Friday, April 4, 2008

The Greatest Quarterback of All-Time: Bart Starr

Check out any Greatest Quarterback of All-Time debate on the internet. You’ll find all the usual suspects of the last quarter century: Montana, Favre, Marino, Elway, and now Brady and Manning. A few people with respect for football history might throw in Unitas’ name. The NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team lists Baugh, Graham, Unitas, and Montana as the four greatest quarterbacks of all time. Somehow, all these lists omit the name of one man overwhelmingly qualified to be a candidate for the unofficial title of the greatest of all-time. Allow me to present his career to you in a simple ten-point outline:

1) Five championships, the most ever
2) All-time leader in career postseason passer rating
3) Only QB to win three consecutive NFL championships
4) Led the NFL five times in passer rating
5) An MVP award
6) Two-time Super Bowl MVP
7) Eight consecutive playoff wins
8) Eighth all-time in career yards per attempt
9) Career rushing average of 5.3 yards per carry
10) One of only three QB’s to lead team on last minute championship-winning TD drive

Incredible. Unparalleled postseason success, clutch play, and excellent regular season performance. That sure sounds like the resume of the greatest ever. I freely admit I came late to the idea of Bart Starr as the best ever and my eyes were opened to the idea by the very convincing cases made by Allen Barra and The Cold Hard Football Facts. I’ll do my best here not to rehash or steal what they’ve already written so brilliantly.

It’s no mystery why even supposed football experts have unjustly overlooked Starr’s greatness for so long. Not only do Starr’s career numbers look unimpressive by today’s standards, they look unimpressive compared to the best QB’s of his own time. Take a look:


Starr trails the pack in completions, yards, and touchdowns. His relatively low yardage and touchdown totals combined with the stereotypical image of Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers as a team that did nothing but run power sweeps, served to permanently erase his brilliant play from people’s collective memory. But, as we saw with John Elway, cumulative numbers don’t tell the whole story. Starr may not have thrown as often as his greatest contemporaries, but when he did there was nobody better. Check it out:


Starr vaults to the top in each of the most important categories, yards per attempt, interception percentage, and completion percentage, while his passer rating is only a hair behind Jurgensen and Dawson (and Dawson probably should be lowered slightly since he played most of his career in the AFL versus defenses most likely a notch below NFL defenses in quality). I’m not trying to prove Starr was definitively better than those other guys. The point is to show it’s no stretch to say he was as good as anybody in the 1960’s. Oh, let’s not forget he was excellent on the ground as well:


Only Brodie’s running ability compares to Starr’s. So Starr was an excellent passer and runner. And while Vince Lombardi famously preferred to run, Starr was no “caretaker” quarterback simply content to handoff and throw short as so many mistakenly believe. In the first place he ranks eighth all-time in career yards per attempt and in his best seasons he routinely topped the eight-yards per pass mark. The man threw deep and usually connected. Secondly, while it obviously didn’t hurt Starr to have two Hall of Fame running backs, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, in his backfield, those guys were pretty much finished by 1965. When the Packers’ running game was well-below average in 1965 and 1966, ranking near the bottom of the league in yards per carry, Starr posted some of his finest seasons, winning two NFL championships and an MVP award. In Starr’s final championship season of 1967, his team’s leading rushers were the immortal Jim Grabowski, Ben Wilson, and Donny Anderson. Starr won with great running games and he won without great running games.

The numbers clearly show Starr to be one of the best passers of his era. In the regular season that is. When it comes to the postseason Starr proved he was not just the greatest of his era, but of all-time. Starr owns the NFL record for career postseason passer rating: 104.8. In the playoffs Starr's QB rating, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, and yards per attempt all actually improved! When it mattered most, Starr raised his game to the ultimate level and he did it whatever the situation.

1) Bad Weather Games. Starr guided his team to NFL titles in three horrible weather games: the 1961, 1962, and 1967 championship games. Most are familiar with the sub-zero temperatures of the 1967’s Ice Bowl, but the 1961 game also featured freezing Green Bay weather, and the 1962 game in New York saw a wind chill factor of 20 below and winds up to 40 m.p.h. Given the field conditions, Starr’s numbers for those three games are understandably less than spectacular but games played in those type of conditions are often decided by turnovers. Starr threw five TD’s in those games and ZERO interceptions. His opposite numbers, Y.A. Tittle and Don Meredith, combined for zero TD’s and six INT’s. The Packers won because Starr didn’t make crucial mistakes. (And despite my earlier promise I did steal that bit of interesting info from Allen Barra’s Book.)

2) Road Games. Starr played in three road playoff games. He won the 1962 and 1966 NFL Championship Games. He lost only the 1960 Championship Game, 17-13 to the Eagles. That was Starr’s first playoff game and he did not play badly in that tough loss. He led his team on a 4th Quarter drive to take the lead. When his special teams and defense gave up the eventual winning TD on the subsequent Eagles’ drive, Star again led his team down the field. On his final pass, from the Eagles’ 22-yard-line Starr connected with Jim Taylor who could only get as far as the 8-yard-line before being dropped by Chuck Bednarik’s great open-field tackle. Starr would never again lose a postseason game.

3) Shootouts. Starr’s best postseason performance was the 1966 NFL title game. He threw for 304 yards and 4 TD’s, and beat Dallas’s Doomsday defense 34-27. Starr led his team to 33 or more points on three other postseason occasions but his opponents’ offenses could not keep pace.

4) Beating the Best. Joe Montana couldn't get past the Giants in the playoffs. Roger Staubach couldn't beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning's had his troubles with the Pariots. By contrast, no team gave Starr’s Packers any kind of trouble in the biggest games. The Giants were the Eastern Conference's best team in the early 1960’s but Starr’s Packers handled them easily in the 1961 and 1962 title games. Cleveland replaced the Giants as the Eastern Conference champs in 1964-1965 and the Browns rolled to a championship over the Colts in 1964. But Starr’s Packers beat them convincingly in 1965. Then, in 1966-1967 the Dallas Cowboys emerged as the Eastern Conference’s powerhouse team but the end results were the same; Starr led his team to two more NFL championships. In 1967, the NFL's best record belonged to the L.A. Rams, who led the league in offense and defense. Starr faced them in the first round of the NFL's new divisional format and beat them handily 28-7. Unfortunately, Starr never got to play his greatest rival, Unitas’ Colts, in the playoffs (both were hurt for the 1965 playoff tiebreaker game). However, Starr won all four regular season games between the teams in 1965 and 1966, propelling the Pack to the Western Conference title in those seasons.

5) Clutch Play. Five titles and eight straight playoff wins alone speak to Starr’s clutch play in the biggest games as do his total of just four interceptions in his playoff career. But Starr saved his best for last: The Ice Bowl. In some of the toughest conditions in NFL history, Starr became the first QB in NFL history to lead his team on a game-winning touchdown drive ending in the final minute of play (only Joe Montana and Eli Manning (!) have since duplicated that feat). To cap his legend, after going five-for-five on the final drive and moving his team to the Dallas one, without telling his teammates what he planned to do Starr kept the ball and scored the winning TD himself.

In every kind of game against every great team of the day, Starr proved he was the best QB of them all. While he threw far less than the other top QB’s of his time, when he did so he was deadly, leading the league five times in passer rating. Yes, he was surrounded by many Hall-of-Fame teammates, but note that Starr was still playing extremely well even after most of his great Hall-of-Fame teammates and coach were either gone or well past their primes. Starr could run, throw the ball deep, and win both on the road and in horrible weather conditions. He won with great running games and terrible running games alike. He called his own plays and his teammates attested to his great leadership skills. Based on all the evidence, I believe Starr could win in any era and with any type of offense. If you had to win one single game and could pick any quarterback to lead your team, your best chance to win would be with Bart Starr at the helm. All hail Bart Starr: 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...

Overall, your "not the best QB of all time" series was pretty good. You make a good case for Bart Starr, but I think that Lombardi and the team he had around him probably had more to do with his success than you think. Playoff success is important, and Starr had that, but that should not be the #1 factor in judging a QB.

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Brad said...

Concerning your points on Bart Starr, they are all well taken. Unfortunately, you are also right about them being relatively unknown. No matter. I just wanted to add that Starr's carrear took place before the nfl decided to start changing rules to make things easier for the offense. As for JB's point about the surrounding cast of players Starr had, OK, but lets not foret the surrounding casts of other QBs. Unitas, Meridith, Tittle, Elway, Marino, Dawson, etc., also had great surrounding casts. Only a few great QBs didn't have great surrounding casts, like Jurgensen, but you can't compare his post season record to anyone because Jurgensen didn't have any post seasons. I'm just say'in...

april said...

It’s really good to know about best qb of all time. From my point of view Bart starr is best among all. You would have spent a lot of time in creating such a list, as your effort is clearly visible.

mike m said...
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