Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Favre Era Ends Quietly

There will not be a farewell tour. There will not be a ceremony. Brett Favre played the game his way and now he has decided to leave the game on his terms, announcing his retirement in a voice mail message to ESPN's Chris Mortenson. "I know I can still play, but it's like I told my wife, I'm just tired mentally. I'm just tired," Favre told Mortenson. Favre added that the only way for him to consider the 2008 season a success would be to win a Super Bowl, concluding "...the odds of that, they're tough. Those are big shoes for me to fill, and I guess it was a challenge I wasn't up for."

Some writers have already suggested that Favre is making a mistake and that he will miss the game. Obviously, he will miss the game--the cliche says that athletes die twice--but no one can play forever, so a player who is fortunate enough to not have to retire due to injuries must decide when he thinks it is the best time to leave the game. Favre's stated reasons are actually very logical. He has already won a Super Bowl and he owns virtually every meaningful individual passing record, so he is right that anything short of winning a second Super Bowl would render another season a failure. He is also right that the odds of any one team winning the Super Bowl are not great. We just saw an 18-0 team that has won three Super Bowls lose in the big game and, as Favre reportedly said, there is no assurance that the Cinderella Packers from last year will not follow up that performance the way that the Bears and Saints played after doing so well in 2006. This is actually an excellent time for Favre to quit: he is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career, largely erasing the memory of his subpar statistics in recent seasons. In fact, by retiring now, Favre actually set two more records: he has posted the most yards (4155) and most touchdowns (28) for any NFL quarterback in his final season.

The obvious and inevitable question now--and one that has been discussed with increasing frequency as Favre placed his stamp in the record book--is where Favre ranks in the pantheon of pro football quarterbacks. A few months ago--in a post titled Past Versus Present: Comparing Brett Favre and Dan Marino--I concluded that Brett Favre and Dan Marino are very evenly matched: "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."

I recently did a series of articles titled "NBA Pantheon: An Examination of Greatness" (you can find Part V here and there are links to the previous parts within that article). My general philosophy about sports pantheons borrows from something that I once heard the great Walter Payton say during a radio interview: he suggested that rather than ranking the greatest running backs of all-time we should simply savor and enjoy the unique traits of each of the worthy candidates. "Greatest quarterback of all-time" is a mythical title but it is possible to list several players who clearly deserve consideration for the quarterback pantheon; my short list would include (in chronological order) Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Graham led the Cleveland Browns to 10 championship games in his 10 seasons, winning seven titles; he was not only a great passer but also a very mobile quarterback who was a major running threat. The NFL does not issue an "official" MVP award; Favre, Unitas and Jim Brown are the only three-time winners of the AP MVP award--an honor that was not given out during Graham's career--but Graham won three UPI NFL MVPs and he also won two MVPs (one of them shared) in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC).

Unitas set career records for passing yards, completions and touchdowns. Those marks have since been broken in the now pass-happy NFL but Unitas has one record that some have compared to Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak: Unitas threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games. Unitas played most of his career in the pre-Super Bowl era, winning three NFL titles; he also played in two Super Bowls, losing to Joe Namath's Jets in Super Bowl III and beating the Cowboys 16-13 in Super Bowl V. As a pure pocket passer he still ranks with anyone who has ever played.

Montana matched Terry Bradshaw by winning four Super Bowl championships. He retired with the highest passer rating in NFL history and he still ranks fourth. The twin hallmarks of Montana's game were accuracy and the ability to deliver in the clutch.

Marino may have had the quickest release of any passer in NFL history. He was not a scrambler but before he injured his Achilles he had the uncanny ability to move around the pocket in a three foot radius and avoid a sack. Like Unitas, he retired as the career leader in passing yards, completions and touchdowns. Marino never won a Super Bowl title and he only made it to the big game once. If he had won a championship he would rank higher on a lot of people's lists.

Elway spent most of his career with a paradoxical reputation: he holds the record for fourth quarter comebacks (47) yet he came up empty in his first three Super Bowl appearances. He seemed to be destined to be known as a great individual performer who never won the big game but then he capped off his career with back to back Super Bowl wins in his final two seasons. For most of his career, Elway was not a particularly efficient passer--he ranks just 43rd in career passer rating, which is not exceptional considering the pass-friendly era in which he played--but those two championships and his many memorable comeback victories ensure his place in NFL history.

Young will always be somewhat hidden in Montana's shadow but he is the highest rated passer in NFL history. That is remarkable because for quite some time he was considered to be a running back playing quarterback; Young rushed for 4239 yards, second among quarterbacks to Randall Cunningham, and he is one of the greatest all-around athletes to play the quarterback position. Young got the proverbial "monkey" off of his back by throwing a record six touchdown passes in a 49-26 victory in Super Bowl XXIX, winning MVP honors. That season he set a regular season record for passer rating (since broken).

Favre currently owns the career records for passing yards (61,655), touchdowns (442) and completions (5377)--but his most remarkable record is that he made 253 consecutive regular season starts (the number balloons to 275 if you include playoff games). Favre' s longevity enabled him to post the most wins by a quarterback (160); that longevity plus a gunslinger mentality also resulted in Favre throwing the most career interceptions (288). He was not as efficient as Montana or Young and he did not win as many championships as several other members of this pantheon but his durability and overall production are quite remarkable.

Manning and Brady are of course still adding to their legacies. Manning got his "monkey" off of his back by winning a Super Bowl two years ago and it looks like he has a shot to break Favre's career records. Brady has won three Super Bowls in four appearances and last season he put together one of the most remarkable single season passing performances ever. Brady is very reminiscent of Montana in terms of accuracy and clutch play but last season's assault on the record book proved that he can also put up huge raw numbers like Marino and Manning.


vednam said...

David, how would you compare John Elway to other pantheon level quarterbacks? (I know you have him on your list.)

The reason I ask is I've always been a big Elway fan, but a friend of mine contended that Elway was very overrated and pointed to the fact that he had mediocre numbers for many seasons (and his best statistical seasons would merely pass as average for Dan Marino). Elway does lag far behind in QB rating, completion percentage, etc., and I was surprised to look back and see how unimpressive some if his numbers were. My friend also argued that Super Bowls shouldn't boost Elway since he won his while in his twilight and depended a lot on Terrell Davis.

David Friedman said...


I have to admit that I reluctantly put Elway in the pantheon; my feelings about him are very conflicted. Obviously, as a Browns fan, I never rooted for him, so I have to block all of that out and try to just be objective about his production. By the same token, I have to be careful not to overrate him just because he killed my favorite team in three AFC Championship Games.

Those disclaimers out of the way, as I indicated in the post, for most of his career Elway was not an efficient passer, as shown by his passer ratings (he had some efficient years late in his career under Shanahan and it could be argued that Dan Reeves did not always properly use Elway; Elway certainly felt that way, which is why the two of them argued so much). Still, Elway was a tremendous running threat who also had a strong arm. Other than the three early Super Bowls, he was a very good clutch performer. As much as I'd like to keep him out of the pantheon--both because of his Browns' killing record and his lack of efficiency relative to other all-time greats--I think that he has to be listed in the top 9-10 quarterbacks of all-time. I say that because of his overall production, his clutch play and his two championships. Yes, Davis had a big role in those championships, but Elway also carried some talent-bereft teams to the Super Bowl, which is part of the reason they got creamed once they got there. I've seen/read some analysts who rank Elway as the best quarterback ever but I would not go that far. I don't even think that he is top five but, like I said, I think that he pretty much has to be in the top 9-10.