Finally, an Effective Way to Rank NFL Quarterbacks

Stop paying attention to ranking systems that rely on irrelevant statistics. Adjusted yards per pass attempt is all you need to assess QB performance. And the No. 1 passer is...


Fifteen years ago, while plugging Football By The Numbers, a book I had cowritten with the sports economist and statistician George Ignatin, I got into an on-air verbal battle with a radio host who was also a football writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He asked me, "Who do you think is the greatest quarterback in NFL history?"

I asked him how he defined "the greatest." The most prolific? Held the most records? The one who figured at the top of the NFL's passer rating system? He replied, "Pick the best quarterback according to how you would select him."

Well, I told him, by that standard I would pick Bart Starr. The host was appalled. "Starr doesn't hold any important NFL records," he responded.

"You're wrong," I shot back, "He has one: most championships, five." (By the way, I meant the most in what I consider the modern era of the NFL, from 1958 to the present. Why 1958? That's the year Johnny Unitas put the NFL in the national spotlight by leading the Baltimore Colts to their sudden-death victory over the New York Giants and also marks Bart Starr's first NFL season.)

But he wouldn't let go. "That's what you're going by? Championships?"

"Well, yes," I replied. "That's what I would go by, unless winning the game isn't important." That sort of ended the debate.

It's true that some quarterbacks have won primarily because they played on great teams with great defenses, great receivers, and great blockers. In the first two years he won championship rings with the Steelers, Terry Bradshaw was mediocre to bad. And there have been three or four other QBs over the years that, like Bradshaw in his first two Super Bowls, were bad but not so bad that they kept their teams from going all the way.

But the importance of the quarterback is so ridiculously out of proportion to that of any other on offense or defense that QB performance must be weighted first in any consideration of winning factors. Different quarterbacks have played under different rules and strategies over different eras, but the importance of winning hasn't changed in any of those. And so while no rating system can take in every statistic, any decent one should rely on QB statistics that correlate with win percentage. There's an amazing number of ratings systems in existence, but few actually figure the primary—Vince Lombardi would have said the only—goal of the game: to win it. I've got one, though, that does.

First, take a look at what's out there. The best-known formula is the NFL passer rating system, which isn't bad but is absurdly complex. (Read it for yourself, but a warning: it might help to have that degree from MIT.) The NFL rating figures in statistics that, to me, are of a negligible importance, such as pass completion percentage. I've never understood why the percentage of passes completed matters when the length of a football field is measured in yards. It's how far you move the ball downfield that matters. Would you rather complete three of three passes for 10 yards or one out of three for 20?

There are other rating systems that figure in the effectiveness of a quarterback's running ability. I don't see why that should matter, either. A quarterback's primary job is to throw the ball. If he wants the ball kept on the ground, he should hand it off to one of his running backs.

There are systems like ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, based on several factors that can only be subjectively determined, such as "Win Probability," "Dividing Credit," and "Clutch Index." Good luck with putting a number on all that, or with making your definition of what those terms mean match up with theirs.

Then there are systems that are just too simplistic. Scott Kacsmar, on a site called, calculates "Champion's Fourth-Quarter Comeback Wins" as the ultimate gauge of greatness. (Peyton Manning, by the way, surpassed Dan Marino for first place with the Bronco's 35-24 win over San Diego on October 15 Monday Night Football. Peyton now has 37 fourth-quarter comeback wins. Marino, of course, has 36, and the next two are Johnny Unitas and John Elway, both with 34.) Fourth-quarter comeback wins is a very good yardstick. The problem is that it doesn't reward quarterbacks who don't get their teams in fourth-quarter deficits. Bart Starr, if I may use his example again, won as many championships as the top four comeback QBs combined.

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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