Walkthrough: Empty Premise

Walkthrough: Empty Premise
Walkthrough: Empty Premise
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Tanier

It's third-and-2. Your team breaks the huddle and lines up in an empty backfield formation. You groan. Way to take away any threat of a run, you think. Way to limit your pass protection options. In the name of getting one more receiver off the line quickly, the team has telegraphed its intentions. What a horrible trade-off.

That's what I think, at least. I have written in the past about my frustration with empty backfield alignments on third-and-short. Down-and-distance situations like third-and-2 or third-and-3 may now be passing downs, but that empty backfield set takes running plays completely out of the equation unless Michael Vick or Tim Tebow is on the field. And with those guys in shotgun, the quarterback draw isn't going to fool anyone.

But is emptying the backfield on third-and-short really a bad strategy? Since I have the Football Outsiders' Game Charting Database at my fingertips and little else to do, it's a small matter to find out. Our Game Charters mark the number of players in the backfield (besides the quarterback) on every play, making it easy to filter out empty backfield formations. From there, it's easy to sort out all third-and fourth-down situations with four or fewer yards to go. Beyond four yards, the offense is in an obvious enough passing situation that the threat of a run won't affect the defense much anyway.

I found 184 empty backfield plays in short yardage situations, which I will call EBSY plays from now on. That's fewer than six per team; while we notice the EBSY strategy when it happens, it isn't taking the league by storm. Of those plays, 156 were pass attempts, 13 were sacks or scrambles, and the others were runs of various types, including direct snap plays to guys like Michael Robinson and Dexter McCluster. The offense converted a first down or scored a touchdown 67 times, 54 times through the air and 13 times running or scrambling. The "or touchdown" caveat is significant, because some teams use the empty backfield set frequently in red zone situations, particularly the two teams in the Super Bowl.

The first-down percentage on EBSY plays is 36.4 percent. Here's a breakdown of how that compares with normal short yardage situations, where a team keeps a back or two in the backfield:

Normal Short-Yardage Situations
Plays First Downs First Down % Yards Yards Per Play
Empty 184 67 36.4 834 4.5
1-3 Backs 2,460 1,246 50.7 10,899 4.4
1-3 Backs* 1,797 790 44.0 9,286 5.2

The asterisk row removes rushes on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. When sifting the data, I noticed that empty backfield plays with one yard to go are uncommon, so I was comparing one set of data with a lot of third-and-4 situations with another set loaded with extreme short-yardage situations. There are a lot of ways to adjust for that problem, but I opted for a hardheaded one. With ultra-obvious rushing situations out of the mix, the two data sets look much more alike in terms of down-and-distance composition. I could have done something more technical, sorting the data by field zone and breaking everything down by yards-to-go, but that 184-item data set isn't very big, and I didn't want to run the risk of measuring the instruments.

The chart shows that first-down percentages are lower for EBSY plays than regular short-yardage plays, even when the one-yard plunges are removed. From a yards-per-play standpoint, having backs in the backfield is better than going empty once you take out those plunges.

There are all sorts of gum in this data, from sneaks to scrambles to sacks. To get a clearer picture, let's look at the raw passing numbers:

Raw Passing Numbers, Third Down, 2-4 Yards To Go
Attempts Completions Completion % Yards Yards Per Attempt Sacks Sack %
EBSY 156 74 47 772 4.9 7 4.5
1-3 Backs 1,332 755 57 7,612 5.7 92 6.9

There were 12 touchdown passes thrown in EBSY situations, 114 thrown with backs in the backfield; I didn't put that in the chart because the number of goal-to-go plays in the data skews the results. Losing 10 points of completion percentage and 0.8 yards per throw is enough to scare me away from using a particular tactic. It's interesting that sack rates go down in EBSY situations. That probably has to do with play design: Teams opt for quick throws when they need short yardage from an empty backfield, whereas there are a lot of slow-developing play-action passes in the other set. Still, the data contradicts one of my fears -- pass protection does not suffer much from EBSY tactics.

Some teams never go EBSY. I couldn't find any Titans or Raiders plays, and I only found one Jaguars play, which was a pass on third-and-four. (The Jaguars almost never empty their backfield. If you had their roster, you wouldn't let Maurice Jones-Drew leave the field, either.) The Rams ran one quarterback sneak at the goal line from an empty backfield; again, there's no good reason to take Steven Jackson out of the game when you only need a yard or two. Here are some other notes from my EBSY study:

  • The Falcons had 17 EBSY plays. Matt Ryan was 5-of-14 with three sacks on those plays, though he did complete a 46-yard pass to Roddy White.
  • The Packers were 7-of-13 for 80 yards in EBSY plays, plus a couple of Aaron Rodgers scrambles.
  • The Steelers were 5-of-6 in the red zone on EBSY plays, and Ben Roethlisberger scrambled or sneaked four times on 13 total plays.
  • Drew Brees was 8-of-9 for 64 yards and seven first downs on EBSY plays. Guess who caught the one pass that didn't net a first down.
  • The Dolphins were 2-of-8 on EBSY plays. The Jets were 0-for-3, with two incompletions and a sack. The Chiefs threw two incomplete passes and ran a Dexter McCluster sneak for a loss of five yards. The 49ers were 0-for-4 on first down conversions. The Bengals completed 1-of-5 passes for a loss of two, but Carson Palmer did convert two sneaks.
  • The Eagles used seven ESBY plays, three by Kevin Kolb and four by Vick. Vick's only run in this situation was a sneak that went nowhere. Even the guys at the bar saw it coming.
  • Jimmy Clausen was 3-for-3 on EBSY plays. Go figure.

Most of the successful EBSY plays came from a handful of teams, like the Packers and Saints. Obviously, if your wide receivers are great and your backs are so-so, and it's third down and a long two, there's some wisdom to emptying the backfield. Conversely, if you are the Falcons, with one good wide receiver and a hammer of a running back, going EBSY is counter-intuitive. It's not a good strategy to attempt three or four times in a season, because most of the teams that did so were 1-for-3 or 1-for-4 on conversions. It's also not a good way to isolate Vick or a Wildcat guy on a draw, because there isn't much evidence of defenses getting fooled.

That was fun. In a few weeks, I will isolate another down-and-distance tactic, the second-and-short play action bomb. How common is it? Does it work? And do you have any other suggestions? Leave them in the comment thread!

The Hundred

If you follow me on Twitter @FO_MTanier, you know I spent last week counting down the Top 100 Players Off the Top of My Head.

Some readers assumed that my list was a parody or satire of some other list, like the NFL Network's Top 100. Really, it was purely spontaneous, a culling of players who popped into my mind while I researched for Football Outsiders Almanac and some ESPN articles. Ranking players across various positions and teams, based on arbitrary criteria, is more of a move for attention than analysis. I'm not above attention getting moves, particularly during a lockout; I have books to sell and readership to attract. The Top 100 kept me out of trouble last week.

If you missed the list, here are some highlights. Will I do more Twitter countdowns? Who knows? But you have to follow to find out!

100. Michael Jenkins: The most ordinary player I have ever seen. Like a randomly generated Madden avatar, but in real life.

97. Jairus Byrd. Poor kid plays so deep that only Nietzsche can scout him.

95. Cliff Avril. If the Lions D-line were a boy band, he would be the shy boy-next-door type.

90. Alex Barr ... oops, false start! Rodger Saffold.

82. Chris Kluwe. S 14 I 12 W 9 D 15 C 10 Ch 14. AC -1 (pads, helmet), Chaotic Neutral, Cleats of Insidethetwentydom.

73. Lousaka Polite. The Dolphins offense is an ice cream truck trying to climb a steep hill in February. Polite is the soft-serve machine.

68. Alphonso Smith. Getting traded for nothing by Josh McDaniels is like getting a hickie from Kenickie.

48. Mike Tolbert. Imagine Pete Johnson and Andra Franklin had a baby and ... Wait, don't picture that.

40. Michael Oher. A new book every year? It's like Jonathan Ogden ate Mitch Albom.

33. Tom Brady. I was just being silly with this selection, because no one in their right mind would rank Brady 33rd on any list of active players.

28. Chris Johnson. New Titans playbook is just a cartoon flipbook of him running across the bottom of the page.

19. Some guy on the Packers squad we never heard of who will be starting by Week 9 and make two big plays in the 2012 playoffs.

3. Vonta Leach: Andre Johnson can't imagine the Texans offense without him. I can't imagine the Texans defense at all.

Quarterback Top Five: San Francisco 49ers

The Rams had the last Walkthrough all to themselves. Now it's time to look at the other NFC West team with a big debate at the top of its list: the San Francisco 49ers.

1. Joe Montana. The "black ink test" isn't very kind to Montana. He led the league in completion percentage a few times and efficiency rating twice. He led the league in touchdowns in two strike-shortened years, and his 1987 total is a little shady because he played in two replacement games, throwing five touchdown passes. If you didn't know Montana, and you just took a cursory look at his statistical profile, you would probably see a near-Hall of Famer, not arguably the best quarterback ever.

Montana had a habit of finishing second in statistical categories. Dan Marino had a lot to do with that, as did Montana's habit of missing a game or two with injuries, or to rest for the playoffs, or both. In 1984, when Montana threw for 3,630 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 picks, Marino topped him in yards and touchdowns, while Tony Eason beat him in interception percentage and Steve Bartkowski topped his 64.6 completion percentage in an 11-start season. Montana took the end of the 1989 season off to rest injuries before the playoffs, so his 26 touchdowns finished fourth in the NFL. He threw just 10 interceptions, but was bested in interception percentage by Jim Miller. There was always a Marino-type trumping him in volume stats, and some short-season or short-career guy nudging him in percentages.

Montana was 14-5 in the postseason with the Niners, and of course no one judges him based solely on black ink or statistical totals. It's often a good idea to look at a familiar player's record with fresh eyes.

2. Steve Young. Some of you would probably rank Young over Montana, particularly if you are a) a younger fan with very dim memories of Montana or b) someone who is very suspicious of "winner sauce" or "most wins" arguments. It is a tough call, and I admit that if I could have either quarterback in his prime to lead me through a 16-game season, I want Young. I want his arm, legs, mind and career-peak durability. Based on what they "could" do, Young is better. Based on what they did, Montana wins hands down. I leave the discussion to the floor.

3. John Brodie. Years ago, I read a brief article about Brodie's statistics by a respected football historian. The historian was influential and was one of my influences in this field, but he had a habit of writing condescending anti-stat straw man arguments late in his career. I cannot find the article now, but its tone went something like this: "Imagine a great quarterback who only completed 55 percent of his passes, who only threw for 3,000 yards twice, and who threw more interceptions than touchdowns for his career. Why, those numbers would make the silly bean counters crazy, but there really was such a player! His name was John Brodie, and your puny statistics could never measure his greatness."

Maybe the tone wasn't quite so mocking, but one theme of the article suggested that statisticians cannot account for changes in era, expectations, rules, season length, or anything else. Brodie, ironically, is a terrible quarterback to make this kind of argument for, because his stats leap off the screen. A 30-touchdown season is still impressive in any context; anyone who puts forth the effort to thumb through an encyclopedia to 1965 knows they are looking at something special in Brodie. Brodie wasn't a great winner who put up old-timey stats. He was a .500 quarterback who put up modern looking stats.

Brodie was not a Hall of Fame caliber player. He was comparable to Sonny Jurgensen in many ways, but he did not put up Jurgensen's numbers. His Pro Football Reference comps start with Norm Snead and John Hadl, and while he was far better than Snead, he definitely belongs at that wedding table. Remember the paradox of football in that era: NFL teams rarely threw when winning, so passing yardage/touchdown leaders often came from middling teams forced to play from behind. When looking at a yardage or touchdown leader from about 1960 through 1977, you are very often looking at a second-tier quarterback, not one of the best of the best. That's the kind of useful observation we make when using stats as evidence, not writing them off as child's play.

4. Y.A. Tittle. Tittle played with the Million Dollar Backfield of Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, and Hugh McElhenny. Johnson was only in San Francisco for three years, one of them a good one, but the other two players were Niners Hall of Famers all the way. Perry was one of the best backs of his generation; McElhenny was a shake 'n' bake back. It was a T-formation offense, even after Johnson left (replaced by the very good J.D. Smith), so Tittle spent a lot of time faking handoffs to one all-time great and pitching the ball to another. The whole was less than the sum of its parts, and the Niners did some amazing things, like go 4-8 and finish 10th out of 12 teams in points with four future Hall of Famers in the backfield.

Tittle's Hall of Fame credentials rest almost completely with his last few Giants seasons. Take those years away from him, with the championship near misses and the grizzled ole veteran photographs, and he's a forgotten character.

5 Jeff Garcia. Garcia's best statistical year came for a 6-10 team with Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens as his receivers. He was excellent in 2001, very good in 2002, and turned out the lights on the Niners long era of greatness in 2003. He then entered a peripatetic phase where he earned undue praise for everything he did, earning a near Flutie-like reverence from the press. Garcia left a few of his best years in Canada, and it's not his fault that San Francisco was hell-bent on self-destruction by the time he got his feet wet. He earned entry onto two of my franchise lists (the Bucs as well), but I always thought he courted the press too much and lobbied too heavily for starting jobs, and that was before he came to Philly and was heralded as the anti-McNabb.

Frankie Albert was an incredible quarterback, runner, and punter in the 1940s. He threw 56 touchdowns in one two-year stretch, and it was tempting to list him above Garcia. But Albert's best years were in the AAFC. The Browns and Niners were the only AAFC teams that were truly NFL-caliber, so Albert threw a lot of touchdowns against the Chicago Rockets and the original Baltimore Colts, who folded after one season in the NFL. Once Albert started facing real competition, his production fell to earth, and the Niners dropped from 9-3 to 3-9.


116 comments, Last at 04 Jun 2011, 5:20am

#1 by Dean // May 27, 2011 - 11:39am

Joe Montana is the single greatest QB I ever saw, bar none. Yes, Johnny U and guys like that were before my time, but in my lifetime, there's Montana and then everyone else and it ain't even close.

Points: 0

#6 by Marko // May 27, 2011 - 1:35pm

I completely agree. If I had to pick one QB for one game in the playoffs, it would definitely be Joe Cool.

Also, that was Chris Miller, not Jim Miller, who bested Montana in interception percentage in 1989.

Points: 0

#34 by Dan Snyder (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 4:51pm

The "winner's win" cliche gets thrown around so breathlessly and so often these days you'll see its residue splash on people like Caleb Hanie every once in a while, but that's what Joe Montana's defining skill was.

Stats don't capture emotional response, which can be extremely beneficial when you're tasked with deciding how much to pay and/or play which players in which scheme in order to build a team, but is a limitation in that the game is played by human beings. There's no accurate measurement for "degree to which the opposing team would kickoff with a late 4th quarter lead and still assume their goose was cooked." And really it has to be witnessed and experienced in real time, in context. Whether there's anything behind this "will to win" idea or not, it takes on its own momentum and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while. When Montana had the ball with the game on the line, opponents wilted, and fans knew he would be successful almost as if it were preordained. Joe Montana reached the point where an outcome of failure became more of an anomaly than success, and other teams did beat him so much as he "didn't do it this time."

When Steve Young finally set the poor hapless Chargers on fire in Super Bowl XXIX, he was doing monkey off his back routines on the sideline. Joe Montana never had a monkey on his back. Joe Montana was the monkey.

It is not Joe Montana's fault that his completely immeasurable skill set came to be held with more esteem than all other more measurable skills by a vocal cadre of blowhards. Many of those blowhards played against Montana, which can't be a coincidence.

Points: 0

#40 by Dales // May 27, 2011 - 5:37pm

It is not Joe Montana's fault that his completely immeasurable skill set came to be held with more esteem than all other more measurable skills by a vocal cadre of blowhards.

Except, even though he was getting eclipsed in one measurable by this guy or that guy and in another by another, he was in the elite in the measurable skills (stats) overall, for his career. Young and Warner are ahead of him in passer rating among retired players. Same two are the only ones ahead in completions percentage. Only 7 are ahead of him in yards. Only 6 are ahead of him in completions. Only 6 in touchdowns. He's in the discussion just on regular season stats alone.

That's without getting to the post season, and without getting in to what so many people saw with their eyes. He was the best.

A lot of times, fans can overrate or underrate a player. Stats can do so, too, only not through any personal biases but rather because a model representing actual people is going to have cases where the model won't quite fit the actual player.

Points: 0

#54 by Noahrk // May 28, 2011 - 1:17pm

...there's no accurate measurement for "degree to which the opposing team would kickoff with a late 4th quarter lead and still assume their goose was cooked." And really it has to be witnessed and experienced in real time, in context. Whether there's anything behind this "will to win" idea or not, it takes on its own momentum and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while. When Montana had the ball with the game on the line, opponents wilted, and fans knew he would be successful almost as if it were preordained

To complement your statements, today I read this article in Wired: Disbelieving Free Will Makes the Brain Less Free

In other words, if you believe Montana is going to beat you (no free will), your brain will be slower to react.

Points: 0

#36 by Dales // May 27, 2011 - 5:21pm

This is exactly how I feel, too. I wasn't a fan of his at the start, but he was just so damned good that, even while not liking the 49ers, I could not help but root for him (excepting against my Giants).

I just remember the first game he played against the 49ers, with the Chiefs. Joe's numbers were not too outstanding (19-31, 203 but with 2 TD and 0 ints), but he was in control of the game in the 2nd half, despite starting the half trailing.

Young, who was 24-34 for 288 with 1 TD and 2 ints, said something along the lines of, "I guess the master had one more lesson for the student." He looked absolutely crushed. I bet he thought of this game, along with his riding the pines as a backup, and all of Montana's adulation, when he had them rip the monkey off his back on the sidelines after he had ripped it off himself with a masterful Super Bowl performance.

But Montana was the master in this pairing. Which is no knock on Young, at all.

Points: 0

#2 by Michael LaRocca (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 11:47am

Jake Delhomme. No way. :-)

Points: 0

#3 by Shattenjager // May 27, 2011 - 12:55pm

I would take Young over Montana, but then I fit both of the categories of people who would. However, I would add that there are additional reasons.

1. http://pfref.com/tiny/r9Yja
2. When I was growing up (born in 1985), there were two quarterbacks (three starting when I was 11) we were all supposed to worship as almighty and incapable of doing anything wrong: Troy Aikman and Joe Montana. Growing up a Bronco fan, it was annoying. I probably think less of Montana than I otherwise would because I simply couldn't stand listening to the Favre-like media praise of him, especially since when I heard them it was usually announcers contrasting his greatness with John Elway's alleged shortcomings.
3. Statistically, it seems inarguable that Young had a higher peak (Just as an example: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=4275#more-4275). Of course, that's also offset by the fact that he essentially started for nine years compared to Montana's 13. And it's not like Montana's peak was terrible by any means.
4. Young was a much better scrambler. (Though, to be fair, Montana was much better at avoiding sacks.)

Incidentally, I loved the Brodie entry--especially pointing out that he was a terrible quarterback to use to make the ant-stats argument.

Points: 0

#7 by Spielman // May 27, 2011 - 1:36pm

ANY/A+ is a pretty good place to start, and I'm not a fan of "winner sauce" as Mr. Tanier puts it. However, any comparison of QBs the caliber of Montana and Young that doesn't take the postseason into consideration is missing a huge part of the picture.

Young had a career passer rating of 96.8, with a Y/A of 8.0. Montana was at 92.3 and 7.5. In the postseason, Young was at 85.8, with the Y/A at 7.06. He was a fine QB in the postseason. Montana was at 95.6 with a 7.86 Y/A. He played better in the postseason than he did in the regular season, at least by this measure.

This isn't a tiny sample size, either. That's across 23 games for Montana and 20 for Young, well over a full season's worth of games. Even avoiding "winner sauce" arguments, Montana was superior in those games that aren't included in the ANY/A+ numbers you cited, and they would help narrow the gap shown there. If you want to argue that it's not fair to treat postseason performance as massively more important than regular season performance, that's fine. But it's *definitely* not fair to treat postseason performances as non-events.

I don't have a problem with anyone choosing either of these guys as their #1. I'd take Montana if we're talking about which one had the better career, and I'd take Young if we were talking about underlying talent, or which one I'd like to have a 22 year old clone of to QB my favorite team for the next 15 years.

Points: 0

#11 by Shattenjager // May 27, 2011 - 2:07pm

I honestly didn't even think about that postseason stats weren't included there. I completely agree that it's not fair to treat postseason performances as non-events (though I am unwilling to consider them more important at all, let alone massively so, than regular season performance).

Those postseason numbers don't even include sacks, which actually should help Montana even more since he generally had a much lower sack rate. Also, since his raw numbers are better, an era adjustment would make Montana stand out even more in the postseason compared to Young.

However, if we assume his sack yardage would be about the same as his regular season, he would have somewhere around 7.05 ANY/A for the postseason, which would be about 130 ANY/A+. 734 more attempts at 130 ANY/A+ would give him a career 122 ANY/A+ compared to his current 121 (it's different in the search I already posted because that search only includes SF). I may try to do this more rigorously later and take out the Chiefs stats to see what it does, but I doubt it's going to add more than a point to his total number.

If we do the same thing for Young but take out his TB numbers (Since there are no postseason TB numbers for him, that's easier to do than fixing Montana's numbers.), it comes to about 100 ANY/A+ on 471 attempts, which would drop his SF ANY/A+ to 124.

So, yeah, that comes pretty close to eliminating the different between them, though it oddly does so mostly by dropping Young rather than improving Montana--I have to admit I'm surprised by that. However, we do have to consider that Young was also an excellent runner, which means that he is at least somewhat underrated by passing stats. He probably was still better in SF statistically, though the difference is smaller than my earlier post would have suggested.

Points: 0

#14 by D // May 27, 2011 - 2:35pm

One other thing you have to consider is that while Young's rate stats are comparable (and in a lot of ways better) than Montana's, Montana attempted almost 1000 more passes than Young, and that's a lot of value. While Young was probably more dominant than Montana, Montana's larger number of attempts gives him a higher total value in my opinion.

(Full disclosure; Young was my favorite player growing up)

Points: 0

#30 by Spielman // May 27, 2011 - 4:14pm

"So, yeah, that comes pretty close to eliminating the different between them, though it oddly does so mostly by dropping Young rather than improving Montana--I have to admit I'm surprised by that."

I'm not, simply because playoff stats are going to be compiled against better defenses, on average. I'd figure that the rate stats of QBs in general would drop off in the postseason for that reason. I wouldn't think that Young's regular/postseason rate stat splits would be that unusual, while the Montanas, Starrs and Warners of the world would be the exception. That's just a guess, though.

Points: 0

#26 by t.d. // May 27, 2011 - 3:30pm

Context matters too. Montana started his career on a 2-14 team in disarray, and was a two time Super Bowl champion before his team drafted Jerry Rice. Young also started his career on an awful team, but they stayed awful. He was the 49ers' Mark Bulger.

Points: 0

#29 by Shattenjager // May 27, 2011 - 4:01pm

Bill Walsh might have been slightly better than Leeman Bennett as well. Just a thought.

Points: 0

#33 by t.d. // May 27, 2011 - 4:43pm

True, but virtually Young's entire 49ers career was with GOAT Jerry Rice in an elite, established system with plenty of secondary weapons. Montana got a couple of years with that guy, but more than half his career his weapons were just very good, not historically awesome

Points: 0

#92 by wr (not verified) // May 31, 2011 - 9:29pm

I think having your team run by Eddie DeBartolo/Carmen Policy
vs. Hugh Culverhouse makes a wee bit of difference, too.

Points: 0

#10 by Dean // May 27, 2011 - 2:02pm

Young probably would be fourth on my list. Montana first, followed by Marino and Fouts. I'd be hard pressed to choose between Peyton Manning and Elway for the 5th spot.

Points: 0

#55 by Noahrk // May 28, 2011 - 1:23pm

Except for Fouts, I like your list. Then again, I didn't see Fouts in his prime.

Points: 0

#87 by Dean // May 31, 2011 - 9:28am

I may be putting Fouts on a pedistal. Some of my earliest football memories are of him at the tail end of his prime. The first game I ever bet on (a whopping five cents) was the '81 playoff game against the Dolphins (I had the Dolphins that day and I'm still sore). So maybe I'm artificially inflating him in my mind, but at the same time, I don't think anyone would disagree that he was a truly special player, and since I'm not pretending the list is anything other than my opinion, I'm OK with a possible objectivity-issue there. And the end of the day, though, man Fouts was a hell of a QB. He really was Marino before Marino was Marino.

Points: 0

#22 by Karl Cuba // May 27, 2011 - 3:03pm

One comment on Steve Young's career. I've always felt that his shoulder never really recovered from that brutal hit from Ray Buchanan, he never quite regained the velocity he had before that.

Personally I missed most of Joe's career and all of it with the niners, I've watched the odd game from the Montana era and while I think he's the best qb the niners ever had I think that Steve Young is close and 08 is my favourite 49er player. He was just so scrappy.

Points: 0

#4 by Raiderjoe // May 27, 2011 - 12:56pm

Rank SF qbs
1. Montana
2. Young
3 tittle
4, Brpdie
5. Garcia

That little ledty from the stanford indians frankir albert next in line. Nobofy else worthenfionimg but those 6 covered most of godd yeard anyway.

By the wau empty prmeise make remind of empty beeer bottle which goikg to happem tonight.

Points: 0

#8 by JoshG (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 1:53pm

I'd love to see the tables at the top regarding EBSY plays broken out by how mobile the quarterback is (<200, 200-400, 400+ rushing yards last season maybe?). My hypothesis would be that teams like the eagles with Vick at QB wouldn't be effective because everyone knows it's a run just like teams like Indianapolis because everyone knows it's a pass, but that teams like GB, Chicago, and Pittsburg who have QBs that primarily run, but are plenty mobile enough to get 5-10 yards on a scramble would succeed quite well in EBSY situations.

Points: 0

#9 by fedetn (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 2:01pm

MONTANA: the best quarterback ever...from a lover of Falcons!

Points: 0

#15 by Sophandros // May 27, 2011 - 2:37pm

In reply to by fedetn (not verified)

As a Saints fan, I can say that Montana caused more grief in my childhood than Young did...

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

Points: 0

#82 by fedetn (not verified) // May 30, 2011 - 11:33am

hahaha .. then we cried in two ..
Montana was a fury on us! go Falcons!

Points: 0

#20 by BaronFoobarstein // May 27, 2011 - 2:54pm

In reply to by fedetn (not verified)

If you adjust for era, I'll take Graham as the best QB, or player at any position, of all time.

Points: 0

#23 by Karl Cuba // May 27, 2011 - 3:06pm

I agree that Graham is often overlooked. The two writers who I have the most respect for, Mike Carlson and Paul Zimmerman say that Montana, Graham and Unitas are the best three qbs of all time but it's nearly impossible to say who is the greatest.

Another name that's been missed so far from the lists of all time qbs that are being thrown up here is Sammy Baugh.

Points: 0

#25 by Dean // May 27, 2011 - 3:27pm

I was just getting ready to post those exact two names - Baugh and Graham. I suppose I'd rank those 3 as Unitas, then Baugh, then Graham, but as they were all before my time, it's really rankings based on clips here and there and the written words of others impressions.

Points: 0

#32 by Jim C. (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 4:28pm

Tanier did list Baugh as the all-time best Redskins qb.

Points: 0

#50 by Mike_Tanier // May 28, 2011 - 9:15am

And ... spoiler alert ... Graham will be first for the Browns, though I may take that time to talk a lil more about the AAFC.

Points: 0

#53 by Raiderjoe // May 28, 2011 - 12:58pm

Yes graham no brainer #1 clevelans qb. Numbrr 2 harder to think about. Could be ryan or coild be Sipe. Goimg to have to sit awhile before you get that out.

Points: 0

#60 by Independent George // May 28, 2011 - 2:21pm

Am I correct to assume you will make special mention of the Browns crushing the then-champion Philadelphia Eagles in their first game post-merger?

Points: 0

#64 by Shattenjager // May 28, 2011 - 3:10pm

And more importantly, beating them again later without attempting a pass.

Points: 0

#65 by Mike_Tanier // May 28, 2011 - 3:12pm

I will try to avoid mentioning those games.

Raiderjoe forgot an obvious candidate for Browns #2 QB!

Points: 0

#66 by Raiderjoe // May 28, 2011 - 3:35pm

Kosar? On phonr so will chexk link when get home.

But yes dud forget kosar waelier today.

Also in phi vs cle 2nd meeting in 1950, browns did throw pass but play valled back due to penaltu

Points: 0

#68 by Shattenjager // May 28, 2011 - 4:16pm

I figured it was Milt Plum--he had a four-year stretch as good as anyone's ever had 1958-61 (and in those four years, had more good seasons with the Browns than Kosar had).

Points: 0

#69 by Raiderjoe // May 28, 2011 - 4:42pm

Yes plum very good for a qhile thwre too. Tanier will also have tp conaider b. Nelsen for back end of list.Not good enoigh for top 5 but worth emntion

Points: 0

#104 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 5:00pm

Surely it's Graham, Unitas, Kosar...

Wait, wrong team in Baltimore.

Points: 0

#85 by Anonymous1 (not verified) // May 30, 2011 - 9:22pm

The thing about Graham is that the Browns were so far beyond most teams strategy-wise that trying to adjust for era gives you silly results sometimes. It's a little like looking at Babe Ruth's 1920 stats and saying that because of how he compared to his peers, you could expect him to hit 87 home runs if he played today. Or maybe Wilt Chamberlain in basketball? I don't really know the first guy who was both tall and athletic in basketball.

Points: 0

#86 by BaronFoobarstein // May 31, 2011 - 2:30am

But isn't the point of adjusting for era to highlight how a player played compared to his peers? To take your Babe Ruth example, you wouldn't make the comparison and claim that Babe Ruth would hit 87 home runs if he played today. You would say that Babe Ruth was as good as a player hitting 87 home tuns today would be.

Points: 0

#95 by Kibbles // Jun 01, 2011 - 7:01am

The biggest problem with that is that football stats aren't acquired in as much of a vacuum as baseball stats. Babe Ruth's hitting numbers were really only a function of Babe Ruth and the opposing pitchers he faced. Otto Graham's passing statistics are hugely influenced by the fact that he was literally the only QB in the entire NFL whose linemen knew how to pass block. I mean that in all seriousness- every other team in the league blocked passing plays the exact same way they blocked running plays (everyone just mauled the man in front of him). Meanwhile, Paul Brown, one of the greatest innovators in football history, was the first person to coach his linemen to create a "pocket" of protection. That's just one of the several advantages Graham had that the rest of the NFL had never seen before. It'd be like if Bill Walsh went back in time to the '60s and taught one team everything he learned from the NFL in the '80s and '90s. Otto Graham was quarterbacking a modern passing offense at least one full decade before there was any such thing as a "modern passing offense".

Or you can just do away with the "if Bill Walsh went back in time" narrative and look at Bill Walsh's actual resume. He essentially mentored just three QBs during his coaching career. Those three QBs (Ken Anderson, Joe Montana, Steve Young) rank in the top 10 in era-adjusted statistics, according to most models I've seen. Which do you think is a more likely explanation- that Bill Walsh just happened to stumble unto 3 guys who just happened to be among the top 10 players to ever play their position, or that Bill Walsh's influence had a radical impact on their performance and cause otherwise good or merely-great players to look like all-time greats?

Points: 0

#98 by Jerry // Jun 01, 2011 - 5:34pm

Well said.

Points: 0

#105 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 5:12pm


As for Ruth, to put his 1920 season in perspective (the man lead the league in HRs as a pitcher, which would be like Graham leading Cleveland in tackles), imagine Tom Brady throwing 92 TDs.

Or, normalized for Graham and era, Graham throwing 47 TDs in 1947. Then going for 52 later in his career. That's how far ahead of his era Ruth was.

Points: 0

#12 by Jimmy // May 27, 2011 - 2:26pm

I once read a statement by Steve McMichael who said that Montana was the best QB he ever saw for one simple reason; that from watching his tape (ie all 22 tape in an NFL film room) that he could get through five reads before he got to the base of a three step drop. Now Bill Walsh said Montana's three step drop was for all intents and purposes perfect, he travelled eight yards back from under center in about one and a half seconds (basically sprinting backwards under complete control). Mongo said that he never saw anybody correctly process that much information that quickly.

Points: 0

#56 by Noahrk // May 28, 2011 - 1:30pm

Yeah, that's "it". The three things that come to mind when thinking about Montana are: how he went through his progressions with speed and accuracy, but without any hurry at all; his accuracy; and how if no one were open (and that truly meant no one) he'd simply scramble for the first down.

The most frustrating QB to see on the other side of the field, bar none.

Points: 0

#62 by Bright Blue Shorts // May 28, 2011 - 3:05pm

There you go ... that's the unrecorded measurable that would tell you the difference between Montana and Young (or any other QB).

I seem to recall an article (possibly linked from here) where Bill Belichick said he looks for two things in a QB ... accuracy and decision-making. If you make the right decision and throw the ball accurately you'll have a completion (great defensive play excepted). Accuracy to the wrong receiver, or throwing the ball inaccurately to the right receiver aren't going to be a lot more unsuccessful.

Points: 0

#89 by dryheat // May 31, 2011 - 1:26pm

The years of Brady/Manning comparisons (prior to the Colts SB win) paralleled the Montana/Marino comparisons much in the same fashion -- Manning could make all the throws, and look great doing it, while Brady was the quick decison/accurate short-to-medium passer whose greatest skill couldn't be tangibly measured.

I heard once that the 49ers of Montana practiced on a 50 yard field. That was all the room Montana needed to practice his game.

Points: 0

#93 by Thomas_beardown // May 31, 2011 - 11:24pm

I think most teams have a 50 yard practice field. How often do you think teams practice 70 yard bombs?

Points: 0

#96 by dryheat // Jun 01, 2011 - 11:00am

Probably not that often, but I don't envision most teams practice running plays from their own goal line-to 10 yard line. I would imagine they have full-size practice fields so they can practice plays from different areas of the field.

Points: 0

#100 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 01, 2011 - 11:28pm

It's not a pro team, but I know Illinois's indoor practice facility has only a 50 yard field.

Edit: What field position can you not simulate with a 50 yard field? The only time you couldn't simulate something is if you wanted to run a play designed to go further than 50 yards, which is just about never.

Double Edit: Also, I think you are wrong that teams don't practice from their own goalline. I think that's actually an area of focus for most teams, as it is a high leverage situation.

Points: 0

#103 by dryheat // Jun 02, 2011 - 4:54pm

Re: Double edit...I meant that I didn't think NFL teams practice running plays exclusively from their goal-line to 10 yard line, which they would probably have to do if the field were only 50 yards long.

And I do realize the Coach could place the ball 10 yards from the goal and tell his team that it's the 50 yard line, it's just hard for me to imagine it happening when you could easily have a full-size practice field. Plus I imagine most teams actually run drives in practice. If the O is practicing vs. the D, and the first play goes for 8, I assume they actually walk to the new line of scrimmage and running the next play on 2nd and 2.

However, the only reason I brought this up is I remember it being said during a 49ers game back in the day, and the speaker made it sound like a unique situation. Perhaps he was overselling.

Points: 0

#13 by Raiderjoe // May 27, 2011 - 2:35pm

Montana gerta in 88 nfc title game. Blustery clod day vs Beras vaunted defrnse amd he put on clinic. Probably npt best stat game ever but very impressics considsering stage and venue

Points: 0

#28 by Marko // May 27, 2011 - 3:41pm

Yes, Montana was "gerta" in that game, which as you say was on a "Blustery clod day." As a Bears fan, it was incredibly frustrating to watch him carve up our defense in our stadium in "Bear weather." Meanwhile, the Bears couldn't do anything on offense.

He had so many legendary performances in the postseason. That was just one of them. The 1981 NFC Championship Game against Dallas ("The Catch" wouldn't have happened without an unbelievable play and perfect throw from Montana), Super Bowl XIX (clearly outplaying Marino in the most hyped QB matchup in Super Bowl history), Super Bowl XXIII (leading one of the most memorable drives in Super Bowl history, a 92-yard TD drive in the last few minutes to win the game after pointing out John Candy in the crowd to his teammates in the huddle), Super Bowl XXIV (torching the Broncos in a 55-10 rout), etc.

Points: 0

#57 by Noahrk // May 28, 2011 - 1:33pm

Uhmm... that drive you mention in Super Bowl XXIII? Montana put one between the numbers of a Bengal safety, which was dropped. The safety makes that catch and it's good night 49ers.

Not the best example of Montana at his best, IMO.

Points: 0

#59 by Raiderjoe // May 28, 2011 - 2:09pm

Yesh Lewis billups drop imterception right in breadbasket

Points: 0

#67 by Travis // May 28, 2011 - 3:37pm

The Billups drop came earlier in the 4th quarter, right before Montana threw the TD pass to Rice to tie the score at 13.

Points: 0

#91 by wr (not verified) // May 31, 2011 - 9:24pm

He may have dropped one then, but he definitely dropped one
thrown right to him IIRC the play immediately before
Taylor's catch. I remember almost having a heart attack
when that happened.

Points: 0

#99 by Bright Blue Shorts // Jun 01, 2011 - 6:29pm

The memory plays tricks ... Montana only had one incompletion on that drive ... a high pass out of bounds intended for Rice ...

Here's the play-by-play

Here's the drive http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xyyp6okkFA&feature=related ... with the incompletion at about 3min15

Here's the Billups drop at the start of the 4th quarter that you're remebering ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJFOBI1cZaM

Points: 0

#106 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 5:16pm

Some DBs are WRs who can tackle. Others are WRs who can't catch.

Points: 0

#16 by TheSim (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 2:37pm

I'm surprised you didn't list the stats for the Ravens' EBSY plays. I remember a lot of empty backfield on short-yardage calls by Cam, marked by the sudden explosion of my voice in my living room, though they may have been on 2nd downs more than 3rd or 4th, because Cam Cameron... well, he plays by his own rules. He's a loner, Dottie. A rebel.

Points: 0

#31 by 0tarin // May 27, 2011 - 4:25pm

Amen, my friend. Every time I saw the Ravens empty the backfield, I had to buy a new TV without a bottle-shaped hole in the screen.

Points: 0

#17 by BaronFoobarstein // May 27, 2011 - 2:54pm

When comparing Empty to 1-3 backs it doesn't seem right to exclude the 1 yard attempts from 1-3 backs but keep them in for the Empty. I know the attempt was to exclude "easy" plunges, but 1 yard plays are also easier to get from an empty backfield. A normal 1 yard forward pass isn't a common thing, but consider sneaks and WR screens.

Points: 0

#18 by swami // May 27, 2011 - 2:54pm

I'd like to see stats for handoffs on 2nd and 10 after an incompletion. My gut says that is a sure-fire route to a 4th down punt, and that if you throw an incompletion on 1st down, you should throw on 2nd and 10. My memory says that is a rare call, and that coaches usually call a run after a 1st down incompletion. And I hate that.

Points: 0

#19 by Karl Cuba // May 27, 2011 - 2:54pm

OK Tanier, ripping Frankie Albert is fighting talk! Albert was the lovechild of Jeff Garcia and Gambit and as revenge you will be sent exploding creole parcells of gumbo and jambalaya. (It'll taste great but will be a nightmare to get off the walls.) And as a further tribute to the playcalling style of the riverboat gambler, if it works once then I'll do it over and over again until your defense adjusts.

Points: 0

#21 by Led // May 27, 2011 - 2:57pm

Montana and Young are close enough that you probably need to look at the supporting cast. My guess is that this gives Montana a bump up as he had a number of years without Jerry Rice. Dwight Clark was no slouch, but there's only one GOAT. I could be wrong, but I feel like, overall, the 49ers were more dominant talent-wise during the Young era.

Points: 0

#24 by Karl Cuba // May 27, 2011 - 3:09pm

I'd agree that the Young era might have had more offensive talent but the Montana era probably had better defenses. Plus Montana had the advantage of running an offense that the league hadn't seen before for a couple of seasons.

Points: 0

#27 by Keith Olberman… (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 3:33pm

I consider Montana and Young among the greatest quarterbacks of all-time with a very slight nod to Young. Montana's 49ers won the 1981 super bowl without a running game, something that Marino couldn't do.

Brodie looks like a solid 3rd choice. According to PFR every team in the NFL Western Conference was above average while every team in the Eastern Conference was below average. In the mid-1960's I would upgrade QB's Starr, Unitas, Brodie, Tarkenton, and Gabriel. I would downgrade Frank Ryan, Meredith, Morrall, and Jurgensen.

Points: 0

#41 by BigWoody (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 6:49pm

I agree with Brodie for a solid 3rd. I grew up in Wisconsin so the Packers (with Starr) were naturally the favorite team of my youth. But my second most favorite team was the 49ers. Due, I think, to the entertaining play of John Brodie. A Brodie lead offence was just flat fun to watch. But as good as he was on the field, John Brodie was even better in the broadcast booth after he hung up his cleats.

Points: 0

#58 by Noahrk // May 28, 2011 - 1:36pm

Marino couldn't do it because he played Montana in the SB and a 49ers team that had both a running game and a defense, while Miami only had a little of either.

Points: 0

#35 by The Other Ben … (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 4:59pm

Can we investigate non-goal line running plays on 3rd and 6 or longer? I'm curious to know how often the coaches decided to punt on 4th down after a failed conversion, what field position ramifications such plays might produce, if such play calls increase effectiveness of play action later in the game, and basically if it's ever a good idea.

Points: 0

#37 by mm (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 5:23pm

Most of the Saint's EBSY plays probably had a RB in the game. Likely only Bush last year, but I think Pierre Thomas has lined up at WR occasionally in previous years.

Also, Dave Thomas can play both fullback and tight end. So the defenses have to respect that the personnel on the field can line up in the "I" formation.

So there is still deception when they lined up empty, which partly accounts for their success. The other is that Brees is good and his receivers & TE's know how to run routes for him.

Points: 0

#38 by Dan // May 27, 2011 - 5:24pm

"I could have done something more technical, sorting the data by field zone and breaking everything down by yards-to-go, but that 184-item data set isn't very big, and I didn't want to run the risk of measuring the instruments."

You could have left the empty backfield data set as is, and only messed around with the other (much larger) data set. Basically, you'd be calculating how well teams would have done with backs in the backfield if the types of situations that they faced had the same distribution as the types of situations that teams faced on their empty backfield plays. So, if 8% of empty backfield plays came in such-and-such a situation, you'd look at how teams did with backs in the backfield in that situation and weight those plays so that they accounted for 8% of the total.

Points: 0

#42 by Nathan // May 27, 2011 - 7:05pm

If the play started with a back who was motioned out did you consider it ESBY? I would not, especially with Bush, or Faulk, or Jackson etc. Still not a fan of ESBY on 3rd down, definitely not on 4th down.

Was there an obvious correlation between efficiency of the run game and number of ESBY calls? Offensive system? Eagles having only 7 surprises me, seems like Vick would be such a threat on his own you could spread them even further with another receiver. Though to the eye it did seem like Vick was much less effective on designed runs than broken plays last year.

As an aside, I would love to see an article about the Vick effect on McCoy, who's development last year seemed phenomenal. He looked like a top 5 back in the league (CJ, AP, AF, JC, LM?).

Points: 0

#78 by Duke // May 29, 2011 - 6:08pm

The standard FO play charting metric is to mark the number of players at the time of the snap. So, a RB motioning outside would go down as an ESBY.

Points: 0

#107 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 5:18pm

I seem to recall that Eagles ran a lot of I-formation on 4th and short this year, and ran single-back a lot on 3rd.

Points: 0

#43 by QQ (not verified) // May 27, 2011 - 7:22pm

"If you adjust for era, I'll take Graham as the best QB, or player at any position, of all time"

I'll see your Graham and raise you with a Don Hutson as greatest player at any position of All Time.

For all the talk about Montana being so clutch, he only compiled a .500 record in NFC Championship Games and even was knocked out of one. Montana has to be knocked some for at least his non elite durability.

Points: 0

#97 by Scott P. (not verified) // Jun 01, 2011 - 4:41pm

I don't know of any QB who wouldn't get knocked out of a NFC game if Lawrence Taylor broke their elbow.

Points: 0

#114 by Dales // Jun 03, 2011 - 2:15pm

That Leonard Marshall hit remains one of the most brutal sacks I have ever seen. Montana normally had eyes on the back of his head, but he was about the only one who did not see the train coming.

Points: 0

#108 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 5:21pm

Hutson might be the most efficient player ever, but his utilization rate wasn't high.

Points: 0

#112 by Kibbles // Jun 03, 2011 - 4:45am

Compared to what? You'd be hard-pressed to find many (if any) receivers with a higher utilization rate. He generally accounted for just under half of his team's passing offense, and don't forget that he was by all accounts a pretty solid DB, to boot- he led the league in INTs in 1940 and finished with 30 for his career. And he kicked field goals and extra points, and led the league in scoring in 5 out of his 11 seasons.

Might Green Bay's offense have been more efficient if they'd leaned even more heavily on Hutson? Sure, but that doesn't mean that they weren't already leaning on him more than the overwhelming majority of NFL receivers have ever been leaned on.

Points: 0

#113 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 03, 2011 - 1:19pm

He had a very high utilization rate for an NFL WR in the 50s and 60s. But that's like having a high usage rate for a FB today. As a percentage of offensive plays, he didn't get the ball all that often.

Points: 0

#116 by Kibbles // Jun 04, 2011 - 5:20am

Percentage of offensive plays isn't really the best way to go, here, because it doesn't weight the TYPE of usage. If a WR gets targeted on 4 bombs, while an RB gets 8 plunges on 3rd and 1, the RB has twice as high of a usage rate in terms of plays, but I'd say the WR was a more integral part of the team's game plan, since he likely walked away with twice as much yardage.

From 1939-1945, Hutson accounted for 25%, 20%, 22%, 32%, 23%, 29%, and 29% of his team's total offense (and an even higher percentage of their total points). At the peak of the "Randy Ratio" (2001-2003), Randy Moss accounted for 24%, 22%, and 26% of his team's total offense. In 2008 and 2009 when Andre Johnson led the league in receiving yardage, he accounted for 26% and 26% of his team's total offense. Hell, even in 2002 when Peyton was physically incapable of throwing to anyone other than Marvin Harrison, Marvin accounted for 31% of his team's offense- less than Hutson's best season.

Don Hutson was accounting for as high of a percentage of his team's offense as the absolute Hall of Fame Ball-Hoggiest of the Ball-Hogging receivers today, but he was doing it as a receiving target in an era where nobody threw the damn ball. And, as I said, he was also playing defensive back and kicking extra points. While Green Bay probably could have (and should have) used him more, Don Hutson is not even remotely analogous to Mike Alstott of the early 2000s. He didn't have a high usage rate for a WR in the 1940s, he had a high usage rate for *ANY* WR in *ANY* era *EVER*.

Points: 0

#44 by Raiderjoe // May 27, 2011 - 7:48pm

football tough to pcik one guy like that espeiclaly now because is sport of specialists. Baugh or Hutson fine picks for bets of all time bebcauuse did play offensen and defense. Baugh once intercept 4 passes in game.

M. Motley excellent runner, also very good LBer. C. Bednarik gerat cnter, greta linebacker.

How to compare those all around guys to J. Rice who only play WR and L. Taylor who only play linebacker. Very tough thing to do.

Guys beofore 1950 were football players. Guys after 1950= specialists in football.

Points: 0

#47 by justanothersteve // May 27, 2011 - 11:23pm

Baugh also had the top punting average ever until Shane Lechler. Depending on how long Lechler plays, Baugh may reclaim that title.

Points: 0

#109 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 5:25pm

Which explains many of the NFL highlight films before the pre-War period -- very slow runners breaking a lot of really poor tackles. It's not like Don Hutson was fast. =) And it was weird watching FBs running away from DBs.

Points: 0

#45 by JonFrum // May 27, 2011 - 7:59pm

I've heard a Boston media guy talking about Belichick breaking down Montana and Young in a film session he did every year for reporters (yes, he actually does that). He said that Belichick showed a pass play where Young didn't make the throw. Then Montana, same play, and he puts the ball on the numbers. And then Belichick says "And that's why we were afraid of Montana, and not Young."

So either Belichick is telling it straight, and he wasn't impressed by Young as a player, or else Young kicked his dog once, and he's been pissed ever since.

Points: 0

#46 by Dales // May 27, 2011 - 10:12pm

Or, he was impressed by Young but not scared by him, because of confidence in himself and his team. While being scared of Montana.

Points: 0

#48 by t.d. // May 28, 2011 - 7:48am

Jimmy Johnson also said things at the time that indicated the Cowboys felt they could exploit Young's weaknesses.

Points: 0

#49 by Sean McCormick // May 28, 2011 - 9:11am

I'm slightly on the Young bandwagon, but I don't necessarily put the same kind of onus on postseason success that others do. (Which is probably why I think Dan Marino was better than either of them.)

Anyway, the greatest game I ever saw Montana play was actually when he was in Kansas City and he took a mediocre Chiefs team into Houston and beat what was an excellent and aggressive Buddy Ryan defense. Montana took a beating, but you could see him figuring out the defense as the game went along, and in the second half he just took everything that was there to take. It was really quite a performance. If I'm not mistaken, that was his second-to-last game, as he got drilled in Buffalo the next week in the AFC Championship.

Points: 0

#51 by Dales // May 28, 2011 - 10:08am

His work with the Chiefs, when he was supposedly over the hill and broken down and on the way out, with them having a very uninspiring offensive supporting cast, was very impressive. He got them within a game of the Super Bowl, [edit] as you mentioned above, unable to get by a very good Bills team.

Even though we disagree on his ranking relative to Marino, is it safe to say you agree that Montana was better than his (already impressive) stats would lead one to believe?

Points: 0

#63 by Shattenjager // May 28, 2011 - 3:08pm

The best (And, in a way, the worst, since the #!#$ing Chiefs won.) football game I've ever seen was when he was with the Chiefs: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199410170den.htm

If I recall correctly, both teams had potential game-winning drives in the last four minutes. The Broncos scored with about a minute and a half to go and then the Chiefs came back and won it on the next drive. Watching Wade Phillips's defense get shredded at the end, I remember my dad saying that Bowlen was probably negotiating Mike Shanahan's contract as head coach before the game even ended.

It was partly fantastic because both QBs were really excellent (especially late in the game) with no supporting cast:
Montana had Marcus Allen, Willie Davis, and Kimble Anders, who were decent but nothing special.
Elway had the lesser Sharpe, who was very good, and Anthony Miller, who was the Braylon Edwards of his day (could burn people deep and had days when he caught well enough to be scary but also had days when he couldn't catch a cold). However he also had Glyn Milburn, who was always capable of undermining the entire offense with his fumbling and sheer idiocy on punt returns.

I do want to make this one comment as well somewhere: People seem to be really underestimating how good Montana's stats are. The last time that Chase Stuart did a statistical "Greatest QB of All Time" ranking on p-f-r, Montana was number one (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=3520, though he would probably be surpassed by Manning now). Even before he added schedule and weather adjustments and postseason numbers, Montana was number four (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=3378, rather humorously almost identical to Steve Young). I really don't see how this "he's underrated by statistics" argument works.

Points: 0

#70 by Dales // May 28, 2011 - 5:33pm

Absolutely. And it is why I still think of him as the best ever. Past his prime, with an inferior cast, facing other titans, he won. That game, versus Elway. That game, versus Young. It wasn't just that his teams won, nor won at the end thanks to Montana. It was that everyone in the freaking world damned near expected him to do it.

Situations where it was a 1 in 1,000 type of deal, he converted at a 1 in 2 fashion, if not better. He did not always win, but the number of times the Niners or Chiefs lost because of him was infinitesimally small, and the rate at which he won impossible games was like a coin flip, and the rate at which he won coin-flip games felt like 90%.

People seem to be really underestimating how good Montana's stats are.

I think if you look back up in this thread, I said pretty much just this. He's in the ballpark of 'greatest of all time' on the numbers alone. But he was so much more than the numbers. Does it make him the best of all time? I don't know. It seems that way to me.

But damned he was fun to watch. Even if you wanted another team to win it all.

Points: 0

#52 by Spielman // May 28, 2011 - 12:16pm

"If I'm not mistaken, that was his second-to-last game, as he got drilled in Buffalo the next week in the AFC Championship."

His second-to-last game that season, but not overall. He played another year in 1994 that ended with a playoff loss to the Dolphins in which Montana played quite well.

Points: 0

#61 by phillyangst // May 28, 2011 - 2:26pm

I'm interested in knowing how often teams run a screen pass on first down and how effective is it? Also, do teams blitz more on 2nd and long and what type of blitz is used?

"DVOA loves Philadelphia!"

Points: 0

#71 by Dave in Tucson (not verified) // May 29, 2011 - 12:24am

Based on what [Montana and Young] "could" do, Young is better

When theres a disconnect between "could do" and "did do", the latter has to win every time. Montana won four Super Bowls (and in 84, faced the Parcells-era Giants and Ditka-era Bears to get there and then beat Marino at the hight of his powers)

The 49er's record in the playoffs under Steve Young pales by comparison (1-2 vs the the Aikman/Smith/Irvin Cowboys, 1(*)-3 vs the Favre/White Packers).

(*) Rice fumbled

Points: 0

#74 by Packer Pete (not verified) // May 29, 2011 - 8:12am

CLEARLY fumbled.

Points: 0

#79 by DisplacedPackerFan // May 29, 2011 - 10:07pm

Oh that play pissed me off so much. I sooo wanted instant replay for that; it was so obviously a fumble!

Points: 0

#72 by Nietzche (not verified) // May 29, 2011 - 2:30am

It's a team game! It's a team game! It's a team game! It's a team game! It's a team game! It's a team game! It's a team game! It's a team game!

Your "best ever" lists of individual players are meaningless.

Points: 0

#73 by Thomas_beardown // May 29, 2011 - 6:38am

What's more meaningless in the end, the meaningless list or the comment on the meaningless list?

Also, I find your point meaningless. Yes, football is a team game, and yes this means it is very difficult to separate out specific player quality, but it's not impossible. Joe Montana would be better than Ryan Leaf no matter what their teammates looked like.

Points: 0

#83 by Noahrk // May 30, 2011 - 2:22pm

Complaining is meaningless. If you don't like the lists, don't read them.

Points: 0

#84 by Theo // May 30, 2011 - 5:38pm

Most genius/most moronic reply ever.

Points: 0

#75 by starzero // May 29, 2011 - 10:16am

when i was growing up, our local radio station referred somewhat sarcastically to joe "christ in cleats" montana but i still assumed he was something great. by the time i appreciated football outside of the colts the niners were drafting alex smith....

hail damage

Points: 0

#76 by screwup // May 29, 2011 - 2:36pm

Most of you are not old enough to know the story of what a great athlete John Brodie was in his day. He was a great running back in college. Drafted to play RB for the 49ers. He crashed his 442 on the Bayshore freeway and was injured very badly. When he came back he became a quarterback. A very good quarterback.


Points: 0

#77 by Raiderjoe // May 29, 2011 - 4:37pm

Poster confuse Brodie with Billy Kilmer. Kilemr excellent RB @ UCLa. Started NFL carerre as halfback for S.F. 49ers. Then get in car wreck and miss whole 1963 seaosn. Playeyd in 1964 and then miss all of 1965. Was bacjup in 1966. Go to expansion Saimts in 1967 and finally get regulalr shot as quarterbakc.

Points: 0

#90 by dryheat // May 31, 2011 - 1:38pm

As always, come for the typos, stay for the history lesson.

Points: 0

#80 by DisplacedPackerFan // May 29, 2011 - 10:20pm

I can't find the article but the Packers did more 5 wide than any other team in the league by a wide margin, and I believe they started with 5 wide out of the huddle (so not motioning a back out wide) more than all other teams in the league combined.

I got to the point where I wasn't nervous about it. Rodgers even lobbied for it mid season before Kuhn had any success (what little he actually had) and the running game was just atrocious. I actually thought they were better in the EBSY situations than they they actually were, but I did miss a couple of games this year.

Of course this team also probably employed more "full house" backfields than most teams either. Was it Tanier on here who said McCarthy hasn't met a formation he didn't like? I'm hoping he disproves that this year and never uses the wildcat even though he has Randall Cobb. Other than that first year or when Miami was the only NFL team really using it, I've generally felt that formation at any down and distance was a less efficient use of a down.

Points: 0

#81 by Thomas_beardown // May 30, 2011 - 1:42am

When Miami has Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams their wildcat still works quite well. The Jets have occasional success with their direct snap packages as well. As with most (all?) schemes it's all about personnel and commitment. A lot of teams just halfheartedly try a few snaps of it a year. The lack of familiarity with the plays that the team running them outweighs any advantage they would gain from possible surprise.

Points: 0

#110 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 5:37pm

What's the harm? If you run it occasionally, the other team needs to take the time to plan for it.

The trick to the Wildcat is that you need to occasionally pass from it for it to work.

Points: 0

#111 by DisplacedPackerFan // Jun 02, 2011 - 6:30pm

And you need to take the time to practice it. Most teams that run it every now and then are also having to devote practice time to it as well. If it, as I suspect, for most teams produces fewer yards per play (like the empty backfield has been shown to do in this article) it then hurts your chance to win as I don't think you gain that much from the defense having to prepare for it. Sure it comes down to personnel, the Packers had the players to make empty backfield work better for them. A QB that can scramble and read the whole field, a group of receivers that will generally win one on one battles so the chances of one of them being open is high, etc. Even with Cobb and a healthy Grant (or the skill I expect Alex Green to have) I don't think they have the players to run an effective wildcat. So if they ran it, it would really feel like a gimmick that likely would have less chance at success than another offensive set.

Again I'd just like to see some of the numbers since I very well could have selection bias against that wildcat. Also the better your starting the QB the less sense that formation makes to me. Why do I want to take the ball out of Brady's, Manning's, Rodger's hands? Do I really gain that much advantage. The Packers don't do many WR run plays and I think that is good because they don't have linemen who are good at the blocking that is required for that, though this could change with the younger more mobile tackles, and while they have very good receivers who are all good at running after the catch, I don't consider any of them as really explosive, though again that could be changing as well.

I think part of the Packers offensive inconsistency was in part due to the high number of formations they used and some lack of practice with them. Though if they have less full back types (which I suspect is likely) then perhaps they may have better personnel for the wildcat than I think and maybe they replace some of their heavy backfield packages with it, since the trick to a heavy backfield that they ran a few times was also to pass out of it from time to time, which they did. Of course DJ Williams, Cobb, and Alex Green give them more options for that too. So I'd still rather see them tune that formation for more options than try wildcat stuff. The risks seem lower than having someone other than Rodgers passing the ball, though perhaps the rewards are smaller as well.

Points: 0

#115 by Dan // Jun 04, 2011 - 12:45am

The trick to the Wildcat is that you need a great offensive line. That's why it worked for Miami (for a couple years), and that's why Cleveland's flash package w. Cribbs worked for them.

Points: 0

#88 by DP (not verified) // May 31, 2011 - 12:09pm

Sorry to come late to the discussion. As a 49er fan for the last 25 years or so, I have put far too much time into thinking about Montana and Young. I love Young, but you cannot compare him to Joe Montana:

- Montana won and was MVP of two Super Bowls before they drafted Jerry Rice, then won two more with him. Young had Rice in his prime as long as he played for SF.

- Young had one great post-season, the year he won a Super Bowl. Other than that, he was a disappointing post-season QB. I watched every one of those games, and he did not look like a Hall-of-Famer at all, other than the post-1994 run. Montana had four great postseasons, resulting in championships, and also lost two close NFC title games on last-second field goals. When Young lost in January, it was never close.

Points: 0

#94 by ESBY conclusion (not verified) // Jun 01, 2011 - 2:49am

"Losing 10 points of completion percentage and 0.8 yards per throw is enough to scare me away from using a particular tactic. It's interesting that sack rates go down in EBSY situations. That probably has to do with play design: Teams opt for quick throws when they need short yardage from an empty backfield, whereas there are a lot of slow-developing play-action passes in the other set. Still, the data contradicts one of my fears -- pass protection does not suffer much from EBSY tactics."

Well, except for teams losing 10% of completion percentage, pass pro doesn't suffer at all because there's no way you'd have QB's on 3rd down getting rid of the ball instead of taking a sack because there are definate rules about intentionally throwing incomplete passes in the NFL rule book and i cannot imagine players ever trying to skirt around rules just so their team can win.

The other option is: Teams are FORCED INTO quick throws when they need short yardage from an empty backfield because the pass pro is suffering, which causes the completion % to drop. When there's an empty backfield, there's a higher potential for the pass pro to breakdown, so QB's are getting rid of the ball quicker and accuracy is suffering. Also I haven't the numbers, but i imagine that QB's are more likely to be in shotgun in EBSY, giving them more opportunity to see the defence if the pass pro breaks down.

Its an ok start, but from here, to get something decent:
- Break out the EBSY into vs.3-4 and vs.4-3
- Break out the EBSY into shotgun and under centre
- Break out the EBSY with/without Pressures and QB Hits
- Break out the EBSY into number of blitzers

Points: 0

#102 by Oxnate (not verified) // Jun 02, 2011 - 3:25pm

While you're looking at the 2nd and short play action bomb, also look at the 3rd and short PAB. It's a Packers' favorite although I cringe ever time they run it.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Mike
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and . Use promo code TANIER to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Mike.