Which Is More Important to a Team's Success: A Great QB or Great WRs?

PunkusAnalyst IMay 12, 2009

There is a question I have been thinking about for a while now.  A question that I have posed to my friends who are also sports fanatics. 

The question simply is this: If you were building a team, which would you rather have 1) An elite quarterback and serviceable receivers or 2) A pair of Elite receivers and a serviceable quarterback?

Now I admit up front that this is a loaded question, to which there is no wrong answer and there are many other factors that play into the success of a team than just these two positions. Nonetheless, what is more important to a team's success Great WRs or a Great QB?

It is the nature of team sports that each individual needs to work in harmony with the others on his team in order to achieve success.  One individual cannot do it alone; it takes a team. In no sport is this truer than in football.

A players success is therefore deeply tied to the success of his teammates success. Quality receivers can elevate the play of a decent quarterback, and a quality quarterback can make his receivers look far better than they really are.

Though it is the abilities of both parties that contribute to the teams success, it is the individual's achievements which are recorded and highlighted into statistics.  And it is by these statistics that we measure the greatness of a player.

So let's look at some case studies to try to determine which pairing (great QB w/ o.k. WR or great WR's w/ o.k. QB) would be most preferable all things being equal.


There have been a number of amazing quarterbacks who have played in the National Football League who have achieved very high levels of success without a great supporting cast.

The first that comes to my mind is Dan Marino.

Dan Marino set just about every quarterbacking record there was. 

  • Most Attempts, Career: 8,358 (surpassed by Brett Favre in 2007)
  • Most Completions, Career: 4,967 (surpassed by Brett Favre in 2006)
  • Most Yards Passing, Career: 61,361 (surpassed by Brett Favre in 2007)
  • Most Touchdown Passes, Career: 420 (surpassed by Brett Favre in 2007)
  • Most Yards Passing, Season: 5,084 in 1984
  • Most Touchdown Passes, Season: 48 (surpassed by Peyton Manning (49) in 2004 and by Tom Brady (50) in 2007)
  • Most Games, 400 or more Yards Passing, Career: 13
  • Most Games, 400 or more Yards Passing, Season: 4 in 1984
  • Most Games, 300 or more Yards Passing, Career: 63
  • Most Seasons, 3,000 or more Yards Passing: 13 (1984-92, 1994-95, 1997-98) (surpassed by Brett Favre in 2005)
  • Most Consecutive Seasons, 3,000 or more Yards Passing: 9 (1984-92) (surpassed by Brett Favre in 2001)
  • Most Games, Four or more Touchdown Passes, Career: 21
  • Most Games, Four or more Touchdown Passes, Season: 6 in 1984
  • Most Games, Three or more Touchdown Passes, Career: 62 (surpassed by Brett Favre in 2007)
  • Lowest Percentage, Passes Intercepted, Rookie Season: 2.03 in 1983 (296-6) [surpassed by Charlie Batch, Detroit, 1.98 in 1998 (303-6)]
  • Most Seasons Leading League, Attempts: 5 (1984, 1986, 1988, 1992, 1997)
  • Most Seasons Leading League, Completions: 6 (1984-86, 1988, 1992, 1997)
  • Most Seasons, 40 or more Touchdown Passes: 2 (1984, 1986)
  • 100 TD Passes in Fewest Number of Games to Start Career: 44 (9/7/1986 at San Diego)
  • 200 TD passes in Fewest Number of Games to Start Career: 89 (9/17/1989 at New England)
  • 300 TD passes in Fewest Number of Games to Start Career: 157 (9/4/1994 vs. New England)
  • Highest TD-INT differential: +168

With these laudable statistics one would think he had amazing receivers, capable of great feats who made these achievements possible.  But I dare you to name one of Marino's receivers. 

Sure, if you were a fan of the Dolphins back in the day you may be able to, but no receiver Marino ever threw to is in the hall of fame (outside of when he appeared in the pro bowl). 

Marino was an Elite Quarterback, unmatched in his time with the statistics to back that bold statement up.  Yet, with all his "individual" achievements he never won a Super Bowl.

Quality quarterback with just o.k. receivers.


Some other examples are:

When Tom Brady won three Super Bowls with the Patriots.  He wasn't throwing to elite wide outs.  He was throwing to Deion Branch, Troy Brown, David Patten, David Givens, and Bethel Johnson.  None of those guys are even on the team anymore, and all of them have had trouble seeing any kind of playing time with other teams.

Hall of Famer Warren Moon was a journeyman who had success wherever he played.  And other than having Cris Carter for two seasons later in his career, never had a receiver to throw to with laudable skills.

Jim Kelly is another quarterback who many consider to be great.  The closest thing he had to an elite receiver was Andre Reed at the end of his career.

Peyton Manning is another. Now I may lose some of you here and I realize that, but  Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne have never played with anyone but Peyton Manning.  I know many if not all of you would acknowledge that both these players are great receivers. 

Yet, I feel that one can question whether or not Wayne or Harrison are elite talents in the NFL without Manning. (Highly debatable I know, but i still felt it worth mentioning.)


On the flip side of the coin, there have been a number of amazing receivers who have played in the National Football League who have achieved very high levels of success without a "great" quarterback.

The best example we have for this scenario is Cris Carter. 

The dailynorseman.com put it best:

Carter, as a member of the Vikings, had eight consecutive 1,000 yard seasons from 1993 to 2000.  Here, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, was the Vikings' leading passer in each of those seasons.

1993 - Jim McMahon
1994 - Warren Moon
1995 - Warren Moon
1996 - Brad Johnson
1997 - Brad Johnson
1998 - Randall Cunningham
1999 - Jeff George
2000 - Daunte Culpepper

In those eight 1,000-yard seasons, the man played with six different primary quarterbacks.  There's one Hall of Famer on that list in Warren Moon, a guy that Carter played with towards the tail end of Moon's career.  None of the other guys on that list are going to the Hall, and frankly none of them are close. 

Not to mention the transitions at QB that were made in those years (the change from Moon to Johnson in 1996, Johnson to Cunningham in 1998, Cunningham to George in 1999).

Great wide receiver who had an amazing career despite a laudable quarterback.


Other examples include:

Hall of Fame Receiver Art monk whose quarterback was Douq Williams.

Hall of Fame Receiver Steve Largent whose quarterbacks were Jim Zorn & David Krieg.

Future Hall of Famer Tim Brown who had Rich Gannon, Jeff George, and Jeff Hostettler throwing to him 

Matt Cassel who threw to Randy Moss and We Welker last season.

How about the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice.  Again I may lose you here, but the point is worth noting.  Jerry Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing to him.  Montana is in the Hall of Fame, and Steve Young is regarded as a great quarterback. 

The question I would pose is, would either Montana or Young have had success without having the luxury of throwing to Jerry Rice?  Montana didn't have laudable success with the Chiefs after leaving the 49ers.  Difficult question to answer, I know.

Still need convincing?

How about Kurt Warner.  I think is is pretty fair to say that Kurt Warner is not a quarterback that comes to mind if someone were to ask you to think of a great quarterback.  He may not even make the top 50.

So it is fair to characterize Warner as a serviceable, so-so, decent quarterback, but not an elite player.

Yet Warner has had success in the NFL. He won a Super Bowl with the Rams, and made an appearance in another with the Cardinals. Both of these teams had something in common.  Elite wide receivers.

Warner was throwing to Torry Holt and Issac Bruce with the Rams, and Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin with the Cardinals.

Both Holt and Bruce continued to play at a high level of success after playing with Warner, and I find it safe to assume that the same will be true of Fitzgerald and Boldin post Warner. 

In both cases Warner perfectly exemplifies a mediocre quarterback paired with fantastic wide receivers.


So we come back to the original question: All things being equal, If you were building a team, which would you rather have 1) An elite quarterback and serviceable receivers or 2) A pair of Elite receivers and a serviceable quarterback?


This conundrum finds its place in the current NFL this year with two teams linked by blockbuster trade this offseason. 

The Chicago Bears have an great quarterback in Jay Cutler and barely serviceable receivers, while the Denver Broncos have a pair of great receivers in Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal with a serviceable quarterback in Kyle Orton.

I'm interested to find out, which would you choose?