NFL All-Time Career Passer Ratings - Huh?

I’ve been looking over the all time career passing ratings, and it has me semi-stumped. Virtually all of the historic, all-time great QBs flounder near the middle or bottom of this list of 186. The top rated are all current or recent players.

For example, at number 2 (this is all-time, remember) we have Russell Wilson. Tony Romo is 4, Philip Rivers is 8, Kirk Cousins is 9.

Further down the list we see Bart Starr at 65, Fran Tarkenton at 67, Johnny Unitas at 83, Don Meredith at 114, Terry Bradshaw at 143, and Joe Namath very near the bottom at 168.

Why is this? Has the game changed so dramatically (much more passing these days)? Did they not maintain adequate records back in the day? Something I’m missing?

Whatever the explanation, I can’t conceive of a system that would place Y.A. Tittle (at 117) more than 100 slots below Andy Dalton (14).


The introduction of the West Coast Offense in the early 80s began to change the NFL forevermore. Within a decade, coaches around the league put a much bigger emphasis on high-percentage short passing. This greatly increased completion percentage, which is 1/4 of the passer rating. (Passer rating is a normalized average of four stats: completions per attempt, yards per attempt, touchdowns per attempt, and interceptions per attempt.)

Around this same time, coaches started putting a much higher emphasis on not turning the ball over. Not that they didn’t care about turnovers back in the day, but interceptions were just kind of the price of doing business. Sort of like penalties for the Greatest Show on Turf. (Kurt Warner’s Rams.)

By the 2000s, and continuing to today, every team in the league puts WAY, WAY, WAY more emphasis on high-percentage short passes and limiting interceptions than any team did before the 80s, so of course everyone after then will have a better passer rating than anyone before then.

This is exactly the answer. Before the mid-70s, a QB with a good completion percentage was completing just over half of his passes: Bart Starr completed 57% over his career, Johnny Unitas 55%, Fran Tarkenton 57%. Compare those to the best modern completion rates: Drew Brees is at 67%, while Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Aaron Rodgers are at 65%.

Meanwhile, the career interception rates for older QBs, while good by standards of that era, are high compared to what we see today (in part because they threw comparatively few very short passes). Starr’s interception rate was 4.4%, Unitas 4.9%, and Tarkenton 4.1%. The modern leaders on that stat include Aaron Rodgers (1.6%), Tom Brady (1.8%), Russell Wilson (2.0%), and Alex Smith (2.1%); a modern QB who threw 4% interceptions wouldn’t keep his job.

The QB rating system is kind of weird to start with, and it does a fairly poor job of helping us assess the relative skill of QBs from that earlier time to the modern era.

Football has needed something like OPS+ and ERA+ for a very, very long time. In addition to what Ellis wrote, defenses have been handicapped more and more by rules which help player safety, but make it a lot easier to, e.g., complete passes over the middle without getting your receiver killed by an LB or a Safety. Which is funny, considering the League built a lot of its fan base on replays often featuring the crushing hits delivered by guys like Lambert, Lott, Atwater, and Deacon Jones. All of whom could probably adjust to today’s game, as they were great football players, but it took a lot of weapons away from their game.

To this casual fan, it really looks like the League is trying to get closer and closer to, if not full-on Arena Football, then more towards the college game with its emphasis on quick drives, long passes, and lots of scoring.

Accordingly, you really can’t compare stats between eras in football, and the timespan of an era can be shockingly short. I don’t think comparisons between guys at the start of the West Coast Era (Montana, Marino, Elway, etc…) and guys now is particularly meaningful. I mean, this year you have conceivably 10 guys on pace to throw 5,000 yards or more, and a bunch with a shot at 5,500 or more. It’s just ridiculous.

ESPN introduced QBR in 2011, but it hasn’t really taken off for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, some of the stats it uses are based on subjective analysis. eg: How much pressure was he under when he threw it?

This leads into the second problem, which is that the stats are hidden from the average fan. We can all read a box score and plug in the numbers to calculate passer rating on our own. With QBR, we just have to take the numbers on faith because not only are the actual stats hidden from us, the formula itself is a guarded, proprietary secret.

And finally, it occasionally fails to pass the eyeball test completely. The linked wiki article mentions a couple amusing examples:

I mean, seriously, that second example is just nuts:

Smith: 16 of 21 for 164 yards, 2 TDs, 0 Ints: Passer rating 128.1, QBR 7.8
Rivers: 20 of 40 for 236 yards, 0 TDs, 3 Ints: Passer rating 37.2, QBR 16.1

As with just about any sport, today’s athletes are superior to those from yesteryear. This especially includes the NFL since baseball was the preferred professional sport for the best athletes in the 50s and 60s.

Comparing data points in two different decades isn’t valid, because the game changes. If you want valid, look at ** league leaders**. Which QB was first in passing yards, first in QB rating, first in TD/INT ratio.

And, certainly, players can now train essentially year-round, and focus on being athletes. When I was a kid, in the 1970s, it was very common for NFL players to have outside jobs during the offseason (often as salesmen), as only the biggest stars made enough money from their football contracts to not need the supplemental income.

But, that said, it’s very likely that the primary reason why modern QBs have ratings that are so much higher than their predecessors is four decades of rule changes to make passing easier / defending passes more difficult, and changes to offensive strategies to emphasize short, high-percentage passes.

But to the extent that today’s athletes are better than those of yesteryear, wouldn’t today’s quarterbacks be under pressure from better linebackers — while trying to get the ball past modern cornerbacks and safeties, who are better at intercepting passes than the cornerbacks and safeties of yesteryear were?

Another factor is that when a team is losing, the QB has to throw the ball a lot more. So a losing QB may have gaudy stats while the winning QB’s are so-so.

Actually, sort of but not really.

Linebackers, cornerbacks, running backs, pretty much everyone used to work out a lot. Today’s counterparts have better training and maintain better conditioning, but the previous era’s players put in real effort to get in shape.

Except quarterbacks. Up until at least the 70s, but possibly the 80s or maybe even the 90s, conventional wisdom was that quarterbacks shouldn’t work out much because they didn’t want them to mess up their throwing rhythm by putting on too much muscle. Which seems just crazy when you stop to think about it, but regardless, the athletic conditioning of quarterbacks today is far better than quarterbacks of yesterday relative to other positions.

However, this is most likely a trivial factor in terms of increased passer rating. The vast majority of it is all the short dump-off passes.

This should be pretty straightforward for stat geeks to come up with. Passer Rating+, league average is defined as 100, adjusted for Dome vs Open Air and Home vs. Away.

On this particular stat, which I don’t think is too much of a hijack from the main thrust of this thread, the NY Times has an article on how the passing record is made to be broken, given rules and strategy changes:

(Also, they joking mention how the league will be a flag football league in a couple of decades)

I guess I knew the disparity is largely because of how different today’s game is as opposed to 50 (or even 20) years ago.

But I am still surprised that so many of the all-time greats rank as low as they do.

Something like basketball’s player efficiency rating? I can get behind that.

Brady Quinn really did overmuscle himself - his arm in the NFL was noticibly worse than in college and not likely due to injury or technique. He got so muscular that he lost some of the flexibility he needed to throw better.