Best passers in history: Yards Per Attempt

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jun 18, 2008



For reasons chronicled many times by the Cold, Hard Football Facts, Yards Per Attempt is the easiest, most effective way to measure the effectiveness of an individual passer or a team's overall passing ability.
 
Here below is a list of the Top 20 all-time passing leaders. Also see these related stories:
TOP 20 ALL-TIME PASSING YPA LEADERS (as of end of 2007 season; HOFers in bold)
 
Player (Years)
Yards
Att.
YPA
Title Games
Titles
1
Otto Graham
(1950-55)
13,499
1,565
8.63
6
3
2
Sid Luckman
(1939-50)
14,686
1,744
8.42
5
4
3
Norm Van Brocklin (1949-60)
23,611
2,895
8.16
5
2
4
Ben Roethlisberger (2004-2007)
11,673
1,436
8.13
1
1
5
Kurt Warner
(1998-2007)
24,008
2,959
8.11
2
1
6
Steve Young
(1985-99)
33,124
4,149
7.98
1
1
7
Ed Brown
(1954-65)
15,600
1,987
7.851
1
0
8
Bart Starr
(1956-71)
24,718
3,149
7.849
6
5
9
Bob Berry
(1965-75)
9,197
1,173
7.84
0
0
10
Johnny Unitas (1956-73)
40,239
5,186
7.76
4
3
11
Earl Morrall
(1956-76)
20,809
2,689
7.74
3*
2*
12
Peyton Manning (1998-06)
41,626
5,405
7.70
1
1
13
Len Dawson
(1957-75)
28,711
3,741
7.675
2
1
14
Roger Staubach (1969-79)
22,700
2,958
7.674
4
2
15
Dan Fouts
(1973-87)
43,040
5,604
7.68
0
0
16
Daunte Culpepper (1999-2007)
22,422
2,927
7.66
0
0
17
Trent Green (1997-2007)
27,950
3,668
7.62
0
0
18
Sonny Jurgensen (1957-74)
32,224
4,262
7.56
0
0
19
Y.A. Tittle
(1948-64)
33,070
4,395
7.524
3
0
20
Joe Montana
(1979-94)
40,551
5,391
7.521
4
4
- Among players with a minimum 40 NFL games and 1,000 pass attempts
- Bold indicates HOF quarterbacks
* Includes only those championship seasons in which Morrall played a key role for his respective teams (1968 Colts, 1970 Colts, 1972 Dolphins)
 
All in all, it's a fairly amazing list of performers.
  • All but contemporary quarterback Culpepper have suited up for at least one NFL championship game or Super Bowl.
  • These 20 all-time YPA leaders won 30 championships.
  • 12 of the 15 Top 20 retired YPA leaders are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • Young, No. 6 on the list, is No. 1 all-time in passer rating (96.8).
  • Starr, No. 8 on the list, is the only quarterback to lead his team to five NFL championships.
Even the players who seem like they don't belong have interesting stories. Ed Brown, who died earlier this month, is all but forgotten among modern football fans. Yet in 1951, he was the quarterback of arguably the greatest college football team of all time, the University of San Francisco Dons. The 1951 Dons went undefeated and sent three players on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Ollie Matson, Bob St. Clair and Gino Marchetti. Brown was a two-time Pro Bowler who led the Bears to the 1956 NFL championship game, where they lost to the Giants.
 
Bob Berry is probably the only name that really doesn't seem like it belongs. He spent most of his career as a backup to Fran Tarkenton in Minnesota, and suited up for Super Bowls VIII and IX, both losses. The few opportunities he did get to play, he was obviously an efficient performer. Playing for head coach Van Brocklin, he made a Pro Bowl with Atlanta in 1969.
 
The list is important because it pretty much spans the entire history of the modern offensive era of pro football. The pan-historic nature of the list indicates that YPA is better than passer rating as a way to compare quarterbacks of different eras. Passer rating has consistently grown higher over the years. But passing YPA, with the exception of some spikes here and there, most notably in the early 1960s, has remained fairly constant throughout NFL history (around 6.7 YPA or 6.8 YPA is average league-wide). Basically, modern passers put a premium on short, high-percentage passes. This has the result of reducing the number of INTs and boosting completion percentage, both of which have sparked the increase in passer rating among modern quarterbacks.
 
The consistent growth of passer rating has been well chronicled by the Cold, Hard Football Facts. For proof of passer rating's futility as a comparative measure of quarterbacks throughout history, simply look at that list of the 20 all-time passer rating leaders. You'll see that every single quarterback on the list played in the Live Ball Era (1978-present). Fifteen of them are still active.

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