Posted by Chase Stuart on August 18, 2009
Who is the best quarterback in Raiders history? There are only four candidates worth mentioning. The easiest to dismiss is Jim Plunkett. While he won two Super Bowls, he was not an above average NFL quarterback; in fact, he was slightly below league average in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) in '80 and dead average in '83, the two years he won those titles. His advanced passing table shows that for his career, he was well below average in ANY/A. He never once ranked as a top ten quarterback in the regular season. He was a terrific playoff performer, but he was simply not as talented or productive as the best three Raiders quarterbacks.
Rich Gannon was a very good quarterback for four seasons with the Raiders, 1999-2002. But even ignoring knocks about him being a system quarterback playing with two HOF receivers, he still never reached Lamonica or Stabler status among Raiders fans. Why? Probably because both of those QBs were great playoff performers, while Gannon had a horrific Super Bowl performance, a bad game (that ended in injury) in an AFC Championship loss to the Ravens, and was on the wrong team the night of the Tuck Rule. He was very good but not great, and most Raiders fans (and football historians) would put either Lamonica or Stabler (or both) above him. Putting Gannon aside, the best QB in Raiders history is mainly a two horse race, with all due respect to all other Oakland and Los Angeles quarterbacks.
What's interesting is most people think (or assume others think) that Stabler stands alone. A quick search for the best QB in Raiders history brings up these results:
Stabler best Raiders QB Ever
Stabler #18 QB of all-time; Lamonica not in top 50
Best QBs not in the HOF? Lamonica #21, Plunkett #11, Stabler #3
Stabler: best Raiders QB ever
I admit that some of those links do not come from the most prestigious sources -- but those were the most popular results doing a search for the two quarterbacks. To use a more reputable source, the NFL Network named Stabler the second best Raider ever; Lamonica did not break their top ten. Let me know if I'm flagging a straw man here, but common perception appears to place Stabler well above Lamonica in Oakland lore (I've found only one source that agrees with me -- the great Sean Lahman ranks Lamonica as his 22nd best quarterback in history, while Stabler is down at #39). My question is, why? I can understand the general public saying Phil Simms and not Y.A. Tittle is the best Giants quarterback ever. But Stabler and Lamonica played in basically from the same era and both played on highly successful teams.
There's another explanation: Lamonica's best years were in the pre-merger era, which: 1) many modern writers ignore; and 2) many fans believe the AFL was an inferior league and therefore Lamonica's numbers are overrated. Jason is doing a great job dispelling those notions, but I'll wait until his analysis is complete before making any decisions on the relative strengths of the two leagues. For today, I'm going to ignore any notion that defenses (or everything) in the AFL was inferior. Let's run the numbers without any adjustment, and then revisit that topic at the end.
Lamonica was the Raiders QB for six seasons, from '67 to '72. Stabler took over after that, leading the team until 1979. Stabler was terrible in '78, so I'll help him out by only looking at each QB's best six seasons:
player year att qb avg lg avg ERA RK DL 1967 425 6.85 4.68 1147 2 DL 1968 416 7.16 4.92 1140 1 DL 1969 426 6.26 3.94 1209 1 DL 1970 356 5.90 3.88 833 3 DL 1971 242 4.13 3.62 146 16 DL 1972 281 5.35 3.98 445 7 KS 1973 260 4.85 3.51 454 10 KS 1974 310 6.86 3.58 1196 2 KS 1975 293 4.05 3.72 112 16 KS 1976 291 7.04 3.75 1126 3 KS 1977 294 4.61 3.24 471 9 KS 1979 498 5.05 4.30 416 9
Lamonica had three huge seasons at the end of the sixties, and was still very good in the post-merger 1970. Not coincidentally, his play fell off once Warren Wells' off the field issues ended his career. Still, Lamonica's three outstanding years, along with one great and one more good season beats out Stabler's collection of two outstanding, zero great, and three good years. And Stabler also had a terrible '78, far worse than any season Lamonica ever had.
Stabler was terrific in '74 and '76, but note the low number of attempts. My formula gives more credit to QBs who are great over more attempts, and with good reason; especially in light of his other years, it's reasonable to believe that Stabler wasn't as good as his numbers in '74 or '76. It's a lot easier to put up all-time great numbers (and Stabler was that good in '76) on 291 attempts than on 426 attempts. Adding up each season of their careers, I've got Stabler ranked as just the 55th best regular season QB ever, while Lamonica is up at #20.
Stabler's HOF backers generally focus on his great winning percentage -- he was 69-26-1 (0.724%) as starting QB of the Raiders, including an 13-1 Super Bowl campaign in '76. That's obviously outstanding, but Lamonica was even better at 62-16-6 (0.774%). From '67 to '69 the Raiders lost just four games, and went 8-2 against the Jets and Kansas City over that span (with one of those losses being to the T-Formation Chiefs in '68). While Oakland went 1-2 against those teams in the playoffs in those years, that one win was a 347 yard, 5 TD/0 INT game. In the Raiders-Jets showdown that preceded Super Bowl III, Lamonica threw for 401 passing yards, 1 TD and no interceptions in a four point loss. He also had a six-touchdown playoff performance in a win over Houston the prior season. And in that 1967 season, Lamonica quarterbacked one of the greatest Super Bowl losers ever, which puts him in good company with Dan Marino and Tom Brady. Lamonica has the second best winning percentage of all-time (behind Otto Graham) among QBs with 50 or more wins. If we bumped the minimum up to 75 games or 60 wins, Lamonica would be #1.
So while Stabler gets his reputation as a winner, he didn't put up better numbers or win more of his games than Lamonica did. Lamonica posted some very good playoff numbers, although admittedly, Stabler was even better. But even including the post-season performances of both players only bumps Stabler on my QB ranking up to #37; Lamonica drops to #22 not because he was a bad post-season performer, but because Troy Aikman, Bart Starr and John Elway leap ahead of him (with Y.A. Tittle falling behind him). Stabler also faced a slightly easier than average schedule while Lamonica's schedule was about average; including schedule and weather adjustments (while including the post-season) moves Lamonica to #21 and Stabler to #40.
So Lamonica put up better individual numbers and better team numbers, although Stabler has that Super Bowl. Even if you say that Stabler's '76 was better than any other Lamonica season, Lamonica still clearly has four of their best six combined seasons. What about supporting casts? To be fair, both players had more than their fair share of help in terms of lineman and pass catchers. Stabler had the benefit of:
- A 30-through-35-year-old Fred Biletnikoff
- A 25-through-31-year-old Cliff Branch
- A 27-through-33-year-old Art Shell
- A 28-through-34-year-old Gene Upshaw
- A 35- and 36-year-old Jim Otto
Stabler had it good -- the entire primes of a HOF LT, HOF LG, HOF TE, and almost HOF WR, along with a good chunk of the prime of another HOF WR and the end of the career of one of the best centers in history. Lamonica?
- A 24-through-29-year-old Fred Biletnikoff
- A 26-through-28-year-old Warren Wells
- A 24-through-26-year-old Art Shell
- A 22-through-27-year-old Gene Upshaw
- A 29-through-34-year-old Jim Otto
Lamonica had it really good, too. I'd call the supporting casts a wash. And while both players undoubtedly have great supporting casts, but it's worth noting that Stabler's play really dropped off after he left Oakland. He was a well below-average QB in Houston and New Orleans, which doesn't exactly help his case that he was the main reason for the success of the Oakland passing game during his time there.
Many have argued that the Snake would be a worthy candidate for induction; in my opinion, the Mad Bomber would be a much better one. He had a short but terrific career, and he almost certainly would have been inducted years ago if he had won a Super Bowl. I hope one day he's seriously considered as a senior candidate. His career was too good to be forgotten.
What about him playing in the AFL? Lamonica's success came in the last three seasons of the AFL. While Jason isn't done yet, I'm pretty sure his conclusions (based on our e-mails) will show that there was very little difference in quality between the AFL and NFL by then. Sure, we might dock Lamonica's numbers a little bit, but he starts off far ahead of Stabler. At 4918 converted yards above average (versus just 3336 CY over average), Lamonica can lose a few hundred yards off his score and still be the best Raiders QB in history. Only a severe AFL adjustment or an unhealthy emphasis on a 1-0 SB record compared to an 0-1 record could vault Stabler ahead of Lamonica. And if you really want to side with Lamonica, you'd probably point out that he lost to the Lombardi Packers while Stabler beat the Bud Grant Vikings. With the great teams Stabler was on for five straight years, only one Super Bowl appearance is a bit disappointing. His 1-4 record in AFC Championship games doesn't mesh with his reputation as a winner and playoff superstar, although admittedly he faced some tough competition. But for whatever reason, Stabler is #1 in the hearts of most Raiders' fans and the rankings of most nearly all football fans. Just not this one.
Let's close with a bit of trivia on the mad bomber, whose reputation is warranted: Lamonica's median career passing touchdown length of 23 yards is the longest of any QB since 1960.