A caller on 'EEI last week asked a pretty interesting question.
With Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, are three of the five best quarterbacks of all-time currently active in the NFL?
My first thought was, "No," and my second thought was, "Why waste air time on this clown when someone could call in and tell us about the time he broke his ribs?"
So I decided to take a look at the numbers and see if these three guys have earned a spot in that kind of rarified air. Allowing that all three are in the top 10, I spent another couple of hours trying to think of the last time three players at the same position in any sport were not only among the 10 best historically at their position but still playing at an All-Star (or All-Pro) kind of level.
The best I could come up with was 1989, with John Stockton (led the league in assists and steals), Magic Johnson (league MVP) and Isiah Thomas (NBA finals MVP).
Back to the quarterbacks. Brady ahead of Manning? Is Favre one of the five best ever? Let's see what we've got.
1. Joe Montana
I know, I know. He was a system QB. He had Jerry Rice and John Taylor and Roger Craig and Dwight Clark. The guy that took over for him put up the same (if not better) numbers and won a Super Bowl himself.
But I can't get past this -- Montana was 4-0 in Super Bowls. In those games he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His worst rating in a Super Bowl was 100.0 (his rating for the four wins was 127.8). And his regular season numbers, while no doubt helped by the Bill Walsh system, were still plenty impressive (led the NFL in completion percentage five times, three seasons with a 100 or better passer rating). Montana was able to play at pretty high level past his prime and following an elbow surgery, throwing 29 TDs against 16 INT in his two seasons for the Chiefs at age 37 and 38.
Montana wasn't the best athlete, didn't have Jeff George's arm or Michael Bishop's legs. He was a quarterback. And no one in NFL history was better at getting his team in the end zone, particularly when the stakes were highest. Sure, Marino or Elway or Manning or Young might have won four Super Bowls with those 49ers teams. But Montana did, and did so putting up big numbers. That's what lands him in the top spot.
2. Johnny Unitas
Look, it's impossible to compare numbers from Unitas' era to the modern (call it post-1984) era. In 1957 Unitas led the league with a passer rating of 88.0. That number would've ranked 14th last year, just ahead of Kyle Orton. I'm thinking Unitas was probably better than Kyle Orton. We know it was a different game, guys on defense were just able to get away with more. So the best way to look at Unitas is this: he was the dominant QB of his era, leading the league in passing yards four times, TD pass four times and passer rating three times in a nine-year stretch. Plus four times an MVP and six-times the First-Team All-Pro QB (six times is more than Dan Marino, Tom Brady, John Elway, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw combined). Hard to believe that this guy wouldn't be a 4,000-yard, 35-TD player if he were in his prime today. Not his fault he played in the NFL version of the deadball era. We know all about the Greatest Game Ever Played and the other huge wins, but something I think what is lost is just how impressive Unitas' numbers were, particularly in his era. He threw 32 TD passes in 1959, 12 more than anyone else in the league. That's 60% more TD passes than any other QB that season. Hard to believe, but that's just as impressive (if more more so) than Brady's 50 TD passes in 2007.
(Here's another one. With the exception of 1968, Unitas ranked in the top eight in completion percentage in each season from 1956-1969, eight times finishing in the top three. But his career completion percentage, 54.6, is 124th best in history, tied with John Friesz and Bubby Brister. See what I mean about impossible to compare?)
3. Peyton Manning
It comes down to this: Manning has played 192 games in his career, Brady 129. That's a 63-game spread, not insignificant. Even if you think Brady has had the better career (which is a perfectly legitimate stance) is this difference great enough to make up nearly four full seasons of Manning? Having watched these two guys over the last decade-plus I just don't see how that could be.
4. Tom Brady
I think Brady is most consistent great quarterback the NFL has ever seen. He's never had a bad year. Montana had a lousy 1986 (threw more INTs than TDs), Manning stiffed in 2003 (23 picks for a 6-10 Colts team coming off 13-3 and 10-6 seasons), and you can find a season like that for other guy on this list but Brady. He's always been over 60 percent passing, always a healthy TD over INT edge, and his teams have had a winning record every year.
(Aside: All it took was two preseason games for the "Brady has gone Hollywood" crowd to sneak quietly out the back door, huh? What a bunch of dopes. Same crew that spent the last four months telling us that Jacoby Ellsbury was half a man. And most of those guys don't even believe what they are saying -- they just want ratings and page views and phone calls. It's a lot easier to call a guy a sellout or question his manhood than it is to admit that you have no idea what you're talking about. But Brady? This is a guy risking a heck of a lot by playing this preseason. I'm not sure if I were Brady's agent I'd be OK with him on the field until a contract was in ink. I don't know, I understand he's rich and famous and goes to sleep every night next to the kind of woman that usually inspires really pretentious music, but it has to bother Brady that Kyle Orton and Sam Bradford will make more money than he does this year.)
5. Dan Marino
This is as high as I can go with a guy that never won a Super Bowl. Now we know a lot of that isn't Marino's fault, but to be fair the guy wasn't the same QB in the playoffs as he was in the regular season. A 32-24 TD/INT in the playoffs with a passer rating of just 77.1, Marino played in 18 postseason games and threw at least two INT in 10 of them (Dolphins were 1-9 in those contests). Isn't a lasting image of Marino's career the sight of him ripping off his chinstrap in some cold-weather city (Buffalo, NE, Denver) in January after an INT, then promptly bitching out a lineman for not blocking or a receiver for running a wrong route? That was an NBC staple of the 1990s, as much as "ER" or Robert Stack's trench coat from "Unsolved Mysteries."
4,000-yard passing seasons are quickly becoming like 1,000-yard rushing seasons. They just don't mean a whole lot anymore. There were 10 guys with at least 4,000 passing yards last year, which is eight more than there was in the entire history of the NFL before 1980. In the 1960s there was one 4,000-yard season (Namath, 1967). In the 1970s there was also just one (Fouts, 1979). So when Dan Marino came into the league in 1983 and passed for over 4,100 yards in three of his first four years in Miami you can understand why people thought they were watching Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlain. Now the rest of the NFL caught up to Marino pretty quickly (unlike the Babe or Wilt) and the truth is that Fouts was putting up really big numbers even before Marino showed up, but from 1984-1992 Marino was pretty damn close to revolutionary.
6. Brett Favre
I don't think anyone is sick of watching Favre play, right? It's just the Tennessee Williams act we have to go through every offseason. And ESPN -- in a shocker-- has totally misread how much we care about whole thing. I get that folks in Minnesota care, and I guess Green Bay also, but no one else does. We don't need the plane taking off and the high school practices, and the special FAVRE scroll on ESPN News. The guy doesn't want to go to training camp and wanted more money. We've been briefed.
Favre just has too many records not to be on this list, there's just too much. And it's not as if he's been a compiler, this is a three-time MVP (and he could have been MVP last year) and 11-time Pro Bowler. But what keeps him outside the top three or four, of course, is the answer to this question: Which great quarterback is most likely to throw a killer INT in a late-game spot? Has to be Favre, not even close. Was anyone surprised Favre threw that pick in the NFC title game last year? I mean, other than Ed Werder.
7. John Elway
Elway had 158 career TD passes and 157 INT after his first 10 seasons in the league. He had never led the league in any category, and was coming off a season that saw him throw 10 TDs against 17 INT's. This was in 1992, Elway was 32 years old and Tommy Maddox --Denver's first-rounder in 1992-- was there for a reason. Could've gone either way. But Elway figured it out, he really did. Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips out and Mike Shanahan in sure helped, as did Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith, but Elway was able to adjust to a new offense, a new style. No small feat in NFL middle age. I'm trying to think of a decent comparison for today … all I can come up with is if Donovan McNabb won two Super Bowls over the next four or five years. McNabb is actually a decent comparison when you look at the postseason ups and downs, the athleticism and the Shanahan Factor.
8. Steve Young
Not his fault, but Young wasn't a starter for long enough to crack top half of this group. But you go by "peak value" he might be the best ever. From 1991-97 he led the league in the following categories:
Passer rating (1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997)
TD passes (1992, 1993, 1994,)
Completion percentage (1992, 1994-97)
Yards per pass attempts (1991-94, 1997)
Passing TD percentage (1992-94)
I don't know if those are the five most important categories, but there are probably five of the six or seven most important. And Young led the league in 21 of them over a seven-year stretch. How impressive is that? Well, Dan Marino from 1984-92 (the "revolutionizing the game" stage) led the league in those categories 10 times. Brady has led the league in those categories a total of eight times in his career.
I know it's not just about stats, and Young played in a system that was conducive to high completion percentage (lots of short stuff, Young or Montana never led the league in yards per pass completion) and passer rating. But lots of other guys played (and are playing) in the West Coast offense, and none came close to doing what Young was able to do. He wasn't quite Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez, but not far off. And if he had been able to wrestle the starting spot away from Montana two or three years earlier maybe he'd be number one on this list. But you can play the if game with almost all these guys. You know, if David Tyree doesn't make that catch and the Pats don't blow a 21-3 AFC Title Game lead over the Colts Brady probably has five Super Bowl titles and that would give him a bat and ball in the argument. Again, I think the 49ers would have won those Super Bowls with Young, but I know they did with Montana.
9. Roger Staubach
A rookie at age 27, so the career numbers don't match the others on the list. Why a rookie at 27? Well, he was in the Navy for four years, which included a year in Vietnam. You know, pretty much the same backstory as JaMarcus Russell before he entered the league.
Staubach was only a starter for eight seasons, but he made 'em count, leading the league in passer rating four times (including a 104.8 mark in 1971 that was the highest of the decade), including his final two seasons in the league. He also won a pair of Super Bowls, four NFC titles and played in six conference title games. Career record as a starter? 85-29. Not bad value for a 10th-round pick.
10. Terry Bradshaw
Yep, the Steelers were a grind it out and let the defense win it for us team during the first two Super Bowls. But for the final two the Steelers rode the arm of Bradshaw, as he passed for over 300 yards in wins over the Cowboys and Rams. He could win ugly if he had to, or he could win (and act, run don't walk to the nearest Redbox and pray "The Cannonball Run" is in stock ) with some style.