BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
In December, the NFL celebrated the 100th anniversary of professional football by announcing the NFL100 team, representing the best 100 players to ever play in the league. The panel that chose those players was made up of 26 people, including coaches, team executives, retired players and members of the media.
Twenty-two quarterbacks were considered finalists, but only ten made the final team. Of that group of ten, one signal caller stood out as being the least deserving member of this auspicious collection: John Elway.
To his credit, Elway survived 16 NFL seasons, all with the Denver Broncos. His 51,475 passing yards is ninth All-Time among quarterbacks, and his 300 passing touchdowns are good for twelfth All-Time. He guided his teams to five Super Bowls, second only to the seemingly immortal Tom Brady, who has reached nine. Elway also recorded a whopping 31 fourth quarter comebacks, good for sixth All-Time, which do not include the four playoff games during which he rescued the Broncos from a deficit to win when they trailed in the final quarter. One of the signature Elway moments includes “The Drive,” when he took Denver 98 yards to score the game-tying touchdown against Cleveland in the 1987 AFC Championship game. He led Denver to ten playoff seasons, and was 14-7 as a starter in the postseason. His 148 regular season wins is good for fifth All-Time. His career was certainly a strong one in many regards, but his inclusion on a list of the best to ever play the position is an egregious error.
Elway played college football at Stanford (1979-1982), where his team was 20-23 with him under center. Despite winning Pac-10 Player of the Year honors in 1980 and 1982, and finishing second in the Heisman balloting in 1982, he never led the Cardinal to a single bowl game.
He was the consensus top talent in the 1983 NFL draft, and was the clear favorite to be drafted #1 overall by the Baltimore Colts, who had gone 0-8-1 in the strike shortened 1982 season to earn the top slot. Elway, however, was not interested in playing for such a moribund team, and had his agent direct the Colts not to draft him. He apparently preferred to play on the West Coast, something his agent communicated to the Colts brass. His father, Jack, also warned his son against playing for Baltimore coach Frank Kush, who had a reputation as a strong disciplinarian.
Despite his wishes, the Colts drafted Elway with the top selection in the draft. Since Elway was also a gifted baseball player, having been drafted by the Yankees 52nd overall in 1981, he used his potential as a ballplayer to convince the Colts he’d never play for them. “As I stand here right now, I’m playing baseball,” Elway would say at a press conference after Baltimore had chosen him in the NFL draft. Eventually, his power play paid off, and his rights were traded to Denver.
It says something about the character of a player to feel that his wishes, based on his talent and preferences, were higher priorities than the established method of talent distribution that the NFL had utilized through the draft for many years prior to 1983. It is one of the most basic principles of fairness and competition to award the least successful franchises with access to the very best players to enter the league, ensuring that those teams improve as a result.
The NFL draft had existed in some form since 1936, helping to move the league towards parity as a result of the worst-to-best ordering that has been the foundational principle for nearly 50 years when Elway decided his unique abilities were above such mundane considerations. He would play football only where he wanted to play (and never for the Colts), and used baseball to force the Colts to trade his rights. John Elway had manipulated the process by which talent is fairly distributed throughout the league, and placed himself outside the parameters of competitive balance as a result.
There are many ways to assess the relative merits of a quarterback. Elway’s average NFL season saw him complete 57% of his passes, amassing 3,500+ yards along with 21 TD’s and 16 interceptions. His passer rating was 79.9. That passer rating is good for 78th All-Time among quarterbacks who have attempted 1,500 or more throws in their career. For comparison, other nominated top 100 QB’s dwarf that figure: Aaron Rodgers (102.4, 1st overall), Drew Brees (98.4, 3rd) and Steve Young (96.8, 7th). Troy Aikman, Bart Starr, Dan Fouts and Fran Tarkenton also eclipse Elway’s career mark, yet none of those players made the final cut as one of the Top 10 quarterbacks ever.
The rules of football have evolved over the years to make it easier for both quarterbacks and receivers to gain yardage through the air, and the top of the ranking lists are littered with men who started their careers after Elway retired in 1998. In fact, of the top 20 quarterbacks by the passer rating metric, all but two (Joe Montana and Steve Young) started their careers in 1998 or later, after Elway retired.
So how did Elway stack up against quarterbacks who were active during his career by that measure? The quick answer: Not very well at all.
Among quarterbacks whose careers overlapped Elway’s by at least five seasons, (and who attempted at least 1,500 career passes), he ranks 23rd in passer rating. Players who eclipsed his 79.9 rating include Young (96.8), Montana (92.3), and Dan Marino (86.4). Aikman and Fouts also had more favorable scores.
Elway had 226 career interceptions, and lost 102 fumbles, meaning that he turned the ball over 328 times in his career. He ranks 5th All-Time in fumbles, and 17th all time in interceptions.
Another metric favored by the analytic community is adjusted net yards per attempt, (ANYA), which takes into account passing yards, yards lost by sacks, and weights touchdown passes and interceptions differently than passer rating does. Surely, if Elway’s genius would be apparent in any set of numbers, maybe this would be the one. It is not.
By ANYA, Elway’s 5.60 adjusted yards per attempt is 58th All-Time. Brees (7.08) and Young (6.85) dwarf Elway’s average, and Fouts (5.90) and Aikman (5.66) also have better numbers than Denver’s hero.
The panel selecting the very best players ever to play the most important position in the game must have weighted Elway’s playoff performances more heavily than his mediocre regular season statistics. After all, leading his team to five Super Bowls has to count for something, and his performance in those playoff games must be outstanding. This is not the reality.
Of the top 50 quarterbacks to attempt at least 150 passes in the playoffs, Elway ranks 35th with a 79.7 rating, a notch below his already ordinary regular season numbers. Brees (100.0), Aikman (88.3) and Young (85.8) are all well ahead of Elway by this measure.
In his 22 playoff games, Elway completed 355 passes of his 651 throws, a 54.5% rate, a number that places him outside of the Top 50 playoff QB’s by that metric. Brees (66.3%), Aikman (63.7) and Young (62.1%) best Elway in this comparison as well, and by a significant margin. He had 27 TDs and 21 INTs in his playoff career.
So, Elway must have shone brightest on the biggest stage, the Super Bowl. He had five such attempts at the Lombardi Trophy, and his reputation must have been burnished while the whole world watched him dazzle his opponents. The evidence seems to indicate otherwise. Elway’s eight Super Bowl interceptions are the most All-Time. He completed 76 of 152 attempts, a 50% clip.
His passer rating was 59.3, below even his mediocre standard in the regular season, throwing only three Super Bowl touchdowns against the record eight interceptions in the big game. His teams managed to go 2-3 in those championship contests. Brees, Aikman and Young have all won at least one Super Bowl, and Aikman and Young have three championships each (though Young was a 49er backup to Joe Montana on the 1988 and 1989 teams that won it all).
It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to justify John Elway’s selection as a top 10 quarterback of All-Time, especially considering the clearly superior careers turned in by Troy Aikman, Steve Young and the still active Drew Brees.
Brees holds All-Time NFL records with 547 touchdowns, a 67.6% completion percentage, and 77,416 passing yards. His QB rating is 98.4, and his AYNA is 7.08. In the playoffs, Brees is 8-7, throwing for 33 TD’s with 11 interceptions, a completion percentage of 66.3%, a QBR of exactly 100 and an AYNA of 7.41. In his lone Super Bowl appearance, a 31-17 victory over the Colts, he went 32-39 for 288 yards with 2 TD’s and no interceptions for a rating of 114.5 and was named MVP. Brees also eclipses Elway with 35 regular season fourth quarter comebacks, and adds another two in the postseason.
Steve Young’s regular season figures include 232 touchdowns against 102 INTs. He had a 64.3% completion percentage, good for 33,124 yards. His QB rating was 96.8, and his ANYA is 6.85. In the postseason, Young was 8-6, throwing 20 TD’s against 13 INT’s, a completion percentage of 62.0%, a QBR of 85.8 and an ANYA of 6.06. He also rushed for 4,239 yards, the fourth highest career total of rushing yards by a quarterback, outgaining Elway by 832 yards in 65 less games. In winning his only Super Bowl appearance as a starter, a 49-26 destruction of the San Diego Chargers, he was 24-36 for 325 yards with a Super Bowl record six touchdown passes and no interceptions, a rating of 134.8. Young does not have Elway’s volume stats, but is far superior to him by every other statistical measure.
The committee apparently spent a significant amount of time debating the merits of the players that were honored with inclusion on the Top 100 All-Tme team, so they must have been assessing passers on a different basis than those utilized in this article.
John Elway is not one of the Top 10 quarterbacks of All-Time, and he might not be worthy of even being considered in the top 25 passers in the history of the NFL. Brees and Young both have far stronger cases to be honored than Elway does, and even Aikman and Fouts could be judged to have had at least similar achievements during their careers.
Perhaps this seemingly indefensible gaffe will be corrected in the future. It would be tragic to mislead serious football fans about the quality of Elway’s career in relation to his peers and the shortest list of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Elway has no business being in that conversation.
When one factors in his selfish, entitled attitude around the 1983 NFL draft, when he deemed himself too talented to be wasted on the likes of the Baltimore franchise, Elway would seem a very poor choice to represent the leadership and character that are at least as important as pure talent when it comes to define the paradigm of a successful quarterback in the NFL.