There is currently a thread, and accompanying poll, on that topic at the footballguys message board. If you were starting a team from scratch right now and you could have either of those two as your quarterback, knowing you'd get 240 games out of him in his career, which one would you take? The poll is extremely close (98-96 in favor of Favre last I checked), and I must admit to not having had any idea which way to lean without doing some research.
But research I did, so off we go....
The Raw Numbers
Since the shapes of Marino's and Favre's careers are so similar, the short-brilliant-career vs. long-steady-career debate isn't really an issue. Their numbers of top five and top ten finishes in passing yards and passing touchdowns are very close. So let's hop straight to the totals.
ATT YD TD INT Cm% YPA AdjYPA Rate
Favre 8024 57500 414 273 61.1 7.0 6.0 85.0
Marino 8358 61361 420 252 59.4 7.3 6.5 86.4
Rate is the NFL's passer rating, and Marino has the slightest of edges there. AdjYPA is adjusted yards per attempt, which was developed by Pete Palmer et al in The Hidden Game of Football. The formula is (yards + 10*TDs - 45*INTs)/attempts, and the motivation is that their (copious) research indicated that an interception was worth about the same as 45 yards, and that a TD --- or more precisely, the difference between a TD and having the ball at the one --- is worth about 10 yards. If I could only have one stat, I'd want adjusted yards per pass, and Marino has a not inconsequential advantage in that stat. Fortunately, though, we don't have to limit ourselves to just one stat.
It's not as though wholesale changes have occurred, but passing numbers have, in some categories, crept up slowly since Marino came into the league. Here are the league averages in adjusted yards per attempt, passer rating, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage, since Marino's rookie year:
Year AYPA Rate TD% INT%
1983 5.64 75.8 4.37 4.37
1984 5.73 76.1 4.24 4.05
1985 5.58 73.5 4.11 4.17
1986 5.59 74.1 3.99 3.99
1987 5.73 76.5 4.57 3.90
1988 5.54 73.0 3.93 3.91
1989 5.81 75.8 4.04 3.86
1990 5.83 77.3 4.21 3.53
1991 5.69 76.4 3.66 3.49
1992 5.51 75.4 3.84 3.85
1993 5.59 76.7 3.57 3.23
1994 5.74 78.5 3.85 3.13
1995 5.79 79.3 3.96 3.05
1996 5.54 76.8 3.90 3.39
1997 5.71 77.1 3.89 3.03
1998 5.79 78.2 4.21 3.28
1999 5.63 77.0 3.95 3.36
2000 5.68 78.2 3.88 3.23
2001 5.65 78.5 3.88 3.34
2002 5.75 80.4 3.97 3.04
2003 5.57 78.4 3.95 3.24
2004 6.07 82.9 4.44 3.18
2005 5.79 80.0 3.89 3.09
2006 5.82 80.4 3.93 3.15
If you take a weighted average --- weighted by Marino's number of passing attempts during each season --- of the league passer rating numbers, you can conclude that a completely average quarterback would have compiled a passer rating of 76.2 given the attempts that Marino had. So Marino's rating of 86.4 is about 10.2 points better than average. A similar exercise with Favre pegs him at about 6.5 points better than average. Here is the summary:
AVG Actual DIFF
Brett Favre 78.58 85.04 +6.47
Dan Marino 76.23 86.38 +10.15
Here is a similar table for touchdown percentage:
AVG Actual DIFF
Brett Favre 3.94 5.03 +1.09
Dan Marino 4.02 5.03 +1.00
and interception percentage:
AVG Actual DIFF
Brett Favre 3.23 3.32 +0.09
Dan Marino 3.63 3.02 -0.62
That right there is the biggest issue that Favre-backers have to explain. That amounts to about 3 or 4 interceptions per year, which is nontrivial. The AYPA table, which summarizes all this data, looks like this:
AVG Actual DIFF
Brett Favre 5.71 6.00 +0.29
Dan Marino 5.68 6.49 +0.81
Half a yard per attempt is a significant difference. Several months back, Chase used this methodology to rank the best and worst quarterbacks of all time. In this post, he essentially translated the above data into a total yardage figure, and the results are shown here.
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
The units on the Value column are yards. Marino was 6752 yards above average during his career and Favre was 2672 yards above average. That 4000-yard difference translates to about 320 points, roughly 20 points per year. This was before the 2006 season, but Favre's numbers were near average, so it wouldn't change his ranking much.
Frankly, most of what I wrote above could be replaced with a link to Chase's old post. But I decided to look at a variety of stats for the benefit of those people who don't happen to appreciate AYPA.
To summarize: while the raw numbers look extremely similar, the context is just different enough, and the fairly small edge Marino has in almost every category turns out to add up to a sizable difference. Twenty points per year is significant.
That's what the numbers say. Anyone arguing for Favre, then, must argue that the numbers aren't telling the whole story, and there are a few arguments there that seem to have some merit. Let's examine them.
[Prediction inserted here for my amusement: I predict that someone will find this post via a google search, read the first few lines, and then post a comment along these lines. "There's more to it than numbers!!!!11 Marino played with two great receivers and Favre played with a bunch of nobodies!!111 Also Favre won a ring!!!"]
Possible arguments for Favre
1. Marino had a better supporting cast (on offense)
Popular perception has it that Marino's wide receivers --- in particular, Mark Clayton and Mark Duper --- were better than Favre's. You'll often hear it said that Favre turned nobodies like Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman, and even Bill Schroeder into great receivers. And I think there is something to that.
My reaction to that, though, is to point out that the same might be true of Duper and Clayton. They never did anything without Marino. Of course they never had the chance, but the point is that their numbers are entirely consistent with them being merely good receivers who happened to have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time throwing to them. Do we really know that Duper and Clayton are better than Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman?
It's impossible to say, but I think there is some evidence that Duper and Clayton really were very good. First, they decisively took their jobs, each in their second year, from Nat Moore and Duriel Harris, who were good and decent, respectively, though they were getting a bit old. Second, even into their thirties they kept Tony Martin on the bench for the first four years of his career, and Martin went on to have 1000-yard seasons in three different locations (including Miam at age 34). Now, lots of receivers are kept on the bench for all sorts of reasons --- Derrick Alexander kept Joe Horn on the bench in Kansas City, for instance, but no one would argue that Alexander was better than Horn --- so I'm not claiming this is any sort of decisive evidence. But we just don't have much to go on here, so I'm trying to examine every clue I can find.
Favre also worked with receivers who had success without Favre, namely Sterling Sharpe and Javon Walker. But he only got three years with Sharpe and three years with Walker, and none of those years were in Favre's prime. Marino got almost twenty combined years --- and all of his prime --- with Duper and Clayton. Others we haven't yet mentioned? Donald Driver seems to be pretty good, but not better than Irving Fryar, who had a couple of 1000-yard seasons in his mid-thirties with Ty Detmer throwing to him in Philadelphia.
Favre's tight ends perhaps rate a slight edge over Marino's, but I don't think that's clear. Both had good pass-catching backs at their disposal.
What about offensive lines? Favre played with three Pro Bowl offensive linemen: Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, and Frank Winters. Marino played with at least one Pro Bowler on the line almost every season of his career. Early on it was Bob Kuechenberg and Dwight Stephenson. Later it was Keith Sims and Richmond Webb. Because of this research that I did on Pro Bowl retention rates, I really don't have a lot of faith in number of Pro Bowl selections as a proxy for quality. I frankly have no idea how to compare the quality of Favre's offensive lines to those of Marino, and I'm suspicious of anyone that claims he can, unless that someone happens to have a lot of game films and a well-trained eye. But really, our only two choices are (1) throw up our hands and say that offensive line comparisons are off limits, or (2) go by reputation. If you want to go with (2), then Marino's supporting cast rates the edge here.
So I do think that this argument has merit. The evidence we have is highly ambiguous as usual, but I do think it helps Favre's case.
2. Favre was less one-dimensional / more mobile / better at improvising
This one I don't buy. If you're talking about Steve Young or Randall Cunningham or Michael Vick --- guys who can pick up 500+ yards rushing in a season --- then OK. Mobility has to enter the discussion. But Favre's career high was 216 rushing yards.
Now, anyone who watched Favre in his prime knows that he was indeed a master at keeping plays alive with his feet. I don't dispute that at all. But here's the thing: after he kept those plays alive with his feet, he passed the ball to a receiver, and that appears in his stat line. He's already been given credit for the pass. To give him additional credit for the mobility is double-counting.
Favre's mobility helped Favre produce better passing numbers than he would have if he wasn't mobile. Of that there is no doubt. But Favre's mobility did not allow him to produce better passing numbers than Marino. If you want to give credit to Favre for mobility, then you have to give credit to Marino for being taller. In each case, it's just one of the many attributes that helped these guys to be the great passers they were.
Another thing that needs mentioning here is Marino's own mobility, which was admittedly more subtle, but no less important. In about the same number of pass attempts, Favre was sacked 174 more times than Marino was. You can debate how much of that is due to the quarterback and how much is due to the line, but the quarterback has to be given some credit for it. Consider this: Troy Aikman, a great quarterback playing behind what is widely regarded as one of the best offensive lines in history, had a sack rate of 4.4% from 1992--1995. Marino's career sack rate was 3.1%.
If there is any edge in this category, it goes to Marino.
3. Favre won a ring and Marino didn't
As we all know, this begins and ends the discussion for many people.
Chase has a theory for why people are so blinded by the rings. I'm sure he'll chime in to correct me if I misstate it, but it goes something like this. The reason rings are overvalued in discussions like this is because people confuse the question "would you rather have been a fan of Favre's actual team during Favre's actual career or Marino's actual team during Marino's actual career?" with the question "which guy played better during his career?"
To put it another way, people interpret the question "which guy was better?" to mean "which guy would you rather have been?"
To suggest that Marino did not have the ability to lead a team to a Super Bowl championship seems as absurd as suggesting that Favre lost that same ability between the 1996 and 1997 seasons, never to regain it again. We have seen time and time again that players who have that alleged ability seem to have it right up until the point when they lose it, and that players who don't have it often seem quite capable of acquiring it with no advance warning. We saw that just last week.
Is there anyone who honestly believes that Marino, with the help of the NFL's best defense and with Desmond Howard chipping in over 200 return yards, couldn't have beaten the 1996 Patriots if given the chance?
Marino has slightly, but clearly, better numbers. Marino's ability to avoid sacks adds to that edge a little bit. Marino's failure to win a ring shouldn't enter into it at all. The only reasonable argument for Favre, in my view, is that he would have posted better numbers than Marino had he had Marino's supporting cast. It's going to be subjective, as always, but the objective parts of the argument are so close that I really can't fault anyone for voting for Favre on that basis.