NFL Quarterbacks: The Hall of Fame Discussion

Charles HoweCorrespondent IAugust 21, 2010

CANTON, OH - AUGUST 7: Fans with a sign saying 'Dan The Man #13' in reference to Hall of Fame enshirnee Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, pose for other fans who take pictures in front of the Pro Football Hall of Fame before the 2005 NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony on August 7, 2005 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In today’s age of fantasy football, fans are more obsessed by statistical output than ever. As a result, arguments have arisen about which players truly belong in the Hall of Fame and which players don’t, specifically at the quarterback position.

A factor that today’s fan doesn’t often take into account when entering these discussions is how a player measures up alongside his contemporaries from that era.

In order to facilitate these discussions, an exhaustive comparison of 20 well-known quarterbacks was performed. The players from this comparison entered the league between 1965 and 2004; they account for 40 Super Bowl appearances.

These quarterbacks combine for a record of 26-14 in the big game. Only three of the players did not appear in a single Super Bowl.

However, two of the three players not appearing in the Super Bowl were elected to the Hall of Fame as a result of their outstanding careers.

This study included 10 Hall of Famers. Of the Non-Hall of Fame players, five are currently on NFL rosters and a sixth is not yet eligible for election.

In the interest of a fair and accurate comparison, the players were divided into groups that played predominantly in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s.

Since many players’ careers span multiple decades, a system had to be devised to determine which of these four eras each quarterback belongs.

To determine each quarterback’s era, the length of his career was divided in half and added to his rookie season to determine the mean of his career.

For example, a quarterback that entered the NFL in 1989 and played for 14 seasons would have a mean of 1996, placing him in the 1990’s era. The players’ eras are as follows:

1970s: Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, and Archie Manning

1980s: Dan Fouts, Phil Simms, and Joe Montana

1990s: John Elway, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, and Troy Aikman

2000s: Brett Favre, Steve McNair, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger


1970s Era

During the 1970s, the NFL was a predominantly running league. Defensive backs were allowed to bump receivers at any time prior to the quarterback’s throw until 1978. The season was also shorter at fourteen games long until 1979.

These rules resulted in passing statistics that look pedestrian by today’s standards. Joe Namath is the only player to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a single year while the season was 14 games long; he did so in 1967.

That feat was not accomplished again until Dan Fouts did it during a 16-game season in 1979.

Of the five quarterbacks studied from the 1970s era, only two had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of greater than one, meaning that only two men threw more touchdowns than interceptions during their careers.

Those men were Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw. Coincidentally, these two quarterbacks also account for eight of the ten Super Bowl appearances between the five quarterbacks studied from the 1970s era.

None of the five men from the 1970s threw for 30,000 yards or more during their careers. Terry Bradshaw led these quarterbacks with 27,989 yards through the air. Ken Stabler was a close second with 27,938 passing yards.

None of these quarterbacks had a completion percentage of 60% or greater. Ken Stabler is the only man to come close at 59.8%. Roger Staubach came in second by completing 57.0% of his passes.

All of these men averaged less than 200 passing yards per game. Joe Namath led the group by passing for an average of 197.59 yards per game. Next highest was Roger Staubach’s 173.28 yards per game.

The only quarterback with a rating higher than 80 was Staubach; his rating was 83.4. Terry Bradshaw, 70.9, and Ken Stabler, 75.3, both had ratings in the 70s. The other two quarterbacks had ratings in the 60s.

Terry Bradshaw threw 212 touchdowns and was the only quarterback to throw for more than 200. Ken Stabler threw 194 and Joe Namath threw 173.

Three of these men threw more than 200 interceptions: Ken Stabler (222), Joe Namath (220), and Terry Bradshaw (210). Of those three, only Bradshaw threw more touchdowns than interceptions.

Four of the five quarterbacks studied from the 1970s era won at least one Super Bowl. These four men account for eight wins in the big game, with Bradshaw’s four victories being the lion’s share.

Bradshaw and Staubach certainly belong in the Hall of Fame. But it is hard to justify why Joe Namath is in Canton, but Ken Stabler isn’t. Both men won Super Bowls and Stabler has better statistics in every category except for yards per game and career interceptions.

However, it is hard to imagine the number of interceptions thrown would make a huge difference because Stabler’s touchdown to interception ratio is significantly better than Namath’s, 0.87 to 0.79.

On the flip side of that argument, Stabler’s career didn’t end until 1984, whereas Namath retired in 1978, meaning that Ken Stabler’s passing statistics increased after the rule changes of 1978-1979, a full half of his career in which he enjoyed advantages that Namath never had.

1980s Era

Only three of the quarterbacks studied technically qualified for the 1980s era, and an argument could be made sending Fouts into the 1970s.

However, if Dan Fouts gets bumped to the 1970s, John Elway, Boomer Esiason, and Dan Marino would most certainly move to the 1980s and Brett Favre would get lumped into the 1990’s.

All five of these men played significant amounts of their careers in different decades. The only fair way to resolve this matter was to classify them by which decade they played the largest portion of their respective careers.

The 1980s era is when the rule changes of the late 1970s become apparent. All three players studied passed for more than 30,000 yards.

Each one averaged more than 200 passing yard per game and threw more touchdowns than interceptions. Two of the three quarterbacks have bronze busts in Canton.

Joe Montana is the best quarterback of this era. His four Super Bowl victories, 63.2% completion percentage, 273 touchdowns, 1.96 touchdowns to interceptions ratio, and 92.3 passer rating lead his contemporary quarterbacks.

Dan Fouts led in career passing yardage, 43,040 yards, and yards per game, 237.79 yards.

Phil Simms didn’t lead any category and was the only quarterback studied from the era that had a passer rating in the 70s. However, he did best Fouts by playing in and winning a Super Bowl.

Joe Montana and Dan Fouts belong in Canton. Phil Simms doesn’t. It’s as simple as that.


1990s Era

The 1990s saw a significant jump in career passing yardage and career touchdowns. Dan Marino boasted 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns, John Elway threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns, and Warren Moon rounded out the top three with 49,325 yards and 291 touchdowns.

All three men bested any of the quarterbacks studied from the 1970s and 1980s in both of those categories. Four of the five men studied are Hall of Famers.

Dan Marino is the best of the class. He led his era in total yards, yards per game, touchdowns, touchdown to interception ratio, and passer rating. The only glaring blemish on his impeccable record is that he lost his only Super Bowl appearance.

John Elway’s numbers would have looked more impressive had it not been for Dan Marino. However, Elway won two Super Bowls, something Marino can’t brag about.

Troy Aikman had the highest completion percentage at 61.5%. He also went a perfect 3-0 in the Super Bowl.

Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, John Elway, and Warren Moon are very deserving of their Hall of Fame status. However, Jim Kelly and Boomer Esiason have similar numbers and neither man won the Super Bowl.

Perhaps Kelly’s four consecutive Super Bowl appearances to Esiason’s single appearance is the deciding factor.

2000s Era

The 2000s era is interesting because five of the six quarterbacks are active players in the NFL and Steve McNair is not yet eligible for enshrinement.

Brett Favre and Peyton Manning already have gaudy career numbers in passing yardage and touchdowns. Favre is almost certainly nearing retirement, but Manning looks like he could be a major force in the NFL for several years to come.

Tom Brady and Drew Brees are a couple years behind Manning and Favre, but have very impressive statistics as well.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning both boast touchdown to interception ratios of greater than 2, meaning that both men throw more than two touchdowns for every interception.

No other quarterback in this study can claim that fact. Brady best Manning 2.27 to 2.02 in this category.

Manning leads every other quarterback in this study with 261.1 passing yards per game.

Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are tied for the lead in completion percentage at 64.4%.

Only two players from the 1970s, 1980s, or 1980s, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman, were able to maintain a completion percentage in the 60s for their entire career.

Every quarterback studied from the 2000s era is on pace to have a completion percentage in the 60s.

Five of the six players have won the Super Bowl at least once and Steve McNair appeared in a Super Bowl but lost.

Ben Roethlisberger with two Super Bowl victories, and Tom Brady with three Super Bowl victories and an appearance in a fourth, account for five of the eight Super Bowl wins these men share.

Brett Favre holds nearly every career passing record, including most interceptions thrown.

Favre actually has a similar yard per game average to Ben Roethlisberger: 230.33 yards per game for Favre while Roethlisberger throws for 224.44.

Roethlisberger leads Favre in completion percentage at 63.3% to Favre’s 62.0%. They are tied in touchdown to interception ratio at 1.57, and Roethlisberger leads in quarterback rating 91.7 to 86.6.

Roethlisberger also leads in Super Bowls, two to one.

Brett Favre had some behavior problems in Atlanta, which is how he ended up in Green Bay. However, Roethlisberger’s discipline issues are more serious and have come later in his career.

The Favre/Roethlisberger comparison is interesting in the fact that Favre is considered a shoe in for the Hall of Fame and Roethlisberger’s status is uncertain despite the fact that two of the three starting quarterbacks with at least two Super Bowl wins that aren’t already enshrined are active players: Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger; the third player being Jim Plunkett.

Two other factors to take into consideration are that Favre played a significant portion of his career in the 1990s when passing numbers weren’t quite as high as the 2000s, similar to the Ken Stabler versus Joe Namath debate, and that Roethlisberger almost certainly will not put up the career numbers that Favre has.

Roethlisberger’s averages may be similar to Favre’s, but at this point even Peyton Manning may be hard-pressed to best Favre in many of his career categories.

Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady are locks for the Hall of Fame when they are eligible. Roethlisberger will most likely be a Hall of Famer as long as he gets a handle on his off-field issues and continues to produce at a similar rate for at least another five or six years.

Drew Brees doesn’t have Favre’s or Manning’s ridiculous stat line or Tom Brady’s multiple Super Bowl wins. As it stands, Brees would not get into Canton. Furthermore, Steve McNair, while impressive, doesn’t have the stats for the hall.

 When having a Hall of Fame discussion, it is important to take the player’s era into context.

Unfortunately, that makes for several hours of researching facts about players that played in the same general time frame. However, the end result is well worth the effort.


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