The most underrated quarterbacks
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 08, 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 Underrated Quarterbacks. You can also check out our list of the Top 5 Most Overrated Quarterbacks.
The 5 Most Underrated Quarterbacks Ever
5. Chad Pennington (2000-present)
Can we give a little love to Herbie the Dentist? Jets fans have certainly never been sold on him. And a spate of injuries hasn't helped Pennington's career or his reputation in New York and around the league.
But he boasts the 7th best passer rating in NFL history (88.89) and the No. 5 mark among active players. Believe it or not, Pennington had a better career passer rating than Tom Brady heading into the 2007 season.
Pennington is also the most accurate passer in league history, with a record 65.61 career completion percentage. Hard to believe, considering he puts up so many parabolas that the networks want to hire him as a sideline sound man following his next rotator cuff injury in October.
And the lack of a laser, rocket arm is compounded by the quality of the offensive talent around him, which has never been spectacular.
But proof of Pennington's proficiency is evidenced by the fortunes of the Jets when he plays and when he doesn't: Pennington has played in 12 or more games just three times in a season since replacing Vinny Testaverde in 2002. The Jets have made the playoffs all three of those seasons (2002, 2004, 2006). They failed to win even half their games every other season (2003, 2005, 2007).
Head coach Eric Mangini was "Man-Genius" in his rookie season at the helm in 2006. Pennington, not so coincidentally, played every single game for the one and only time in his career that year. Mangini became a duplicitous rat turncoat in 2007 while his team struggled through a 4-12 sophomore campaign – and Pennington started just 8 games.
In other words the Jets are a playoff team when Pennington plays; they're an also-ran when he doesn't. He's a difference-maker at quarterback and one of the most precise parabola-tossers the game has ever seen.
If not for the rash of injuries we might be talking about a player who competes with Brady and Peyton Manning for status as the best quarterback in the league today.
4. Sonny Jurgensen (1957-74)
Sure, Christian Adolph Jurgensen III is in the Hall of Fame. Clearly, somebody thinks – or thought – he was a pretty good player.
But find someone today who names Jurgensen among the best quarterbacks ever and you'll be the first. But he should be included in the discussion. For Jurgensen may be the greatest pure passer the game has ever seen.
It's all the more impressive considering he was barely 5 feet 11 inches – a short passer in any era.
For proof of Jurgensen's proficiency you need to look no further – naturally – than the Cold, Hard Football Facts: Jurgensen is the No. 1 rated passer of the Dead Ball Era (82.62), a period when defenders could do everything but waterboard receivers without drawing a penalty or an ACLU lawsuit.
He was a contemporary of Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Len Dawson and Johnny Unitas, and not one of them (in fact, nobody in the history of the game through 1977) passed the ball as efficiently as Jurgensen.
To put Jurgensen's passer rating into perspective, consider that John Elway played his entire career in the Live Ball Era, and his career passer rating (79.86) is nearly three full points lower than Jurgensen's. And Elway's no chump. He's in the HOF himself.
Jurgensen spent his first four years in Philly as a back-up to Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin. But given a chance in 1961, he quickly proved his was a special kind of player with 3,723 passing yards and 32 TDs. Both were NFL records.
In fact, his 3,723 passing yards in 1961 were Ruthian in their enormity – nearly 700 yards greater than the previous record of 3,099 passing yards set by Johnny Unitas just one year earlier. Jurgensen broke his own NFL passing record with 3,747 yards in 1967 – though his mark was overshadowed that season by Joe Namath's 4,007 yards in the AFL.
Jurgensen led the league in passing yards a record (tied with Dan Marino) five times (1961, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1969), and he led the league in TD tosses twice (1961, 1967).
He was, in other words, the Dan Marino of the Dead Ball Era, but an even more efficient passer by the standards of their respective periods. Jurgensen's 82.62 passer rating is vastly greater than the league-wide average 67.13 passer rating during his playing days. Marino's career passer rating is 86.38, but he played in an era when the league-wide average rating was 76.22.
The problem, of course, is that Jurgensen (like Marino) never led a team to a title (he won one as Van Brocklin's back-up in Philly in 1960). But then again, he played largely in an era when there were no playoffs. Until 1966, the conference champions simply met in the NFL title game. Jurgensen's 1961 Eagles, for example, went 10-4 but missed out on the playoffs because the Giants captured the Eastern Conference crown with a 10-3-1 record. By those standards, guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning would never have won championships, either.
But those 1961 Eagles were the exception during Jurgensen's career. He largely played on middling teams. And when George Allen took over the Redskins in 1971, he favored the younger Billy Kilmer to run the offense.
Still, if we're looking at individual performers, you can call Jurgensen the greatest passer of all time in full confidence that the Cold, Hard Football Facts have your back and that nobody has enough ammunition to dispute you.
3. Earl Morrall (1956-76)
Morrall is one of the most fascinating figures in NFL history – a career back-up who spent 21 years in the league, yet quarterbacked two of the most dominant teams in NFL history and, despite his brief periods on the field, produced some of the most awe-inspiring passing stats the game has ever seen.
Yet to most fans, those why deny themselves the nourishing, hop-flavored nectar of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, Morrall is remembered mostly as a historical footnote (if he's even remembered at all).
With the 1968 Colts, the 34-year-old Morrall (acquired from the Giants that off-season) replaced the injured Johnny Unitas right from Week 1 and helped engineer one of the single most dominant seasons in NFL history.
The 1968 Colts went 13-1 and boasted the greatest scoring differential of the Super Bowl Era (+18.4 PPG) until it was surpassed by the 2007 Patriots.
The 1968 Colts, of course, were shocked by the Jets in Super Bowl III and Morrall resumed his back-up role the following year.
But the Earl Morrall Story wasn't over.
Remarkably, he engineered an even greater feat of back-ups-manship while a 38-year-old dinosaur playing with the 1972 Dolphins. Starter Bob Griese went down in Week 5. But Morrall stepped in and picked up right where he left off with the Colts in 1968. He was the starting quarterback in 11 of the 17 victories for the only undefeated team in NFL history. In fact, he started every game from Week 6 through the AFC championship game. Then coach Don Shula benched Morrall for the Super Bowl and re-inserted Griese. The offense under Griese went into the tank – the 14 points in the Super Bowl was Miami's lowest output all year – but they did still hold on to beat the Redskins 14-7.
Naturally, you look at teams like the 1968 Colts and 1972 Dolphins and wonder not only how they persevered, but how they could stand as some of the greatest teams in history with a back-up quarterback in the lead role.
But then you look at the Cold, Hard Football Facts and find that Morrall was truly one of the great underrated quarterbacks in history. His career 74.09 passer rating ranks 11th of the Dead Ball Era, one spot ahead of Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle and well ahead of other Dead Ball Era Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Sammy Baugh, Joe Namath, Bobby Layne and George Blanda. In fact, Morrall surpasses Namath in almost every single measure of passing efficiency. He was, in other words, a better quarterback than Joe Namath.
Morrall also averaged 7.74 passing yards per attempt, a figure that still stands as 11th best in the history of football – one spot ahead of Peyton Manning on the all-time list.
One wonders what Morrall might have accomplished had he spent more time under center and less time on the sidelines. After all, the results when he did play were pretty damn impressive.
2. Kurt Warner (1998-present)
One of the greatest mysteries in modern sports was the existence of a "quarterback debate" in Arizona last year.
On the one hand, you had Matt Leinart, a petulant prima donna with a 71.2 career passer rating whose greatest accomplishment since joining the NFL was serving as guest editor of ESPN the Rag in 2007. On the other hand, you had Kurt Warner, a two-time NFL MVP with the 93.2 career passer rating whose greatest accomplishment was stepping out of the supermarket stock aisles and arena league desert to lead the Rams to their one and only Super Bowl title.
What the hell was the controversy?
Of course, when you realize that it's Arizona, the single worst franchise in the history of North American sports, the quarterback "controversy" is no longer a mystery. The Cardinals simply have their heads up their collective asses when it comes to their quarterbacking situation, and just about everything else for that matter.
Sure, Leinart might be the quarterback of the future – provided his performances improve dramatically. But Warner is definitely the guy who gives you the best chance to win today and he has the Cold, Hard Football Facts to prove it.
- One of the most efficient passers in history, as evidenced by his No. 3 position on the all-time passer rating list (93.17), sandwiched right between two guys named Manning (94.72) and Brady (92.93).
- One of the most deadly accurate passers in history, as evidenced by his 65.09 career completion percentage, second best in history (behind Pennington).
- One of the most productive passers in history, as evidenced by his average of 8.11 yards per pass attempt, 5th best in NFL history and second (to Ben Roethlisberger) among all Live Ball Era passers.
Warner's reputation took a huge hit with St. Louis's loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVI and with the fumbles and injuries that plagued him the following season. Then he had the misfortune of fighting for playing time with No. 1 draft picks in New York (Eli Manning) and Arizona (Leinart).
Neither of those quarterbacks should be allowed to sniff Warner's jock strap (O.K., Eli can sniff it after last season's clutch performance). But, as we've so often seen, Cold, Hard Football Facts don't always matter in the NFL. It's a league where coaches and organizations often commit suicide by insisting that the inferior performer is a better performer simply because he's a high draft pick who bangs Hollywood starlets.
But that's their problem.
All we know is this: among all the quarterbacks who will lace up their cleats this season, three of them belong in the Hall of Fame: Brady, Manning and Warner.
1. Ken Anderson (1971-86)
The fact that Dan Fouts and Warren Moon are in the Hall of Fame and Ken Anderson is not stands as the greatest injustice to hit Canton since England sedated half of China during the Opium Wars.
Anderson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who history has forgotten in favor of lesser performers like Fouts, Moon, even Jim Kelly, among others.
This guy was awesome – certainly Hall of Fame-caliber awesome – and certainly more awesome than Fouts or Moon.
For example, let's have a little pop quiz: Who led the league in passer rating four times, Anderson, Fouts or Moon?
If you guessed Anderson, you're right! In fact, Fouts or Moon never led the league in passer rating. Anderson accomplished this feat in 1974, 1975, 1981 and 1982.
To put those numbers into perspective, consider that only Sammy Baugh and Steve Young led the league more often in passer rating (six times each).
But those historic numbers tell only part of the story.
Anderson's 81.68 career passer rating is second among multi-era players, behind only the great Roger Staubach. He even holds the single-season record for completion percent (70.6) – though the fact he set it in the strike-shortened, nine-game 1982 season makes it jump out as a clear statistical outlier. Still, he did it.
The consistency with which Anderson was always among the league's most efficient passers is made all the more impressive by the fact that twice each year the career Cincinnati QB had to line up against Lambert, Greene, Blount and arguably the greatest defense in history.
But even the Steel Curtain often struggled to rein in Anderson: In a 1974 meeting, Anderson completed 20 of 22 passes against the eventual Super Bowl champions. The 90.9 completion percentage that day stands as the second highest ever in a regular-season NFL game. It's not like he mowed down a Triple A line-up that day, either, folks. He completed 20 of 22 passes against one of the most star-studded defenses in history, and near the very depths of offensive production that marked the the lowest points of the Dead Ball Era.
Did we mention Anderson was pretty good?
It certainly helped that he spent his early years under the tutelage of Bengals head coach and founder Paul Brown, probably the greatest offensive mind in the history of the game.
Alas, Anderson suffered the indiginity of never winning a championship. He had his closest shot in 1981, when he led the Bengals to a 12-4 record and an appearance in Super Bowl XVI, where they were edged 26-21 by an even better quarterback (Joe Montana) and better team (the 13-3 49ers).
So Anderson will never make our list of Top 10 greatest quarterbacks, for example. But he certainly deserves a spot in Canton (preferably the one in Ohio, not the one in China). And the fact that much lesser players at his position have entered before him, and that he's no longer even in the HOF discussion, makes Anderson the clear choice as the most underrated quarterback in history.
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