The Golden Age of the passing game

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 01, 2008



(Ed. Note: See our list of all-time career passer rating leaders here; you'll also want to see how the all-time list stacks up against the Dead Ball Era passer rating list, and against the list of passers whose careers spanned both the Dead Ball and Live Ball Eras.)
 
We coddle passer rating stats like a bum does his booze. Or, to cut right through the syllogism, we coddle passer rating stats as if they were a tumbler of bourbon or six-pack of suds.
 
Even here in the off-season we stick passer rating stats in the cooler and share them at the beach in an effort to intoxicate bikini-clad 18-year-old girls with our worldly middle-aged football wisdom.
 
Yes, passer rating is good to those of us in the world of football analysis.  
 
But passer rating has a lot of critics, too. It is, after all, needlessly complex. And it exists in a statistical vacuum, for it has no relation to anything else by which we judge football – yards, points, etc. A newcomer to the game of football, for example, can quickly figure out what you mean when you say a quarterback averages 8.2 yards per pass attempt. It has context that most people – even our readers – can understand. But when you say a quarterback has a 100.7 passer rating, you really have to know the game and study the stat to understand that 100.7 means the guy had a good day.
 
However, for all its flaws, we do find passer rating fairly useful. It does have a very high correlation to victory and a quarterback who consistently out-passes his opponents, as measured by passer rating, is likely to be fairly successful.
 
So that's why we spend so much time talking about it. And now we have a new passer rating discussion on hand.
 
It turns out our friends at the Pro Football Hall of Fame have the complete passer rating list for every quarterback in history – at least every quarterback with 1,500 passing attempts (the minimum needed to qualify for official NFL records). A total of 150 quarterbacks make the cut, from No. 1 Steve Young (96.81) to former NFL and AFL passer Frank Tripucka (51.18), at No. 150.
 
It's a great list. However like many lists, it thirsts for interpretation. 
 
So we took the HOF list and inserted the dates of each player's career (see our versions of the list here). Suddenly, with the simple insertion of some dates, this list offers bright illuminating insight into pro football history and, for contemporary football fans, into the state of the game today.
 
Here are some of the things we discovered simply by inserting the career dates into the list of all-time passer rating leaders. The Top 50 appears below.
 
We live in the Golden Age of the passing game
Sixteen of the Top 20 all-time passer rating leaders were active last year. If this phenomenon doesn't jump up, grab your balls and scream "statistical anomaly" in front of a roomful of startled people, we don't know what does.
 
(Oh, yes, that's right, our own Frankie C. often jumps up, grabs his balls and screams "statistical anomaly" during karaoke competitions. But we digress.)
 
In the realm of football analysis, the prevalence of so many contemporary performers atop the passer-rating leader board is pretty startling. It tells us one thing: this is the Golden Age of the passer. Basically, it has never been easier to pass the ball than it is today. The skyrocketing league-wide passer ratings, the prevelance of modern performers atop the list, stand as irrefutable proof.
 
But this is not to say that it's the Golden Age of quarterbacking. Hardly.
 
Does anyone believe for one second, for example, that Carson Palmer (No. 6), Daunte Culpepper (No. 7) and Chad Pennington (No. 8), are better quarterbacks than Roger Staubach (No. 22), Bart Starr (No. 38) and Johnny Unitas (No. 53)?
 
Of course not.
 
The truth is that it's simply much easier to pass the ball today than it was back in the Dead Ball Era 1960s and 1970s when Staubach, Starr and Unitas played.
 
It is reasonable to assume, for example, that if Unitas played with modern rules that favor the passing game he would have a slightly higher passer rating than 21st-century journeyman Aaron Brooks (No. 50, 78.53).
 
That's right, folks, Aaron Brooks boasts a better career passer rating than Johnny U. If that injustice doesn't tell you the game has changed, nothing will.
 
The contemporary state of quarterbacking is the subject of hand-wringing among many "pundits." There's a wide disparity, for example, between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning at one end and about half the starters in the league today at the other end. But the truth is that, overall, quarterbacks have never passed the ball as efficiently as they do today.
 
Staubach and Jurgensen might be the best passers in history
The Top 21 players on the all-time passer rating list have one thing in common: they all spent their entire careers playing in the Live Ball Era (1978-present).
 
You have to go all the way down to Roger Staubach at No. 22 (83.42) to find a player who spent the bulk of his career in the Dead Ball Era, and all the way down to Sonny Jurgensen at No. 26 (82.62) to find a player who spent his entire career in the Dead Ball Era. (The Dead Ball Era ended with the 1977 season.)
 
This is not to say that Staubach and Jurgensen were the best quarterbacks of the Dead Ball Era (though Staubach did make our definitive Top 10 list of greatest quarterbacks). It simply says they were the best passers of the era. Remember, the Cold, Hard Football Facts distinguish between great passers and great quarterbacks. They're not always one and the same. (Passing is merely one major aspect of being a great quarterback; it does not completely define the position.)
 
Jurgensen's career 82.62 would be about an average passer rating here in the Live Ball Era 21st century. That's pretty amazing: Jurgensen produced modern-looking numbers in an era when DBs could prison rape receivers and a defender had to slice out a quarterback's liver before he'd be penalized for roughing the passer.
 
All these factors allow us to reasonably conclude that the Hall of Famer's career passer rating would be well into the 90s, among the very best ever, if he played here in an era when passers and receivers were afforded every imaginable advantage of the rule book. The same goes for Staubach.
 
Jurgensen and Staubach, in other words, might be the best pure passers in history.
 
The words "Hall of Famer Warren Moon" are a dirty joke
When Warren Moon was inducted into the Hall of Fame two years ago, we wrote that he didn't deserve first-ballot entry into Canton because he was a postseason failure, he churned up big, empty stats in pass-happy offenses and fumbled away the football at a record pace.
 
But we were wrong when he said he wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
 
Moon is not a Hall of Famer, period.
 
Simply look at his career passer rating of 80.9 – No. 36 all-time and extraordinarily mediocre by Live Ball Era standards. He was a classic producer of big, empty numbers – he passed the ball a lot, so people assumed he was a great passer. His passer-rating ranking says otherwise, and this is important: passer rating is a measure of efficiency, not of volume, the latter of which is often misleading. And Moon's big volume numbers are certainly misleading. Coupled with Moon's other flaws, it all adds up to a guy who did not have a Hall of Fame career.
 
But maybe you consider Mark Brunell, Bernie Kosar and Dave Krieg Hall of Fame quarterbacks. All three had similar postseason success and all three stand above Moon on the career passer-rating list.
 
John Elway is overrated ... at least as a passer
There's no doubt Elway was a great quarterback. He won a lot of games, lifted a previously ordinary organization to new heights, won five conference titles, two Super Bowls and led a legion of legendary come-from-behind victories.
 
But he was never a great passer. In fact, his 79.86 passer rating is No. 44 all time, below the likes of Brad Johnson, Neil Lomax and - gasp! - Jeff Hostetler, among many others.
 
Fans may remember Elway's rocket, laser arm ... but anecdotes that stick in our mind often conflict with Cold, Hard Football Facts. And, like a pedestrian conflicting with a Mack truck, the anecdote always loses the battle against Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
The truth is that, for much of his career, Elway's rocket, laser arm left him a merely ordinary passer ... though a passer with a gift for memorable plays and moments.
 
Bart Starr is just as awesome as we said he was
The Cold, Hard Football Facts raised a lot of eyebrows when we pointed out the obvious early this year: that Bart Starr was the best quarterback in history. We said that no quarterback ever produced the same combination of team accomplishments, leadership qualities, big-game performances and individually dominant statistics.
 
This list of all-time passer rating leaders merely confirms our selection. Bart Starr is No. 38 overall (80.47). But if you look only at Dead Ball Era quarterbacks, he's all the way up at No. 3 (behind only fellow Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen and Len Dawson).
 
Remember, Starr played when you could mug wide receivers and head slap quarterbacks, and before offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass protection. Still, he produced a career 80.47 passer rating that would be about average even by today's standards. And he also still holds the career postseason passer rating record (104.8), 40 years after he last appeared in a playoff game. It's one of the more remarkable feats in football history, considering the era in which he played and how much the game has changed since then.
 
Consider that his career passer rating is greater that that of Elway, a Hall of Famer who played his entire career in the Live Ball Era, and you get an idea of how effective Starr was in his era.
 
 
Aikman and Bradshaw are in Canton because they won Super Bowls
Put most simply, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw are in the Hall of Fame solely because of their postseason performances. And, in particular, because of their Super Bowl performers.
 
Aikman was no better than an average passer during his career. He spent his entire NFL life in the Live Ball Era, but produced a 81.61 passer rating – No. 32 all-time and behind the likes of Trent Green (86.9), Rich Gannon (84.71), Mark Brunell (84.21), Brian Griese (83.64) and a host of other journeymen. But he produced in all three of his Super Bowl appearances, earning status as a Super Bowl Legend. His combined passer rating in three Super Bowls was an awesome 111.9.
 
Bradshaw wasn't even an average passer in his day. In fact, for much of his career, he was pathetic in the pocket. Yes, he played the bulk of his career in the Dead Ball Era, but career passer rating of 70.92 is lowly even by those standards. Hell, Sid Luckman (75.01) and Sammy Baugh (72.21) posted better career passer ratings, and they began playing back in the 1930s. A host of nobodies passed the ball more effectively than Bradshaw.
 
But Bradshaw turned it on when the lights were brightest and stands as one of the great big-game quarterbacks in history. Certainly, nobody so inept passing the ball in the regular season was so good at it in the postseason.  Bradshaw's Steelers won four Super Bowls – and he was a large reason why. Bradshaw earned Super Bowl Legend status courtesy of a 112.8 passer rating and remarkable 11.1 yards per attempt in his four Super Bowl appearances.
 
But that's our take ... study the career passer rating lists yourself and let us know what you think. The Top 50 appears below.
 
Also see:
 
TOP 50 CAREER PASSER RATING LEADERS (at start of 2008 season)
 
Player
Years
Rating

1

Steve Young

1985-99

96.81

2

Peyton Manning

1998-present

94.72

3

Kurt Warner

1998-present

93.17

4

Tom Brady

2000-present

92.93

5

Joe Montana

1979-1994

92.26

6

Carson Palmer

2004-present

90.12

7

Daunte Culpepper

1999-present

89.95

8

Chad Pennington

2000-present

88.89

9

Marc Bulger

2002-present

88.08

10

Drew Brees

2001-present

87.94

11

Jeff Garcia

1999-present

87.24

12

Trent Green

1997-present

86.9

13

Dan Marino

1983-99

86.38

14

Matt Hasselbeck

1999-present

86.23

15

Donovan McNabb

1999-present

85.78

16

Brett Favre

1991-2007

85.7

17

Jake Delhomme

1999-present

85.23

18

Rich Gannon

1987-2004

84.71

19

Jim Kelly

1986-96

84.39

20

Mark Brunell

1994-2006

84.21

21

Brian Griese

1998-present

83.64

22

Roger Staubach

1969-79

83.42

23

Brad Johnson

1994-present

83.09

24

Steve McNair

1995-2007

82.76

25

Neil Lomax

1981-88

82.68

26

Sonny Jurgensen

1957-74

82.62

27

Len Dawson

1957-75

82.56

28

Ken Anderson

1971-86

81.86

29

Bernie Kosar

1985-96

81.83

30

Neil O'Donnell

1991-2003

81.82

31

Danny White

1976-88

81.71

32

Troy Aikman

1989-2000

81.62

33

Dave Krieg

1980-98

81.5

34

Randall Cunningham

1985-2001

81.47

35

Boomer Esiason

1984-97

81.06

36

Warren Moon

1984-2000

80.9

37

Jeff Hostetler

1985-97

80.48

38

Bart Starr

1956-71

80.47

39

Ken O'Brien

1984-93

80.44

40

Jeff George

1990-2001

80.42

41

Fran Tarkenton

1961-78

80.35

42

Steve Beuerlien

1988-2003

80.32

43

Dan Fouts

1973-87

80.23

44

John Elway

1983-98

79.86

45

Tony Eason

1983-90

79.72

46

Elvis Grbac

1994-2001

79.65

47

Chris Chandler

1988-2004

79.12

48

Mark Rypien

1988-2001

78.93

49

Jim Everett

1986-97

78.59

50

Aaron Brooks

2000-06

78.53

 

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