In the run up to last night’s Super Bowl, there was a lot of discussion about Peyton Manning’s legacy and his overall place the historical QB hierarchy. In all of these articles, there seems to be a great deal of unanimity about who the top QBs in NFL history are. Generally, articles written in the past few years agree that the top QBs in NFL history, those that “have to be in conversation” for best ever, are in some order: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and John Elway. Occasionally a Favre or a Marino (or even an Otto Graham) will sneak in, but generally those are the five.
But why so much agreement about Elway? I should say up front that he had a great career and is a deserving Hall of Famer. He played in five Super Bowls, winning two, and had a surplus of memorable, signature moments, particularly in the playoffs.
The problem, however, is that a quarterback will play the vast majority of his games – and contribute the vast majority of his value – in the regular season … and John Elway’s regular seasons are decidedly unremarkable. I’ll break this into some distinct statements:
Elway flunks the “Black Ink Test” (that is, the method of evaluating athletes by looking at the prevalence league-leading statistics). John Elway’s stats are here. Look at that page. Elway led the league in passing yards in 1993, and … that’s basically it. Completion Percentage, Yards/Attempt, TD%, Int%, Passer Rating, Sack%: he never led the league in any of these. To get a sense of what the stat page for an inner-circle great looks like, see the amount of black ink smeared all over the pages of the other usual suspects: Peyton Manning, Johnny Unitas, Joe Mantana, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Tom Brady, Otto Graham.
Related to the above, there was never a season in which you could convincingly argue that John Elway was the best quarterback in the NFL. His two best seasons were 1993 and 1998 but in those years he was blown away, respectively, by Steve Young, and Randall Cunningham (among others). I’ll leave it to someone else to try to disprove this in more detail, but AFAICT Elway was always at least one tier beneath the best QBs in the league. And, IMHO, it’s self-evident that a player who was never the best at his position can’t therefore be “in the conversation” for the greatest of all time.
Elway’s career can be broken into two very distinct and different pieces: the first 10 years ('83-'92) and then the final 6 ('93-'98). The John Elway of '93-'98 was clearly one of the best QBs in the league: five of the six years he was in the Top 7 in passer rating, along with all the other statistical leaderboard appearances you’d expect (oh, and he won two Super Bowls, as well).
However, for the first two-thirds of his career, calling Elway one of the league’s best QB’s would require a lot of reliance on faith, reputation, and supposition. In his first 10 years, he was never even in the Top 10 in passer rating. In fact, almost all of his important rate statistics hovered right around league average for his first decade. Again, a player whose statistics are literally average for two-thirds of his career can’t be in the running for greatest of all time.
- Elway’s Broncos enjoyed a lot of playoff success, and Elway himself has more than his fair share of specific heroics to his credit, but the legend of Elway’s playoff clutchness is overstated. His career postseason stats are almost identical to his regular season numbers. Granted, the competition in the playoffs in tougher, so we should expect a decline that isn’t there, but his level of play in the postseason is still *basically *the same as his level of play in the regular season … which, as is established above, is not on balance “great.”
Ok, all that said, I agree that Elway was actually somewhat better than his numbers would suggest out of context. He never had a really good supporting case on offense, and it’s not irrelevant that he won two championships. But, if Elway was really one of the best QBs of all-time, a mediocre supporting cast wouldn’t drag his numbers down to such levels. Tom Brady had his share of crap offenses, and still managed to put up borderline Pro Bowl numbers or better in those years. I think that Elway’s current reputation is built first on his *initial *reputation coming out of college, and then on a handful of great moments that stick in the memory and a very satisfying career arc. Put a slightly different way, Elway was more “important” than “great.”
I’d very comfortably put the following QBs ahead of him (no particular order): Montana, Young, Manning, Brady, Unitas, Marino, Graham, Bart Starr, Drew Brees, and Roger Staubach (we forget today how great Staubach was, but that guy was a monster). And I don’t know that Elway was necessarily as good as, say, Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon, or Dan Fouts.
Basically (and I’m not just saying this to rile people up), Elway was a lot closer to Eli Manning than to Peyton Manning. (Actually, the Eli comparison works kinda frighteningly well…)