49ers’ Blown Super Bowl Lead Was Historic Deja Vu

As I continue to work on the best database I could have for NFL game data this century, I keep finding new absurd facts about Kansas City’s comeback win in Super Bowl LIV.

Imagine a team leading 20-10 more than halfway through the fourth quarter in a nationally-televised game. Then that team goes on to lose 31-20 in regulation.

That’s what happened to the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but the last time the NFL has seen such a reversal of fortune — a double-digit lead halfway through the fourth turning into a double-digit loss — it also involved the 49ers, a 20-10 lead, and a 31-20 loss in prime time. 

Yep, same exact scores, but much different stakes. In 2002, the 49ers (10-6) were wrapping up a playoff-bound season on Monday Night Football against disappointing division rival St. Louis (7-9 finish). The 49ers rested and pulled starters from the game, but still led 20-3 in the fourth quarter. That’s when Rams backup quarterback Jamie Martin began to lead a comeback, pulling the team to within 20-17 with 7:09 left after throwing a touchdown pass to future HOFer Isaac Bruce. On the next play from scrimmage, Garrison Hearst fumbled and Dre’ Bly returned it for a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. Hearst fumbled again on the next drive and the Rams had a chance to run the clock out, but on 4th-and-1, Martin threw a pass to tight end Ernie Conwell for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 31-20 after the two-minute warning. A bit of a rub-it-in-their-face score for sure for a team that rarely threw to the tight end. The Rams were actually 2-point favorites so it was a surprising cover and comeback to close a game that ultimately didn’t mean anything.

It’s not terribly rare to see a team trail by double digits in the last eight minutes (or 7:30 if you want to think of it as half the quarter) of the fourth quarter and come back to win the game. It happens about five times a season. But those games often go to overtime or are won in regulation by 1-7 points. An 11-point win in regulation like the 2002 Rams had goes way against the grain.

It wouldn’t happen again in the NFL until the 49ers blew yet another 20-10 lead in this Super Bowl. The infamous 3rd-and-15 “Wasp” play by the Chiefs for 44 yards came at the 7:13 mark. The Chiefs got into the end zone with 6:13 left and would return there two more times, including Damien Williams’ 38-yard run with 1:12 left that crushed my ticket of “Chiefs by exactly 4 points” to produce the historic 31-20 final.

So like the Falcons holding a 28-3 lead — as if this will ever happen again in Dan Quinn’s career — you just can’t trust the 49ers with a 20-10 lead halfway through the fourth quarter. Oddly enough, Quinn was a defensive quality control coach for the 2002 49ers too.

I haven’t been able to confirm the stats before 2001 yet, but it would be interesting to see a list of double-digit reversals like these two games in NFL history. I know the Chiefs are the only team since 2001 to do it in the final 7:00 while the 2002 Rams are the only other team in that time to do it in the final 8:00. I thought maybe the 1968 Jets-Raiders “Heidi” game would be one, but the Jets only led by 3 late and never more than 7 in the whole game. You’ll find that the “win by 10+” part is really hard to find.

Still, I’d love to see more so if you have any ideas of examples from pre-2001, leave them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter with them.

UPDATE: I’ve compiled a table of all seven games discovered since 1981. The first five I included all involved the 49ers or Chiefs if you could believe it, but then I also stumbled on an incredible comeback by the 1987 Cardinals against Dallas. They were down 13-3, but scored three touchdowns after the two-minute warning to win 24-13. They scored the first at 1:58, forced a three-and-out punt, then scored another, got a turnover on defense, and finally ran in a 15-yard touchdown on 4th-and-14 with 19 seconds left after Dallas used all three timeouts.

DDREV

NFL QB Fumble Rates: Russell Wilson Rarely Loses the Ball

In updating career stats through 2019, I wanted to look at the rate of lost fumbles for all 98 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts since 1991.

First, a scatter plot with career fumbles (ranging from Teddy Bridgewater at 12 to Brett Favre at 166) versus lost fumble rate (ranging from Bridgewater/Tyrod at 25.0% to Kyle Orton at 63.6%).

LostFumPct

Orton may have only fumbled 33 times, but he lost 21 of them. He’s the only QB over 60%, and coincidentally he’s just ahead of his predecessor Rex Grossman (59.4%). Marc Bulger also lost 59.5% for the second-highest rate since 1991. Andy Dalton (57.1%) and Matt Ryan (51.4%) are the only active QBs above 50% in lost fumbles.

I wish we had fumble data broken down better into fumbles on aborted snaps/handoffs, fumbles on QB runs, and strip-sacks. You would assume someone with more strip-sacks would have a worse lost fumble%, but I couldn’t confirm that right now. Covering up a lot of bad exchanges with the center could also lower a QB’s lost fumble rate.

Russell Wilson has only lost 20 of his 74 fumbles (27.0%) and NFL dot com has his recovering 31 fumbles. I don’t have recovery data for all QBs, and I also don’t know if it’s available anywhere broken down by recovery of own fumbles vs. teammate fumbles, but that could provide some further insight into these numbers. Wilson has generally been very lucky at his fumbles not leading to turnovers. His rate is only bested by Bridgewater and Tyrod at 25%, though they only have 32 fumbles combined in their careers.

Here is the full table for all 98 quarterbacks since 1991 (regular season only):

QBFumTbl

On average these quarterbacks lost 41.6% of their fumbles, so recovery has been better than a 50/50 proposition for most.

The Decade the Scoring Juggernauts Died in the NFL

The 12 teams with the most points scored in NFL history have won zero championships.

Read that sentence a second time and it comes off just as shocking. That’s a dozen teams, including eight from this decade, who scored more points — at least 527 — than anyone in the NFL’s first 100 years, and not a single one of them won the Super Bowl that year. Oh a few were pretty close, especially the 2016 Falcons and their 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, but even that was a disappointing outcome for the offense.

I said eight of these teams happened in the last decade. The 2019 Ravens were the latest to join the group, going one-and-done at home after a season-worst performance on offense in that 28-12 loss to Tennessee to sour Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Baltimore scored at least 20 points in every week of the regular season on its way to 531 points, the 11th-highest mark in NFL history.

The upset that night had me looking into just how crazy this was for the decade. I found that the 2019 49ers (ranked 17th in scoring since 2010) were the decade’s last hope for a top 20 team in scoring to win a Super Bowl:

T30-2010s

Well, as you know now, the 49ers lost Super Bowl LIV to the Chiefs, who ranked 31st in scoring this decade. The 2014 Patriots (22nd) and 2017 Eagles (30th) were the only top 30 teams in scoring to win a Super Bowl this decade.

That doesn’t greatly differ from the results of the previous decade where only two of the top 30 scoring teams won Super Bowls, but at least the 2009 Saints finished fourth:

T30-2000s

When you go back to the 1990s, eight of the top 25 teams won Super Bowls, including every team ranked 2-5:

T30-1990s

That was back when the league was just getting used to the salary cap and the NFC tended to dominate the Super Bowls until the 1997 Broncos upset Green Bay. As for the offensively-fun 1980s, four of the top 12 scoring teams won a Super Bowl:

T30-1980s

When we get back to the defensive decade that was the 1970s after the merger, we still saw five of the top 30 teams win a Super Bowl with the 1979 Steelers ranking third to end the decade:

T30-1970s

We know winning a Super Bowl takes a lot of things going your way, but scoring a ton of points in the regular season has never really been a big requirement for pulling it off. You can combine the top 30 scoring teams from the 1980s, 2000s and 2010s and have the same number of Super Bowl winners (eight) as the top 30 scoring teams from the 1990s alone. The 90s were really the decade for juggernauts to go all the way and deliver in the playoffs too with not that many upsets around the league. Had Buffalo’s Scott Norwood made his field goal in Super Bowl XXV and if the 1992 49ers were able to prevail instead of the Cowboys (and dust off Buffalo) for that Super Bowl, then we would have had nine of the top 17 scoring teams with rings that decade. Eight of the top 25 is still pretty great when you look at the history here.

With the 2000s, Bill Belichick’s Patriots obviously have a lot to do with those results. The 2001 Rams (20-17), 2004 Colts (20-3) and 2006 Chargers (24-21) were three of the top six scoring teams that decade, but they all lost to the Patriots in the playoffs with disappointing performances on that side of the ball. Of course, the 2007 Patriots also blew it in the Super Bowl with the 17-14 loss to the Giants to deny themselves a perfect 19-0 season. The Patriots’ 589 points that year still ranks second all time. I’d also be remiss to not give the 2000 Ravens some love here. We know they got to face Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl and played a lot of shoddy offenses in the regular season, but they also shut down two of the 10 highest-scoring teams of the decade in Denver (21-3) and Oakland (16-3).

Putting a bow on the 2010s, we experienced so many famous crash-and-burn efforts from some of the best offenses in NFL history. None were bigger than the 2013 Broncos, who lost 43-8 in the Super Bowl to Seattle’s historic defense after setting the record with 606 points in the regular season. From the first snap that led to a safety the Broncos were out of sorts that night. We also saw the Patriots crumble three years in a row (2010-12) in playoff losses, Aaron Rodgers’ best season in 2011 ended with a playoff dud against the Giants, and Belichick once again denied several teams (2018 Chiefs, 2018 Rams, 2016 Falcons) on his way to more rings for the Patriots. But at the very least, Patrick Mahomes put up 31 points in the second half of that AFC Championship Game loss for the Chiefs, the second-highest scoring team of the decade. Very few of these historic offenses can say they delivered in their playoff defeat, but the 2018 Chiefs, 1998 Vikings (damn kickers), and 2011 Saints (36-32 in San Francisco) are three who can say that.

However, one thing we’ve seen several times is that it’s not always your best team that wins the Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, 2015 Broncos and now 2019 Chiefs are all certainly proof of that.

Finally, for those curious here are the results for the top 30 team scoring defenses for each decade:

  • 2010s: Three of the top nine won a Super Bowl (peak: 2013 Seahawks were 4th)
  • 2000s: Six of the top 28 won a Super Bowl, including 1st (2000 BAL) and 3rd (2002 TB)
  • 1990s: Six of the top 28 won a Super Bowl (peak: 1996 Packers were 4th)
  • 1980s: Six of the top 20 using points allowed per game (due to strikes) won a Super Bowl (peak: 1985 Bears were 2nd)
  • 1970s: Five of the top 23 using points allowed per game (due to season length change) won a Super Bowl (peak: 1973 Dolphins were 9th)

That’s 21 offensive champions and 26 defensive champions over the five decades. While you don’t want to rely too heavily on one side of the ball, it’s always fascinating to see how scoring juggernauts have had such a rough time throughout NFL history. If you look at the top 12 (13 total teams due to a tie) scoring teams from 1940-1969, only three of them won a championship. That includes the 1961 Oilers (first 500-point team) winning the AFL Championship Game by a 10-3 score, and the 1964 Browns (tied for 12th) shutting out the ninth-ranked Colts 27-0 in the NFL Championship Game.

The 1950 Rams still hold the NFL record with 38.8 points per game, but they lost 30-28 to the Browns in a classic championship game. Hey, at least they scored 28 and not just a field goal like the 2018 Rams did in Super Bowl LIII.

Coming full circle, I said the 12 highest-scoring teams have zero championships. The 1999 Rams are the reason it’s not the 15 highest teams that are ring-less. They still rank 13th with 526 points scored in that shocking Super Bowl-winning season. But even that example of The Greatest Show on Turf struggled mightily against Tampa Bay, scoring a late touchdown to win 11-6 in the NFC Championship Game. They also caught a break on defense when Bert Emanuel’s catch was ruled incomplete, and then ended up winning the Super Bowl 23-16 over Tennessee after stopping a late completion short of the goal line.

Kurt Warner in 1999 is still the last regular season MVP to win the Super Bowl in the same season, though maybe that’s a streak for Patrick Mahomes to end next year. Yes, it’s all coming back to Mahomes one way or another this offseason. Just accept it now.

Patrick Mahomes and the Race for the Most Yards and Touchdowns

After the dramatic ending to Super Bowl LIV, we face the reality of seven months without meaningful football again. That means seven months until we see Patrick Mahomes continue his assault on the NFL record books, raising the standard at the position with each game he plays. We’ll also see if Drew Brees returns for a 20th season to add to his passing records, which I’ve documented recently.

A couple of tables I like to post on Twitter from time to time are the leaders in passing yards and passing touchdowns by X number of regular-season games (no playoffs here). This is always an interesting way to look at the progression of these records and see who is really on pace to topple Brees some day.

Let’s start with the passing yardage leaders (CLICK TO ENLARGE):

MPYBG

Mahomes already has the most passing yards through a player’s first 33 games (9,412), except he’s only played in 31 games so far. You can see he is on track to completely wipe Kurt Warner off this list, which used to include Andrew Luck and a first 17-game offering from Marc Bulger.

I’m not going to entertain the Matthew Stafford for Canton takes I’ve seen on Twitter recently in this post, but you can see he has the volume here to perhaps finish very high one day. Of course he could also get wiped out by Mahomes. But there’s a good chance we’ll see Stafford continue to erase some of Brees’ marks and probably take out that Matt Ryan chunk for Games 165-168.

If we turn our attention to touchdown passes, we see a higher caliber of quarterbacks (CLICK TO ENLARGE):

MTDPBG

Mahomes once again has been downright historic, though like Dan Marino in 1985 he did see a little decline towards the end of the season that has him neck and neck with the HOFer.

Aaron Rodgers has taken control of the leaderboard since Game 112, and he is technically currently tied with Brees at Game 187 with his 364 touchdown passes. It’s not a given that Rodgers continues to stay ahead the pace of Brees and Peyton Manning. Rodgers has had his lowest TD% of his career in each of the last two seasons. He’ll be 37 in 2020. If he maintains his average of just over 2.0 TD passes per game, he’d be at roughly 553 touchdown passes in his 275th game, or 6 TD passes above the Brees mark. That’s 94 games away, so Rodgers would have to play all but two games of his next six seasons to get there assuming we stick with 16-game seasons (hopefully) for the time being. He’d be 42 in the 2025 season at that point so it’s far from a lock.

Brees is reportedly thinking about retirement, but he finished 2019 so strong (playoff loss aside) that it would be a real shame if he didn’t return for his age-41 season. He is currently six touchdown passes ahead of Tom Brady (541 TD in 285 games), who only gets mentioned now because he’s never had the lead in any of these statistics.

Whether it’s Brees, Brady or Rodgers with the eventual lead here, it’ll be most interesting to see how dominant of a run Mahomes can have. Marino once look poised to put the record books out of reach, but he too slowed down after a torrid start.

When does Mahomes fall back to earth?

NFL 2019: Close Game Summary

Before moving onto the playoffs, let’s review how teams fared in close games in the 2019 NFL season. Unless you watched the Lions every week, this wasn’t a season filled with close games. A total of 142 games (55.5%) saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points. That’s down a hair from 147 games in 2018 and just above the 139 games from an offensively-limited 2017.

The 2019 season featured 56 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 77 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2018, there were 69 4QC and 88 GWD in the regular season. So things were down this year and more in line with 2017 than the rest of the decade when there were always 68 to 73 4QC. We also had a Week 1 tie with Arizona and Detroit each having to come back late, and Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill added another unique win in Indianapolis on a blocked FG return for a touchdown to break a tie. There were also 33 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game, down one from 2018 (34).

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 29.7%, or a little below average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 35.9%.

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

2019CGSUM

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2020 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Most playoff teams had an excellent record in close games, but the Vikings (2-5) had another rough year and the Chiefs and Titans were just 4-4 each. The Titans are 4-2 with Tannehill and 0-2 with Marcus Mariota at QB.

The Ravens, Packers and Seahawks are three playoff teams that did not blow a 4Q/OT lead this year, but Seattle was fortunate to have the Rams and 49ers both miss game-winning field goals against them in prime time. Baltimore actually has a league-best 5-0 record in close games, but that’s because the 33-28 loss at Kansas City and shocking 40-25 loss to Cleveland weren’t opportunities with the ball in Lamar Jackson’s hands late. In fact, the Ravens haven’t trailed in the 4Q in 11 straight games, which is one of the best streaks in NFL history.

The 2010-11 Packers still hold the greatest front-runner streak in NFL history: 19 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter. This year the Packers have been cutting it close by not scoring as much as those 2010-11 teams did, but they lead the league with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead with no blown leads yet. Maybe Drew Brees will get a chance to bust that in the second round. Green Bay’s 10 close wins are three more than any other 2019 team.

The Packers have twice broken the hearts of Detroit fans this year, but it’s been that kind of season decade half-century for Detroit. The Lions finished 3-12-1 with a staggering 3-11-1 record in close games. That’s right, a year after playing in a league-low six close games, the Lions played in a league-high 15 close games in 2019 and nearly lost them all. Detroit blew six 4Q leads, or two more than any other team. Using three quarterbacks, Matt Patricia’s teams finished 1-10 at 4QC/GWD opportunities. They are 2-15-1 (.139) in such games since 2018 under Patricia so it’s not just a matter of not having Matthew Stafford. Maybe things finally get back on track in 2020, but the Lions have struggled mightily in close games since setting that record with eight 4QC wins in 2016.

Cincinnati was the only team to go winless in close games on the way to 2-14, finishing 0-8 at 4QC opportunities and blowing three 4Q leads. The Chargers (1-8), Giants (1-7) and Colts (2-8) were also atrocious at a high volume of 4QC attempts. Philip Rivers now has the most failed 4QC//GWD attempts in NFL history (78), but Jacoby Brissett (3-14, .176) has the worst success rate at them among active quarterbacks. Colts fans can accept mediocrity at the position in different ways, but blowing so many winnable games is hard to stomach when you know Andrew Luck would have pulled out enough of these games for the playoffs this year.

QBRecs123119

Seattle, Houston and Buffalo led the way with five 4QC/GWD wins this year. Houston also had six in 2018 so that could be a team to watch for regression in 2020. Remember, Dallas had four or five GWD in each of Dak Prescott’s first three seasons, but in 2019 he didn’t lead a single go-ahead drive in 4Q/OT for the disappointing 8-8 Cowboys.

The Broncos and Buccaneers each blew four 4Q leads and finished 7-9. They could be teams to watch on the upswing in 2020, but Jameis Winston will have to cut down on the interceptions first. His pick-six against the Falcons in overtime on Sunday was the only game-winning interception touchdown in 2019.

NFL Top 100 Players of All Time

Back in August I spent a little time breaking players down by position to create my list of the 100 greatest players in NFL history. My plan was to post this before the 2019 season started to celebrate 100 years of the league, but then I ran into a familiar problem of not being sure how to rank one player over another when they play different positions.

For example, I knew I would have more quarterbacks (15) than any other position. However, just because I favor Roger Staubach over John Elway, does that mean I like both over Jack Lambert, my No. 4 linebacker, or does Lambert belong somewhere between the two? Also, thought was given to extending the list to 101 players and starting it with Patrick Mahomes just because of how absurd the start to his career was coming into 2019. I’m not doing that, but he is off the charts so far.

So as a late Christmas gift, you are getting my list today. After seeing the way the NFL has rolled out its controversial top 100, I decided to just rank the players by position instead of a 1-100 ranking. I’ve already made my share of comments on here and Twitter about the NFL Network’s list, and some of those will be repeated here. I expect about 66 of my players to match the 100 on here:

nfl100

My Approach

As far as how I arrived at my 100 players, I did not purposely neglect the early decades. I absolutely did place an emphasis on players who were truly dominant and stood out despite having so many worthy peers to compete with for honors and statistics. I can honestly say I’m not too interested in what a two-way lineman from the 1920s did, but I feel like I still included enough pioneers of the game who deserve honor in 2019. I also wasn’t going to neglect this past decade and the players who have already carved an incredible legacy.

I am not a ring counter, but I respect a player’s contribution towards winning. There’s no fancy formula or system I use to rank players, but I try to take everything I’ve learned from research into consideration from stats, eye test, peak performances, longevity, durability, awards, rings, how quickly they made the Hall of Fame, and how the player was perceived during his career. When we’re only picking 100, we should be focusing on first-ballot HOF types.

The choice to keep comments open may be one I regret, but let’s do this. Scroll to the bottom (or click here) if you want to see my full list of the top 100 players in NFL history.

Quarterbacks (15)

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Joe Montana
  3. Johnny Unitas
  4. Drew Brees
  5. Tom Brady
  6. Dan Marino
  7. Steve Young
  8. Roger Staubach
  9. Brett Favre
  10. Aaron Rodgers
  11. Sammy Baugh
  12. Fran Tarkenton
  13. Ben Roethlisberger
  14. John Elway
  15. Otto Graham

My last real post about the top quarterbacks in NFL history is over four years old and a Part II was never made. You can read that if you want, but the fact is my thoughts have changed a lot since September 2015. Sure, my top 15 quarterbacks are the same group of players, and my top three hasn’t changed. However, nearly five full seasons have been played since and even just fundamentally I am seeing things a bit differently now.

I may be even more down on rings for quarterbacks than I was in 2015. This comes after watching Zombie Manning win his second, the Falcons handing Brady another after he turned a game-ending pick into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman, Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP, and Brady again cementing his legacy as the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl by scoring 13 offensive points (for the second time). When 2016 Matt Ryan and 2018 Patrick Mahomes turn in two of the greatest QB seasons ever and don’t even get the ball in overtime in championship game losses, what are we really accomplishing by putting everything on rings?

Sustained peak play is also something I value more now, so that will definitely come up when we get into the middle of the list here.

1-3: No Changes (Manning-Montana-Unitas)

I still have Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas as my top three quarterbacks of all time, which has been the case for quite a while now.

3. Johnny Unitas

Unitas always deserves respect for being the game’s first true field general. He called the shots and is regarded as having created the two-minute drill. His championship game performances against the Giants are the stuff of legends. He led the league in touchdown passes four years in a row. He threw 32 touchdowns in a 12-game season in 1959. He was as good as anyone when it came to throwing game-winning touchdown passes. He was a five-time All-Pro and three-time MVP winner. He succeeded with multiple coaches. The only real knock on him would be that his career was in the gutter after Year 12 and his playoff games after 1959 were rough, but what a run it was before that. He would have loved to play in this era with more passing, more shotgun, better kickers, wild cards, etc. In his last great season (All Pro in 1967), Unitas led the Colts to an 11-1-2 record that wasn’t good enough for the playoffs. Imagine that now. Unitas would have routinely been in the playoffs in a league with expansion.

2. Joe Montana

Montana was a great fit for Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, displaying elite accuracy, decision making and underrated mobility for years in San Francisco. He put up great numbers and won two Super Bowls even before the team drafted Jerry Rice in 1985. Montana proved he could win big without Walsh as he did in 1989, his most dominant season and first MVP. Montana also showed later in Kansas City after major injuries that he could still lead a team to success, getting the cursed Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game immediately in 1993. Like Unitas, Montana was great at throwing game-winning touchdowns in the clutch. His playoff runs over the 1988-1993 seasons were incredible. Durability was a knock as Montana did miss roughly 55 games to injury in his career. So he never threw for 4,000 yards and only hit 30 touchdown passes once, but he was the most efficient passer of his era.

1. Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning played the position at a higher level more consistently for a longer period of time than any quarterback in NFL history. He was the most individually-honored QB of all time with seven first-team All-Pro seasons and five MVP awards. He could have easily had eight of each (see 2005, 2006 and 2012). He struggled the first six games of his career before improving and setting numerous rookie records in 1998 at a time when rookies rarely did anything in the NFL. He didn’t struggle consistently like that again until 2015 when he was 39 and his body was failing him. He still led the Broncos to five late wins in the fourth quarter that year to help win a second Super Bowl before retiring.

Manning’s career path is most enviable, if not logical. He was at his worst as an infant and an elder, and still came away with records and a ring in those two seasons. For the 15 seasons in between, he was the most valuable player in NFL history. We’ll likely never see another quarterback take four different head coaches (from two franchises) to a Super Bowl like Manning did. He was the system, and it fell apart any time he was taken out of the game for playoff rest or when he missed the 2011 season for the 2-14 Colts. He couldn’t even leave a game for one play with a broken jaw without the offense fumbling in the fourth quarter to lead to a game-losing touchdown. No player took on a heavier burden and won as often as Manning did. He was also 89-0 when his team allowed fewer than 17 points in a game he finished. No one was better at making sure a strong defensive effort resulted in a win.

We’ll likely never see another quarterback break the passing touchdown record twice like Manning did, including 2013 when he threw 55 scores and the most yards ever in a season with marginal arm strength at best. The way he tailored his game in Denver to throw with even more anticipation was amazing.

In his physical prime in Indianapolis, Manning led the Colts to at least 12 wins in every season from 2003 to 2009. They were almost never out of any game then, including that 21-point comeback in the final four minutes in Tampa Bay in 2003 or the 18-point comeback win over the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. With most quarterbacks you can turn the game off with a big deficit in the fourth quarter, but Manning was the best at making those games uncomfortable for the opponent.

Aside from maybe Dan Marino, Manning was the toughest quarterback to pressure and sack, always making life easier for any offensive line put in front of him. He called his own shots like Unitas in an era that’s increasingly gone towards radio communication telling the QB what to run. The Colts took the no-huddle offense to new heights in the 2000s. Manning was so uniquely talented that he even made the end zone fade — one of football’s worst play calls — a useful weapon thanks to the work he put in with Marvin Harrison before games. Manning’s work ethic, accuracy and consistency helped make millionaires and household names out of numerous coaches and teammates. When a putz like Adam Gase brags about being rich, he can thank Manning for their time in Denver.

The bugaboo for Manning will always be the 14-13 playoff record and the nine one-and-done postseasons, but the fact is he was one of the best playoff quarterbacks in NFL history too with numerous records there. As I solved before Super Bowl 50, the record number of playoff losses (13) are a combo of making the playoffs more often than anyone with teams that sometimes had no business being there, and losing several of the most highly-contested opening-round games to good teams. Most players aren’t opening their playoffs against the 99 Titans, 05 Steelers, 07 Chargers, or 12 Ravens. Other quarterbacks would have their close calls in the later rounds of the playoffs, but Manning saw five of his record six blown fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs happen in opening games. Only one other QB in NFL history (Warren Moon, 3) had more than two such games. In years where Manning got past the first game, his teams were 13-4 in the playoffs and 2-2 in the Super Bowl.

The detractors have to stick with poor box-score scouting of playoff games and remembering things like Tracy Porter and Ty Law (but forgetting the picks the 2003 Colts didn’t make that day) because that’s all they have left. Year after year Manning erased the arguments against him:

  • They said Manning was only good because of RB Edgerrin James (see record in 1998 and 2001 without him), so Manning immediately won his first Super Bowl after Edge left in 2006.
  • They said Manning was only good because he had a left tackle like Tarik Glenn, so after Glenn retired he kept things going and even won an MVP with noted bust Tony Ugoh as his left tackle in 2008. He also improved his pocket movement after the 2005 Pittsburgh loss.
  • They said Manning would miss the calming presence of Tony Dungy and his all-time leading receiver Marvin Harrison after retirement in 2009. He only started that season 14-0 with the corpse of Jim Caldwell on the sideline and by integrating Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie seamlessly into the offense.
  • They said Manning’s QB whisperer Tom Moore was the key to his success in Indianapolis, but Manning set up shot without Moore in Denver and immediately got the desired results for a franchise that tried to run a 1930s offense with Tim Tebow in 2011.
  • They said Manning had great stats because he played in a dome in Indianapolis, so after diminished arm strength following four neck surgeries, he led one of the most dominant passing offenses in NFL history for three years in Denver outdoors. Several of his worst games in that uniform came indoors as a visitor.

The only thing Manning didn’t prove is that he can still play at a high level thru age 39 and beyond like Favre, Brady and Brees have. Then again, they’re the only three on my list to do that, so it’s not a deal-breaker.

Manning is the easiest quarterback to defend because his success isn’t dependent on one constant coach, team, owner or any factor but his own hard work and skill. He wasn’t the most durable, but he was more durable and harder to replace than Montana. He wasn’t washed after Year 12 like Unitas nor did he peak in his first five years like Marino. His peak was far longer than the eight years of relevance Young gave us. He didn’t need four years to break out like Brees did and 7-9 seasons were beneath him. There were some throws he’d like to have back, but that’s true for all of these guys, and there were fewer regrets than Favre had. He also didn’t have Bill Belichick holding his hand for two decades like Brady. We didn’t have years of “What’s wrong with Peyton?” articles like we’ve had with Aaron Rodgers since 2015, because the decline was so rapid.

Manning ascended to the top of the game quickly, stayed there for a long time, and then fell off the cliff in a hurry. Maybe another quarterback with the initials P.M. will wipe Manning out of the record books in the next 15-20 years. But for the first 100 years of NFL history, the only clear GOAT to me is Peyton Manning. Period.

4-6: I Want to Watch the World Burn (Brees-Brady-Marino)

Good news for Brady fans: this is the first time you’ve seen me rank Brady ahead of Dan Marino. Bad news for Brady fans: I put Drew Brees ahead of them both, which you might have expected was coming from my recent look at Brees as the Hypothetical GOAT. You can read that for more context on the crazy amount of records Brees owns so I don’t need to repeat them here.

My very recent epiphany on this was that Brees is having the career we wish Marino had. Don’t get me wrong when it comes to Marino’s greatness. If Marino played now he would be battling Brees for the most 5,000-yard passing seasons and would still be incredibly hard to sack with his quick release. But why do we seemingly only do this “if he played now” thing with Marino and never with Unitas or Montana or even 1983 classmate Elway? It’s always the hypothetical for Marino, the best to never win a Super Bowl, or something Brees actually has done and could still do again.

My justification for putting Marino ahead of Brady all these years was that he was a better passer surrounded by far worse teams, especially on defense. If it was a close playoff game, Marino always did his job. He just wasn’t always close or in the playoffs often enough because he didn’t have enough help around him.

This argument actually works better for Brees, who has seen more great seasons and games go to waste than any QB in NFL history. Sean Payton has just never done much to coach up the defense in New Orleans. Brees won three passing titles in a row in 2014-16 for teams that never won more than seven games in any of those seasons. Brees has been saddled five times with a defense that ranked 31st or 32nd in points per drive allowed. As I already explained a few weeks ago, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most comeback wins.

In the playoffs, Brees actually has better efficiency stats than Brady and Marino. Brees is one of 12 quarterbacks to appear in at least eight different postseasons (he’ll make his ninth this year). He’s the only QB out of those 12 who can say he’s never had a bad postseason. The closest was 2013, but in two road games he still pulled out one late win in Philadelphia before struggling with Seattle’s vaunted defense. The guy just doesn’t have duds in January, and I’m sure I’m jinxing myself here but it’s a fact so far.

Brees has been on the losing end of many heartbreakers in the playoffs. Brees lost his first playoff game (2004 NYJ) after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal in overtime. He threw for over 400 yards and scored 36 points in Seattle, but it wasn’t enough because of the Beastquake. He is the only quarterback to lose a playoff game after throwing two go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter because of what Alex Smith did to his defense in the final two minutes. Then we have the last couple of years with the Minnesota Miracle (only walk-off TD in 4Q in playoff history) and the sham of no DPI on the Rams that would have enabled the Saints to kick a last-second field goal and get to another Super Bowl.

While Brees continues to excel at 40, Marino peaked very early with that 1984 sophomore season and never got back to the Super Bowl. His first five years are significantly better than the rest of his career. He struggled at 38 and retired. One of the most nonsensical things is when people say “Marino would throw for 6,000 yards and 60 TD if he played today.” No, he wouldn’t. Even though passing stats continued to get better throughout Marino’s career, his own numbers did not. Maybe that was from a decline of the talent around him a la Rodgers in Green Bay right now (see below), but he never really found that resurgence outside of his 1994 season when he came back from the Achilles injury. Why would Marino throw for more than Brees and Peyton ever did when he was barely ahead of the pace of Moon and Kelly in the 90s?

Meanwhile, Brees was the best QB not named Mahomes in 2018 and should have been back to the Super Bowl. He was injured this year, but is back to being a top passer again. Even if he was fully healthy he’d probably still be denied MVP because of what Lamar Jackson did, which is just the kind of luck Brees has had in his career.

Brees’ continued excellence and success that would be even greater if he had better teammates gives him my Marino argument, except his case is even better. So that’s really why I swapped him into Marino’s spot at No. 4 ahead of Brady. The biggest knock on Brees is really the length of time it took him to get to a high level of play.

Brees didn’t do himself any favors in that he played one game as a rookie, was middling at best in 2002, then played poorly and was benched in 2003. He finally broke out in 2004 and has played at a high level for the 16 seasons since. Meanwhile, Marino had that incredible start, but as I said, he never really had elite years down the stretch of his career. Brady also started off better than Brees, only hitting his low point this year at the age of 42. So early impressions have put Brees behind the eight ball here, but he’s continued to play at such a high level that he owns the all-time passing records and may never have to give them up to Brady if he puts it far enough out of reach.

The concept of Brady chasing Brees is wild given how it’s really always been the other way around due to how their careers started. Perception is a hell of a drug in the NFL. By the time Brees finally showed us he was good (2004), Brady had already won two Super Bowls. After Brees’ first year in New Orleans, big things were expected, but 2007 actually proved to be his worst season as a Saint with a poor 0-4 start. Meanwhile, Brady exploded that year with by far his best season with 50 touchdown passes. Then after Brees was Super Bowl MVP in 2009, big things were again expected with him set to join the ranks of Manning and Brady at the top. However, 2010 proved to be Brees’ second-weakest season as a Saint while Brady had a hot eight-game finish to claim his second MVP award. Brees exploded in 2011 again, but Aaron Rodgers was just a hair better, so Brees again was second fiddle. Then a lot of those seven-win seasons started for the Saints and it wasn’t until 2017 that they started consistently winning again. Meanwhile the Patriots are in at least the AFC Championship Game every year since 2011.

Over the last three years Brees’ passer rating is 15 points higher than Brady’s (111.1 to 96.1). If we continue working backwards from 2019, Brees has a higher rating than Brady for every single year back to 2001. However, we experienced their careers in the normal order where Brady was higher every year from 2002 through 2017. Brees didn’t surpass him until 2018.

DBTB-PR

Now how could I put Brees ahead of Brady when the MVP count is 3-0? Even with Marino it’s 1-0. That one’s simple. I think their top seasons match up very well, and Brees’ lack of MVPs is a case of bad luck. Several of his best years coincided with someone else having a career year like Mahomes in 2018 or Rodgers in 2011. Then he’s also been bitten by Peyton a couple of times. Meanwhile, I think Brady was a default MVP in 2010 and 2017 since no other candidate stayed healthy or was worthy enough that year. In the end, I think Brady (2007) and Marino (1984) have the best individual seasons (2007) between the three, but seasons from Brees like 2009, 2011 and 2018 are all better years than Brady’s MVP years of 2010 and 2017. Marino’s only other MVP argument would have been 1986, but he missed the playoffs at 8-8. So I don’t think the MVP argument is a valid one for Brees vs. Brady/Marino like it would be for Brees vs. Peyton/Unitas/Montana.

Sadly, it looks more and more likely that Brees will be left off the NFL’s top 100 as I have been saying for weeks. It’s a tough list to crack and people have stronger biases than usual when it comes to quarterbacks. Brees has had the misfortune of trying to shine in an era with three other all-time greats, but I just don’t know how anyone could look at the body of work and how he’s played and not be super impressed. Most accurate quarterback of all time and most prolific passer of all time are worth celebrating.

Some quarterbacks simply receive more help and have better luck than others. These things do not just even out, even over two decades in the league. It’s true that I don’t think I can use my method of changing one play (usually one that has nothing to do with the QB too) to change enough outcomes to get any other QB in nine Super Bowls like Brady. But I know I just have to change the Tuck Rule/Vinatieri’s kick (2001), Lee Evans in the end zone (2011), and Dee Ford offsides (2018) and I already have Brady down to a 4-2 Super Bowl record. Don’t even get me started on the 2014 Seahawks and 2016 Falcons not committing to the run when they should have, or Drew Bennett in 2003 (Titans) or #MylesJackWasntDown in 2017. The list just goes on and on for what I call the Coin Flip Dynasty in New England. Meanwhile, I could find a few more title games and possible Super Bowls for Manning and Brees quite easily.

That’s how I don’t get caught up in counting Super Bowls for this list. I can look at how the QB performed individually and asses how much help they had to win or lose the game. We know Brady isn’t blowing away his peers in any statistic except for the one that says New England wins the most in practically every situation.

The one stat the QB has the least control over should not be the centerpiece for his greatness. That’s been my argument for Marino over Brady, but it’s better applied to Brees now.

7-10: The Curious Case of Aaron Rodgers

Here’s an interesting one. Roger Staubach and Steve Young are similar in that they were the most efficient passer of their decade while also being really good at scrambling. Both had shorter-lived runs as starters for various reasons, but they rarely left you disappointed. The Green Bay quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, also showed some dominance with multiple MVP awards and a flair for extending plays. They however couldn’t be any more different when it comes to interception avoidance. Maybe Rodgers learned from watching Favre slump through a bad 2005 season as a rookie, but we know he’s very protective of the ball and will throw it away or take sacks at a higher level than he should. Favre was the ultimate gunslinger, but he paid for that a lot too. You had more exciting comebacks with Favre, but also some really tough losses after bad interceptions.

With Staubach, we basically had eight relevant seasons with only one of those (1974) seeing him have subpar stats and missing the playoffs. With Young, his peak in San Francisco was also eight years (1991-98) and it’s one of the best eight-year runs you’ll ever see. I think only 2003-2010 Manning exceeds it. Young, Favre and Rodgers are three of the best ever one-ring QBs. Favre’s Packers (and Aikman’s Cowboys) actually had a lot to do with Young only starting one Super Bowl. It’s one of the biggest disappointments this decade that the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl with Rodgers.

Favre obviously has the ironman streak and longevity in his favor. The thought was that Rodgers could provide 15 years of standout play despite having to wait until his fourth season to start a game thanks to Favre. However, it has been a strange path. Most all-time great quarterbacks don’t have to wait as long to start as Rodgers did. Most never come close to the peak run Rodgers had in 2009-2014, which I have dubbed as Peak Aaron Rodgers. Then we have the last five years that have taken place since I last ranked quarterbacks. Ever since that 6-0 start in 2015 without Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has seen his stats take a major nosedive from his lofty standards. In his last 64 regular season games, starting with that embarrassing night in Denver (2015), his YPA is just 7.05. Rodgers has had the lowest TD% of his career in the last two seasons.

Blame has made its rounds everywhere. Former head coach Mike McCarthy took the brunt of it, but under new coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers is having a very familiar 2019 season that looks a lot like last year. The difference is the defense has been much better and the schedule more favorable. We have metrics to show the offensive line is pretty good. Aaron Jones has been an impressive running back as the running game has been blamed for this decline even though Rodgers rarely had one in his peak years.

I think there is something to be said for having the best and deepest receiving corps in the NFL when Peak Aaron Rodgers played, compared to now just having Davante Adams and some guys. That obviously doesn’t reflect greatly on Rodgers for not developing the receivers better, but he is clearly working with less than he had before. He’s also never been a huge fan of tight ends for some reason so Jimmy Graham hasn’t been much help there. I think this hurts him a bit in an era where Manning and Brees could seemingly plug anyone in and get production. Rodgers loves to extend plays and go off script, but the rewards just haven’t been there like they used to, and he misses having a threat like Jordy Nelson. Health concerns have also been present for Rodgers in some of these seasons.

I used to knock Rodgers for the lack of 4QC/GWDs. He’s improved there for sure, but some of it has come at the expense of his usual early-game dominance. Simply put, the Packers trail by bigger margins and more often now than they used to. So while it helps Rodgers get more big comeback opportunities like the ones he led last year against the Bears and Jets, it’s overall hurting the team that he’s just not as efficient as he used to be.

So it’s unusual to see such a great QB with these struggles in his ages 32-36 seasons. If Rodgers had a 15-year career that looked like his play for 2015-19, I’m not sure he’d be a HOFer. He might be short of the mark like Philip Rivers actually. I’ve been saying that the ways to get Peak Aaron Rodgers back come in only three forms. One is to change teams, which seems unlikely right now. Another was to change coaches, but again, that hasn’t done the trick yet. The third is for Green Bay to land a generational talent at receiver that can transform the offense. Unfortunately, players like this rarely come along (think Rob Gronkowski or Randy Moss). That might be the only hope.

Peak Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs we’ve ever seen, but this guy of the last five years is not. I’m keeping Favre ahead of him for now because not only did he have an MVP reign and great run in the 90s himself, but he rebounded later with a great season at 38 in 2007 and nearly had the Vikings in the Super Bowl when he was 40.

Rodgers will turn 37 next season. Does he have that kind of resurgence in him? Time will tell, but he still has an opportunity right now to turn in an impressive postseason no one really expected from Green Bay and get to another Super Bowl in February. Perhaps denying Brees a second trip would be a big win for Rodgers’ legacy.

11-15: Roethlisberger over Elway

Wrapping things up for quarterbacks, I’ve kept my order of Baugh > Tarkenton > Graham from 2015, but Elway has moved down from eighth and Roethlisberger has gone from 15th to 13th. I have known for years that I wanted to move Elway down more, but this did not prove to be perfect timing for the Roethlisberger push only because he suffered the first long-term injury of his career this year and missed all but 1.5 games.

Let’s not ignore the facts though. Roethlisberger and Elway have each played 16 seasons in the NFL. Roethlisberger expects to play at least a 17th too, so there’s no longevity dispute here. Elway has only appeared in 16 more regular-season games than Ben, but Ben already has more passing yards, more passing touchdowns, and he is only four wins behind Elway as a starter. They have the same number of comeback wins (34) and game-winning drives (46). Roethlisberger has one more lost comeback (9) than Elway (8), or games where the QB put his team ahead late but still lost.

Roethlisberger kills Elway in rate stats and top 5/10 finishes among his peers. Top 5 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has five to Elway’s two. Top 10 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has 10 to Elway’s seven. Roethlisberger has finished 11th or better in passing DYAR (total value) in 14 of his 16 seasons, only missing in 2008 (23rd) and 2019 (IR). We don’t have any QBR data on Elway’s career, but chances are he wouldn’t finish that well in most years. Elway had more rushing production which could help, but he also fumbled 38 more times.

Beyond that, Roethlisberger didn’t need 11 seasons to start putting up efficient passing numbers like Elway, who had 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions from 1983-1992. Look at this split for each quarterback’s first 10 seasons versus their 11th-16th seasons and how they ranked among their peers at that time (minimum 1,000 attempts for rate stats).

JE-BR

(Keep in mind Roethlisberger has had stiffer competition too with Brady, Brees and Rodgers in each split. Someone like Manning is replaced by Mahomes in the 2014-2019 split. Meanwhile, Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell were two of the better quarterbacks in that 1993-1998 split for Elway, a bit of a down period for offenses league-wide.)

Roethlisberger immediately had great efficiency stats and was Offensive Rookie of the Year before later having the volume stats as well. He’s always had top 10 statistics while Elway was often poor for a decade among his peers before turning it on later when the Broncos eventually supplied him with a HOF tight end (Shannon Sharpe), HOF RB (Terrell Davis), HOF left tackle (Gary Zimmerman), HOF-caliber wideout (Rod Smith), and other good assets. Roethlisberger’s boost starting in 2014 was Le’Veon Bell becoming a capable receiver at running back, which he never had before in his career. The improved line and his personal change to get rid of the ball faster has resulted in far fewer sacks taken. The Steelers also had better skill weapons in recent years before Bell and Antonio Brown mentally imploded, but Roethlisberger has always helped his receivers excel. Santonio Holmes, Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant disappointed greatly after leaving Pittsburgh, and almost every draft prospect (mostly mid-round picks) has panned out thanks in part to Roethlisberger’s consistency. The only wideout who broke out somewhere else was Emmanuel Sanders in Denver (with Manning of course).

Roethlisberger didn’t need 15 seasons to win his first Super Bowl either. He needed two and then added a second in his fifth year with the greatest game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. If you want to say Roethlisberger sucked in his Super Bowl win against Seattle, that’s fine. Just admit the same for Elway against the 1997 Packers. The helicopter spin was cool, but it’s not a better play than the tackle Roethlisberger made to save Jerome Bettis’ legacy and his team’s ring in the playoffs in Indianapolis in 2005. While “The Drive” is an iconic moment for Elway, it didn’t directly win the game for Denver like Roethlisberger’s march and throw against Arizona.

Elway has his moments of lore, but so does Roethlisberger to anyone paying attention to the last 15 years of the NFL. This is the problem of playing in the same era as the big four of Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers. Yet Roethlisberger is the only QB in NFL history with three 500-yard passing games, which were all wins against winning teams, including the last-play touchdown to Mike Wallace against the 2009 Packers. He also has the most 450-yard games (7). He’s the only QB to ever throw six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, which was also done against playoff teams. He is tied with Brady for the third-most games of five touchdown passes (seven) in NFL history, and five of those games were nationally televised. He is tied with Peyton for the most 158.3 perfect passer rating games with four. He had a great game as a rookie to end New England’s historic 21-game winning streak. He led a memorable comeback to win the AFC North on Christmas in 2016, connecting with Antonio Brown in the final seconds. There was the slug-out win in Baltimore in 2008 with a Santonio Holmes touchdown breaking the plane late. He’s broken the hearts of Bengals and Ravens fans with nine game-winning drives against each.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t surprise me that Roethlisberger wasn’t even one of the 22 nominated names for this list by the NFL. He’s always been the Rodney Dangerfield of quarterbacks — no respect. But what factors other than nostalgia would make one choose Elway? Are an extra two Super Bowl losses the deciding factor? It’s not for me when I know that’s the result of Elway playing in a far weaker AFC where he took advantage of cursed Marty Schottenheimer teams like so many others would. Imagine if Elway had to deal with the Patriots and Manning-led teams like Roethlisberger has. Elway did nothing to break up Buffalo’s four-year run of winning the AFC. Elway wasn’t the only one who saw his defense implode in playoff games either, most notably those three Super Bowl losses. Roethlisberger is 13-1 in the playoffs when the Steelers allow no more than 24 points, but 0-7 when they allow 29-plus.

It’s hard to say how Roethlisberger, going on 38, will recover after surgery. The Steelers could also be in for some lean years with the Ravens running wild now and the Bengals probably drafting QB Joe Burrow with the top pick. The Super Bowl window may be closed for Ben, but he’s long since matched Elway in that “precious” ring category people care about.

It has been a pleasure watching Roethlisberger the last 15 years. It has been painful watching the Steelers try to operate an offense without him this season. That should earn him more respect, but we know that never seems to be the case despite all the evidence.

Running Backs (7)

  1. Barry Sanders
  2. Jim Brown
  3. Walter Payton
  4. Emmitt Smith
  5. Eric Dickerson
  6. LaDainian Tomlinson
  7. Marshall Faulk

My top three have been set in stone for quite a number of years now thanks to their pure domination and consistency. When it comes to No. 4 Emmitt Smith, I hear the arguments about the offensive line, but his longevity and durability were special. There’s no other way you get to be the all-time leading rusher without that. He was also the dominant, featured player in his offense at a time when his Cowboys were the most successful team in the NFL. The 90s were a peak time for workhorses and he won four rushing titles despite battling with the human highlight reel that was Barry Sanders. Eric Dickerson rounds out my top five, and he may be No. 1 if we just focused on his first six or seven seasons when he was so prolific and didn’t have much help from his passing game. His record of 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 still holds up and may never be broken (at least not in a 16-game season).

While the NFL included 12 backs, I only felt it was necessary to pick seven as I am a firm believer in the ease of replacement at the position. I also picked LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk to round out my list, which explains why I was so shocked to see neither make the NFL’s list. Both were league MVPs who set the single-season touchdown record and were prolific receivers as well. Faulk had that dominant 1,000-yard rushing, 1,000-yard receiving season in 1999 that led to a Super Bowl win for his Rams. Tomlinson was insanely productive through seven seasons back at a time when the league was still filled with the workhorse back, a dying breed ever since.

You have to wonder if there was a personal vendetta against Faulk at the NFL Network to not honor him on this show due to his involvement in a sexual harassment case years ago. That would be a bit hypocritical for a show that had no problem bringing Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, and Lawrence Taylor on the studio and also talked about the inclusion of O.J. Simpson. Not to get on a moral high horse, but allegations of murder and physical/sexual assault against women are a serious matter.

Either way, I have no problem putting players who finished third and seventh in career touchdowns on my list. Tomlinson and Faulk were massive snubs by the NFL. I did not pick a back older than Brown, but I respect the NFL’s decision to include Steve Van Buren. I think that’s the right pre-1950 pick and I also like Lenny Moore a lot too as a big-play threat. I can even respect O.J. Simpson’s inclusion as he was a monster (on and off the field).

But again, I just do not love the position enough to include more than seven as I wanted to get more quarterbacks on my top 100.

Wide Receivers (10)

  1. Jerry Rice
  2. Randy Moss
  3. Don Hutson
  4. Terrell Owens
  5. Lance Alworth
  6. Calvin Johnson
  7. Larry Fitzgerald
  8. Julio Jones
  9. Marvin Harrison
  10. Cris Carter

For the record, if I was ranking all players 1-100, Jerry Rice would be my No. 1 overall player, the GOAT. You could kill a lot of time digging into his records and being amazed at how incredible his peak was and how he was the best Old Man WR in history too. One of the first football articles I ever did was about how unbreakable Rice’s records were. Even in this era of pass-happy offenses, it’s hard to see anyone playing now breaking his records. It would have to be someone who comes in later when the seasons are 18 games long. Hopefully that change never happens and someone beats him on merit instead of increased opportunities. If one record falls it would have to be receptions, but good luck to anyone on the yards and touchdowns. Not to mention all the playoff records.

I saw more of Randy Moss than I ever did Rice, but he’s my No. 2 because I think he had a tendency to take plays off. He basically quit on the 2006 Raiders, which maybe I can’t blame him for given his QB was Andrew Walter and his coach was Stuck in the 1990s Art Shell. But Moss was such a dangerous deep threat and I loved seeing him raise his hand almost instantly out of his break to get his QB’s attention to throw it. He might have sniffed Rice’s touchdown record if his career didn’t go haywire at age 33 (played for three teams in 2010), but that’s just another reason Rice is the GOAT.

Now that I hit on my two favorites, let’s circle back to the NFL’s very controversial list, which I had a somewhat viral tweet about in mocking the addition of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.

In my opinion, my top five players should be locks for a top 10. The NFL didn’t go with Terrell Owens for probably some of the same reasons he had to wait years for the HOF. Perceived “bad teammate” stuff. As an on-field talent, the guy was amazing and excelled with several quarterbacks and franchises, and his teams generally won. His performance in the Super Bowl loss after a serious leg injury was also awe inspiring. T.O. can be in my top five for sure.

When it comes to 6-10, I think many players have a good argument. Wide receiver is a very difficult position to evaluate because their success is so dependent on the quarterback in a way that just isn’t true for RB/OL/TE (see my rant here). We have to consider the team’s pass-run ratio, the quality of the quarterback and other receivers, and did the receiver create a lot of YAC, score a lot of touchdowns, or did he just load up on short completions from the slot? There’s a lot more to evaluate here so it’s not surprising that the HOF has a difficult time with the position and so did this list.

For one, I think having five of the top 10 wide receivers of all time as white players is a head scratcher (unless that was the Bill Belichick Special given he’d include “Julian Welkendola” as a player if he could combine the three). Don Hutson and Lance Alworth were locks that I included in my top five. Hutson is basically the George Washington of the position, the first true great receiver. Alworth was an incredible deep threat and the best from the AFL era. I did not include Raymond Berry or Steve Largent on my list, but I at least see cases for them making the NFL’s list.

The one that bugged me was Crazy Legs Hirsch. He indisputably had one of the all-time great receiving seasons in 1951 with 1,495 yards and 17 TD in 12 games. But that was on a stacked, historically prolific passing team with two HOF passers. The competition also leaves something to be desired from that year. The Rams opened the season with the New York Yanks, a team that finished 1-9-2 and was defunct the following year. That’s the game where Norm Van Brocklin set the single-game record with 554 passing yards, and Hirsch had 173 yards and four touchdowns that day. Hirsch never came close to his 1951 numbers again and only had a couple other really strong seasons.

I get that they were trying to highlight different eras, but why so much focus on that time between Hutson and the pass-happy AFL that Alworth helped bring along? I would have ignored Hirsch’s era for sure, just like how they ignored the last dozen years when Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones were so outstanding, living up to the draft hype with their freakish talent. Calvin came the closest to a 2,000-yard season of anyone so far and retired early much like Detroit’s other great skill player (Barry Sanders). Julio doesn’t score touchdowns like you’d like to see, but it’s hard to argue with his NFL record average of 96.4 receiving yards per game. He is looking to finish in the top three in yards for the sixth time this year. That’s big when you consider Larry Fitzgerald has only finished in the top three one time in his career (he has been fourth a total of three times). This gets back to how voters don’t seem to properly understand how to evaluate a player relative to his peers in this era.

Fitzgerald made my list too even though he’s less dominant than most of the other guys. His hands are amazing, he’s been very durable, and his playoff performances were nothing short of historic. Cris Carter also made my list for his ability to score a ton of touchdowns with various quarterbacks. I’ve always had him ranked ahead of the likes of Tim Brown and Michael Irvin. Sterling Sharpe would get more respect if injury didn’t stop him early, but he should be in Canton.

Then there’s Marvin Harrison. I’ve said that the best WR in NFL history, statistically, would be Peyton Manning’s No. 1 WR. Harrison was fortunate to get the biggest chunk of those seasons as he lit up the record books with Manning in Indy. Harrison’s playoff struggles are hard to explain, but it’s hard to argue with his 1999-2006 peak when he averaged 105 catches, 1,425 yards and 13 TD per 16 games.

Tight Ends (6)

  1. Rob Gronkowski
  2. Tony Gonzalez
  3. Antonio Gates
  4. John Mackey
  5. Kellen Winslow
  6. Mike Ditka

This was probably the least disagreeable position on the NFL Top 100. They only selected five players, but I had the same five plus Antonio Gates, who played college basketball in case you forgot. Shannon Sharpe would also be an honorable mention, but I like this list.

Gronk was the GOAT and the numbers would be even more stunning if he wasn’t injured so often. But when playing he was the best. Think of Tony Gonzalez as Arnold’s T-800 model of Terminator. Iconic and durable. Got the job done. But Gronk was the T-1000, except he’d rather melt into a puddle of goo off the field than continue risking his body after yet another Super Bowl win. Man, it sure is funny how the two most stat-inflating receivers of the last two decades (Moss and Gronk) played at their peak with the quarterback who “never has any weapons” in New England.

John Mackey has one of the best highlight reels of any player in NFL history. He was an OG like Mike Ditka, and Kellen Winslow took things to another level in Air Coryell’s offense as a receiving tight end. A relatively newer position than the others, it wasn’t hard to come up with the tight ends.

OFFENSIVE LINE (19)

Before we get into the OL positions, I want to acknowledge that it’s still the unit we have the least data for, especially for past decades. At least we have new game charting metrics for blown blocks and rates of snaps won in pass blocking, but we’re still pretty much in the dark on most decades of NFL history. So excellence at these positions have largely been defined by draft status, games started/longevity, and Pro Bow/All Pro honors. We know that can be very dubious, such as Maurkice Pouncey making eight Pro Bowls largely on the fact that the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2010 rather than his actual play. So when I’m picking an offensive lineman, I try to pick someone who contributed to successful offenses while also garnering a lot of individual honors, but again I think a lot of us are simply guessing when it comes to these positions.

Offensive Tackle (7)

  1. Anthony Munoz
  2. Orlando Pace
  3. Jonathan Ogden
  4. Willie Roaf
  5. Joe Thomas
  6. Forrest Gregg
  7. Jim Parker

The NFL list had seven tackles too, though we only agreed on three of them. Sort of. Jim Parker made my list here, but the NFL list put him at guard where he also played. He was Johnny Unitas’ left tackle during the title years in Baltimore. Point is he’s on this top 100 list. My top pick was Anthony Munoz who seems to be the consensus for the best tackle ever.

It was surprising not to see Orlando Pace on the NFL’s list. He was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 and really highlighted that great run on tackles in the late 90s with Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Tony Boselli, etc. I have no problem including someone from the Greatest Show on Turf Rams.

Joe Thomas did not make the NFL’s list, which is another slap in the face to modern players since he was retired at the time they voted. Thomas went to 10 Pro Bowls and 6 first-team All-Pros for the freakin’ Browns, their best player by far since returning to the league in 1999. He never missed a snap until 2017. He’s a first-ballot HOF lock and in an era where a lot of tackles struggle and high draft picks miss, it’s worth highlighting the best of the last two decades in Thomas. It’s just too bad he retired right before the Browns got a quarterback worth protecting (at least we hope that’s the case with Baker Mayfield).

Offensive Guard (7)

  1. John Hannah
  2. Bruce Matthews
  3. Gene Upshaw
  4. Larry Allen
  5. Randall McDaniel
  6. Jerry Kramer
  7. Steve Hutchinson

John Hannah was the GOAT for the Patriots before people ruined that label. Bruce Matthews could excel at any position on the line, so you know he would make the list high somewhere. I did not choose Art Shell for my tackles, but I did go with Gene Upshaw from those Oakland lines for the guards. Larry Allen was a monster who could also play multiple positions. Randall McDaniel was a 12-time Pro Bowler who was also All-Pro when the 1998 Vikings set the scoring record.

The NFL also chose seven guards, including my tackle pick of Jim Parker. They didn’t pick Steve Hutchinson and Jerry Kramer like I did. Kramer finally got into the HOF as a key member of the Packers, the most successful dynasty in NFL history. Hutchinson was my pick for representing the last 20 years of football. He should get into the HOF soon too, and he was an anchor for those strong Seattle offenses and also blocked for a young Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.

Center (5)

  1. Jim Otto
  2. Dwight Stephenson
  3. Mike Webster
  4. Dermontti Dawson
  5. Mel Hein

Hard to say if there’s any consensus on the #1 center like there is for tackle (Munoz) or guard (Hannah), but Jim Otto was a 10-time first-team All-Pro. Sure, it helped that most of that came in the AFL when there weren’t many teams, but the Raiders were a highly successful offense in that era. Dwight Stephenson might have gone down as the best if he played longer (just 114 games), especially since he was with Dan Marino in Miami.

I mentioned Pouncey earlier, but you can see why center is such a big deal in Pittsburgh. Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson were two of the best to ever do it. Finally, Mel Hein made my list as the best from his era (1931-1945).

The NFL had the same list, except Dawson didn’t make it there. So there’s probably more groupthink with OL than any position, but my 19 picks being somewhat close to the NFL’s list makes me feel good.

Defensive End (9)

  1. Reggie White
  2. Bruce Smith
  3. Deacon Jones
  4. J.J. Watt
  5. Carl Eller
  6. Michael Strahan
  7. Jack Youngblood
  8. Julius Peppers
  9. Gino Marchetti

You might be able to argue with the order, but I think White/Smith/Jones make up a pretty consensus top three. This is such a crucial position, so I was surprised to see the NFL only chose seven players. More baffling was how they included Doug Atkins and Lee Roy Selmon, but not J.J. Watt or Michael Strahan.

The Watt snub especially bugged me because it showed that they’re not acknowledging how great an active player has already been in his career. Watt played six full seasons and was first-team All-Pro in five of them and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Most guys can play 15-20 years and never sniff those achievements. Watt’s only played nine fewer games than Selmon, who started out on those horrible Tampa Bay teams and only had one All-Pro season and DPOY award. Watt is as big of a snub as any by the NFL.

I also like to represent Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters line, so I included Eller on my list. Strahan was a surprise snub too. Not only does he still hold the record for sacks in a season (22.5), but he still ranks sixth all time (141.5) and led the Giants defense on that great Super Bowl run in 2007, shutting down the undefeated Patriots. Julius Peppers also made my list as a modern player with his freak athleticism and having the fourth-most sacks ever. He should be an easy HOF choice in 2024.

Defensive Tackle (9)

  1. Joe Greene
  2. Merlin Olsen
  3. Bob Lilly
  4. Randy White
  5. Warren Sapp
  6. John Randle
  7. Alan Page
  8. Cortez Kennedy
  9. Aaron Donald

Much like with the Watt selection, I think Aaron Donald has already done enough this decade to belong on the list. We are fortunate to have stats for pressures and QB hits now, even if they aren’t as objective as a sack. But Donald is so dominant in those categories despite playing inside and seeing a lot of double teams. Donald and Watt will be the first two incredible defenders in the game charting era where we have more data to quantify just how much better they were than their peers. I’m not surprised the NFL snubbed him, but I won’t.

Like with Marshall Faulk, I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren Sapp was purposely left off as he’s also run afoul off the field in recent years. But he was another great pass-rusher at a position where it’s just harder to break through to the quarterback than playing on the edge.

The NFL chose seven players, of which I agreed with six of them (not Buck Buchanan from the Chiefs). It’s pretty obvious to agree with the gold standards of the position like Greene, Olsen and Lilly. I just think Sapp, Donald and also the late Cortez Kennedy deserved it too.

Linebackers (12)

  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Ray Lewis
  3. Derrick Brooks
  4. Jack Lambert
  5. Junior Seau
  6. Mike Singletary
  7. Dick Butkus
  8. Derrick Thomas
  9. Chuck Bednarik
  10. Joe Schmidt
  11. Bobby Bell
  12. Jack Ham

Here is an old-school position where teams start three or four players, so it’s not that hard to come up with a list of legends. I picked 12 just like the NFL did, but we had two big disagreements. I went with Derrick Thomas and Mike Singletary while they chose Willie Lanier and Ted Hendricks. Sure, Hendricks is a fine selection and nearly made my list too. Lanier is overkill for me since he played with Bobby Bell on the Chiefs, who also made the list. Singletary was a dominant force in Chicago and is second to only Ray Lewis in Pro Football Reference’s new HOF monitor for inside linebackers.

Derrick Thomas was the snub that stood out most to me the night the NFL revealed their list, because I assumed Singletary was on there too. But for Thomas, he was a great pass-rusher with monster games (games of 7 and 6 sacks) and production (41 forced fumbles) for a winning Chiefs team in the 90s. He sadly passed away at 33 after a car accident, but I have to have him on my list.

This was a position where I didn’t think any active player was really deserving of inclusion. Ray Lewis was the most recent player, retiring after 2012. Luke Kuechly is building up a great resume in Carolina, but I wouldn’t put him ahead of Brian Urlacher yet, let alone in the top 12.

Cornerback (9)

  1. Rod Woodson
  2. Deion Sanders
  3. Mel Blount
  4. Champ Bailey
  5. Darrelle Revis
  6. Night Train Lane
  7. Willie Brown
  8. Charles Woodson
  9. Herb Adderley

This was another controversial position from the beginning when Patrick Peterson was included on the finalist list over Richard Sherman. What bugged me about the NFL’s list of seven cornerbacks is that Mike Haynes was reportedly a unanimous choice, but Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders were not. How in the world can any of the 26 voters not all have Woodson and Sanders on their ballot? That’s absurd. I put them in my top two along with Mel Blount, who changed the game so much for Pittsburgh that they had to create illegal contact.

I also made sure to give credit to shutdown corners in this era where the pass is so heavily utilized. So that’s why I have Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis so high when neither made the NFL’s list. Charles Woodson also made the cut for me with one of the best resumes a football player has ever put together.

Night Train Lane is someone I joke about getting 15-yard penalty after 15-yard penalty if he played today with his rough style, but he was the stud corner in his era. I also gave respect to Willie Brown and Herb Adderley with the latter being a snub in my eyes from the NFL list. Given what we know about NFL media and the things they value, you would think a six-time champion with five picks in the playoffs and four All-Pro seasons would be more highly regarded.

I left out Darrell Green on my list, but the NFL didn’t. I said on Twitter that he was most notable for his speed and insane longevity (played thru his age-42 season). In 20 seasons he was an All-Pro just once and he never had more than five interceptions in any season. While interceptions may not be the end-all, be-all stat for a player, just keep in mind that roughly 600 players can claim to having a season with six interceptions at least once. It’s not asking for much. So I’d much rather have Revis and Bailey than Green and Mike Haynes.

Safety (4)

  1. Ed Reed
  2. Ronnie Lott
  3. Emlen Tunnell
  4. Larry Wilson

This was a position I cut short a bit at the end to not go over 100 players. The NFL list had six, including all four of my players. Ed Reed was an easy choice as the GOAT for me and the only one needed from his era (over Troy Polamalu and Brian Dawkins). Ronnie Lott was crucial and a punisher for the 49ers’ success so he’s up there, but I love the way Reed could outsmart the Manning’s and Brady’s in a way no other safety could. When Reed got the ball in his hands (64 INT!) he was electric to watch too. You didn’t know if he’d make a 100-yard return or lateral to a teammate. Here’s one of my favorite stats ever:

Emlen Tunnell was before my time, but the four-time All-Pro still ranks second in interceptions (79) and probably will never be passed unless someone changes teams weekly to play against Jameis Winston for years to come. Paul Krause still holds the record with 81 interceptions and may have been my fifth safety if I had room, but I felt like he was more of a compiler in that statistic than anything. So my last pick went to Larry Wilson, an innovator of the safety blitz.

Others

I did not select a punter, let alone two like the NFL did, but Ray Guy is the obvious choice there. For kicker, I’ll go with Adam Vinatieri for his longevity and reliability in clutch situations and inclement weather. He also really started finding the touch on 50-plus yard kicks in the back half of his career. Justin Tucker is on his way though, but this is still too much kicker talk. Devin Hester would be my pick for the return specialist, and finally, you can see my top 10 coaches here:

Here is the final breakdown of my top 100 players in NFL history:

Top100NFL

 

Drew Brees: Passing King, Comeback King, The GOAT?

Drew Brees can make more history on Monday night against Indianapolis by moving past Peyton Manning (539) for the most touchdown passes in NFL history. Brees sits two behind Manning with 537 touchdowns, or one ahead of Tom Brady (536), who is lucky to throw one a game these days. Brees will attempt to become the 11th player to hold the passing touchdown record since stats became official in 1932.

Future generations are going to wonder a lot about the perception of this golden era of quarterbacks. They are going to wonder how a player of Brees’ caliber never won an MVP award, or how the NFL Top 100 left him out of the top 10 quarterbacks (Don’t be surprised if this happens in a couple of weeks).

Inquisitive fans are going to wonder why Drew Brees wasn’t heavily involved in the debate for the greatest quarterback of all time, and some people are going to dismiss it with “he didn’t win enough” or “he wasn’t clutch enough” and “he was a stat padder.”

Future generations need to know those people are clueless and should be ignored.

Part I: Yes, He’s the Passing King, But…

It’s only fitting that such a passing machine would own the touchdown pass record too. Brees just threw five touchdown passes against San Francisco’s stingy defense on Sunday, setting another record with his 11th game of five or more touchdown passes (Peyton Manning, 10).

Something else happened in Sunday’s game that makes Brees stand alone in history: he lost after putting his team in position late to win. Brees threw his 16th career go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter in a game his team lost. No other quarterback in NFL history has more than nine, and Manning and Brady have four each.

A Brees-led team has now lost 39 games after leading in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most in NFL history for a quarterback. Manning (27) and Brady (19) don’t even have 30 such games. It was also the 26th loss for Brees with a passer rating over 100, another NFL record (min. 10 attempts). Manning (11) and Brady (10) have 21 combined.

Brees doesn’t get to reap the glory of shredding a 10-2 team’s No. 2 defense in a really important game. He doesn’t get credit for the 9-point comeback in the fourth quarter after he threw touchdowns on his last two possessions. Instead of being in good position for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs again, the Saints could slip to No. 3 and have to host a Wild Card game before winning two road games to get to the Super Bowl. That’s what happens when you become the second team in NFL history to score at least 46 points at home and lose.

While Sunday might get chalked up as an anomaly for most quarterbacks, this is sadly the latest entry in a long line of painful defeats for Brees. It’s the type of outcome that has kept Brees in the shadow of Manning and Brady throughout his career despite the fact he is about to leave both behind in arguably the most cherished passing record in football.

Brees already owns a plethora of passing records, including the most completions (6,792) and passing yards (76,577) in NFL history. He has five of the 11 seasons with 5,000-yards passing. Brees also has the highest completion percentage (67.5%) in NFL history and could own the three highest single-season marks when 2019 ends. Brees still owns the record for throwing a touchdown pass in 60 consecutive games (including playoffs). The only players to come within 20 games of that are Manning (56 games), Johnny Unitas (49 games), and Brees himself with a 47-game streak that started shortly after his record streak ended.

By the time Brees is done, he may surpass 80,000 yards and 600 touchdown passes. His resume goes well beyond those counting numbers too. Remember for a moment that Brees has been stellar in the playoffs in his career and was MVP of his only Super Bowl (2009). Remember that he’s been durable to only miss six starts due to injury (five this year) as he’s played the fourth-most games (287 including playoffs) at the position. Remember all the dominant games at home in prime time when he looked unstoppable. Remember all the receivers he’s made look extremely efficient by being incredibly accurate each year. Remember that Brees has had one top 10 scoring defense and maybe two top 10 special teams units (2019 pending) in his whole career to help him out, and he’s played in one of the toughest divisions of his era.

So what is Brees missing on the resume when he applies for GOAT status? Oh, of course, not enough things out of his control have gone his way.

Part II: …Brees Should Be the Comeback King Too

While those numerous 7-9 seasons with New Orleans’ historically bad defense did him no favors, the reality is Brees has often been left disappointed by his teammates for 19 years. Even in his NFL debut with the Chargers in 2001, Brees came off the bench and helped erase a 19-0 deficit to give his team a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter. San Diego lost 25-20 after the defense allowed a go-ahead touchdown with 1:20 left. Brees evidently wasn’t an instant master of the two-minute drill, but he got there eventually.

If not for an unusual amount of letdowns by his teammates in the clutch, Brees would already own the records for fourth-quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD) instead of looking up to Manning and Brady again.

Most 4QC wins in NFL history (includes playoffs):

  1. Peyton Manning – 45
  2. Tom Brady – 44
  3. Drew Brees – 37
  4. Dan Marino – 36
  5. Johnny Unitas – 34
  6. John Elway – 34
  7. Ben Roethlisberger – 34
  8. Joe Montana – 31
  9. Eli Manning – 31
  10. Brett Favre – 30

Most GWD in NFL history (includes playoffs):

  1. Tom Brady – 57
  2. Peyton Manning – 56
  3. Drew Brees – 53
  4. Dan Marino – 51
  5. John Elway – 46
  6. Ben Roethlisberger – 46
  7. Brett Favre – 45
  8. Eli Manning – 42
  9. Johnny Unitas – 40
  10. Matt Ryan – 38

Third place is still really impressive for Brees, but it doesn’t tell the full story. Take Sunday for example when Brees gave the Saints a 46-45 lead with 53 seconds left after trailing 42-33 earlier in the quarter. That one doesn’t count because the defense allowed a game-winning field goal with no time left.

That game is what I refer to as a lost comeback — a game where a quarterback brought his team from behind in the fourth quarter to a lead, but still did not win the game.

Drew Brees has 19 lost comebacks, easily the most in NFL history. Manning and Brady only have seven each. Brett Favre played the most games at QB ever (326) and had nine lost comebacks. Philip Rivers has the most failed comeback attempts in NFL history (73), but only nine were lost comebacks. Ben Roethlisberger (nine), John Elway (eight), and Dan Marino (seven) didn’t crack double-digits either.

So who is close to Brees in lost comebacks? The names may surprise you until you remember how similar these flat-liners are at producing improbable results and hot streaks. Joe Flacco and Eli Manning each have 17 lost comebacks. Packers fans are used to defending Aaron Rodgers’ amount of lost comebacks, but he has 10 (just three since 2013).

Brees’ historic total doesn’t even include a 2016 game against Denver where he threw what should have been a go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:22 left, but the extra point was blocked and returned for two points in a 25-23 loss, the first such outcome of its kind in NFL history.

Obviously not every lost comeback means it was an earned victory for the quarterback. Taking a 1-point lead with 12:12 left and never scoring again isn’t decisive by any means. Even in Sunday’s game against the 49ers, one could argue it was a huge miss by Brees on the two-point conversion that would have given the Saints a 3-point lead and led to overtime. Then again, the defense had a fourth down to win the game before George Kittle made a monster play to set up the 49ers’ win. But if we gave the top trio their lost comebacks to go with their earned comeback wins, then the top three looks like this:

Most 4QC in NFL history (includes playoffs and lost comebacks):

  1. Drew Brees – 56
  2. Peyton Manning – 52
  3. Tom Brady – 51

Technically, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most wins. What about opportunities to do this? Brees has had worse defenses overall than Manning and Brady after all. Remember that a 4QC opportunity is having the ball in the fourth quarter or overtime, trailing by 1-8 points. The average NFL team wins these games around 30 percent of the time.

Career 4QC Opportunity Records

  • Tom Brady: 44-41 (.518)
  • Peyton Manning: 45-51 (.469)
  • Drew Brees: 37-61 (.378)

So all three are above average, but Brees has the worst record with the most opportunities. Obviously there are a lot of other factors to consider here from time/timeouts left, chances per game, average deficit, field position, quality of opponent, etc. But for today let’s adjust those records by turning every lost comeback loss into a 4QC win:

Revised 4QC Opportunity Records with Lost Comebacks

  • Tom Brady: 51-34 (.600)
  • Drew Brees: 56-42 (.571)
  • Peyton Manning: 52-44 (.542)

Brees gets a big enough boost here to move to about the midpoint between Brady and Manning. Let’s do something similar while looking at game-winning drive opportunities as well, which are games where the quarterback had the ball late with the score tied.

Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records

  • Tom Brady: 58-43 (.574)
  • Peyton Manning: 58-56 (.509)
  • Drew Brees: 54-69 (.439)

Brees is the only one under .500, but we know he’s played better than that. A 1-9 start in the clutch just 18 games into Manning’s career drags him down, but he figured things out quickly.

To adjust these records we need to do more than switch the lost comebacks into wins from losses. We need to also add the games where a tie was broken and the QB’s team took the lead. That means a game like the 2018 NFC Championship Game when Brees led the Saints on a go-ahead FG drive with 1:41 left that infamously should have ended with no time left. But the officials missed one of the most blatant pass interference penalties ever on the Rams and the drive stalled earlier than it should have. The Rams were able to kick a game-tying FG to force overtime where they won 26-23. It’s just been that kind of luck for Brees in his career.

For the record, this is the count of games where the QB led a go-ahead score while tied and still lost: Brees (two), Manning (two), and Brady (one). Interestingly enough, all three had one in a playoff game that could have led to a Super Bowl-winning year (2006 Patriots, 2012 Broncos and 2018 Saints).

Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Go-Ahead Drives

  • Tom Brady: 66-35 (.653)
  • Drew Brees: 75-48 (.610)
  • Peyton Manning: 67-47 (.588)

Once again Brees jumps in the middle in winning percentage, but also is first with 75 clutch wins where he put his team in position with a scoring drive.

The final adjustment I would make to these records is to account for clutch field goals/extra points (tied or down 1-3 points, 4Q/OT). These three quarterbacks certainly have different levels of luck when it comes to that. Several of the biggest field goal outcomes in NFL history, from Adam Vinatieri’s snow kick to Billy Cundiff’s choke, have gone in Brady’s and New England’s favor. Meanwhile, Brees lost his first playoff game (and credit for a 10-point 4QC/GWD) against the 2004 Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard FG in overtime. Manning is the only QB in NFL history to lose two playoff games (2000 MIA, 2005 PIT) after a missed clutch FG by the presumably drunk Mike Vanderjagt.

These numbers haven’t changed from 2018:

Just once in his career (2012 ARI) has Brady lost a game after a clutch FG was missed. It’s happened to Brees 10 times, or more than Manning (six) and Brady combined once again.

Without double counting any games with the losses we already adjusted into wins, here are the final records for these QBs in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game we’re sticking with that as a loss.)

Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Drives and 100% FGs

  • Drew Brees: 83-40 (.675) from 54-69 (.439)
  • Tom Brady: 67-34 (.663) from 58-43 (.574)
  • Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)

So there we have it. In a fantasy world of perfect kickers and impenetrable defenses, Brees would have the most clutch wins ever and a better winning rate than Manning and Brady. We added a whopping 29 wins to his record compared to just nine for Brady and 12 for Manning. But the reality of those games has painted a much different legacy for these quarterbacks.

Part III/Conclusion: And the GOAT Is…

On pure individual merit, I still think Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time. No one played at a higher level as consistently or for as long as Manning did, and he proved his system worked for multiple teams and multiple head coaches. That’s why he won five MVPs, seven first-team All-Pros, and was deserving of eight each. Health and not playing into his forties is really the only area where the other two have a leg up on him.

With Brady, it’s like the old saying goes: eighty percent of success is showing up. His durability is much underrated as only one torn ACL in 2008 has kept him out of action. He’s kept himself available for the team with the biggest coaching edge and biggest divisional advantage in the NFL for two decades. He has more team help and a higher margin for error than the other top quarterbacks of his era. And we know when a big game comes down to a coin flip, the Patriots win more often than not. They don’t beat themselves and they make opponents pay dearly for their mistakes. His GOAT case is perhaps the only one in sports that is centered more on what other players around him have done than anything he’s done himself.

Brees’ situation is really the opposite of Brady’s. He’s had the least help from his defense and special teams, especially in clutch situations. He plays in the toughest division where two quarterbacks (Cam Newton and Matt Ryan) have won an MVP and been to a Super Bowl this decade. No quarterback in the history of football has seen more of his great drives, games and seasons go to waste than Brees.

It’s not like Brees needs all 29 of those losses I highlighted to turn into wins to gain more traction for being the GOAT. In fact, just five of those games could suffice in dramatically changing the narrative for this era.

2010 Falcons (Week 3): Here’s a sneaky big one that could have changed the course of the decade in the NFC. The Saints forced overtime at home against Atlanta, but Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal in overtime that would have won the game. Matt Ryan led the Falcons to a 27-24 win and Brees was denied another 4QC/GWD. This was big because the Saints finished 11-5, a wild card, and the Falcons were the No. 1 seed at 13-3. With a simple 29-yard field goal, both teams are 12-4 with the Saints getting the No. 1 seed thanks to a season sweep. That means there’s no Beastquake in Seattle with the 11-5 Saints traveling to the 7-9 Seahawks and losing 41-36. Brees gets a bye and homefield with the first game coming against the No. 6 seed Packers. Now I wouldn’t assume a Super Bowl run takes place, but it could have happened as the NFC lacked a juggernaut that year and the Saints already beat the Super Bowl-bound Steelers that season. Imagine how denying Aaron Rodgers his only ring while winning a second straight Super Bowl changes the narrative for Brees.

2011 49ers (NFC Divisional): In a classic 36-32 playoff shootout, Brees led the Saints back from a 17-0 deficit on the road to multiple fourth-quarter leads. He threw two go-ahead touchdown passes in the final five minutes alone on the way to 462 yards. Brees is still the only QB in NFL history to throw two go-ahead touchdown passes in a playoff game and lose. He lost after Alex Smith led an 88-yard touchdown drive with 9 seconds left, denying Brees a signature road win and a chance to host the Giants, a team the Saints ripped earlier that year, in the NFC Championship Game. The Saints also would have had a good shot at beating the Patriots, with a weaker defense and injured Rob Gronkowski, in the Super Bowl that year.

2017 Vikings (NFC Divisional): Here we go again. Brees led another comeback from 17-0 down on the road to give the Saints multiple fourth-quarter leads. His final drive (for a FG) put the Saints ahead 24-23 with just 25 seconds left. Even though the Vikings were 61 yards away from the end zone with 10 seconds left, Case Keenum found Stefon Diggs after Marcus Williams blew the tackle and Diggs scored the only walk-off touchdown in regulation in NFL playoff history. The Saints may have been favored to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. That one’s far from a lock, as is a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, who beat the Saints thoroughly in Week 2 of that season. But you never know what could have happened since he didn’t even get the chance he played well enough to deserve.

2018 Rams (NFC Championship Game): I’ve already gone over what happened here with the horrible no-call on defensive pass interference on the Rams. It’s the most blatant no-call in playoff history. With that, the Saints would have run down the clock to kick a short field goal and win the game. Once again, you couldn’t guarantee a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, but it sure would have been a more entertaining game than the 13-3 snoozer the Rams gave us. Denying Brady his 6th sure would have been big for Brees too.

2019 49ers (Week 14): We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out, but this could be a big one if it costs New Orleans the No. 1 seed. We know the Saints are much better at home than on the road. Maybe we’ll get a rematch in January, but that Kittle play on fourth down was huge for this season.

As always, I chose five moments that had nothing to do with the quarterback himself. A 29-yard field goal missed in overtime. A defense that can’t defend 88 yards against Alex Smith in under 2:00 or 75 yards in 25 seconds against Case Keenum. A horrible no-call of pass interference. A game-deciding 4th-and-2 that turns into 53 yards for the opponent.

While it’s unlikely that the Saints would have turned all of these seasons into Super Bowl appearances and wins this decade, it certainly changes the narrative had the five plays gone for Brees’ team. Millions of people think Eli Manning will make the Hall of Fame just for going 2-0 against the Patriots in Super Bowls. Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.

Brees is the epitome of it takes a great player to break a career record, but a great player alone doesn’t win a Super Bowl. Brees is essentially the game’s Hypothetical GOAT. He’ll have the passing records, but he won’t have all the Super Bowl accolades for reasons largely out of his control. History should care more about the path than just the outcome. If you look at the way the last two decades in the NFL have played out, Brees undoubtedly deserves more respect.

 

Ryan Tannehill and the Most Unique Wins Ever

Can Ryan Tannehill actually be having the breakout year we’ve joked about forever in his eighth season? On Sunday, the Titans finally won a big game against the Colts thanks in large part to a blocked field goal that was returned 63 yards for a touchdown to break a 17-17 tie with 5:02 remaining. Tannehill added a touchdown pass for Tennessee’s 31-17 win to improve to 7-5.

It was just three weeks ago when the 4-5 Titans turned their season around after a Tannehill-led comeback held up against the Chiefs. The Titans blocked Harrison Butker’s 52-yard field goal attempt at the end of that one. Tennessee is 5-1 with Tannehill starting and has scored the game-winning points in the fourth quarter in four of those games.

Having tracked every close game of Tannehill’s career, I know success in these moments hasn’t always been there for him. But after this recent spurt he has improved to 19-27 (.413) in game-winning drive opportunities, a winning percentage good for 12th among his peers.

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One thing that I’ve always thought stood out in Tannehill’s clutch history is an unusual number of games that were won with a non-offensive score — let’s call that a NOS — such as a safety or return score by the defense or special teams. I’ve been working on organizing such games better in my database and looked into some of the unique wins in the file I maintain for Pro Football Reference, which currently has 4,715 games credited to quarterbacks for close wins.

This is already the seventh time a Tannehill-led team has won a game with an unique score in his career. I charted the games in chronological order below. Four times he was credited with a fourth-quarter comeback, but no game-winning drive because of the NOS that ultimately won the game. Two other times in Miami he got a win with a game-winning kickoff return touchdown, so the offense never even had a GWD opportunity. Then in Sunday’s game, the Titans punted on their only possession in a tied game before the blocked FG return TD ultimately put the Titans ahead for good. So that would go down as a no decision (ND) in his record, which is something I plan to add soon.

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This is some fortunate/fluky/wild stuff. Sunday’s return is the only NOS to win a game in 2019 so far, but it gets weirder than that.

Since Tannehill has been in the league (2012), his teams have produced:

  • One of the two games won by a blocked FG return TD
  • Two of the four games won by a kickoff return TD
  • One of the three games won by a punt return TD
  • Both of the games won by a safety

If this was Tom Brady, the joke would be that he willed his teammates to do these things, but this is just Ryan Tannehill. The fact that it’s not someone like Brady is surprising just from the sheer number of games won by that team. Even the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre only had three unique wins in their careers.

I found a few other quarterbacks in my database with seven unique entries before I realized they were credited for comebacks in games that ended in ties prior to an overtime system. Roman Gabriel and Charley Johnson each had seven such games. So after weeding that out, I could only find two quarterbacks to come close to Tannehill’s seven unique wins and they combine for eight between them with four a piece.

Phil Simms (4 for NYG) – His unique wins for the Giants included a pair of pick-6 winners, a fumble return TD by Harry Carson, and a blocked punt returned for a TD against the 1988 Redskins. A blocked punt touchdown is one of the few things Tannehill is missing.

Trent Dilfer (1 for BAL, 2 for SEA, 1 for SF) – Does it surprise you that none of Dilfer’s happened in Tampa Bay? The Baltimore one is infamous since it was a 2000 AFC divisional playoff game in Tennessee. With the score tied 10-10, Al Del Greco’s FG was blocked and returned for a TD. In Seattle, Dilfer had a non-offensive game-winning field goal win a game against San Diego (2001) after a 64-yard kick return put the team in great field position late. In 2004 against the Dolphins, Seattle won the game on a pick 6 thrown by A.J. Feeley with just under a minute left. Finally, with the 2007 49ers, Dilfer picked up an overtime win in Arizona after Kurt Warner fumbled in the end zone for a game-ending touchdown. It’s also surprising that Tannehill doesn’t have a win with a simple fumble return TD, but he’s still just 31 years old so we’ll see…

I have no idea why the football gods have chosen such an unremarkable QB to give this many gifts to over the years, but I know it is one of the few things I’ll remember him for. And who knows, if the Titans continue this run and make the playoffs with a potential No. 6 at No. 3 rematch in Kansas City, we might just see another unique score win the game at Cursed Arrowhead.