The most overrated quarterbacks
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 07, 2008
If the Cold, Hard Football Facts crew has a singular gift – above and beyond our vast command of global beer styles and 1980s music trivia – it's an ability to glean great detail and analysis from a simple list of names and numbers.
Others look at an ordinary list and see only those names and numbers. We look at the same list and from it can harvest like a grim reaper of the gridiron the great hidden details that stand behind the numbers. In other words, we see the reasons why the numbers exist. You might call us the Cole Sear of football analysis. In fact, we just beat you to it. (God, this omniscient thing is so cool.)
Our lists last week of all-time passer rating leaders (and passer rating leaders from various eras) are a perfect example. We took the original list from the Hall of Fame and simply by inserting the career dates of each player on the list, were able to learn much about the evolution of pro football.
But we also learned a lot more from that list that we didn't first report. We learned, for example, that not all is fair in love or war or football analysis. Quite frankly, the list showed us that many quarterbacks have reputations they simply don't deserve.
Some quarterbacks are overrated – they have great reputations, but the numbers, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, don't support that reputation.
Other quarterbacks are underrated – they're not known as great quarterbacks, but the numbers, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, tell us they should be remembered for their greatness.
Naturally, the Cold, Hard Football Facts almost always triumph over hype – which is why you, our beloved Trolls, are the most educated football fans on Planet Pigskin.
Here, then, is our list of the Top 5 Most Overrated Quarterbacks. Also check out our Top 5 Most Underrated Quarterbacks.
THE 5 MOST OVERRATED QUARTERBACKS EVER
5. John Elway (1983-98)
It's almost sacrilege to criticize the great Denver quarterback. But, naturally, the Cold, Hard Football Facts are not above skewering pigskin dogma, and then munching on the roasted carcass, as if it were an Oktoberfest steckerlfische.
Elway was a great quarterback, as we noted last week in our look at all-time passer rating leaders. He won a lot of games, he lifted an ordinary organization to its greatest heights, he boasts two rings and he produced several amazing comebacks.
But he earns his way on the overrated list because he was never – let us be very clear about this, Elway was NEVER – a great passer. And passing being one of the primary responsibilities of a quarterback, it makes Elway an obvious name to include on this list.
The truth is that Elway was downright mediocre his first 10 years in the league and it was not until 1993 – his 11th year in the NFL – that he had anything that approximated a breakout season.
If not for the fact that Elway was a No. 1 draft pick and, thus, entered the league with a boatload of hype that earned him the benefit of the doubt, he never would have lasted very long as a starter in the NFL given the mediocrity of his performances in those first 10 years.
It wasn't until Elway was in his 11th NFL campaign of 1993 that he ever surpassed 22 TD passes in a season (about eight games of work for Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in a good year).
And even after that, Elway never passed for more than 27 TD passes in his 16-year career. Think about that for a moment ... after all, according to ProFootballReference.com, quarterbacks have passed for 28 TDs or more in a season 99 times in history. Yet the name "John Elway" is nowhere among that Top 99.
Yes, he threw for 300 TD passes in his career, fifth all time. But he averaged 18.75 TD passes per year, while tossing 226 picks (14.13 per year). That 19-14 average TD:INT ratio is far below the general 2 to 1 ratio that sets apart great Live Ball Era passers from ordinary passers.
And save for that breakout 1993 campaign, when Elway lead the league in completions (348) and yards (4,030), he never – again we repeat, Elway NEVER – led the league in any major passing categories (completions, yards, TDs, passer rating).
As we said before, Elway deserves to be considered a great quarterback and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. But go back and look at the Cold, Hard Football Facts and you'll find a guy whose production never matched his reputation.
What you will find is a guy who stands at No. 44 on the all-time passer rating list (79.86), just one spot ahead of his clearly not-HOF-caliber mate from the famous QB Class of 1983, Tony Eason (79.72). You'll also find someone who produced three of the most dismal performances in Super Bowl history.
There are those sad, sorry souls – devoid as they are of the Cold, Hard Football Facts – who believe Elway is one of the Top Five quarterbacks in history. Athlon Sports, in its new 2008 pro football annual, named Elway the second best quarterback of the Super Bowl Era, behind only Joe Montana.
But he's not even close, folks. No way. No how. Sorry Athlon. Sorry Denver. Put aside the reputation, look only at the Cold, Hard Football Facts, and check yourself before your wreck yourself.
4. Troy Aikman (1989-2000)
What do you want us to say? Aikman was an ordinary passer surrounded by great talent – though he did earn his way into the Hall of Fame by virtue of several great Super Bowl performances. Those performances always carry a lot of weight with the Cold, Hard Football Facts and Aikman stands firmly entrenched forevermore on our list of Super Bowl Legends.
But Aikman's career production, by any measure, was only average. He was surrounded by a Hall of Fame running back, a Hall of Fame receiver, and at least one Hall of Fame offensive lineman (Larry Allen). That fact that all this talent led to very ordinary career numbers from Aikman tells us that he was, at least during the regular season, a very ordinary quarterback.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts generally don't believe in the notion of "system quarterbacks." Yes, they do exist, but the term is thrown around far too often, as quarterbacks are often solely responsible for the success or failure of a particular system. A lousy quarterback, for example, is not going to succeed in a great "system." But a great quarterback can have great success even in an ordinary "system."
With that said, Aikman certainly stands as a prototypical "system" kind of guy – someone who found himself at the right place at the right time and did just enough to succeed on incredibly talented teams. Quite frankly, there are many quarterbacks the pigskin public considers as only ordinary who likely could have had the same success in the Dallas "system" of Aikman's era: hand the ball to the most productive ballcarrier in history, stand behind a formidable offensive line and toss passes to your Hall of Fame "playmaker" when the shit gets heavy.
The bottom line is that Aikman stands at No. 32 on the all-time passer rating list (81.62), a very average number for his era. His spot on the list, believe it or not, puts him right behind his predecessor in Dallas, Danny White (81.71) and right ahead of longtime journeyman Dave Krieg (81.50).
3. Dan Fouts (1973-87)
Can somebody please explain to us, preferably in English, though we can interpret the typical clucks & whistles of the average CHFF reader, why Fouts is in the Hall of Fame? (Seriously, send us an e-mail and explain it to us.) At least Aikman won three Super Bowls and – more importantly – played incredibly well in those Super Bowls.
Fouts is the classic Sunshine Superman – a guy who often played well in the regular season but who has absolutely nothing to show for it in the playoffs, where he stunk worse than the CHFF cardboard-box world headquarters on bean burrito night (Thursdays, in case anybody was wondering).
Fouts also had the benefits of playing:
- in the cushiest outdoor climate in the entire NFL and wouldn't know bad weather if it shanked him in prison;
- in one of the premier passing systems the game has ever known, the Sid Gillman-Don Coryell air attack;
- with a galaxy of Pro Bowl offensive players, including Lydell Mitchell, Chuck Muncie, James Brooks, Wes Chandler, John Jefferson and Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow.
Fouts had a great three-year run from 1980 to 1982. He had an almost-great season in 1979, when he passed for 4,082 yards – though his production was negated by 24 picks to his 24 TDs. But last we checked, Hall of Fame careers were not built upon great three-year runs. At the end of the day, Fouts finished his career completing a solid-for-his-time 58.8 percent of his passes, but threw just 12 more TDs than INTs (254 to 242). His passes might have looked pretty on the highlight films, but an inordinate number of those pretty passes ended up in the hands of the ugly opposition.
And for all the hype in the 1980s that surrounded San Diego, "Air Coryell" and Fouts himself, it resulted in just four playoff appearances and three postseason victories. Fouts threw 12 TDs to 16 INTs in his seven playoff games, including two dreadful five-pick performances. His postseason passer rating of 70.0 is well below his regular-season mark (80.23).
Yes, among players whose careers spanned both the Dead Ball and Live Ball Eras, Fouts stands at No. 5 on the passer rating list. But that's a bit deceptive. After all, Fouts played just one full season in the Dead Ball Era (1976). He was primarily a product of the Live Ball Era.
So it's hard to justify putting essentially a Live Ball Era passer into the Hall of Fame when given all the evidence above and a career passer rating (80.23) that's merely 43rd all time – behind notable non-Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Bernie Kosar, Jeff Hostetler and Jeff George.
2. Warren Moon (1984-2000)
See "Dan Fouts" and "Sunshine Superman" above. We touched on Moon last week in our look at all-time passer rating leaders. You can look there for all the reasons why Moon (No. 36 on the all-time passer rating list) is not, and never was, a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback: mediocre efficiency numbers, poor playoff performances and a record-setting case of fumble-itis.
1. Joe Namath (1965-77)
We want to be very clear about something: the ascension of Namath to the Hall of Fame is a rare triumph for hype over Cold, Hard Football Fact.
Namath came out of a big-time program (Alabama), where he garnered a big-time reputation playing for a big-time coach (Bear Bryant). In the pros, he went to the Big Apple where he quickly earned big-time money.
But, to put it most simply, Namath's production NEVER equaled the hype, even by the standards of the Dead Ball Era. And unearned hype is the mortal enemy of the Cold, Hard Football Facts. We must squash this unearned hype like a Pete Prisco opinion or a tiny little flea attempting to land in our beer.
Save for a glowing triumph by Namath's Jets over the Colts in Super Bowl III, there would be little by which to remember Broadway Joe – at least little by which to remember him on the football field. (His off-field production is something which we will long admire, however.)
But even in that great moment of career-making triumph, Namath was steady but not spectacular. It was the Jets defense that carried the day in the 16-7 victory over the Colts. Namath's greatest contribution was not throwing a single INT all day, a rare feat, as you'll see below, by his standards. (Namath didn't even throw a TD that day, either. His finally tally in Super Bowl III was a workmanlike 17 of 28 for 206 yards, 7.36 YPA, 0 TD, 0 INT, 83.3 rating.)
Namath fans point out that he was the first passer to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season (4,007 in 1967) – to which we respond, so friggin' what?
It simply means he threw the ball often. Namath rarely, if ever, threw it effectively. In fact, he rarely ever threw it very far, either, other than that 1967 season. He surpassed 3,000 yards just two other times in a 13-year career. He barely completed 50 percent of his passes over the course of his career (1,886 for 3,762, 50.1%) – an abysmal rate even by the standards of the Dead Ball Era.
And, this is the kicker, folks, Namath's 173 career TDs are overshadowed by a whopping 220 INTs – another abysmal ratio, even by the standards of his era.
To put Namath's prolific INT rate into perspective in modern terms, consider that Tom Brady has already surpassed Namath with 197 career TDs – and Brady's done it with just 86 picks. To be fair, and to put Namath's INTs into the perspective of the Dead Ball Era, consider that his greatest contemporaries (Jurgensen, Starr, Dawson) all threw more TDs than INTs.
It all adds up to a 65.46 career passer rating for Namath that's 24th among Dead Ball Era quarterbacks, well below the efficiency of Dead Ball Era QBs that nobody considers Hall of Fame players, such as Frank Ryan (77.61), Don Meredith (74.84) and Roman Gabriel (74.29), among many others.
Among the 150 qualifying quarterbacks on the all-time passer rating list, Namath stands at 133, right behind Norm Snead and right ahead of Rick Mirer. That's right, folks. Among every quarterback who qualifies by NFL standards with a minimum 1,500 career attempts, only 17 players have a lower passer rating than Namath.
Bottom line: strip away the hype of Broadway Joe, and you have a bad quarterback. Anyone who mentions Namath as one of the all-time greats is looking at football through the foggy, disorienting cloud of hype and not through the pristine, crystalline, enlightening air of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
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