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07 Jul 2011

Walkthrough: Colt Dilemma

by Mike Tanier

Somewhere near Baltimore…

SALESPERSON: Good morning gentlemen, and welcome to Crate & Barrel! What can I do for you?

LITTLE RAY: We are looking for a belated wedding gift for one of our coworkers.

SALESPERSON: Oh yes, the Joe and Dana registry. That really did sneak up on us, didn’t it? I will assume you are friends of the groom. What is your price range?

BIG RAY: We had to tighten our belts a little because of the lockout. We should keep it under, say, $10,000.

SALESPERSON: T…t…ten thousand? For that price you can purchase that aisle over there!

LITTLE RAY: Anything on that aisle?

SALESPERSON: No, the whole aisle.

BIG RAY: I don’t know about this place, Little Ray. I don’t see a single crate or barrel for sale. Joe wouldn’t have signed up here unless he really wanted some sort of barrel. I think this place is a front or something.

SALESPERSON: No sir! The name of the store is just a clever way of saying that we sell a variety of home furnishings and supplies. Now you gentlemen probably want to purchase something that suggests strength and masculinity. May I recommend a set of high-quality, German-crafted knives?

BIG RAY: I guess that’s supposed to be some kind of joke. Why don’t I just…

LITTLE RAY: Woah, woah. Easy there, Big Ray. He wasn’t trying to be funny. He doesn’t know who we are. Knives might not be the right gift for us. What’s on the registry that is still available?

SALESPERSON: Dish towels, damp mops, plain flatware, brown napkin rings.

LITTLE RAY: Wow, all of those are perfect gifts for Joe.

SALESPERSON: Sorry, I made a mistake. All of those were recently purchased.

BIG RAY: Really? All of that bland, boring stuff? What kind of imagination-less milk toast of a human being would string all of those dull, ordinary things together into one package?

SALESPERSON: They were bought by a ... Mr. Cameron.

BIG RAY: I’m telling you, Little Ray, I don’t like this place. Let’s go next door to Barnes & Noble. I can get an iced coffee, and there’s a whole section of books by or about Michael Oher.

SALESPERSON: Ooh, this may be the perfect gift: a stepladder! Nothing says "marital bliss" like a good stepladder!

LITTLE RAY: Let me try that. Wow! I can almost reach the top shelf with this thing! You're going bald, Big Ray!

BIG RAY: Don’t make me pound you until you are two inches shorter, Little Ray.

SALESPERSON: So you guys are Big Ray and Little Ray? That’s cute. It reminds me of a Dr. Seuss alphabet book I read to my nephew sometimes. “Big Ray, Little Ray, what begins with Ray? Ravens lose a playoff game, Ray! Ray! Ray!”

BIG RAY: Oh man! Hold me back Little Ray!

LITTLE RAY: Easy, easy big fella! Look, Mr. Crate & Barrel guy, we aren’t the best wedding shoppers. Can you give us any advice?

SALESPERSON: Well, men of your means can afford just about anything they want. That makes the feeling behind the sentiment all the more important. The best things you can offer your coworker are sincere congratulations, continued support, and friendship.

BIG RAY: I like that. Best of all, it’s free, so DeMaurice won’t call us and yell at us for spending too much money.

LITTLE RAY: I agree. But now we have other wedding shopping to do. We still haven’t gotten anything for Big Ben, and he’s not registered here.

BIG RAY: Then let’s go to where he is registered.

LITTLE RAY: Right! Hooters it is!

Quarterback Top Fives

Let’s build the suspense by starting with the mighty Texans.

Houston Texans

1 Matt Schaub. Schaub turned 30 last week. He is a solid quarterback, but he is firmly in his prime and will probably start declining in the next few years. One thing these Top Fives have taught me is that most quarterbacks’ peaks are relatively short: four or five years, in most cases. Schaub is already two years in.

2. David Carr. On September 28, 2003, Carr scored a last-second game-winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak against the Jaguars. Dom Capers could have ordered a chipshot field goal to force a 20-20 tie but ordered the sneak instead. It was an incredibly exciting moment, and I thought at the time that it marked the start of a productive career for Carr. Instead, it became his greatest moment as a professional. At least it was unforgettable.

3. Sage Rosenfels. Rosenfels was always interesting. He had a four-touchdown and two three-touchdown games for the Texans, but he also had a four-interception and two three-interception games. He packed a lot of living into ten starts.

4. Tony Banks.

5. Dave Ragone. These happen to be the only five quarterbacks to throw more than 10 passes in Texans history. Rex Grossman was 3-of-9 in Houston as their only other quarterback. Grossman’s efficiency rating was 5.6, lower than those of Jabar Gaffney and Matt Turk. There is an NFL team seriously considering him as a starting quarterback this year. It’s not the Texans.

Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts

1. Peyton Manning.

2. Johnny Unitas.

Manning won four MVP awards and had five other extremely valuable seasons. He has been an MVP-caliber performer every year since 2003, as well as in 2000, when he led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns for a 10-6 team. He earned a Pro Bowl berth in every season except his rookie year and 2001, the only year of his career that can be considered “off” by any meaningful standard. Sustained excellence of that magnitude for five years is rare, let alone ten. It's an accomplishment no quarterback, and frankly few athletes in any team sport, can match.

Counting MVP-worthy seasons is a good way to differentiate among all-time greats, isn’t it? Counting Pro Bowl berths is great, but the sixth best quarterback in the league can get a Pro Bowl spot, and that's assuming nobody comes up with any phantom injuries they need to rest. Working with actual statistics is fraught with problems once you cross eras. Counting actual MVP awards leaves you with a bunch of players who won two or three, so you do not get the separation you need when comparing Hall of Famers among themselves. We all know the problem with counting Super Bowl rings. Without hunting down MVP votes, we can call an MVP-worthy season one in which the player accumulates outstanding statistics while making a major contribution for a playoff-caliber team. That’s what Manning did in 2000, and in every year from 2003 on.

We lose sight of just how amazing Manning’s accomplishments are because we are living through them, we enjoy laughing at his infrequent slipups, and his consistency makes us take what he does for granted. The last five seasons have been variations on a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown, 15-interception theme, with his team winning at least 10 games and reaching the playoffs every year. Even for the great quarterbacks in history, a five-year run of playoff appearances, statistical excellence, and perennial Pro Bowl berths would be the centerpiece of a career. While this five-year run does include Manning’s two Super Bowl appearances, it comes after two MVP awards, a record-breaking 49-touchdown season, two passing yardage crowns, a 14-2 season, a 13-3 season, and two 12-4 seasons. If Peyton Manning’s career had started in 2006 -– if everything before that happened in the USFL -– he would be a Hall of Famer and one of the 15 or so best quarterbacks in history (his record would be similar to Steve Young’s in many ways). But his career started in 1998, and that’s why he is arguably the greatest quarterback ever, and unquestionably one of the top five.

Johnny Unitas won MVP awards in 1959, 1964, and 1967. The 1964 award was a little odd –- Jim Brown and Bart Starr may have deserved it more –- but MVP ballots are delicate things. Heck, Manning may not have been the best choice in 2008. Anyway, Unitas had true MVP-type seasons in 1957, 1958, and 1960. Let’s give him 1965 as another one. That’s seven MVP-type seasons to Peyton’s nine. Both players were first-team All Pros five times, though Unitas did it in a much smaller league. Manning has one more Pro Bowl appearance. Manning has won 23 more regular season games with only three more losses.

Careers tend to be much longer now, which gives Peyton an edge, but it’s important to recognize that he has not really entered his decline yet. Unitas’ decline started with an injury in 1968, when he was about the same age as Peyton will be this year. His decline phase included two Super Bowl appearances, one win, and over 6,000 passing yards during a defense-dominated era. It also includes most of the memories many of us have of Unitas, either from life or from NFL Films. Peyton could have all manner of adventures ahead of him: more Super Bowl appearances (possible), another Pro Bowl berth or three (likely), even a Unitas-like stint as the old gunslinger on a defense-oriented team. The fact is that he doesn’t need them to create a very strong case that he is better than Unitas.

One thing that often happens in these arguments is that we adjust the contemporary player down because careers are longer and stats are more prolific, but we never adjust the old timer down for the fact that media coverage has changed. In Unitas’ heyday, sportswriters were almost uniformly fawning and invested in mythmaking. The football media was also rather primitive, compared to the modern football mass media and to baseball media of the time, so players weren’t scrutinized heavily or scouted minutely. We don’t have detailed scouting reports documenting every minor Unitas mistake, long columns explaining how Unitas lacks the courage or gumption to defeat Bart Starr, or bloggers making fun of Unitas’ post-interception facial expressions. We had a hero-champion-warrior king. You cannot compare that bronze bust to the guy who will take the field in September (I type this with ever-increasing confidence) and possibly lose or throw two interceptions. You have to make harsh judgments when comparing old legends to new. You have to notice the fact that from 1961-63 Unitas was the third-to-fifth best quarterback in a 14-team league. You have to remember that Colts did just fine without him the year they reached Super Bowl III, a sign that his “leadership” was not all that important to a team that did darn well with his backup at the helm.

There are other things to adjust for. Unitas won three titles. Winning an NFL championship in 1958 and 1959 meant winning one championship game, no playoffs. The other title came in 1971, when the NFL Colts got to share a division with four newly-arrived AFL teams, three of them terrible. The Jets, Bills, and Patriots combined to win seven games the year the Colts won Super Bowl V. This sounds like I am picking away at Unitas, and I don’t mean to do that to one of the best quarterbacks ever. I am just explaining that “adjustment” is a two-way street. Unitas’ 1950s Colts won 12-team leagues. It was an accomplishment, and a sign of excellence, but not a cudgel that can be used to beat another player over the head for winning a 32-team league “only” once.

There’s a reflexive need to argue against Manning’s greatness, and I noticed it when looking through the message boards in the last few weeks when some of you were anticipating this Colts list. For Manning, we have amazing stats, wins, and longevity. Leadership that in any other era would be universally lauded. Uniqueness and durability at a position where a missed game is potentially a disaster. We toss them all away and point to a handful of playoff losses. The problem isn’t bad here at Football Outsiders, where you guys really delve into the evidence and come away with measured conclusions. In other places, it is pathologically nutty, and some of them aren't even Patriots fansites.

There are many reasons to pick Unitas over Peyton, and I would not go to war with someone who wants to make that choice. But I think some people want to kick Peyton out of the Top 10 of all time, or even the Top 20. To them, I say this: anyone who does not consider Peyton Manning one of the ten best quarterbacks of all time either hasn’t studied the issue at all or is arguing from some kind of goofy agenda. I don’t see any reason to keep him out of the Top Five.

While doing this project, I have spent hours and hours staring at quarterback records: the stat lines, their playoff records, John Maxymuk’s Quarterback Abstract, old encyclopedias, game logs. I had to study Steve Young and Joe Montana, all the Cowboys greats, the 1950s legends and AFL guys. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in any of the records like Manning’s body of work over the last decade. There is no run of 12-4 seasons and statistical dominance that lasts anywhere near as long, period. Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady cannot touch it. John Elway does not come close. Neither does Dan Marino, who had a lot of great statistical years for 8-8 teams. Joe Montana has something more checkered, although it is brilliant enough that it is arguably greater. Unitas has 1957-60 and several punctuation marks, so he has a case. Brett Favre has his four-year run and lots of (very good) stuffing. Otto Graham has something that looks better if you can stomach AAFC statistics. But really, Manning’s statistical record is completely on its own, and to write it all off is to write this whole decade off.

There’s the selection, feel free to criticize it.

3. Bert Jones. The Colts ran a proto-West Coast Offense under Ted Marchibroda in the mid-1970s, and Jones had three excellent seasons during the deadest of the Dead Ball Era. Jones then suffered several major injuries, and by the time he returned to health in 1980, owner Robert Irsay was engaging in drunken tantrums in the locker room, taking headsets off coordinators’ heads during games, and alienating just about every productive player the team had.

As we have written about elsewhere, Jones’ 1976 season (3104-24-9, 60.3 completion percentage, some rushing value) is one of the best quarterback seasons ever once you account for offensive levels and season length. That season may be highlighted on an upcoming edition of NFL’s Top 10, so keep your eyes open.

4. Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh had one of the longest careers as a custodial starter ever. His specialties were avoiding interceptions and making plays on the run, and he was the perfect quarterback for a team that wanted to hand off 30 times per game because he didn’t have any delusions that he was a star. Because he was smallish, spunky, hard working, of European descent, and had much of his success in his mid-30s, he became the kind of quarterback who gets undue credit for his team’s success. It's a phenomenon I am starting to call Sportswriter Wish Fulfillment Syndrome.

5. Earl Morrall. Morrall led the Colts to Super Bowl III, leading the NFL with 26 touchdowns. He won spot starts in 1969 and 1970, then posted a 7-2 record for a very good Colts team in 1971. There aren’t really any worthy honorable mentions, as Unitas, Manning, and Jones ate up much of Colts history. Jeff George did have some productive years. Guys like Mike Pagel and Jack Trudeau played hot potato with the starting job for many years but weren’t ever very good.

And Finally

I was supposed to do some statistical research but fell behind last week; sorry for that.

Obviously, many of us are holding our breath for good news on the NFL labor front. Every setback (like Thursday’s) comes with a heavy shudder, every nugget of good news has us bracing for some around-the-clock work to get things like the Football Outsiders Almanac done. A lot of us are moving family vacations up to, well, now, which is why I was at Dutch Wonderland instead of in the data mines in the first half of the week.

Some promotional materials for The Philly Fan’s Code arrived this week, and I just edited the galleys. Take a look at the ads on this page and you will see that the book is available for pre-order at Amazon. There will be public appearances and signings in the Delaware Valley. Details will land here first. I hope to have some news about other exciting new projects in a few weeks. I also hope to be preparing for training camp.

Happy Independence Day!

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 07 Jul 2011

272 comments, Last at 22 Jul 2011, 7:30pm by BigCheese


by Otis Taylor89 :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:43pm

Ready for irrational Unitas/Manning thread.

This will make it easy as the answer, of course, is Tom Brady.

by John (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:47pm

For those of us who don't pay attention to media coverage of players' off-the-field follies, could someone give me a clue as to the first part of this article? Other than Big Ben/Hooters (and is he really getting married?) I'm absolutely baffled as to the context.

Looking forward to seeing the number of comments on this one. Should rank up there.

by TheSim (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:56pm

It's a scene involving Big Ray (Ray Lewis) and Little Ray (Ray Rice) going shopping for wedding gifts for Joe Flacco, who got married last week.

by Dean :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:50am

I forgot about Rice and thought Little Ray was Ed Reed.

by dbostedo :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:03pm

And yes, Roethlisberger is getting married in July.

Here's an article with details and quotes from Big Ben, if you're interested : http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11097/1137642-66.stm

by Sha-blam-o (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:57pm

I suppose they will all show up in an article with T Romo this season?

by TheSim (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:55pm

I admire your guts for arguing so passionately that Manning should rank higher than Unitas, but I still don't agree with you. I am a fan of FBO and of all its contemporary sports stat-site equivalents, but when it comes to determining that mythology that is inherent in the concept of what is known as "All Time Greatness", this is one of those times when stats should be the buttressing and not the centerpiece. You absolutely cannot ignore the significance of the fact that without Unitas, the NFL would not be what it is today. The Greatest Game Ever Played was so because of a championship comeback and an overtime drive captained by Unitas. Super Bowl III would never have been as huge as it was, had it not been surrounded by the mythology of Unitas' working class leadership set up against Namath's brash, youthful arrogance. In other words, his importance to the game went beyond wins and losses and MVP votes. When you talk about being "great", stats and awards should be at the forefront. But when you talk about "All-Time Greatness", you absolutely cannot ignore the impact that the player had and continues to have. All stats and "competitive inflation" comparisons like you do here achieve is say what we would all readily admit: if Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning, in their primes, faced each other with identical teams, Peyton Manning would win that game 8 or 9 out of 10 times. But, really... so what? Do we knock George Harrison because he couldn't play a solo as fast as Steve Vai? No. Because true greatness lies in the immeasurables.

by thejoshbaker :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:04pm

"All stats and "competitive inflation" comparisons like you do here achieve is say what we would all readily admit: if Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning, in their primes, faced each other with identical teams, Peyton Manning would win that game 8 or 9 out of 10 times. But, really... so what?"

Well, the point of football is to win. So that's probably what.

by dbostedo :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:06pm

I think the issue is that there are varying definitions of all time great. You said :

"All stats and "competitive inflation" comparisons like you do here achieve is say what we would all readily admit: if Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning, in their primes, faced each other with identical teams, Peyton Manning would win that game 8 or 9 out of 10 times."

To me, if we all readily admit that (and assuming we adjust properly for era - i.e. their primes are defined by how much they dominated their era), it means Manning is the better QB. The greater of the all-time greats.

by Sander :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:24pm

Unitas barely features in current recollections of Super Bowl III and rightly so, he was not an important player for that team. You have a point with the rest of your post, but I think Unitas's presence for Super Bowl III is a non-factor.

Also, you're talking about fame and the myth of the man and saying that that is how a person's greatness should be measured, rather than by what he actually did on the field. But that was Mike's entire point: greatness is not the myth the media creates, which is what you seem to hold as the most relevant.

And with that, I'd like to say that there's a fair argument to make that Peyton's influence on the game today is as far-reaching as Unitas's influence has been.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 7:04pm

"I admire your guts for arguing so passionately that Manning should rank higher than Unitas"

How is that a gutsy move? Your pick of Unitas isn't gutsy, either. Now, if you wanted to argue Bert Jones was the best of all of them, then THAT would be gutsy!

I like your argument about Unitas making the NFL what it is today. Definitely something in his favor that Manning doesn't have. But your Super Bowl III take is revisionist history. Nobody was talking about Unitas' leadership going into that SB because he hadn't played all season and the Colts were huge favorites in part because Earl Morrall had led the league in passing that year. It was never about Broadway Joe facing down Unitas, it was him predicting victory versus a juggernaut.

by Keith(1) (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 9:53am

I will not say that Manning has changed the league, but he is the true definition of a franchise player. I cannot think of one other team in league history that has spent 13 seasons putting all of their eggs into one basket, and actually doing well. That organization, from top to bottom, is all about Peyton Manning. Their offense is built around him. Their defense is built around him. Their special teams is built around him. Their front office is essentially built around him.

But, an argument can be made that he, along with other prolific quarterbacks, has changed the way offense is played, spreading out your players, running as a secondary option, and just domination through the air.

by An Onimous (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:43pm

The problem with conflating "greatness" with "mythology" is that mythology grows with time, while "greatness" is really a static measurement (or, if anything, it decreases over time as more and more future players achieve a higher "greatness" plateau- witness Art Monk for a great example). "Mythology" has a strong bias towards players whose accomplishments are dimly remembered, whereas "Greatness" is ideally free from bias. It seems to me that the goal of this exercise is to identify the best QB in a franchise's history, and in the case of the Colts, that QB is Payton Manning. The myth of Unitas is greater than the myth of Manning, but even you admit that the reality of Manning is greater than the reality of Unitas.

As much as it pains this Broncos fan to do so, I have to recognize at this point that Peyton Manning is probably the greatest QB in NFL history- a mind-boggling statement given how many years he has left to continue to pad his legacy. His peak was as high as anyone's in history, but he maintained it for 2 or 3 times longer than anyone else has managed to. His durability is legendary, and those 7 straight 12+ win seasons are one of the most impressive accomplishments in football history. Most importantly, he's done it with everyone. He's done it with Edgerrin James, with Dominic Rhodes, and with Joseph Addai. He's done it with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, he's done it with Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Anthony Gonzalez, and then last year, most impressively of all, he did it with Wayne, Garcon, Collie, Tamme, and White.

Most importantly, the entire narrative that Manning is a choker is absolutely absurd at this point. Peyton Manning's QB rating falls in the postseason, sure... but Tom Brady's falls more. Peyton Manning's YPA falls... but Tom Brady's falls more. Peyton Manning's INT% actually improves in the postseason, while Brady's gets worse. This isn't meant to be a referendum on Manning vs. Brady, it's meant to illustrate how stupid it is that one guy gets a "clutch" label because he won some games early in his career with a great defense, while another gets a "choker" label because he lost some games early in his career with a shaky defense (and, admittedly, a few terrible performances against the Pats), and then those labels get set in stone and never again re-evaluated. PFR once ranked the greatest playoff performances of all time once you adjust for quality of defense, and two of the top 5 playoff games of all time belong to Peyton Manning. You want a guy who steps up in big games, check out what Peyton Manning did to the otherworldly Jets pass defense in the AFCCG.

Did Manning's playoff performance improve like Montana's, Bradshaw's, or Ken Stabler's? No- very few QBs have better playoff resumes than regular season resumes, and I'm sure that much of that variation is simply due to random chance. Still, Manning's postseason performance compares favorably with pretty much anyone else's, and his drop in play between regular season and postseason is in line with (or even slightly better than) the other all-time greats such as Brady, Elway, Marino, Young, Favre, and even Unitas himself.

In short, the only arguments against Peyton Manning being one of the top 2 QBs in the history of the game (if you want to ignore Joe Montana's "Bill Walsh Advantage" and lend extra weight to his postseason performances) are manufactured nonsense and outdated narratives that have stuck in the collective unconscious because humans have a terrible bias against revising their beliefs when presented with new evidence.

by Yesimadolphinsfan (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:32am

Seconded. I love Dan Marino. I've always considered him the greatest passer in the history of the NFL, albeit with a lot of bias. But Peyton Manning is better. He's the greatest QB of all time. I think people don't admit it (Pats Fans), or maybe even realize it, because he's still playing. He's still got a few great seasons left in him barring injury. I'll be interested to see if, as I believe, 5 - 10 years after he retires people view him in a significantly different light. As the mythology surrounding him grows and we get epic NFL Films biopics of his career, etc., I think people will associate him with the legends of past eras, and when compared in that light, begin to view him as the greatest ever.

I think about the time he enters the Hall of Fame, and no one in their right mind could possibly believe he's not a first balloter, people will realize just how amazing it was to be witnessing what we've had the privilege to witness. I can see having kids down the road and my son asking me what it was like to see him play. And I'll say - Glorious.

by Ranccor (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:50pm

Wow...I was not expecting this to turn into an irrational Manning vs Montana thread. All I have say on that subject is...Montana was awesome in his day. Manning is awesome now. Both are all-time greats.

by Ranccor (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:55pm

Hmmm...That was supposed to be a response to the arguments later in the tread.

by MJK :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:16pm

In disclosing any biases I might have, I'll start off by saying I'm a Patriots fan. Which means that (1) I'm supposed to hate Manning, and (2) I don't know as much about Unitas as a hardcore Colts fan. I'm also only 33, so Unitas had stopped playing before I was even born.

That said, I will vote for Manning. Simply put, what Manning has done has been utterly amazing. QB's simply don't play as well as he has for as long as he has. They don't come anywhere close. The only QB's recently that have played as long as Manning are Kerry Collins, Jeff Garcia, and Brett Favre, and ability-wise and consistency-wise, none of them are in the same galaxy as Manning. If Manning retired tomorrow, the next best QB recent times (Tom Brady...and yes, this is a Patriots fan saying Manning is better than Brady, at least right now), would have to put up at least four or five more All-Pro caliber seasons to even be in the same discussion as Manning, from a longevity and dominance standpoint. I might even put Manning above Joe Montana for what he has done...

I don't buy the argument that Unitas made the game what it is today...the same thing could be said of Joe Namath with his silly guarantee, and I don't think many people would argue that Namath is an all time great QB (in fact, he's probably not even the Jets best QB). "Making the game what it is today" is as much about theater, and being in the right place at the right time with the right media coverage, as it is about greatness.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 7:47pm

You're right about Manning being great, but, wow, are you out in leftfield with the rest of your post.

If you don't believe that theater is a major reason people watch sports, you're delusional. That "silly" guarantee is one of the most memorable moments of American sports lore, ranking right up there with Ruth calling his shot. It single-handedly took the Super Bowl from what had been viewed as a formality game where the NFL teams dominated the weak sister AFL teams and turned it into a legitimate contest everybody wanted to see. And if you've ever wondered why there even was two leagues to produce a Super Bowl champion, thank guys like Johnny Unitas: The Greatest Game Ever Played and exploits like that fueled the rise of football from being an afterthought to becoming the sport that surpassed baseball in popularity.

Oh, and if you want to argue that it should be purely about what the players do on the field, fine. But how does that square with your take that Montana has an edge over Manning? Montana was fantastic, no doubt. But other than the Super Bowls he doesn't have a leg to stand on versus Manning. Most of the numbers are so far in Manning's favor it's almost comical--126 more TDs and over 14,000 more yards than Montana despite playing less seasons.

by Otis Taylor89 :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 8:09pm

Child please.

You probably never saw Montana play. His mobility and big game ability blows Manning away.

No doubt Manning is an All Timer, however he has played his whole career in a dome and in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL.

by Dave Bernreuther :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 8:39pm

Since the split into 8 divisions, the AFC South has actually been one of the tougher divisions, top to bottom. Many of the years when people lauded the NFC East as the best, the AFC South actually had more wins, even when matched up against difficult divisions.

I'm not trying to hold that out as a strong argument in favor of the South; only to point out that it's better than most think. It's not hard to present a case for several of the divisions being "one of the weakest" or to make one to say that any non-west division is "one of the best." And heck, with only eight of them, they're all kind of in both categories anyway.

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:15pm

If we're comparing frequent opponents, Unitas probably had it tougher. The Colts played in the old NFL West (even then, the NFL was geographically challenged) against the Lombardi-coached Packers, Halas-coached Bears (won championship in 1963), the Lions when the Lions were good, and the Rams with their "Fierceome Foursome". The only weak teams were the 49ers and expansion Vikings. The difference in team strength between the NFL West and East in Unitas's time was similar to the difference between the NFC & AFC of the mid 80's to early 90's. You can say (and I'll disagree) that Manning has been a better QB. But Manning's definitely not hands down better as some think. (FWIW, I'm 55 and still remember Unitas being the only QB the Packers seemed to truly fear.)

by Otis Taylor89 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:04pm

How many playoff games, outside of the Colts, has that division won since 2002? And, I forget, have the Texans had a season when they have won more than they lost?

None of those teams are playing NE, Pitt or SD every year and they still have mediocre records because they are two mediocre teams...and the Texans.

by Kibbles :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:38pm

Since 2002, the Jags are 71-73, the Texans are 55-89, and the Titans are 77-67, for a total of 203-229 (47.0%). It sure seems like the South's 2-4 teams have been reasonably bad, but let's see how that compares to every other divisions 2nd-4th best teams, shall we?

AFC East: Since 2002, the Bills are 59-85, the Dolphins are 64-80, and the Jets are 72-72. Total record = 195-237 (45.1%).

AFC North: Since 2002, the Bengals are 62-82, the Browns are 52-92 (yes, worse than the Texans), and the Ravens are 82-62. Total record = 196-236 (45.4%).

AFC West: Since 2002, the Chiefs are 67-77, the Broncos are 76-68, and the Raiders are 48-96. Total record = 191-241 (44.2%).

So despite the fact that the Colts have the best record in the NFL since 2002 (which means fewer potential wins for the rest of the division), the "dregs" of the AFC South have still been the best 2-4 teams in the AFC since expansion.

The only divisions that can honestly claim to be "tougher" than the AFC South since 2002 are the NFC South (three teams with a winning record, although no one dominant team) and the NFC East (pretty clearly the toughest division in football since 2002).

It's easy to look at Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston and think "wow, those are some terrible teams" because they haven't had a lot of postseason success recently, but the simple fact is that Tennessee is about as good as any 2nd best team has been over the last 9 years, while Jacksonville is one of the top "3rd best teams" in the entire league. Also, as bad as Houston's been, every single division except for the NFC South has produced one other team that has failed to win 60 games over the last 9 years (Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, Detroit, San Francisco, Washington).

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:46pm

The Colts record from 1958-67 was 89-42-3 or 0.675, a bit less. But their division opponents went 382-372-38 or 0.506. That's how tough the NFL West was back then. The Colts also likely would have won the 1965 championship if either Unitas or backup Gary Cuozzo could have played. (The Colts started RB Tom Matte after both were injured, and still only lost a playoff to the Packers on a controversial FG.) Smaller league also means less chances to make the playoffs. Maybe the Colts don't make the playoffs if only one team from whatever teams are East and West in the AFC make the playoffs. Even if South and West combined (where they don't have to deal with the Pats or Steelers), they play for the AFC championship only in 2005, 2007, and 2009. They would have to play a one game playoff in 2004 and 2010. They don't play in much less win the SB after 2006.

by Kibbles :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 4:53am

So Unitas's division opponents won 50.6% of their games and Manning's won 47.0%. That analysis would be a lot more meaningful if Unitas and Manning played absolutely nothing except for division games. When last I checked, they didn't. If you want to tell me that Unitas faced better teams, on average, than Peyton Manning, then by all means, be my guest- furnish me with some evidence to make that case. But comparing Unitas's division to Manning's division and saying Unitas's was slightly tougher doesn't do it for me, because Manning's divisional games only make up 37.5% of his total schedule. For what it's worth, while PFR hasn't weighed in on who faced the toughest schedule, they did weigh in on who faced the toughest schedule of opposing defenses, and the defenses Manning has faced during his career weren't just tougher than Unitas's, they were on average among the toughest defenses any QB has ever faced over his career.

Also, the whole "smaller league means fewer playoff spots, so therefore it's tougher to win the superbowl" argument is asinine and illogical. In a 12 team league where one team wins the superbowl, the average team has a 1/12 chance of winning the superbowl. In a 32 team league where one team wins the superbowl, the average team has a 1/32 chance of winning the superbowl. This is simple logic. The league can structure the playoffs however they want, it will not change that simple fact. It was three times as easy to win the superbowl in many of Unitas's seasons as it was in many of Manning's seasons.

In fact, quick math for you. For Unitas's first 4 seasons, he played in a 12 team league, giving him a 1/12 shot at a title. Then he played a season in a 13 team league. Then he played 5 years in a 14 team league. Then he played in a 15-team league that had a superbowl against the AFL after the season (assuming an NFL team had a 50% chance to beat an AFL team, that means a 1/30 shot at the title). Then he had 3 years at a 1/32 chance to win a title, and then the league merged and in his final 3 seasons he played in a 26 team league, giving him a 1/26 shot at the title. Add up all those chances, and you'd expect a QB whose career overlapped with Unitas's to average just a hair over 1 SB victory over that span (actually, 1.01). Which means Unitas clocked in at 0.99 SBs over the expected value. Meanwhile, Manning played 1 year in a 30 team league, 3 years in a 31 team league, and 9 years in a 32 team league. Add up all those chances and you'd expect the average QB whose career overlapped with Manning's to have 0.41 titles. Which means that Manning clocks in at 0.59 SBs over the expected value. Yes, Unitas has twice as many titles as Manning... but he played in an era where it was more than twice as easy to win a title.

by Jerry :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:10pm

In the 12 and 14 team leagues, teams played everyone in their division home and home, and two games against teams from the other division. (When expansion left an odd number of teams, I think the expansion team played everyone once.) So Unitas' division foes' record matters, however you want to compare it to Manning's.

by Kibbles :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 7:12pm

I never said it didn't matter. I'm objecting to substituting a comparison of division schedules for a substitution of schedules as a whole, because it basically amounts to saying "a group of games that represented a huge portion of Unitas's schedule was tougher than a group of games that represented a small portion of Manning's schedule; therefore, Unitas's schedule was tougher than Manning's". Manning's division schedule represents roughly a third of his total schedule, which means it's hardly representative of his schedule as a whole.

If someone wants to claim that Unitas played a tougher slate of teams, they should start by comparing the records of all the teams Unitas played to the records of all the teams Manning played. Would such a comparison favor Unitas? Perhaps, perhaps not- no way to know until someone actually does it. In the meantime, PFR compared the difficulty of the DEFENSES Manning faced and found that it was tougher than the difficulty of the DEFENSES Unitas faced, which is a very relevant point when you're comparing Manning's individual success to Unitas's (even if it's less relevant when comparing Manning's team success to Unitas's).

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:16pm

None of those teams play the Chargers, Steelers or Pats every year but no team in any of those divisions play all of those teams every year. I have no idea what that statement was supposed to mean. They do have to play the Colts every year.

BTW, The Titans have won two playoff games since (2002, 2003) and had a first round bye one other time (2008). The Jaguars have also won a playoff game since (2007). Further the AFC North and AFC East, whom most people consider better divisions, have each only had two teams win playoff games (Steelers, Ravens & Pats, Jets). The AFC West ironically has had three (all but Chiefs).

Also, the Texans went 9-7 in 2009.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:52am

I'll study this in depth next week on my site, but I'm pretty sure calling the AFC south 'weak' over the past decade is flat wrong. In fact, my guess is that it was probably the strongest or second strongest division in football over that time. Off the top of my head, the AFC South sent two teams to the playoffs in

2002, 2003 (2 12 win teams), 2005 (2 12 win teams), 3 teams in 2007 (two 11+ win teams), 2008 (2 12 win teams)

That doesn't seem like a 'weak division' to me. Indy won three division titles in years where another team won at least 11 games.

Again, it deserves more study, but even a cursory look says the comment has zero merit.

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:17pm

I most certainly did see Montana play and acknowledge him as an all-time great. But he played on a team loaded with stars with a Hall of Fame coach which certainly helped him. He's 7th all-time in wins and will shortly be passed by Brady. (Unitas and Manning are both ahead of him in wins.) He's 10th all-time in yards and will be passed by Brees and Brady in not too long. If stats are to play play ANY part at all in determining the best ever, he's simply not there. While he was certainly better than Terry Bradshaw, like Bradshaw he gets tons of credit for all the Super Bowls that were the efforts of a fabulous team.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:47pm

Wrong. Joe Montana statistically was a great QB. He didn't compile the numbers because he got hurt a lot. He rarely played all 16 games, and late in his SF career he was pulled for Young late in games quite a bit.

For his career, Montana completed 63.2% of his passes, had almost a 2-1 td/int ratio and a 92.3 career passer rating. He has a higher career Y/A than Tom Brady. Joe Montana was a great QB statistically as well.

Also, he had a HOF coach, but he did win two Super Bowls before Jerry Rice even got on the 49ers. Before Rice showed up he had a 279-432-3630-28-10 season, which rate wise is 64.6% completion with 8.4 y/a and 13.0 y/c which totaled a 102.9 rating. Again, that was before Rice was there, and he was throwing to Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon.

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:41pm

Wrong on what count? He didn't play for a fabulous team? And I never said he didn't have great statistics...just that his stats are surpassed by a fair number of other legendary all-time QBs. That's undebatable.

If you want to say he'd have put up bigger numbers without injuries, fine. But that's no more relevant than saying Manning would have more than one SB if he'd had talent like Montana had around him. (And if injuries earn Montana a pass of sorts, don't we also need to give a nod to guys like Elway, Favre and Manning who somehow avoided injuries?)

If it makes you happy, we can call Montana the greatest Super Bowl QB ever but the second you start talking stats for his career, he starts suffering in comparison to these other legendary QBs. Wins, yards, TDs... he's way behind in all these. His winning percentage was awesome...but Brady's is better and Brady is poised to pass him in wins and a number of other categories. And just like Manning, Brady is passing him up despite playing far less time.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:00pm

You said "If stats are to play ANY part at all in determining the best ever, then he's simply not there."

Joe Montana is definitely there statistically. He's way behind in wins and yards and tds and all that because he got hurt a lot. Joe Montana threw touchdowns on a higher percentage of his throws than Brett Favre or Dan Marino. Yes Favre threw for more yards per game, but Montana was way more efficient. When adjusting for era Montana was easily one of the top 5 statistical QBs of all time.

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:31pm

You can still be a legend without being #1. And the injury argument needs to be addressed in a way that doesn't penalize guys for staying healthy. Elway had one extra season than Montana yet started 67 more games. Relevant? I'd say so. Manning's played less years and already has 44 more starts than Montana had for his career. Even missing that entire season, Brady is still averaging more starts a year than Montana. And he's poised to move by him in several categories (including wins) in less time than it took Montana. Manning and Brady are both set to play more years, at a higher level than Montana did.

by An Onimous (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:06pm

You need to make a distinction between counting stats and rate stats. Montana's counting stats don't warrant a place in "all-time greatest" discussions. On a per-play or per-game basis, however, Joe Montana has one of the top 5 regular season statistical profiles of all time.

The thing that's always bugged me a tiny bit about just handing Montana the "GOAT" title is not that he played with a great supporting cast, but that he had Bill Walsh as his coach. I often say that Otto Graham's stats look amazing when adjusted for era, but that's because he was playing an offensive game that was 10-20 years ahead of its time. Paul Brown basically invented modern pass blocking schemes, for instance. Well, the same caveat has to apply to Joe Montana. He was playing in an offense so effective that it has dominated the league for 20 years. Nobody else in the NFL understood the offense or really knew how to defend it. To borrow from Charlie Weis, Joe Montana had a "decided schematic advantage" every time he stepped out onto the field. I think that had an unbelievable impact on his production.

Think of it this way: if looking at era-adjusted statistical profiles, Montana, Young, and Anderson are easily three of the top 10 QBs of all time. What are the odds that one coach (Bill Walsh) would essentially get his hands on 3 of the most talented QBs of all time? They seem infinitesimally small to me. It seems more likely that Bill Walsh was such an offensive genius that he could make top 20 QBs look like top 10 QBs, top 10 QBs look like top 5 QBs, and top 5 QBs look like the Greatest QB Of All Time.

To put it another way... Olandis Gary rushes for 1,000 yards and it raises questions that Terrell Davis is a "system back", but Steve Young, Ken Anderson, and possibly early-GB Brett Favre can all be MVP-caliber players and nobody dares to consider that Joe Montana might have been even the teensiest, tiniest bit a "system QB"?

by Charles T. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:37pm

I look at it in terms of what would the greats do if they'd been on each other's teams. Elway, Marino, Manning, Brady, any of the greats all win the Super Bowls that Montana won if they're playing on that 49ers team.

But put Joe Montana on the early Denver teams that Elway took to the Super Bowl and I'm just not sure he gets there those three times. Somebody above was using the example that Montana had to throw to Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon, like that was some huge disadvantage. Please. The Three Amigos make Clark and Solomon look like Swann and Stallworth. And Elway had guys like Gerald Wilhite and Sammy Winder playing running back. Marino's teams always had holes. Brady and Manning have rarely had the sort of talent around them that Montana had.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 8:03pm

True. Montana was great, no question, but the fact that he was so efficient had to do with the fact that his team was so great. Indeed, it has to do with the other discussed fact that he didn't put up great raw numbers. With the kind of defense and running game Montana had around him, it meant fewer throws in far better places. In other words, playing in those great teams at the same time hurt his raw production and gave a boost to his per-pass efficiency.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:25pm

One thing that could be seen arguing for the system is the fact that the Niners went from Montana to Young without missing a beat. In some ways, Young was even better. (Highest QB rating in history.) I wonder how that works its way into the debate. If Montana is your best of all time are you then obligated to put Young in the top 5, too?

by Mr Shush :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 12:14pm

"If it makes you happy, we can call Montana the greatest Super Bowl QB ever"

Really? Ahead of the guy who is 1st all time in career Superbowl passing yards (in one game fewer than Montana had), and 1st, 2nd and 3rd in single game Superbowl passing yards, with all of those games decided inside the two minute warning and one of them coming against an all-time great defense? I don't know that it's a shoe-in for Montana, put it that way.

by Dan :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:19pm

You're looking at the wrong stats. PFR did a purely statistical analysis of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and Montana came in 1st (although they did this 2 seasons ago; he'd probably be 2nd behind Manning if they redid the numbers today).

Career totals are a bad stat to use because they're so heavily dependent on total games/attempts. Favre is 1st all-time in pretty much any cumulative career QB stat, but that's not because he's the greatest ever, it's because he started 50+ more games than anyone else and threw a couple thousand more passes. Montana has 1 fewer career win than Unitas but he started 22 fewer games - do you really count that comparison as going against Montana?

The other problem with your stats is that you're completely excluding the playoffs. QBs should not be judged solely by what they did in the postseason, but you shouldn't just leave those games out entirely. Montana started 23 playoff games and did quite well in them - most quarterbacks' numbers go down some in the playoffs (including Manning and Unitas), but Montana was slightly better statistically in the postseason than he was in the regular season. That season and a half worth of games should get some weight in your ranking.

Career QB rating regular season vs. playoffs
Unitas: 78.2 vs. 68.9
Manning: 94.9 vs. 88.4
Marino: 86.4 vs. 77.1
Young: 96.8 vs. 85.8
Montana: 92.3 vs. 95.6

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:11pm

"Montana has 1 fewer career win than Unitas but he started 22 fewer games - do you really count that comparison as going against Montana?"

Fair enough. Now using that same argument please explain how Montana outpaces Tom Brady. Brady is poised to pass Montana in several categories in less time, with a greater winning %. (And you can take away Manning's extra starts and he's still ahead of Montana in most every category.)

And while I agree with you to a degree regarding Favre and how career stats can be deceptive, the ability to stay healthy needs to be a factor in determining the best ever. Montana started 164 regular season games over 15 seasons. John Elway only played one extra season but started 231 games. Manning's played two less years than Montana did and he's at 208. That's incredible.

by Otis Taylor89 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:35pm

"Manning's played two less years than Montana did and he's at 208. That's incredible."

Montana loss two seasons (except for one game) due to one injury and loss several more games due to two strikes (all during his prime), otherwise he was fairly healthy (for an NFL QB) over the years until the very end.

There is no question that Manning is a machine, but Montana passed the eyeball test to me. There were some great defenses during his playing days they just couldn't stop him. People forget what a great athlete he was, especially at the beginning. He was the QB on some mediocre 49er offensive teams before Rice got there and won two SB's with them.

And Candlestick wasn't the easiest place to throw the football.

by Charles T. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:47pm

Except he specifically asked you about Brady. And you ignored the question and went back to Manning. Conceding the point?

And those "mediocre" 49er teams were a heck of a lot better than the teams Elway was carrying to the Super Bowl all those years. All these guys pass the eyeball test. Problem is several of them passed for a heck of a lot more yards and TDs in shorter amounts of time and were able to stay healthy while doing it. That's why the injuries are such a poor excuse because the other guys avoided that fate.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:06pm

The conference Elway was playing in was the definition of mediocre. The NFC was loaded throughout the 80's. There's a reason why Elway's team got throttled in each Super Bowl. It was much harder to make it out of the NFC in those days, and yes, if you look at the rosters of the 1981 and 1984 49ers they were nothing near what they were near the end of the decade.

by t.d. :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:35am

the '84 Niners were a great team. You're right about '81, though

by Kibbles :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 5:17am

Denver made the SB in 1986, 1987, and 1989. In 1986, the AFC had a .500 record against the NFC. In 1987, the AFC was 1 game over .500 against the NFC. In 1989, the AFC was 3 games under .500 against the NFC. If the AFC was the definition of mediocre, then so was the NFC, because they had a record that was the definition of mediocre against a league that was the definition of mediocre.

Now, the power was certainly concentrated a lot differently in the AFC than in the NFC. The NFC had a few truly elite teams and a large number of punching bags, while the AFC had a large number of good-to-great teams (but no elite teams) and a handful of punching bags. Still, it's hard to say whether that makes it harder to make it to the SB, or easier. In the NFC, if you wanted to make the SB, there were 1-2 elite teams standing in your way. In the AFC, if you wanted to make the SB, there were 4-5 good-to-great teams standing in your way. For instance, while Denver's 1989 trip to the SB was a cakewalk (two opponents went a combined 18-13-1, with a +19 point differential), their 1986 and 1987 trips were as hard or harder compared to their NFC opponent's. In 1987, both Denver and Washington faced teams with a combined 19-11 record, but Denver's opponents had a +147 point differential, while Washington's had a +75 differential. Washington lucked out because the two best teams in their conference both got upset, leaving them facing the 8-7 Vikings (+1 point differential) in the NFCCG. In 1986, the Broncos drew the 11-5 Pats and the 12-4 Browns (combined point differential = +186), which was hardly a cakewalk- it was essentially as tough as the Giants' games against the 10-5-1 Niners and the 12-4 Redskins (combined differential = +199).

by Scott Kacsmar (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:39am

What goes unnoticed about Montana and the 80's is that pretty much all the great QBs in the league except for Montana played in the AFC (Marino, Elway, Kelly, Fouts, Moon, Esiason, etc.). The best overall teams were in the NFC. The AFC teams were very flawed, and they relied a lot on their HOF QB. So in the regular season, Montana had a great defense to go along with his abilities, and only had to go through a conference that did not have QBs capable of outscoring him on a consistent basis. The 49ers were the best team in the league for 3/4 of their SB wins in the 80's, meaning they had the #1 seed. Then in the playoffs, Montana would play many of these defensive teams that were lacking an elite QB to try and match Montana score for score. The 49ers played incredible defense for their championship runs in 84, 88 and 89. Then on two occasions Montana was matched up in the SB with an elite AFC MVP QB/# 1 offense (84 Dolphins, 88 Bengals). What happened? The 49ers defense dominated. They shut out Miami in the 2nd half, and basically gave up 13 points in the first half (Miami scored a FG after a special teams fumble before halftime). They held the Bengals to 16 points, and that includes a kick return TD that was not the defense's fault. They destroyed what were statistically the best offenses in the league in 1984 and 1988.

So when people criticize Steve Young for only getting to one SB, they need to realize that by the time he took over in SF, he had to deal with two balanced NFC teams that had elite QBs and elite defenses (Green Bay and Dallas). Montana never had to deal with that. He could get to the SB by beating teams led by guys like Danny White, Phil Simms, an assortment of Chicago QBs, Wade Wilson, Jim Everett, etc. Then when faced against a top offense, his defense absolutely shut them down. And what's the other advantage there? The 84 Dolphins and 88 Bengals are two of the weakest defensive teams to ever reach the SB. You can even go back to 1981 and say the same. The 81 Bengals were statistically a better offense than SF, had the league MVP (Ken Anderson), and they found themselves down 20-0 at halftime before trying to make a comeback in the 2nd half.

Montana's two AFC seasons ended with playoff losses to Kelly's Bills and Marino's Dolphins.

The hardest playoff game to win is one against an elite defense AND an elite QB. This is why the Patriots and Steelers have been to 7 of the last 10 SBs, and won 5 of them. The 2010 Packers had that as well. When you look at Montana's 16 playoff wins, surprise surprise, only 2 of them really fit that bill. The 89 Broncos had Elway (even though he still wasn't statistically good at this point) and a very good statistical defense that was blown apart 55-10 in the SB. Then the 93 Oilers had a highly ranked defense and Warren Moon (even though it wasn't one of his finest seasons). That's it.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:34pm

Phil Simms was a pretty good QB between 84 and 90, who had a stellar defense behind him. Montana went through him a couple of times.

by Scott_Kacsmar (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 7:02pm

I can buy Simms as a top 10 QB at the time, but not any higher. For a guy with such a dominant SB performance, his overall playoff record is spotty. 10 games, and 6 times he didn't throw a TD pass. Rarely threw for 200 yards. In 4 of his playoff wins they only scored 16-17 points, which is rare to get a win in that situation, let alone 4.

The 49ers went through them a few times, but the Giants also ended their season in 85, 86 and 90.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:16pm

Frankly, de-emphasizing the playoffs makes more sense than over-emphasizing them. The playoffs are too random and it makes no sense to weigh 20 or so games over 200 games.

They may 'count more' in terms of winning a championship, but I think they aren't particularly valuable in determining all time rankings. I don't believe in 'clutch play' or that players can 'raise' or 'lower' their play, therefore playoff games shouldn't get any more weight than a regular season game does.

by Dean :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:35pm

I don't think he was saying to over-emphasize them, rathar don't just ignore them either. They're no more or less random than any other game. That would be every bit as "bad math" as taking the 20 worst games and writing them off because "he was just having a bad day that day."

by Shattenjager :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 4:07pm

However, the linked p-f-r study does, unfortunately: "I used the exact same methodology to grade the QBs in the post-season as I did in the regular season, although I weighted championship games by three times as much as a regular playoff game, and conference championship games were assigned double the value of other playoff games."
Montana did still rank fourth (Behind Manning, Marino, and Young, which made me wonder what's special about the letter M.) in just the regular season: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=3378

by silentrat :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:19pm

I definitely respect your opinion, and your site, I must say that clutch play exists. It may be very hard or nigh on impossible to calculate but that certainly wouldn't mean it doesn't exist. I'm not saying clutch play is anything far and above the normal ability of the player in question, just that you can definitely get into "the zone" while playing, and find yourself focusing more than you usually seem capable of.

Now how much that would matter at the NFL level, who knows? What I do know is I've seen countless players reference it in interviews (L.T. comes to mind) as being "in the zone", or "I was really focusing out there today". It's just like any job, sometimes you feel like your ass is on the line, or that you are close to what you've been working to achieve, and sometimes people rise to the occasion to take care of business.

by Independent George :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 8:53pm

I can't remember who wrote it, but a commenter here once made the point that while he definitely believed in 'choking' (performing below normal due to anxiety under pressure), he didn't believe in 'clutch' as performing above normal when under pressure. Instead, 'clutch' just means your performance doesn't drop (or drops less than average) when under pressure, which strikes me as much more likely.

As far as being in 'The Zone' is concerned, Mean Joe Greene famously remarked that he was only ever in 'the zone' once in his entire career (I think in the '75 super bowl). His description of that feeling - that everything seemed to slow down, while he was able to move and act normally, completely relaxed - matches that of some combat veterans and police officers who found themselves in a similar state in the midst of chaotic shootouts. If it is indeed the same phenomenon, it's a very rare neurological effect - something that rarely happens twice to the same person, and cannot be willed into occurance.

by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 10:31pm

Thunk Greene said was in zone durign 1974 afc chamnpiosbnhip Game

by alaano (not verified) :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 10:51am

WTF are you on about? Beware the mighty Saints, Falcons, and Rams of the 80s NFC West. Talk about cream puff.

by dryheat :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 8:57am

WTF are you talking about? The Rams made the playoffs nearly every year of the 80s, despite being in the same division as the 49ers.

by horn :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:14pm

"other than the Super Bowls...." right. And the playoff record. And the....you know...winning of Super Bowls. And the 14-2 and 15-1 seasons. And the playing when Buddy's Boys could not only hit the QB, they'd hit him 'late' compared to today, low, high and drive him into the turf....Montana still got up and a lead a 4-TD fourth Qtr comeback against one of the top defensive units in history.

Even the great Ray D says it was 'Montana's Finest Hour':

Buddy's D had obliterated Joe Cool for most of the game and then he just decided 'he wanted it more.' [/kidding. Not kidding]

by Charles T. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:54pm

Brady has a 17-1 season to his credit with nowhere near the supporting cast as Montana had. Elway has The Drive and countless other comeback wins. All these guys have shining moments. Most just achieved them without quite as many great teammates and coaches as Montana enjoyed. And they managed to stay healthier than he did.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:10pm

Brady had Moss, Welker, Stallworth, Gaffney (all former #1 or #2s), plus a 1st round TE and a 1st round RB and three o-lineman that made a pro bowl. Like hell he didn't have the supporting cast Montana had in 1984. The 1984 49ers had a better defense than the 2007 Pats, but Brady had the better supporting cast in the conventional sense by far.

by SandyRiver :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 11:18am

If Stallworth and Gaffney had been #2s, they must've been at the low end of that group, and that 1st round RB never got past mediocre. No denying, however, that Moss/Welker/spread-offense gave Brady lots of opportunities, which he cashed in fully, until his OL (and he) got buried by the Giants.

The two 14-2 seasons with SB wins were different teams, with better defenses (and a great RB performance in the 2nd of those seasons) but there was a reason the WR crew was called the "Smurfs." There's also a reason why those Smurfs who moved to other teams all but disappeared (and that was confirmed somewhat when Branch returned.) Brady's stats were more good than great in '03/'04, but he had far fewer tools at his disposal. Most of the high-pick OL (except for Light) weren't on the team yet, either.

However, this (obvious) Pats fan would put Manning at the top and see no way he'd be out of the top 3. Brady's top 10 all time and climbing, IMO, but still in the lower half of that bunch.

by Vasilii :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:24pm

In Unitas’ heyday, sportswriters were almost uniformly fawning and invested in mythmaking

Unlike now? Read some of Farrar writing on Suh to realize how little has changed.

PS: also unsure why the article puts so much emphasis on Manning's record. Nudging close to QBWin stat.

by coboney :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 6:13pm

I think he's saying that its a universal mind set difference. On a few players the media today still fawn and mythmake - but there's also the fanbased media with blogs and smaller sites that don't do that to those players and can pick apart stuff and that the media today isn't as a whole near as interested in that as the media holds more clout. They are more willing to discuss a perceived (real or not) weakness then then because they aren't as likely to be cut out and the tenor of the profession changed.

by John (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 8:03pm

PS: also unsure why the article puts so much emphasis on Manning's record. Nudging close to QBWin stat.

Disclaimer: I'm a Colts fan.

I'm curious how often in NFL history a team has been molded entirely to fit one player, offense and defense. QBWin might actually make sense for Manning and the Colts, even if it's otherwise ridiculous.

No matter what the team says about next man up, there is one irreplaceable person in the organization, and it's not a Polian or an Irsay.

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:44am

Haha, that's a good point. I don't think there's any other team in history that could possibly go to a free agent defender and say "Yeah, we want you because XXX is our QB" and it not be an utterly ridiculous argument.

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:20pm

Speaking of fawning, let's not forget PK's mancrush of the recently retired GB/NYJ/MN QB.

by JasonK :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:21pm

No account of Sage Rosenfels' Houston career is complete without this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3_hi7gOjE0

by skibrett15 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:00pm

C) Helicopter

That's all folks

by Ranccor (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 3:23pm

One of my all-time favorite plays.

by BigCheese :: Fri, 07/22/2011 - 7:30pm

The absolute best thing about that is Schaub's face, fom which you can tell EXACTLY what he's thinking about Rosenfels at that moment....

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by Raiderjoe :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:26pm

As we have written about elsewhere, Jones’ 1976 season (3104-24-9, 60.3 completion percentage, some rushing value) is one of the best quarterback seasons ever once you account for offensive levels and season length. That season may be highlighted on an upcoming edition of NFL’s Top 10, so keep your eyes open.

Is iyt for top 10 QB seaosns ever?
If so, K. Stabler 1976 make list right?
194 for 291 passing, 9.4 ypa, 27 TDs, 17 ints, 103.4 rating

A.so go with M./ Plum 1960 and some others.

Or if list is top 10 overlokked seaosns or 10 top seasons forgetten about or soemthing like ythat then maybe it have stuff like Bucky Pope 1964 seaosn and Joe Senser 1981

by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 9:59pm

It was the list of the Top QB Seasons from 1960 to 2004 which ran in Pro Football Prospectus 2005. Yes, the Ken Stabler 1976 season also made the top ten.

by Sha-blam-o (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:51pm

I totall knew the that the salesperson was not going to be a local but a migrant to the region... my clue? Just read the late Mr Peeps's A Fairly Complete Lexicon of Baltimorese and you'll know why if you've never made the 45 minute trek north of Washington DC.

Tanier jabbing at Baldimer with the Steelers and COLTS references. Thanks.

by Sha-blam-o (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:56pm

O and tanks for reminding me of the Dutch Wonderland. Hadn't thought of that field trip as a kid in years!

by Kevin from Philly :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:55pm

I can't believe that place is still around. I wonder if MT made a side trip to the Cowtown Rodeo while he was down that way.

by Mike Tanier :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:04pm

DW is not only still there, but blows Hershey Park away for kids between 2 and 10, assuming the 10-year old is not a coaster daredevil (my 8 year old is close).

DW has a water park with both toddler and big kid sections that has enough slides and water jets to keep kids busy for a long time. Hershey's water park is a disorganized mess that forces kids to leave in 15 minute intervals to accomodate crowds. DW has cute, corny free shows all over the park so tiny ones can take a break. Hershey has grown so big and modern that it's hard to find shade. DW has enough real rides to keep the 7-10 crowd interested -- the wooden coaster, the swings, a high water slide, one virtual simulator, etc. Hershey has awesome coasters for older kids but they are filled with unsupervised teens, so I will send my kids there when they are old enough to not supervise.

DW also has Good N Plenty restaurant around the corner, where you sit at a long table with strangers and let fake Amish people serve you whatever they want, which is almost always chicken, ham, buttered noodles, fresh corn, and so on, followed by shoo-fly pie. So you get to make awkward small talk with people who would much rather not be sitting anywhere near you, which is one of my thrills in life. If my kids are extra bratty and I work up a good lather, I can enjoy my meal while ruining those of three to four other families!

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:08pm

Dutch Wonderland also has sneakily good bumper cars filled with young, low-weight children who don't know how to drive (also known as "Blood in the Water").

Absolutely seriously, however, they are excellent bumper cars, even if Knoebels has a better set.

by Sha-blam-o (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:28pm

Hilarious comparion Tanier! Thanks.

by Kevin from Philly :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:53pm

Strange that I never see comercials for the place - they used to advertize a lot years ago. Maybe when my two year old nephew grows out of diapers, I'll take him there - and we can ruin each others lunches.

by Megamanic :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 7:12pm

How much does Dave Ragone suck if he can't beat the keyboard player from Genesis?

by Southern Philly :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 9:01pm


by Independent George :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 10:18pm

Ok, I'm 34 so I do actually remember Genesis, but I had to Google that one. Peter Gabriel? Phil Collins? Mike Rutherford? Wha...? Oh. Ok.

by Raiderjoe :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 10:29pm

wrting about music, photos of Umitas and Maning make think of Alanis Morissette becuause both guys have hand in pocket

by Shattenjager :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:02am

I'm 26, so I don't really remember Genesis, but I understood it, and wondered if I should feel bad about knowing Tony Banks.

by Theo :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:04pm

I don't recall that verse at all.
On what day was he created?

by t.d. :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 7:30pm

after seeing the carr game referenced, i thought he was onhis way to great things, too. he was always very good against the jaguars

by QQ (not verified) :: Tue, 07/05/2011 - 11:32pm

One thing that people rarely mention about Manning is the almost optimal conditions that he has operated under:

-Dome Stadium (check)
-Warm Weather Division (check)
-Ridiculous Offensive Talent (check-Faulk, Edge, Harrison, Clark, Wayne, etc)

Manning is obviously an All Time great, but he has definitely been placed in optimal conditions. For example, if you want to see how much playing Indoors helps, look at Rodgers' stats in a Dome vs Outside

by Red (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:22am

And you don't think Manning is at least partially responsible for creating the "ridiculous talent" of his backs and receivers? Would Harrison and Wayne be HOF-caliber receivers if Jim Sorgi had been throwing them the ball for the last 10 years? Please.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:46am

Harrison was pretty good before Manning arrived in Indianapolis. Peyton did not 'create' him.

by Sander :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:33am

Peyton did not create him, but Marvin Harrison didn't really get going until Peyton Manning's sophomore season. Before that he was an 800-yard receiver annually. With Peyton, he was a Hall of Famer.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:49am

He was a young wideout clearly on the rise. His rookie season was very strong and his second year was even more impressive considering who was throwing to him and how bad that team was.

Harrison was an elite talent coming on at just the right time.

I believe he winds up being a HoF caliber player with any of a number of QBs.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 4:36am

Every other top-tier QB, except Marino, maybe Elway and perhaps Favre have also had elite teammates. What is corrolation, and what is causation is hard to figure out, but that's basically irrelevant since the playing field is mostly level here.

by Mike Tanier :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:47am

I was wondering when the "Great Supporting Cast" would come up.

Harrison is a Hall of Famer. Marshall Faulk was only around for Manning's rookie year. Edge, Reggie Wayne, and Clark are the caliber of guys any good team is going to assemble over the course of over a decade. Saying Manning "made" Wayne is overstating it, but without Manning some of Wayne's 85-1300-9 type seasons are probably 70-900-6 type years and we don't talk about him quite as much.

Remember that we are talking about guys whose primes don't really line up. The Edge-Wayne-Harrison Colts were a brief era in the beginning-middle of Manning's peak. We are now onto the Wayne-Clark-Whatever RB is healthy era, Manning is still throwing for 4,700 yards, and fans still attribute credit to his supporting cast (while conveniently not mentioning the supporting casts of others).

We can do the same thing for Unitas: Alan Amechee, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, John Mackey, Jimmy Orr, Roy Jefferson, Hall-of-fame defenders who can help Morrall to the Super Bowl. The "supporting cast" argument is an accordion file that swells up so we can cram all the presumptions we want into it. If we want to talk down the QB, we talk up the supporting cast, and vice versa.

Warm weather and domes have helped Manning's numbers, as they have helped the numbers of hundreds of offensive players over the last 30 years or so. No one has done anything close to what Manning has done, with or without these advantages. And we have studied weather effects for years around here, and they do not have that big an effect: most games are played under pretty good conditions, for one thing.

It's not that arguments like these are invalid, it's just that they are always applied one-sidedly. If I wanted to argue against Steve Young's greatness -- something I would never do except as a devil's advocate -- I would point out that he had Rice-Taylor-TO-Ricky Watters--Brett Jones and played in a division full of cupcakes. His home stadium might have been a wind tunnel, but many of his road games were in domes or sunny LA, and so on. These are all true points (or at least defensible), but we can assemble similar arguments about nearly any great QB we want to downgrade.

I picked Manning over Unitas because in every category except the magical Number of Rings we have to explain Unitas up with intangibles and explain Manning down citing situational forces. When you keep doing that, you realize that you aren't researching or evaluating, but justifying.

by John (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:37am

I picked Manning over Unitas because in every category except the magical Number of Rings we have to explain Unitas up with intangibles and explain Manning down citing situational forces. When you keep doing that, you realize that you aren't researching or evaluating, but justifying.

Boy, that paragraph should be plastered over every comment thread about Manning from the last 10 years. Thanks for putting that into perspective.

by Shattenjager :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:33am


p-f-r did a study about schedule and weather adjustments for QBs at one point. Manning has, according to their methods, had it very easy as far as weather (obviously), but played among the most difficult career schedules ever (only John Brodie, Greg Landry, Bart Starr, Milt Plum, Dan Fouts, and Daunte Culpepper are ahead of him): http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=3461

by JimZipCode :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 3:18pm

Has anyone mentioned Manning's Ripken-esque ability to stay on the field? Has never missed a game, so far as I know. Only is on the sideline when Indy has clinched and is resting everybody.

Manning's durability doesn't come up much, but it's freakish.

by Cro-Mags (not verified) :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 11:01am

I don't see Manning take a lot of hits, he usually drops to the turf when there's trouble.

by Sander :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 7:32pm

And that's pretty smart, but most QBs don't have the ability to do so even if they wanted to, because they don't have Manning's feel for the rush.

Besides, Manning does take a number of hits while getting the ball off at the last minute.

by David Mazzotta :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:59am

Supporting cast arguments also focus on running backs and receivers, never the o-line, which I would argue is even more important.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:49pm

Not to get into Manning/Brady (of course I will get into Manning/Brady), but that is always left out. Not only subjectively it always seems likes the Pats have the better o-line, but the Pats have spent higher picks on the o-line over the course of Brady's career.

by MJK :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:16pm

The problem is that, even moreso than RB and WR, the O-line is intrinsically linked to the QB. A good Oline can make an average QB look good, true...

But just as importantly, a great QB can make an average O-Line look good.

I don't think you can say one or the other is the whole story...it's both working together. I think to have truly great QB play, you either need a truly great QB and a decent Oline, or a pretty good QB and a truly great Oline.

Given that Manning (and Brady, for that matter) have had O-lines that can be described as pretty good but not "truly great", I think it's probably that neither of them are products of their O-line, but that their greatness makes decent O-lines look really good.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:02pm

I don't know anyone who would describe the Colts o-line as anything close to "pretty good". They are awful. Maybe from 2003-2006 they were pretty good, but they've been garbage ever since 2007.

by Mr Shush :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:08pm

I'd say back around 2004, Manning was making a decent O-line look very good. Ever since Tarik Glenn retired, he's been making increasingly terrible O-lines look competent.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:10pm

The Patriots' O-line was good enough to cover for a high school QB.

by SandyRiver :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 4:24pm

But not good enough to keep Brady on the field that year. (Snark intended.)

However, when they were winning SBs, a lot of the OL was waiver-wire reclamation or similar.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 4:39pm

But Brady wasn't statistically very good in those seasons, either.

by SandyRiver :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 9:14am

Agreed. I called them "good, not great" in #115, above, and part of that was because the Pats had no Mossian gamebreaker, just the Smurfs.

by Theo :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:21pm

I don't know if this is an accident or not:
The '95 cowboys had 1 lineman drafted in the second round Allen ('94) and none in the first round in the 14 years before.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 5:17pm

Every other top-tier QB, except Marino, maybe Elway and perhaps Favre have also had elite teammates.

Tarkenton. Good god, why does he get forgotten so often?

by Shattenjager :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:09pm

Tarkenton is nearly always forgotten.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 10:14am

Tarkenton had an elite defense, though. His defense gave him the ball so often, he could have backed into high career numbers.

by SandyRiver :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 12:30pm

Only in his 2nd incarnation with the Vikes. Their D was improving (from "expansion" to respectability) during his early MN years, but the NYG defense was pretty awful during Fran's years there, in fact the whole rest of those teams was mostly junk, in part due to all NY gave up to get him. He's still one of a kind, IMO. There have been many better "running QBs", but no one has matched his ability to extend a play, turn something into nothing (or occasionally into 3rd and 35.) He still might top the charts for pure entertainment value.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 9:45am

Is playing in a dome much different than playing in San Diego or Oakland or LA? You know, those places where it's always nice out?

by CuseFanInSoCal :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:52pm

Unless the weather on the East Bay is radically different than the South Bay (spent winter in San Jose a couple of years ago), it is not remotely always nice in Oakland. It's 50 degrees and rainy from November to March.

San Diego (where I normally live), I'll give you (though we've had a few playoff games in the rain).

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:15pm

Minnesota plays in a dome. They still had a game played in the snow. =)

Weather in the East Bay actually is different than weather in the South Bay. Oakland's climate is basically halfway between San Francisco's and San Jose's -- it's warmer and drier than San Francisco.

by IPO savant (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:37am

I think a more interesting question is how Manning would have held up in an NFL where clobbering the qb was far mre prevalent. This could have been offset by smaller defenders and Manning towering over most competitors of the day.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 9:48am

As quickly as Manning gets the ball out (he covers for his O-line more than the reverse), I'm not sure it would have mattered much.

by Independent George :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:16am

Goddammit Donald!

Man, that never gets old.

by _Relic_ (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:01am

Well, he's really good at taking that one step to make a guy miss, or just taking the sack when it's smart. Also, a broken jaw took him out for one play. Not much to go on, but one would think he would be on the field with anything less than a couple broken legs or so.

by John (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:16am

Peyton really should thank Rypien for fumbling that next handoff. Now he'll be known for all eternity as the QB who only missed one play for a broken jaw; if the drive hadn't ended immediately, he'd probably just be another QB who missed the rest of the series with an injury.

by t.d. :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:46am

The NFL Unitas starred in doesn't resemble the NFL today. Just like Don Hutson would be unlikely to make it out of training camp in today's game

by SandyRiver :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:34am

IMO, this argument, though probably true technically, isn't very telling. Sure, if you magically transported 1941 Hutson 70 years forward into the NFL today, he'd not be nearly as dominant. However, if he'd been born in 1983 rather than 1913, with the same natural gifts but with the advantages of modern training and conditioning, I'd expect to see Jerry Rice type numbers.

by Ted (not verified) :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 11:29am

And that's why these atttempts to quantify everything can only go so far. Unitas played in an NFL in which passing was a high risk, high reward strategy to move the ball far down the field. In Unitas' day, a QB completing a six yard pass on third and eight would get yelled at when he came to the bench. As for comparing supporting casts, a great O line makes a QB look better. A great QB makes an O line better. How would Unitas have done throwing out of four WR sets and checking down for five yard gains? How would Manning have done in an NFL where DBs could get all over receivers and where on third and eight, he was expected to throw at least eight yards downfield? The answer is, who knows?

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:35am

My favourite fact about Texans QBs is that Jabar Gaffney is 5th in TD passes.

by Felton (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 9:48am

Mike, I know QB rating is a flawed stat, but I like to use it to compare QBs to the league averages of the years they played:

Peyton Manning: 1998-2010, 13 years, QB rating of 95 average vs league average of 79. That's +16 - note that NFL QB Ratings usually have a standard deviation of about 10, so that is extraordinary performance over a long time.

Johnny Unitas: 1957-1970, except 1968, 13 years, QB rating of 81 average vs league average of 65. That's +16, so that is extraordinary performance over a long time.

Two great QBS with two great teams who symbolized the evolution of the offensive game in their respective eras. Their busts can fight out who was best after closing time at the Hall of Fame. Add Bert Jones in and that's three incredible QBs for one franchise.

Great idea, Mike - I'd like to see a Saints Top Five - Brees, Hebert, Manning, Brooks and Kilmer?

by Salur (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:19am

He's been doing Top 5 QBs for all the divisions. Saints Top 5 is here:


by Dave Bernreuther :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:36am

PFR keeps a PR+ stat that's similar to ERA+ in baseball. More math in it than just your subtraction. Comes out to 118 for Manning and 112 for Unitas. Make of that what you will, of course...

by dairvon :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:48am

Peyton Manning: 1998-2010, 13 years, QB rating of 95 average vs league average of 79. That's +16 - note that NFL QB Ratings usually have a standard deviation of about 10, so that is extraordinary performance over a long time.

Johnny Unitas: 1957-1970, except 1968, 13 years, QB rating of 81 average vs league average of 65. That's +16, so that is extraordinary performance over a long time.

I'd argue that Unitas' +16 is more impressive than Manning's given that the scores were so much lower in that era, +16 was a much greater deviation as a percentage of the norm. It's amazing to me how little credit Unitas is being given on these posts. I don't accept for a second that Manning would win 8 or 9 out of 10 if they were quarterbacking identical teams. If you gave them the film study of Unitas' era I'd take Unitas in 8 or 9 out of 10. If you drop them into Manning's era then maybe it flips the other way. Directly comparing players from radically different eras is absurd. The game Manning plays is so different than the one Unitas played. Quarterbacks were abused in Unitas' era. WRs could be grabbed and held until the ball was in the air. If you want to decide who is the better QB of the two you see how they rank in their era. I don't think there is any question that Unitas was the single best QB before the '78 rule changes that forever altered the league's passing game. He was named the starter on the NFL's 50th anniversary team and you didn't hear a peep of complaint from anyone. The same can not be said for Manning. Of the post '78 QBs you will find compelling arguments for Montana, Brady and even Elway over Manning. He is not the slam dunk for his era that Unitas was for his. I don't see how you can pick him as the Colts greatest QB as he doesn't dominate his peers the way Unitas did.

by nat :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:17am

Very good point, but you forgot the effect of league size on the comparison. During the comparison period, Unitas played in leagues of 12 to 26 teams. So you are comparing him to - let's say - the 8th best QB in the game when you compare to average. Not so for Manning who gets to be compared to what would have been the worst QBs in Unitas' time.

Plus, you need to compare the percentages, not the absolute QB rating differences, as others have pointed out.

Manning was 20.2% better than the 16th best QB in the game. Unitas was 26.2% better than the 8th best QB in the game.

How much better than the 16th best QB was he? It's hard to say, but it's reasonable to guess around 40%, since you'd expect the QB ratings to flatten out some once you drop out of Unitas' rarified air.

In short, Unitas was probably about twice as dominant a QB during those 13 year periods.

Era matters.

by Mike Tanier :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 9:18am

Era does matter, so it's important to realize that in 1958-59, many teams still use T-formations and judge quarterbacks by their play-calling, pivoting, ball faking, and running. We were out of the era when QBs were also free safeties, but we were not quite in an era when all QBs had a more-or-less uniform job, and that job was primarily throwing passes to move the offense.

Comparing Unitas to the QBs of his time means comparing him to guys like Ed Browns, the Bears QB-punter who made the Pro Bowl in 1956 while attempting 14 passes per game. Brown threw 10 touchdowns and 17 INTs in 1958, the year Unitas became "Unitas," The Bears went 8-4 with Brown, whose strengths were the ability to call plays, throw bombs, and drink all comers under the table. He wasn't a very good QB, historically, but he wasn't a guy whose merits can be measured by his QB rating.

In that era, the 11th and 12th starters in the league weren't the 11th and 12th best players in the league, either. Teams like the Bears stockpiled talent, which is why Brown's backups were Zeke Bratkowski and George Blanda.

But the biggest thing you have to recognize is that Rating, which didn't exist in the 1950s or 60s, is heavily influenced by interception percentage, and interception percentages were much higher in the 1950s. What's more, coaches didn't seem to care as much about high interception percentages, possibly because so many passes were thrown in desperate situations. Unitas had very low interception percentages. They are part of what made him one of the greatest ever, but they also disproportionately skew his ratings when compared to the league, which was full of guys who threw interceptions on 6-7% of their passes but still held their jobs for several years.

by nat :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:24pm

Um, no.

In Unitas' era, QBs won the MVP about as often as they do now. I know it's a surprise. It surprised me. But it was already a QB's league even then. The best (most valuable) player in the league was more likely to be a QB than all other positions combined.

Unitas wasn't the best over a bunch of scrubs who played QB because they weren't good enough to be fullbacks. Get real. The 11th and 12th QB starters were probably expected to be the 13th or 14th best QBs in the league, which would still put them above average ranking in today's league. Sure some teams misjudged their QB's talents. But that never, ever happens today. Oh, really?

I agree that QB rating is not our favorite stat. There are certainly better. But we all know what it means, and it (mostly) assigns a decent relative value to interceptions, completions, TDs, and yards. It was created during the Unitas era, and is thus designed to be suited to evaluating QBs of that era, based on the understanding of the game of that era. It is without a doubt that the people who came up with QB rating were aware of the late 1950's and the entire 1960's in the NFL.

Rather than making excuses, why not actually look at era-adjusted rate stats and do an FO-quality analysis? If you don't like QB rating, why not look at it's constituents, such as completion%, Y/A, TD%, and Int%, all of which can be compared to era averages, let's say for the top 10 teams of each season to avoid the league-size talent-dilution issues. That's a good set of stats, and is only missing Sack% and Fumble% to be a pretty complete picture of a passer's effectiveness.

You didn't look at those already? Then why were you writing an analysis of Manning versus Unitas on Football Outsiders?

by nat :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:14pm

It's not great form to reply to myself, but I did the initial stats myself.

I used league average for Unitas' era, and the median of the top 16 teams for Manning's era for weighting. (actually, I used league average, and looked at 2010 to figure a small adjustment to approximate the median for the top 16) That's a little unfair to Unitas, who played the top 12 teams for much of his career. Also, this gives an additional advantage to Manning because by using median it underweights his part of the average of the top 16 teams. Please feel free to do a more exact analysis.

Looking at similar 12 year periods for each (sophomore season and beyond, skipping years lost to injury)....

Yards/Attempt - adjusted for era: Unitas by +4%
Comp% - Unitas by +1%
TD% - tie
Interception% - Unitas by 24%

Tanier was right to this extent: Unitas' superiority is entirely about being better at avoiding interceptions. In an era when the rules made passing very dangerous, Unitas protected the ball like no other. Other than that he was essentially the same QB, playing in a different era.

If they both played today with today's conditioning, rules, equipment, etc, they would both be constant Pro-Bowlers. Unitas would have the edge in protecting the ball.

And then we would talk about playoff records...

I'll stick with Unitas, based on the facts, but I readily admit it's much closer than I thought. If I had good sack and fumble stats, and they broke Manning's way, I might change my mind.

by dairvon :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 5:08pm

I'm not sure how this figures into the discussion, but I think it's worth mentioning. Unitas still hold the record for consecutive games with a passing TD despite the fact that it is so much easier to pass now than it was in his era. I find it remarkable that no one from the modern era has come within 10 games of his record. Drew Brees, the active leader, is still 20 games behind him. I don't know what it means, but it give you an idea of what a high level he played at early in his career.

by Scott Kacsmar (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 9:21am

Twice as dominant? Wow, that's downright silly. The only 8 year stretch that can rival what Manning has done is Steve Young 1991-1998. When you look at Unitas, way too many consecutive seasons (4; 1960-63) where he hovered around the .500 mark, despite playing with several HOFers. And his 1961 season, statistically, would be the worst season of Manning's career.

Manning's dominance shows up in way more than just his passing stats. Outside of 2005 and half of 2007, he was carrying very flawed teams to 12+ wins for 7 straight years. And this AFC is one tough conference when you consider the 5-time SB winning Patriots and Steelers, and other solid teams like the Ravens and Chargers. A lot of the wins have been some of the most improbable we've seen, with some huge comebacks and a game like 2009 Miami where he doesn't even have the ball for a total of 15 minutes.

Five years in a row he had the Colts #1 in the league on 3rd down conversion %, including the highest season ever in 2006.

We already know you can barely ever sack the guy. His fumble rate is off the charts.

Oh and he starts every single game to boot.

I still say the Polian/Dungy model of resting your starters late in the year has hurt them in the playoffs, but ignoring that, let's look at what it has done to lessen Manning's dominance.

2004 - Manning plays one series in week 17 at Denver, a team he would torch for 458 yards and 4 TD passes the following week. At the very least this cost him having 50+ TDs (he would still have the record instead of Brady) and a passing yardage title (Culpepper beat him by 160 yards). He had a good shot at claiming the 2nd highest passing yardage total in history at the time (Warner; 4830). The Colts also lost the game, ending their 8 game win streak (they started 13-0 in 05, making it possible for another 22 game reg. season win streak).

2005 - Here's the one that really hurts. He only plays two series at Seattle and the first series against Arizona. He only needed 363 yards for the passing title and a 4000 yard season, which would have given him 12 straight 4000 yard seasons (every year since 1999). Even if they ever go 18 game seasons, hard to see that being broken. Connect this with him playing out 2004 and that would also mean 3 straight passing yardage titles (2003-05). Then he needed 4 TD passes for at least a share of the league lead there (and another season with >30). Definitely doable in what's nearly 7 quarters he sat out.

2007 - Only played two series against the Titans in week 17; a game they would lose (could have finished 14-2). Nothing much here, other than a chance to finish top 3 in passing yardage, which he would have done for 10 straight years had he not rested in these seasons.

2008 - Played the first series against the Titans in week 17; went 7/7 for 95 yards and a TD. Nothing really missed here other than some possible stat padding (get those 27 TDs and 95.0 rating up a little).

2009 - Played into the 3rd quarter of the infamous Jets game and then 3 series (left after 1st play of 2nd QT) at Buffalo. This is Polian denying Manning and the Colts the chance for a perfect season. They had a lead on the Jets, and Manning could have definitely finished that game with a win. And Buffalo was beatable. But no, they did their rest thing, and then did some stat padding for Wayne & Clark in Buffalo by throwing them screens, which actually brought Manning's stats down to a 99.9 rating, missing out on a 100 by the slimmest margin ever. He also only needed 271 yards and 2 TD passes for the outright lead in both categories. Extremely doable in ~4.5 quarters of football. He also only needed one more 300 yard game to tie that record at 10 in a season.

Summary - that's 3 more passing yardage titles (that would tie him for the record 5), 2 more passing TD titles (that'd give him a record 5), the single-season TD record (50+), and a chance at 16-0 all gone to waste by the end-of-season rest methods practiced by Polian. Manning was healthy and able to play any of these games to completion, but did not do so. And outside of maybe the 09 Jets game, he didn't make any fuss about it.

by RichC (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:46am

"but the sixth best quarterback in the league can get a Pro Bowl spot"

Thats only if the talent in the leagues at that position is balanced. If its not, the 3rd selection in the weaker league could be much worse than 6th.

by Theo :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:29pm

It can become even worse if a Super Bowl QB is selected and won't play because the Pro Bowl takes place the week before the Super Bowl (like last year and will in 2012).

by Dean :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:49am

I've been telling my friends for several years now that we should be grateful for the privlidge of watching Peyton Manning play. He's one of the select few - along with guys like Urlacher, Dawkins, Lewis, Moss, and Tomlinson - that we will be bragging to our grandchildren that we got to see him. I'll take him over pretty much any QB whose prime came in the past 20 years. He's ahead of Favre and Elway in my book.

But I'll still take Johnny U.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 5:46pm

Urlacher? Really? I've never thought of him as a long-term dominant player like I do Ray Lewis or Derrick Brooks (who, to me, seem like the utter no-brainer first-ballot HOF LBs of their generation); he's always seemed like a good LB who the media loves to fawn over, but it's not like he's been utterly dominant throughout his career.

I also think I'm going to spend a lot more time talking about Ed Reed than I do Brian Dawkins.

by tuluse :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:50pm

I think you severely underestimate Urlacher's peak.

Remember in 2006, Tommie Harris and Mike Brown--the 2nd and 3rd best defenders on that team--were hurt for the 2nd half of the year and the playoffs.

He's also simply an athletic freak who has been able to do things no linebacker previous to him could. Like catching Steve Smith from behind (in his peak, regular season during 2005), or cover receivers 1 on 1 down the field.

Every year he's been healthy and with a coach who knows what he's doing (Lovie Smith vs Dick Jauron), it's been a top 10 defense by DVOA.

Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks aren't really the same generation as Urlacher, he entered the league 5 years later than Lewis.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:13pm

It's not that I think Urlacher wasn't really good, it's that he's not in my "I'm going to remember watching this guy forever" pantheon and his peak as a really elite, memorable player wasn't that long. Yeah, he was great on those mid-2000s defenses, but it's not like he had a decade of top-shelf performance like Lewis or Brooks.

by tuluse :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:31pm

Well, I think you're forgetting Brooks and Lewis had 5 more years to put together that decade. If Urlacher has 3 more great years, which is possible, he'll be right there.

I guess if you're arguing that he was less consistent than Brooks and Lewis on a year to year basis, you might have a point, but I'm not sure it is a particularly meaningful one.

by 3.14159265 (not verified) :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 6:06am

My favorite Urlacher highlight: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtBG2iwpjvE

by Andrew Potter :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 9:40am

That's pretty amusing, but I prefer this one.

by tuluse :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 3:04pm

I was actually expecting this to be the first video. There isn't too much shame in getting trucked by Bettis, but getting juked by Brady on the other hand...

by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:24pm

Hutson grear in any era. Guy was machine. If play moe would have better training and body. Stats woulh be like 115 catches for 1568 yards.

Better thing to ghink abour is qhether guys of now couldve played then. Manning would probably have been de$ensive end in two way era. Rice would be def. halfback. Would they be stinky defenfers? Maybe maybe not very tough to say.

by Harris :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 3:06pm

I always wonder about that argument. Sure, Hutson would have been better with modern training, but he played his entire career in a segregated league. The AFL proved there were a lot of good black players who weren't getting a shot in the NFL. Maybe he would be a star in any era, but he also would have faced better DBs. (Not to suggest black players are inherently better, but that you're likely to get better players when drawing from a bigger talent pool.)

Hail Hydra!

by tuluse :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:56pm

The league has almost tripled in size since then, I'm not sure the talent pool has tripled in size.

by tally :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:33am

While the talent pool may not have tripled purely as an function of increased population, the ability to more efficiently direct the talent out of a population can certainly account for a disproportionate increase.

It's difficult to make cross-era comparisons except by the amount by which you exceed your contemporaries (e.g., z-scores), and even then, you'd ignore whether exaggerated z-scores are more a measure of the competitiveness or lack thereof in that era.

by tuluse :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:55pm

I'm tired of Manning vs Montana vs Brady. What we really need is an irrational plucky white former Bears QB debate. Flutie or Harbaugh, who ya got?

I think I'd go with Harbaugh, as I think he could have been a legitimately good QB if he had the right development environment. He could have been Jeff Garcia-esque. While I think Flutie did eventually reach his natural peak, and it wasn't that good.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:13pm

Harbaugh did win a passer rating title. That counts for something, right?

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:51pm

You speak as if Harbaugh never had a chance to develop his potential. But he played 14 years and started 140 games. He was 66-74 in those games, 59% completions, 129 TDs and 117 INTs. In addition to his insane numbers in Canada, Flutie still played 12 years in the NFL and went 38-28 as a starter, 55% completions, 86 TDs and 68 INTs.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:52pm

You speak as if Harbaugh never had a chance to develop his potential. But he played 14 years and started 140 games. He was 66-74 in those games, 59% completions, 129 TDs and 117 INTs. In addition to his insane numbers in Canada, Flutie still played 12 years in the NFL and went 38-28 as a starter, 55% completions, 86 TDs and 68 INTs.

by Independent George :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:09pm

I think I'd go with Harbaugh, as I think he could have been a legitimately good QB if he had the right development environment. He could have been Jeff Garcia-esque. While I think Flutie did eventually reach his natural peak, and it wasn't that good.

Yes, but the Flutie 'peak' you're talking about came at age 36; it's plausible that his ceiling was really much higher.

by nat :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:36pm

Rather than compare Unitas and Manning, I'm going to take a minute to grade Tanier's analysis by FO standards, point by point.

Preferring "MVP-caliber" to "Pro-Bowl" as a "stat". -1 point.
The made-up stat "MVP-caliber season" seems to allow at least as much extra room for QBs as Pro-Bowl does. Manning won 3 solo MVPs, but seems to be credited with 12 MVP-like seasons. Sure sounds like MVP-caliber is similar to Pro-Bowl back-up quality to me.

Quoting cumulative stats and ignoring rate stats. -2 points.
This is a classic FO no-no. It's especially bad when comparing seasons of different lengths. Tanier quotes only seasonal cumulative stats. This is a red flag for bad analysis.

Altering stats to suit his thesis. -1 point.
Normally, this would disqualify the analysis as biased and bogus entirely. Tanier denigrates Unitas' accomplishments several times (e.g. "1964 was a little odd") but backs off a bit each time. It's as if he knows he's cheating, and wants to pass it off as a joke. Sorry. Still a point against.

Using made up stuff. -3 points
"Peyton could have all manner of adventures". Including a hypothetical future with specific accomplishments is just bogus. Simply comparing the first 13 seasons of each would have been valid.

Acknowledging the need to adjust for era. +1 point
Failing to actually adjust for era. -3 points
Even cumulative seasonal stats can be adjusted, but not here. Why not just say "Unitas was so lazy he didn't even play as many games each season!" and be done with it. Comparing across eras without era-adjustments is naive if you don't know better, and unforgivably sloppy if you do. Tanier knows better.

Adjusting accomplishments based on "media" and "mythology". -2 points
Instead of era-adjustments, Tanier gives us media/mythology adjustments, calling 1960's media "fawning" while implying that Manning has been unfairly characterized in the 2000's. Media coverage is not relevant. Or it wouldn't be, except that Tanier is trying to convince us that his gushing, fawning, subjective evaluation of Manning is somehow more balanced than the 1960's media. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Bad adjustments for league size. -1 point
League size can be used to adjust for some things, but not others. Being the best of the top 12 QBs in the world is pretty much the same as being the best of the top 32 QBs in the world.

Ad hominem attacks. -1 point
Calling anyone who disagrees "pathologically nutty" is insulting. Dismissing them as "Patriots fansites" is an admission that your arguments are so weak that you need to dismiss the messengers rather than address the facts.

Dependence on the "Wins" statistic. -1 point
Sometimes you have to include "wins" in a discussion. But in comparing two QBs, it's a weak stat to build an argument on. Coupled with made-up stats (MVP-caliber season, forsooth!) and misuse of cumulative seasonal stats, it's pretty much a classic botched analysis.

I'll give Tanier credit for being readable and passionate. But for someone who claims to have looked at a lot of stats to form his opinion, he sure did a rotten job of making his case.

by dryheat :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:06pm

It has to be Unitas, right? I mean, he has a haircut you can set your watch to. That's enough of a tiebreaker for me.

by Yesimadolphinsfan (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:50pm

While that's true, and clearly bests Joe Namath's long flowing sideburns which open whole new worlds and push frustrated housewives to lives of abandoning their families and living on the lam, it also puts to bed another argument:

Peyton Manning's haircut is clearly a haircut you can set your watch to when compared with Tom Brady's flowing locks.

by nat :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 9:41am

At last, a compelling argument for Manning over Brady. Given their faces, shape of head, etc, I can't even make a "strength of supporting cast" case for Brady. Manning overcomes adversity for the win!

by Kevin from Philly :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:59pm

God, could you imagine Manning with the Beiber hair?

by Scott Kacsmar (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:33pm

My theory on Jim Harbaugh being dubbed "Captain Comeback", even though he only had a merely above-average 3 comebacks in 1995:

1. He had a very good season for a team that wasn't expected to do anything.
2. He led two comebacks in dramatic fashion early in the season against the Jets and Dolphins.
3. He had a few losses (the Colts lost 8 games that year including playoffs) where he made a decent attempt at coming back (tied the game several times), but ultimately didn't complete the job and Indy lost.
4. He's probably remembered best for the almost-comeback; the dropped hail mary in the AFC-C in Pittsburgh.

Even though he has just as many comeback wins as Roger Staubach (15) for his career, Harbaugh was not deserving of the title "Captain Comeback". Especially odd when you have two other QBs for the Colts, Unitas and Manning, that will be record setters for comebacks.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:32pm

Not counting the dropped hail mary, he had four other games that season where he lead drives to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter, only to have his defense lose the game.

So he had 1 GWD, 3 comebacks, and 4 games were he came back, but lost anyway. Indy played a *lot* of close games that season.

by trill :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 2:30pm

"Schaub turned 30 last week. He is a solid quarterback, but he is firmly in his prime and will probably start declining in the next few years. One thing these Top Fives have taught me is that most quarterbacks’ peaks are relatively short: four or five years, in most cases. Schaub is already two years in."

Nnamdi then clicked to the last slide in the PowerPoint: 5yrs, $75mil. Knowing he had been defeated, Bob McNair shed a single tear.

by dairvon :: Thu, 07/07/2011 - 5:40pm

I was really amused by one claim the author made "we adjust the contemporary player down." I think just the opposite is the case. We all want to think we are watching the greatest players now so we tend to give current players the benefit of the doubt. Only a few people posting here ever watched Unitas and most of us who did saw the tale end of his career. People just don't want to believe that there were amazing athletes back then. Everyone looks so slow on the old black and white films. I think that makes people discount players from previous eras. Athletes are not inherently better now. Nutrition is better, training is better and equipment is better, so performance has improved, but we haven't evolved as a species since 1957. That is why you have to compare people to the peers of their era. How does a guy measure up against the people who played when he did?

by nat :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 10:22am

To wrap up Unitas v. Manning (sure, this'll work):
Era-adjusted TD rate: tie
Era-adjusted Comp%: Unitas
Era-adjusted Yards/Attempt: Unitas
Era-adjusted Interception rate: Unitas, by a mile.
Era-adjusted sack rate: ?
Era-adjusted fumble rate: ?
Era-adjusted playoff stats: ?

Easier conditions (relative to era): Manning (worth 6 inches per attempt, see PFR link elsewhere in discussion)
Easier division: Manning
Better supporting cast (relative to league): ?
Easier defenses faced: Unitas (worth 2 inches per attempt, according to PFR)

Every QB-specific rate stat we have points to Unitas as the better QB, and the one adjustment that works against that conclusion is too small to matter. There are ways to fudge the numbers (e.g. compare Manning to the 16th best QB and Unitas to the 8th best; use counting stats rather than rate stats) but without such fudging, Manning comes in second. Still a great QB, but not as great as Johnny U.

"Almost as good as Johnny Unitas" is pretty damned good, if you ask me.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 11:49am

Those weren't the only criteria.

Durability: Manning
Consistency: Manning
Volume (Which does matter): Manning
Longevity: Manning

All of these criteria Manning destroys Unitas in.

I don't grant you 'easier division' is even a category, because PFR showed Manning played tougher defenses overall, so I'm not sure how 'easier division' correlates to anything other than consistency of playoff berths, and even so the division gap is not so great as to account for all of Indy's success over the decade.

Rate stats are vitally important, but they don't tell the whole story and to pretend that small advantages in rate stats over come massive advantages in volume stats is disingenuous at best.

by nat :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:37pm

Durability: needs to be era-adjusted. Plus, why care? They both have had long enough careers. Unitas overcame adversity that Manning never had to face.

Consistency: Are you proposing a "low variance bonus"? Why? Of the four QB-rating stats, only completion % has a standard deviation difference worth talking about. Unitas has five seasons where his era-adjusted completion percentage is better than Manning's best year, and one year that was lower than Manning's worst. That's why his std deviation is so high. He was better than Manning's best five times.

Volume: needs to be era-adjusted. Also, what would a high era-adjusted volume mean? That your team threw the ball a lot? So what?

Longevity: needs to be era-adjusted. It's much easier to have be a healthy QB in 2010 than in 1968. Also, aren't you giving Manning credit for the imagined future? Shouldn't you also give him credit for the expected late-career stats decline? Hmmmm? Or better yet, stick with reality.

Easier division: this came up in the context of QB wins, where you must consider the whole team, not just the defense. Defense was also covered in another point. Credit Manning with an additional 2 inches per attempt, if it makes you happy. Don't forget to ding him 6 inches for playing in a dome, too, to use the full results of that PFR analysis.

"Volume" is just a word for relying on Manning's pass-heavy era, pass-wacky coaching, and counting stats to make your case.

Nope: All you got is counting stats and ignoring different eras. That ain't gonna do it.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 2:24pm

Durability needs to be era adjusted? Sorry, I get the argument, but I don't buy it at all. Manning missed one play his whole career. You can't adjust that for era. He was available to play more often than Unitas was. Might that be a product of modern training?

Sure, but it doesn't change the reality that Manning did things Unitas was physically not capable of.

Consistency: Awful argument. Unitas had awful seasons on his record. 1961, 1962 1966, 1969. You can't pretend those whole seasons didn't exist. Manning's run of unbroken greatness is unparallelled. He simply hasn't had a truly 'bad' season since his rookie year. Certainly nothing approaching the badness of several of Unitas's years.

Volume: certainly needs to be era adjusted, but my point is that slight dips in efficiency (only era adjusted BTW, not real)are way over come by massive jumps in volume by Manning. Completing 65% of 350 passes (era adjusted) is great, but completing 64.5% of 600 passes is even better. That's the point with volume. Manning was nearly as efficient (era adjusted) over a FAR greater volume.

Longevity: Nope. Not buying era adjustment here. Manning will have a longer career. That matters. More great seasons is more great seasons regardless of the era comparison. Era adjustment doesn't make it that whole seasons never happened. If the two QBs are truly neck and neck, I'd rather have the one who played 5-7 more prime seasons than the other. Hands down. In fact, I'd say the gap between the two players would have to be quite wide before I'd take the player with fewer prime seasons. He doesn't get credit for seasons he didn't play.

Frankly, you are using era adjustment as a massive crutch to make up for the fact that Unitas had many whole seasons where he not only wasn't one of the three best QBs in the league, but wasn't even very good by any measure.

I'm not buying it. Your arguments strike me as poor rationalizations. No one is ignoring era, but relying on rate adjustments gives players too much credit for what they didn't actually accomplish.

by tuluse :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:12pm

Durability needs to be era adjusted? Sorry, I get the argument, but I don't buy it at all. Manning missed one play his whole career. You can't adjust that for era. He was available to play more often than Unitas was. Might that be a product of modern training?

Not just modern training, but modern medicine as well. Manning has had several surgeries and has recovered from them in time to not miss any time. Do you think that would have been possible in the 1960s?

by CuseFanInSoCal :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 5:36pm

This becomes a less effective argument when you note that the only modern QB whose durability is similar to Manning was Brett Favre.

by nat :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:26pm

No one said that Unitas was more durable than Manning. The contention was that avoiding injury may be easier or harder to do in different eras. Was missing a game very unusual in Unitas' era? A season?

Without an era baseline, we can't say how unusual Manning's health run is. The equipment was different then. The training and medical practices are much improved now. On the other hand, QBs are now sitting out games for concussions, where they used to go back in. Perhaps the next ten years will make sitting a few games out the rule rather than the exception.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:38pm

Without a baseline we can't know how unusual Manning's run of health is?

Please. He's missed one play his whole career.

That's pretty freaking unusual. If you need a statistical baseline to tell you that, then you aren't very observant.

by tuluse :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 7:48pm

I'm not saying Manning doesn't have freakish durability, I just think it's likely that if he had been born in 1945 he probably would have missed a couple games by this point in his career.

Actually though, one of the knee surgeries he had could have ended his career in about 3 years. Just look what happened to Gale Sayers.

by Scott_Kacsmar (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 8:04pm

Eli is a start away from the 5th longest streak (including playoffs). Good genes.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 8:20pm

He had a bursa sac burst. It's seriously unlikely he would have had his career ended by it.

Obviously, modern medicine helps. It also keeps elite defenders elite too. My point is that by any standard, what Manning has done in terms of durability and ability to stay on the field is virtually peerless. Even Favre missed plays and partial games over the years.

Saying that we need some kind of statistical measure to verify Manning's durability is just being argumentative.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 5:45pm

Peyton Manning wasn't mobile in his best of times. I don't think making him slower would make much difference.

by tuluse :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:07pm

I think having functioning knees is important to every position on the field.

by Jerry :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:34pm

It's about the inability in Unitas' time to have a knee cleaned up arthroscopically and getting back to a full workload within a month. (If I need to say this, it's not a shot at anyone, just an acknowledgement that Manning is, like everyone now, able to take advantage of advances in medicine.)

by Scott Kacsmar (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:10pm

Unitas has five seasons where his era-adjusted completion percentage is better than Manning's best year, and one year that was lower than Manning's worst. That's why his std deviation is so high. He was better than Manning's best five times.

Talk about using some downright nutty math. How is it even possible to arrive at that conclusion?

Unitas led the league in comp. % one time. He completed 58.5% in 1967, which is also his career high for any season. The league-average was 51.0% (+7.5%).

Manning has led the league in comp. % one time. He completed 67% in 2003. The league-average was 58.8% (+8.2%).

You mind explaining how Unitas can have five seasons better than Manning's best?

by nat :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 4:38pm

I used the era averages. And I used (an approximation of) the median of the top 16 teams, rather than the whole league average.

Why? Because it's not relevant whether Manning is farther above the 16th best QB than Unitas is above the 8th or 6th best. When a league expands, it doesn't add 16 new QBs who are as good as the first 16. It adds 16 worse ones. Doh! If we expanded the league to 200 teams, would you still want to use league average to determine the era-adjustment? Of course not.

Manning's era average for completion % was about 60%. I approximated the bump up to get to that top 16 team median at 2%. I choose that 2% bump from looking at 2010 data. It's approximate. Feel free to build an exact era-average for the top 16 QBs. But I used 62%. I was and am open about that, and why. Short answer: I'm comparing apples to apples.

Manning's best was 68.8%, which is 6.8 above the "top 16 median". As I noted before, using a median HELPS Manning's case. It would be fairer to use the average, which would make Unitas look even better.

Unitas's Manning-era-equivalent (adjusting for his era's 51.3% median for the top 16 teams) is an average of 66.5%, less than 1% above Manning's average. But his peak was 70.7%. That was the year he was 7.2 unadjusted points above league average - and this was in a league that did not have 16 also-rans to bring down that average.

How did he do it? He did it by being really good. How could he beat Manning's best five times? Because Manning didn't have the COMP% peaks (or valleys) that Unitas had. Doh.

Unitas was farther above the best 12-16 starting QBs in his world than Manning is today. Not by much (except in INT%). But in every category except a tie in TD%.

Oh, and "nutty" is not the right word for doing era-adjustments. It's simply what you have to do to compare across eras.

by Scott_Kacsmar (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:54pm

No offense but your methods are pretty much bunk. You also fall into the common trap of pretending the league just expanded to twice its size in a short period of time. That's so far from the truth. When the merger happened in 1970, the league didn't just inherit 10 new teams. They absorbed 10 teams that had been developing in the AFL, most of them for as long as a decade (1960). Those guys knew how to play football and there were many talented players from the AFL. Then they added the Seahawks and Bucs in 1976. There wouldn't be any more teams added until 1995, when Carolina and Jacksonville made it 30. Adding two more teams since then hasn't diluted anything. There are more people playing football than ever before, and the competition is stronger than ever. Along with free agency, that's why we're seeing more upsets, more Wild Card teams winning road playoff games, and more quick turnaround stories. The gap between best and worst is smaller than it was in Unitas' days. Just because there were fewer teams doesn't mean those teams were loaded. They followed the same normal distribution you get today: some teams were elite, a lot were average, and some were terrible.

Call me crazy, but consistently being near the top of a league of 32 teams is more impressive than a league with 12-16 teams. You seem to think Manning ranking 6th or higher with 32 teams is somehow not as good when Unitas had 6 seasons ranking 7th or higher in a league with half the teams. It doesn't make any sense unless you fudge the math to make for Unitas like you've done.

by nat :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 7:22am

Okay, I'll call you crazy. You're missing the point entirely.

The average of the best 16 of anything is always higher than the average of the best 32 of the same thing.

Being one standard deviation above the average of the top 16 QBs is more impressive than being 1 standard deviation above the average of the top 32 QBs. The average is higher (obviously!) and the standard deviation is larger (assuming the pool of people willing to play professional QB is much larger than the league).

But that's exactly what PFR's + stats are measuring.

It's like comparing Celsius and Fahrenheit. The zeroes are different and the degrees are different. You have to convert to the same scale and zero-point before you decide who's hotter.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 7:34am

"The average of the best 16 of anything is always higher than the average of the best 32 of the same thing."

You have to realize that's ridiculous right?

You are assuming 1950s/60s QBs are the same as 2000s QBs and that the 'best' are equally distributed in both eras.

There's simply no basis for that conclusion.

1950s/60s era QB was of a vastly inferior quality overall to modern QB play. It's not just about a 'dead ball era'. It's about actual quality of play. We aren't tweaking for defensive adjustments or quality of equipment. We are comparing 32 professional coached up quarterbacks all making millions of dollars to a group that largely consisted of part time players who not only had offseason jobs, but many of whom PLAYED OTHER POSITIONS during the actual games.

by nat :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 8:04am

I call bullshit.

I am not assuming the QBs are the same. I'm adjusting for era to deal with the differences, such as training, nutrition, medical care, injury-preventing equipment, rules, schemes, officiating, coaching, pay, even use of performance enhancing drugs.

If you don't believe in adjusting for eras, just say so. You'd be alone, but you'd be honest.

But if you believe in adjusting for eras, then you have no statistical basis for saying the 1960's QBs - adjusted for era - were inferior. What does that even mean? The best in each era is still the best. The tenth best is still the tenth best. The average of the best 16 is still the average of the best 16. And the average of the best 16 is still not the average of the best 32.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 9:33am

You are adjusting for era in a completely non-standard way that assumes that the top 16 QBs in 1958 are inherently equal to the top 16 in 2008.

By your method, the WORST QB in the 1958 NFL is equivalent to the 16th best QB in 2008, just because both were 16th in the league.

I believe in adjusting for eras. It provides a sense of context. I don't believe in adjusting for eras in the manner in which you are doing it. You aren't attempting to figure out what the average QB looked like in 1958 and compare Unitas to that. You are assuming the 16th best QB in 1958 is analogous to the 16th best in 2008 and comparing Manning to the top half of QBs in his day to the entire pool of QBs in Unitas's day.

That simply makes no sense, and relies on very dubious assumptions about the quality of play in 1958.

by tuluse :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 7:05pm

The average of the best 16 of anything is always higher than the average of the best 32 of the same thing.

However, QBs in the NFL in 1960 and QBs in the NFL in 2010 are not the same thing.

Just look at the population growth of the country since then, not to mention further integration (think McNabb would be a starting QB in 1960?). Plus other things like better scouting, better preparation in college, better coaching, better deliniated responsibilities of the job.

by nat :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 8:53pm

Two sensible concepts. Integration and population growth could in fact increase the size of the talent pool. Population is up by about 50% between the eras. That doesn't mean we expect the average QB to 50% better. It might mean that we should be comparing against the top 24 QBs (2010) vs the top 16 QBs (1970) to get the same part of the talent pool. But that's essentially assuming that the modern players are better rather than proving it, which runs counter to the idea of era-adjustments. Regardless, the population of starting NFL QBs has grown much faster then the US population, so using league averages still results in grade inflation.

Integration is a tricky issue. On the face of it, you'd expect the percentage of non-white QBs to approximate the population at large. Unless you subscribe to ethnic superiority theories, which I don't. That might be 2-3 QBs who deserved to start in the NFL in 1965. But if you look at various leagues in various sports, you'll see that it's a lot more complicated than that.

As for scouting, prep, coaching etc, that's all part of the eras that should be adjusted away, along with rules, medicine, drugs, and the ability to study film of Joe Montana to improve your game. That's why we compare each QB to his contemporaries rather than using unadjusted stats. We already know that Manning has had many unearned advantages over Unitas due simply to being born in a different era. We're trying to compare what each of them did with what they were given by their era.

I think everyone is already on board with the idea of era adjustments. The discussion is about how to do them without introducing grade inflation.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 7:07am

Your methodology is unorthodox, so you can't expect people to accept it on face value. You are treating this as simple math problem, but it isn't. Statistics are just descriptions of history, and we have to be careful to make sure that we use them in a way that's intellectually honest with what really happened. The NFL didn't just add 16 QBs worse than the 16 that came before, so while that reasoning makes a rudimentary kind of sense, it's simply not descriptive of what really happened to the league.

The philosophical issue is this: is grade inflation the biggest worry in figuring out era adjustments?

I don't think it is. In fact, just in looking over the numbers from those years, I strongly suspect most era adjustments will naturally be too kind to the older players. That is to say, the PFR method is already over-generous to Unitas, but I think it's probably the best that can be done, and I support it.

Your method paints a wholly inaccurate view of the league, however, that just adds 16 new QBs to the league that are all worse than the previous 16.

Essentially this debate comes down to this question:

is the general state of quarterbacking better today or in the 1950s and by how much?

I say, Yes. It's a lot better by a wide margin.

If nothing else, I'm willing to grant that the league is distributed proportionally between great, good, average, and bad QBs similarly to in the 50s and 60s, though I suspect that's over generous to the past.

You say QB play was proportionally better in the past, hence even averages need to be adjusted to reflect that.

The public will decide, I guess.

As for Manning's 'advantages', you can't 'stat away' all of them. You can adjust for scoring rates, even percentages of times passing the ball, and obviously games played per season, but there's some degree in which you can only judge players by what they really did on the field. Hypothetical arguments about what Unitas would have done with modern surgery are fun, and you can wonder if he wouldn't have been better with modern coaching and game film, but none of that changes the fact that there were things he didn't accomplish that Manning did.

Manning has done far more than Unitas did on the field. At some point trying to explain that away becomes what Tanier called 'justification'.

by nat :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 7:43am

In the end, you back away from the idea of comparing Unitas and Manning to their peers. That's fine, although you should ask yourself honestly why you only took up that position once Manning didn't come out on top. At the beginning of this discussion, did you come out against era adjustments? Really?

by Nate Dunlevy :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 1:59pm

I don't back away from comparing Manning and Unitas to their peers. I supported it.

I don't support your odd methodology which compares Unitas to all QBs and Manning only to the top half of QBs.

There's a massive difference.

Manning comes out on top in a more reasonable system of comparison.

by SandyRiver :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 12:22pm

Pop growth: Unitas was born in 1933 when the US population was 125.6 million, Manning in 1976 when it was 218.0 million, an increase of 73%. Furthermore, the dramatic increase of NFL popularity, a goodly portion due to Unitas' play (which is an "effect on the game" argument, not "best QB") has to have resulted in a greater portion of the total population playing football for 1976-born than for 1933-born, though I consider that latter difference non-quantifiable or nearly so. Today's much larger pool will affect the very top (and very bottom) the least, but will affect both extremes.

Integration: How many black starting QB has been the average since expansion to 32 teams? Or perhaps since the increase to 30, for a larger sample size. Whatever the number, Nat's calculations ought to subtract it from 32 to make a reasonable comparison, as those athletes were not in Unitas' era QB pool.

If, say, there have been an average of 5 black starters in the 32-team era, the comparison begins at 27 QB vs 16. Adjusting that 27 by 125.6 mm and 218.0 mm (no allowance for greater football interest) leaves 15.5. Too many assumptions to take this last paragraph very seriously, but the top two should carry some weight.

Edit: DisplacedPackersFan made the same arguments earlier in post 203, only better.

by alaano (not verified) :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 12:07am

Sorry, nutty is exactly the (polite) word for what you are calling era adjustments. Statistics FAIL would be the modern internet way.

If you use your eyes you'll see that Unitas was a modern quarterback in a time when the league was in transition. Thus, instead of speculating that QB16 in his era was the equivalent of QB16 in the modern era, it makes more sense to compare Unitas only to the 5-10 guys who were actually doing something equivalent (i.e. focusing on modern offensive concepts, working out timing full time with receivers, not playing two ways or kicking). He was the best out of five or ten actual peers.

Manning is the best among 32 starters today. Population takes care of deepening the competitive pool to match expansion all by itself. The growing popularity and pay for NFL QBs make the competitive pool even deeper. And integration does as well (consider the percentage of the NFL, or say, or high school footballers, which is of African-American descent, not the total U.S. population). And greater player movement means a greater chance that the best QBs hold starting positions or even roster spots. Guys like Brett Favre, Matt Schaub, Matt Hasselbeck, Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson, and Kevin Kolb would have lost multiple seasons as starters (and some might never have seen the field) in the old system. I would guesstimate that it's more like the 65th best QB in today's league who is equivalent to QB starters 12-16 fifty years ago. My personal attempt at era adjustments would compare Unitas to the top 10 of his league as a baseline and Manning to the top 32 of his, and I think the adjustment is probably overgenerous to Unitas.

In any event, mere understanding of statistical distribution would reveal the fallacy of comparing Unitas to his top 5 and Manning to his top 5. If you have 32 QBs, the top 5 averages will be much higher than if you have 16 because flukes like injuries to a top guy won't pull down the top 5 as much and because you have a greater chance for average guys to have career years simply because there are twice as many rolls of the dice. So even if you wanted to do, as Deshawn did, a top QBs of era comparison, the pool against which you compare Manning should be larger. Do Unitas vs. Top 3 and Manning vs. Top 5, 6, or even 8.

Finally, your comments about NFL failures is laughably hypocritical given that Unitas couldn't even get a training camp snap on one of the worst teams in the NFL and was subsequently playing for $6 a game.

by Scott Kacsmar (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 2:18pm

If you're coming up with Unitas leading in era-adjusted comp. %, then you're not calculating things right and I wonder if any of your stats are right.

Manning has ranked in the top 6 in comp. % for 12 straight years. He's been in the top three 8 times. And this is in a league where he's competing with 31-35 players a year for efficiency stats.

Unitas has 10 seasons where he ranked in the top 6 in comp. %. The difference is he often did this in a league where he only had to compete with 11-18 other players for efficiency stats. He only has four seasons in the top 3, half of Manning's total.

by Shattenjager :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:28pm

TD%+: Manning 119, Unitas 105
Comp%+: Manning 119, Unitas 111
Y/A+: Manning 114, Unitas 110
Int%+: Manning 106, Unitas 108
Sack%+*: Manning 123, Unitas 108

Manning: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/M/MannPe00.htm#passing_adv...
Unitas: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/U/UnitJo00.htm#passing_adv...

*Only covers the last 5 years of Unitas's career, but it is 5 years of data. It's probably still fair to ignore it.

Is there a reason why you are completely dismissing the p-f-r "advanced passing" metrics?

by nat :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 5:17pm

PFR normalizes to league average, not to top-16-team average. As a result, it is biased against the smaller, earlier leagues. Manning is, I agree, farther above league average than Unitas was. But that's just grade inflation from diluting the average with 16 second-rate (by definition) starting QBs.

In other words: scoring 100 on Comp%+ makes you the 16th best starting QB in Manning's era, and a much better 8th best in Unitas' time.

They also scale based on standard deviation. 15 points = 1 std dev. That's great to put everything on a ~60-140 point scale. But it screws up comparing values across eras, since each era gets its own scaling factor. I'm pretty sure this problem gets worse when you compare a 16 team league with a 32 team league. When you add 16 also-rans to the mix, you're adding QBs from the flatter part of the talent bell curve, which reduces the variance, in addition to lowering the average (as noted before).

In other words, boosting your score from 100 to 115 in Manning's era probably doesn't take as much additional skill as moving from 100 to 115 in Unitas' time.

I really did think this out, you know.

It's cool that they have a sack%. When they get it for his whole career, we should look at that, again comparing 16 team averages and skipping the sack%+ std. deviation scaling to avoid grade inflation.

by Shattenjager :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 5:28pm

I get the impression that it is not possible to get earlier sack numbers, so I don't think we'll ever see them for Unitas's entire career.

by nat :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:14pm

That sucks. Sack rate does indeed matter. Of course, it's also highly dependent on the OL, not just the QB. And since it's also very scheme-related, the eras are going to be quite different too as rules and schemes have evolved.

It's probably less important than COMP%, Y/A, TD%, and INT%. But it would be nice to have for the complete picture. Ditto for Fumble rate, which would need to cover muffed handoffs - probably as a separate rate? I'm not quite sure.

(edit: all the stats are dependent on the OL, obviously. Sack rate is the most dependent, or so I would suppose)

by Shattenjager :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:22pm

Sacks are definitely important. I'm fond of pointing out, because it's an extreme example, that sack yardage alone accounts for a 1 yard per dropback difference between Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson in 1998.

There are simple fumble totals available, so it is possible to have a rough idea of that one, though it would be a bit of a blunt instrument. It also could be used as a roundabout way to estimate Unitas's sack rate, though it would also only be a rough estimate.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:42pm

Before sacks were counted, did the yardage come off a QB's rushing totals or his passing totals?

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 6:46pm

That's precisely backwards. A top-16 metric punishes a current player and rewards a player from a smaller league. Top-16 is currently "above-media". Top-16 in 1958 would be all the starters and 4 scrubs. That's a below median starter sample.

So if you thought this out, all you were thinking of was how to artificially boost Unitas' scores.

by Kibbles :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 7:43pm

Exactly. The 12th best QB in 1958 was putting up a QB rating somewhere between 40 and 50, averaging under 120 yards per game, and throwing 50% more INTs than TDs. The 12th best QB last year was either Kyle Orton (by DYAR) or Drew Brees (by DVOA). Orton threw for 3600/20/9 in 13 games, while Brees had 4600 yards, 33 TDs, and 22 INTs. Does anyone truly, honestly believe that either of those guys is even remotely comparable, talent-wise, to the worst QB in the NFL in 1958? It's nonsense of the highest order. Ludicrous, indefensible nonsense.

I think it's far more realistic to assume that the QBs that got added to the league where not, in fact, the 16 worst QBs in the NFL... but that they were instead of middling quality. The top 3 in a 12 team league were probably equivalent to the top 6 in a 32 team league, the bottom 3 in a 12 team league were probably equivalent to the bottom 6 in a 32 team league, and so on down the line. To pretend that there were no brutally awful QBs in Unitas's time is to be blindly (and possibly even willfully) ignorant of history.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 7:35pm

"PFR normalizes to league average, not to top-16-team average. As a result, it is biased against the smaller, earlier leagues. Manning is, I agree, farther above league average than Unitas was. But that's just grade inflation from diluting the average with 16 second-rate (by definition) starting QBs."

Total fallacy. In fact, as was described earlier in the thread the overall level of QB play in Unitas' era was far worse than today. Teams hoarded QBs, so the 16 starters were by no means the 16 most talented, and in many cases Unitas was competing against players who didn't even play QB full time.

If anything, your method of adjustment is giving FAR too much credit to the overall quality of play in Unitas's era.

He dominated an era, but it was a terrible era. That doesn't mean he was better than Manning, just perhaps incrementally more efficient using non-standard rate adjustments that you invented that assume the 8th best QB in 1958 was as good as the 16th best QB in 2008.

I'm sorry, but that really stretches credulity. Some of the numbers from QBs even in the top ten from that era are so ungodly awful that I simply can't accept your assumption. In fact, given segregation, coaching methods and roster construction, it's far more plausible that there are more better QBs playing now as a percentage of the whole than there ever were in the 1950s.

Take 1958 as a random example. The 8th best passer rating was Van Brocklin who threw 15 TDs 20 INTs for 2400 yards completing just 52% of his passes for a rating of 64.1 for an Eagles team that won 2 games. AND HE WENT TO THE PRO BOWL.

I'm sorry, but era adjustment or not, I cannot accept that that level of play was anywhere near 16th best in the NFL in 2008. It's a complete fabrication.

Unitas was an Everest in Kansas to be sure, but your reasoning for reworking era adjustments doesn't hold water.

by nat :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 7:51am

"PFR normalizes to league average, not to top-16-team average" - that's indisputable.
"Manning is, I agree, farther above league average than Unitas was." - fact which you agree with.
"But that's just grade inflation from diluting the average with 16 second-rate (by definition) starting QBs." - fact that you dispute???

But seriously, are you arguing that the 17-32 QBs in today's NFL are just as good as the top 16? Because if you aren't then it's indisputable that including them in the average brings the average down, and biases the analysis.

Of your other points, just one is worthy of consideration: segregation. The talent pool of people allowed to and motivated to train and develop into professional quarterbacks has grown faster than the population, and not just by including more mediocre talent. It's one aspect of the changing eras. Should we try to adjust for segregation effects when comparing eras? How big would that adjustment be?

That's a worthwhile topic, but I think it's too serious (and possibly political) to cover now.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 9:48am

"But seriously, are you arguing that the 17-32 QBs in today's NFL are just as good as the top 16? Because if you aren't then it's indisputable that including them in the average brings the average down, and biases the analysis."

No, I hold it's more of a bell curve and the sharp drop off doesn't occur toward the bottom (say bottom 5 or 6) if it occurs at all. I'm not sure there's massive difference between Freeman, Flacco, and Cassel and guys like Eli Manning, Bradford, Cutler, and Mark Sanchez.

Look at the chart for passer rating leaders from last year. There's just not a huge variance in skill level over the bottom half of the league. Eli Manning was 17th. You are telling me that an Eli Manning comp in 1958 wouldn't have a job in the NFL? I'm sorry but I don't accept that.


The distribution of talent in the NFL isn't linear. There's a much bigger middle class of QBs now than there were in 1958. Taking the average performance is a much truer way of providing a baseline than taking the top 16 in each era.

If you believe Eli Manning would be a backup QB in 1960 because he's the 17th best QB in 2010, then fine. I completely disagree. The worst QB in 1960 is much more comparable to the worst QB in 2010 than he is to the 16th best QB in 2010.

by Mr Shush :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 3:04pm

I was in the middle of writing a long post disagreeing with you. Then I looked up the census data. The population of the United States has nearly doubled since 1960. Throw in segregation, the AFL, the vastly increased remuneration of modern players (making it more likely that those with the ability will choose to pursue football as a career), the increased popularity of football over other sports . . .

If anything, I suspect that using league average is slightly over-generous to Unitas.

by nat :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 8:39am

The population is up about 50% from 1970 to 2010. Comparing the start of Unitas' period to the end of Manning's is wrong. It's an easy mistake to make. You initial impression was closer to correct.

Segregation - in theory - reduced the pool by about 10%. Unless you want to argue black genetic superiority, which I assume you don't.

AFL and competing sports is more interesting. I think by 1960 NFL was the premier football league, and that if you were offered equivalent positions in both leagues, you went to the NFL. I am not aware of any NFL-level QBs who left for a career in baseball, but I have no idea of the situation at the college level. In 1960, the AFL's top QB was Frank Tripucka, who, after a promising start, had ended up as a washout in the NFL, went to the CFL, and joined the AFL at its founding. The second best - Jack Kemp - had already failed to advance beyond the taxi-squad on 4 NFL teams and had been cut from a CFL team. The third best - Al Dorow - had actually started several seasons, but like the others washed out and headed to the CFL.

Yup, it's pretty clear that the AFL was where you ended up if you didn't make it the NFL. Granted, some AFL QBs ended up as pretty good later, and a few were lured into the AFL by big contracts (e.g. Joe Namath) But the effect on the quality of NFL QBs was not large. The AFL was always the smaller league and always the weaker one.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 2:10pm

"The population is up about 50% from 1970 to 2010. Comparing the start of Unitas' period to the end of Manning's is wrong. It's an easy mistake to make. You initial impression was closer to correct."

Why would influx of population toward the end of his career affect the pool of available QBs?

No, the correct figures to use are the ones toward the beginning of his career. Unless you are arguing that his competition at QB was affected by the influx of new immigrants or from children born after 1950, the population of the US around the time Unitas entered the league is the more correct standard.

You just don't want to use it because it nicely syncs between a doubled US population and a doubled size of the NFL.

The population growth after Unitas started his career didn't affect his competition at QB at all, of course neither did the growth after the start of Manning's career. There's still just shy of double the population.

1950-151 million
2000-281 million

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 3:53pm

I agree with you, I'm just going to use a slightly different method to show that agreement.

I think better numbers to use would be the average population centered around the year of their birth. That is where the majority of the competition pool would come from. Yes you could expand that range because they both had longer careers than that, but an 11 year average is close enough, someone who doesn't agree with us can feel free to find the youngest born QB at the end of Unitas's career and run the years out to that birth year and also the oldest QB when he started and the run the start down to that birth year, I'm satisfied with these. Unitas was born in 1933, Manning in 1976. The numbers of the 5 year cloud around those dates works out pretty close to the birth year numbers (which is expected). You should also look at ratio of male to female in the total population since that has changed a bit, but we are being relatively rough with the numbers here anyway, especially since all non census years are estimates anyway.

1928 - 1938 average is 125,467,143, the 1933 population was 125,578,763.
1971 - 1981 average is 218,354,330, the 1976 population was 218,035,164.
(numbers taken from http://www.demographia.com/db-uspop1900.htm but those seem to match with other sources on a quick glance)

So that is 1.74 times more people that would be in the pool to compete with Manning.

Segregation played a part as well. In 1933, 88.7% of the population was white so that would reduce the Unitas pool from 125,467,143 to 111,289,356.1. That changes the ratio to 1.96. Yes, the first black player was drafted in the 19th round in 1949 but the effects of segregation, on the QB position lasted much longer. I believe that Marlin Briscoe was the first black NFL quarterback, starting a game in 1968 so at the tail end of Unitas's career. It seems pretty safe to use that 1.96 number.

So if you assume a normal distribution of talent in the population it's pretty safe to say that a segregated 16 team league, made up of players born between 28 and 38 (the league that Unitas played much of his career in) would be fair to compare to a non segregated league made up of players born between 1971 and 1981 (the league that Manning has played much of his career in).

As mentioned I think there are other effects that actually make the "average" QB now better than the average back then. But I'll ignore that. I think the worry about "grade inflation" is pretty well covered by population growth and integration at least when looking at Unitas vs Manning. Era adjustment by comparison to average seems good to me.

by nat :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 1:09pm

We seem to part ways on this: I believe the relevant comparison is to the same number of top QBs in each era. You believe that to be unfair to recent QBs, because their top QB peers are now taken from a larger pool of appropriately aged men. I consider using more players in the baseline to be grade inflation, essentially letting Manning be compared to the 16th best QB, while Unitas has to go up against the 8th best. Reasonable minds can disagree, it seems.

Statistical facts: Manning is farther above league average of the era. Unitas stands out more among the top ten (or 12 or 16 or 8...) QBs of the era. Both are valid and clear definitions of what it means to be "better" when adjusted for the conditions of each era.

I still go with Unitas. That seems to be because I want to compare great QBs to the top N quarterbacks in their years. I can understand and respect someone who goes with Manning, preferring to compare to a league average in a larger league in a more populous country. At least we're all looking at the right kind of stats, and avoiding the "myths vs. fawning vs. unadjusted season cumulative stats vs. win counts vs. greatest games" garbage that started this discussion.

Regardless, it's a very near thing either way you look at it. I said earlier that being second to Johnny Unitas isn't a bad thing. The same goes for being second to Peyton Manning.

by SandyRiver :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 4:24pm

There's something to be said for either method of comparison, though I favor that of DPF. Due to the ends of a typical bell curve, it may not be statistically sound to expect #16 of 2X population to be as good as #8 of X population. However, I'd also think it unsound to expect #8 of 2X to be no better than #8 of X. Surely in that near-doubled population, one in which a higher proportion are likely to be seriously interested in football (my assumption, based on the huge increase in NFL popularilty and salaries), one may expect more than 8 QBs as good or better than #8 from the smaller group.

However, I wholly agree with that final sentence - it's a good summary of this whole thread.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 9:44pm

Actually, it'd be pretty interesting to JUST compare Manning to the top 5 in the league and Unitas to his top five.

I think that would actually be much more fair to Manning than using Unitas's 16 (which included a lot of real dogs).

I'll have to get to work on that.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 9:44pm

Actually, it'd be pretty interesting to JUST compare Manning to the top 5 in the league and Unitas to his top five.

I think that would actually be much more fair to Manning than using Unitas's 16 (which included a lot of real dogs).

I'll have to get to work on that.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 10:04am

I'm currently going through year by year to compile the stats for the 5 best quarterbacks other than Unitas and Manning for each year of their career in each of the following stats.


I'm then going to average those numbers together over the course of their careers and compare the resulting averages to the career numbers for each player.

If anyone has any objections or corrections to that methodology, please speak now.

by SandyRiver :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 10:48am

Even before seeing the results, thanks for the willingness to do the work. Probably won't "prove" anything, but still a useful comparison.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 12:41pm

I'm going to write this up on my site (18to88.com), but here's what I did.

I took the stats (NOT the percentages) for the top 5 QBs not named Unitas in the league in each category every year from 1956-1973. Starting in 1966 (the Super Bowl era), I included AFL quarterbacks as well (didn't affect much).

I then did the same thing from 1998-2010 taking Manning's own stats out of the equation. That means these averages are often 'top 6' in the league, but we obviously don't want the subjects polluting the data.

Comp %: Average Top 5 for Unitas: 56.7%
Unitas career: 54.6%
For career he was within 96.3% of top 5

Average top 5 for Manning: 65.5%
Manning career: 64.9%
For career he was within 99.1% of the top 5
Advantage Manning

TD %: Unitas: 7.0% to 5.6% (80% of top 5)
Manning: 6.2% to 5.5% (88.7% of top 5)
Advantage Manning

Int %: Unitas: 3.8% to 4.9% (128.9% over top 5)
Manning: 1.7% to 2.7% (158.8% over top 5)
Advantage Unitas

YPA: Unitas 8.3 to 7.8 (93.97% of top 5)
Manning 8.1 to 7.6 (93.8% of top 5)
Advantage Unitas (but essentially tied)

Passer rating: Unitas 84.2 to 78.2 (92.9% of top 5)
Manning 105.2 to 94.9 (90.2% of top 5)
Advantage Unitas

That looks like a pretty split verdict to me. Manning was better compared to the best of the best in completion % and TD%. Unitas was better in interception % and passer rating, and they were basically tied in YPA (though you can give the tie breaker to Unitas on decimal points if it makes you feel better).

The rate stat adjustments just don't help Unitas nearly as much was claimed. Against the league as a whole, Manning was clearly better, and against top 5 competition they split.

When you take that data and add the weight of many more productive seasons by Manning (not to mention the massive difference in volume stats beyond just playing extra games), and I think Tanier's position looks pretty well validated.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 1:12pm

Sorry, caught a spreadsheet error. (I had a QB throwing for 40,000 yards in a season).

The average passer rating for the top 5 in Manning's era is 99.2. That means that Manning is within 95.7% of the Top five for his career vaulting him ahead of Unitas.

by nat :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 2:23pm

Hum. I sense a pattern here. You run a Manning fan site, that's named after him, even. I wonder whether your analysis will be balanced....

Did you....
Include Unitas' injury year in the total?
Did you add non-NFL stats into the mix to make Unitas look weaker?
Did compare Unitas' complete career, including 'victory lap' year to Manning's early and peak years?
Did you include stats while not a Colt? (Interesting choice in this context)

It's obvious why you kept these particular method choices obfuscated when you asked for comments and objections.

Try again. Compare NFL stats for the same number of years as the Colt's starter. Or just be a fanboy.

It's your choice.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 3:50pm

1. What difference does it make if I include Unitas's injury year? I used his career stats. Do you want me to pick and chose what years of his to include now?

2. I used AFL players from Super Bowl era simply because it makes sense. Frankly, I could have used them from the whole AFL era. It did very very slightly raise the averages, but not enough to change any of the outcomes. I'm surprised you would object to comparing Unitas to Len Dawson who is in the Hall of Fame. Their net effect on the data was negligible.

3. If you want to play the 'peak years' game, then tell me which years to chose. That's a different argument. It won't help Unitas though. Manning's peak years crush his in this category. I'd be happy to chose any set of years you want. When you take Manning's 1998 and even his 2001 off the board, his numbers skyrocket. If you want Unitas's 10 best years verses Manning's 10 best, I'd be happy to give them to you.

Tell me what will satisfy you.

4. He played one year in San Diego and played in 4 games threw 76 passes. You are correct, however, that season is not germane to the debate. Adjusting for those 76 throws means the following:
Comp % 54.7 (96.4%-still below Manning)
TD % 5.6 (actually lower)
INT % 4.8% (126.3% to top 5)
YPA no change
Rating 78.8 (93.6% still below Manning)

You can nitpick the data all you want. Tell me the parameters you want, and Manning will still be ahead. I've been staring at the numbers all day, and there's no way to play with them to make Unitas better unless you start comparing unequal groupings like you did.

I'm not being fan boy. I spent all day running numbers. You want different numbers tell me which ones.

by Merr (not verified) :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:05pm

I think it's become obvious that Nat's painted himself into a corner and his only way out relies on an odd comparison framework.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:31pm

The only comparison that might work for Unitas is the best 6 years (1957-59 and 1963-65). I would have already done it with a method I came up with to adjust for era and opponent, but I can't do it for pre-1960 without the gamelogs.

by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 10:14pm

Write worods wrong sometines but not numbers, so thehse are good. Put 0s in front of single digits in dcomps and stuff so for code looks nicer. For exmaple, first game played Unitas 0 comps, 2 att, 0 yards.

det 00 02 000 0 1
chi 09 19 131 1 1
bay 08 16 128 2 1
cle 05 14 021 0 0
det 17 30 314 0 1
los 18 24 293 3 1
san 18 30 179 0 2
los 14 29 147 1 1
san 11 16 124 1 1
was 10 18 161 1 1

det 14 23 241 4 3
chi 17 26 184 2 1
bay 07 17 130 2 2
det 16 21 239 4 1
bay 16 31 188 2 2
pit 03 09 056 1 3
was 17 30 247 2 0
chi 11 23 245 1 0
san 16 25 230 1 0
los 18 30 271 3 1
san 23 37 296 1 2
los 14 29 223 1 2

dte 23 43 250 2 1
chi 10 23 198 4 1
bay 16 35 238 1 1
det 11 17 221 1 0
was 08 15 183 2 0
bay 05 16 099 2 0
los 12 18 218 2 0
san 17 33 229 1 1
los 23 38 214 3 3
san 11 25 157 1 0

nyg 26 40 361 1 1


det 13 30 230 2 0
chi 17 38 221 3 3
det 13 25 257 3 2
chi 16 30 233 2 2
bay 19 29 206 3 0
cle 23 41 397 4 3
was 15 35 265 2 2
bay 19 33 324 3 0
san 10 19 141 2 1
los 14 24 242 2 1
san 21 36 273 3 0
los 13 27 110 3 0

nyg 18 29 265 2 0

by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 12:31am

It all adds up. Good enough for me. Thanks.

You wouldn't happen to have Bart Starr 1956-59 would you?

by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 1:27am

Ok, here's my era & opponent adjusted numbers on Unitas and Manning. I'd love to go into detail, but I need to write and present this before I do that.

Reg. season career
Manning - 208 games, +206.1, +.99/game
Unitas - 207 games, +153.0, +.74/game

If you just did games started
Manning - 208 games, +206.1, +.99/game
Unitas - 185 games, +163.3, +.88/game

If you took their first 13 seasons
Manning - 208 games, +206.1, +.99/game
Unitas - 155 games, +171.9, +1.11/game

Manning - 19 games, +22.0, +1.16/game
Unitas - 9 games, +7.7, +.85/game

by tuluse :: Fri, 07/15/2011 - 3:59pm

I wonder if you could apply the formula pfr uses for weighted career approximate value. Which is 100% of their best year, plus 95% of their second best year, and so on.

This rewards players for having a excellent peak and excelling for a long time.

by Raiderjoe :: Sat, 07/16/2011 - 9:18pm

no. habve random games bnut not full gamelogs.

Like 12-13-59 at Kezar Stadium, Starr go 20 of 25, 249 yards, 2 TD pass, 0 Int.

have others somewhere but not relally going to hel,p if you dont have all

by Jerry :: Sat, 07/16/2011 - 11:05pm

The Milwaukee papers didn't run stats in 1956, when Starr came off the bench for Tobin Rote in the first couple games.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:36pm

Here are the numbers run other ways:

1. 10 best seasons of each guy

Comp%: Unitas: 55.8% to 55.8% (100.0%)
Manning: 66.0% to 65.9% (99.8%)

TD%:Unitas: 7.0% to 6.4% (91.4%)
Manning: 6.2% to 5.9% (95.2%)

Int%: Unitas 4.1% to 4.3% (104.9%)
Manning 1.6% to 2.3% (144%)

YPA: Unitas 8.3 to 8.2% (98.8%)
Manning 8.2 to 7.8 (95.1%)

Rating: Unitas 85 to 86.1 (101.3%)
Manning 100.0 to 99.1 (99.1%)

So that's 3 wins for Unitas, 1 for Manning, and one virtual tie

2. Years as the primary starter for Colts
This is every year Unitas started at least 7 games for the Colts. That leaves off 1968, 1971-73. Leaving off '71 is a tough call because he played 13 games but started just 5. It's favorable to Unitas to lose it, so I will. That's 14 total seasons as a starter for Unitas compared with 13 for Manning. If you want to quibble I'll drop 1956 too (just let me know).

That results in:
Comp%: Unitas 56.2% to 54.9% (97.7 %)
Manning 65.5% to 64.9% (99.1%)

TD%: Unitas 7.0% to 5.9% (84.3%)
Manning 6.2% to 5.5% (88.7%)

INT%: Unitas 4.0% to 4.8% (120%)
Manning: 1.7% to 2.7% (158.8%)

YPA: Unitas 8.3 to 7.9 (95.2%)
Manning: 8.1 to 7.6 (93.8%)

Rating: Unitas 84.3 to 80.4 (95.4%)
Manning 99.2 to 94.9 (95.7)
So as starting QB, it's a virtual tie. Manning takes Comp% and TDs, Unitas gets Int% and YPA. Manning edges him rating, but it's basically even.

Again, all this shows is that there is no real era adjusted rate stat gap between Manning and Unitas. They are neck and neck and the question has to be decided on different grounds (quality seasons, volume, ect.).

Anything else you want me to run?

by Nate Dunlevy :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:47pm

Dropping 1956 (which makes it 13 years as a starter for both men) does this to Unitas:

Comp: 56.3 to 54.9 (97.5%)
TD%: 7.1 to 5.9 (83%)
INT%: 3.9 to 4.7 (120.5%)
YPA: 8.3 to 7.9 (95.2%)
Rating: 86.1 to 80.7 (93.7%)

That doesn't do anything but help Manning in the rating comparison.

If we are dropping a starter season by Unitas, then 1956 is clearly the one to chose. Unitas started 7 games and played in 12. It was his fewest attempts of the remaining years as well.

by nat :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 9:10am

The first at least appears to make an honest attempt to compare apples to apples. The second is honest but compares Manning's youngest and healthiest years (we agree he's still near his prime, right?) to Unitas both in young health and in late career post-injury decline. The aging Unitas was never the same after the injury year, matching his own career average in the major rate stats only 2 out of 20 times, despite moving to the weaker AFC with the merger in 1970.

So, Unitas young-and-healthy is a bit ahead of Manning young-and-healthy, while Manning young-and-healthy is ahead of Unitas old-and-hurting (who'd'a thunk it?).

Stick to the apples-to-apples comparisons and it sure looks like Unitas was a bit better, compared to the best QBs of the time. Bias the analysis to favor Manning, and sure, he comes out on top, too.

Look, I'm not some die hard Unitas fan with a Unitas website. I hardly ever worry about what people think about Unitas. In fact, I'm more concerned about Billy Kilmer, of all people.

I'm interested in the challenge of using statistics to compare two great QBs from different eras. To do that well, I have to compare era-adjusted rate stats in ways that don't depend on the size of the league. It's frustrating to deal with someone who skews every analysis choice to favor his guy.

If Manning plays into his decline to whatever age is currently equivalent being 39 in 1972, we can compare whole careers and talk about longevity, too. Until then, the best we can do is compare Manning and Unitas up to the same stage in their career. On that balanced and sensible basis, the two are quite close, with Unitas coming out on top.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 9:51am

How does the second list reflect an 'old and hurting' Unitas? It's a list of his years as a full time starter! It compares 14 seasons of Unitas to 13 seasons of Manning. It doesn't get much more apples to apples than that!

I haven't skewed anything to 'favor my guy', and I can't see any instance where I have. You've offered no bench mark for how to do the comparison other than an oddball way of looking at league averages that no one else buys. I've tried to be as even-handed as I can. Frankly, I believe AFL numbers from the early 60s should be included, but I knew you'd object, so I left them out to suit you and you alone.

I find your manner insulting, to be frank. You act like I've tried to play games with this data, which is something I never do. I'm doing my best to make reasonable comparisons, and at no point have you specifically asked me for anything. You've only criticized my choices after the fact. That's BS.

Do you want a comparison of them that goes from age 23 to age 34? I'll do that. That would chop off Manning's rookie year and take Unitas through age 34. That way it's strictly apples to apples by age.

Your system is the only skewed thing in this entire debate. Go back and look at the league leader charts from the 50s, and then try to make your argument about how 'inflated' Manning's comparison verses league average is with a straight face. It's frankly embarrassing. The QB in the 50s bears almost no similarity to modern play beyond a couple of guys (Unitas being one). The league leader charts don't even go 16 deep, because so few guys qualified for inclusion in the rate stats leaders.

I think you are the one who isn't honestly looking at era adjustments.

The point of the debate was to show their quality as players for the Colts. The second list does that far better than the first does.

Beyond that, these comparisons don't encapsulate the totality of the debate. They show that on a few rate stats compared with league average Unitas has some small advantages, but they ignore all the other facets of their careers, especially the question of number of elite seasons. The fact is that Unitas doesn't have 10 elite seasons.

It can be argued that his absolute peak was slightly higher compared to league average than Manning's absolute peak, but then you have to deal with the fact that Manning's peak lasted 5-6 more seasons than Unitas's did. That's why when the comparison stretches out to 11-13 seasons, Manning passes Unitas in the rate stats compared to the top 5 players. He was elite far far longer.

That cannot and should not be adjusted away. It's a shame Unitas got hurt, but HE DID GET HURT. You can't adjust away full seasons.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 10:14am

From ages 23-34 for both QBs:

Comp% Unitas: 56.0% to 55.2% (99.1%)
Manning: 65.8% to 65.7% (99.8%)

TD%: Unitas: 7.1% to 6.2% (87.3%)
Manning: 6.1% to 5.6% (91.2%)

Int%: Unitas 4.2% to 4.6% (109.5%)
Manning 1.7% to 2.6% (152.9%)

YPA: Unitas: 8.4 to 8.1 (96.4%)
Manning: 8.1 to 7.7 (95.1%)

Rating: Unitas: 83.9 to 82.9 (98.8%)
Manning: 99.1 to 96.9 (97.8%)

Unitas gets Manning using this standard in three of the five metrics.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 10:41am

By the way, for just this comparison, taking the AFL stats out doesn't flip any of the results. It brings Unitas closer in TD%.

The overall effect of using AFL players on this study is negligible. However, because the entire debate centers on the weird notion that the modern NFL is too watered down to use league averages (a stance no one agrees with), it seems strange to me that you would want to over Unitas by excluding a large sample of quarterbacks.

I'm steadfast in my belief that to not include AFL stats from the Super Bowl era would be huge mistake and would not accomplish your so called goal of exploring ways to compare eras.

I don't hold that position because it changes the results. It does not. I hold that position because I believe the QB play in the NFL in that era was not deep or strong. The more quality players that can be brought into the comparison, the better.

I do firmly believe QB play today is vastly superior to the level of play in the 50s and 60s. After doing these studies and seeing how thin the play was league wide, I actually believe in the entire concept of era adjustments before the Super Bowl era much less than I did before.

Combing through the league leaders from the 50s paints a nasty picture of the league.

by nat :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 9:48am

Regarding the AFL...

The AFL was mostly populated with players who failed in the NFL, or would not have started in the NFL. It's quite interesting to read the wikipedia bios of the most famous AFL QBs, for example.

Len Dawson: After encountering similar problems in battling Browns' quarterback Milt Plum, Dawson was released, having completed only 21 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns in his five seasons of NFL play.

Jack Kemp: After being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 17th round of the 1957 NFL Draft, Kemp was cut from the team before the 1957 NFL season began. He spent 1957 with the Pittsburgh Steelers and 1958 on the taxi squads of the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants. The 1958 New York Giants played in that year's NFL Championship Game, known as the "Greatest Game Ever Played" and the first overtime NFL playoff game,but, as a third-string quarterback member of the taxi squad, Kemp did not take the field.

Daryle Lamonica: He was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 24th round of the 1963 AFL draft. He was also drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 12th round of the 1963 NFL draft. Lamonica played with Buffalo for four seasons, backing up Jack Kemp on a team that won back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965.

George Blanda: It would not be until 1953 that Blanda would emerge as the Bears' top signal caller, but an injury the following year effectively ended his first-string status. For the next four years, he was used mostly in a kicking capacity.

Other top QBs left the NFL for the CFL, choose the AFL because it was clear they would not start in the NFL, etc.

There are a few, notably Joe Namath and Bob Griese who would have been considered top prospects in the NFL at the start of their AFL careers. But even they were playing in a league of also-rans, throwing against also-ran defenses.

That makes their stats "oranges" to compare with the NFL's "apples". It's like comparing college stats to pro stats. Sure, there are great college QBs, but the stats just aren't something you can usefully combine.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 9:58am

I absolutely reject your reasoning here. That may have been true of the AFL in the early years, but by 1966 the league was far more competitive. Including AFL stats for the Super Bowl era is completely appropriate, and your efforts to exclude them seriously call into question your objectivity.

It's absolutely credible to include AFL players in the list. When you look at the lists of NFL leaders, you realize how flimsy your base argument is to begin with.

by SandyRiver :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 12:25pm

This post kind of lost me when it quoted Wiki in disparaging Len Dawson, because his initial NFL non-success sounds so much like Wiki's description of Unitas' experience with the Steelers. And while Dawson couldn't do all that much in SB1 (though 16-of-27 for 210 yd and one pick against the Pack is decent), he was MVP of SB4 as the Chiefs upset the Vikings. (IMO, the Chiefs' defense was the real MVP though Dawson completed 71% of his modest 17 attempts, but my point is that he was a good NFL QB in the SB era, thus a silly choice to use in knocking the AFL.)

by nat :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 11:32am

It's not that Dawson was good or bad. (Hint: he was good, although his stats naturally dropped as he aged and faced better competition once the Commom Draft started)

It's that the NFL (two coaches, plus all the ones who saw him play and didn't snap him up when he was released) thought he wasn't good. With a few exceptions (e.g. Namath), quarterbacks who were thought to be the best went to the NFL with the AFL getting the leftovers, until the merger agreement and start of the Common Draft in 1967.

From 1967 to 1969, good players were drafted into both leagues equally. That's when Bob Griese and Larry Czonka went to the Dolphins, for example. In 1969, the AFL had three years of draftees of NFL quality, making the talent imbalance less than it had been in 1966 and earlier. It still wasn't up to NFL standards, but it had younger players of equal perceived talent and was getting closer overall.

Meanwhile, Unitas was cut by a Steelers coach who never let him take a snap, even in practice. I can only assume he was deemed "uncoachable". He landed a backup job the next season, and earned the starting job on the field when the Colt's starter broke his leg. He didn't have to leave for the AFL after five years, because when he was given the chance to start he proved to be good and quickly developed into a great QB.

Does anyone have an example of a QB washing out of the AFL and then landing a starting QB job in the NFL? Anyone?

by Nate Dunlevy :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 12:20pm

Pete Liske

Washed out of the AFL, went to Canada. Wound up starting for the Eagles in 71.

Also note, that he was originally selected by the Eagles, but chose to play in the AFL.

by nat :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 3:46pm

Cool. What a strange career. AFL washout, CFL all-star and passing record setter, AFL-AFC part-time starter, then the NFC part-time starter. In his AFC/NFC comeback, he started roughly half the games for his teams.

Not exactly an AFL washout that moved to start in the NFL, since he got his second chance in the AFL, and only moved to the NFC after proving himself viable at Denver. But an interesting find nonetheless. Well done. Thanks.

How the heck did you find him?

by Nate Dunlevy :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 6:01pm

I did the research. I went through the careers of all the QBs of the 60s and examined what they did. There were actually very few cross overs. What was interesting was that his career showed that the AFL was better than Canada, and that a player drafted by both leagues chose the AFL.

I appreciate the props. I've been taking this seriously on principle, and did resent your implication that I've been playing games with the numbers. I actually don't believe in ranking QBs at all (I'm a 'tier' guy). I just have a personality defect and have to research points I find interesting. My agenda hasn't been to prove Manning better than Unitas, but I do admit to believing that the overall level of play in the 50s and 60s wasn't great.

Frankly, while I don't think it truly shows up statistically (because comp v league average is the best method), the single best (and undeniable) argument for Unitas is that he was essentially a modern QB in a time when most guys were flat awful.

by Nate Dunlevy :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 6:01pm

I did the research. I went through the careers of all the QBs of the 60s and examined what they did. There were actually very few cross overs. What was interesting was that his career showed that the AFL was better than Canada, and that a player drafted by both leagues chose the AFL.

I appreciate the props. I've been taking this seriously on principle, and did resent your implication that I've been playing games with the numbers. I actually don't believe in ranking QBs at all (I'm a 'tier' guy). I just have a personality defect and have to research points I find interesting. My agenda hasn't been to prove Manning better than Unitas, but I do admit to believing that the overall level of play in the 50s and 60s wasn't great.

Frankly, while I don't think it truly shows up statistically (because comp v league average is the best method), the single best (and undeniable) argument for Unitas is that he was essentially a modern QB in a time when most guys were flat awful.

by tuluse :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 3:47pm

Cool work you did here. This whole discussion has been really good.

by SandyRiver :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:33pm

Agreed, and thanks again. One thing in the lengthy critique might be useful, though it wasn't stated quite the way I'm trying to.

Comparing Manning vs his "top 5" right now offers him the benefit of little/no decline phase. Would using just Unitas' 1st 13 seasons, beginning with his 1st as a fulltimer, make sense? Since your comparison uses just rate stats, the "injury season" would only be a factor if Unitas had a bad statistical year because he was playing hurt that year. Missing time wouldn't affect those rate stats any more than 2008 affects Brady's.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 3:04pm

Yeah, it was a fun read. For an internet forum, surprisingly little ad-hominem, too, though nat has seemed to prefer beginning his posts that way.

by nat :: Thu, 07/14/2011 - 4:18pm

Sorry about that. A bit of frustration on my part, but I shouldn't have subjected you to it.

by Anon (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:34pm

Heck, Manning may not have been the best choice in 2008

Or 2009 (Brees).

by IRAN (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 11:28pm


Just curious but who exactly was more deserving in 2008? Consider that Manning's 08 team was nearly as flawed and injured as his 2010 team was and had to carry an awful run game and suspect defense to a 12-4 record despite starting the year injured. He was the best player in 08 and had the best season too.

In 09, the only argument you could make to merit brees would be his superior stats but even this is flawed since manning sat out the half the jets game and nearly all of the bills game. Brees sat out one game in tampa, but prorating their stats, manning would've finished ahead of brees in nearly every meaningful stat. He deserved it in 09 as well, especially considering the saints near dominant run game and manning's paltry one.

by Mike Elseroad (not verified) :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 9:23pm

In 2008, I really felt that Chad Pennington was more deserving. He had a higher qb rating than Manning while leading the Dolphins to an 11-5 record and the AFC East crown one season after the Fish finished 1-15.

In 2009, Brees' qb rating was 111 or so. I don't think Manning's was that high.

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 10:16pm

D. Brees 109.6
p. manninh 99.9

by Nate Dunlevy :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 10:37pm

Pennington was so important to his team that they took him off the field for long stretches to run the wildcat.

His play was vastly overrated that year in terms of quality and impact.

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 10:46pm

yes butu pennignton had heart and desirie and cheerleading stuff

by Scott_Kacsmar (not verified) :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:59pm

You know what the difference between Manning's 2010 season and his 2003-09 seasons is?

He didn't pull a couple of rabbits out of the hat last year like he did in the previous 7 seasons.

Against the Patriots, you would have expected him to throw the 24 yard GW TD pass rather than the game-ending INT. Make that stat adjustment and you're looking at a 420 yard day, 5 TDs, 2 INTs and a 17 point comeback in the 4th QT. Then against Dallas, you expect him to complete some passes (let's say 3/4 for 40 yards) to get them in FG position and win that game, rather than another INT.

Make that stat adjustment and you're looking at the following line:
454/682 (66.6%), 4764 yards, 6.99 YPA, 34 TDs, 15 INTs, 94.1 PR, 12-4 record

Maybe one long completion instead of an INT against the Eagles, and they win that game with a FG at the end too.

Now you wouldn't even blink at that line (except maybe the YPA) in conjunction with the seven seasons prior to it. Fits right in. But since those two drives didn't end well, he drops to 10-6 and a rating just under 92.

by Raiderjoe :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 8:48pm

Gettinh some Tommyknocker Butthead tonigt. Goimh.to drink.it read these new comments. Fun friday night of foogball and beer

by Raiderjoe :: Fri, 07/08/2011 - 9:11pm

To guy who said p. Manning like ripekn. Yes it true. Manning plays all the games. Is luke gerigh. The Iron Clot.
Defintely gets mentioned. Very impressive to play all the time. Does get noted bywriters and broafcasters.

To guywho say to imagine if p. Manning had Beiber hair. Yes would be annoying becsusse many clots fsns would copy hairdo and would be embarrasing. Thank goodness manning likes Kentucky farmboy look insteasd of Jasom Bieber dork/teenyboopper rat's nest- Captain Kanggaroo mix

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 5:59pm

The Iron Clot sounds like what a robot gets before it has a stroke.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:09pm

I propose the term "Febolism."

by Jon from NH (not verified) :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 5:17am

Manning never played for the Colts, he plays for the "Colts". There is no connection other than a uniform between one of the great football franchises of all time, and the pretenders playing in that suburb of Chicago. Comparing Manning to Unitas is like comparing Tom Brady to Bart Starr, or Aaron Rodgers to John Elway. Interesting to compare I guess, but none of these people played for the same teams, and Manning doesn't belong on a list with Bert Jones, Unitas and Morral. He is simply the best Indianapolis QB ever.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:03pm

Baltimore lost their rights to bitching about the Colts when that carpetbagger Modell fled to Baltimore from Cleveland.

Or are you mad that would mean that now Otto Graham is Baltimore's best QB instead of Unitas?

by Jerry :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:25pm

It is odd that this discussion involves two QBs who share a franchise, but not a fan base.

by TomKelso :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 2:29pm

From 1961 -1963, Unitas was the third to fifth-best QB in a 14-team league....

Not on any planet that supports human life -- who was better? Starr? Maybe -- but even with a better supporting cast, he never put up the results Unitas did. Tarkenton, Meredith? Way too young if ever. Wade, Ryan, LeBaron? Please. Tittle? Jurgensen in Philly? Ed Brown? Milt Plum? Who was under center in SF or LA back then? That's far too flat a statement to accept on face value, Mike. And to make it a determining factor in your argument -- well I'm sorry.

My thoughts about the Colts line up with Jon's -- but that has nothing to do with this. If you're going to make a statement like that -- I'd like to know the two to four in those given years you think were better - -and why.

Oh, and Peyton needs to cut down on his supplements -- or Raiderjoe's nickname for him will become real...

by Scott Kacsmar :: Sat, 07/09/2011 - 3:06pm

Well from 1960-63 Unitas had the following ranks among NFL QBs (no AFL):

Completions - 1st
Attempts - 1st
Comp. % - 5th
Yards - 1st
YPA - 6th
TDs - 2nd
Rating - 8th

That's out of 18 players with a qualified number of attempts. http://pfref.com/tiny/xiKcC

When one tries to make the argument that Unitas was twice as dominant as Manning, it doesn't serve that argument well when he has those numbers over a 4 year period. 8th out of 18? That's not to say guys ranked ahead of him were actually better, as Unitas was the volume passer of the bunch and had the most attempts by a wide margin, but clearly he wasn't dominating the league.

1999-2002 is not thought of as a dominant stretch for Manning, but here are his NFL ranks in those seasons:

Completions - 1st
Attempts - 1st
Comp. % - 2nd
Yards - 1st
YPA - 3rd
TDs - 1st
Rating - 4th

That's out of 30 qualified passers

Pretty good for someone that was a year away from hitting their prime.

by TomKelso :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 10:47am

well those are all interesting -- but I notice you pick the outlier rating stat -- one almost universally derided and discredited -- as the focus for a response that didn't even answer the question I raised.

SO I'm not exactly sure why you attached it to my post -- unless you actually think there were SEVEN QB's superior to Unitas in that period, and would care to mention them ....

by Scott Kacsmar :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 2:27pm

Not sure how his rating could be an outlier when his other efficiency stats are not that elite. 7 players had a better TD:INT ratio.

Tittle, Starr and Jurgensen can definitely lay claim to being better than Unitas over that period of time.

by justanothersteve :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 12:25am

I think the one thing this column has proved is that the season can't start soon enough. We NEED NFL football.

by Jon from NH (not verified) :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:58pm

There is still a major international American football tournament going on, and the US is kicking butt!


by TonyT (not verified) :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 5:20pm

In other surprising news, a High School varsity team is totally dominating the 7 year old pop warner teams! America! F*** Yeah!

by The Ghost of Art Donovan (not verified) :: Sun, 07/10/2011 - 2:33pm

Johnny Unitas was responsible for: "The Greatest Game Ever Played" in the NFL.

Peyton Manning was responsible for: "The Greatest Game In The History Of The New Orleans Saints." Which is nice, too. Even his father couldn't claim that.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:06pm

A game so great that by the time the NFL really got into the swing of things most people had forgotten it.

by Trogdor :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 8:21pm

Sorry I lost the numbers here, but I did some research on Manning's numbers that put his greatness into a little perspective. Feel free to repeat it if you have the free time.

During the last game of the 2009 season, NBC (I think) put up a graphic of the statistical leaders for the decade. (Yes, we know, nobody cares.) Manning of course was way out in front in yards and TDs, something like 42K yards and 310-ish TDs. For those in the back, that's over 4200 yards and 31 TD per year for ten straight years. Sweet merciful crap.

Now, being a Browns fan, I of course wondered if they had ever, even once, had a quarterback hit either of those numbers. The answer - of course not, although Brian Sipe came close in 1980, but somehow forgot how to THROW THE BALL INTO THE FREAKING LAKE AND KICK THE FIELD GOAL!

Uh, sorry about that. Where was I? Oh yeah. Manning's averages over a 10-year span would have been a franchise record for the Browns in both yards and touchdowns. Wow. I mean, just, wow.

So that of course got me to wondering how many other franchise records his 10-year average would have. And the answer is.... lost somewhere in my notes. But I'm sure someone with spare time can figure it out for you! It's a lot, though.

Anyway, that's a little something to put Manning's greatness in perspective. What he accomplishes year after year after year, many franchises have never seen even once.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 8:37pm

Even if you just dropped those numbers down to more common milestones like 4000 yards and 30 TDs, that is the kind of season that rarely happens.

http://pfref.com/tiny/q31cI - 38 times by 20 QBs, and Manning has 6 of them. Granted, you're not going to put those numbers up without 16 games, so it's more of a "since 1978" thing, but still. 6 times for something that only 7 other QBs can say they've done more than once. And that could easily be 7 times without all the rest in 2005.

by Trogdor :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 8:44pm

Yeah, that was something else I didn't get around to - factoring in 12/14 game seasons, figuring out what to do with AFL numbers, etc.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 11:29pm

Manning is one of the all time greats, but it does get a bit silly when you compare across eras using unadjusted stats, and bulk numbers are even worse. As a device for pointing out just how big Manning's stats have been, that's okay, but it goes awry when used as a proxy for a good season. Specifically you point to Cleveland as never having any QB even have 1 season as impressive as the average of Manning's last 10, but Cleveland has arguably (and in my opinion) the GOAT in Otto Graham, who had a pretty long career himself.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 12:55am

Graham's NFL career was just 6 seasons long, which is pretty short. I don't think the AAFC should count.

by Mike Elseroad (not verified) :: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 9:36pm

Wow. There's a lot of discussion about this. Some really great stuff.

I've gotta agree with Mike. Johnny U was a not-doubt-about-it HOFer and the best of his era, but Peyton has had a longer run of qb dominance.

by Jon from NH (not verified) :: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:57pm

Come on guys. Our national team just beat Mexico 17-7 and we are going to the final to be potentially "the best American football team in the world. Yet Football Outsiders continues to ignore this.