Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Published February 27, 2019 by with 0 comment

Steve Young Might Have Been the Best Quarterback of All Time

Who was the best quarterback of all time? Here is my attempt at answering that question.

Best Career Rankings

I will detail the methodology below, but here are the rankings just to go ahead and get that out of the way...

Tom Brady1.340.500.160.212.22
Peyton Manning1.450.
Steve Young1.530.
Joe Montana1.120.420.160.191.89
Aaron Rodgers1.
Roger Staubach1.060.390.100.141.70
Brett Favre1.
Drew Brees1.
Dan Marino1.
Dan Fouts1.
Ken Anderson0.930.
Kurt Warner0.700.320.090.091.19
Ben Roethlisberger0.720.
John Elway0.650.
Terry Bradshaw0.650.
Philip Rivers0.820.
Fran Tarkenton0.700.
Russell Wilson0.520.330.020.090.96
Donovan McNabb0.610.
Jim Kelly0.560.
Warren Moon0.690.
Bob Griese0.560.
Ken Stabler0.510.
Boomer Esiason0.650.
Tony Romo0.610.
Matt Ryan0.580.
Randall Cunningham0.560.
Troy Aikman0.310.
Rich Gannon0.370.
Joe Theismann0.300.

Tom Brady just edges out first place. There are two major caveats though that I think are worth calling out that maybe push Manning and Young above him.
  1. Peyton Manning went to Super Bowls with 4 different coaches while Brady has gone to all of his with the same, legendary coach. Peyton's consistency regardless of the team, coach, or system here has to count for something, but I can't think of a good way to include this. It's a general issue in blind scoring like do you account for the fact that Montana and Young had Jerry Rice? How do you account for Brady playing for maybe the best coach ever?

    Manning has also won the most MVP's, so if you were to weight the 'how good did people think he was?' scoring higher, he would take 1st place.

  2. Steve Young lost much of his career. He was stuck behind Montana for part of it, he played in the USFL for part of it, and he was severely injured many times. While he played, he had 6-7 years where he was head and shoulders above everyone else, including greats like John Elway, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, Rich Gannon, Boomer Esiason, and Troy Aikman. As you'll see below, the scores do try to account for this, but they can't fully eliminate this factor.
All 3 of them got to play with legendary receivers and/or tight ends. It's hard to account for that. In order, that probably helped Young most (Rice best of all time) and Brady least (Gronkowski and Moss top-5 of all time at their positions).

Looking at the list, no current players seem likely to crack the top-3. Aaron Rodgers at #5 is an obvious favorite, but he'd need to both play better going forward and win more Super Bowls. He's already 35, and his performance is trending down. Patrick Mahomes had an incredible 2018 and doing that every year for a decade would do it, but it's way too early to know if he will. Other greats from this generation like Phillip Rivers and Drew Brees just aren't quite there from these metrics.

Best seasons

Focusing on just the stats score, here are the best QB seasons of all time:

PlayerYearStat Score
Steve Young19942.25
Aaron Rodgers20112.11
Tom Brady20072.08
Steve Young19922.05
Peyton Manning20042.02
Dan Marino19841.96
Joe Montana19891.90
Kurt Warner19991.89
Peyton Manning20131.83
Matt Ryan20161.74

Of the top-20 seasons of all time, more than half are from Young (4), Manning (3), Brady (2), and Rodgers (3). For reference, Patrick Mahomes' 2018 season was 14th best of all time with a score of 1.64.

Why claim Young might have been the best?

Before I move on to the methodology, I'll try to justify the title. I put less value on Super Bowl wins than most others that I talk to since they are so dependent on luck and the quality of your team's defense. I know there are gaps in using stats only...QBs playing from behind can rack up yards and touchdowns...QBs in the lead will run out the clock...clutch performance is still feels a bit less random than Super Bowl wins.

As a starter for only 60% or so of the typical prime years for a top QB, Steve Young managed to still have more top-20 (statistical) seasons than any other QB in history. He is the only QB with 2 of the top 5 of all time, and he had #1 of all time.

To give an example of how great he was compared with his peers, his passer rating in 1994 was 112.8. The 2nd best rating in the league that year was Brett Favre's 90.7. Contrast that with Aaron Rodgers' best season (2011). His passer rating that year was an incredible 122.5, but three other players had ratings over 100 (Brees, Brady, and Romo), and #2 that year (Brees) was 110.6. 

Young holds the record for most seasons with a passer rating over 100, and he did it back in the 1990's when a rating over 100 was exceptional. As an example of this, QBs had season passer ratings over 100 only 7 times between 1991 and 1997. 6 of those 7 performances were Steve Young.

Passer rating is not the full story, but the full story actually makes Young look even better...not only was his passer rating insanely high compared with his peers, but he also ran for 7 touchdowns in 1994 (#2 was Elway with 4 and #3 was Cunningham with 3). He holds the modern NFL record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. He holds the league record for most post-season rushing yards and rushing touchdowns for a QB. He achieved both of those even though he missed much of his prime. 

Given all of that, I can't convince myself that Brady is a better QB than Young was. More successful yes...better overall? I just can't get there.


What does it mean to be the best? I settled on four criteria for quarterbacks:
  • statistical performance: how much of a statistical outlier was this player?
  • awards: how did the media and fans rank this player against his peers?
  • success: QB's are generally team successful was his team?
  • consistency: how long was this player at the top of the league?
For statistical performance, I used the methodology described here. I used the top 24 quarterbacks in each season, used 7 years for a quarterback's prime, and used the following weighting:
  • total touchdowns per game (0.15)
  • total yards per game (0.15)
  • passing yards per attempt (0.2)
  • passing touchdowns per attempt (0.2)
  • interceptions per attempt (-0.2)
  • turnovers per game (-0.1)
The resulting score is roughly 'number of standard deviations above his peers during his prime.' 

For awards, I considered only pro-bowl and all-pro voting. The algorithm is:
  • get # of AP 1st team all-pros, multiply by 0.2, and divide by 7; score is capped at 0.2
  • get # of AP 2nd team all-pros; take min of that number and '# of seasons - # of 1st team all-pro seasons'; multiply by 0.1, and divide by 7; score is capped at 0.1
  • get # of PB appearances (not as replacement); multiply by 0.05 and divide by 7; score is capped at 0.05
  • sum those three
The max score is 0.25 and corresponds to making at least 7 1st team all-pro teams and 7 pro bowls. Peyton Manning is the only QB to do this.

For success, I used post-season results. If a QB wins the Super Bowl every year that they're the starter, they get a score of 1. They get equivalently fewer points for each level up to that (e.g., 0.75 for losing in the Super Bowl).

For consistency, I gave 10 points per season in which he was the top QB, 9 points if he was #2, and so on. They did not receive negative points, so it bottomed out at 0 in a season. I then scaled it so that a player that spent 10 seasons as the #1 player would get a score of 0.25. I view longevity as the least important metric, so this is weighted lower than the other metrics. 

Comparing top 3 again

Just to show their full profiles, here are the stat scores for each of the top-3 starting at the first year in which they were a top-24 QB in the NFL and ending with the last year in which they were a top-24 QB in the NFL:

You can clearly see the loss in productivity for Young due to joining the NFL late, sitting behind Montana, then retiring early from injuries. It's also cool to see the lack of negative years. A negative value doesn't mean bad just means worse than the typical starter that year. Even given that, these guys just didn't have many down years. For reference on what negative means here, Cam Newton, Baker Mayfield, and Dak Prescott all had negative years in 2018. Andrew Luck was just barely positive (0.19).


In case it wasn't completely obvious, I find Steve Young's peak fascinating and it's frustrating that it was shortened to the point that it's hard to compare him with other QBs. He's like the Barry Sanders of QBs. 

I also really like this methodology for comparing QB statistical performance. A passer rating of 100 now isn't nearly as impressive as it was 30 years ago, and this accounts for that fairly well. Let me know why I'm wrong about all of this in the comments.



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