Friday, August 3, 2007

Ranking All-Time Quarterbacks

The 2007 NFL Fact & Record Book consists of 784 pages that are jam packed with every pro football statistic you could possibly imagine, plus a few that you may not have thought of yet. Who won the first NFL game played outside of the United States? The New York Giants beat the Ottawa Rough Riders 27-6 in Ottawa on August 12, 1950. What happened in the first regular season NFL game that went to sudden death overtime? Pittsburgh tied Denver 35-35 on September 22, 1974, after a Joe Gilliam interception, a missed Jim Turner field goal and several punts.

One of the best things about the book is that it acknowledges the existence of AFL statistics, as opposed to NBA record books that place ABA statistics in the corner as if they are unfit to be seen in proper company. Joe Namath, who spent the first five seasons of his 12 year New York Jets career in the AFL, still dominates the Jets' passing records, holding the marks for career yards (27,057), career passing touchdowns (170), single season passing yards (4007 in 1967), single game passing yards (496 on September 24, 1972) and single game passing touchdowns (six, also on September 24, 1972). Namath famously guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III and then led his Jets to an improbable 16-7 victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, the first time that an AFL team beat an NFL team in the championship game. It is perhaps not as widely known that he was the first professional quarterback to throw for more than 4000 yards in a season. Namath accomplished that feat in a 14 game season and the mark stood until 1979, when San Diego's Dan Fouts compiled 4082 yards. By that time, pro football was a very different sport: the season now lasted 16 games and several rules had been changed to open up the passing game, the most important of which liberalized how offensive linemen could block and limited downfield contact by defensive backs against wide receivers. Even with those advantages, Fouts averaged fewer yards per attempt (7.7) and fewer yards per game (255.1) than Namath did in 1967 (8.2 and 286.2 respectively). In 1980 Fouts broke Namath's yards per game record, throwing for 4715 yards in 16 games (294.7) but his 8.0 yards per attempt still did not match Namath's standard. The first passer to throw for more than 4000 yards with a better yards per attempt average than Namath's was Green Bay's Lynn Dickey, who threw for 4458 yards on 484 attempts (9.2) in 1983. Another example of how NFL offenses have opened up since the late 1970s is the 400 yard passing game, which used to be fairly rare. For a while, Sonny Jurgenson was the all-time leader with five such games and Namath ranked second with three. Now there have been 189 such performances by 101 players, led by Dan Marino's 13, seven each by Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Warren Moon and six each by Drew Bledsoe and Fouts. Or, consider this: it usually takes at least 30 touchdown passes to lead the league in that category now, but Namath tied for the NFL lead in 1972 with 19.

Clearly, Namath was ahead of his time as a proponent of the "vertical game" and that, along with his memorable Super Bowl performance, earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fans who don't remember Namath's Super Bowl heroics and who do not realize how long he held the single season yardage record are sometimes puzzled about why Namath is a Hall of Famer. They point to his 65.46 career passer rating and his career touchdown/interception ratio of 173/220. This is a great example of why context is so important when one examines a player's statistics. The first thing that must be noted is that 49 of Namath's interceptions came in his last three seasons, when injuries reduced him to a shell of his former self; his touchdown/interception ratio for the first 10 seasons of his career was 151/171. That still may not look great to modern eyes, which brings us to the second point: prior to the aforementioned rules changes that liberated the passing game, many Pro Bowl passers had negative touchdown/interception ratios during their careers, including George Blanda (236/277), John Brodie (214/224), Y.A. Tittle (212/221), Bobby Layne (196/243), Sammy Baugh (187/203), Norm Van Brocklin (173/178), Charley Johnson (170/181), Jack Kemp (114/183) Eddie LeBaron (104/141) and Bob Waterfield (97/128).

That takes us straight to point three, which is that interceptions are the fastest way to kill a player's passer rating. Writers, broadcasters and fans act like the passer rating formula is too complicated to understand but it actually is pretty straightforward; it only takes one half of page 360 in the NFL Fact & Record Book to explain how it works. That passage notes that the most important thing to remember is that "the system is used to rate passers, not quarterbacks. Statistics do not reflect leadership, play-calling and other intangible factors that go into making a successful professional quarterback"--so Namath gets no points for saying prior to Super Bowl III, "We're going to win this game. I guarantee it." The rating is calculated by considering four factors: completion percentage, yards per attempt, percentage of touchdown passes per attempt and percentage of interceptions per attempt. It is easy to see why interceptions are death for one's passer rating; they lower a player's score in every category. A passer's performance in each category corresponds to a score between 0 and 2.375. You can only get a 2.375 in interceptions by going an entire season without throwing one, which has never been done by a player who had enough attempts to qualify for the passer rating title. The four scores are added up, divided by six and multiplied by 100; this is why the maximum passer rating is 158.3 (2.375 multiplied by four, divided by six and multiplied by 100). It is difficult to get a good passer rating with a negative touchdown/interception ratio, which is why most of the great quarterbacks of the pre-1979 time period amassed career ratings that look pedestrian to modern eyes. In fact, only one player who started his career prior to 1980 is on the list of the 20 best career passer ratings: Joe Montana (Otto Graham would make the cut if the NFL included his AAFC statistics). The top 20 passer ratings range from Steve Young (96.8) to Jake Delhomme (84.0), who just edges out Hall of Famer Roger Staubach (83.4). Brian Griese, who could not beat out Rex Grossman last year in Chicago, ranks 17th all-time (84.5); his father Bob Griese, who led the Dolphins to two Super Bowl wins, ranks 60th with a 77.1 rating. Johnny Unitas, who held virtually every passing record when he retired and is still considered by many to be the greatest quarterback of all-time, ranks 52nd with a 78.2 rating.

This does not mean that there is anything wrong with the NFL's passer rating system; it is a decent tool to evaluate a passer's efficiency compared to other passers from the same era. The problem is that it was originally intended as something that could be used to compare passers from various eras but that is no longer fair or realistic considering the dramatic rules changes that were enacted three decades ago. Prior to that time, many great quarterbacks had career ratings between 70 and 80, with Jurgenson topping the list at 82.62, just ahead of Len Dawson (82.56); Staubach inched past Jurgenson but Staubach benefited at the end of his career by playing under the new rules. In today's game, a passer rating between 70 and 80 is considered subpar.

Tennis has a different set of records for before and after the Open Era began. Major League Baseball has its Deadball era (and its Steroids era that has yet to be fully defined or even officially acknowledged). The NFL's passing records should indicate that post-1978 (when the season was expanded to 16 games, the five yard contact rule was created and offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands while blocking) is a Liveball era.


Anonymous said...

You're talking over your head. That's not how the QB rating works. You absolutely can have a perfect rating and have thrown an interception.

David Friedman said...

You are wrong about two things. One, the rating in question is a "passer" rating, not a "QB" rating; it rates passing done by any player, not just a quarterback, and it does not evaluate other aspects of being a quarterback (mobility, leadership, etc). Two, the formula absolutely stipulates that you cannot earn the maximum 158.3 if you throw even one interception.

Check out this article:

Also, although I don't consider Wikipedia to be a 100% reliable source about everything, this entry gives an excellent and accurate explanation of a perfect rating:

Eric G said...

I found this article to be enjoyable.. it left me with a question.... what season (besides this on) had the most QBs that threw 4k yards for the season?

because I think i've seen more 4000+ yard passers this year than any before.

David Friedman said...


This season there were a record seven NFL passers who gained more than 4000 yards. The previous high was five in 1999, 2004 and 2006, as detailed in this article: