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Opinion/Editorial: Why I Don’t Compare Quarterbacks From Different Eras Anymore

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Who wins in Staubach vs. Montana?

How about Brady vs. Starr?

Which guy out of Unitas vs. Favre?

Comparing quarterbacks is something that bloggers, fan voices, and even sportswriters do just to flex their brains. It doesn’t do anything productive except be a bit of practice and I have wasted many hours arguing and debating about it.

Not only the above three questions, but any of their interchangeable brothers from Aikman to Young and the entire alphabet in between.

From it all, I have found one thing. It is absolutely pointless to do it.

I’d rather compare thee to a summer’s day than to argue Terry Bradshaw vs. John Elway one more time. Now, that’s not to say I won’t compare quarterbacks anymore.

I can do Elway vs. Marino vs. Fouts vs. Montana. I can do Staubach vs. Bradshaw vs. Stabler vs. Griese.

But I can’t do Joe Namath vs. Kurt Warner. The reason why is because comparing quarterbacks from different eras is like comparing the Model A Ford to the latest Ford Explorer. Common sense says they are both cars, but also that they are not the same due to changes in technology.

At the time, the Model A Ford was revolutionary, but I know I’d rather drive something with air conditioning and the latest stereo system.

Replace “technology” with “rules of football” and you see how quarterbacking has evolved to the point where the same position is entirely different. Don’t just trust me, the stats tell you.

In 1932 (As far as Pro Football Reference numbers go), the first passing title champion was Hall of Famer Arnie Herber who threw for 639 yards in 14 games with nine passing touchdowns. He was first-team All-Pro is considered the first ever passer with his small hands, but hard grip and powerful arm.

Five of the eight 1930’s seasons recorded had passing champions who threw less than 1,000 yards. That was the first era of passing.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, passing numbers went up to form the second era of passing. Sid Luckman, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Norm Van Brocklin and a very young Johnny Unitas helped redefine the position. Cecil Isbell first passed the 2,000 yard passing mark in 1942, and four passers eclipsed the 2,800 yard mark with Baugh coming just short of the next milestone with 2,938 yards in 1947.

But it wasn’t until 1960 when the NFL and the AFL (in their first year of existence) posted passers that eclipsed 3,000 yards thus transitioning into the third era of passing. One of the major reasons is because the season grew from 12 games to 14 in 1960 (AFL) and 1961 (NFL).

All of a sudden, every year somebody is hitting 3,000 yards.

Between both leagues, only two out of 20 passing champions for the 60s posted less than 3,000 yards (John Hadl’s was the lowest at 2,798 yards).

All throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the game evolved further. Tom Landry created the motion offense, Hank Stram and Len Dawson did things with the two-tight end offense and the I-formation that are now staples in today’s game. Vince Lombardi started making his linemen do rule blocking of a particular area instead of assigning them to certain men which was the norm.

In 1967, the NFL had five guys, FIVE GUYS, post 3,000-plus passing yards in that season. And glory to the football gods, the AFL had a young kid from Alabama named Joe Namath climbed to the next step.

He hit 4,007 passing yards in a revolutionary season for passing. Several had come close, but only Broadway Joe passed it baby.

At least for that era.

Eventually defenses started to catch up and in 1977, teams scored only an average of 17.2 points per game, so the next year, the following rules were introduced.

The Mel Renfro rule which stated contact on a receiver by a defender can only happen within five yards otherwise it is pass interference. Before that, as long as contact wasn’t over the complete top (grabbing a guy’s facemask and yanking him down while ball is in air for instance), pass interference wasn’t called.

The rules also added two more games to the season making it a 16-game schedule and offensive linemen, who before could only block with their forearms, were allowed to use their hands and shove defensive ends backward at full extension.

The effect worked. Joe Ferguson had been the passing champion in 1977 for Buffalo with 2,803 yards. In 1978, Fran Tarkenton had 3,468 passing yards. Joe Namath was still the only guy to pass for 4,000 yards in a season.

At least until the next year when San Diego’s Dan Fouts had his first of THREE consecutive 4,000+ passing yard campaigns.

Since 1979, only one passing champion in a non-strike shortened season has thrown for less than 4,000 yards (Jeff George threw for 3,917 in 1997).

The 80’s was a renaissance for offense. Air Coryell and the West Coast offense came in. The Run and Shoot showed up for guys like Warren Moon. Dan Marino reset the golden standard for NFL seasons in 1984 by throwing for 5,084 yards and shattered George Blanda’s 36 touchdowns record with 48 of his own.

There was a steady balance for a long while. It was normal for QBs and RBs to get their 3-4,000 yards passing, while running backs would aim for 1,500-2,000 yards rushing with a couple breaking the 2K mark.

However, slowly but surely, things started to further favor the offense again. In 1994, the neutral zone infraction penalty by the defense was established. In 1995, the headset communication for quarterbacks was approved. In 1996, the officials were told to enforce the five-yard contact rule more and hits with the helmet or blows to the head became personal fouls and subject to fines.

The next thing we see is 1998 Vikings with Randy Moss and Cris Carter go 15-1 and the 1999 St. Louis Rams become “The Greatest Show on Turf” scoring over 500 points three consecutive years, an NFL record at the time that’s been tied.

Peyton Manning emerging as an MVP in 2003 and begins the AFC South dynasty for the Colts.

Then after the 2003 playoffs, Bill Polian, the president of the Colts, complained about how the Patriots defense manhandled the Colts wide receivers and that got the league to tell the refs to enforce illegal contact even more than before. The next year, the 20th anniversary of Dan Marino’s historic 1984 season, Peyton Manning throws for 49 touchdowns.

That record lasted three years until Tom Brady threw for 50 touchdowns. That record lasted six years until Peyton Manning re-broke it and threw for 55 touchdowns.

Dan Marino’s 5,084 passing yards stayed a record for the longest time. In fact, nobody even touched 5,000 yards for 24 years until Drew Brees threw for 5,069 in 2008 and people thought that it’d be forever until another guy crossed 5,000.

Then three years later in 2011, three guys did it in Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford. Brees and Brady passed Marino with Brees having 5,476 yards as the new record. Brees broke 5,000 yards the next two years as well and will seek to try again this year.

But is he the record holder?

Heck no! Peyton Manning beat him last year with 5,477 yards and he left the game after he had broken the blasted record.

In the last six years, we’ve had seven 5,000 yard+ campaigns while there was only one in the first 80 years of football. There have been ten 40+ passing touchdown seasons, only two of them happened before 1999 (both Dan Marino).

Have I established the pattern yet? Every 10 years or so, the game goes through an offensive change and defenses are limited even more. Why? Because people want to see points scored more and more and the NFL wants the people’s money, so it obliges them.

How can we judge who the greatest quarterbacks are when the games aren’t the same? No game has evolved more than football. Not baseball. Not basketball. Not hockey. Football was a Cro-Magnum in the 1920s and now is finally a Homo Sapiens today and it’s still evolving.

Players are capable of 60 passing touchdowns and 6,000 yards passing potentially.

Now that defensive backs are holding back on fierce ball-jarring hits because they don’t a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty called and a seven-figure fine thrown at them.

Is it fun to compare Staubach and Montana?

Yes it is.

I think they were the absolute best guys of their eras. You couldn’t get any better than Staubach in the 70’s (sorry Bradshaw fans) and no one can question Montana in the 80’s. But Roger the Dodger Staubach would and could destroy teams with the rules today because he was a great runner and had a cannon arm.

Joe Montana back in the 70’s would be subject to tougher defenses and no West Coast offense to help him out.

I wonder how Otto Graham would do against the zone defenses developed in the 60s and I wonder how long Tom Brady’s ACL would last if he played in the 1960s. I wonder if Peyton Manning could throw 50 touchdowns in 1983.

Those are questions I cannot answer and what good is speculating? What good is the “What if?” question here? It doesn’t do any good.

None of you can prove Joe Montana is better than Staubach just like you can’t prove Favre isn’t better than Ken Stabler or Terry Bradshaw. And don’t give me the Super Bowl argument. That’s a pithy vanilla argument for the most complex game in existence that requires playbooks be put in giant binders.

Teams win championships, not quarterbacks. How much the quarterback meant to that team is the question we need to ask.

Not comparing stats from different ERAs because what Arnie Herber did in the 1930s can be done in 3-4 games by Peyton Manning today. Yeah, the game has changed that much.

That’s why I don’t cross eras anymore.

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

One thought on “Opinion/Editorial: Why I Don’t Compare Quarterbacks From Different Eras Anymore

  1. You’re in the minority on this one, the game has evolved and all positions have changed. It’s ridiculous and a cop out to take the easy way out saying that eras can’t be compared.

    Of course not, yet you can argue about the greatness of each quarterback from each era and then form an opinion of what makes each quarterback unique and why their place is among the best ever.

    Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback of all-time and it’s not because he has the best numbers, it’s because of his intangibles.

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