There’s something prestigious about being the best quarterback in football. A lot of it comes down to the sheer impact that a truly transcendent quarterback can have; a great quarterback can do more for his team than even a dominant goalie in hockey or an ace starter in baseball. The league’s best quarterback is the odds-on favorite each year to win the Associated Press’s MVP vote, but last year, quarterbacks took second place to the remarkable comeback of Adrian Peterson, who deservedly won MVP honors. Peterson also claimed a lesser-known title, one he had held unofficially in the past: the Running Back Championship Belt.
Of course, in that very article, I wrote off Peterson as a viable contender to return to his throne because nobody had ever done what he was trying to do, which was make it back to the top of the mountain after falling off because of an injury. My bad. That’s what I get for underestimating Adrian Peterson. In addition to being a fun little gimmick, the positional championship belt gives us some sense of how long peaks for players at the absolute top level of football last, when those peaks occur, and how likely players are to regain their past glory. I learned my lesson: Never say never. And this year, I’m going to look back and put together a lineage for the Quarterback Championship Belt throughout NFL history in the hopes of getting an idea of how long the current champ has with his title.
First, let’s make sure that we’re all talking about the same thing here. When I talk about a guy holding the Quarterback Championship Belt, it’s the guy who would be considered by most fans of the league as the best quarterback in football at the time, the guy who would pass the Bob Ryan test of being the person you would nominate to play quarterback against a group of alien invaders. That doesn’t mean that he has to have the best statistics in the league, although good numbers obviously help. He doesn’t need to play for the Super Bowl winner, but that also doesn’t hurt. One superb year from one guy isn’t always enough to knock another guy down; if Tony Romo had marginally better numbers than Tom Brady next year, that wouldn’t be enough for most people to say that Romo was a better quarterback than Brady, so he wouldn’t take the belt away from Brady next year (were he the titleholder). Finishing high up in the balloting for Pro Bowls and the All-Pro Team is usually a good hint of a player’s reputation. I’ll throw in a little bit of hindsight to help pick between relatively close battles, too.
In looking at the list of titleholders from afar, what’s really interesting is how short the respective reigns on top are. Our perception of running backs is that they have relatively brief careers and even shorter runs at the highest level of performance, and while quarterbacks do have longer careers, they haven’t really had long runs as the absolute best passer in football. There are a few notable exceptions to that rule, one of whom is the quarterback who starts the lineage.
Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts
Unitas’s first run as the best quarterback in football began with his first of three selections as AP MVP in 1959. In three years as Baltimore’s undisputed starter, Unitas made it to three Pro Bowls, was first-team All-Pro twice, won that aforementioned MVP, and went 23-11 while winning back-to-back NFL championships. Not bad for a ninth-round pick who was cut almost immediately by the Steelers; Unitas was Tom Brady before Tom Brady was Tom Brady. After the 1959-61 run, much like Brady did after his third title, he went into a bit of a rut; Unitas’s Colts went 35-20 over the next four seasons, and while Unitas led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks in both 1961 and 1962, he also led the league in interceptions in 1961. During the 1962 season, a veteran surpassed him as the league’s most dangerous passer.
Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants
Tittle, remembered today as the subject of one of the most famous football photographs ever, was the point man on a New York Giants offense that was second in points scored in 1962 and tops in the league in 1963. They averaged 32 points per game in a league where the average team failed to hit 22; if you translate the 1963 Giants’ numbers1 into the 2012 season, they would have scored 527 points, more than anybody in football last year besides the Patriots.
As good as Unitas’s pedigree had been, the 36-year-old Tittle was simply regarded as a better player during this two-year run. He won UPI’s vote for MVP in 1962 before winning the more notable AP version of the award in 1963, and was voted first-team All-Pro quarterback ahead of Unitas both times. Each voting entity recorded on Pro-Football-Reference.com picked Tittle ahead of Unitas in the end-of-year balloting for first-team NFL selections in ’63. Could it have been a sympathetic vote for an older player? A bit of East Coast bias in a world that revolved around New York and its media far more in 1963 than it does today? Entirely possible. But Tittle’s numbers — and his team’s win-loss record — were also ahead of Unitas. I’m pretty confident in saying he deserved the title for these two years.
One year later, Tittle was done. Like, done done. The Giants went 1-8-2 with him as the starter, Tittle threw 22 picks against 10 touchdowns, was captured in that aforementioned photo in September, and retired after the season.
Johnny Unitas, Colts
Unitas surged back in 1964 and won his second MVP2 while returning an improved Colts team to the playoffs with a 12-2 record. Baltimore would go 40-9-3 over this stretch with Unitas at the helm, and he would add a third MVP title to his collection in 1967. Unitas led the league in interceptions in 1966, but nobody was a credible threat to his title over this four-year stretch. Unitas’s second run produced a series of great teams, and one more title in 1970.3
The Colts were the NFL’s representative in Super Bowl III after the 1968 season, but it was Unitas’s backup, Earl Morrall, at the helm most of the way. Unitas reentered the lineup when Morrall struggled against the Jets, but he wasn’t able to bring the Colts back. He was restored to the starting lineup in 1969, but a 36-year-old Unitas simply wasn’t the same player after an arm injury, and he was never a threat to hold this title again.
Joe Namath, New York Jets
Namath is one of those players who inspire a lot of overrated quips by researchers who look back and see some pretty mediocre statistics coupled with injury issues and a career built on a famous quote. I used to be one of those very people, but I’ve been convinced otherwise by smart people like Chase Stuart, who did a great job of putting Namath’s career in context. He was first-team everything in 1968 even before the Super Bowl victory, and there was no NFL quarterback who matched his AFL reputation. He won the AFL AP Player of the Year award in 1969, a season when he was probably about equal to Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica. A year later, the two leagues would merge, but Namath missed most of the season with an injury, and Lamonica was overshadowed by another Bay Area passer …
John Brodie, San Francisco 49ers
Brodie was the best quarterback in the newly merged league by a pretty significant margin in 1970; he led the NFL in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and had the lowest interception rate. He was first-team All-Pro and won the MVP award. It was a fluke season for the 35-year-old, and he would be San Francisco’s starter for only another year and a half after the season, but Brodie was brilliant in ’70.
Bob Griese, Miami Dolphins
The best young quarterback in the league had been Griese, who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons as a starter before becoming an MVP candidate in 1971. In leading Miami to the Super Bowl, Griese was the first-team All-Pro quarterback, finishing ahead of Roger Staubach in virtually every poll between the two. Griese would get hurt during Miami’s perfect season in 1972, but he would eventually take over during the AFC Championship Game for his scuffling replacement (Morrall again, perhaps not coincidentally) and lead Miami to consecutive wins for Don Shula’s first Super Bowl win as head coach. A healthy Griese would lead a dominant Dolphins team back to the promised land in 1973 before dropping off to above-average play for the next several seasons.
Ken Stabler, Oakland Raiders
Stabler had been impressive taking over for Lamonica during the 1973 season, earning a Pro Bowl berth, but he was just a downfield force of nature during the following season. He threw a league-best 26 touchdowns while leading the Raiders to a 12-2 record, winning both first-team All-Pro and MVP honors. He would have a dismal 1975 season, though, throwing more interceptions (24) than touchdowns (16). That opened up a spot for …
Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings
This is very reminiscent of the Tittle run from the late ’60s, when a veteran player who was always very good saw everything coalesce into a great stretch toward the very end of his career. Tarkenton won his first MVP award and made his first All-Pro team this year at the age of 35. He would be pretty good in 1976 before throwing a combined 35 touchdowns over the final two seasons of his career.
Ken Stabler, Raiders
The perch once again belonged to Stabler, who completed an incredible (for the time) 66.7 percent of his passes in 1976 while averaging 9.3 yards per attempt. Adjusting for the era, it’s one of the best seasons in NFL history for a quarterback. The Raiders would win the Super Bowl in 1976. Stabler was merely very good in 1977, but there was no superior candidate to take the title away until 1978, when this guy’s performance finally matched his win-loss record:
Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers
One year on top for a guy who won four Super Bowls? Not my fault, Steelers fans. Bradshaw was actually impressive in 1978, when he led the league in touchdown passes and yards per attempt, earning himself his lone regular-season MVP award. (He would be Super Bowl MVP in 1978 and 1979.) Outside of this one season, though, the league didn’t really perceive Bradshaw to be a great player. This was his only All-Pro appearance, and he made just two other Pro Bowls during his 14-year career. The people watching him at the time clearly saw him as a good player on a great team, regardless of how that picture of him has changed since.
Dan Fouts, San Diego Chargers
Fouts couldn’t match Bradshaw’s playoff win-loss record, but he led the league in passing four straight years on a team that went 39-18 while playing in an offense that is helping to mold teams around the league to this day. It was only during the fourth year of that run that somebody clearly surpassed Fouts.
Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins
People were a little nuts during the strike season of 1982 — they did pick Redskins kicker Mark Moseley as league MVP, a move that might have made my head literally explode at the time if I had been alive — but Theismann was in the middle of an impressive two-year stretch. He was the quarterback on that 8-1 Redskins team that won the championship in 1982, as well as the first-team All-Pro quarterback in 1983, and he also won a deserved league MVP while leading Washington back to the Super Bowl. (Overcoming regression to the mean on Moseley’s part might have been enough for the trophy on its own.)
Dan Marino, Dolphins
Theismann was quickly overtaken when Marino produced the best season to date by a quarterback in 1984, one that set multiple passing records at the time and holds up as one of the five best quarterback seasons ever to this day. Marino won his lone MVP that year. He wasn’t able to beat the 49ers in that year’s Super Bowl, but Marino would be the first-team All-Pro quarterback in 1984, 1985, and 1986, leading the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns during each of those campaigns.
Joe Montana, 49ers
Montana’s first great regular season was 1987; he came up short to John Elway in the MVP balloting, but Montana arguably had better numbers and had the beginnings of his legendary postseason cachet to fend off Elway for the title. The 49ers actually lost at home to the Vikings in a divisional-round game this season, and Montana would struggle to stay healthy in 1988, but he would outduel that season’s MVP, Boomer Esiason, to win Super Bowl XXIII. Montana then won the MVP award in 1989 and 1990, adding another Super Bowl to his collection in 1989, before getting knocked out of the 1990 NFC Championship Game, suffering a torn elbow ligament that sidelined him for the entire 1991 season.4
Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills
The 49ers had a ready-made replacement for Montana in Steve Young, but Young wasn’t healthy during the 1991 season and missed six games. The All-Pro quarterbacks for the year were the guys who represented the two participants in that year’s Super Bowl, Jim Kelly and Mark Rypien. Rypien might have won the game, but I think it’s pretty clear that Kelly was the better quarterback.
Steve Young, 49ers
Once Young got healthy, he immediately became the man. He won MVP trophies in 1992 and 1994, settling for first-team All-Pro in 1993. Troy Aikman might have won two Super Bowls during this run, but he was a second-team Pro Bowler behind Young each year, and his numbers couldn’t match up to what was being produced out west.
Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers
Young’s next injury coincided perfectly with the ascension of Favre, who somehow made the Pro Bowl while leading the league in interceptions in 1993 before being left out with a 33-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 1994. Favre was unfazed, starting a four-year run with three league MVP trophies, three first-team All-Pro appearances, four Pro Bowls, two passing titles, and three passing touchdown leaderships. Both he and the Packers took a step backward in 1999, just in time for the unlikely arrival of …
Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams
The 1999 Rams actually would have been a team that generated some underrated buzz in this space if Grantland existed back then; they were 1-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 1998, underperforming their Pythagorean expectation by 1.4 games. Of course, replacing Tony Banks with a guy who threw 41 touchdowns and completed 65 percent of his passes helped, too. Warner was unstoppable in 1999 and close to unstoppable for most of 2001, winning league MVP both years. He missed five games with injuries in 2000, but nobody doubted that he was still the most dangerous quarterback in football. And then in 2002? An 0-6 record, three touchdowns, 11 interceptions. What a weird run.
Rich Gannon, Raiders
I think everybody was ready for Peyton Manning to take this spot, but he actually didn’t have a great 2002 season and still hadn’t won a playoff game, which (perhaps unfairly) affected his public perception. The 37-year-old Gannon, a modern-day Tittle or Tarkenton, won league MVP in a year when Priest Holmes probably deserved the nod. He would start just 10 more professional games after this season, going 4-6, before retiring.
Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
Whither Tom Brady? I can make a pretty good case against him. Manning, not Brady, was co-MVP in 2003 and lone MVP in 2004, even though Brady was winning his second and third Super Bowls those seasons.5 Brady arguably outplayed Manning in 2005, leading the league in passing yards, but his team went 10-6 and lost comfortably to the Broncos in the playoffs, while Manning went 14-2 and managed to beat Brady to the All-Pro team. And then, in 2006, Manning had better numbers than Brady and finally beat him in the playoffs, en route to his Super Bowl win. There’s no year in that span when Brady clearly surpasses Manning in the eyes of the voting electorate or the public (win fetishists/editors-in-chief aside). That doesn’t happen until 2007.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots
The best season by a quarterback in NFL history, bar none. Of course, Bernard Pollard brought an end to this title run at the start of the following season.
Peyton Manning, Colts
Consecutive MVP seasons from Manning, whose play would slip a bit during an arduous 2010 before his neck injury cost him the 2011 campaign. But you know that already.
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
You can make a very fair case for Brady in 2010, when he threw nine touchdowns for every interception, but Rodgers was just about as good on a per-play basis and produced one of the best playoff runs in league history, entirely on the road. He was unquestionably the league’s best player in 2011, winning the MVP award without a second thought, and while Peterson deserved his trophy in 2013, Rodgers was every bit as good as Peyton Manning, who was otherwise regarded as the best quarterback in football last year.
Don’t believe me? Start with the numbers:
Manning’s a slight favorite on those figures, but there are a few arguments that tip the scales in favor of Rodgers. Unlike Manning, Rodgers is an effective scrambler: He ran for 259 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, while Manning’s 23 rush attempts went for six yards.6 Manning also played the league’s second-easiest schedule, while Rodgers was up against the ninth-most difficult slate in football. Manning had a better story because he was coming back from a devastating neck injury, but Rodgers was the more productive player in 2013.
What Did We Learn?
For one, Pro-Football-Reference.com is awesome. From this exercise, though, I think there are two key takeaways:
- Nobody lasts very long at the top. You might disagree with my selections here or there, and that’s fine, but I think I’m being fair in pointing out that no single quarterback has spent more than four uninterrupted years with the QB Championship Belt. Johnny Unitas, Ken Stabler, and Peyton Manning were able to regain it, but once you get to that four-year mark at the top of the class, your time is up. Aaron Rodgers is an incredible quarterback, but remember that he was 25 by the time he took over as the Green Bay starter and will turn 30 during this upcoming season; he’s likely to be a very good quarterback for another six to eight years, but he’s probably not going to be the best quarterback in football for much longer. The Gang of Four is breathing down his neck.
- Even great old quarterbacks can lose it fast. Three guys who were genuinely considered to be the cream of the NFL crop in their late thirties — Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton, and Rich Gannon — were one injury-riddled year away from disappearing as viable quarterbacks. It’s probably unfair to compare Tittle’s and Tarkenton’s situations to the modern medicine afforded the likes of Peyton Manning, but Gannon’s a much more recent comp. He was an elite quarterback at 37 and done by 39. Manning turned 37 this March. There’s nothing (beyond the neck surgery) indicating that he’s about to fall off, but there was little suggesting that Gannon was about to get hurt and rapidly decline before it happened to him, either. This doesn’t mean that Manning’s about to bomb out of the league or anything, but the attrition rate for even elite quarterbacks at that age is higher than people realize. Once you get to that age, about one of every five quarterbacks doesn’t come back for a meaningful age-38 season.
Rodgers, of course, also came in atop last year’s NFL Trade Value rankings, thanks to his dominant play and cap-friendly contract. After signing a new deal this past offseason, will he remain atop that even more prestigious leaderboard? Come back next week to find out.
This column has been updated to correct an error; the 1987 49ers lost to the Vikings in a divisional-round game, not in the NFC Championship Game.