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All time NFL QBs: The Best Edition

Posted by Chase Stuart on June 24, 2008

Before the 2006 season, I wrote about the best quarterbacks of all time. With some more data on my hands, I decided to update that post. On Friday I discussed the methodology used, and yesterday, I ranked the worst quarterbacks in league history.

A couple of reminders. One, I ignored all post-season data, at least for now, mostly because it's a complicated issue that's worth separating out for a day. Later on this week, I plan to revisit post-season data. Two, on the list of the greatest QBs ever, I'm including sack data, and rushing yards, and using the league average as my baseline. Occasionally, though, I'll use some other requirements when the rankings change substantially as a result.

What was the greatest season in QB history? It's been almost a quarter-century, but Dan Marino's 1984 season still stands alone. Sure, Marino averaged 8.51 adjusted yards per pass and 8.11 adjusted net yards per pass, but a few other QBs have topped that. What makes Marino's season so amazing was that he kept that pace up for over 564 passes, in an era where the league average QB threw for just 4.61 adjusted net yards per attempt.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady don't come far behind, with their 2004 and 2007 seasons ranking second and third, respectively. Right behind those years is Otto Graham's 1953 season, an oft forgotten yet incredible season. Graham averaged 9.41 AY/A while the rest of the NFL averaged only 3.40 adjusted yards per attempt. The table below shows the top 50 seasons by all QBs in NFL history. Remember, the second to last category, "RY4.0", shows how many adjusted rushing yards over 4.0 yards per carry that each QB had that season:

		year		att	pyd	ptd	icp	sk-syd	any/a	RY4.0	Rating
Dan Marino	1984	MIA	564	5084	48	17	13-120	8.11	  0	2098
Peyton Manning	2004	IND	497	4557	49	10	13-101	8.82	  0	1885
Tom Brady	2007	NWE	578	4806	50	 8	21-128	8.04	  0	1817
Otto Graham	1953	CLE	258	2722	11	 9	-	9.41	 31	1808
Steve Young	1992	SFO	402	3465	25	 7	29-152	7.54	273	1611
Bert Jones	1976	BAL	343	3104	24	 9	29-284	7.14	 82	1506
Sid Luckman	1943	CHI	202	2194	28	12	-	9.57	  0	1499
Kurt Warner	1999	STL	499	4353	41	13	29-201	7.53	 10	1490
Steve Young	1994	SFO	461	3969	35	10	31-163	7.53	131	1407
Dan Fouts	1981	SDG	609	4802	33	17	19-134	6.74	  0	1399
Peyton Manning	2006	IND	557	4397	31	 9	14-86	7.38	  0	1396
Daunte Culpepper2004	MIN	548	4717	39	11	46-238	7.36	 74	1388
John Brodie	1970	SFO	378	2941	24	10	8-67	6.90	 13	1360
Jeff Garcia	2000	SFO	561	4278	31	10	24-155	6.81	166	1354
Milt Plum	1960	CLE	250	2297	21	 5	-	9.13	  0	1344
George Blanda	1961	HOU	362	3330	36	22	-	7.46	  0	1342
Randall Cunning.1998	MIN	425	3704	34	10	20-132	7.78	 14	1324
Ken Anderson	1981	CIN	479	3754	29	10	25-140	6.85	146	1318
Len Dawson	1962	DTX	310	2759	29	17	-	7.37	130	1297
Ken Anderson	1975	CIN	377	3169	21	11	32-247	6.45	 12	1292
Joe Montana	1989	SFO	386	3521	26	 8	33-198	7.69	 61	1277
Dan Fouts	1982	SDG	330	2883	17	11	12-94	7.20	  0	1275
Joe Montana	1984	SFO	432	3630	28	10	22-138	7.32	  0	1267
Steve Young	1993	SFO	462	4023	29	16	31-160	6.96	151	1262
Mark Rypien	1991	WAS	421	3564	28	11	7-59	7.69	  0	1257
Drew Brees	2006	NOR	554	4418	26	11	18-105	7.13	  0	1248
Steve Young	1998	SFO	517	4170	36	12	48-234	6.65	234	1248
Johnny Unitas	1964	BAL	305	2824	19	 6	-	9.00	 34	1225
Peyton Manning	2003	IND	566	4267	29	10	18-107	6.85	  0	1220
Warren Moon	1990	HOU	584	4689	33	13	36-252	6.75	 15	1214
Peyton Manning	2005	IND	453	3747	28	10	17-81	7.44	  0	1189
Kurt Warner	2001	STL	546	4830	36	22	38-233	6.79	  0	1189
Sammy Baugh	1947	WAS	354	2938	25	15	-	7.10	  0	1167
Len Dawson	1966	KAN	284	2527	26	10	-	8.23	 71	1164
Bart Starr	1966	GNB	251	2257	14	 3	-	9.01	 40	1158
Dan Marino	1986	MIA	623	4746	44	23	17-119	6.30	  0	1146
Boomer Esiason	1988	CIN	388	3572	28	14	30-245	7.12	 86	1144
Roger Staubach	1971	DAL	211	1882	15	 4	23-175	7.17	199	1144
Joe Theismann	1983	WAS	459	3714	29	11	34-242	6.63	 96	1142
Donovan McNabb	2004	PHI	469	3875	31	 8	32-192	7.25	 86	1130
Daunte Culpepper2000	MIN	474	3937	33	16	34-181	6.63	184	1115
Peyton Manning	2000	IND	571	4413	33	15	20-131	6.66	  0	1111
Neil Lomax	1984	STL	560	4614	28	16	49-377	6.23	 74	1105
Roman Gabriel	1973	PHI	460	3219	23	12	31-219	5.48	  0	1096
Roger Staubach	1979	DAL	461	3586	27	11	36-240	6.28	 24	1091
Ken Anderson	1974	CIN	328	2667	18	10	36-292	5.78	162	1081
NormVanBrocklin	1953	RAM	286	2393	19	14	-	6.83	  0	1073
Rich Gannon	2002	OAK	618	4689	26	10	36-214	6.55	  0	1072
Steve McNair	2003	TEN	400	3215	24	 7	19-108	7.24	 26	1059
Steve DeBerg	1990	KAN	444	3444	23	 4	22-191	7.09	  0	1056

There are a bunch of old seasons on there, outside of Graham's gem in '53. Sid Luckman's terrific 1943 year makes the cut, along with Sammy Baugh's 1947 and Norm Van Brocklin's 1953 performances. A whopping five of Peyton Manning's seasons are in the top 50, along with four of Steve Young's and three of Ken Anderson's, while Roger Staubach, Len Dawson, Dan Fouts, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, and Daunte Culpepper each are on there twice. One of those is not like the other. And while only one of Unitas' seasons makes the cut, he does have three other years of over 900 yards above average.

We can also look at the best QB in the NFL for each of say, the last 38 seasons.

Quarterback		Year    Team    ANY/A   Rating
Tom Brady		2007	NWE	8.04	1817
Peyton Manning		2006	IND	7.38	1396
Peyton Manning		2005	IND	7.44	1189
Peyton Manning		2004	IND	8.82	1885
Peyton Manning		2003	IND	6.85	1220
Rich Gannon		2002	OAK	6.55	1072
Kurt Warner		2001	STL	6.79	1189
Jeff Garcia		2000	SFO	6.81	1354
Kurt Warner		1999	STL	7.53	1490
Randall Cunningham	1998	MIN	7.78	1324
Steve Young		1997	SFO	6.98	 904
Brett Favre		1996	GNB	5.94	 707
Brett Favre		1995	GNB	6.62	1040
Steve Young		1994	SFO	7.53	1407
Steve Young		1993	SFO	6.96	1262
Steve Young		1992	SFO	7.54	1611
Mark Rypien		1991	WAS	7.69	1257
Warren Moon		1990	HOU	6.75	1214
Joe Montana		1989	SFO	7.69	1277
Boomer Esiason		1988	CIN	7.12	1144
Bernie Kosar		1987	CLE	6.62	 863
Dan Marino		1986	MIA	6.30	1146
Ken O'Brien		1985	NYJ	6.14	 944
Dan Marino		1984	MIA	8.11	2098
Joe Theismann		1983	WAS	6.63	1142
Dan Fouts		1982	SDG	7.20	1275
Dan Fouts		1981	SDG	6.74	1399
Brian Sipe		1980	CLE	6.21	1056
Roger Staubach		1979	DAL	6.28	1091
Roger Staubach		1978	DAL	5.62	 927
Roger Staubach		1977	DAL	5.57	1031
Bert Jones		1976	BAL	7.14	1506
Ken Anderson		1975	CIN	6.45	1292
Ken Anderson		1974	CIN	5.78	1081
Roman Gabriel		1973	PHI	5.48	1096
Joe Namath		1972	NYJ	5.85	 741
Roger Staubach		1971	DAL	7.17	1144
John Brodie		1970	SFO	6.90	1360

Manning, Young and Staubach all appear on the list four times, while no other QB has been tops in the league more than twice. Warner, Favre, Marino, Fouts and Ken Anderson were the others to rank as the best regular season QBs in multiple seasons. While the Bengals, Browns, Jets and Redskins each had two separate QBs once lead the league, the San Francisco 49ers had an incredible four different QBs rank as the league's main man.

Okay, enough stalling. How about the all time career list? Who ranks as the top regular season QB in NFL history? There are so many interesting names on this list that I'm going to show the top 75 guys.

				att	Rating
 1	Dan Marino		8358	8593
 2	Peyton Manning		5405	7946
 3	Steve Young		4149	7739
 4	Fran Tarkenton		6467	7140
 5	Joe Montana		5391	7006
 6	Dan Fouts		5604	6672
 7	Johnny Unitas		5186	6211
 8	Ken Anderson		4475	5974
 9	Roger Staubach		2958	5680
10	Len Dawson		3741	5604
11	Brett Favre		8758	5107
12	Norm Van Brocklin	2895	4688
13	Sonny Jurgensen		4262	4525
14	Otto Graham		1565	4250
15	John Elway		7250	4123
16	Bart Starr		3149	4101
17	Boomer Esiason		5205	4013
18	Kurt Warner		2959	4004
19	Tom Brady		3642	3845
20	Roman Gabriel		4498	3844
21	Warren Moon		6823	3787
22	Trent Green		3668	3694
23	Sid Luckman		1744	3667
24	John Hadl		4687	3634
25	Y.A. Tittle		3817	3632
26	Jim Hart		5076	3610
27	Daryle Lamonica		2601	3519
28	Steve McNair		4544	3515
29	Jeff Garcia		3300	3342
30	Joe Namath		3762	3339
31	Rich Gannon		4206	3331
32	Sammy Baugh		2995	3305
33	Daunte Culpepper	2927	3224
34	Jim Kelly		4779	3009
35	John Brodie		4491	2970
36	Bert Jones		2551	2965
37	Troy Aikman		4715	2919
38	Donovan McNabb		3732	2903
39	Terry Bradshaw		3901	2799
40	Bob Griese		3429	2785
41	Earl Morrall		2689	2723
42	Mark Brunell		4594	2644
43	Billy Kilmer		2984	2571
44	Craig Morton		3786	2558
45	Randall Cunningham	4289	2477
46	Jim Everett		4923	2452
47	Steve Grogan		3593	2407
48	Bobby Layne		3700	2396
49	Ken Stabler		3793	2294
50	Mark Rypien		2613	2285
51	Drew Brees		3015	2236
52	Vinny Testaverde	6701	2169
53	Bernie Kosar		3365	2092
54	Don Meredith		2308	2024
55	Joe Theismann		3602	1992
56	Matt Hasselbeck		3138	1919
57	Charlie Conerly		2833	1900
58	Doug Williams		2507	1892
59	Brad Johnson		4248	1840
60	Phil Simms		4647	1810
61	Greg Landry		2300	1804
62	Milt Plum		2419	1766
63	George Blanda		4007	1726
64	Brian Sipe		3439	1692
65	Carson Palmer		2036	1666
66	Dave Krieg		5311	1663
67	Frank Ryan		2133	1662
68	Bill Nelsen		1905	1660
69	Neil Lomax		3153	1657
70	Steve DeBerg		5024	1595
71	Johnny Lujack		808	1584
72	Joe Ferguson		4519	1503
73	Billy Wade		2523	1501
74	Marc Bulger		2484	1442
75	Doug Flutie		2151	1422

This list seems to coincide well with perception: Outside of Anderson, everyone in the top 16 is in the Hall of Fame, or will be in the HOF. Warren Moon ranks 21st, Sid Luckman 23rd, Y.A. Tittle 25th, Joe Namath 30th, Sammy Baugh 32nd, Jim Kelly 34th, Troy Aikman 38th, Terry Bradshaw 39th, Bob Griese 40th, Bobby Layne 48th, and George Blanda 63rd. And for the most part, a lot of active guys are separating those QBs, especially high on the list. In other words, among those eligible, the HOF has done a pretty good job. And we all know Blanda was more than just a quarterback.

Other thoughts

  • There's not much to say about Marino that hasn't already been said. But here's something interesting -- if you ignore sack data, Marino would have came in at ninth on this list, with everyone in the top 10 besides Dan Fouts passing him. Marino added 5,622 yards above average as QB when looking just at AY/A, compared to the 8,593 yards above average when including sack data and using ANY/A. That's interesting to me for two reasons. One, for Marino haters, it's much, much easier than I would have thought to discount his incredible raw statistics, by simply ignoring his ability to avoid sacks. Two, for all the talk about Marino, his ability to avoid sacks rarely seems to come up in conversation. That's unfortunate.
  • I was shocked to see Manning so high on the list. But consider, he's already thrown more career passes than Joe Montana. Manning is immune to changes such as using sack data or not, or using the league average or 75% of the league average as the baseline. He's compiled great data for long enough that he still ranks second on all the lists.
  • Similar to the Marino comment, what's up with Steve Young? Young's sack numbers are largely similar to the league average, which is surprising for a mobile QB on a great team that relied on the short passing game. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that Young's scrambling (which he's often credited for) led to slightly more sacks than you might recall. He would rank first overall if we exclude sack data (although that's much more due to the fact that Marino and Manning drop once you do that). Of course, even at third on the list some will think this is too high for him, but Young was absolutely dominant both as an individual and as part of a team. He led some incredibly productive offenses and put up some mind blowing statistics. Think of it this way -- as good as Peyton Manning is, before 2007, he had a bunch more career passing attempts but ranked behind Young in career value.
  • Fran Tarkenton doesn't get enough love. Nine of his seasons were among the top 200 seasons of all time. And for as long as he played, he wasn't a compiler -- he ranks sixth on the list if you drop the baseline to 75% of league average. Tarkenton got sacked a bunch, and would have ranked second if we excluded that data (which is a good argument for not excluding it. If you want to give him credit for scrambling, you have to punish him for getting sacked.) More than anyone else, his reputation seems to have faded over time, belying how terrific he was.
  • What's there to say about Montana ranking #5? Lost in all the Montana debates is how good of a regular season QB he really was. He didn't throw a lot of passes, and he didn't play in an incredible passing era, so his raw career stats are less than impressive. The nice part about this study is that he still ranks as the fifth best QB in history based on regular season data. If you knew nothing about Montana's post-season, his career numbers in the regular season are good enough to rank him as one of the handful of best quarterbacks in league history. I think that's a pretty good endorsement of this system. And for the few Montana bashers out there, note well: two of Montana's best three statistical seasons came before Jerry Rice was drafted.
  • I'm going to lump Fouts and Anderson together and get to them in a second. Unitas at #7 on this list is pretty cool. It's nice to adjust for era and then see him so highly ranked. One odd note is that he had two down years at age 28 and 29, the worst two years out of all of Unitas' first twelve seasons. To get a sense of Unitas and his era, here's how he ranked each of his first ten seasons, with the top QB that season also noted:

    1956       3    Tobin Rote
    1957       1
    1958       2    Bobby Layne
    1959       1
    1960       3    Milt Plum
    1961       Below League Average
    1962       Below League Average
    1963       1
    1964       1
    1965       2    Rudy Bukich

    It's worth noting that from '56 to '59, there were only 12 teams in the league, but those ranks look pretty impressive to me.

  • Unlike the other QBs mentioned above, no one really makes an argument for Dan Fouts or Ken Anderson as being the best QB of all time. And there simply isn't a reasonable argument to make. But that doesn't mean they should get ignored as often as I think they do when discussing the all time greats. Those guys never won a Super Bowl, and sure they benefited from the systems they played in, but they were simply outstanding in their primes. Each have two seasons among the league's top 20 QB seasons of all time. Fouts' career doesn't get nearly enough love, and obviously, it's a joke that Ken Anderson isn't in the Hall of Fame.
  • Roger Staubach is one of those 'what if' guys. He missed the prime of his career, yet still ranks in the top ten and his rating relative to his number of attempts is off the charts. The argument could be made that Staubach would be considered the greatest QB in league history if he entered the league at age 22. When you put up over 3,000 yards above the league average at ages 35, 36 and 37, you are entitled to the benefit of some doubt.
  • The last QB in our top ten is Len Dawson, who beats out Favre for the final spot. Dawson's another guy who got a late start -- his first season as a starter was at age 27. Sure, Favre threw over 5,000 more passes than Dawson, but Dawson made a lot more out of those attempts. Favre gets the longevity award -- he ranks third on the all time list if we drop the baseline to three-fourths of league average. While that might be appropriate if we're deciding who was more valuable over the full length of their careers, that's not as useful when deciding who was really the best. Before the NFL merged, only nine times in history did a QB post a QB Rating of over 98 while having at least 200 attempts, and Dawson (three) was the only one to do it more than once. Favre is overrated by a lot of people, and underrated (as backlash) by just as many, but I think putting him somewhere in the 5-15 range sounds right to me. It's easy to get fooled by either his gaudy career numbers or his few down seasons later on in his career.
  • One other guy should at least be considered for the best QB in NFL history -- Otto Graham. I excluded Graham's AAFC stats, but Graham can make the same argument as Staubach, only moreso. He actually ranks even higher than Staubach on a "rating" to "attempts" ratio, and we can only guess how terrific he'd look if he played his whole career in the NFL. Longevity is an issue, but he ranks as the 15th best QB despite playing only six seasons in the NFL. He ranked as the league's top QB in three of those years, and ranked second, third and seventh the other three seasons. And, of course, the Browns went to the NFL title game in each of those six seasons.

Obviously there are lots of other things to comment about, but I'll leave that to you guys. Check back tomorrow for another look at these QBs.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 24th, 2008 at 6:21 am and is filed under History, Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.