Saturday, September 23, 2006


The best quarterback of all time

I have been asked to rate the best quarterbacks of all time. Who am I to say no?

I will resist the urge to include those guys who are still playing. Although I will include references to current players where they are comparable or even better than the ones I list.


The first quality all rookie quarterbacks must learn is game management. By this I mean the ability to avoid mistakes. Bad game managers today include the likes of Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper. While these two are capable of big plays, they both try to do too much, effectively hurting their teams more than helping them.

On the barest levels, good game managers include Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson. Unfortunately for those two, that is ALL they are. But as they have proven, you have to be at LEAST a good game manager if you want to win a Super Bowl.

I am tempted to give the best game manager of all time to Sammy Baugh. To this day, he still holds the NFL record for most seasons leading the league with the lowest percentage of passes intercepted, with five seasons. There are five players tied with three seasons behind him. None of those five players are playing today.

But, if you look at Baugh's career as a whole, he threw more interceptions in 9 out of the 16 seasons he played.

For consistency over the entirety of his career, I have to give it to Neil O'Donnell. As soon as you clean your drink off your monitor, I will continue.

Believe it or not, O'Donnell holds the NFL record for lowest percentage of interceptions in his career (2.11). In his 13 year career, O'Donnell only had two seasons where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and he only played in 6 games both of those years.

O'Donnell did manage to lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl in 1995, where they lost to the Cowboys 27-17.


In order to throw a lot of touchdowns, you have to be able to throw the ball in the red zone. You won't make a career out of only lobbing 70 yard bombs. You also have to be able to toss the little two yard pass to the tackle eligible in the end zone.

Of the current quarterbacks, Peyton Manning seems most ready to break some career records, having already obtained a few NFL records (most TD passes in a season with 49, most TD passes in his rookie season with 26, most consecutive games with 4 or more TD passes with 5).

Unfortunately for Manning, he still has a long way to go to catch Dan Marino's career touchdown pass record of 420. As of last year, Manning only had 244 TD passes.

While Marino may lead on quantity of touchdown passes over a career, we have to consider the pass-happy nature of the NFL during Marino's career. Even with Marino's prolific touchdown numbers, there is another quarterback who still holds a lot of significant touchdown records from a less pass-happy era: Johnny Unitas.

Consider Unitas's touchdown records. He is tied for most seasons leading the league in td passes with 4 seasons (tied with Len Dawson, Steve Young, and Brett Favre) but only Unitas's 4 seasons were consecutive (from 1957 to 1960). In football's version of Joe Dimaggio's famed hitting streak, Unitas holds the record for most consecutive games with a td pass, 47 (next closest is Brett Favre with 36).

In addition, Unitas is third on the list of career games with 4 or more td passes (17). Only Marino (21) and Favre (19) are ahead of him.

A quick release is not necessary to be a great quarterback, but it seems the great ones tend to have quicker releases than most quarterbacks.

The first quarterback to have an exceptionally quick release was Joe Namath, but the quickest of all time belongs to Dan Marino.

Of today's quarterbacks, the one who impresses me the most is Vince Young. If you watch him closely, you can see that his release is comparable to Marino's release. I won't say Young will be another Marino, but his release should help him to have a good career.


By itself, arm strength is nice, but it won't win games.

Early in his career, Doug Williams had the strongest arm I have ever seen. Unfortunately, when he threw little passes into the flat, the ball would bounce off the receiver because it was uncatchable.

For arm strength to be effective, it has to be combined with touch on shorter passes.

In this category, average gain per pass attempted tells us the quarterback is using his arm strength to its ultimate advantage.

Unfortunately, the two quarterbacks who rate the highest in this are from VERY different eras: Sid Luckman and Steve Young.

Luckman is second all time to Otto Graham in average gain (8.42 to 8.63). I don't include Graham because he only played 6 years in the NFL, whereas Luckman played 12 years.

In addition, Luckman holds the following records: led the league in average gain 7 times, and had the most consecutive seasons leading the league in average gain (5). Luckman also had the second highest single season average gain, with 10.86 in 1943.

While Luckman's records are impressive, I have to give equal consideration to someone I have actually seen play. In the modern era, Steve Young used his arm strength the best.

Young stands firmly in second to Luckman's NFL records for average gain. Young's greatest asset was his ability to stretch the 49ers West Coast Offense with his arm strength. Even though Young was not known for his arm strength, this is deceptive since he was nearly as accurate on deeper passes as he was on shorter passes.

Joe Montana may get the kudos for the success of the West Coast Offense, but Steve Young took it to another level, all because Young could stretch the field with a greater arm strength than Montana possessed.

Of today's quarterbacks, Kurt Warner is the best in average gain, as he is already third on the all time list with 8.21. We will see if he can maintain or improve on that before he retires. At the peak of Warner's career, he was certainly comparable to Steve Young.


Accuracy is another of those areas where it is difficult to compare quarterbacks from the modern era, where short passes are more frequently thrown, with those from previous eras.

If you look at the record for highest career completion percentage, you will see three current quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger, and Daunte Culpepper). But will they still be there when they retire? Perhaps Warner, but I would not bet on the other two.

For modern era quarterbacks, I would have to name Steve Young as the most accurate. having led the NFL in completion percentage 5 times, with 4 of them coming in consecutive years.

However, Len Dawson was the most accurate of the old era quarterbacks, having led the NFL in completion percentage a whopping 8 times, with 6 of them coming in consecutive years.

In a team sport, the championship stands out as the ultimate test of how much a quarterback is helping his team.

This is the biggest no-brainer of all the quarterback categories. Bart Starr stands above everyone with 5 NFL championships and the first 2 Super Bowl victories to his credit.

Currently, Tom Brady, with 3 Super Bowl victories under his belt, looks the most ready to challenge Starr's record.

Should running ability be considered when looking at great quarterbacks? Currently, I would say no. But after watching what Mike Vick did to the Buccaneers last weekend, I cannot say this will always be true.

Take college football for example. A great running quarterback can lead a team to a national championship (like Vince Young did at Texas). Could this happen in the NFL? History would say no.

But history also used to say that a team without a running game could not win a championship. Enter the 1981 49ers to prove that wrong.

Will Mike Vick redefine the quarterback position? Perhaps, but his talent is freakish.

Vick is clearly the best running quarterback of all time. However, for the sake of choosing a retired quarterback, I would have to name Randall Cunningham the best I ever saw, at least until Vick retires.

What I have shown to this point are the best quarterbacks in every facet of the quarterbacking position. But the ultimate test of a quarterback is the guy who can use the quarterback position to carry the rest of his team to victory. The best quarterbacks I have seen, in no particular order: Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Ken Stabler, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Fran Tarkenton, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Johnny Unitas.

Of those, Steve Young stands out from the rest in most of the categories of quarterbacking excellence.

GAME MANAGEMENT: Young's career 2.5% interception percentage compares favorably with Neil O'Donnell's 2.1%.

TOUCHDOWNS: Young is tied with Unitas for seasons leading the league in td passes (4) and is second behind Unitas with 3 consecutive seasons leading the NFL.

RELEASE: Compared to Marino, this is Young's weak suit. However, Young's release was more than adequate.

ARM STRENGTH/AVERAGE GAIN: Young was the best of the modern era.

ACCURACY: Again, Young was the best of the modern era.

CHAMPIONSHIPS: With only one Super Bowl win to his credit (although Young was named the MVP), Young is pretty weak in this category. Still, there are plenty of great quarterbacks who would gladly switch places with Young (such as Fran Tarkenton and Dan Marino).

RUSHING: With 4,239 career rushing yards, 5.9 rushing average, and 43 rushing touchdowns, Young compares favorably to Randall Cunningham's 4,928 rushing yards, 6.4 rushing average, and only 35 rushing touchdowns.

Any mention of Steve Young as the greatest quarterback of all time will naturally draw the comparison to Joe Montana. Let us look at the career numbers (Young's numbers are shown first below. NFL career records are marked with an asterisk):

Completion Percentage: 64.3% vs. 63.2%
Average Gain per Attempt: 7.98 vs. 7.52
Touchdown Percentage: 5.6% vs. 5.1%
Interception Percentage: 2.5789% vs. 2.5783%
Super Bowl Championships: 1 vs. 4*
Average Rushing Yards per Carry: 5.9 vs. 3.7
Passer Rating: 96.8* vs. 92.3

When you consider Young's numbers are a little skewed by spending two horrendous years at Tampa Bay during the start of his career, Young's numbers are even more impressive.

One other thing to consider: If the 49ers had a better defense during the 90's, who knows how many Super Bowls Young might have won?

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