A Player's Statistics Must Be Measured In the Context of His Era

Carl RagsdaleCorrespondent IIIJuly 12, 2010

1977:  Quarterback Terry Bradshaw #12 of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops back to pass during a game against the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. The Raiders defeated the Steelers 16-7. Mandatory Credit: Allsport  /Allsport
Getty Images/Getty Images

When evaluating a football player, statistics are by far the most popular measure. While it has many flaws, the stat sheet does do a decent job of giving us an idea of how successful any one player is. The danger of statistics is that, taken alone, they can be the most misleading measure of a player's success.

An important component of a player's statistics is the time in which he played in and what was typical of that time. Without this component, it becomes impossible to compare players of different eras, with rules so different that it is almost like playing a different game.

One exaggerated example of this mistake would be to compare the statistics of Dan Marino and Sammy Baugh. Both are Hall of Fame quarterbacks and two of the greatest ever. However, a statistical comparison would be ridiculously lopsided in favor of Marino because the era he played in allowed for passing statistics that would have been alien in Baugh's era.

This brings me to the point of my article. The flaw in judgement explained above has been used to argue that two quarterbacks, namely Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw, should not be in the Hall of Fame. Here are their stats for reference:

Bradshaw: 168 games, 51.9 completion percentage, 27,989 passing yards, 212 passing touchdowns, 210 interceptions, 32 rushing touchdowns, 70.9 quarterback rating

Namath: 140 games, 50.1 completion percentage, 27,663 passing yards, 173 passing touchdowns, 220 interceptions, 7 rushing touchdowns, 65.5 quarterback rating

While those stats surely look unimpressive to the casual fan, it is important to remember that before the illegal contact rule took effect in 1978, those were solid statistics.

Here are some more things to think about before you scream about how bad Bradshaw and Namath's stats are:

-Of the top 65 quarterbacks all time in passer rating, only five played the majority of their careers before the illegal contact rule (started in 1978). All five of them are in the Hall of Fame.

-Notable quarterbacks that have a higher quarterback rating than Johnny Unitas: Aaron Brooks, Matt Cassel, Jeff George, Jason Campbell, and Brian Griese.

-A 4,000 yard season in today's NFL is old news. In the 1970's it was almost the equivalent of a 5,000 yard season today. (Fun fact: Namath had the NFL's first ever 4,000 yard season in 1967.)

To take another example, Johnny Unitas is considered by many to be the very greatest quarterback to ever play the game (Montana would have something to say about that, but that's for a different debate). Did anybody know that Unitas threw more interceptions than touchdowns EIGHT times in his 17 year career and had "only" a 78.2 quarterback rating? Should he even be in the Hall of Fame for that?

Now, if it took you more than one microsecond to scream "(expletive) YES" to the previous question, that's my hand coming through the computer screen to slap some sense into you. The point of that stat is that it was commonplace in the league at that time to throw more interceptions than touchdowns as even the greatest quarterback of that era did so several times. 

Where is this going, you may ask? Well, Bradshaw and Namath's quarterback statistics were actually good for the time they played in, and that is without even accounting for the postseason accolades that Bradshaw accumulated and Namath's history altering guarantee.

I admit: I'm only 19 years old. I haven't had the chance to see the great players of the 1970's and 1960's play. What I do understand is the many rule changes that have happened since then:

-the Mel Blount rule

-the Ty Law rule

-the Tom Brady rule

-rules against hitting receivers in the helmets

-hitting defenseless receivers

-hitting quarterbacks in the head


If you don't understand the impact that these rule changes have had on the game, you have no right to evaluate the player statistics of the past. It was much more difficult to throw the ball in the 1970's than it is in today's NFL, and you must account for that when comparing across different eras.

The rule changes aren't the only thing that have changed since the time Namath and Bradshaw played. Ever heard of this thing called the West Coast offense? Of course you have. One of the most popular and successful offensive schemes of all time, the West Coast offense was not around during the time these quarterbacks played.

This meant that quarterbacks weren't throwing three yard slants to their receiver and benefiting from lots of YAC, like many quarterbacks today do to inflate their stats. The quarterbacks of the past had to sling it down the field against tight coverage (no such thing as illegal contact), which results in more dangerous throws, much lower completion percentages, and more interceptions for all quarterbacks. 

So, before you claim that a Hall of Fame quarterback is not Hall of Fame worthy, always remember the era that that particular quarterback played in before you go bashing sub par stats. Otherwise, I could blindly bash just about every HOF quarterback that played in the 1970's and before.