Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

by Mike Tanier


It is only Day Two of OCA's -- Offseason Chaotic Activities -- and I have already lost my marbles. The RSS feed is stuffing me like a foie gras goose. Transaction news is not supposed to come fired from a Gatling gun. Four or five major news items per team, per day? It's too much.

In the time it takes to tweet a story, you miss a story. In the time it takes to report a story, you miss two stories. In the time it takes to craft a well-thought-out opinion about a team's decision, two things change to render your opinion obsolete. Four things are probably happening while I type this. I have a bathroom break scheduled for the Giants bye week.

Yes, I am covering Giants camp right now for The New York Times. It's like immersion therapy in an over-boiling kettle. The experienced beat writers are laboring to keep up. One of them confessed to simply tweeting "The Giants" and never finishing the thought. News broke while he was in the act of typing.

When Twitter is too slow and measured a medium for communication, we are screwed, folks.

Donovan McNabb to the Vikings, for two sixth-round picks? The Shanahans sure know how to drive up a guy's trade value! Matt Hasselbeck to the Titans? With his distinctive voice and hard-luck story, he could be the biggest, baldest thing to hit Nashville since Kenny Chesney. Tarvaris Jackson to Seattle? Tarvaris Jackson to anywhere?

Those stories are old news. By the time you read this sentence, a dozen more interesting stories will break. And by the time you read this, four more.

Plaxico Burress may be on the Giants by Saturday, or maybe the Steelers. I hoped to come up with a tabloid-style nickname for Burress and Tom Coughlin: PlaxiTom, or PlaxiCough, or Coughlico. Our own Vince Verhei said that PlaxiCough "sounds like a cold medicine you'd find on the bottom shelf at Wal-Mart," which means it cannot even get JaMarcus Russell buzzed. The overwhelming majority of Twitter responders, four of them, voted for Coughlico, so that is what I am sticking with.

Coughlico came to mind after Justin Tuck told reporters that Burress and Coughlin could "rekindle the love they share for each other." So Friday night's dinner between the two will be candlelit. After Tuck's outdoor press conference, the Giants reporters discovered that we were locked out of the complex. The Lockout was back! None of us bothered to prop the pressroom door with the wastepaper basket. Yes, that is really how we do it. So a dozen beat writers and cameramen banged on windows and texted Giants employees until a security guy took pity on us. Just like that, the lockout was lifted for the second time in just over 48 hours.

Forty-eight hours? That's how long ago the lockout ended? (More like 51 as I write this). It feels like three weeks. I have had hangovers that lasted 48 hours. Imagine getting a bad case of the flu on Sunday night and staying on strict bed rest until Wednesday morning. You wake up in a world where DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell are buddies, when Coughlico is an item, where McNabb is a Viking and John Beck and Tarvaris Jackson are likely NFL starters. You would probably want to do a few shots of Plaxicough and return to sizzurp slumbers.

And camp hasn't even started yet.

It's Thursday now. Albert Haynesworth to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick? The Redskins are going to own Day Three of the draft next year! Reggie Bush to the Dolphins? Bush and Ricky Williams cannot occupy the same space:
They are matter and antimatter. Williams will be gone by the time you read this.

Times are crazy for everyone. The Giants signed undrafted rookie linebacker Mark Herzlich on Tuesday. Herzlich overcame bone cancer to return to the field for Boston College last year. So he got the phone call early on Tuesday, and by Wednesday he was on a plane. By midmorning, he was in an airport shuttle with two other rookies: Iowa safety David Sims and Georgia Tech safety Jarrard Tarrant. The rookies tweeted that they were alternately stuck in traffic or going a little too fast. "This driver is driving like a bat out of hell," Sims Tweeted, using the hashtags "#buckleup" and "#carsick." Tarrant reported that Herzlich was signing autographs while getting his physical. The rookies saw Michael Strahan shopping in a Ferrari store and went straight to their smart phones, perhaps not realizing that they will see Eli Manning and Justin Tuck and maybe Coughlico in a few days. Then they reached team headquarters, and were too busy to tweet for a while.

That's what the last week has been like. We were stuck in traffic, for five months, and then for that harrowing week when lockout rumors changed every 10 minutes but signified nothing. Then we were suddenly going like a bat out of hell. We can gawk at free-agent moves, but only while speeding past them on the Interstate. And even if tweeting about football is your job, there will be times when you are too busy covering football to even cover football.

Buckle up.


Conclusion to the Quarterback Top Fives, Part One

If I could have one quarterback in history to get me through one game, I would select Joe Montana.

If I could have one quarterback in history to get me through a contemporary season or series of seasons, I would select Peyton Manning.

I don't believe in magical "winner sauce," but I think it's contrary to ignore the fact that Montana was very successful in Super Bowls and other "big" games. He was also pretty damn successful in small games, so I want both his talent and any tangible grace under fire he possesses if I am trying to win one important game. I want Manning's durability and his ability to be a centerpiece and framework for a system if I need a quarterback for the long haul.

But I only want Manning if we are playing contemporary football -- modern fields, modern rules.

Say you needed a quarterback who could succeed in any era, under any conditions. One week you are playing 2011-style football. The next week it is 1977 -- receivers are getting mauled, and a late hit is something that happens on Tuesday. The next week it is 1938, guys have to play two ways, and the team might not make payroll. Under those conditions, I want either John Elway or Roger Staubach. Both ran well enough to succeed in any era. Elway could punt. I can see either one playing free safety pretty well. Elway was more durable and athletic, but if the field is a mud pile and I have to explain to players that they won't get paid until next Friday, I want Staubach there to rally them onto the field.

That's the issue with the "greatest quarterback ever." Modern quarterbacks are technicians. Early quarterbacks were field lieutenants. That concept came to a head when we were discussing Manning and Johnny Unitas a few weeks ago. I want to look at that again in a little more detail.

Conclusion to the Quarterback Top Fives, Part Two

The year is 1955. Marty is the Academy Award winner for best picture. Otto Graham is the NFL MVP. The Lawrence Welk Show, Gunsmoke, and The Mickey Mouse Club all debut on television. Calling 1955 a "simpler time" is patronizing and inaccurate, but it was a different time. Gas cost 23 cents per gallon, and so on.

Lamar McHan was the starting quarterback of the Chicago Cardinals in 1955. He was the second overall draft pick out of Arkansas in 1954. He threw six touchdowns and 21 interceptions as a rookie. According to John Maxymuk's Quarterback Abstract, the Cardinals ran an option-like offense out of the T-formation in those days, and McHan was well regarded as a runner and pitchman. The numbers bear this out. In 1955, he attempted just 207 passes in 11 starts while rushing 56 times for a team with 438 total running plays. McHan gained 194 yards on the ground, but he was dreadful as a passer -- a 37.7 percent completion rate, 11 touchdowns, 19 interceptions. Those are dreadful numbers in any era, even the mid-1950s

In 1956, McHan's stats improved but his attitude didn't. After the Cardinals lost two games in three weeks (after a 4-0 start), he had a mini-meltdown, ignoring the plays coming in from the sidelines and refusing to re-enter the game after a brief benching. The team fined him and suspended him, but amazingly kept him around as a starter. He led the Cardinals to a 3-9 record in 1957 and a 2-9-1 record in 1958, averaging 7-to-9 completions per start for a team that spent a lot of fourth quarters trying to catch up.

McHan was traded to the Packers, where he battled Bart Starr for playing time for a few years. McHan started four games for the 1960 Packers team that lost to the Eagles in the NFL Championship. He went 4-0 as a starter despite completing 36.5 percent of his passes. (Sample "all he does is win" stat line: 6-of-14, 86 yards, one passing touchdown and a 35-yard rushing touchdown in a 35-21 over the Colts.) Sometime after completing four passes in a victory over the Steelers, McHan called Vince Lombardi a "dago" and was traded. He hung around the league for a few more years, playing for good teams. The ideal backup in the 1960s was not really a scrambler who ignored plays and spewed racial slurs. McHan settled down as he aged, and after his playing career was a coach in college and the pros for many years.

Is there any modern quarterback who resembles McHan? The scrambling, meltdowns, and second chances remind me of Vince Young. Young is better than McHan, I think, but there are enough similarities to make the comparison fair.

McHan wasn't a quarterback in college. He was a single-wing tailback who ran 332 times and passed 421 times in his Arkansas career. He also punted and returned punts. This article by Leroy Morganti includes a cool jump-passing football card of McHan and a description of some of McHan's coaching and playing exploits. Morganti compares McHan to Darren McFadden, which makes sense because the single wing was a lot like the Wildcat. It's not an oversimplification to say that the Chicago Cardinals took a McFadden-like talent and converted him into a running quarterback, something that would have fans scratching their heads (and screaming at talk radio hosts) if it were attempted today.

McHan was the worst starting quarterback of his era who held a job for any appreciable period of time. His teams were terrible except the 1956 team, which he mutinied against. Retroactively apply a quarterback rating, and he usually finished 11th or 12th in a 12-team league. His rushing value slipped after 1956. As for his character, leadership, and whatnot, read the bit about Lombardi again and get back to me. He kept his starting job for years because the Cardinals were a terrible organization and he was the kind of great overall athlete who always gets second chances no matter what horrible things he does.

The 12th-best quarterback in the NFL last year according to DYAR was Kyle Orton. DVOA prefers Drew Brees, who had an off-year turnover-wise. Brees also finished 12th in rating, between Matt Ryan and David Garrard. Ryan finished 12th in the adjusted net-yards-per-attempt metric used over at Pro Football Reference, with Joe Flacco and Eli Manning flanking him. If we polled readers to figure out who the 12th best quarterback in the NFL was in 2010, factoring in career production and potential, we would probably get a lot of votes for guys like Flacco, Ryan, and Eli, with some Orton or Garrard sprinkled in among up-and-comers like Sam Bradford (12th in yards, by the way) and Josh Freeman, or some fading guys like Carson Palmer.

None of those players bears even a surface similarity to McHan. They are all far superior, by any meaningful standard. If we squeeze and crunch McHan's skill set as far as it will possibly go, we are left with Young or Alex Smith, another running quarterback from a hinky college offense who clings for dear life to his starting job. (Smith has also had head-butts with coaches over play calls, though they seem to have been at least partially the coach's fault, as they may have been for McHan's in Chicago). It takes some mental gymnastics to bring McHan even that far: We're adding about 40 percent to his career completion percentages, for one thing.

The argument on the message boards a few weeks ago involved whether the worst quarterback in the NFL in 1958 (or 1955, which I chose because it was Unitas' draft year) should be compared to the 12th-best quarterback in 2010, because he was, by default, the 12th-best quarterback in the universe at that point.

It was a cool debate on the abstract level. Let's take it to the concrete level. Explain where Lamar McHan would rank among modern quarterbacks. Next to Matt Ryan or Eli Manning? Down with Young and Alex Smith? Lower? Would he be playing running back?

The best answer may be to conclude that McHan is different from modern quarterbacks. There were different expectations, and teams had different financial issues and different ways of assembling talent. We cannot blunderbuss into 1950s passing statistics with 2011 mindsets and start making blanket statements, or worse, statistical adjustments. We are in an era of Mouseketeers and single-wing tailbacks and Chicago Cardinals. It was a different time.

How different? Let me take another example from 1955: Charlie Conerly. You may think I cherry-picked McHan from the bottom of the barrel to illustrate my point, but Conerly was the damn Marlboro Man, and he nearly made it into the Hall of Fame. In 1955, Conerly finished third in the NFL in passer rating (retroactively) at 64.2. He threw 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, completed 48.5 percent of his passes, and played for a well-run Giants team with a half-decent coaching staff we will get to in a moment.

Conerly was not the Giants starting quarterback, despite leading the team with 202 attempts.

Don Heinrich was the Giants' starter. He was a skinny second-year quarterback who had little in common with the 34-year-old future Marlboro Man he shared his job with. Heinrich started eight games to Conerly's four, but only threw 67 passes. The Giants started experimenting with a two-quarterback strategy in 1955: Heinrich played the first few series to "probe the defense for weaknesses" while Conerly watched the proceedings from the sidelines. Then, usually by the end of the first quarter, Conerly entered the game to reap the fruits of Heinrich's probing.

What idiotic forerunner to Rich Kotite kept an obviously superior quarterback on the bench for almost a quarter of a game so a less-experienced subordinate could poke and prod? None other than McHan's favorite Italian American: Vince Lombardi. Lombardi was the offensive coordinator of those Giants, Tom Landry the defensive coordinator. They went 6-5-1 that year ... can you imagine? The Heinrich-Conerly tandem was not some Matt Leinart-Kurt Warner situation. Lombardi was not trying to nurture an unwilling or unable young prospect. The two-quarterback experiment continued through 1956, when Heinrich started 12 games and threw 88 passes. Lombardi was still futzing with it in 1958, though both quarterbacks hated it. Heinrich and Conerly each started six games that year, with Connerly throwing three times as many passes.

So if you want to normalize statistics from 1958 (a Unitas MVP year) to some 12-team standard, you must acknowledge that the No. 7 quarterback in rating, one of two guys who would figure in the "median," was not quite technically his team's starter. Furthermore, that not-quite-starter played for a 9-3 team and took orders from the greatest coach of all-time, an indication that, however loopy Lombardi's strategy looks now, there had to be some merit to it in 1950s football. As for the theory that the 12 starting quarterbacks of 1958 are automatically somehow equals to the top 12 starters of today, we must somehow account for Heinrich. Where do we rank him? How do we rank him?

Saying that "comparisons between eras are impossible and worthless" may be intellectually honest and accurate to a degree, but it is also academic and boring. It's fun to try to compare Lamar McHan to Jake Plummer! So for the last two months, I made a point of doing so as subjectively as possible. I understand historic quarterback stats better than any sane person should, which is why I used them with a grain of salt. And I operated under a simple premise: A great quarterback in any era (after the two platoon system came around, at least) is a great quarterback. The worst quarterback in the league in 1955 or 1975 is roughly equivalent to the worst quarterbacks now. An average quarterback -- statistically, or by other evidence like career length and shape -- is average in any era. Old guys get no bonus for playing in small leagues, nor do they get dinged for being smaller and running simpler offenses. And we don't play the "modern strength and conditioning" game, because it opens questions that cannot be answered. McHan, for instance, probably grew up in a house with no refrigerator. That probably had on impact on his overall athleticism.

My premise rarely mattered, because we are most interested in the special guys: Unitas, Manning, Montana, Staubach, Elway, Otto Graham, Dan Marino, and so on. They have great stats, they have great records, and they also have uniqueness. When comparing legends to legends, that uniqueness matters. It suggests that they were doing something no one else was doing. Some players were unique without being "inner circle" great, like Randall Cunningham, and some players became legends despite not being incredibly unique, like Bart Starr. But then there are those special guys. Maybe they were running a modern offense in an ancient era, or calling most of their own plays in an era no one was doing it, or throwing for 4,000 yards a decade before it was commonplace, or coming back from the Vietnam War to win Super Bowls. You can add your own player or two to the list, or maybe subtract one, but we all have our inner circle, and they got there because they did something we think few humans could ever do.

The players in those inner circles are simply great. Putting them in order is a matter of personal choice.


61 comments, Last at 06 Aug 2011, 9:33am

2 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

"which means it cannot even get JaMarcus Russell buzzed"

To be fair, JaWalrus probably has a bit of a tolerence these days.

5 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Old QBs vs. new QBs - different game indeed. I wouldn't be surprised if Johnny Unitas made the most money out of the players of his era, but I just read he filed for bankruptcy in 1991. Even a bum like JaMarcus Russell would have a hard time blowing his cash, though I'm not personally up to speed on how much it costs to make mass quantities of sizzurp.

6 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

"McHan called Vince Lombardi a "dago" and was traded."

McHan said, before being traded,

"Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? If I knew that that sort of thing was frowned upon.."

8 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

I know we all talk about differences in training and conditioning leading to superior athletes now compared to the past, but it really hits home when I read "McHan, for instance, probably grew up in a house with no refrigerator." I never really thought about that. It's just wow.

9 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Yes fridges not very common. Peoplw used to have thong called ice box. Ice delivered tp home by ice man. Also milk would come drom milk man or if have cows homeowner draw milk from cow utters.

55 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

When Raiders win suepr bwol 46 Al Davis might sigfn new lyirics for Miklshake.

My Raiders brign all the fans to the Bowl,
and my team
It's betetr than yours,
Damn right it's better than yours,
I can teach you,
But I have to golf

sroroy, coudltn find something torhyem with bowl and also drink and sleepy

48 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

My parents were still getting milk delivered to them as recently as 1998; they stopped when they moved from Colorado to Florida. I never asked them if it was because they couldn't find a milkman service, or if it was because the thought of having milk left on the doorstep in 90 degree weather was less than appetizing.

12 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

however loopy Lombardi's strategy looks now, there had to be some merit to it in 1950s football.

I certainly can't find any....there's no reason your better quarterback couldn't have "probed the defense for weaknesses" himself instead of having a backup do it. Although as great a coach as Lombardi was, why didn't he know the defense's weaknesses. Did they not have tape/scouts back then?

22 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Semantical thign there?

Writie that befcauuase teams did have film then, so possible study other teams. Was film. Lombardi looked at folm arly years Packers tenure. Wrote about "looking at movies" in book wrote in 1962 with W.C. ehinz. mentioned how was done previous yearrs too.

49 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

It's hard to condemn a 2-QB platoon outright without knowing more details. While the better QB could have probed defenses himself, he wouldn't have had Vince Lombardi standing next to him and giving him real-time advice while doing so. Did he benefit from the advice? I don't know, although Tanier is correct that the fact Lombardi stuck with it pretty neatly demonstrates that Lombardi thought is was valuable.

As for two-QB systems in general... a rather famous Florida coach once said that if you have two QBs, you have no QBs. Of course, another rather famous Florida coach wound up winning a national championship a decade later using a 2-QB offense, so...

13 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

How about Steve Young for the any era qb? I once read a quote from either Ted Tollner or Greg Olson (I always get them confused) that said that whilst he was at BYU he saw Steve Young, who was a safety at the time, throwing lasers and he decided to try him at quarterback. Plus, I can remember him laying out a St Louis cb after a pick, but I can't remember who it was (maybe Keith Lyle, if he exists).

So who would be the quarterback to get you through the playoffs.

14 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Why the dig at Bart Starr? Was it because he was drafted in the 17th round, the 199th player drafted that year, too low to be anything but a fluke? In college, he was not only was QB and punter (#2 in the country in 1953), but he also started at safety. When he retired, he had the second best QB rating of all-time behind Otto Graham. I believe he still holds the third longest streak for not having an interception. While Starr had a reputation as a game manager, it was in large part to being compared to Unitas.

Starr was a great QB. Yes, I'm biased. I was born and raised in GB, and Starr became the starting QB when I was 3. But he's in the Hall of Fame for more than just being lucky enough to be the starting QB for Lombardi's Packers.

30 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

By saying he became a legend but was "not unique" seems to me a rather nice way of saying he was nothing special and just lucky enough to be the QB for a dominant team. Seems to me a rather backhanded compliment. I think he was unique as he contended with Unitas for best QB in the 1960's. He was a much better athlete than people remember.

21 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Not Sammy Baugh? The first prolific QB, and a guy who lead the NFL in passing yardage, defensive INTs, and punting average in the same season?

23 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Plax and Cough will be celebrating Festivus earlier than the rest of us, with The Airing Of The Grievances.

24 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

I like the choice of Roger Staubach as the best bet playing in any era. I'd go with Graham 1st though, with Dodger the very capable backup. Baugh is an interesting choice, but the more I learn about the pre-60s NFL, the more I think Luckman, Graham, and Van Brocklin were better. I'm not as high on Elway as most are, though he did have great athleticism.

I also like your point that about not making "era" adjustments. Really, how could you? I have a hard time believing most of today's WRs would do well in the environment of the pre-60s, considering the contact of the day. In his prime Terrell Owens downfield against Night Train Lane? I can't help but think Owens might have a bit more humility in such a scenario. Of course, a matchup of Don Hutson and Deion Sanders under today's style would be quite nice to see.

Without era adjustments, my greatest all time QBs, because I was thinking about it today (in order of appearance on the scene):

Tier 1:
Otto Graham
Norm Van Brocklin
Johnny Unitas
Joe Montana
Steve Young
Peyton Manning
Tom Brady

Tier 2:
Sid Luckman
Fran Tarkenton
Roger Staubach
John Elway

25 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

If I could have one quarterback in history to get me through whatever, I'd take Jim Kelly. Accurate, football smart, tough as hell, called his own plays, always knew where his helmet was.

26 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

To build on what I was saying about Montana last time at http://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkthrough/2011/walkthrough-colt-dilemma#comment-831352


Being a QB in the AFC today makes it extremely hard to get to the Super Bowl. The Patriots, Steelers and Colts have been there 9 of the last 10 seasons, and won 6 times. So if you have been a Philip Rivers or McNair or Palmer or Schaub or Sanchez or Flacco or Brees (04-05), or one of the 3 future HOFers (Manning/Brady/Roethlisberger), it's a real battle to get to the playoffs first off, and then even tougher to make the SB.

Meanwhile, when Montana and the 49ers were ruling the 80's from 1981-89, there were just 3 HOF QBs to play in the NFC during those 9 years. That might not sound bad, but consider Montana was one, then there were Young and Aikman. Of course Young spent most of that time as Montana's teammate after leaving a Tampa Bay team that went 4-28 in his two years, and Aikman was just a rookie on a lousy 1-15 team. Young and Aikman were 3-27 combined as starters to start their careers. By the time Aikman and Dallas got better, Favre emerged, Moon went to the Vikings, Young took over in SF and Montana was gone to the AFC and retired after 1994. Montana's path to the SB was much easier than what the QBs battling for #1 status today go through.

That's not to say the 80's NFC didn't have any QB talent. Guys like Cunningham, Simms, White, and Theismann were good, but not HOF-caliber, and not anywhere near Montana's level. Teams like Washington and Chicago consistently won with musical chairs at QB, and the Giants were built heavily on the running game and defense.

How many SBs does Montana reach if he played in the 70's when pass defense was at an all-time stingy level in the modern era and there were several dynastic teams loaded with HOFers to deal with (Steelers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Raiders, Vikings)? How would he have fared in the 90's when the NFC dominated for much of the decade with teams that had elite QBs and elite defenses? What about in today's AFC where you have 3 teams that seem to contend for the SB every year for a decade, and arguably 4 future HOF QBs all playing in their prime?

Some guys are just born at the right time.

27 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

I think your case would be stronger if it was just a question of Montana winning a lot of playoff games; the point, surely, is that his individual performance level in the playoffs is spectacular, and what's relevant to that is the quality of defenses in his conference, not quarterbacks. The fact that he had to avoid getting killed by Lawrence Taylor to reach a Superbowl is far more germane than the fact that his team didn't have to beat one helmed by Marino or Elway. Montana and Warner are by far the most plausible candidates for actually being able to fairly consistently find something a little bit extra for the biggest games. By no means conclusive, but plausible.

Of course, if I have the first overall pick in the all-time draft, I'm trading out of it and picking up Greg Cook in the 35th round . . .

32 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

It's all related. If you go into a game not expecting you'll need to score a ton of points, you won't have to press or take chances. That's why Montana could throw 3 picks (one returned for a TD) against the Giants in 84 and still win comfortably 21-10. The defense only gave up 3 points all day. Next week, you have a tough Bears defense to play. But no problem, because they have Steve Fuller at QB, and Chicago doesn't score a point as Montana throws 2 picks to 1 TD. He always seemed to luck out with the opponent. Bengals and Dolphins have great offenses? Alright, but their defenses are weak and ready to be exploited by Montana, and the 49er defense dominates those games as well.

You compare what Montana had to go through and what Young would face when he took over, and there's no comparison. There wasn't a Green Bay or Dallas in the NFC when Montana and Walsh were on top. They were that kind of team, all by themselves.

28 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

I would have gone with Plaxalin. Sounds like a prescription drug. Maybe the two of them will be sitting in bathtubs next to each other after the meeting?

29 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford


I enjoyed your reflections on the career of Lamar McHan, a relatively important quarterback from the 1950's I had never heard of before.

I looked over his career stats at the Pro Football Reference site http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/M/McHaLa00.htm & to no one's surprise got these ten players as his statistical brethren:

Marc Wilson, Mike Tomczak, Bill Munson, Tony Banks, Mike Livingston, Rodney Peete, Bubby Brister, Bill Kenney, Chris Miller, & Tom Flores.

There was something a little special about all of these names (for better of for worse) but none of them would ever be confused with the best few quarterbacks of their time.

I also got a look at one of Lamar's old football cards... It seems likely that he was the next to last man in Cardinals history to wear the #8. By 1960, the franchise had moved to St Louis & the great Larry Wilson was about to embark on a Hall of Fame career that would see football move from the dark ages into the modern era.

33 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

McHan wasn't a peer of Unitas' at any time during the comparison period used in that earlier discussion. Unitas wasn't even playing professional football in 1955, for God's sake. By 1958, McHan was struggling for his starting job against a better passer, on a team that had belatedly discovered that passing mattered (they led the league in attempts that year). In 1959, he started for Green Bay, but was not their primary passer. He's simply a bogus choice to represent anything about the quality of starting NFL QBs from 1958-1970.

McHan is about as straw-filled as a straw-man can get. Using 1955 - which was barely mentioned in the prior discussion and had NO part in any statistical analysis on ANY side of the discussion - is just plain intellectually dishonest.

Let's look at 1963 instead - midway in Unitas' career (the period used for comparison anyway), and the only year I checked (since I'm not cherry-picking, but looking to compare eras fairly). The 12th best QB's in various stats are:

Completions: Roman Gabriel
Completion%: Roman Gabriel
TD's: Sonny Jurgensen
Yards/Catch: Fran Tarkenton
Total Yards: Bart Starr
Interception%: Don Meredith

Man! They suck! Not one of them would even start in today's NFL. At best they are the equivalent of today's Derek Anderson. Or so you would have us believe.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to explain why you think that Gabriel, Jurgensen, Tarkenton, Starr, and Meredith are equivalent to league-bottom starting QBs in today's game.

34 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Don't cheat now.

Roman Gabriel in 1963 wasn't a full time starter, and only started 9 of 14 games. He was in his second year and hadn't yet developed.

Jurgensen only played 9 games for a bad team and battled injuries. So he was hurt all year.

Starr only started 10 games and struggled with a hand injury.

Using volume stats and then listing a bunch of guys who didn't play full seasons as starters is a big time cheat.

36 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

I was just using the P-F-R stats page for 1963. I didn't check the games started stats at all, and I certainly didn't seek out injured QBs. Completion%, Y/C, and Interception% aren't volume stats, anyway.

Let's double check those volume stats (TDs, yards) that bothered you against rate stats:

Jurgensen was 6th in TD% among all QBs with at least one start. Norm Snead (still quite good) was 12th. Use Snead, if you care. He went to the pro-bowl that year, with great Y/A and Y/C numbers - a real mad bomber, it seems. Quite a solid quarterback, if you ask me. With modern coaching, training, and medicine, he'd do fine today, although he'd have to adjust his game to fit today's rules, as would any QB from that era.

Starr was 10th in yards per attempt and 13th in yards per game. So Starr is still a good comparison. You can swap in Billy Wade and Frank Ryan, if you want, but you'd be missing the point to insist on it. 12th best in those categories was close to Bart Starr levels... not his best year, but in the prime of his career nonetheless. His passer rating was above his career average, so the hand injury isn't really relevant. I'd take Bart Starr with a sore hand over Derek Anderson any day of the week. Especially Sunday.

Sorry. No cheating here. Honest, fair comparison of eras is my goal. It's hard to get right and I am sure I miss some nuances. But it really looks like 12th best in 1963 is a lot closer to 12th best in 2010 that it is to the bottom of the league.

Caveat: this kind of name-dropping isn't a true statistical analysis. It's just an illustration. And it's somewhat lucky that so many of the 12th bests of 1963 are still famous even today. But the underlying fact - that 12th best in 1963 really was 12th best (or close to it) QB in the world - is pretty obvious when you think about it. The name-dropping simply highlights just how good 12th best could be.

46 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Man, Nat is back, illogical as ever. Here's the thing again. Unitas played in an era that was IN TRANSITION between guys like McHan having a substantial number of jobs and guys like himself and the other (mostly young) folks you mention from 1963. That means to compare him to his era, you should really just eliminate the guys who don't fit the mold of modern qb in a modern offense. You do that and Johnny U is not so special as you seem to think. He is special historically, in terms of help setting a new mold for qb/offesne. And he was one of the best in an era in which NFL football established itself in the national consciousness, so his accomplishments are blown up. But statistically, it's not so great as you think.

50 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Actually, this is a good point. In 1958, the NFL was at the tail end of an old style of football.

But we're talking about 1958-1970, so I don't think the QB as running back was much of a factor over the period as a whole. By 1960 (by 1958, in my opinion) QBs were evaluated on their ability to be passers and leaders and smart decision makers, much like today. Sure, the game was evolving. But it was a passing game (for QBs) that was evolving, not a running game or blocking game. A 1960 quarterback would be trying out for QB if he showed up today, not running back.

In 1963, McHan's last hurrah when he moved to SF midseason after they blew up two QBs, he was not a running QB, I am pretty sure. And he had not been a full time starter since 1957, so he was a case of desperation anyway. If you trade for a QB midseason, you don't get the 14th best QB. You get the best you can trade for, which in this case was McHan.

Keep in mind, I have no axe to grind for Johnny Unitas. My interest is in the challenge of comparing across eras. If it would help your objectivity, we can compare Montana to Starr instead.

Finally, statistically (when compared to the best 10, best 12, best 8, whatever, of each year over the same career years) Unitas was the best Colts QB ever. (If you really work at it, you can argue he is just a whisker behind Manning. They're close.) That was established two weeks ago. I guess you forgot. The only controversy now is whether comparing to the top 10 (or 12 or 16...) is more or less valid than comparing the top 10 in 1963 to the top 20 in 2010.

Oh, occasionally someone crops up who doesn't understand the concept of era-adjustment. But they don't really have a leg to stand on, and deserve our pity.

51 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

That is hardly the only controversy, but it's a sufficient enough controversy to get your entire statistical "adjustment" thrown out as nonsensical. Yes, it is ridiculous to compare the top 10 in 1963 to the top 10 in 2010, even if for no other reason than because America's population, America's interest in the NFL, and the financial rewards of playing in the NFL have absolutely exploded. Imagine, if you will, a hypothetical- let's say that my high school invented a game called "Awesomeball" in 1963, and all 1,000 students in the school tried out. Let's say "awesomeball" gained in popularity, and by 2010 every single high school in America had an "awesomeball" team. Would you say that the 10 best awesomeball players in 1963 (i.e. the 10 best in one particular school) were the same as the 10 best awesomeball players in 2010 (i.e. the 10 best in the entire nation)?

Unitas was born in 1933. The closest year I could find data for was 1935, during which there were 2,377,000 live births. Manning was born in 1976, during which there were 3,167,788 live births. That's a 33% increase. Keep in mind, too, that Johnny Unitas did not have to compete with black players- the first black QB didn't start until Marlin Briscoe in 1968. Black men made up at least 10% of the live births in the '30s, so take them out of the pool and the population that Manning is competing against is now 50% higher than the population Unitas is competing against.

And that's just looking at total US population. It fails to account for globalization (which further increases the pool Manning is competing against). It fails to account for the increasing length in player careers (which further increases the pool Manning is competing against). Perhaps most importantly of all, it fails to account for the meteoric rise in popularity and pay the NFL has enjoyed. When Unitas was a 13 year old boy, how many of his peers do you suppose dreamed of growing up to become an NFL QB? When Manning was a 13 year old boy, how many of his peers do you suppose dreamed of growing up to become an NFL QB? Peyton Manning played in an era where more people were born, where a higher percentage of those people had a chance at becoming QBs, and where a higher percentage of those people with a chance had the desire to become a QB, and where each of those people had to compete with players from past years who were hanging on longer than ever. I don't really think it's any stretch to suggest that competition for QB positions has more than doubled from Unitas's time to Manning's, which means it's ludicrously inappropriate to assume that the 10 best players in 1963 are equal to the 10 best players today, just like it would be ludicrously inappropriate to assume that the 10 best "awesomeball" players in my high school are the same as the 10 best "awesomeball" players in the nation. Even ignoring every other criticism of your statistical method (and yes, there are plenty of other criticisms), this one criticism alone should be enough to invalidate any results it produces.

52 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

A couple more criticisms of your theory that the top 12 in 1963 was equivalent to the top 12 today.

First off, it relies on the assumption that assets were distributed uniformly, which is a terrible assumption. The odds of the 12 teams evenly distributing the 12 best QBs so there was only one on each team are remote. For that matter, they're even more remote in a 32-team league, but that's hardly relevant. It's far more likely that a team would have a top-10 QB sitting on its bench in 1963 than that it would in 2010, simply because the bar is so much lower. Top 10 in 1963 means "one of the worst starters in the league". Top 10 in 2010 means "one of the best starters in the league". And remember, too, that the NFL in 2010 has rules in place designed to more evenly distribute talent around the league- specifically, free agency and the salary cap. 1963 had neither, which made is much easier (and more likely) for one team to hoard talent.

Second off, it makes the assumption that the NFL is a true meritocracy. Personally, I don't think the NFL is quite a perfect meritocracy, but given the size of the business today, I think it's probably pretty close- there are major financial consequences for ignoring merit. The 1963 NFL, though? Not so much. I know I already made the discrimination point, but I think it's a very important point to reiterate. Peyton Manning's career has overlapped with guys like Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, David Garrard, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Kordell Stewart, and Josh Freeman- 7 pro bowlers, and a major up-and-comer. As many as 7 of the starting QBs next year might be black (Vick, Freeman, Newton, Garrard, McNabb, Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson). That's 22% of Manning's contemporaries who would be playing safety or runningback in Unitas's league.

Third off, it relies on the assumption that 100% of the best players go to the NFL. In today's football environment, I think it's fair to assume that we're far closer to 100% participation today than in 1963. In 1963, the AFL was going strong. Baseball was still the most popular and prestigious (and highest-paying) sport in America. Boxing was much bigger. Scouting was much worse. If a guy played at Delaware, what do you think the chances of him getting much of a shot in the NFL were in 1963? Compare that to what kind of shot Joe Flacco got in 2008. If a guy was undrafted in 1963, what do you think the chances are of him relocating to an NFL town (which were far more remote in 1963 than in 2010) to try to earn a pathetic living as an UFA while working his way up the chart? Compare that to Tony Romo, who'd made over a million dollars before he ever started a game. I know some small school and undrafted guys still made noise in the NFL in 1963, but do you think the rate was really anywhere near where it is today?

So, in short... in Unitas's time the population was smaller, globalization didn't exist, careers were shorter, black men were not allowed to play QB, small school players didn't get scouted, salaries and incentives were smaller, free agency and the salary cap did not exist to distribute talent evenly, and MLB and the AFL siphoned away a massive share of the nation's best athletes. Any one of these factors alone would make it silly to compare the top 12 players in 1963 to the top 12 players in 2010. All of these factors together, though? Ludicrous. Nonsensical.

Edit: If none of these arguments persuade you (and, indeed, all of these arguments had been made before, and apparently none had managed to persuade you), then how about a little reductio ad absurdum?

Your position: Since there were only 12 QBs in Johnny Unitas's day, and these 12 QBs were the best in the world, it is only fair to compare Unitas's performance against these 12 to Manning's performance against the best 12 QBs in the world in his day.

Reductio ad absurdum: By that logic, if Johnny Unitas played in a 2 QB league, it would be equally valid to compare his performance against his one peer to Manning's performance against the 2nd best QB in the league. If Johnny Unitas threw for twice as many TDs as his opponent, and Manning threw for 75% more TDs than anyone else in a 32-team league, then Unitas's performance was superior. If Unitas finished 2nd in passing yards, while Manning finished 3rd in passing yards, then Unitas's performance was superior.

Can you not see how absurd your position becomes if we take it out to its logical extreme?

56 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

If we only had the stats for the top 2 QBs in the 60's (for whatever absurd reason), it would indeed be absurd to compare their average to the average of the top 32 today. It would much better to compare to the top 2 today. There would be reasonable discussion about whether we should use the top 3 or 4 today. Only idiots would compare a "league average" of the top two QBs in one era to the league average today.

Yes, I can see exactly how absurd you have to get. That's you. But I never doubted that you were being absurd.

59 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

First off, congratulations on ignoring my first half-dozen arguments again. It's clear that your "compare the top 12 in 2010 to the entire league in 1963!" proposal doesn't stand up to any serious challenge, so the only way you can maintain that facade is to continue ignoring all serious challenges. Between 1963 and 2010, birth rate increased by 33%, black players broke the discrimination barrier, player careers became extended, NFL popularity exploded, the NFL's global footprint rose, and financial incentives grew exponentially. Any one of these items on its own would be reason enough to call your methodology into question. The sum of them together renders your entire argument nonsensical and absurd. Assuming relatively normal distribution of football talent, it is wildly inappropriate to compare the top players in a smaller pool (with the pool being "number of people competing for QB positions in the NFL") to the top players in a larger pool. My "awesomeball" example would have demonstrated this point very clearly, if you hadn't decided to just ignore anything that you felt was damaging to your argument and make a straw man out of a throw-away edit.

Second, no, you absolutely would not under any circumstances compare the results of a 2-man league to the results of the top 2 QBs in a 32-man league. I hope you enjoyed beating up on that poor defenseless little straw man, too, because I never once said you should compare them to the average of the 32-man league, either. Both efforts are statistically absurd. The problem would call for a much more nuanced approach, and in the end, the result might just be "due to structural problems, we simply cannot create a baseline for comparison between the statistics of these two players".

Why is it absurd to compare a 2-man league to the top 2 players in a 32-man league? For starters, if talent is distributed randomly, there's a 50% chance that the 2nd best QB is a backup. There's a 25% chance that the 2nd and 3rd best QBs are both backups. There's a 12.5% chance that three of the top 4 QBs are backups. Hell, there's even a 1.5% chance that the 2nd best starter in the league is actually only the 8th best QB in the league. And that's assuming random distribution- it's more likely that one team is better at evaluating talent than the other, which will skew those percentages even higher. Also, it's much harder for a 2-man league to be a true meritocracy because of the glut of talent. Imagine if the NFL contracted into a 2-man league tomorrow. Who would be the starting QBs? Finally, any difference in scheme at all would be magnified out of all proportion. Imagine one QB played in a deep-ball offense that averaged 16 yards per completion, but only completed 50% of passes. The second played in a WCO that completed 65% of its passes, but averaged just 12.3 yards per completion. Both QBs averaged 8 ypa, but the second guy's completion percentage was 30% higher than the first! This isn't due to any talent discrepancy, though- it's entirely a function of scheme. And the problem could be much worse- imagine one guy plays in a ball-control offense like the mid-90s Cowboys with a record-setting RB who gets all the carries at the goal line, while the other guy plays in a Run-and-Shoot offense that's running 4-wide as its base formation. The second guy will be putting up double the numbers of the first guy, but is that really an accurate reflection of the talent gap between them?

Further, simple statistical variance makes a sample size of 2 pretty much meaningless. Take Unitas- from 1957 to 1967, his YPA ranged from 7.1 to 9.3. His Rating ranged from 66.1 to 97.4. If you compared 1959 Unitas to 1960 Unitas, QB rating would say the former was 25% better than the latter. That's silly- Unitas was the same guy in both years, or even possibly a bit better in 1960, his random outcomes just weren't as good. If you flip a coin 50 times, sometimes you're going to get 35 tails and other times you're only going to get 15 tails. That's the nature of random events (and each pass is a random event). These differences in outcome don't reflect meaningful differences in the true value of the coin, they simply reflect statistical noise. In a 32-man league, that noise gets filtered out (if one player has a particularly hot season, his stats are getting compared to other players on particularly hot seasons). In a 2-man league, that noise does not get filtered out. In a 2-man league, there's a 5% chance that one QB is performing a full standard deviation above his true performance mean at the same time that the other QB is performing a full standard deviation BELOW his true performance mean. You get situations where you flip two coins 50 times each and one scores a 35 while the other scores a 15, leading you to conclude that the first coin is more than twice as "good" as the second coin when in reality both coins are equal. In a 32-player league, that all evens out- if one coin comes up heads 35 times, several other coins will certainly break 30 at least, even if most of the coins are "cold" during that trial.

You repeatedly claim that you're not biased towards Unitas, but the ridiculousness of your arguments and the dogmatic way which you ignore all counterarguments certainly suggests otherwise. You either have a clear emotional stake in making sure Unitas comes out on top of the comparison, or else you took a position without thinking it all the way through and now you have a clear emotional stake in refusing to admit you were wrong. Either way, your obvious bias is clearly clouding your judgment.

38 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Well, Unitas was 3rd in rating and 6th in touchdowns in 1963, so I am not sure why we are arguing that he was the best QB in the NFL at all that year.

I mean, if the game is to grab years,grab guys, ignore the AFL completely, ignore the fact that my guy McHan is listed by PFR as the worst qualifier in rating in that handpicked 1963 year, ignore the fact that guys like Billy Wade and Ed Brown were far worse than the guys you named (which included a few young players who hadn't established themselves yet) ... If that's the game, then we should probably declare that Frank Ryan, with a better rating and W-L record than Unitas, was the better QB that year.

And by extension, Ryan is better than just about anyone now, because not only was he better than Unitas, but the 12 best QBs in the universe.

I think my point was that running through the PFR site, grabbing numbers, and throwing them around with all sorts of adjustments for era is inappropriate. I stand by that point.

41 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Straw-man. Another straw-man. And a third straw-man.

Your rhetoric is getting really, really tedious. Which is a shame, because the challenges of comparing QBs across eras would actually be interesting if you approached them with an open mind.

And to end with an anti-statistics rant is just incredibly wrong on Football Outsiders. Unless you want to claim that those PFR stats are lies, it doesn't matter where those stats came from. And Football Outsiders is all about adjusting statistics for context.

43 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

It's also about admitting when the error rate of era-adjustment overwhelms the data in question, no matter how much you love Ol' Flattop. To turn the argument around, Mike Tolbert was better than the other 31 FBs in the league in 2010. Under a pure era-comparison metric, does that make him better than a 1963 Jim Brown, who was only better than 11 other FBs? Or is it possible the position has changed sufficiently in the last 48 years that you can't make that comparison directly?

It's pure folly to extrapolate QB data from the 1920s to passer performance in the 2010s, largely because 1920s QBs were much closer to the equivalent to today's H-backs than today's QBs. There does reach some point at which era adjustment just falls down because the nature of the position is no longer compatible.

39 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

The worst quarterback in the league in 1955 or 1975 is roughly equivalent to the worst quarterbacks now. An average quarterback -- statistically, or by other evidence like career length and shape -- is average in any era.

It's a simple rule you're using. But it ends up with Roman Gabriel, Fran Tarkenton, Bart Starr, Don Meredith and their peers being compared to Derek Anderson and his peers, which is just obviously stupid.

45 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Lets be honest here. Roman Gabriel would go on to be a good QB, but in 1963 he sucked. 8 TDs, 11 INTs, 46% completion percentage. Even for the 60s that was awful.

QBs ranked 10th-13th by Adjusted Yards per Attempt (in my mind the best encompassing stat available):
10th: Billy Wade
11th: Norman Snead
12th: Roman Gabriel
13th: LaMar McHan (who started just as many games as Gabriel despite your assertions that he was struggling to find a job)

You don't think that group is comparable to Derek Anderson?

47 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Just for fun, I did exactly what you did, but picked a more modern year in the middle of an undisputed all-time great's prime: 1989 (Joe Montana won the MVP that year). There were 28 teams in the league that year, so I looked for the 28th finisher in each of the same stats that you listed, here's what I found:

Comp: Jim Harbaugh
Comp%: Ron Jawarski
TD: Steve Young
Y/C: Jim Kelly
Yds: Bob Gagliano
Int%: Steve Pelluer

Claiming that these collectively were equivalent to Derek Anderson is just as ridiculous as claiming that your 5 were. Perhaps the problem is the statistically unsound way in which you have selected your group.

40 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

If I'm picking a QB to play in any era, including the two-ways era, and I expect him actually to play two ways, then I'm probably going to have to pick a guy who I know can be a star both ways, Sammy Baugh.

If I'm picking a QB to play in any era, including the two-ways era, but I expect him only to play QB, then I'm taking Otto Graham.

53 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Obviously, I am biased, since he made me a Vikes fan. But I would take Fran Tarkington for the any era QB. Graham and Baugh would likely be better, but I haven't seen much of them. What I have seen is impressive though. Tarkington was somewhat in between the two eras, and I think that would help. But, your not in the discussion if you melted in the heat and lost superbowls.

58 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Dude would have been better remembered if, during his time in Chicago, he had the foresight to rap, "I'm the punky QB known as McHan, When I hit the turf I've got no plan."

60 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

Sammy Baugh is my best QB, his all round game is top drawer. He is a player performing at the highest level, long may that continue terrific stuff!

61 Re: Walkthrough: Rocket to Rutherford

By this top 12 reasoning the last place team in 1958 is the equivalent to a playoff team in 2010, they just suffer from playing a much tougher schedule. Using total point differential during the regular season to figure out the top 12 by this logic the 9-3 1958 Baltimore Colts were that year's equivalent to the 2010 New England Patriots. So far so good, sounds like a reasonable comparison. The 12th best team in 1958 was the 1-10-1 Green Bay Packers, who's equivalent in 2010 would be the 10-6 Indianapolis Colts. That does not seem to be a good analogue to me, but it makes about as much sense as saying the worst starter in the league in 1958 is the equivalent of 2010 Drew Brees (using QB rating as the measuring stick)