Montana on the top of the list. Let me walk you through his line to make sure you understand how to read the table. Montana ranks 1st in this system, and started 23 games in his playoff career, going 16-7. He completed 460 of 734 passes for 5,772 yards, and had a 45/21 touchdown to interception ratio. He was sacked 44 times for 268 yards. He had 778 total attempts in his playoff career, which includes sacks. The average Leverage of each pass attempt in his postseason career was 1.21. Based on the defenses he faced, he would have been expected to average 4.34 ANY/A. However, based on the stats he produced, he actually averaged 7.95 ANY/A. That means Montana produced 3.61 ANY/A over average; over 778 attempts, that means Montana provided 2,812 of yards over average, the most of any passer from 1966 to 2013.

Rk
Quarterback
Starts
W/L
Stats
Att
Avg Lev
EXP ANY/A
ACT ANY/A
DIFF
VALUE
1Joe Montana2316-7460-734-5772; 45/21 (44-268)7781.214.347.953.612812
3Peyton Manning2211-11538-840-6309; 36/22 (28-211)8681.084.576.431.871619
4Kurt Warner139-4307-462-3952; 31/14 (18-116)4801.554.547.763.211543
5Brett Favre2413-11481-791-5855; 44/30 (36-232)8271.044.716.431.721422
6Troy Aikman1511-4320-502-3849; 23/17 (33-203)5351.294.687.322.631408
7Ken Stabler127-5203-351-2641; 19/13 (28-262)3790.92.35.753.451310
8Drew Brees116-5306-465-3530; 24/6 (19-127)4840.974.877.422.561237
9Steve Young148-6292-471-3326; 20/13 (28-137)4991.194.716.722.011003
10Jim Plunkett108-2162-272-2293; 11/12 (27-212)2991.084.367.483.13935
12Daryle Lamonica94-5107-238-1748; 18/7 (14-107)2521.032.275.723.46872
13Aaron Rodgers95-4210-318-2469; 19/5 (25-148)3430.984.887.292.41828
14John Elway2114-7355-651-4964; 27/21 (41-324)6921.424.555.571.03710
15Roger Staubach1711-6223-410-2791; 24/19 (60-378)4701.262.864.361.5705
16Bart Starr55-079-122-1169; 10/2 (21-187)1431.142.917.384.47638
17Dan Marino188-10385-687-4510; 32/24 (23-147)7100.914.455.340.89635
18Mark Rypien75-2126-234-1776; 8/10 (7-44)2411.054.787.412.63634
19Phil Simms106-4157-279-1679; 10/6 (23-180)3020.814.476.492.02608
20Jake Delhomme85-3130-226-1847; 12/10 (17-115)2431.224.316.782.47601
21Joe Flacco139-4207-373-2672; 19/8 (27-171)4001.115.076.561.5599
22Ken Anderson62-4110-166-1321; 9/6 (21-115)1871.123.586.262.68501
23Len Dawson74-398-174-1409; 6/8 (22-185)1960.992.495.012.52494
24Philip Rivers94-5164-272-2136; 11/9 (20-144)2920.774.35.881.57460
25Warren Moon103-7259-403-2870; 17/14 (24-176)4270.524.575.631.06454
26Jim McMahon63-382-155-1112; 5/4 (13-75)1681.154.086.652.57432
27Doug Williams74-368-169-1110; 9/11 (7-69)1761.183.986.412.43428
28Colin Kaepernick64-294-162-1348; 7/5 (11-58)1731.355.147.532.39414
29Mark Sanchez64-295-157-1155; 9/3 (4-26)1610.994.967.482.52406
30Matt Hasselbeck115-6237-406-2741; 18/9 (19-115)4250.954.755.690.94401
31Bernie Kosar73-4152-270-1953; 16/10 (15-76)2851.024.6561.35386
32Jeff George31-271-129-1001; 9/3 (10-75)1390.554.497.222.73380
33Eli Manning118-3219-356-2516; 17/8 (25-151)3811.385.286.260.98372
34Joe Namath32-150-117-636; 3/4 (6-37)1231.182.235.022.78342
35Randall Cunningham93-6192-365-2426; 12/9 (28-214)3930.724.555.420.86339
36Jeff Hostetler54-172-115-1034; 7/0 (12-60)1271.544.617.262.65336
37Erik Kramer31-291-130-999; 6/3 (11-61)1410.894.256.472.22314
38Dan Fouts73-4159-286-2125; 12/16 (13-94)2990.873.754.761.01301
39Matt Ryan51-4124-187-1230; 9/7 (11-62)1980.7956.481.48293
40Joe Theismann86-2128-211-1782; 11/7 (26-192)2371.593.544.671.13267
41Bob Griese116-5112-208-1467; 10/12 (16-163)2240.973.224.381.16259
42John Brodie52-371-143-973; 4/7 (5-33)1480.872.544.181.64243
43Russell Wilson43-164-105-868; 4/1 (14-70)1190.875.377.42.02241
44Joe Kapp42-261-101-835; 3/6 (8-71)1091.092.384.582.19238
45Danny White105-5206-360-2284; 15/16 (22-187)3820.783.884.450.57218
46Alex Smith31-266-114-858; 9/0 (9-68)1230.826.097.671.58194
47Ben Roethlisberger1410-4248-409-3150; 20/17 (35-236)4441.395.085.410.33147
48Don Meredith41-339-78-551; 3/5 (4-19)820.7623.721.72141
50Bob Lee31-233-67-382; 1/3 (3-23)701.092.984.951.97138
51Trent Dilfer65-159-135-971; 4/4 (14-111)1491.224.545.320.78116
52Tony Eason53-242-72-561; 7/0 (13-99)850.894.415.621.22103
53Steve McNair105-5184-311-1764; 6/11 (14-80)3251.144.324.620.3199
54Bill Nelsen52-368-132-839; 3/8 (13-96)1450.822.042.680.6493
55Johnny Unitas54-164-137-955; 4/7 (8-39)1451.253.414.020.6188
56Vinny Testaverde52-3114-189-1320; 6/5 (7-36)1960.855.035.420.3976
57Billy Kilmer72-592-178-1060; 8/7 (6-49)1840.932.873.240.3768
58Fran Tarkenton116-5149-292-1803; 11/17 (21-161)3131.262.782.980.263
59Marc Bulger31-268-113-944; 4/5 (11-72)1240.675.055.520.4759
60Rich Gannon74-3154-240-1691; 11/9 (16-86)2561.383.73.930.2358
61Vince Ferragamo63-392-188-1228; 8/11 (13-107)2011.023.834.110.2957
62Jeff Garcia62-4126-217-1357; 7/7 (10-69)2270.524.364.610.2557
63Jim Harbaugh52-383-163-906; 6/5 (14-96)1770.74.775.040.2647
64Earl Morrall54-150-103-806; 3/7 (8-49)1111.232.83.210.4146
65Donovan McNabb169-7341-577-3752; 24/17 (47-302)6241.144.84.820.0212
66Bert Jones30-329-62-399; 1/2 (14-109)760.582.812.910.118
67Steve DeBerg41-345-72-511; 3/3 (4-35)760.434.834.910.076
68James Harris31-221-49-343; 2/5 (2-33)510.893.072.85-0.23-12
69Joe Ferguson41-358-120-814; 6/9 (5-70)1250.573.853.72-0.13-17
70Chris Chandler32-159-97-728; 4/4 (7-52)1041.975.134.7-0.43-45
72Michael Vick52-379-141-977; 5/4 (11-93)1520.764.74.24-0.46-70
73Tommy Kramer42-271-140-874; 3/7 (8-70)1480.684.143.65-0.49-72
74Ron Jaworski84-4126-271-1669; 10/10 (20-167)2910.963.933.65-0.29-83
75Jim Kelly179-8322-545-3863; 21/28 (25-176)5701.554.264.11-0.15-84
76Andrew Luck31-277-140-1041; 6/8 (7-42)1470.515.595.01-0.58-85
78Steve Bartkowski41-353-111-792; 5/8 (14-117)1250.554.073.22-0.85-107
79Steve Grogan30-348-95-571; 3/7 (11-89)1061.32.911.73-1.19-126
80Rex Grossman42-269-133-783; 4/4 (5-49)1381.435.14.18-0.92-126
81Bobby Hebert30-358-102-648; 3/7 (3-20)1050.384.883.62-1.26-133
82Dan Pastorini53-271-116-954; 4/8 (11-89)1270.883.42.34-1.06-134
83David Woodley53-248-81-645; 5/6 (8-71)891.544.122.54-1.58-140
84Jake Plummer62-4122-197-1340; 7/10 (10-48)2070.715.314.59-0.72-148
85Steve Walsh31-232-59-373; 2/4 (4-32)630.534.492.08-2.4-150
86Daunte Culpepper42-273-134-980; 8/5 (11-68)1450.874.893.75-1.14-166
87Tony Romo41-380-135-832; 4/2 (12-98)1470.65.574.39-1.18-173
88Dave Krieg93-6144-282-1895; 11/9 (25-207)3070.654.483.84-0.64-197
89Mark Brunell105-5156-307-1833; 11/11 (18-100)3250.834.914.29-0.62-202
90Shaun King31-245-92-491; 1/3 (11-74)1030.914.232.21-2.03-209
91Boomer Esiason53-251-99-600; 4/3 (14-104)1131.354.632.76-1.87-211
92Elvis Grbac31-275-133-718; 3/6 (9-77)1420.754.142.65-1.5-213
93Jim Everett52-387-176-1120; 7/11 (7-62)1830.644.132.9-1.24-226
94Stan Humphries63-3118-228-1347; 6/13 (12-98)2401.244.563.6-0.96-230
95Jay Fiedler31-259-110-655; 3/8 (8-46)1180.565.072.94-2.13-251
97Mike Tomczak53-274-143-884; 2/9 (5-33)1480.694.742.99-1.74-258
98Neil O'Donnell73-4159-275-1709; 9/8 (15-98)2901.425.054-1.06-306
99Richard Todd42-278-140-1026; 4/12 (13-80)1530.892.640.59-2.06-315
100Kordell Stewart42-269-142-744; 2/8 (11-31)1531.224.542.47-2.07-316
101Kerry Collins73-4141-241-1556; 12/11 (11-61)2521.364.292.97-1.32-332
102Andy Dalton30-370-123-710; 1/6 (9-50)1320.395.833.17-2.66-351
103Drew Bledsoe63-3129-252-1335; 6/12 (17-132)2691.294.112.49-1.62-435
104Jay Schroeder53-272-158-791; 5/8 (10-85)1681.064.271.6-2.67-448
105Craig Morton105-591-227-1235; 9/16 (23-158)2500.973.180.85-2.33-582

You might be surprised to see Terry Bradshaw at number two on the list. Well, you shouldn’t be. Unlike say, Montana, Starr, or Otto Graham, winning championship after championship didn’t vault Bradshaw into the greatest quarterback of all time debate. And with good reason: Bradshaw’s regular season numbers were good but not great, and he was blessed to be on a team with many Hall of Famers. He ranked only 48th when I ranked the best regular season quarterbacks in NFL history.

But make no mistake: in the playoffs, Bradshaw was outstanding. He may have been along for the ride as Pittsburgh strung together 12-2 seasons, but in the postseason, he was one of the main reasons for the success of the ’70s Steelers. His raw numbers may not look amazing — heck, a 30/26 TD/INT ratio doesn’t sound great — but context is paramount. For his era, he put up excellent postseason numbers. Bradshaw was also at his best in the biggest games; subjective notions of “clutch” aside, he is credited in this system by playing very well in high-leverage games.

You might be surprised to see Peyton Manning at number three. To be fair, Manning barely cracks the top 30 on a rate basis, but Manning also ranked 2nd in total pass attempts. What happens when you compare Manning to Brady, who is down at #11? Since both Brady and Manning have 22 career playoff interceptions, if you type “/22″ into the search box you will see just Brady and Manning. Manning’s leverage-adjusted ANY/A is slightly better than Brady’s2, but the gap between the two ratings is mostly due to strength of schedule. That jives with Scott Kacsmar’s research that Brady faced easier defenses in the playoffs than Manning.

But before continuing the Brady/Manning discussion, a few thoughts on other quarterbacks.

• Ken Anderson was a very good postseason quarterback, but that hasn’t helped his Hall of Fame cause.
• On the other hand, Bengals fans, Andy Dalton’s playoff struggles are as ugly as you remember.
• Dan Marino was pretty good in the playoffs — in fact, nearly as good as Brady. Of course, his biggest problem was sharing the spotlight with Montana.
• Until they won Super Bowls, both John Elway and Steve Young had reputations as playoff chokers. But by the end of their career, after adjusting for leverage and SOS, both come out as very good playoff passers (and that ignores anything they added on the ground).
• Jim Kelly is in the Hall of Fame, while Donovan McNabb is remembered as the quarterback who couldn’t win the big game. Is that fair? Kelly won four AFC Championship Games but no Super Bowls, and his performances on the biggest stage were not very good. Both quarterbacks were essentially average in the playoffs, but McNabb does come out slightly ahead. And that ignores his rushing ability.

Rk
Year
Opp
Rd
Boxscore
Stats
ANY/A
Exp ANY/A
ANY/A OvEx
Lev
Value
Lev Value
12003CARSBoxscore32-48-354; 3/1 (0-0)7.694.742.953.14142445
22004PHISBoxscore23-33-236; 2/0 (2-17)7.44.632.773.1497304
32004PITCBoxscore14-21-207; 2/0 (2-11)10.264.35.961.57137215
42011DENDBoxscore26-34-363; 6/1 (0-0)12.886.576.310.79215169
52007JAXDBoxscore26-28-262; 3/0 (1-4)10.975.035.940.79172135
62012HOUDBoxscore25-40-344; 3/0 (1-9)9.635.634.010.79164129
72001STLSBoxscore16-27-145; 1/0 (2-11)5.314.221.093.1432100
82005DENDBoxscore20-36-341; 1/2 (0-0)7.534.92.620.799474
92013DENCBoxscore24-38-256; 1/0 (2-21)6.95.940.961.573860
102006INDCBoxscore21-34-232; 1/1 (1-6)5.744.980.761.572742
112005JAXWBoxscore15-27-201; 3/0 (4-12)8.034.783.250.3910140
122003INDCBoxscore22-37-237; 1/1 (0-0)5.735.240.491.571829
132011NYGSBoxscore27-41-276; 2/1 (2-10)6.075.870.23.14826
142006NYJWBoxscore22-34-212; 2/0 (1-12)6.865.081.770.396224
152013INDDBoxscore13-25-185; 0/0 (2-13)6.855.980.870.792419
162001PITCBoxscore12-18-115; 0/0 (2-14)5.054.490.561.571118
172003TENDBoxscore21-41-201; 1/0 (0-0)5.395.240.150.7965
182001OAKDBoxscore32-52-312; 0/1 (2-15)4.674.640.030.7921
192010NYJDBoxscore29-45-299; 2/1 (5-40)5.085.52-0.440.79-22-17
202004INDDBoxscore18-27-144; 1/0 (3-29)4.55.91-1.410.79-42-33
212011BALCBoxscore22-36-239; 0/2 (1-5)3.894.61-0.711.57-26-41
222006SDGDBoxscore27-51-280; 2/3 (2-4)3.424.79-1.380.79-73-57
232007SDGCBoxscore22-33-209; 2/3 (2-11)2.944.12-1.181.57-41-65
242009BALWBoxscore23-42-154; 2/3 (3-22)0.824.79-3.970.39-179-70
252012BALCBoxscore29-54-320; 1/2 (0-0)4.635.66-1.041.57-56-88
262007NYGSBoxscore29-48-266; 1/0 (5-37)4.75.42-0.723.14-38-120

Now, let’s do the same for Manning.

Rk
Year
Opp
Rd
Boxscore
Stats
ANY/A
Exp ANY/A
ANY/A OvEx
Lev
Value
Lev Value
12009NYJCBoxscore26-39-377; 3/0 (2-17)10.243.486.771.57277436
22013NWECBoxscore32-43-400; 2/0 (0-0)10.235.594.651.57200314
32009NORSBoxscore31-45-333; 1/1 (0-0)6.844.762.083.1494295
42006CHISBoxscore25-38-247; 1/1 (1-8)5.493.861.633.1464200
52003KANDBoxscore22-30-304; 3/0 (1-12)11.354.3670.79217170
62006NWECBoxscore27-47-349; 1/1 (3-19)6.14.291.811.5790142
72007SDGDBoxscore33-48-402; 3/2 (0-0)7.754.123.630.79174137
82003DENWBoxscore22-26-377; 5/0 (0-0)18.355.213.140.39342134
92004DENWBoxscore27-33-458; 4/1 (1-4)14.385.269.120.39310122
102005PITDBoxscore22-38-290; 1/0 (5-43)6.214.691.520.796551
112000MIAWBoxscore17-32-194; 1/0 (0-0)6.693.293.40.3910943
122010NYJWBoxscore18-26-225; 1/0 (1-6)8.855.523.340.399035
132008SDGWBoxscore25-42-310; 1/0 (1-8)7.495.981.510.396526
142009BALDBoxscore30-44-246; 2/1 (2-13)4.964.790.160.7976
151999TENDBoxscore19-42-227; 0/0 (0-0)5.45.72-0.320.79-13-10
162012BALDBoxscore28-43-290; 3/2 (3-17)5.285.66-0.380.79-18-14
172004NWEDBoxscore27-42-238; 0/1 (1-8)4.34.91-0.60.79-26-20
182013SDGDBoxscore25-36-230; 2/1 (0-0)6.257.06-0.810.79-29-23
192006KANWBoxscore30-38-268; 1/3 (1-5)3.795.61-1.820.39-71-28
202006BALDBoxscore15-30-170; 0/2 (1-9)2.293.64-1.350.79-42-33
212002NYJWBoxscore14-31-137; 0/2 (1-13)1.065.43-4.370.39-140-55
222003NWECBoxscore23-47-237; 1/4 (4-29)0.943.26-2.321.57-118-186

Both quarterbacks had 8 below-average games, but Manning had 9 games with 100+ yards of leverage-adjusted value (compared to only 7 for Brady). Note: If you sum the “Lev Value” columns for each quarterback, and then divide by each passer’s average leverage (1.46 for Brady, 1.07 for Manning), you will reproduce the values in the main table. It’s close, but most of the indicators here are slightly in Manning’s favor. Of course, #RINGZ.

1. Sincere apologies to Kelly Holcomb, Lynn Dickey, Scott Brunner, and Roman Gabriel, who were all excellent over 1 or 2 starts. On the other hand, Scott Mitchell, Jon Kitna, Todd Marinovich, Matt Cassel, Gary Danielson, and Dieter Brock will be glad to be kept off this list. All of them had miserable numbers over one or two starts. []
2. His non-leveraged adjusted ANY/A is significantly better, at 6.71 to 5.99. Of course, some would argue that this is evidence that Manning is not clutch. If that’s the case, it appears as though Manning has a large enough lead on Brady that even the unclutch version ranks ahead of him. []

Brad January 28, 2014 at 10:45 am

I didn’t see it on here but did you adjust for home/road games and outdoor/dome/cold weather games?

Chase Stuart January 28, 2014 at 3:18 pm

I did not.

Zamer the mer January 29, 2014 at 11:24 pm

I just found this site and I am so impressed. This is a great piece, as most of yours are. I’ve always preferred Brady over Manning, because I watch him more, and I still haven’t forgiven Manning for the pick six against New Orleans. But statistically I have said they are about equal, and while Brady usually has a slightly better defense and coach, Manning usually had more weapons. Joe Montana is no surprise, and I have always believed Kurt Warner was an underrated quarterback. But nothing makes me happier than seeing Eli Manning down at 33.

Bryan February 1, 2014 at 1:49 am

Does it weigh Interceptions differently? In other words, is throwing an interception in the first quarter weighted less than throwing a season-ending, pick-6 with a chance to tie the game?

The weight given to games by round also seems to benefit Manning’s eight one and dones. After all if you’re going to be a mediocre playoff QB, isn’t it better in this system to lose early in the playoffs than late? Brady’s worst games have come in the SB/CCG. Manning’s worst (again, due in large part to so many pathetic one and dones) come in Divisional/Wild Card games. Thus the weight assigned to each players’ worst games will harm Brady more, despite the fact rationale suggests it is likely more difficult as you go deeper into the playoffs.

I also see now you said you didn’t adjust at all for weather or indoor/outdoor. Ironic considering Manning’s always had a weather advantage over Brady when it comes to home games. Of Brady’s 10 lowest games by your metrics, 8 of those were in outdoor, New England games, many in snow or very low temps. I was at the 2007 AFCCG. You couldn’t throw the ball more than 15 yards downfield without it hanging in the wind. Seems like a rather large variable to not account for.

So I guess what I’m saying is if we ignore win/loss results, weather, and don’t have any variation for the impact of INTs/TDs relative to when they occur, what exactly are we using as variables to judge them. Seems to be overlooking many of the things that would put Brady ahead of Manning. But like Kacsmar, no way one would ever tilt the variables in a way to paint a favorable comparison of Manning vs Brady. Nahhhh.

So in reality it’s not really #RINGZ, it’s more just reality. Manning’s an all-time great. He just belongs with Favre, Marino, Fouts and not Brady, Montana, etc.

Fred February 3, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Holy crap, Montana was a beast. If i were to construct a roster..I’d have Manning as a regular season QB…then sub in Montana come playoff time.

Randall July 2, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Or you could let Montana start every regular season game and all the postseason games…and leave manning on the bench to watch a master at work.

The top two QB’s in this list COMBINED for 12 playoff losses…while winning 8 rings in 8 tries. “Number 3″ Peyton Manning alone has 12 playoff losses BY HIMSELF, and is 1-2 in the big game.

It seems to me that you are trying to shoehorn an obviously disappointing playoff QB in with these giatns of the position, whose Hall of Fame careers were built on how they handled playoff big game pressure.

I will never understand why people continue to compare Manning to guys with 3 and 4 Super Bowl rings, when at best he is in the Brett Favre class, throwing for tons of yardage but not anywhere close to the Montanas, Bradshaws and Bradys.

It will be hilarious 20 years down the road, when Rodgers, Luck, Wilson, and others have multiple rings and some media guys will still be screaming how Manning, the losingest playoff QB ever, but not the winningest, is better that all those other guys with all those rings.