What makes an elite quarterback? I’m not talking about elite in terms of fantasy value or who will top the league in 2013.
No, what I want to know is what makes an all-time great, top of the heap, cream of the crop type of a quarterback?
In my mind to be a part of the discussion you have to have a few things: at least one Super Bowl ring, at least 40,000 passing yards, at least 270 passing touchdowns, and a career completion rate above 60 percent.
Even if we compile a list of quarterbacks that meet these criteria, which we will do below, how can we decide on the greatest quarterback of all time?
How do we compare a quarterback from 40 years ago with someone who hasn’t even finished their career? The game has changed so much that it is certainly difficult to make the comparison. But of course I will attempt to do so.
For argument’s sake we will give each quarterback who is still playing, careers that allow them to play at their current levels until they turn 38.
But we will ONLY be projecting quarterbacks that CURRENTLY still meet the four necessary standards; not those who would reach those standards 10+ years from now. So for example, Peyton Manning would have two more years, Brady would have three more seasons, and Brees would have five more seasons.
Let’s first figure out who meets the criteria. Only 11 quarterbacks have reached 270 passing touchdowns. Those 11 include Favre (508), Peyton Manning (436), Marino (420), Tarkenton (342), Brady (334), Brees (332), Elway (300), Moon (291), Unitas (290), Testaverde (275), and Montana (273).
Of those 11 quarterbacks, all 11 have hit the 40,000-yard mark although Unitas and Montana were less than 600 yards over 40K.
Of the 11 though, only five were able to surpass the 60 percent completion mark: Brees, Manning, Brady, Montana, and Favre.
All five of those QBs have won at least one Super Bowl. Montana went 4-0 in the big game. Brady is 3-2. Favre and Manning are 1-1 and Brees is 1-0.
Right off the bat I’m sure there are those of you who are yelling, cursing, and deciding which stats you want to pull up to support another QB. Marino’s yards. Bradshaw’s rings. The way that a guy like Tarkenton changed the game. Trust me, I know that this debate will rage on for decades.
In fact, what will happen 10 years from now when guys like Flacco, Rodgers, Eli Manning and Ryan are nearing the end of careers that may rival all of these players? Well, we can have that debate when the time comes.
For now, we have a list of five potential “greatest” quarterbacks of all time.
Since three of the five are still playing, we need to project some stats for them. Based on the age limit we provided and the current averages, this is what things would look like for the three guys still playing:
Brees: 66,800 passing yards and 471 passing scores
Brady: 57,000 passing yards and 425 passing scores
Manning: 68,000 passing yards and 498 passing scores.
Compare that to Favre and Montana:
Favre: 71,838 passing yards and 508 passing scores.
Montana: 40,551 passing yards and 273 passing scores.
The debate becomes difficult because we have to put some value on Super Bowls versus statistics. Brady and Montana do not have the stats to compete with the other three, but Favre, Brees, and Manning COMBINED only tie Brady and still lose to Montana’s Super Bowl totals.
If we add total games won I think we can slightly narrow the group down. By using our same projections from earlier, we get the following win totals:
Favre (186), Montana (117), Manning (176), Brady (173), and Brees (144).
By adding total wins to the equation, we can at least say that Brees, who is similar to Manning in yards, scores, and Super Bowls, has far fewer wins. Brees is also the most difficult to project because we are giving him five more years at his current levels. For those two reasons, we will drop him from the debate.
Can we do the same type of comparison between Montana and Brady? They each have at least three Super Bowl rings, but Brady destroys Montana in every other conceivable category.
While it is difficult to get rid of a winner like Montana, he just doesn’t have the stats to compare with someone like Brady since Brady can hang with him on titles.
That leaves us with Favre, Manning, and Brady.
We could go a number of places from here. Does winning percentage push one QB over another? What about something like Favre’s streak of starting games? How about the fact that both Manning and Favre were able to win for multiple teams (I’m sure Brady would win elsewhere as well). It is very difficult to gain separation between these three quarterbacks.
We could simply say that Brady has two more rings and therefore is greater. But I actually think that, since we are comparing individual players, it makes sense to value the statistics more than the titles and here is why: Brady was surrounded by great players.
In 2001 the Patriots ranked sixth in points allowed. In 2003 The Patriots were number one in the league. In 2004 they were number two in that same category. Their defense was doing as much as their offense. And when Brady was winning Super Bowls, they had a run game as well. Antowain Smith had over 2,500 total rush/rec yards and 21 scores in 2001 and 2002. Corey Dillon rushed for over 1,600 yards and 12 scores in 2004.
So while Brady has been a very good quarterback, since losing his top tier defense and running game, he has won a total of zero Super Bowls. Brady may have received the glory during those days, but it was his team that won those games.
Compare that to the Super Bowl victories for Manning and Favre. In 2006 when the Colts won the Super Bowl they ranked 23rd in points allowed per game. While Addai and Rhodes combined for 1,700 rushing yards and 12 TDs, the real story on offense was Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne each surpassing 1,300 receiving yards with 21 total scores. Manning made those two wide receivers look like the best duo in the league.
In 1996 when Favre and company won the Super Bowl they didn’t have a single player with 900 or more rushing yards and didn’t have a single receiver hit 1,000 yards. Favre ended the season with 3,900 yards and 39 scores. He spread the ball around quite a bit and couldn’t rely on a run game to take pressure off of him. The Packers' defense was a big part of their success though, ranking first in points allowed.
Manning vs Favre. I have had this debate with friends and strangers. When Favre went to the Jets and then the Vikings, many thought that he tarnished his record; but without those two stints, Manning would certainly be expected to finish with more wins, passing yards, and touchdowns than Favre.
It was his ability to be a play away from another Super Bowl that keeps him in this debate. At the same time, it was his interception in his final pass attempt that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl instead of the Vikings.
Favre has three league MVPs and Manning has four. Not enough of a difference to solve the debate.
If Manning were to play three or more years instead of the two we are giving him or if he were to win another Super Bowl before retiring then he would probably get the nod. At the same time if he only plays another season then Favre would easily win in every statistical match-up and would get the nod.
The final leg of my argument comes down to one thing: playoff success.
Peyton Manning was able to lead strong teams in a weak division into the playoffs. But then when his teams were matched up with tougher conference opponents, he couldn’t get it done. Here is his playoff results: 1999 (0-1), 2000 (0-1), 2002 (0-1), 2003 (2-1), 2004 (1-1), 2005 (0-1), 2006 (4-0), 2007 (0-1), 2008 (0-1), 2009 (2-1), 2010 (0-1), 2012 (0-1).
While making the playoffs 12 times, including nine straight with the Colts, Manning had EIGHT seasons where he didn’t win a single playoff game!
In 2003 Manning got his team to the AFC title game before losing. In 2004 it was a 20-3 beat down in the conference semi-finals that knocked them out. It was only in 2009 that Manning got back to the Super Bowl before losing to the Saints by 14 after being a five point favorite.
Favre’s playoff experience was better. Here is his playoff results: 1993 (1-1), 1994 (1-1), 1995 (2-1), 1996 (3-0), 1997 (2-1), 1998 (0-1), 2001 (1-1), 2002 (0-1), 2003 (1-1), 2004 (0-1), 2007 (1-1), 2009 (1-1).
Favre also made the playoffs 12 times, but on only three occasions did he fail to win a playoff game. In 1993 the Packers lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs in the conference semis.
In 1995 the Packers made it to the NFC title game. In 1996 they of course won the Super Bowl. In 1997 they again made it to the big game. In 2007, Favre’s final hurrah with the Packers, Green Bay lost by three points in the NFC title game to the eventual Super Bowl Champions, the New York Giants.
So while stats will end up very similar, MVPs and Super Bowls are nearly even, it was Favre’s ability to win in the playoffs that puts him above Peyton Manning. His iron man streak certainly helps the argument a bit as well.
The debate will continue and change as time progresses. I think by the end of the decade the debate could likely be between these two guys and another Green Bay quarterback.
Maybe little Manning will be a part of the argument. For now though, the greatest quarterback of all time in the mind of this writer is Brett Favre.
Love him or hate him. It doesn’t matter to me. Just respect what he has done. Respect his drive, his determination, and his success. Respect the ring and respect the stats. If you can do that, then we can continue the civilized debate.
Let me know why I’m wrong (or maybe why I’m right!) in the comments below.