Updates on the NFL’s Passing Touchdown Record

Tom Brady (552) is chasing Drew Brees (555) for the NFL’s all-time touchdown pass record, while Aaron Rodgers (377) still has an outside shot of passing both if he chooses to play long enough (and if they ever retire).

With Brady kicking off Week 5 against Chicago on Thursday night, it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes all out — think excessive throws from inside the 3-yard line — to throw three or four touchdowns to get at least a share of a record he has yet to hold.

It’s unclear if this will be the final season for Brees or Brady, but this should be a tight race in 2020, and neither may be able to entirely wipe out Peyton Manning from the leaderboard when you break down the touchdown passes by yards gained.

In the following chart, you can see the record holder for the most touchdown passes that gained at least X amount of yards from 1 to 99. So for the entry of 10, that means Peyton Manning threw 324 touchdown passes that gained at least 10 yards, still beating out Brees (320), Brett Favre (298), and Brady (293) for the time being.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is within striking distance of basically the whole 1-45 block, but there are some amusing entries in the middle column that show how different the NFL used to be in regards to the long ball. John Hadl and the great Johnny Unitas threw long touchdown passes with amazing frequency that still holds up today. Eli Manning making a few appearances is also interesting. Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to take over the 80+ yard plays, but Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind for the 70+ yard touchdowns. He has 18 of those, or one behind Brees.

We can also see some interesting things when we go by the game-by-game progression of these records.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is at 555 touchdown passes in his 279th game. Brady will play in his 290th game on Thursday night. You can see Rodgers is ready to do some damage to this leaderboard after taking over from Dan Marino at Game 111 of his career. Remember, this includes the seven games he didn’t start as Favre’s backup in 2005-07. Rodgers is at 377 touchdown passes in 185 games, giving him a share of the record with Brees at 193 games. So that’s an eight-game cushion.

He still has a long way to go, but Patrick Mahomes may very well wipe out Marino, Rodgers, and anyone else in his path on this chart. Mahomes has a tie of the record at 39 games with Marino, but he’s only played 35 games so far. He should become the fastest player to 100 touchdown passes, then we’ll see from there.

NFL Week 3 Preview: Packers at Saints

The NFL’s Week 3 schedule is so packed I wanted to highlight earlier than usual Sunday Night Football’s big NFC matchup between the Packers (2-0) and Saints (1-1) in New Orleans. This is the fifth and potentially final matchup between future HOF quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, who have split the first four meetings and actually haven’t met since 2014. The Saints are 2-0 at home against Rodgers with 51 and 44 points scored in those games, but this offense right now doesn’t look like anything we’re used to seeing from New Orleans.

Thanks to Minnesota’s pointless upset in last year’s playoffs, we didn’t get to see these teams play last year when the Saints lost out on a first-round bye despite a stronger regular season than Green Bay because of the tie-breaking system. So we get the matchup now in a premiere prime time slot with the Saints actually being a 3-point favorite, but Drew Brees is throwing some major red flags our way, and one problem is he’s not throwing them that far either.

Drew Brees: Is 2020 the End?

Everything else is dying in 2020, so why won’t this be the end of this peak run of HOF QB play from Brees that he’s been on since 2004?

Brees has already talked about this being his last NFL season before retirement, but it’s not going to be a happy swansong if the first two weeks are any indicator of what’s to come. Despite the Week 1 win over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers where the Saints scored 34 points, the offense actually didn’t play well. They scored 27 points on 12 drives, one of which was a late field goal after the Bucs botched a kick return. Brees struggled to throw for 160 yards, only connecting on a deep ball after a pump fake late in the game. According to ESPN, Brees’ air yards per pass are the lowest in the first two weeks of a season since Brett Favre in 2009. Now that was the great Favre year in Minnesota and not the bad one in 2010 that made his retirement an obvious decision, but this is still alarming stuff from Brees. While he’s been throwing very short passes since 2017, especially on third down where some of his efficiency has declined, he’s taking things to young Alex Smith territory so far this season and it hasn’t worked as well for the Saints with Michael Thomas suffering a Week 1 high ankle sprain.

We know Thomas doesn’t stretch the field much, but that highly efficient connection the two have that can consistently gain 5, 8, 12 yard chunks has been crucial to the Saints offense. Emmanuel Sanders has had a slow start in his first year with the team so far. It’s mostly been checkdowns to Alvin Kamara so far.

However, some took the 34-24 upset loss in Las Vegas on Monday night to extremes, proving the point once again that the scoreboard really tricks people’s minds. The Saints actually were better on offense in the Week 2 loss without Thomas than they were in the Week 1 win where he played over 80% of the snaps and had 17 receiving yards. On one hand, Tampa Bay’s defense looks considerably better than the Raiders so far. Alas, the Saints scored 24 points on 9 drives on Monday night, and that ninth drive was one in the final 65 seconds where they kind of went through the motions, conceding defeat early instead of trying to get a quick field goal, onside kick recovery and Hail Mary — that may have needed Jameis Winston’s arm — to tie the game.

The bigger problem than Brees on Monday night was the defense that allowed Derek Carr, after a rough start with some embarrassing sacks, to pick apart the defense on long, time-consuming scoring drives. The Raiders scored on six of their last seven drives, and it would have been seven straight had Jalen Richard not fumbled. Richard also scored a 20-yard touchdown run on a 3rd-and-10. That kind of terrible defense brings back memories of the Saints of old, but without the high-powered offense to do better than a 34-24 defeat.

This is bad news when Aaron Rodgers, a more dangerous QB than Carr, is coming to town with a hot hand. That’s why the Saints will have to be much better early in the game on offense. Brees was far from great on Monday night, and he did piss away a drive before halftime with a bad interception, but when you only get eight real drives in the course of the game, it’s hard to be expected to do a lot better than 24 points. Not to mention on the Saints’ only third quarter drive, they self-destructed with three penalties, including a very questionable call on Sanders that led to a 2nd-and-31 situation. That’s a tough situation even if Patrick Mahomes is your QB.

So it was a horrible night on defense that should have been the bigger story for New Orleans, but of course the attention goes to the quarterback. People are already calling for him to be benched for Winston or to retire midseason, and it just reminds me that there’s too many days in between games, so people resort to filling that time with nonsense. There are alarming issues with Brees not showing his usual pinpoint accuracy or really attacking anything past 10 yards, but he’s not at the point where he needs benched. The Saints will just have to get a bit more creative without Thomas, which is why I don’t understand Sean Payton using a great trick play at the end of a sure win against Tampa Bay and not saving it for more desperate times.

With the Saints possibly slipping to 1-2 this week, desperate times are coming quickly.

Prime Aaron Rodgers: Is He Back?

If the 2020 Saints are the 2015 Broncos because of the old quarterback, then I guess they’re going to kick Green Bay’s ass on SNF, right?

That’s a reference to the 2015 SNF game when the 6-0 Packers, coming off a bye week, played the 6-0 Broncos with Peyton Manning in his final zombie-fied season. It’s one of the weirder games in NFL history in that the Broncos destroyed Green Bay 29-10 with huge performances on both sides of the ball, including the old QB, and it really seemed to set Rodgers, who only passed for 77 yards, into a tailspin after a big start to the season.

Before that game Rodgers was on a pretty incredible run of play that included two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP. But look at the drop in his statistics from the start of his career and ever since he returned from that bye week to face the 2015 Broncos:

You can see the YPA drop over 1.2 yards, the win percentage and passer rating down 10 points, and his touchdown pass rate has dropped by 1.46 percentage points. Sacks have been about the same, though he’s lost more fumbles per play and his completion percentage has dropped 3.3 percentage points as he’s fallen in love with throwing the ball away, which helps lower his interceptions.

Things have just not been at the peak level for Rodgers for years, and the coaching change to Matt LaFleur last year also didn’t have the desired impact. However, maybe it’s taking two years to have an impact as Rodgers is off to his best start in years. His Week 1 game in Minnesota was arguably as good as any game he’s had since 2015.

The 2020 Packers are the first team since the 2009 Saints (Payton-Brees’ Super Bowl year) to score at least 42 points in the first two games of a season. They’re only the sixth NFL team to do so since 1940. It’s not just Rodgers as RB Aaron Jones is off to a huge start to the season and the Packers lead the NFL in rushing yards (417) and yards per carry (6.2). Now they’ve only played stumbling division rivals so far, but the Packers look to be in great shape offensively so far. By Pro Football Reference’s metrics, they had their 2nd and 3rd best games by offensive EPA under LaFleur the last two weeks, and Rodgers has the second-lowest pass pressure rate (11.7%) as his line is doing a great job of protection.

If there’s a reason to be pessimistic, it’s the hamstring injury for Davante Adams. He may not play Sunday and he’s still the most trusted receiver on the team, catching 17 of his first 20 targets this year. It would be a shame for this game to go without Adams and Thomas as each team’s WR1, but that’s possibly reality and it’s only Week 3.

While the Saints need this one more than Green Bay, the fact of the matter is it’s a new season, and the Packers look like the superior team with the better QB right now.

The Pick

Under normal circumstances, I would be all in for the Saints rebounding with a win in this game. With a loud crowd amped up for Sunday night and Brees bringing his usual prime time mastery and accuracy, this is a spot where I’d expect Green Bay to fold and allow a lot of points in a loss.

But this year is different. The crowd is empty, the Saints are not playing complementary football, Green Bay and Rodgers are hot, and Brees sadly looks like what you’d expect to see from a 41-year-old QB. Maybe he takes all the criticism this week and it motivates him to a vintage performance, but if he doesn’t, then I think we’re just seeing the early stages of a rough season for New Orleans. The Packers going to 3-0 and dropping the Saints to 1-2 with a head-to-head tie-breaker would be huge for them in a conference where the rest of the South and North don’t look imposing so far, the East might be a bigger joke than last year, and the West is going to rough each other up all year.

Final: Packers 31, Saints 24

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 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

 

Wide Receivers: Fun Toys If You’re a Good Boy (Or QB)

I’ll post my Week 16 predictions a day earlier with the NFL having a good triple-header on Saturday. First, I wanted to rant about wide receiver value in relation to the Cowboys-Eagles showdown on Sunday. As the week wore on, I realized it can apply to so much more than that game.

You can tell the playoffs are close because people are spouting crazy quarterback legacy takes again. We still are several weeks away from a potential Chiefs-Ravens AFC title game where the outcome could set the course of the narratives for Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson for the rest of their careers (a la you know who in 2003). Let’s set that depressing thought aside today and focus on the damage done to the last 20 years of quarterback analysis.

The source of this week’s frustration was after Drew Brees broke more NFL records on Monday night. Patriots fans suddenly wanted to count playoff passing touchdowns with the regular season. Mike Florio and Chris Simms managed to post two horrible top 10 lists for quarterbacks:

Their blatant disrespect for Johnny Unitas aside, I couldn’t get over the appearance of John Elway twice in the top three. So I fired back with this to make sure my Tuesday would go to waste fighting off the same arguments I’ve battled for two decades now:

After reading the usual weak arguments in defense of Brady and Elway, I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that the quarterbacks I tend to defend have a long history of success with throwing to wide receivers. This would be the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Dan Marino, Andrew Luck, etc. Meanwhile, the quarterbacks I’ve call overrated tend to always get the “he doesn’t have good receivers or enough help!” excuse:

  • “Manning’s always had better receivers than Brady, who would throw deep more if he had those guys instead of slots and receiving backs!”
  • “Elway would have all the records if he played with the receivers Montana and Marino had! One-man show before Shannon Sharpe!”
  • “Switch Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott and Wentz would be 12-2 right now with those wide receivers!”
  • “Cam Newton’s only had Greg Olsen and recently CMC.15-1 with Ted Ginn!”
  • “Look what Donovan McNabb did as soon as he got Terrell Owens instead of Stinkston and Trash!”

You can probably throw Joe Flacco and Alex Smith in there as other past whipping boys of mine, but you get the point.

But when you get down to it, it’s the wide receivers that people are really complaining about when it comes to the lack of help. Let’s just take the trio of Manning, Brady and Brees for example:

  • Brady (Bill Belichick) and Brees (Sean Payton) have clearly had better coaching than Manning, who was the closest thing to an on-field coach in his era.
  • Brady (Rob Gronkowski) and Brees (Antonio Gates/Jimmy Graham) played with superior, game-changing tight ends than Manning (Dallas Clark) ever did.
  • Brady (Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, James White) and Brees (LaDainian Tomlinson, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Alvin Kamara) played with better, specialized receiving backs than Manning (one year of Marshall Faulk and 38 games of pre-ACL Edgerrin James) ever did.
  • Brady and Brees had better high-end offensive line play and superior results in run blocking led to better rushing production than Manning had in his career.

Then you get to wide receivers and it’s a different tune. Brady had Randy Moss for two full years as his best weapon. Both had deep threat Brandin Cooks briefly. Brees’ best WR may be Michael Thomas, who is in his fourth year. Meanwhile, Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for a long time in Indy, then Demaryius Thomas and some other talented players (Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders) in his Denver stint. So it’s not a debate that Manning had the better group of wide receivers.

There’s just one big problem with using this against a quarterback.

Wide receivers have the least independent value to a quarterback among his offensive teammates.

It’s 2019 so we’re just going to ignore the fullback position like most of the league has, but think about this before dismissing it as a controversial take. It should be common sense.

Offensive linemen have a lot of value because they have to block (run or pass) on every play. In the rare event a quarterback throws a block for a teammate, it’s usually a half-assed effort to not get hurt. The linemen’s blocking is especially crucial to the team’s ground game and screen game having success. While the quarterback does control his sack rate more than his line, they still play a vital role in his pass protection. A quarterback can make his line look better by getting rid of the ball quickly (and worse by holding it too long), but they still have to limit quick blown blocks or the offense will have a hard time doing anything.

I’ll say “Running Backs Don’t Matter” but don’t misconstrue a comment on replacement value for one on responsibility. Whichever back is in the game, they do matter. Unless you’re Lamar Jackson, most quarterbacks don’t have a huge role in the team’s rushing offense, so it’s on the back to have good vision for lanes, follow his blockers, and create missed tackles. Backs can also be crucial in blitz pickups, throwing a key block to save the QB’s bacon. Backs also provide value in the passing game where they catch the highest rate of passes of any position and gain the most YAC because of how short the throws are on average. Whether it’s a screen, a pass to the flat, or a checkdown over the middle, RB passes are easy plays for quarterbacks to make.

Tight ends do a little bit of everything. They might be a key part of your run blocking, pass blocking, chip an edge rusher before going out to catch a pass, or they could be major receiving threats themselves, dominating matchups with smaller linebackers and safeties. They too catch a high rate of passes due to the distances and they can be deadly in the red zone especially.

Wide receivers, by and large, play at the mercy of their quarterbacks. Their success is more dependent on the quarterback than any other position. Good runs are always valuable. Good blocks are always valuable. A good route? It doesn’t mean a thing if the quarterback never looks in that receiver’s direction. The quarterback has to decide to throw to the receiver first. A good route and a target? Still might not mean a thing if the throw is so bad there’s no hope it ever gets completed. Some routes could open up the route for another player, but that’s just part of the play design. If as many as five eligible receivers are hoping to get the ball, the QB has to identify and deliver to them. It starts with the QB.

Only a small number of wideouts will ever get praise for their run blocking, but that’s not a significant part of their game now. They need to run good routes, get open, catch the ball and create YAC (or win contested catches). When we’re talking about outside receivers, those are the lowest-percentage throws because of the distance involved (wider and deeper than RB/TE/slot throws). In addition to the tougher throws, the top wideouts are more likely to draw double teams or the best cornerback matchup on a weekly basis too.

It’s never made sense to me how people penalize a QB for producing with the position he should be able to claim the most success for utilizing. Accuracy definitely comes into play here, and it’s no surprise to me that Elway, Newton, Wentz and McNabb are four quarterbacks with undisputable accuracy issues in their careers. Brady’s reputation is dink-and-dunk, so it’s the throws over 15 yards that you question there even in his prime.

The thought that adding a top-flight receiver is the only thing those quarterbacks needed doesn’t fly with me. Take McNabb for example. Sure, he had his best season ever in 2004 when they brought in Terrell Owens. His completion percentage shot up to a career-high 64.0%, but notice that he was down to 59.1% in 2005, a season where Owens’ antics helped bring the team down quickly. For the rest of his career McNabb was just a 59.6% passer. This is a case study in outliers and identifying cause and effect. McNabb didn’t suddenly shoot up to 64% because he was throwing to TO. Owens caught 61.1% of McNabb’s targets. That’s solid, but the big change was RB Brian Westbrook getting utilized more and catching 83.9% of his 87 targets from McNabb. That success didn’t continue as Westbrook only caught 73.8% of his targets in Philadelphia from 2005-09. McNabb didn’t sustain or repeat his level of 2004 play because that’s not the type of quarterback he usually was.

This isn’t to say a great wide receiver can’t have a huge impact on an offense. It’s just that very few players in the league qualify as a game-changing talent. Tyreek Hill is one of those players in Kansas City because of his unique speed. That’s not to say Patrick Mahomes still didn’t do great things without him earlier this year, but that’s because Mahomes is a unique talent himself.

Look at the Colts for a different example. T.Y. Hilton was quite a receiver when Andrew Luck was his quarterback, but if all we knew of him were his years without Luck (2017 and 2019) he would look like a marginal No. 1. So how does one justify holding it against Andrew Luck for having a 1,000-yard WR in Hilton when Hilton wouldn’t be a 1,000-yard WR if Jacoby Brissett was his QB? This is why the WEAPONZ arguments are always so bad when people talk about quarterbacks.

A great statistical season for a quarterback almost certainly means he was able to get production from multiple receivers. A great statistical season for a wide receiver means he played great, but chances are his teammates, including the QB sometimes, did not fare so well. What do you think is more helpful for scoring points and winning games in this league? It sounds nice in theory to get an increase in production for your best receiver, but success in the NFL comes easiest when your best player is actually the quarterback and he’s finding the right matchups all over the field instead of keying in on one guy.

In this era we think of 4,000 yards as a bare minimum for a prolific passing season, efficiency aside. No receiver has ever had a 2,000-yard receiving season, so it’s not like we see one player responsible for over 50 percent of the production in the passing game in this league. Among the 46 players with 1,500 yards in a season, Lance Alworth was the closest with 47.4% of San Diego’s yards in 1965. His team lost 23-0 in the AFL Championship Game.

Super Bowl winners certainly haven’t needed prolific receiving numbers from one player. Steve Smith’s incredible year for the 2005 Panthers where he accounted for 44.8% of the team’s gross passing yardage led to two playoff wins. Out of the 40 seasons where the 1,500-yard receiver had at least a third of his team’s passing yardage, only Smith and 1995 Michael Irvin (Cowboys) played for teams with multiple playoff wins. Antonio Brown (2015) is the only receiver this century to win a playoff game after a 1,600-yard regular season. Jerry Rice, the GOAT, set the single-season record with 1,848 yards in 1995 and it was 38.7% of the 49ers’ total. When Calvin Johnson set the current record with 1,964 yards in 2012, the Lions finished 4-12 and 17th in scoring. No other Detroit player had 600 receiving yards even though Matthew Stafford set a record with 727 attempts (No. 2 all time is 691, Drew Bledsoe).

You’ll hear a lot now about Michael Thomas set to break Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 receptions. When Harrison did that with Peyton Manning in 2002, it led to 41 percent of the Colts’ passing yardage, but that was also the second-worst scoring offense (ranked 15th in points per drive) of Manning’s career. Only two guys playing pitch-and-catch while RB Edgerrin James had a slow return from an ACL injury apparently does not lead to a great offense. Brandon Marshall had arguably his best year ever when he reunited with Jay Cutler on the 2012 Bears, but the offense finished 22nd in scoring. Julio Jones had 1,871 yards in 2015, which ranks second in NFL history. It’s also the second-worst scoring offense (ranked 16th) in Matt Ryan’s career. Josh Gordon (2013 Browns), Isaac Bruce (1995 Rams), Rob Moore (1997 Cardinals), and David Boston (2001 Cardinals) are four more examples of career-peak seasons for offenses that still didn’t rank higher than 22nd in points per drive.

Too much from a great player can actually be problematic when it creates an imbalance on the offense and the ability to create plays from multiple options.

Nothing I’ve said here — I want to make it clear this was a late-night rant more than a deep dive — disputes the idea that an offense with two (or three) really good wide receivers would be very beneficial to a quarterback. That way he wouldn’t have to lean on one player and they could attack from different angles. Look at the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and it’s no coincidence that their best statistical seasons likely came with their strongest supporting casts.

However, I think people tend to overlook the importance of consistent accuracy, and they love to exaggerate just how good (or bad) one quarterback’s supporting cast really is. It’s not like Kirk Cousins’ season fell apart when Adam Thielen was injured this year. It’s not like Stafford’s efficiency numbers haven’t shot up since Calvin Johnson retired and he’s changed his playing style to accommodate. (It’s a shame we didn’t get a full season from Stafford in 2019 as he was playing arguably his best football.) Even Derek Carr is setting career highs in 2019 without Amari Cooper (or Antonio Brown). Baker Mayfield did better as a rookie without Odell Beckham Jr. on his team. Jameis Winston just stacked historic games of 450 yards and 4 TD with Mike Evans only having a 61-yard TD catch in those games.

There’s some random NFL for you. But what’s not random is a great quarterback finding a way to complete passes with the players he has around him. Maybe that’s a three tight end approach like these historic Ravens, or it’s dominating with your wideouts in 11 personnel like Manning’s Colts used to. There is no one right way to build an offense, because you have to shape it around the skillset of your quarterback.

So when I see Eagles fans wish for Wentz to get his own Amari Cooper for Christmas to make all the difference in the NFC East, I just laugh. If he’s not fumbling in the pocket after four seconds, then it’s still a matter of hitting the mark too.

ACSeye

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.

 

NFL Week 10 Predictions: MVP Talk Edition

My posture is so bad this weekend (sore back) I should be qualified to write about the Detroit Lions, but I really don’t want to. The only thing worse than my back pain is the Week 10 schedule, which features 10 games (out of 14) with a team favored by 6 or more points.

I thought Carolina-Pittsburgh was clearly the game of the week, but even that was a blowout on Thursday night. So I’m sure we’ll be in store for some crazy upsets tomorrow or else this is going to be a brutal week.

That’s why I just wanted to briefly touch on the MVP race since we’re past the halfway point of the season. I’ve seen people bring up Todd Gurley and that James Conner (!) should be in the discussion now.

First of all, no, Conner shouldn’t. Only Ben Roethlisberger could be on pace for a 5,000-yard passing season and have the RB (or WR) get the credit, but that’s possibly a topic for another day.

The 2018 NFL MVP is Patrick Mahomes’ award to lose. He’s nine games through a season that should go down as one of the best sophomore efforts in NFL history. After 1984 Dan Marino and 1999 Kurt Warner, they’ll talk about 2018 Patrick Mahomes. Warner’s season is even worthy of an asterisk in that he was 28 years old and had prior experience in professional football. Mahomes is a first-year starter and has just been incredible. He’s made 300-yard passing games with multiple touchdowns look routine. They have been at times in 2018, but try watching Bills-Jets tomorrow and see just how hard those teams make it look. Mahomes’ era-adjusted numbers should still come out looking great as long as he doesn’t totally falter down the stretch. Remember, the Chiefs hit a snag last year after Alex Smith had a great start, but Mahomes has been even better with 29 touchdown passes in nine games.

It’s cute that people want to bring up other MVP contenders (Gurley/Goff, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, etc.), but this is truly a historic season from Mahomes. He’s No. 1 in DYAR, DVOA and QBR with numbers that could rival some of the best seasons from someone like Peyton Manning.

The best person to replace Mahomes should he falter is Drew Brees, who is tied for the league lead with four game-winning drives this season. He’s completing 76.3 percent of his passes, looking to reset that NFL record once again. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns to one interception. Like Mahomes, he put up 40 points in his team’s only loss of the season. Where I think Mahomes distanced himself from Brees is in Week 8 when Brees had one of his least impactful games as a Saint in an easy win in Minnesota. He only threw for 120 yards that night. He only threw for 217 yards and no touchdowns in a win over the Giants. He struggled a little with Cleveland too in Week 2. Mahomes has been more consistently great so far, and the Chiefs have scored at least 27 points in every game.

I know some people are determined to see Brees win an MVP award since he’s surprisingly never done so, but I don’t think age is a good argument. We shouldn’t hold it against Mahomes that he’s young, or reward Brees for being 39 here. The better season deserves the honor, and so far that’s been Mahomes. It’s just Brees’ bad luck that his peak years have been peak years for some of the game’s other greats. It happened in 2009 when Peyton Manning carried an Indianapolis team with Jim Caldwell at coach to 14-0 with seven comeback wins. Brees might have won that one if we didn’t see him falter in prime time in a comeback opportunity against Dallas when 14-0 was possible. It happened in 2011 when Aaron Rodgers got the head-to-head win over Brees’ Saints in Week 1 and that gave way to a 13-0 start in his best season. Voters may have gone with Brees (especially after Matt Flynn’s 480/6 game in Week 17) if he didn’t have bad games against weak teams like the Rams and Buccaneers in losses.

Now it could be an epic season from Mahomes that pushes Brees aside, but we’ll see. There’s still plenty of marquee games coming up for both. It’s just incredible to look at this list of most MVP votes since 1986 and see that Brees only has .5 more than J.J. Watt.

MVP86-17

NFL Week 10 Predictions

I thought Pittsburgh would win by a FG on Thursday, so 0-1 ATS, but 1-0 SU for me so far.

2018Wk10

A lot of big favorites this week. I think I’d stay away from BUF-NYJ since turnovers could decide that one. Maybe I was a week early on Cleveland playing it close under Gregg Williams, but I still cautiously picked Atlanta to cover. I also think GB and CHI are shaky teams, but at least they’re both at home. I actually like the Eagles to cover even though they’ve only won by more than 6 points in one out of eight games this year. I wouldn’t rule out Mike Vrabel having his Josh McDaniels moment in beating Belichick in overtime, just because the Titans seem to suck everyone into a close game.

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NFL Week 9 Predictions: Brady vs. Rodgers vs. GOAT Edition

The Week 9 schedule looks as good as any week this season, and the game of the week should be Rams at Saints. However, I am using this space (and the weekend’s extra hour) to clear up some things from late in the 2016 season that I wanted to write about, but never got around to doing. After all, this very well may be the second and last time there’s a game between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

The GOAT Discussion: Part I (Statistical Regret)

Naturally, the discussion has been who is the GOAT? Brady or Rodgers? More accomplished or more talented? I tend to avoid this particular debate, because I’d easily take Peyton Manning over both of them as no one played the position at as high of a level as consistently long as he did.

But that’s not the main focus today. I want to express some rare regret over posting a stat from January 2017. It’s hard to regret citing a fact, because I don’t feel responsible for how people choose to interpret them. However, if I knew what Patriots fans would do with this one, I never would have brought it up.

Leading into the 2016 NFC Championship Game (Green Bay at Atlanta), I was doing research on the Packers that showed this team was not good as an underdog, not good against high-scoring offenses, and as I’ve written about since 2011, not good at winning after falling behind. That led me to post the stat that said:

Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.

I wanted to make it clear how getting off to a good start was paramount for the Packers in Atlanta (Narrator: they didn’t.). I tweeted the stat of course, and in the months & years since, it randomly gets retweeted and liked at all hours of the day, typically by Patriots fans who use it as the ultimate dig against Rodgers and a sign of his anti-clutchness in comparison to Brady.

Beyond my own mentions, I see it often cited on Twitter from people who probably have never seen my work, and many who would be pissed if they did since I always choose to push fact over narrative for their King of Kings. Here’s a small sampling of tweet results for “Rodgers 0-35” from just the last day, and notice how none of them actually get all the details of the stat correct (like more than 1 point):

035stat

Basically, by arming NE fans with this stat, I feel like the US giving chemical weapons to Saddam, and I regret it more and more by the day.

The fact that people don’t even choose to update it just shows some of the damage I caused by getting this out there. For the record, it’s now 1-38 for Rodgers when trailing by more than 1 point in the fourth quarter against teams with a winning record thru 2017.

And that’s teams who finish the season with a winning record, so it’s thru 2017 only. Maybe the Bears game this year will be his second win, but the first was Dallas last year. Oddly enough, the Cowboys only finished 9-7 instead of 8-8 because the Eagles rested starters in Week 17. That’s one of the ways this stat can be totally unfair to the QB, just like citing their playoff W-L record often would be. These guys aren’t playing Andy Dalton postseason bad and earning winless records in a small number of games. It’s much more nuanced than that, but I’ve unfairly helped label Rodgers as the 0-35 guy.

So why post it in the first place? You have to remember that of Rodgers’ 10 4QC at the time, the first was a 1-point deficit against the 0-16 Lions (a game Detroit lost by 23). Then he had a pair of them against the otherwise 7-7 Bears of 2009, a bad debut year by Jay Cutler. His 6th was the first against an 8-8 team (2013 Bears) where the argument is valid that the Bears would have been 9-7 division winner had Rodgers not come back to beat them in Week 17. That’s fair, but someone like Peyton Manning had nine 4QC against teams that finished 8-8, but he still managed at least 17 of these comeback wins against winning teams. Then I noticed Rodgers had two comebacks from a 1-point deficit early in the quarter against 2014 Dallas and 2015 Seattle. Teams down 1 point early in 4Q often have a win probability > 50%, especially if they were at home and favored. So it was an interesting mix of comebacks from typically small margins against pretty average teams.

It’s a wild stat, and while it is a difficult situation, the average QB is going to win 10 percent of the time, and it’s more like 25 percent for the best. Even the aforementioned Dalton is 7-25-1 in that situation in his career thru 2017. So there is still some doubt to associate with Green Bay and comebacks, but Rodgers rarely is the main problem there.

The GOAT Discussion: Part II (Those Damn Super Bowl Collapses)

I also have to blame the 2016 Falcons and 2014 Seahawks for not running the ball in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowls and ruining the GOAT discussion on a national level. People think it ends with those games, both won by New England to give them a fourth and fifth title in the Brady-Belichick era.

I think they only add to the overwhelming evidence that Brady, who had shaky performances throughout both games, gets to win games other quarterbacks would lose based on factors out of their control. Did Brady will Malcolm Butler to intercept a pass at the 1-yard line for the costliest interception in NFL history? Did he will Robert Alford to drop an interception that turned into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman? Did he will the Patriots to win the coin toss in overtime and get the ball first? That came only after a stop in the last minute against Matt Ryan (something Russell Wilson couldn’t get the benefit of with 31 seconds left in 2012).

Some people are such simpleton ring counters that I think they’d still call Brady the GOAT even if the Seahawks and Falcons finished off the Patriots on the ground. But I do believe a lot of national perception would be different if the Patriots were riding a 5-game Super Bowl losing streak with no titles since the 2004 season. However, Butler made the play, so good for him. Dont’a Hightower had the crucial strip-sack on third-and-short to change the Atlanta game, and the Patriots sacked Matt Ryan again to knock the Falcons out of field goal range when they could have put it away by going up 11. So good for them too. They made the plays to get the win.

The problem is when people act like these comebacks were all Brady, or worse: that no other quarterback could do what he did. They act like he has some special sauce or gene that will elevate him in these spots over the likes of Rodgers, Manning and any other QB you want to name.

It’s really just a bunch of narrative-driven BS, so let’s look at the facts. Two weeks before SB LI, Rodgers faced this same Atlanta team and its lousy defense on the road in the NFC Championship Game. He was down 31-0 in the third quarter after Julio Jones embarrassed his defense with a long touchdown (wow, feels like he hasn’t scored since). Never mind the fact that Rodgers wasn’t as bad as Brady (pick-six in 2Q) to this point in the game against Atlanta. Never mind that Atlanta went up 10-0 after Green Bay started with a missed 41-yard field goal and fumble by the fullback deep in scoring territory. The fact is it was 31-0 and Rodgers was going to have to be amazing the rest of the way.

What did Rodgers do? He led three straight 75-yard touchdown drives against Atlanta. It may have been four in a row, but he sat out the last drive. Why? The Falcons were up 44-21. Despite Rodgers’ best efforts on those touchdown drives, his defense continued to give up two more touchdowns to Atlanta. You can’t come back without stopping them too, and that’s not on the quarterback. Brady’s defense stopped the Falcons on four straight drives, including the huge stops with sacks in the fourth quarter. Rodgers didn’t get that benefit, so no comeback.

Go back two years earlier to 2014: Rodgers was at Seattle for the NFC Championship Game. Again, tougher to play on the road than neutral field, but I digress. Rodgers didn’t have a good game, but that’s likely a win if GB just recovers an onside kick late. They didn’t and Wilson put the Seahawks ahead. Down 22-19, Rodgers still put the Packers in range for a game-tying field goal to go to overtime. He just never touched the ball again after the Seahawks scored a touchdown on the only drive of overtime.

Now imagine if the Falcons did that to Brady in the Super Bowl: a TD in overtime with him not getting the ball. We’d probably have a rule change by now because the outcry would be so massive. No one cares that it happened to Atlanta though. The GOAT won his fifth (after escaping a game-ending interception, mind you).

I’m also just realizing how close we were to Rodgers/Brady II in SB 49, which may have changed a lot of perception years ago, but alas, things happened. The Packers beat NE that year, by the way.

Let’s also use these ATL/SEA games and compare this to Manning, who faced the tougher version of the Seahawks in 2013. That defense didn’t feature the Legion of Boom with all the serious injuries that Brady saw them with in SB 49. They also didn’t lose Cliff Avril and Jeremy Lane to injuries after interceptions like with Brady. But again, I digress. Manning threw a pick-six in the first half of that game and was down 22-0. Not much unlike Brady, who threw a worse pick-six (wasn’t hit in motion like Manning) being down 21-0 to Atlanta. However, the Patriots settled for a field goal before halftime to make it 21-3. They knew Atlanta’s D was bad at holding leads and could be scored on. Down 22-0, Denver felt the need to score a touchdown now, especially with Seattle getting the ball to start the third. So they went for a fourth-and-short over the field goal, but Manning’s pass was knocked down. 22-0 was going to be a hell of a comeback effort against one of the best defenses this century, but Seattle made it a moot point after Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff for a TD to make it 29-0.

Now Manning would need the 2nd-largest comeback in NFL history, so good luck with that one. Manning actually had his best quarter that night in the third quarter, but they ran the ball on a third-and-10 before punting, Demaryius Thomas lost a fumble at the SEA 21, the Seahawks added another touchdown, and it was 36-0 before Manning finally got Denver on the board to end the quarter at 36-8. A 28-point 4QC has never been done in NFL history, but Manning never even got the chance after Seattle added yet another touchdown for a 43-8 final. Again, Rodgers and Manning didn’t get any stops when they needed them like Brady continued to get against what was actually the strongest offense in this little study (2016 Falcons with MVP QB Matt Ryan).

So while Brady gets praise and MVP honors for the 10-point 4QC against Seattle that only held up after Butler’s incredible pick, no one remembers that Manning played the 2014 Seahawks (without torn MCLs and labrums in the secondary) in Seattle that year. He was down 17-5 in the 4Q and threw two touchdown passes to force OT. He was down 20-12 in the final minute with 80 yards to go before leading a touchdown drive with a game-tying two-point conversion pass. That type of comeback drive (down 8 in final minute) had never been pulled off before in NFL history.

But no one remembers this drive because the Seahawks got the ball first in OT and they handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch in the red zone for a 6-yard TD to end it. We just covered four games for Manning and Rodgers where they never got the ball in overtime after tying late, or they didn’t get the stops on defense to make a huge comeback possible. But for Brady? He always gets that help, which is why the Patriots have this long-running dynasty.

We have seen playoff comebacks of this nature from several of the game’s recent greats, but the difference in winning or losing is rarely ever about the QB himself.

Peyton Manning led an 18-point comeback win against Brady’s Patriots in 2006 AFC Championship Game, which was the biggest comeback in a championship game until SB LI. Manning also came up a field goal short (missed terribly by Mike Vanderjagt) of overtime against the Steelers in 2005 after trailing 21-3 in the fourth quarter.

Ben Roethlisberger erased a 28-10 4Q deficit against the 2007 Jaguars to take a late 29-28 lead, but his defense allowed a game-winning field goal in the final minute after David Garrard converted a 4th-down scramble (holding penalty missed).

Drew Brees has twice erased 17-0 deficits on the road in the playoffs against the 49ers (2011) and Vikings (2017). He put his team ahead in the final 100 seconds in both games, but watched his defense give up touchdown drives to Alex Smith and Case Keenum.

Don’t forget Atlanta has a history of blown leads. In 2012, the aforementioned Russell Wilson led a 20-point 4QC in Atlanta to take a late 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left, but his defense still blew it in that small amount of time. A week later, Colin Kaepernick helped the 49ers erase a 17-point deficit to beat Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

In his first playoff game, Aaron Rodgers led three 4Q touchdown drives in Arizona in 2009 to force overtime. Granted, he did miss an open Greg Jennings in overtime and gave up a game-ending fumble-six, but he still at least got the game to overtime on a day where Kurt Warner shredded the defense for 45 points.

Andrew Luck has already led a 28-point comeback win in the playoffs, beating the 2013 Chiefs 45-44.

I just stuck to Brady’s peers here, but Joe Montana also once led a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the 1983 NFC Championship Game by throwing three touchdown passes to tie the game. It’s just unfortunate that the Redskins hogged the ball and got away with a shaky pass interference call to set up their game-winning field goal to advance to the Super Bowl.

If I see QBs in need of a late-game drive to win, I expect Brady will get the win more often than anyone. However, my expectations of that are due to the overall machine that NE has under the Faustian Belichick rather than the quarterback himself. If it’s a Manning or Rodgers team, I’m expecting how one of their teammates is going to screw the latest game up. That difference in help is the main difference between these quarterbacks, because individual QB skill is certainly not driving these results.

The GOAT Discussion: Part III (Help)

We know ring counters ruin most sports talk, but it’s always amazed me when people bring up the eye test to label Brady as the GOAT. I claim to have bad eyes, but I’m pretty sure my football vision has been good enough to see that there are more talented quarterbacks in this era. Let’s add Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing king, to this discussion.

Brady doesn’t have the accuracy of his peers, especially Brees. Brady doesn’t command the offense from the line, practically serving as the coordinator like Manning did in his career. Brady doesn’t have the mobility and improv skills of Rodgers. He’s got a hell of a QB sneak though.

It’s 2018, yet people still seem to define a QB’s help as his receivers. The fact is a great QB will elevate his receivers by producing better stats for them and help them make Pro Bowls and get paid if they hit free agency. He’ll keep pressures and sacks down since those stats are more reflective of QB play than offensive line play. He’ll get his offensive coordinators hired to more important jobs. He’ll make the whole operation run smoother, and while Brady does those things, it’s hard to say with any actual evidence that he does them better than Manning, Rodgers or Brees.

I can write a whole book about this part, but let’s keep it simple for today. The real #1 advantage in New England has never been at quarterback, but at head coach. Brady simply gets more help from always having Bill Belichick, a defensive genius who has also kept the team ahead of the curve on the other sides of the ball.

Peyton Manning went to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches, a feat likely to never be repeated. Without him, those coaches have often been fired from their jobs with subpar records. But he could win 12+ games with just about anyone as he was the ultimate coach on the field. Despite mostly having defensive-minded coaches, Manning rarely had a good defense. That’s the edge for Brady. He actually has a defensive-minded coach who keeps the points down on that side of the ball.

Brees succeeded in San Diego first with Marty Schottenheimer as his head coach. Sean Payton has been a godsend to him offensively, but Brees proved in 2012 when Payton was suspended the whole year that the offense could still run through him just as well. Payton’s problem is that he’s Don Coryell with a ring in the way he has struggled to put together a defense to help Brees.

Mike McCarthy has been the head coach of every NFL start by Rodgers, but many have noticed his tactics have grown stale over the last four years as the Packers lost their league-best wide receiver depth. He hasn’t been an innovator on the level of recent hires like Sean McVay and Doug Pederson, nor has he taken the game to another level to keep up with the times a la Andy Reid and Belichick. When Rodgers went down last year, the offense looked terrible for the most part. We know that’s not the case when Brady is out in New England. Rodgers is saving McCarthy his job, and if they miss the playoffs this year, it might be time up for Mike.

It’s not as sexy as Rodgers 0-35, but let’s state some more facts that people should know about these quarterbacks.

Brady (11) has had more top 10 scoring defenses than Manning (four), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined.

QB-DEF

While not as important as defense, the help on special teams is even more advantageous for Brady.

QBST

Brady has had 12 top eight finishes in special teams DVOA compared to one for Rodgers, Brees and Manning combined. We’ll see if the 2018 Saints can finish that high, but don’t be surprised if New England finishes high again for DEF and ST this year. Remember, they have more AFC East games coming.

I got through 3500 words of this before even mentioning that Brady’s had the biggest divisional advantage over any quarterback in the 32-team era (2002-2018). Yeah, that helps too when the best quarterback you have to compete with in 17 years is Chad Pennington, or when the best coach is Rex Ryan. But I’m not even getting into that today as I want to wrap this up now.

The GOAT Discussion: Conclusion (Some Guys Have All the Luck)

While I regret my Rodgers 0-35 stat, it has to pain Green Bay fans who are in my corner when it comes to the lack of help for him to hear what Rodgers said about the GOAT this week. In talking about Brady, Rodgers said “He’s got five championships, so that ends most discussions, I think.”

Except it shouldn’t end them, Aaron. I don’t know why, but the football gods always seem to grace a lesser quarterback with the most help, which leads to the most championships. We saw it with Bart Starr over Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw over Roger Staubach, Joe Montana over Dan Marino, and I think you can argue Brady over all three of Manning/Rodgers/Brees in this era. The only one there who I think still had a good argument as the better quarterback was Montana over Marino given Montana’s continued statistical greatness and success after Bill Walsh retired. Marino’s big stat years peaked early and he had a lot of playoff losses that were routs.

But when so many quarterbacks are doing great things statistically year after year, we’re doing them a great disservice to let a series of coin flips in the playoffs tell us who is the best. Plays where the quarterback wasn’t even on the field are writing these legacies, but that’s why I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing for 15 years: analyzing the impact of the team around the quarterback via statistical evidence to explain why games are won and lost. The other side will continue to do what they’ve done for 15 years: poorly explain why the quarterback who doesn’t have any statistical edge over his peers deserves the most credit for why his team wins the most.

All Rodgers can do this week is play his best to try getting a rare road win over the Patriots and make their path to a top seed harder. This defense has some holes he should be able to exploit, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the game come down to a final drive. At the very least, Ty Montgomery won’t be there to defy his coaches and fumble a kickoff to deny Rodgers a chance again like in Los Angeles last week. Can you imagine that happening to Brady’s team? No, and therein lies the real difference.

Now excuse me while I crank up some of the GOAT.

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I had one of my best weeks ever last week (10-4 ATS, 13-1 SU). Having faith in the Giants cost me from a perfect 14-0 week, but not again this season on the Giants. I already started 0-1 this week after having bad expectations for Nick Mullens, but underestimating just how little Oakland cares right now.

2018Wk9

Still reeling from my lock last week (Bengals -4) blowing that late lead to the Bucs and only winning by 3. This week, I like an underdog teaser with PIT +9, ATL +8, NO+8 and GB +12. I also feel like the Browns could give the Chiefs a real scare in Cleveland with Gregg Williams replacing Hue Jackson.

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The Top 64 Quarterbacks in NFL History (2015 Edition) – Part I

This definitely won’t be short. However, I’m not wasting any time in showing you my updated list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

top64QB15

This is not created with a formula. I put everything I’ve learned and experienced from over a decade of research into creating this ranking. The only things I do not factor in are college career and time spent in other professional leagues like the AAFC, USFL, CFL, XFL, Arena, etc. So you’re still just a one-year wonder to me, Tommy Maddox.

Some players moved around from the 2014 edition, posted last August. So why is this going to be written in two parts on my blog? I figured some people won’t want to scroll through the epic length of Manning vs. Brady to read about the other players. For those who want to see the irrational debate rationalized, I promise Part II is worth the wait.

This might actually be the first time I have formally written about my list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It was a personal project I started six years ago in an effort to figure out where Ben Roethlisberger stood historically after his fifth season (2008). Such rankings are subjective of course, but sports wouldn’t be the same without this stuff. Even if “that’s your opinion!” means you can’t objectively prove Roethlisberger is a better QB than Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mark Malone and Bubby Brister, you damn sure can make a convincing argument why he is better.

Just look at my list. Once you get past 30 or so, you’re looking at guys who maybe had six quality seasons, or a phenomenal four-year run like Rich Gannon (1999-2002) in Oakland. There aren’t many quarterbacks who sustained greatness over a long period of time in the NFL’s 95-year history. A total of 221 players have thrown at least 1,000 passes in the regular season in NFL history. Unless you mostly played before 1932 (Benny Friedman), are the latest hot rookie/sophomore (Teddy Bridgewater), or your name is Greg Cook or Cecil Isbell, you’re not even relevant from an all-time perspective. A thousand passes is about two seasons these days for a starter. Even the Browns let Derek Anderson throw 992 passes in 2007-09.

My method was to move up the list of all-time attempts, picking out which quarterbacks Roethlisberger was clearly better than, and grouping those he still has to surpass. A few years later I did something very similar to gauge where Joe Flacco stood after his fifth season (2012) led to the destruction of the QB salary market. Since then I’ve had a more concrete list and have updated it annually before the new season. The following explains some of my thought process, especially for the active players.

Five Actives in the Top 15 OF ALL TIME!?!?

I know some people are wondering how I could possibly think five of the 15 greatest QBs in NFL history are playing right now. Well, from 1991-94 we had Montana, Marino, Favre, Young and Elway active. That’s five of my top eight, so there*. Throw in Aikman, Kelly and Moon, and that’s eight of my top 28. It clearly can be done, and I think this has been a golden age of passing that’s not likely to be matched any time soon.

*Counter (because I know how to argue with myself): But Scott, were those five guys worthy of the top eight in 1991-94? This is a fair point. I don’t think Favre and Young were thru 1994, though both were well on their way. I think you could definitely have ranked Montana, Marino and Elway that high by then. My list thru 1994 would look something like Montana, Unitas, Marino, Staubach, Baugh, Tarkenton, Graham, Elway (ahead of Starr and Bradshaw). So yeah, three in the top eight with Young coming off his 6 TDs in the Super Bowl/2nd MVP award and Favre just getting ready for a 3-MVP run. This is legit.

Are the modern rules and modern medicine making it easier to sustain QB success in the NFL? I hesitate to say yes to that, because look at how many quarterbacks can’t sustain their success. Robert Griffin III had his one good year, but has been a disaster ever since. Josh Freeman (2010) can kind of relate, and I hate to see the path Colin Kaepernick is starting to head down after such early promise. Matt Schaub crumbled in 2013 after Richard Sherman picked off his confidence. Carson Palmer has fallen apart a few times, literally and figuratively. Michael Vick was never consistent and managed to have his best years four years apart (2002, 2006 and 2010). Jay Cutler and Cam Newton still can’t hit a 90.0 passer rating season in an era where it’s become common to do so. Matthew Stafford’s pretty much in the same tier, starring as the volume-heavy Drew Bledsoe of his era. Highly drafted quarterbacks are still flopping hard too (see: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, etc.). Are rookie QBs overall more successful now? Sure, but they’re also getting more opportunities as of 2008. Try telling Blake Bortles and Derek Carr this is an easy game.

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Where are all the great quarterbacks coming into the NFL since 2006? We’ve seen dips before, but this is starting to get alarming. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson look like the best options, and I obviously think highly of Flacco and Ryan’s seven-year starts, but that’s about it since 2006. Save us, Tannehill, Bridgewater, Mariota and Winston. We need to start having some insurance that this next era when these HOF passers are retired will still be good.

(B)rees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger

We have clearly been spoiled from watching the highest level of sustained QB play in NFL history. We’ve known about “1812” for so long now, but the consistency of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger is also special. Brees broke out in 2004, the rookie season breakout for Ben. Rodgers didn’t get to start until 2008, but I think he just locked up his spot in Canton after his second MVP season in 2014. No, it wasn’t as good as his 2011, but it was another monster year of dominant efficiency and it moved him up from 26th to 14th for me. Roethlisberger is the first great QB I can say I’ve been able to watch every game of his career live. You could definitely make the claim 2014 was his finest season yet. He’ll always be the first quarterback to have multiple 500-yard passing games, and the first to have back-to-back games with six touchdown passes. All of those games were against teams that made the playoffs.

The reasons I keep Brees ahead at 13th are that I think this 11-year run he’s been on (zero starts missed due to injury) is incredible, and he has quite arguably been better in the playoffs than the other two. He just needs to get there with more consistency, though he’s gotten the short end of the stick defensively when it comes to that top five active group. Brees was still great in 2014, but he had some bad decisions at important times. I don’t think he’s done yet by any means, though I question how much higher I could rank him on this list. He might be fifth in his era when it’s all said and done. That’s really not an insult either. This group is simply special.

Some might even put Rodgers higher than 14th, but I think that’s pretty generous for someone who has been a starter for seven years, including a debut season that was more solid than spectacular (2008) and a half-season due to injury (2013). Rodgers’ stats look off the charts right now, but that’s also the benefit of having 100 percent peak performance in this era of great stats. When you look at advanced metrics, especially ones that include sacks, Rodgers is much closer to his peers. Rodgers has led the league in Total QBR one time (2011) and in passing DVOA two times (2011 and 2014).

Any mainstream criticism of Rodgers is almost nonexistent, but I expect that to change if he continues to not shine in January as has been the case since he won a Super Bowl in 2010. His struggles against the other NFC champions in that time have been troublesome, but the good news is the Giants and 49ers don’t look to be contenders any time soon. Seattle is the defense he has to figure out. And yes, I still think he struggles more than the other top quarterbacks when it comes to comebacks or having to win in different styles. If he doesn’t start a game well, I just don’t expect him to pull it together late. Winning ugly is not on the menu yet. He needs to come out with his ‘A’ game, and his ‘A’ game is pretty much as good as any quarterback’s that’s ever played in the NFL. When he’s on, he’s unstoppable. But when he’s off like in Buffalo and Detroit last year or against Seattle, he doesn’t impress.

But if these other guys ever retire soon and the young quarterbacks don’t pan out, Rodgers could enjoy a nice run at various league-leads and awards if his only real competition is Luck. Going forward, I worry a little about Rodgers’ durability, because he still takes some really bad sacks. It’s hard to believe this is already going to be his age-32 season. Health is about the only thing that could stop him from cracking the top 10 soon. If his next seven years are in line with the last seven, I expect to see Rodgers in my top five one day.

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The elite MVP seasons of Rodgers are what put him over Ben, who hasn’t had years like that yet. Amazingly, Roethlisberger has never received an All-Pro vote in his career. He’s also only had three seasons where he’s started all 16 games. The main problem is his best seasons (2007, 2009 and 2014) are years where a lot of quarterbacks were standouts, so it’s understandable why he didn’t get a vote. But considering Luck and Brady got AP votes last year, you could definitely argue Ben deserved one in 2014.

Roethlisberger is having an unusual career path. He had personal and team success immediately, but he’s been statistically better in the second half of his career when he’s had to pick up more of the slack. However, he hasn’t had much playoff success since the night he led that epic drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43. This year the Steelers seem to be fielding their worst defense yet around Ben, which feels like an 8-8 season in the making. Basically, the Steelers are turning into the Saints, which is good for Ben’s fantasy numbers, but terrible for his playoff success. He definitely doesn’t need to get to another Super Bowl, but how is this thing going to end? Is he going through a rough team patch like 1992-95 Elway, only to get a better team around him at the end? Is he going to fade away like Aikman in Dallas, unable to keep the team consistently in the playoffs after their talent core declined? Is he going to have an abrupt ending after taking a shot so big he can’t recover from it?

I’ll end this section by explaining some of the decision to move Rodgers and Roethlisberger past the players previously ranked 14-25. Since most of us can agree Rodgers has had the more dominant career, we’ll just look at this from Ben’s standpoint.

Roethlisberger is entering his 12th year as a starter, which already puts him on a short list of QBs in NFL history. Jim Kelly played 11 NFL seasons. Are you really going to tell me Roethlisberger’s play in the regular season and postseason hasn’t exceeded Kelly’s? It’s not a huge difference, which is why there are only five players between them, but Roethlisberger has put together a better resume with more to come. Kurt Warner played 12 seasons, and we know only six of them really count for his HOF push. He had higher highs than Ben, but good lord did he have many lower lows.

Quarterback is a position where you need to be the full-time starter to have value for your team. This is why I don’t put much stock at all in partial seasons where a guy throws like 150 passes and wins some games off the bench, or makes four decent starts, or has a good seven-game stretch before a season-ending injury. Screw that. True value is found by suiting up every week year after year. Ben’s missed 17 games in his career for various reasons, but he’s found a way to start at least 12 games in every season. That’s important. If he does it in 2015, he’ll be the 10th QB with a dozen starts in at least a dozen different seasons. I factored this into a lot of my decisions here, as a guy like Len Dawson played 19 seasons, but you can basically chop off the first five and the last three, leaving 11 years (1962-1972). Do I think that stretch, largely done in the AFL, is more impressive than Roethlisberger’s 11 years? I don’t anymore, so I moved him past Dawson this year.

Similarly, I downplay Sid Luckman vs. Ben due to his peak coming in WWII seasons, and I don’t see any value in his final two seasons (1949-50). I downplay Norm Van Brocklin’s career for spending time in his prime in a two-QB system with Bob Waterfield and facing some suspect competition. For Y.A. Tittle, I really respect his 1961-63 seasons with the Giants, but he’s another guy with a ton of seasons you have to throw away due to the AAFC, injuries or him just being terrible (1964 swansong). He had about seven or eight really solid years overall, which again I think Roethlisberger has exceeded. So I moved him ahead of those guys.

When the worst thing you can point to in Roethlisberger’s career is his 2006 season, that’s very telling of the quality of his career. Yes, he threw 23 picks, but he still finished 10th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. He dealt with a motorcycle accident, an emergency appendectomy and a concussion after he was getting back to form. If that’s the low point of your 11-year career, then you’re probably having a hell of a career. A lot of guys sink lower than that.

Which finally leads me to putting Ben (and Rodgers) ahead of Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. Let’s get Fouts of the way quickly. He was great for eight years (1978-1985) in a record-setting passing offense, which I really respect. That’s why he’s 19th. His other seven seasons and his lack of playoff success — started and ended with 5-INT games — are why he isn’t higher. That’s a good chunk of negative that you can’t just ignore, though I admittedly don’t do a good enough job of punishing for the bad years.

Speaking of bad years, Aikman, Bradshaw and Starr had several and it’s only fitting to talk about this trio together. In fact, Starr was almost worthless without Vince Lombardi as his head coach. Bradshaw is lucky Joe Gilliam was ineffective in 1974, because he may have lost his starting job for good after an (extended) awful start to his career. Aikman was one of the worst QBs in the NFL his first two years, and his finale (2000) was on that level. Yet all three were the quarterbacks of dynasties, the best teams in their decades with great players on both sides of the ball and fantastic coaching. They all won at least three titles and had some great efficiency stats in those playoff wins. These quarterbacks had some nice regular-season numbers at times, but the volume wasn’t there to match their peers. Unitas was better than Starr. Staubach was better than Bradshaw. Young and Favre were better than Aikman if we’re just talking 1990’s NFC. But #RINGZ.

When asked to carry flawed teams, these quarterbacks weren’t capable of getting the job done. When their team’s talent wasn’t up to the level of all-time great, they couldn’t get them into the playoffs with any consistency. Now I won’t slam these guys as much as I would a caretaker like Bob Griese — they’re still in my top 18 — but they just had easier jobs in their primes. Throwing the ball 30 or 40 times wasn’t the plan, let alone a necessity.

I think Roethlisberger would have more than two rings if he had the Steel Curtain defense instead of Dick LeBeau’s “My Defense Works for 75% of the Game Against 75% of the NFL” shtick. But just to start any game with an average team, I’m taking Roethlisberger over Bradshaw, Starr and Aikman. That trio was only effective for about 8-9 years each. Roethlisberger has already surpassed that.

But without a strong finish, I think Ben is going to be stuck at 15 until someone moves ahead of him, or if his play really declines. His career has essentially peaked from an all-time perspective, but as long as the story is still being written, there’s always a chance of changing your legacy. I just don’t think the Steelers are going to build another balanced team in time for him to do so.

Change of Heart: Tarkenton over Graham

The only other change in my top 30 was swapping Fran Tarkenton for Otto Graham. Given what I value in QBs, this should have been the case years ago. Career length is a big factor. Tarkenton was essentially a starting QB for 18 NFL seasons compared to just six for Graham. Remember, I don’t care about the AAFC. What’s amazing is how Tarkenton was such a model of consistency despite his chaotic, scrambling style — he had one below-average passing efficiency season (1962) in 18 years according to Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced tables that adjust for era. Despite all his running around, he was very durable and never had more than eight fumbles in a season. While he never had the stunning peak of a Tittle or Jurgensen, Tarkenton ranks as high as anyone when it comes to the number of quality QB seasons in the NFL. He was a star for nearly two decades, and he retired as the all-time leader in wins, passing yards and touchdown passes. In fact, he’s held the passing yardage record longer than any player in NFL history.

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Tarkenton amassed those numbers without throwing more than 25 touchdowns to any player. John Gilliam was his top guy. Tarkenton excelled under multiple coaches and for multiple teams (Giants and Vikings). He might have been the first great one-man show at quarterback, but unfortunately those guys don’t win rings. With or without Tarkenton, Bud Grant’s Vikings great defense (“Purple People Eaters”) was routinely run over in big games. In his 1975 MVP season, Tarkenton lost at home in the playoffs to Dallas thanks to a 50-yard Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson (push off?) in the final minute. It remains the only game-winning Hail Mary in NFL playoff history and it came at the expense of one of the game’s finest players.

When it comes to Otto Graham, the first thing people like to mention is he led the Browns to 10 championship games in his 10 seasons. It’s as if Graham was the only player in the AAFC, and he’s certainly the only player people ever choose to recognize the stats and accomplishments of from the AAFC. I just want to point out Graham won just as many NFL Championship Games (3) as he lost. Some of the losses were absolutely brutal too. We weren’t that far off from having Bobby Layne and the Lions as the dynasty of that time.

The truth is Graham was a great player on the league’s most loaded team (7-9 HOFers every year), with a great defense and a true innovator (Paul Brown) as his head coach. Players in such situations don’t get full credit from me, because their job was easier. I still think enough of Graham to rank him 12th, and he was the best quarterback of that era (1950-55). He also wasn’t just some caretaker as he won two passing yardage titles. When you rank first in NFL history in passing yards per attempt (8.63), albeit in six seasons, you’re going to earn my respect. I just wish we would stop padding the AAFC stuff onto his legacy, because that league was not up to par with the NFL, which actually drafted Graham in 1944 (Lions). He didn’t play then because of World War II.

Graham is a player I expect to keep dropping as some of the players in my previous section continue to have long, successful careers in a more competitive era.

Eli Manning: Why?

Every year I post this list one of the main responses is why is Eli Manning so high? It bothers me too, because he should be about 10 spots lower with the other New York guys and right there with Romo and Rivers. I just haven’t had the heart to move him since first putting him 29th after the 2012 season. He was a joke in 2013 and played much better last year, but the fact is the Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Eli and the Giants are like leap year: they strike every four years in February. 2008, 2012, and uh-oh, 2016 is next. It would only be fitting for the Giants to start with a bang (JPP), end with a bang (third title…Odell Beckham Jr. one-handed catch to beat New England of course) and for Eli to become the highest-paid player in NFL history.

At least that scenario would help keep my sanity about ranking him this high. Eli really is frustrating because you see the moments of older brother-like brilliance, but then you see the plays that would make Archie shake his head. Eli’s always been very good in 4QC/GWD situations, and I still think he engineered the greatest drive in NFL history with everything at stake in Super Bowl 42. The fact that he starts every single game cannot be undervalued either. It’s not easy to have 10 straight 3,000-yard passing seasons in the NFL. Only six other quarterbacks have had more such years. I think Eli’s 2011 season was one of the finest jobs of a QB carrying his team that we’ve seen, and even then it was a 9-7 year that barely resulted in a division title. Eli just doesn’t have the same efficiency as his peers, though his offenses do well at scoring and he doesn’t take many sacks.

If Eli’s playoff record remains intact at 8-3, then that’s very disappointing for the Giants, because that means they continued to miss the playoffs. You can’t go one-and-done or throw game-ending interceptions in January if you keep failing enough from September through December. That’s probably the single most frustrating thing about Eli. His regular-season defenses haven’t been good, so he gets credit for dealing with that. But in the playoffs, those defenses were outstanding, never allowing more than 23 points in any game and shutting down some of the best offenses in NFL history. And yet the QB still gets the most credit there. I want to see some more playoff losses, Eli. Preferably wins, but just get in the damn tournament. Increase that sample size. Give us some insurance you didn’t just have two one-month hot streaks four years apart. I’m going to drop him next year if 2015 doesn’t go well. Promise.

Ken Stabler for the HOF?

As I predicted this summer, the passing of Ken Stabler has led to him getting another look from the Hall of Fame as 2016’s senior nominee. Unfortunately he won’t be able to enjoy it if he gets in (good chance), but that’s how these things work sometimes. I believe enough time has passed to where a discussion on the merits of Stabler’s HOF case wouldn’t sound insensitive.

Stabler is one of four QBs (Charlie Conerly, Ken Anderson and Kurt Warner) to be a HOF finalist without getting voted in. We know there was some media vitriol going back to his playing days going on behind the scenes to keep Stabler out, so with new voters, that’s not likely to remain an issue. Personally, I can accept Stabler getting into the HOF. I’d sooner back Ken Anderson, but Stabler wouldn’t be a bad choice.

The argument for Stabler is simple: you’ve let George Blanda and Joe Namath in already. You can see I put Stabler ahead of both. Those guys had their peak years in the AFL. Stabler’s best years all came in the 1970’s NFL, the toughest modern decade of passing. He played against a lot of legendary defenses and teams, and definitely had the “Fame” part down with big plays in games with names. He was a very good postseason performer, winning a Super Bowl in 1976. He was also league MVP in 1974 and at least the second-best QB in 1976 (AP second-team All-Pro). Not many QBs can claim those accolades in NFL history. Stabler’s peak really lasted seven seasons (1973-79), but as we have looked at here, that’s still very good from a historical standpoint.

One problem for The Snake is that he threw a lot of interceptions, even for his era. In fact, here are some damning facts:

  • Most games with 4+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (14)
  • Most games with 5+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (5)

Stabler is also tied for the third-most games with at least three interceptions (29). Stabler somehow threw 20-30 interceptions in each season from 1977-1980, but still had a winning record each season. It was a different game then, but Stabler still threw too many picks. But again, that didn’t stop voters from keeping Namath and Blanda out. Stabler’s last few years with the Oilers and Saints don’t do him any favors. It’s all about the Oakland run, and that was strong enough in my book to crack the top 30. That also looks to be enough for the standards of the HOF. If you haven’t figured it out, the players in yellow in the list are in the HOF (red are active).

Marginal Moves You Probably Don’t Care About

I moved Phil Simms down four spots to 38 after becoming more impressed with the Giants’ defense and less impressed with his individual contributions.

I moved John Brodie up three spots to 32 after seeing he was one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack. Not quite Marino or Peyton level, but right up there. Part of his ascension was also at the cost of moving Bob Griese down a notch. Why did I do that? Well…

The Same Guy, But One’s Slower: Tony Romo and Philip Rivers

I’ve compared Rivers and Romo a few times over the years as equivalents in each conference. They’re basically the Dan Fouts and Warren Moon of this era: the best quarterbacks to not reach a Super Bowl. It’s a shame because this is the era of the Super Bowl quarterback. A record eight active QBs have a Super Bowl ring. Rivers and Romo have some of the highest passer ratings and YPA averages in NFL history, but haven’t enjoyed much January success for various reasons.

I had these guys 53rd and 54th last year. Romo just had probably the best year of his career, and probably deserved to be MVP if he didn’t get hurt against the Redskins on MNF. He moves ahead of Rivers, who had a MVP-like start, but faded fast after a probable rib injury hampered his play.

Both of these guys became relevant in the 2006 season as first-time starters. Here’s how I stack them up.

  • 2006: Rivers gets the edge for being the full-year starter (1-0)
  • 2007: Big edge to Romo (1-1)
  • 2008: Big edge to Rivers (2-1)
  • 2009: Romo good, but Rivers arguably at his best (3-1)
  • 2010: Not enthralled with this Rivers season, but Romo had broken collarbone (4-1)
  • 2011: Big edge to Romo (4-2)
  • 2012: Big edge to Romo (4-3)
  • 2013: Both did great things, but slight edge to Rivers (5-3)
  • 2014: Big edge to Romo (5-4)

Rivers wins the total seasons, 5-4, but Romo had more decisively better years. I also can’t help but side with Romo in the difference of styles. Romo can improvise under pressure, while Rivers can waddle towards the sideline and throw the ball away. Either way they are close, and you’d be fooling yourself to think otherwise.

These guys have been at it for nine years, and have mostly been consistent in that time. In fact, Romo has hit these bare minimums in a record nine straight seasons: 61.3% completions, 7.2 YPA and 90.5 passer rating.

These guys have winning records. They’ve led teams to No. 1 seeds and multiple 12-win seasons. They’ve had more playoff heartbreak than success, but at least they have won some games. More than Y.A. Tittle and Sonny Jurgensen for starters — that’d be none for those guys. And nine seasons as annual top 5-10 quarterbacks is really damn good. That’s why I ended up moving them past the guys with six good years or a smaller number of great years.

Yes, neither has won an MVP award like Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, Boomer Esiason, Bert Jones and Joe Theismann did, but just remember the competition from that elite group. This is the hardest era to win an award like that in. You really think Theismann, who was good for six years, is a better QB than these two? Give these guys Joe Gibbs and the Hogs instead of Norv Turner and Jason Garrett and see what happens. You want to talk about playoff failures? Boomer Esiason never threw for more than 150 yards in his five playoff starts. McNair, may he rest in peace, was a dreadful postseason QB who can thank the Music City Miracle for not leaving him with a 2-5 career playoff record. Bert Jones never won a playoff game either, was a hit machine and couldn’t stay healthy. Rivers has never missed a start in his career and even played on a torn ACL.

I think Romo and Rivers can crack the top 30 with strong finishes. As you can see, there’s just not much separating these players at this part of the table. A Super Bowl for either is likely a ticket to Canton as well.

More Shit You Really Don’t Care About

I dropped Don Meredith six spots to 58 after acknowledging he’s another QB with just about six relevant years.

I dropped Dave Krieg five spots after realizing some of his best seasons were small samples due to injury or being a backup. It’s kind of amazing he made the Pro Bowl despite playing 9 games in 1988, and it’s baffling why he made it at all in 1989. That was a poor year for the AFC though.

I got Matt Hasselbeck ahead of Bernie Kosar now, because I think his run of relevance (2002-07) is underappreciated. I don’t really blame Kosar for not getting to a Super Bowl (bad Cleveland luck), but I blame him for only having about six or seven relevant seasons.

Ryan vs. Flacco (Again)

Seriously, the Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan debates are quite heated — or elite as fvck depending whom you ask — on the internet. I guess I’m adding to it by simply ranking Ryan one spot ahead, the same as I did last year, but these two deserve to be very close. Advanced metrics will tell you Ryan is considerably better in his career, but 2014 was a different story. Flacco was 8th in DYAR; Ryan was 7th. Flacco was 8th in DVOA; Ryan was 9th. Flacco was 10th in QBR; Ryan was 7th. Hmm, that last one seemed to change more with the new QBR system, which surprises me since it’s supposed to devalue YAC. You saw those Antone Smith touchdowns last year, right? Then again, what do you do with the Steve Smith fluky touchdown against Carolina?

Either way, they were very close last year, which was arguably Flacco’s best regular season. Of course what happens here is Flacco has the edge in the playoffs, including getting there all but one time in his seven seasons. Ryan has had strong numbers the last two years, but Atlanta is just 10-22 and couldn’t win a pathetic division last year. Advantage: Flacco.

But I really wish something major would happen to create some separation between these two. Until it does, I’m going to continue ranking them side by side. I just hope other people can appreciate the seven-year starts they’ve had to their careers. Appreciate them even more when you consider the lack of quality signal callers joining the NFL since 2006 as detailed above.

Whither Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson?

Why didn’t I include Luck and Wilson? Well, they’ve only played three seasons. Despite the lack of great all-time quarterbacks, three seasons, no matter how impressive they are as a start, are a tiny sample to get into the top 64. However, I quickly threw together some names to branch out of the top 64 and I feel like it’s very possible Luck and Wilson could join this list after 2015. I also think it’s just as possible that at least one takes an unexpected step back this year. We’ll see what happens. And really, I just kept adding to this list Saturday night, and didn’t spend anywhere near as much time on it as I’ve spent on the top 64. I can tell you Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill and even Andy Dalton are a big 2015 away from showing up in the top 130. Yes, even Dalton, which just goes to show how little you have to do to be considered an all-time quarterback.

Part II Preview

Why did Tom Brady stay put at No. 5 after his fourth Super Bowl, and why is Peyton Manning still on top? That’s what I’ll tackle in Part II, along with taking down the thin margin of what makes success in the postseason possible.

If you want an advanced copy of the tl;dr version of Part II, here it is:

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NFL Week 8 Predictions: Saints in Primetime and Losing My Fandom

The NFL’s Week 8 schedule is pretty solid, so here are some thoughts on a few key games.

Packers at Saints: Prime-time Advantage?

I’ve always been better at predicting the AFC than the NFC, but the 2014 Saints have especially let me down this year. I had this team pegged for a first-round bye with an improved defense and Drew Brees finally winning his first MVP. Instead the Saints are 2-4, Rob Ryan’s defense is terrible and Brees has made some really poor throws in crucial spots. The Saints are also 0-3 at upholding one-score leads in the fourth quarter.

You might think Sunday’s game with Green Bay is a must win, but the whole NFC South has been a huge letdown this season. Look at how bad the Carolina defense has regressed. The Falcons were supposed to be improved, but look arguably worse than last year in recent weeks. Tampa Bay has already had two of the worst performances in recent time by an NFL team. At this rate the division will have a 7-9 winner stealing a playoff game (at home even) from a more deserving club. Hell, it might even come at the expense of the Seahawks.

If the Saints are going to climb back into things, they’ll do it with a statement win at home over a hot Packers team. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Saints, and especially Brees, have been deadly in prime-time games in the Superdome:

BreesSD

That’s special stuff. The Saints are great at home in general, but some of their best games have come under the bright lights.

I expect Brees to have another fine day, but I don’t expect the Saints to stop the Packers enough when Aaron Rodgers has the ball.

Final prediction:  Packers 38, Saints 31

Bears at Patriots: Upset Alert?

I can’t figure out the 2014 Bears either. They’re 0-3 at home and aren’t scoring enough points despite one of the best supporting casts in the league and a coach, Marc Trestman, I want to believe is the right guy for the job. After last week’s loss to Miami, I find it hard to pick Chicago many more times this year. Heading to New England, I really don’t see a win, but let’s play the ebb-and-flow game.

The Bears just had a miserable loss and there’s some tension in the locker room apparently with Brandon Marshall mouthing off last week. Brian Urlacher has criticized Jay Cutler this week by saying he’s only elite in salary, which is a very true statement. The Bears aren’t in a good spot now, but I believe in talented teams turning things around. This isn’t asking for JaMarcus Russell to suddenly play well on a rotten Oakland team. I’m just looking for Cutler, Marshall, Jeffery, Forte and Bennett to score 24+ points on a New England defense missing the likes of Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones. Let’s not forget the Patriots have barely squeaked by the Raiders and Jets at home this year. This team isn’t dominant. Chicago has the weapons to make this a high-scoring game and if the Bears can win the turnover battle, I think they’ll win the game.

But it’s still Jay Cutler and that’s why I expect multiple interceptions in Foxboro and a 3-5 record for the Bears. But it would be so New England to have a shocking home loss to be followed up with a win over the best team in the league next week (Denver).

Final prediction: Bears 20, Patriots 27

Colts at Steelers: Who Do I Really Like?

The Colts and Steelers are meeting for just the fifth time since the 2003 season. It was actually during their 2002 meeting, a 28-10 Pittsburgh win, that I started to appreciate the Colts with Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy. I guess I had enough of the Kordell Stewart  “run, run, incomplete pass, punt” offense and was drawn to Manning’s passing and no-huddle offense approach. So you might think I’m conflicted with which team to root for this weekend. That’s been true in the past, especially in the 2005 playoffs — one of the toughest days of my football-viewing life — and the 2008 meeting.

But on Sunday, I frankly don’t care who wins the game. You can say I’m outgrowing my fandom, and the consistent stream of .500 results from the Steelers has done a good job of accelerating that. I’m not going to drop the line of “I have 32 favorite teams now because I’m a writer”, because that’s a bunch of bullshit. But really, I don’t care who wins this one. I just want to see a good game and I think this can be one with both teams scoring in the 20’s.

These teams have changed quite a bit since the 2011 meeting, which I only bring up because it was the night Curtis Painter almost beat the Steelers and Jonathan Scott tried to block Dwight Freeney with his ass.

It didn’t work out on Monday, but I think this is the first time I’m picking against the Steelers in back-to-back home games. Indianapolis is better on both sides of the ball and has been playing better coming into this game. I expect the Colts will have a good day offensively as long as they control their turnovers. The real matchup is the Pittsburgh offense against Indianapolis’ surprisingly good defense. Two areas I see as a concern are handling the Colts’ blitz on third down and throwing deep. They don’t have Robert Mathis so they’re being really creative with sending guys from anywhere to get pressure, and it’s been working. The Steelers haven’t protected Ben Roethlisberger well (statement pasted from a clipboard) and this could be a game where he takes 5+ sacks (also from a clipboard). Ben’s deep passing has been lacking the last few weeks in regards to his sideline throws. He’s not keeping them in bounds. He did hit a nice one down the seam to Martavis Bryant on Monday, but I think he’s going to have a hard time on those throws against Indy’s cornerbacks, who are playing very well right now.

Final prediction: Colts 27, Steelers 23

NFL Week 8 Predictions

I had Denver on TNF, but again I would have been screwed on the point spread. That’s the first time in 15 meetings Peyton Manning has beat the Chargers by more than 11 points, and the first time he’s beat them by more than 8 points without a defensive touchdown.

Winners in bold:

  • Lions at Falcons
  • Dolphins at Jaguars
  • Ravens at Bengals
  • Vikings at Buccaneers
  • Seahawks at Panthers
  • Bills at Jets
  • Bears at Patriots
  • Rams at Chiefs
  • Texans at Titans
  • Eagles at Cardinals
  • Colts at Steelers
  • Raiders at Browns
  • Packers at Saints
  • Redskins at Cowboys

Really tough call with Vikings-Bucs. Teddy Bridgewater definitely had an easy time with a bad defense (ATL) and struggled with the good ones (DET/BUF). The Bucs are a rotten one, but I’m leaning on home-field, bye week improvements and a big game from Gerald McCoy here. I also think Mike Glennon is solid. It’s the defense that’s the bigger problem, which is the opposite of what you should have expected in Tampa Bay this season.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Total: 66-39-1