This is the first article in what will be a periodic series comparing retired athletes from various sports with one or more of their active counterparts (if you would like to see a particular matchup analyzed, make a suggestion in the comments section). Brett Favre versus Dan Marino is a natural and timely selection to begin this series with because Favre is just one touchdown pass away from breaking Marino's NFL regular season career record of 420. Purely based on the "eyeball" test, my first inclination would be to agree with Favre's own recent assessment that, regardless of the final tally in the record books, Marino was a better quarterback. I remember Marino for his lightning quick release, his strong arm and his efficiency. I also remember that he was significantly better than average at evading pass rushers and, although he was never a scrambler, he was mobile enough to roll out and throw accurately, at least early in his career. Favre, on the other hand, sticks out in my mind for his strong arm, his remarkable streak of 240 straight starts (and counting), his mobility and a peculiar combination of clutch play and erratic decision making that can either quickly bring his team back in the game or take his team out of the game. Off the top of my head, I would have assumed that Marino has a higher career passer rating than Favre--and he does, but by a smaller margin that I would have thought, 86.4 to 85.2. I previously explained why the passer ratings of quarterbacks who played prior to 1978 should not be compared to the passer ratings of quarterbacks who played after 1978 but it is fair to compare Marino and Favre in this fashion because they both played their entire careers after 1978.
Marino began rewriting the record book in his rookie season, posting a 96.0 passer rating in 1983 that was not exceeded by a rookie until Ben Roethlisberger put up a 98.1 rating in 2004. Marino is the first (and still the only) rookie quarterback to lead a conference in passing since the passer ratings began being used in 1973. That was just a prelude to his epochal 1984 season, when Marino led the NFL with a 108.9 passer rating (a mark that 23 years later has still only been broken by Steve Young in 1994--112.8--and Peyton Manning in 2004--121.1) while setting single season records for yards (5084) and touchdowns (48). The yardage mark still stands, while Manning broke the touchdown record by one in 2004. After a "down" year in 1985 (4137 yards, 30 touchdowns), Marino led the AFC in passer rating in 1986 (92.5) while throwing for 4746 yards and 44 touchdowns, still the third best single season total ever. After the 1986 season, Marino was the highest ranked passer in NFL history with a 95.2 career rating (Joe Montana was second with a 91.2 rating). Marino retained that status after the 1987 season before slipping to second place behind Montana in 1988. Marino stayed in second place until after the 1992 season, when Steve Young amassed the minimum qualifying number of attempts (1500) and pushed Marino to third place. Marino got off to a fine start in 1993 and had a 95.9 passer rating through five games when he ruptured his Achilles tendon. Prior to 1993, Marino displayed an almost Favre-like durability, playing in all 16 games in eight of the previous nine seasons. Marino came back from the Achilles injury to play six more seasons but he only had a passer rating better than 90 in one of them. At the start of the 2007 season, Marino ranked 12th in career passer rating, while Favre was right behind him at 15th.
Those early, record breaking seasons left an indelible impression and are no doubt why my gut instinct is to consider Marino to be a more efficient passer than Favre, who never was quite as dominant as Marino was at his peak and who never topped the NFL's career passer rating list. Also, the only time that Marino threw more interceptions than touchdowns in a season was 1999, his final year; Favre has had more interceptions than touchdowns three times (not including his two game rookie season when he had two interceptions and no touchdowns) and he had a fourth season when he tossed 18 of each. Favre is not only closing in on the career touchdown record but he also is just three interceptions away from breaking George Blanda's career interception record of 277; Marino finished his career with 252 interceptions.
A closer look at the numbers reveals why their career passer ratings are so similar; they are pretty evenly matched in each of the four categories that are combined to calculate the ratings: Marino has a slight edge in yards per attempt (7.3 to 7.0), Favre has the better completion percentage (61.1 to 59.4), they are in a dead heat in percentage of TDs per pass attempt (5.0 each) and Marino did slightly better in percentage of interceptions per pass attempt (3.0 to 3.3). I thought that Marino had a much better TD/INT ratio than Favre but this may be a sign that I am living in the 1980s; the young Marino was a more efficient quarterback than the young Favre, who did not really hit his stride until his fourth season, but their overall careers are remarkably similar. One thing that has helped Favre gain ground on Marino at the back end of Favre's career is Favre's unmatched durability. Favre had down years in 2005 and 2006 but he has bounced back so far in 2007 and in general he has aged better than Marino did.
Neither player was ever a running quarterback in the Steve Young/Randall Cunningham mold. Favre has rushed for 1771 yards on 531 attempts (3.1 avg.) and scored 13 touchdowns so far, while Marino rushed for 87 yards on 301 attempts (.3 avg.) and scored nine touchdowns. To be fair to Marino, most of his "attempts" were kneel downs (which by rule lose at least a yard) and he rushed for -22 yards combined after his Achilles injury; again, it is worthwhile to mention that while Marino was never a scrambler he was more mobile in the pocket than many people who only saw him late in his career might think.
What about their playoff careers? Marino went 8-10 in the playoffs, completing 385 of 687 passes for 4510 yards, 32 touchdowns and 24 interceptions (77.1 rating). He led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl after his record setting second season but Miami was routed by Montana's 49ers and Marino never made it back to the big game. Favre has gone 11-9 in the playoffs, completing 401 of 663 passes for 4902 yards, 34 touchdowns and 26 interceptions (84.0 rating). Favre led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory after the 1996 season; they lost in the Super Bowl the following year.
The NFL does not officially award an MVP but several different organizations (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers of America, the Maxwell Football Club) choose an NFL MVP each year. They often agree, but not always, and if you hear the phrase "NFL MVP" without a qualifier then the speaker is probably referring to the AP honor. Favre is the only three-time winner of that award (1995-97, sharing the 1997 MVP with Barry Sanders). Marino won the AP NFL MVP in 1984; Marino was also honored by the Maxwell Club (the Bert Bell Award) and the PFWA that year. Favre won the Bert Bell Award in 1995 and 1996 and he won the PFWA MVP in those two years as well.
In addition to the career touchdown record that Favre is about to set, he holds numerous other records, including most career completions (5101), most regular season wins by a starting quarterback (150; John Elway had 148, Marino had 147), most consecutive seasons with at least 20 TD passes (12; Marino's streak of 10 was snapped by the Achilles injury and he had at least 20 in each of his next two full seasons), most consecutive seasons with at least 30 TD passes (5; Marino's best such streak was 3) and most consecutive seasons with at least 3000 passing yards (15 and counting; Marino had nine in a row before the Achilles injury and then had two more in a row right after it). Favre ranks second with 58,361 career passing yards, exactly 3000 behind Marino, so that mark is certainly within reach this season.
Who is the greater quarterback, Dan Marino or Brett Favre? It really depends on what one means by this question. Favre has constructed a more weighty overall body of work, highlighted by a Super Bowl win, three AP MVPs and a laundry list of career records. However, in terms of peak value--which quarterback reached the highest level based on his performance during his best seasons--I would take Marino circa 1983-86, particularly the 1984 edition, in a narrow decision over Favre's great peak value run from 1994-97.
Brett Favre's career statistics
Dan Marino's career statistics
NFL career passer rating leaders
NFL passer rating calculator