I had been pondering writing a blog on some of the many myths of quarterbacking. I planned to look into what perceptions people have about the level of play at the position versus that of the past as well as a few other topics. That changed a bit when I read the latest Bill Simmons article (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/071221) where he bemoans the sorry state of quarterbacking play in 2007 compared to the glorious 1980's. Spurred on by his insufficient anectdotal support, the scope of this piece has since exploded. I have now done a fairly comprehensive study on quarterback play since the Super Bowl era. The results are simply amazing. Strap yourselves in, this may blow your hair back a bit.
Let's look at one myth for today:
Quarterbacks today are inferior to the great quarterbacks of the past.
Where the myth comes from:
Just look at the QB's from the eras.
Today: Tavaris Jackson, Matt Moore, Vinny Testaverde, Joey
Harrington, David Carr
The 90's: Aikman, Young, Elway, Moon, Marino, Favre
The 80's: Elway, Marino, Kelly, Esiason, Montana, Kosar, Moon, Simms,
The 70's: Bradshaw, Tarkenton, Griese, Namath, Staubach, Tarkenton
The 60's: Blanda, Dawson, Jurgenson, Unitas, Tarkenton, Namath, Starr
Case closed. Right?
The whole problem with this argument is that it is anecdotal. You can't look at a handful of players and extrapolate their greatness to cover the entire era of quarterbacking. They were the exception, not the norm. If you want to evaluate overall quarterback play, you have to look at all quarterbacks, and how they perfomed as a group. So here it is. The comprehensive statistics of every pass thrown by every quarterback since 1966 (Super Bowl era). This is a summary of each teams average production from the qb position per game, per year.
Now let's dig into this. The first thing that jumps out is that from 1969-1978, teams were terrible at passing the ball. In fact they were worse than in the 60's! Quarterbacks were inefficient, turned the ball over frequently, and could barely complete half of their passes. The 70's quarterbacks sucked.
Now I hear the objections already. "Slow down, there! That was a different era! Three yards and a cloud of dust, remember? Teams ran the ball all the time, that's why they had worse numbers." Here is my answer to that. This was a different era. Teams did run the ball more. But, it was not nearly as dramatically different as faded memories, or glowing retrospectives would have you believe. Even at the most run oriented point in the NFL, 1973, teams still passed the ball 23 times a game. That's 388 attempts per 16 games. At that pace, a 16 game season would be 202/388, 2254 yards, 16.6 TD, 20.7 Int, 61.7 rating. That's terrible. Almost 400 pass attempts and they accomplished very little with them. That's not even the worst teams, that was on average! In 1974 the Atlanta Falcons, on the season, threw 4 TDs and 31 Ints. The '77 Buccaneers had 3 TD's and 30 Ints.
Sit back and think about that. What would your reaction be if your favorite team had that kind of quarterback play? Ten interceptions thrown for every touchdown. It's not even fathomable. A modern fan just can't comprehend a team having a passing game that bad. It's not like the Falcons were a running juggernaut that year either. Their leading rusher had 464 yards! Eli Manning? Please. He can throw 3 TD's in a game, and would take a season and a half to equal the Int's.
If you want to point out Tavaris Jackson, and Matt Moore as evidence that modern qb's are in crisis, you MUST include Bob Lee, Pat Sullivan, and Kim McQuiken (the 3 qb's of the 74 Falcons) as proof that 70's Qb's weren't so hot themselves."Three yards and a cloud of dust" would account for ALL stats dropping. That the interceptions stayed high is very telling. Qb's of the 70's threw MORE interceptions on LESS passes.
I hope by this point you are starting to see "why" teams ran the ball more in the 70's. They sucked at throwing, of course they would run more! It is not a badge of honor so we can now say "gee, so-and-so managed to throw for 141 yards a game when they never passed the ball, that's amazing!" No. Sorry. They passed slightly less, and when they did, terrible things happened. If teams were capable of throwing for more than 141 yards a game...they would have.
Let's move along to the 80's. I firmly, firmly believe that Bill Simmons is living in nostalgia, not reality, when he runs down the modern era qb's. The 80's qb's were not nearly as good as he remembers. The graphs above show that overall qb play has steadily improved, despite the increased complexity of defenses (3-4, tampa-2, etc) and the increased physical ability and size of defenders. Let's look at an individual season for great qb's from the 80's:
224/410, 54.6% comp, 3198 yards, 19 TD, 12 Int
That was the NFL MVP season for John Elway in 1987. What would that be by today's standards? Mediocre...at best. Joey Harrington in 2004:
274/489, 56% comp, 3047 yards, 19 TD, 12 Int
Scary what used to pass for MVP-quality QB play, isn't it? Let's look at the decade of the 80's as a whole and compare it to 2000-2007
% of time a team had more Interceptions than TD's:
Look, this could go on and on. By any measure--ANY--quarterbacks are playing better today than they ever have.
From here on, we can make a lot of excuses. Here are some of the prime candidates:
"Offenses have changed! West coast offense! Teams dink and dunk more!"
Answer: Defenses have changed too. To say that qb's benefit from friendlier offenses while ignoring the rapid improvement in defensive schemes is silly. If dinking and dunking were the reason for the improvement, we'd see that in the yards/attempt, right? Shorter passes = less ypa.
Well, guess not. Hasn't changed a bit.
Here's another excuse: "Quarterbacks used to call their own plays, that's what made them great"
Answer: Playbooks have increased in complexity ten-fold. When your options were power-right, power-left, power-up-the-middle, or two pass plays, it was pretty simple to call your own plays. Now there is such a cat-and-mouse game in the playcalling that qb's need to focus on reading defenses rather than calling plays. Reading defenses has also skyrocketed in complexity. Have blitz-packages, zone coverages, and defensive schemes ever been harder to read than they are today? Of course not.
Another excuse: "Qb's were better leaders than they are today"
Anyone making this excuse is just grasping at straws. It's absurd. When you have to resort to intangible, unmeasurable attributes to refute solid facts that show the opposite, it only means you have dunked your head in the sand in an attempt to deny the existence of what is becoming clear.
Quarterbacks just don't make as many mistakes anymore. Less Int's on the same number of pass attempts as the 80's. Even the crappy QB's that are being trotted out in this era of quarterbacking are playing better than qb's were in the 80's. It's a hard truth, but fans need to come to the realization that everything that is gone is romanticized. Nothing is recognized until it's time has passed. You may refuse to believe the numbers if you wish, but 20 years from now, fans will talk about the 2000's as the Golden Age of Quarterback play, rattling off Manning, Brady, McNabb, Palmer, Roethlisberger, as though they were recounting the greatest to ever walk the earth. Even if there are quarterbacks playing even better right in front of their faces. They won't see them. Just like many today.