This is our old blog. It hasn't been active since 2011. Please see the link above for our current blog or click the logo above to see all of the great data and content on this site.

The Best QB of all time?

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 7, 2006

If you haven't done so already, I'd suggest reading yesterday's post discussing the worst quarterbacks of all time. Today, well examine the best QBs in the NFL over the past 36 years using the same system.

Before I write about The Best QB Ever, I want to address some of the main responses from yesterday, since they'll be relevant to any discussion about my system. There were lots of great responses, but I'll try and divide them up into the three groups.

  • Any system that says Trent Dilfer was worse than Ryan Leaf is crazy.

There's certainly some merit to this. Dilfer won a Super Bowl, while Leaf is rightly considered one of the biggest busts in sports history. But remember that this system totally ignores post-season numbers, so you have to forget about Dilfer's playoff performances (or at least accept that this is the system we'll be using).

Now that I've had a day to think about it, I think I can better explain what yesterday's list was really saying. Let's continue to use Leaf and Dilfer as examples.

In the table, "Att" represents pass attempts, "Yds" shows passing yards, and LgAvg provides the league average Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) for that season.

Ryan Leaf: -1560 career value added

Year Tm Att Yds TD INT AY/A LgAvg Value Added
1998 sdg 245 1289 2 15 2.59 5.79 -786
2000 sdg 322 1883 11 18 3.67 5.68 -646
2001 dal 88 494 1 3 4.19 5.65 -128

Trent Dilfer: -1719 career value added

Year Tm Att Yds TD INT AY/A LgAvg Value Added
1994 tam 82 433 1 6 2.11 5.74 -298
1995 tam 415 2774 4 18 4.83 5.79 -399
1996 tam 482 2859 12 19 4.41 5.54 -548
1997 tam 386 2555 21 11 5.88 5.71 66
1998 tam 429 2729 21 15 5.28 5.79 -222
1999 tam 244 1619 11 11 5.06 5.63 -141
2000 bal 225 1502 12 11 5.01 5.68 -151
2001 sea 122 1014 7 4 7.41 5.65 215
2002 sea 168 1182 4 6 5.67 5.75 -13
2003 sea 8 31 1 1 -0.50 5.57 -49
2004 sea 58 333 1 3 3.59 6.07 -144
2005 cle 333 2321 11 12 5.68 5.79 -36

When the numbers show that Leaf was "better" than Dilfer, here's what I think that really means: If you had to take the career (regular season) numbers of either Ryan Leaf or Trent Dilfer for your favorite team, you'd choose Leaf.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Leaf's two worst seasons were worse than anything Dilfer ever did. Similarly, Dilfer had the best five seasons. But what would you rather have to deal with for your favorite team: Two all-time abysmal years and one bad year over the next three seasons? Or twelve years of QB play that goes like this: two really bad years, two bad years, three well below average years, four average years and one good year? It's pretty close, but I'd probably choose the former. And I think that's exactly what the numbers are saying.

It's always going to be tough to compare the careers of players with different career lengths. Tony Banks (-558 value added) and Alex Smith (-565 value added) rank next to each other on the all-time list. This feels about right. It's tough to say whether I'd rather watch h one absolutely abysmal season (Alex Smith, 2005) or two really bad years, six roughly average or nondescript seasons (three of which when Banks had 102, 2 and 25 attempts) and one good year (1999, +143 value added). So when you think of the system that way, it does a pretty good job. And I think it will do very well when we consider the best QBs of all time, because we're going to want to know who would we most want to have on our favorite team.

  • The league average is too high of a baseline.

This one has some merit, too. It was very easy and relatively non-controversial to use league average data. Using a replacement level baseline might be better, but it's not clear exactly what that would be. Maybe the 24th best QB, or the 32nd...or some other number. I'm open to suggestions, but I don't really have a problem using such a "demanding" baseline as league average. This will rightly penalize players who hang on too long or were miserable for a few years before turning things around.

  • Adjusted Yards per Attempt isn't a good stat, doesn't correlate well to wins, or is biased against players in the West Coast Offense.

This criticism isn't a good one. I'll put this on my to-do list for the blog, but I know I've heard that Yards/Attempt For and Yards/Attempt Allowed correlates very, very well with team winning percentage. I'm confident that Adjusted Yards per Attempt is an upgrade on yards per attempt, so I strongly believe that this is the right metric.

As for favoring one system or another, I'd also disagree with that. Completion percentage favors QBs in the WCO. Yards per completion favors QBs in vertical offenses. Yards per attempt is the best of both worlds, and it shouldn't really favor either.

Adjusted yards per attempt probably hurts the players in vertical offenses more, because of the high penalty for interceptions. But INTs are very costly to a team (check out the winning percentages of teams that lose the turnover battle), so I'm ok with this. In short, a good QB will have a good adjusted Y/A, regardless of system. For what it's worth, I think quarterback Rating cuts way too much the other way; it disproportionately rewards QBs with very high completion percentages.

The Best QB of All Time

Let's get to the good stuff. Here are the top single seasons by a QB since 1970.

Name Year Tm Att AY/A Value Added
Peyton Manning 2004 ind 497 9.25 1581
Dan Marino 1984 mia 564 8.51 1566
Kurt Warner 1999 stl 499 8.37 1367
Daunte Culpepper 2004 min 548 8.42 1286
Bert Jones 1976 bal 343 8.57 1270
Steve Young 1994 sfo 461 8.39 1222
Steve Young 1992 sfo 402 8.46 1184
Joe Montana 1989 sfo 386 8.86 1178
Randall Cunningham 1998 min 425 8.46 1131
Ken Anderson 1975 cin 377 7.65 1116
Kurt Warner 2001 stl 546 7.69 1115
Boomer Esiason 1988 cin 388 8.30 1071
Ken O'Brien 1985 nyj 488 7.74 1056
Warren Moon 1990 hou 584 7.59 1028
Steve Young 1993 sfo 462 7.78 1010
Dan Fouts 1981 sdg 609 7.17 1009
Steve Young 1998 sfo 517 7.72 994
Joe Montana 1984 sfo 432 8.01 984
Donovan McNabb 2004 phi 469 8.16 978
Chris Chandler 1998 atl 327 8.76 969
Roger Staubach 1979 dal 461 7.29 965
Neil Lomax 1984 stl 560 7.45 964
Peyton Manning 2003 ind 566 7.26 956
Peyton Manning 2005 ind 453 7.90 956
Ken Anderson 1981 cin 479 7.50 953
Mark Rypien 1991 was 421 7.95 952
Jeff Garcia 2000 sfo 561 7.38 952
Rich Gannon 2002 oak 618 7.28 948
Joe Theismann 1983 was 459 7.64 921
Steve Young 1997 sfo 356 8.28 916
Ken Anderson 1974 cin 328 7.31 915
Steve McNair 2003 ten 400 7.85 913
John Brodie 1970 sfo 378 7.22 911
Brett Favre 1995 gnb 570 7.38 907
Steve Deberg 1990 kan 444 7.87 904
Steve Beuerlein 1999 car 571 7.22 904
Roger Staubach 1971 dal 211 8.78 900
Kurt Warner 2000 ram 347 8.15 858
Daunte Culpepper 2000 min 474 7.48 855
Roger Staubach 1977 dal 361 6.63 839
Ron Jaworski 1980 phi 451 7.23 834
Trent Green 2003 kan 523 7.15 828
Jeff George 1997 oak 521 7.30 827
Ken Stabler 1976 rai 291 7.70 826
Jim Everett 1989 ram 518 7.40 825
Peyton Manning 2000 ind 571 7.12 825
Brian Sipe 1980 cle 554 6.86 823
Boomer Esiason 1986 cin 469 7.32 812
Trent Green 2005 kan 507 7.36 801
Roman Gabriel 1973 phi 460 6.32 797

Here were my general reactions after scanning the list.

  • Manning and Marino's record breaking seasons should top any list. I was worried this system might penalize them a bit, at least relative to one where passing TDs are more highly valued, but they still stand out a bit from the pack. There aren't any surprises at the top (which is probably a good thing ); Warner and Culpepper had two phenomenal seasons that should be in any discussion like this. Bert Jones' season is barely remembered, but it was undoubtedly one of the best of all time. I'm glad to see Chris Chandler's 1998 season on the list, because I always thought it was one of the best seasons that no one ever talked about.
  • Nine of the top 33 seasons were by 49ers QBs, eight of them during the WCO years. I'm very confident that Adjusted Yards per Attempt doesn't penalize WCO QBs. While this might make you think it unfairly benefits them, I don't think I'd go that far either. So many NFL teams copy the WCO because it's successful. The 49ers had a great team for about 20 years, and the West Coast Offense was a big reason why they had so much success.
  • Five years from Steve Young, four (and counting) from Peyton Manning, and three each from Kurt Warner, Ken Anderson, and Roger Staubach on the list. Amazingly enough, only one year from Dan Marino and ... none from Tom Brady. Marino's second best season, 1986, ranks 88th. Brady's best year, last season, ranks 85th.
  • Four QBs reside on both the top and bottom "50 seasons since 1970" lists: Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Mark Rypien and Boomer Esiason. Vinny Testaverde just missed the cut: his 1998 season was the 51st best of all time.

That sets the stage for what I promised yesterday: the list of the greatest QBs of all time. All we've got to do is sum up every season of each player's career, and away we go.

Player Name Value Career Attempts
Steve Young 7103 4149
Dan Marino 6752 8358
Joe Montana 6634 5391
Roger Staubach 5286 2911
Ken Anderson 5135 4475
Dan Fouts 5017 5604
Peyton Manning 4927 4333
Trent Green 3788 3329
Kurt Warner 3487 2340
Fran Tarkenton 3401 3445
John Elway 3155 7250
Bob Griese 3116 2491
Warren Moon 2908 6823
Jim Kelly 2885 4779
Brett Favre 2672 7612
Daunte Culpepper 2619 2609
Boomer Esiason 2592 5205
Mark Brunell 2429 4334
Phil Simms 2368 4647
Neil Lomax 2364 3153
Bert Jones 2295 2551
Craig Morton 2096 3201
Steve McNair 1973 3871
Rich Gannon 1939 4206
Greg Landry 1845 2092
Dave Krieg 1689 5311
Tom Brady 1614 2548
Matt Hasselbeck 1603 2205
Randall Cunningham 1593 4289
Steve Beuerlein 1583 3328
Marc Bulger 1552 1518
Ken O'Brien 1524 3602
Bernie Kosar 1501 3365
Neil O'Donnell 1499 3229
Jim Hart 1482 4183
Jeff George 1456 3967
Terry Bradshaw 1453 3901
Billy Kilmer 1440 2028
Troy Aikman 1439 4715
Joe Theismann 1429 3602
Jeff Garcia 1248 2785
Brad Johnson 1207 3797
Danny White 1203 2950
Len Dawson 1133 1344
Ben Roethlisberger 1105 563
Roman Gabriel 1045 2267
Sonny Jurgensen 1041 736
Jim Everett 1010 4923
Chad Pennington 1008 1174
Steve Bartkowski 970 3456

  • Steve Young tops this list, as he probably should. I'm not sure whether it's extra impressive that he did it despite having less than half as many career attempts as Marino; but I'm positive it's impressive when you think of where he stood when he left Tampa Bay: -417. While lots of Young's success was due to Jerry Rice, a favorite of the PFR blog last week, consider that this list totally ignores rushing statistics. Young ran for 4,239 yards and 43 TDs. Dan Marino ran for 87 yards. Joe Montana had 1676 rushing yards and 20 TDs. Despite being one of the best running QBs of all time, Steve Young might have been the best quarterback in NFL history judged solely on his passing statistics.
  • Seeing Roger Staubach and Bob Griese so high on this list was a big surprise. Not because they weren't great QBs, but I figured their low number of pass attempts would hurt them. It didn't, and I'd consider that a very good thing. It sure makes me wonder what sort of numbers Staubach could have ended up with if he hadn't missed the prime of his career because of his Navy obligations. Staubach's first 2,000 yard season (in his second season as a starter) came at the age of 31. Had he never entered the Navy, he might have ended up as the greatest player that ever played. In 1979 he had the 21st greatest passing season on this list, and he did it at 37 years old. And yeah, he could run a bit too.
  • It's amazing that Ken Anderson can't get into the Hall of Fame. He retired as the sixth-all time leading passer, and passed for 300 yards and scored three TDs in the Super Bowl. He's won an MVP, holds the single-season completion percentage record, made four Pro Bowls and led the NFL in QB rating four times. I wonder if it would have helped him had the 1982 strike never happened; Anderson had another magnificent season, but it was only over nine games. Mark Moseley, yes the place-kicker Mark Moseley, won the NFL MVP that year. Over a sixteen game season, Anderson could have won the award, and back to back titles would have probably been enough to send him to Canton. As for my list, he very likely would have passed Staubach and ranked fourth all-time, and could have been the only quarterback besides Steve Young with four seasons of over 900 value added points.
  • Peyton Manning's going to end his career as the best QB of all-time. Maybe not in the eyes of everyone (at least not unless or until he wins a Super Bowl), but he should rank first on this list. Manning's past three seasons have added 3,493 value points to the Colts. That means you would have preferred Peyton Manning quarterbacking your favorite team for the last three years, than selecting all but seven other NFL quarterbacks for their entire careers. Wow. Steve Young's best three years added 3,416 points of value, but they were not consecutive.
  • I'm not one of those "Retire, Brett" people... but Favre's last seven seasons have added "only" 367 value points. That's roughly 54 points a year. To put that in perspective, in 2005 Jay Fiedler added 42 points of value and Jim Sorgi added 70 points. But to Favre's credit, last year was his first below average season since 2000.
  • It's a bit surprising to see Terry Bradshaw -- one of two QBs to ever win four Super Bowls -- so low on that list. But during his first five years, he accumulated -1,361 points; during his last nine years, he added 2,814 points of value. The other guy to win four Super Bowls ranked third on the list in part because he was never very bad. While Young, Marino and Staubach and Ken Anderson all had years of worse than -100, Montana's worst season was -13 as a rookie.
  • Dan Fouts is often cited as an example that it takes awhile for a QB to become very good. After all, he had more INTs than TDs each of the first five seasons of his career. But guess what? He added 341 points of value during those years, and 630 points if you exclude his rookie season. He was better than average during his second year in the league, and stayed that way for twelve seasons. His last two years hurt him a bit, though. Without them, he'd be ranked ahead of Roger the Dodger.

There's lots of interesting stuff on the career list, but we're going to look at things at a slightly different angle tomorrow.