We live in the age of the quarterback.
NFL offenses have never relied on their signal-callers more, and quarterbacks have never put up bigger numbers. Today's sure-fire Hall of Famers, like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, are still playing at incredibly high levels.
Yet six of 12 playoff teams this season relied on starting quarterbacks in their rookie or sophomore season.
With the possibly best-ever rookie class joining the most prolific veteran group, are we watching the greatest generation of NFL quarterbacks?
Let's find out.
Objectivity is a wonderful thing. We can add up numbers and divide by time, and sometimes we can find truth. But "greatness" isn't really an objective thing. It's a subjective thing, which means it's about feeling and opinion.
Greatness, in sports terms, is determined by comparing a player to their peers, in a single season or across their careers.
First we compare statistics, accomplishments and awards. Then, we start talking about "clutch" and "best I ever saw" and "most electrifying" and "beat my brother in Strat-o-Matic every time with him," "unstoppable in Tecmo Super Bowl," "94 overall in Madden 2005" and other stuff that's really important.
No, really—that stuff's important.
Objectively, Drew Brees had one of the best quarterback seasons of all time this season: He completed 63 percent of his passes for 5,177 yards, 43 touchdowns and just 19 interceptions. Subjectively, Brees had a down year, and his poor performances in crucial spots are a part of why the Saints went 7-9.
Advanced metrics like Football Outsiders' DYAR, Pro Football Focus's PFF QBR and Advanced NFL Stats' WPA are great tools for quantifying a player's true performance. But most of those numbers haven't been calculated back further than the past few seasons, so they can't help us.
But "performance" by itself isn't greatness. Greatness is being great, achieving all the achievements and being honored with all the honors, and being awarded all the awards.
So, let's break down the quarterbacks by generation, and see what they were able to achieve. Crucial credit goes to Pro Football Reference, from whom I got all of the numbers. Right away, we see numbers are not going to help. Here are the individual career passing yardage totals of everyone I grouped into generations:
You can see Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning quite clearly in this chart: They rise far, far above their peers.
Yet you can see another problem just as clearly: the inflation of passing stats over time. The modern passing era makes it impossible to rate these quarterbacks by raw numbers.
For example, famous "bust" Joey Harrington has more passing yards (14,693) than Hall of Famer Sid Luckman (14,686). Luckman was a three-time Pro Bowler, was named to First Team All-Pro five times and won four NFL championships. He even led the NFL in passing yards three of his 12 seasons!
So, honors and accomplishments it is.
Breaking up the Generations
The first step I took was to eliminate any quarterback with fewer than 10,000 passing yards. This isn't to slight all-time legends like Dutch Clark, but to have a minimum level of apples-to-apples sanity. Quarterbacks from the 1930s who ran more than they threw didn't play the position we think of when we say "quarterback."
I grouped the players by the starting and end points of their careers. I tried to optimize the groups to form the greatest-possible "generations," capturing peak moments in NFL history where one crop of all-time greats were in the autumn of their careers, just as a new crop of all-time greats were blooming.
The First Great Generation
Sammy Baugh may be a generation unto himself. He played from 1937 to 1952, making six Pro Bowls and being named All-Pro four times. In an era where a 50 percent completion ratio and 1,000 yards passing were great, he put up some legitimately modern numbers.
Baugh led the NFL in completion percentage in nine of his 16 seasons, including a jaw-dropping 70.3 percent in 1945. He also threw for over 2,500 yards twice, coming 62 yards shy of 3,000 in 1947. Baugh was also an excellent punter, as George Blanda was an excellent kicker.
With long careers on predominantly winning teams, this generation boasts eight Hall of Famers. The two odd ducks (Tobin Rote and Babe Parilli) were both named First Team All-Pro, made multiple Pro Bowls and won a ring.
Speaking of which: the "Rings" section of this era is inflated due to the formation of the AAFC, which competed directly against the NFL for top talent. Otto Graham won't get dinged for four of his seven championships coming from the AAFC—though his incredible resume wouldn't be much weaker with only three titles.
Norm Van Brocklin probably doesn't get enough credit for leading this group of legends with nine Pro Bowl appearances.
The Second Great Generation
Johnny Unitas is the first great modern quarterback and set just about every passing record the NFL kept back then. With 10 Pro Bowls, five First Team All-Pro nods and three championships (including one Super Bowl), his résumé holds up well. Until the fourth and fifth generations reached their peak, Unitas was the consensus best quarterback of all time.
Bart Starr was, if not a better thrower than Unitas, at least as great of a leader (and a more-decorated champion). Len Dawson, for someone who went to seven Pro Bowls, was named First Team All-Pro twice and won four AFL/NFL championships, doesn't get talked about enough these days.
Poor Fran Tarkenton. Besides being the first modern quarterback who used his legs as weapons to extend plays and improvise, he broke Unitas's career passing mark, went to nine Pro Bowls, was named First Team All-Pro and was once called "The Best of Them All" by Sports Illustrated.
But Tarkenton was ahead of his time, never won a championship and has been openly bitter about how rarely he comes up in articles like these. Recently, Tarkenton's name is in the papers most often for repeatedly savaging Brett Favre.
The Third Great Generation
This generation is a little light in the "greatness" department. This was the NFL's Dead Ball Era, where brutally physical pass defense put a clamp on downfield games. Quarterbacks became less prized, and running backs and defenses won championships.
Joe Namath, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Ken Stabler hogged all the championship rings from this era, but none of them topped 30,000 career passing yards. Griese went to eight Pro Bowls, by far the most of this group.
Then, Dan Fouts. As the trigger man on the Air Coryell passing attack in San Diego, he compiled far more yards than any of his peers (43,040). He also went to six Pro Bowls, and was the only one of his generation to be named First Team All-Pro more than once.
The Fourth Great Generation
As a child of the 1980s, it will always be hard not to think of this generation as the "greatest." Montana, Elway and Marino were simply incredible, shattering single-season and all-time records year after year.
Montana got four rings while leading Bill Walsh's 49ers, a team that was both a great dynasty and an offensive revolution. Elway was the great competitor, whose blistering passes and fearless scrambles led his team to the shadow of the mountaintop three times—and to the summit twice.
Marino, of course, would ultimately break Tarkenton's career passing record. With nine Pro Bowl berths and three First Team All-Pro nominations, he also took Tarkenton's title of The Best Never to Win the Big One. Elway and Warren Moon would eventually eclipse Tarkenton, too.
Moon, Jim Kelly and Steve Young started off the radar in the CFL, USFL and USFL, respectively. By the time the 1990s rolled around, they'd taken their place with the big boys.
Kelly ran the innovative K-Gun no-huddle hurry-up offense to four straight Super Bowls (famously not winning any). Moon would reach nine Pro Bowls, and he and Randall Cunningham would be the only ones of this group to play in the new millennium.
After taking over for Montana, Young reached seven Pro Bowls, was named First Team All-Pro three times and won three titles. Young and Cunningham also added dangerous running ability to their games, foreshadowing the current crop of athletic quarterbacks.
Six of this generation have made it into the Hall of Fame—Cunningham probably ought to have.
The Fifth Great Generation
This generation, like the third, was in a state of quarterback doldrums. Teams were trying to play catch-up to Walsh and the 49ers, but the top college talent was either being groomed in 70s-style I-formation offenses, or in college-only option running attacks.
These quarterbacks were slow to succeed in the NFL, and free agency allowed for a lot of player movement. Further, the greats of the 1980s were still hanging on with the best teams; many of these signal-callers bounced around for years trying to find a quality squad.
For example, check out Vinny Testaverde; somehow this famous first-round washout compiled 46,233 career passing yards—870 shy of Tarkenton!
Only Troy Aikman managed to finish his career with the team that drafted him, and only Aikman's résumé—with six Pro Bowl berths and three rings—has yet been deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Drew Bledsoe is the second-least traveled, with three teams. The rest played with four, five, six or seven squads. Oh, and then there's Brett Favre.
Favre played for so long and at such a high level that it defies belief. The end of his career was soured by his off-the-field problems—and an incongruous eagerness to trade his legacy of toughness, commitment and I'd-play-for-free love of the game for as much cash and glory as he could get.
But just look at what he did. Over 20 years, he threw for 71,838 yards; that's 10,477 more than second-place Marino, and 24,835 more than sixth-place Tarkenton. Favre went to 11 Pro Bowls, was named First Team All-Pro three times, and, incredibly, played the best season of his career at age 40.
Somewhere in there, Favre managed to show up for work 297 consecutive games in a row—the most consecutive regular season games started by anybody at any position ever. He's a lock to be only the second Hall of Famer from this generation, in his first year of eligibility.
The Sixth Great Generation
Finally, we reach today's players. A couple, Kurt Warner and Donovan McNabb, are already retired, and both are at least worthy of Hall of Fame discussion. But the best of this bunch already stack up to the best ever.
Peyton Manning is hot on Marino's heels, with 59,487 yards passing. Manning also has the most Pro Bowl appearances of any quarterback on this list, with a whopping 12. He's also been named All-Pro five times, more than anyone else. He has only one championship... so far.
Tom Brady is the most decorated of this list, with three Super Bowl rings to glitter up his eight Pro Bowl berths and two First Team All-Pro nods. He's ninth on the all-time passing yardage list, with 44,806. Brady and Drew Brees will both likely pass Tarkenton next season.
Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger are at crossroads in their careers; both have two championships and some great seasons under their belts, with more to go. But if they want to bolster this generation's case, they'll need to recover some of their old form.
Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler are still on the young side of "prime." Rodgers especially has a great résumé already: three Pro Bowl berths and a First Team All-Pro nod. Cutler has the talent, and talent around him, to put many more pelts on his wall.
Matt Ryan is less than a season's worth of yards behind Rodgers and Cutler, and is currently gunning for his first title.
Now, the youngsters. Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman are both only 24, and both already have over 12,000 yards passing. Cam Newton shredded every rookie record last season, and Andrew Luck already beat Newton's rookie yardage total this season.
Newton, Andy Dalton, and Robert Griffin III all have a Pro Bowl berth to their credit, and Russell Wilson already has a playoff-win notch on his belt. Wilson and Colin Kaepernick face each other in the playoffs soon, and may have to go through Ryan to get to a Super Bowl.
As things stand, the Fourth Great Generation is still the greatest. As the charts show, the early-80s babies sucked up all the wins and titles from the late-70s greats and the early-90s misfits. They also changed the game more than any other generation before, and more than the generation after.
It's in that way that this generation of quarterbacks could be the best ever.
There's been a long string of great "running" quarterbacks: from Griffin to Vick, to Cunningham and Young, back to Tarkenton and even single-wing guys like Clark. But this is the first generation of the modern era where coaches are actually changing their game to maximize these quarterbacks' ability.
By the time Manning, Brady and Brees are done, they'll be right up there with Favre, Young, Marino, Elway, Montana, Tarkenton, Unitas, Graham and Baugh as the very best. But the younger guns of this generation have the chance to accomplish all they did and more.
By the time Rodgers and Stafford and Newton and Griffin and Luck and all the rest are done, they might not only be a better complement to Manning and Brady than Ken Anderson and Joe Theismann were to Namath and Griese— today's young guns might be better than today's top veterans.
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