Criteria for Rankings of the Greatest Quarterbacks of All-Time

The list of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time is a very subjective list even with the plethora of statistical evidence everyone has at their disposal.  In addition, the list is only as relevant as the criteria one sets for it is. Many, especially those who played the game, believe the greatest quarterback of all-time is judged almost completely by the number of championships won, after all that is why the game is played. At the other end of the spectrum the belief centers around the idea that the quarterback is part of a team and he can’t solely control who wins and therefore regular season statistics are the biggest factor. Week-to-week competition, year in and year out who is the best; NFL records, Pro Bowls, and MVP’s. Clearly most would agree that it sensible to consider both arguments when creating the ranking’s criteria.

What will not be a major factor is, how good the team was or wasn’t. Many argue “Quarterback A” would have been as good as “Quarterback B” if he was on as good as team.  While this may be true, the rankings are based on results not ifs, so quarterbacks of good teams are simply considered better quarterbacks.  It is taken into consideration when a quarterbacks succeeds with little offensive help, while some credit is taken away when the quarterback leads a team with a loaded offense.  When quarterbacks win championships that had a dominate run game and/or a great defense, once again, the quarterback loses some credit, but is is minor.  A classic example is Archie Manning. If he quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventies would he be in the top twelve like Terry Bradshaw, or even higher? Was he actually better than Terry Bradshaw? Who knows? It didn’t happen that way, therefore we can’t judge, but minor consideration is given in both cases.

Factors in Choosing the Greatest Quarterback of All-Time

I. Career Statistics – Great regular season stats are what gets teams wins and possibly get them to the playoffs, which leads to championships. This includes: Passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions, completion percentage, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total wins and win/loss percentage.  This is where consistency, longevity, and health play a factor.  Stats from AFL are counted as they are by the NFL, but they were under friendlier rules, so the will have some loss of value.  AAFC stats (not counted by NFL) lose a additional value, and finally the USFL, CFL, and WFL will be given just a small amount of credit for their statistics.

II. Post Season – Playing well in the regular season gets your team into the playoffs, but the great quarterbacks turn it up and have good playoff stats, win playoff games, and win championships.  Playoff stats will matter a lot and of course championship game stats even a little more.  But to be clear, it is just as important to play well in the playoffs that it is to win for quarterbacks. So quarterbacks with no championships or a losing playoff record could conceivably be higher ranked due to great playoff statistics.

  1. Playoff Performance – When given the chance, were you clutch?  Playoff statistics show who was clutch.
  2. Super Bowl Wins – The ultimate prize, very difficult to attain, especially in the modern day. While winning the big one is not the most important way to measure the greatest quarterback, it is an important way.
  3.  NFL Championships – Not as valuable as the Super Bowl due to the fact that there was less competition and less playoff games, nevertheless, an NFL Championship was the top prize for many years.  An AFL Championship is counted by the NFL, and is very close to an NFL Champion in this criteria.  Other Championships in Pro Football (AAFC Championships) count a little less.  USFL, CFL, or WFL Championships will count for very little, but are considered because they show that the quarterback can pull off the big one.
  4. Playoff Wins and Percentage – A quarterback cannot completely control whether a team wins or loses, but to be the greatest your team needs to win in the playoffs.
  5. AFC/NFC Championships – It is a championship. It is definitely not a minus as some argue. Going to a Super Bowl and losing is not a negative. It is a positive point to win a conference championship and go to the Super Bowl and it will increase the ranking.
  6. Super Bowl or NFL Championship MVP – Coming up big when it really matters, really matters.

III. NFL MVP’s – To be a great you have the ability to carry your team if need be.  A NFL MVP shows that you were the main reason your team went to the playoffs.  NFL MVP’s are given more weight than Super Bowl MVP’s, and are valued somewhere in between a conference championship and a NFL Championship/Super Bowl Championship.  CFL, USFL, or WFL MVP’s have a very small values.

IV. Pro Bowls – While considered somewhat superficial year-to-year, a Pro Bowl is one of the best ways to judge a quarterback in that particular era. He has already been judged by that year’s parameters.  So to be clear, Pro Bowls are very important because they give you the most unbiased rating when considering the many different time frames quarterbacks played in.  A 1963 Pro Bowl rewards a quarterback for that year and compares him to all other quarterbacks of that year.

V. Intangibles – Comebacks, leadership, mobility, domination, game changers, revolutionary changes in the position, and other things that either don’t show up in statistics, that you can’t see, or sometimes you can’t explain.

VI. Other – Offensive Player of the Year, NFL All-Decade Team, Passer Rating, and Passing Titles.

Other Points to Consider

  • Short Significant Careers – As stated above, quarterbacks with shorter careers will get some leeway if they performed at such a high level in their brief time playing. But in the end, longevity wins out hands down.
  • Different Passing Eras – This is the most difficult part of the rankings, comparing a quarterback from 2010 to one of the seventies, fifties, let alone the thirties.  Clearly the modern quarterback has much more passer-friendly rules than quarterbacks of the past, and more importantly the passing game has evolved into something quite different from the time of the first forward pass.  Yet it is impossible to say the whether or not Sammy Baugh would have been as good as Tom Brady or Joe Montana if he played today.
    One philosophy to combat this says each quarterback who was the most dominant of his era should remain as a top ranked quarterback. This philosophy has merit and is given a high weight, but we can project, assume, predict, guess, but none of it is an exact science, therefore quarterbacks of different era’s will get consideration for their era, but not at 100%. In other words, they will lose out because today’s quarterbacks did it and we can prove it, they did not, so we can’t give 100% “projection”.
  • Judgement – Sometimes seeing game film, looking deep into stats, or reading about older players leaves you with making judgement calls.


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