The Best Ever Debate
Already this season, we have heard the sports pundits ponder whether Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or even Drew Brees is the best quarterback ever to play in the NFL. They cite touchdown passes, completion percentages, lack of interceptions, and a host of other statistics.
We are here to tell you that these pundits are only correct in whatever statistic they use. Aaron Rodgers may be the best QB at avoiding interceptions, while greats from the past, like Johnny Unitas don’t even show up in the top 20. Unitas comes in tied at 135th in this statistic, behind such current
star Ryan Pickpatrick, er Fitzpatrick.
Does this mean that the greats from the past, like Unitas, Starr, Namath, Jurgensen, Van Brocklin, and others don’t measure up to today’s quarterbacks? Certainly, this is not the case. The way the game is played today compared to the way it was played 50 years ago is vastly different, and the rules today favor pass blockers compared to the rules of yesteryear. There was a time when blockers could not use any part of their hand to block. Today’s hand pushing would have been holding penalties in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and by the way, holding penalties cost a team 15 yards then.
As for interceptions, of course these numbers are lower today. When you throw half of your passes 7 yards or less downfield, many of them at or behind the line of scrimmage, interception percentages will be much lower than if you throw the ball more than 20 yards down the field.
Today, on 3rd and 20, more times than not if a QB passes the ball it will be a very short pass to a back or tight end hoping to find a hole and run to daylight. In 1965, on 3rd and 20, a QB would most assuredly throw the long bomb. An interception in this case might have actually been preferable to a punt. If a pass is thrown 50 yards downfield and intercepted with no return, it beats almost every punting situation. Rarely does a punt produce a net advantage of 50 yards.
Touchdown percentages are not usable for comparing quarterback talents either. Today, a QB is just as likely to pass at the opponent’s one yard line than for his team to run the ball. In 1965, all NFL teams used a halfback and fullback in the offensive set, and some teams still used a full-house backfield inside the opponent’s five yard line. The better teams, like Unitas’s Colts and Starr’s Packers ran the ball 85-90% of the time in the deep red zone. Of course, these greats from the past threw fewer touchdown passes than today’s QBs.
What about completion percentages? If you look at career rates, you will find Brees at the top. Just behind in the top 10 include Rodgers, Manning, Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger. To find a QB that played before 1970, you have to go all the way to 80th place and Jurgensen. Unitas is tied for 124th. Not-so-great QBs ahead of these two Hall-of-Famers include Mark Sanchez and Rex Grossman. And what about Broadway Joe Namath? He comes in at 166th.
So, obviously, current passers like Brees and Rodgers are much better passers than Unitas and Namath, correct? Not on your life, this is totally bunk, and we will show you why.
First, the QBs in the days where offensive linemen could not use their hands, passers had to throw the ball away to avoid a lot more sack opportunities. Teams like the Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and Oakland Raiders were noted for having top-flight pass rushes, where they averaged 4 to 5 sacks per game. No team today averages 4 sacks per game and few average as much as 3 per game.
Here is the key to these percentages. Let’s say Unitas and Brees both attempt 30 passes in a game. Unitas’s passes come in a 1964 game, whereas Brees’ passes come in a 2015 game. Let’s break down the types of passes each QB throws.
1. Screen passes and other passes thrown short of the line of scrimmage
2. Short passes thrown 0 to 5 yards past the line of scrimmage
3. Medium passes thrown 6 to 12 yards past the line of scrimmage
4. Intermediate passes thrown 13 to 20 yards past the line of scrimmage
5. Longer passes thrown 21 to 30 yards past the line of scrimmage
6. The Bomb thrown 31 to 60 yards past the line of scrimmage
Now, let’s show how a typical QB from 1964 and 2015 might distribute these passes.
1. Screens and other behind the LOS: Unitas 3 Brees 6
2. Short passes: Unitas 2 Brees 10
3. Medium passes: Unitas 4 Brees 8
4. Intermediate passes: Unitas 10 Brees 4
5. Longer passes: Unitas 6 Brees 1
6. The Bomb: Unitas 5 Brees 1
We really need not explain any further. Unitas’s passes might have averaged around 20 yards in length, while Brees’ passes averaged about 8 yards in length. It is quite obvious that it is much easier to complete a pass thrown 8 yards past the line of scrimmage than one thrown 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Additionally, many of Brees’ shorter passes are 3rd & long dumps to secondary receivers thrown well short of the first down sticks, whereas in the days of Unitas, teams just did not throw short of the sticks on 3rd down.
Unitas may complete just 15 of the 30 passes in this example, while Brees completes 20 of the 30 passes. Yet, both QBs pass for 240 yards. What matters is how many yards per pass attempt each QB gained. In this example, both averaged exactly 8 yards per attempt, the line where everything better is considered exceptional.
Averaging more than 8 yards per pass attempt has been consistently brilliant, whether it took place in 1945, 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, or 2015. Whereas all other statistics have varied over NFL (and AFL) history, this stat has been the one true correlation between success and failure.
Taken to the extreme, a Joe Namath or Daryle Lamonica type passer might complete just 45% of their passes, while a Brees or Rodgers might complete 67.5% of their passes. Namath and Lamonica might go 18 of 40 in a game, while Brees or Rodgers go 27 of 40. Namath and Lamonica might average 17.8 yards per completion thanks to multiple 40-60 yard pass completions (they didn’t call Lamonica the Mad Bomber for nothing). Brees and Rodgers might average 11.9 yards per completion. Guess what? In both instances, the total yardage gained is 320 yards or 8 yards per attempt. If you look at what 8 yards per pass attempt accomplishes throughout history, it is roughly 28 points per game, varying a little with rushing, defense, and special teams.
So, then, who is the best quarterback of all time? You guessed where we are going with this. Who ranks as having the best career yards per pass attempt?
The answer may or may not surprise you, but among the top passers in this category, there are 14 retired QBs eligible for the Hall of Fame, and 10 of these 14 are in the Hall of Fame. Of the other four, two are recently retired, and still might become a HOF member. Only Ed Brown and Earl Morrall rank in the top 20 in yards per attempt and are not in the Hall.
In Morrall’s case, he was frequently a backup to other Hall of Famers, like Y. A. Tittle, Unitas, and Bob Griese. When called on to fill in, he responded with two MVP-award seasons and an incredible won-loss percentage of 63.6%, including an outstanding 33-4-1 record when starting for a Don Shula-coached team (Baltimore and Miami). Morrall might have been a Hall of Famer had he not played behind three greats.
Brown is an interesting case worth researching. He was the quarterback of the 1951 University of San Francisco Dons football team that went 9-0 and was considered the best team on the West Coast with multiple future NFL players. Due to racist issues (USF was an integrated team), and because the available bowls of that time were all in Southern states, USF was not invited to a bowl, while inferior all-white teams received invitations. The Dons dropped football on that undefeated season.
Brown was drafted by the Bears and led Chicago to the Western Division crown one season with multiple second place finishes. He later was traded to Pittsburgh, where he led the Steelers to its best modern day season prior to the arrival of the Steel Curtain defense in the 1970’s. Brown’s career record as a starter was 55-38-5.
Now, just who has the best all-time yards per attempt mark? Did you guess Otto Graham? Graham left a career mark of 9.0 yards per attempt. And, if you are wondering about the won-lost record for Graham, he is in a league by himself at 104-17-4 in his 10 seasons with the Cleveland Browns. In seven of those 10 seasons, Graham led the Browns to the league championship. In the other three seasons, Cleveland lost in the NFL Championship Game. Cleveland averaged 28.1 points per game in the 10 years Graham led the Browns attack. The year after Graham retired, after leading Cleveland to a 9-2-1 record plus a 38-14 pasting of the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Championship, Cleveland fell to 5-7-0 without him.
When next you are asked who you believe is the best NFL quarterback of all time, you have your answer. Otto Graham was to football what Babe Ruth was to baseball and Wilt Chamberlain was to basketball.
Here is the entire top 20 list of quarterbacks by career yards per pass attempt.
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