Friday, March 21, 2008

Not the Greatest Quarterback of All-Time, Part Three: John Elway

John Elway threw for a ton of yards and touchdowns in his career. Yet he and many of his fans complained that he could have thrown for a lot more if the coach for most of his career, Dan Reeves, hadn’t run such a conservative offense. Do they have a point? How do the hell do I know? How could anybody know? And who the cares? Let me instead point out something fascinating, something you don’t really hear about much. Including himself, Elway’s era encompassed the bulk of the careers of seven different Hall of Fame quarterbacks! That truly was a special era for quarterbacks and I don't know if enough football fans appreciated what they had back then. To me, if we want to measure how good Elway was we ought to just go ahead and compare him to those guys. Here’s their numbers:


Elway looks pretty damn good on that list. Second only to Marino in yards and TD’s. And while we know Marino made it to only one Super Bowl (and lost), Elway played in five and won two of them. Montana and Aikman won more Super Bowls but their production falls well short of Elway’s. So don’t Elway’s Super Bowls and his numbers make a strong case for him as the greatest of all time? Well, there’s numbers and there’s numbers. And here are some numbers I cleverly left off the first table:

QBRatingComp %Int %Y/ANet Y/ASack %

Yes, the above represent efficiency rather than cumulative effort. Quality over quantity let’s say. The first thing that jumps out, since I put it first, is quarterback rating. Elway’s the lowest rated quarterback of the whole group. And the reason is obvious (because I put it second): he’s got the worst completion percentage of the whole group. Of those seven Hall of Famers, Elway was the least accurate passer. Now there’s nothing I hate more than the use of anecdotal evidence to prove a complicated point, but I do distinctly remember much discussion of how hard Elway threw back in the day and he never seemed to have the “touch” on his passes that Marino or Montana did. His completion percentage would seem to back up those impressions.

Some have criticized the quarterback rating system for placing such strong emphasis on completion percentage. And I happen to agree with much of that criticism. The system rewards QB’s who throw lots of safe short (i.e. boring) passes and penalizes gunslingers looking for the home run. It might not be a coincidence that the two most accurate passers listed above, Montana and Young, are the two guys who played in a West Coast Offense based on slants and screens rather than downfield passing. But Marino and Kelly didn’t play in any West Coast Offenses. They had big arms and liked to throw deep. And clearly they connected far more often than Elway.

Still, interception percentage (INT’s per attempt) and Yards Per Attempt are probably more important stats than QB rating or completion percentage. When it comes to INT’s, Elway threw his share but he’s comfortably in the middle of the pack here. Only Montana and Young are substantially better and only Kelly is substantially worse. But in Yards Per Attempt, Elway is the second-lowest rated passer on the list though only Steve Young really separates himself from the group. However, your standard yards per attempt stat just divides passing yards by the number of passing attempts. What about those times a QB drops back to pass but gets sacked before he gets a throw off? Those are negative plays that the great ones should be avoiding more than most right? Luckily, Net Yards Per Attempt comes to our rescue. That stat adds sacks to attempts and subtracts yards lost on sacks from the passing numbers (and the sack percentage stat on the far right shows just who was the master at avoiding sacks and who wasn’t). Including this data brings Young down to earth and lifts Marino into a tie with him while Elway sinks to the very bottom. So not only was Elway the least accurate passer of this group, his average gain every time he dropped to back to pass was also lower than everybody else's. Clearly the least efficient passer of these seven Hall of Famers was John Elway.

Let nobody accuse Past Interference of being biased. We’re well aware here of Mr. Elway’s rushing ability and of his Hall of Fame contemporaries only Steve Young was his better. See:


Funny though how the two best running quarterbacks here were also the two guys most likely to get sacked. Is it possible Elway (and Young) lacked pocket presence and tried to run too often, trying to make a play with their legs when passing or just throwing the ball away would have been the better percentage play? Elway deserves credit for his rushing numbers but I don’t think those numbers are anywhere close to enough to put him near the top of our Hall of Fame passer list.

Alright, he’s nowhere near the top based on his passing but what about what “really” matters? The wins, the five Super Bowls, the two rings? Ok, let’s check out Elway’s combined Super Bowl stats:

CompAttComp %YardsTDIntRating

Not very impressive. Elway didn’t exactly elevate his play in the big game. Now I know there’s an argument that goes Elway dragged a mediocre team to the Super Bowl three times in the 1980’s and just getting there was the big accomplishment as those overmatched 80’s Broncos had no shot at winning those games. I don’t completely buy it. Oh sure I’ll stipulate that nobody was beating the 1989 49’ers, but the 1986 and 1987 Broncos weren’t beaten before they’d begun. They actually led in both games. Elway pled well in the first half of Super Bowl XXI before crapping out. Worse, Denver led Washington 10-0 in Super Bowl XXII. Since nobody has ever come back to win after being down by more than 10 points in a Super Bowl, just one more TD might well have given Denver an insurmountable lead. Elway missed on a couple of chances to get that TD before Washington turned it on and blew the game open. And even if Elway’s teams were far less talented, is that really an excuse for such poor play? Quarterbacks have been known to play well in defeat, even against great defenses. Elway never did.

When Elway finally did win that first Super Bowl he still didn’t play that great. Favre played much better and Terrell Davis was the guy who carried the Broncos to victory. Denver jumped out to an early 10-point lead, but when Davis left the game with a migraine Elway couldn’t move his team and the Pack stormed back to tie the game. Elway’s big play was not even a pass but his famous third-down run where the dude got helicoptered. That play kept Denver’s go-ahead touchdown drive alive. You know what cracks me up about that play? That NFL Films show about the game where they feature Broncos’ players saying how they knew they were going to win that game after Elway‘s ballsy run. Really? Did you still feel that way when Green Bay promptly fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving Denver a chance to practically ice the game with a short 22-yard TD drive but Elway instead threw an INT on the very next play? Yeah, I’m thinking those guys weren’t inspired at that point and they were probably slightly less confident when Favre then drove the Pack 85 yards for the tying touchdown. Elway couldn’t get anything else done in the 4th quarter but Davis dragged the team to the winning TD, carrying the ball on four of the drive’s five plays. (I always wonder what Terrell Davis thought when the Broncos owner held the Vince Lombardi trophy in his hands and proclaimed: “This one’s for John”. Say what?) To be fair Elway did toss a 23-yard pass on the drive though his pass actually measured 3 yards and Howard Griffith added 20 more yards on his own. So thanks to a great running game and some timely defense, Elway won his first Super Bowl.

Finally, in his fifth and final Super Bowl appearance Elway performed very well and his team rolled to an easy win against the Falcons. All in all though, Elway played well-below average in Super Bowls and consequently, given his inaccuracy relative to his great contemporaries and his tendency to get sacked, I can’t see how he can be considered the greatest quarterback of all time.

Not The Greatest Quarterback Of All-Time: The Series

Tom Brady
Brett Favre
John Elway
Dan Marino
Johnny Unitas
Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham
Joe Montana
Bart Starr


JB said...

I think that you were a little hard on Elway in this one. Now, I agree that the Broncos were not severely outmatched in the first two Super Bowls that he played in, but he didn't play that badly. The defense cost those teams the game. I do think he played bad against SF because he tried too hard, but the main point is that those teams wouldn't have been there without him. You mention at the start of this post about Reeves hampering Elway or something like that. That is very true. Elway couldn't stand Reeves. Things got so bad that Reeves almost traded him to the Redskins before the 91 season. And, you get on him for taking too many sacks, but he had average offensive lines early on in his career that were overmatched. Pro Football Weekly said it best about Elway: He was one of the best of all time, but he would have been the best if not for Dan Reeves's system.
By the way, when are you going to do your next installment on the slightly overrated Joe Montana? Him and Brady are the biggest system QB's of all time. Elway and Marino would have had 5 SB's if they played in Walsh's system in the 80's.

zapparulez said...

Ok man. You skipped a whole part of what makes Elway the greatest QB ever.


Farve broke Elway's record only by playing an extra season to do so.

No one is even close to Elway's record of 48 come from behind victories. That is 1/3 of all of Elway's victories as a QB came with a little 4th quarter heroics.

Your assumptions are flawed. Why don't you compare Elway's stats and passer ratings under Dan Reeves and then compare them under Wade Phillips and Mike Shanahan. You'll notice a huge difference.

But I doubt your interested in approaching this topic honestly, so you did a good job distorting the truth. Kudos!