Joe-Pinions: Sports

25 Jan 2011 – My Personal Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 25/01/2011

Last time I started counting down my personal top 10 NFL quarterbacks.  To see which quarterbacks were ranked #10 and #9, click here.

Here are quarterbacks ranked 8th through 4th:

8.  Dan Marino

Prototypical size?  (6’4″, circa 225lbs)  Check.

Bazooka arm?  Yep, got that.

Quick release?  Possibly one of the quickest ever.

Until fairly recently, Dan Marino owned almost every statistical category for quarterbacks in the NFL.  Curiously, though, Marino’s name seems to come all too infrequently when football fans gather to discuss their personal lists of top NFL quarterbacks.

It’s all too easy to say that the reason for this is the fact that Marino played in only one Super Bowl, or the fact that his Miami Dolphins were so thoroughly demolished by the San Francisco 49ers in that one appearance.  I may be one of the few fans who would not hold these particular facts against Marino.

I mean, it’s not his fault his teams never really had a legitimate go-to receiver, in the mold of a Jerry Rice or Sterling Sharpe or even a Jay Novacek, someone on whom you could almost bet the house that he would make that key reception when you just absolutely needed one.  It’s not his fault that he never ever seemed to have a running back worth the name; in fact, the only running back on Marino’s teams whose name I can remember was Karim Abdul-Jabbar (who, sadly for Marino’s sake, was nowhere close in football ability as his near-namesake was in basketball).  It’s not his fault his Dolphins simply weren’t good enough on defense to sustain a strong-enough campaign for a Super Bowl win.  How could all these shortcomings be properly laid at his feet?

But fans do that anyway, and hold all of that against Marino.

I think about this some more, and then something Steve Young once said about his own career and experience in the NFL rushes to the forefront of my mind:  “In the NFL, perception is reality.  And if someone says ‘you’re this,’ or ‘you’re that,’ then you may as well be it.”

Conversations with my brother-in-law (a sports junkie if I ever saw one) also come to mind, specifically those times when he said that he thought Marino played to pad his stats first and foremost, and thoughts of winning were decidedly of lower priority.  I honestly don’t agree with my brother-in-law, but in Dan Marino’s case, well…  

Suffice it to say I’m just a small voice in the wilderness, and many more people tagged Marino as a mere stats machine and nothing more.

For me, I’ll always remember Dan Marino for his super-quick release and that great lively arm. When I think of Marino, I can’t help but imagine what he might have been able to do if he had Troy Aikman’s team instead of his perpetually inadequate Dolphins squads through his career.  Just thinking of Marino being able to hand off to a very good running back with the best blockers available, then throwing to three (or four, including Moose Johnston) receivers, is one of my personal favorite “what if” theoretical scenarios.

7.  Peyton Manning

If quarterbacking was a part of the game of baseball, then a quarterback’s statistics would probably be the end-all, be-all as far as measuring his merits.  It would thus be tempting to put players with the biggest numbers in the highest placings of a ranking system.

I said in the first part of this blogging mini-series that most statistics have never been all that important to me, that the numbers I cared about most were for games and championships won.  This is why Favre was only tenth on my current ranking (I’m reserving the right to change which quarterbacks are on my personal top 10 list at any time in future, of course); he may have most of the big stats, but other considerations weighed more heavily (in Favre’s case, his massive propensity for throwing interceptions just drops my esteem of him as a quarterback like a boulder in free-fall; that, and the fact that, for all his numbers, he’s only got one Super Bowl ring).

Peyton Manning might one day approach, if not actually exceed, Favre in the record books.  But will he accumulate more Super Bowl trophies along the way?

Manning is a bit of a conundrum, and probably a source of some frustration as far as his fans are concerned.  As my friend Tim wrote in his excellent analysis of Manning’s career track, during the regular season there’s no better quarterback in NFL history.  As Wikipedia’s Peyton Manning entry shows, his list of records is so long, it may deserve to be a record itself.  And he is the only person in the entire history of the NFL to be voted MVP four times.  Manning’s most ardent admirers would likely use these facts as ammunition for their argument that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of them all.

Critics, though, would counter that the regular season is only half the picture; there is a flip side to Peyton Manning’s career.  If his excellence during the regular season is Dr. Jekyll, then Mr. Hyde would be his less than stellar record in the playoffs.  Tim did an excellent job in describing Manning’s shortcomings during the playoffs, but to me the most glaring negative in his quarterbacking CV is his postseason win percentage (47.4%).  (Thanks, Tim, for doing the stat analysis.)

That’s the objective side of things.  Subjectively speaking, you can almost feel Manning’s tightness, his personal tension, when you watch him play during the postesason.  When during the regular season he’s almost always got a quiet confidence and a killer instinct pushing him to win the game, he often looks tentative, sometimes nervous, but always tight, during a playoff game.  The body language cues are easy to read.  On a passing play, he looks jumpy, and you sometimes wonder if he’s seeing pass rushers where there aren’t any.  Especially against his greatest nemeses, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, Manning looks decidedly confused, throwing into coverage and killing drives with ill-timed interceptions.  He reacts to almost every single incompletion, but especially during a failed attempt to convert third down.  He looks more vocally critical of his teammates on the field, admonishing them about what route the receiver should have run, or which pass rusher his O-line and running back should have picked up.  Then there is the well-known Manning slouch of the shoulders, or the incredulous shrug, when the opposing defense gets the best of him.

During the playoffs, when the heat is really turned up, Manning’s demeanor is transformed.  Where during the regular season his face is like a cold, hard assassin’s who wouldn’t hesitate one bit when he’s on the attack, at playoff time it becomes something else.  It really reminds me of that scene in Star Wars Episode III:  Revenge of the Sith, when Chancellor Palpatine reveals himself as the deadly Sith Lord Darth Sidious:  It’s almost as if the intensity of playoff situations melts away the determined mask Manning wears during the regular season, and the ugly truth is exposed.

I’m convinced that Manning’s fear of losing is much greater than his passion for winning big games.

Unfortunately, that fear of losing only feeds the vicious cycle, dragging him down, affecting his performance, and fulfilling all his worst nightmares.

I have defended Manning’s lack of success in the playoffs relative to the rest of the other greats to play the position.  Like Marino, his failures come playoff time are not all his fault; sometimes, his teams lose despite his contributions (this year’s AFC Wild Card weekend loss to the Jets is a great example; head coach Jim Caldwell and the Indy defense made some critical errors in judgment and simply did not execute well at the most important parts of the endgame which sealed the team’s fate).  He can only control the offense, and how he plays.  But it’s impossible to ignore Manning’s very visible transformation in how he plays, and how he carries himself, when the chips are down; he has to do a much better job at controlling the effect his emotions have on his performance.  I don’t remember Marino shrinking away from the task of leading his team.  If anything, the always fiery Marino jacked up his own personal intensity in his pursuit of victory.

Peyton Manning is an interesting quarterback, if nothing else.  Like Jim Kelly, when he’s on, and he’s moving that Indianapolis Colts offense down the field with military precision, it’s an awesome sight.

Too bad we don’t see enough of it during the playoffs.

6.  Jeff Garcia

I can almost hear the howls of disbelief now.

Jeff Garcia?

Are you serious?

Jeff Garcia?!?

I’m deadly serious in putting Jeff Garcia on this list.

But why?

I’ve always been a Jeff Garcia fan.  Sure, a big part of why is the fact that he played for the 49ers.  So go ahead, color me biased and call me a homer, even though I don’t live in the Bay Area.

But surely, Garcia can’t belong in anybody’s top 10 list of quarterbacks.  I mean, just LOOK AT HIM.

That’s the first mistake when it comes to Jeff Garcia:  Almost everyone has underestimated him.  That’s the easiest response, just looking at him.  He may not ever be on anybody else’s short list of quarterbacks straight from Central Casting.  He doesn’t fit the image at all, and he simply doesn’t have any of the overt physical tools needed for the job.  He’s one of the smaller quarterbacks to excel in the NFL:  6’1″, circa 195 lbs soaking wet.  He doesn’t have Aikman’s rocket launcher of an arm.  He doesn’t even have matinée idol looks, as Dan Marino or Tom Brady have (hey, I don’t care for this myself, but I’m sure this counts for some people).

But there’s one thing that cannot be denied:  No less than Bill Walsh, unquestionably one of the greatest quarterback talent evaluators to have ever walked this earth, thought Garcia had “it.”

Coach Walsh first took notice of Garcia during his second stint coaching the Stanford Cardinal in the early1990s.  Walsh’s Stanford team was playing Garcia’s San Jose State Spartans, and somehow the Spartans, a school with access to fewer prize football recruits than Stanford, were giving the Cardinal all they could handle.  Garcia proved unflappable during that game despite the overwhelming odds, making throws all over the field and defusing the pass rush effectively and confidently.  He was also much more athletic than his slight stature might have suggested.  San Jose State didn’t beat Stanford that game, but Jeff Garcia made such a huge impression on Coach Walsh, he made sure to keep an eye on the young man from Gilroy, California.

When Walsh returned to the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1990s as their General Manager, one of his most interesting moves was to persuade the team to sign Garcia to a contract.  He was met with much opposition, largely because of Garcia’s more apparent physical limitations (lack of size, inadequate arm strength); Garcia’s positive attributes, particularly his excellent mobility, decision-making and on-field judgment, capability for producing excellent performance, and leadership qualities (he led the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup in the CFL in 1998) apparently didn’t count for as much.  He just didn’t have the “measurables.”

Nevertheless, Garcia became a 49er in 1999, signed as Steve Young’s backup.  And the thing about this was, I loved that Garcia was a die-hard 49ers fan himself.  It was literally a dream come true for him to play quarterback for his beloved team.

Years later, this was how Bill Walsh described what attracted him to Garcia:  “They (the scouts and other talent evaluators in the NFL) missed on the one element that made Joe Montana great:  His ability to avoid and throw…  You’re looking for an instinctive athlete to play the game.”  Like his idol Montana, Jeff Garcia could “avoid and throw.”  Walsh saw that himself in that game between Stanford and San Jose State.  Indeed, Garcia was magnificent to watch in the pocket, using his blockers to best effect, shuffling this way or that to avoid the rush.  I loved watching his footwork, which was as good as anybody’s, in my opinion.  He also excelled at throwing on the run.  He may not have had a Howitzer for a throwing arm, and maybe he wasn’t built like an M1 Abrams, but Garcia was nimble, quick, agile.  He was a Honda S2000, and he could hit targets and put the ball in places where defenders weren’t and his receivers were as well as anyone.

By the end of his stay in San Francisco, Garcia was able to achieve some things that not even legends like Joe Montana and Steve Young did.  For example, he set the 49ers’ team record for most passing yards in a season (4278).  He also was the first quarterback in team history to have two consecutive seasons with at least 30 passing touchdowns (31 and 32 passing TDs in 2000 and 2001, respectively).  At the same time, he also showed that, unlike some other great quarterbacks (Brett Favre, specifically), he didn’t negate his production by throwing for only 23 INTs during that same span (10 and 12 INTs, respectively).

To me, a quarterback has to maximize production (TDs) and minimize turnovers (INTs, fumbles lost).  The higher the TD:INT ratio, the better the QB.  Garcia’s career TD/INT ratio is 161/83 (1.939); this compares quite favorably to Brett Favre’s (508/336, 1.512), Dan Marino’s (420/252, 1.666), or John Elway’s (300/226, 1.327).  What this ultimately means is that Garcia tends to end more possessions with touchdowns instead of giving the ball to the other team and giving them the chance to score.  And in football, you can only score if you have the ball.

When Garcia was with the 49ers, the team won games, and more often than not they went to the playoffs.  He became a casualty of the salary cap, Terrell Owens’ cancerous influence on the team, and an ill-advised change to a vertical style of offense that he was not equipped to execute properly (Dennis Erickson replaced one of Garcia’s staunchest supporters on the team, Steve Mariucci, in 2003), and he left the Niners at the end of 2003.  Not coincidentally, the 49ers have not been back to the playoffs since Garcia (and Mariucci) was on the team; neither have they looked or played competently on offense since his departure.

I usually don’t follow the careers of ex-49ers, but I did that for three players:  Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Jeff Garcia.  I still weep for the days when Jeff executed that evolved Walsh offense under Mariucci.  Unlike most people, I always loved Jeff and how he played quarterback.  I didn’t see the under-sized, underdog quarterback.  I could honestly say that, in many ways, Jeff reminded me of Joe Montana, in that as long as there was time left on the clock, he was always going to do what he could to try and win that game.  He didn’t always succeed, but you always knew that he was trying.

I didn’t care that he didn’t quite look the part of the prototypical NFL quarterback.  It was enough that he played better than some of the so-called greatest QBs.  The only thing that I wish Garcia did was win a Super Bowl with the 49ers.  But I have never held that against him.

5.  Rich Gannon

I can almost hear the howls of disbelief now.

Oh wait.

We’ve been through that already.

I figured I’ve already thrown your expectations for a loop once.  What’s one more time between friends, eh?

Yeah, like Jeff Garcia, Rich Gannon probably isn’t on anybody’s short lists of top NFL quarterbacks.  I tell you, though, Gannon was something else to watch on the field.

I first started watching Gannon when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs.  You see, the Chiefs came on my personal radar first when the monstrously awesome Christian Okoye was their featured running back in the late 1980s.  Then, when Montana was traded to Kansas City and Marcus Allen signed for them as a free agent, I developed a minor crush on the team.  Now I wouldn’t call them my favorite team – the 49ers have always been that, and they forever will be – , but the Chiefs were probably the most interesting team in the AFC West for me.  (Sorry to my best friend Rick, a diehard Raiders fan, and his wife Monette and my brother-in-law Andy, who are both crazy Chargers fans.)

Anyway, Gannon always impressed me with his footwork.  I love watching quarterbacks’ feet.  Even before I read and heard Bill Walsh talk about how good quarterbacking is not so much about great arms as they are about great feet, I guess I always had an instinctive, intuitive understanding of the essential importance of footwork.  I loved watching Gannon dropping back from under center, demonstrating all the various drops with great proficiency.  He could do the 3-step, the 5-step, the 7-step, the bootlegs and waggles, everything a Walsh-type quarterback should do.

Another thing that impressed me so much about Rich Gannon:  Give him a good-enough line to protect for him, and he’ll put that ball in the right receiver’s hands most of the time.  He had a gift similar to Jeff Garcia’s:  He could “avoid and throw.”

Plus he really was an accurate passer.  When he was at his peak, such as when he moved to the Oakland Raiders in 1999, it seemed as if that if the ball hit the ground, it wasn’t because his pass was off.  Incompletions were more because his receivers dropped a perfectly catchable ball.

Gannon had other subtle skills.  For example, he was a master at “looking off” the coverage, primarily the free safety.  Coverage guys, especially the safeties, are coached to watch the quarterback’s helmet to have a clue where the QB might be going on a pass play.  The logic, of course, is that a quarterback has to see where he wants to go with the ball.  Gannon almost always knew where the defense was going to be before the snap just by anticipating the coverage type through his pre-snap look, so what he would often do on longer throws down the field is he would look away from where he wanted to go; inevitably, the safeties would react appropriately and drift towards where Gannon was looking, only to Gannon throw to a void in the coverage.  Except for Tom Brady today, I can’t think of any other quarterback as proficient as Gannon on the look-off.

Then there’s the famous Gannon pump fake.  His pump fake is so convincing, even the cameraman gets faked out.

Gannon is also something of an intellectual, at least when it comes to football.  I remember one time watching him break a play or two down on TV (I think it was on ESPN), and he went over every detail of those two plays.  He talked about the protection scheme, the possible line adjustments depending on the defensive front, the QB’s drop, the receivers’ various routes, the options available to the receivers depending on the secondary’s shell (i.e., visual presentation pre-snap, which often is a clue to the type of coverage for that play), the QB’s progression of reads (who is the primary receiver, the secondary receiver, and one or two outlet receivers), and who the hot receiver was (the hot receiver is who the QB will go to immediately in the event of a dog/blitz).  He even talked about how a given play could be run out of several different formations.  I’ve searched the net for this particular clip, but unfortunately I cannot find it.  But that TV moment will live forever in my memories.

Now all quarterbacks are supposed to be able to describe all the plays in their playbooks like this for each and every play.  But Gannon amazed me when I saw that segment, and I always thought his obvious intelligence in football made him like a coach on the field.  (He’s the only quarterback in my personal top 10 who I believe can actually probably be a very good coach someday.)  And I know that not all quarterbacks were as detailed and knowledgeable as Gannon was, relying more on athletic skill to get the job done.  Gannon, though, played with skill, guts, and great intelligence.

But for all these tools in his toolbox, perhaps like no other quarterback other than Marino, Gannon had an overt rage to win.  Gannon may have been a bit more subtle at expressing his fury to win – Marino was always very demonstrative when it came to his emotions during a game – but it was no less real.  Gannon simply loved winning.

As with Jeff Garcia, I don’t hold it against Gannon that he didn’t win a Super Bowl.  He lost in one, primarily because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were coached by his old head coach, Jon Gruden.  Gruden knew Gannon as well as Gannon himself, and even ran a pre-Super Bowl practice with him as quarterback, perfectly simulating Gannon down to mimicking Gannon’s manner in playcalling, his line of scrimmage cadence, and even his audibles.  This turned Super Bowl XXXVII into something more akin to a Gannon vs. the Buccaneers, a one vs. eleven contest; the Bucs knew how Gannon would play, what he liked and what he didn’t like to do, and forced him to do things that he didn’t want to all game long.  Gannon never had a chance.

When I think of Gannon the quarterback, the final winning drive the Raiders made against a Bill Parcells-coached New York Jets defense comes to mind.  All facets of Gannon the quarterback, Gannon the leader of his team, are on full display on this drive.


4.  Drew Brees

When Drew Brees decided to leave San Diego for free agency at the end of the 2005 season, I prayed to the Football Gods for the 49ers to take a chance on him.  This was despite the fact that Brees had suffered a devastating torn labrum on his right (throwing) shoulder.  Alas, the Football Gods didn’t hear my prayers.  Either that, or they decided that New Orleans was going to need Brees a lot more.

As it turned out, in some ways Drew Brees was indeed a godsend to New Orleans.  The Crescent City suffered mightily in the late summer of 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina, and the hometown Saints were dangerously close to leaving, one reason being their home stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, suffered a considerable amount of damage in the wake of the super-hurricane.  If the Saints had marched out (to San Antonio, or Los Angeles, or some other destination), New Orleans might have died as an American city.

Okay, so perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic for me to write.  But this is hardly an original sentiment, as I recall many people in the media saying the exact same thing at the time.

Brees’ arrival in New Orleans coincided with the beginning of a new coaching regime.  Sean Payton replaced Jim Haslett at the end of the 2005 season, and in fact was instrumental in persuading Brees to join him in Louisiana.

So what’s so special about Brees?  I see him as something like a better, more evolved version of Jeff Garcia.  Like Garcia, he’s a bit on the small side.  He’s actually an inch shorter than Garcia, but is a little heavier (circa 210 lbs).  The extra weight probably went into his throwing arm, as it is deceptively strong despite Brees’ lack of size relative to the prototypical ideal quarterback.  He’s not as lithe and agile as Garcia, but he’s not a statue quarterback; he possesses enough mobility to get out of trouble and sometimes even pick up a few yards with his legs.  Make no mistake about it, though:  Drew Brees is a pure dropback passer.

Brees is proof positive that you don’t have to be built like Troy Aikman to lead the league in passing yards.  So prolific is Brees as a passer, he became only the second quarterback in NFL history to finish the season with at least 5000 passing yards (5069 in 2008).  Not too shabby for a guy with a reconstructed shoulder, I’d say.

For me, though, Brees’ most outstanding qualities as a passer are his ability to make the correct decision most of the time as far as where to go with the ball, as well as his accuracy in his delivery.  The first quality speaks of his intelligence; he can very quickly decipher the defense’s coverage scheme, and from there it’s a simple matter of locating where the voids in the coverage are.  All that’s left is for his receivers to go to those voids (or, in the case of man-to-man coverage, to create enough separation between themselves and the coverage defenders) and make the catch.  Brees will throw that ball and put it where only his receiver can get to it most of the time.  If nobody’s open, Brees will either run to make yardage or throw the ball away.  He’s not likely to force balls into coverage.

Yeah, I prayed like crazy for Brees to become a Niner when the Chargers chose Philip Rivers over him at the end of 2005.  It didn’t come to pass, but that’s okay.  In truth, I was very happy to see Drew Brees win a Super Bowl with New Orleans.  I don’t often cheer for a player on another team, but I did for Brees.

Brees was perfect for New Orleans:  He’s a great comeback story, just like the city is and continues to be.  And I’m perfectly happy for that.


Seven quarterbacks done, only three to go.

Who will the final three be?

Find out in the last installment of this blogging mini-series.

Hope to see you (and hear from you) then!

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4 Responses

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  1. Tim said, on 26/01/2011 at 10:34

    Garcia and Gannon? Now that’s fighting talk!

    I agree both were vastly underrated as QBs, although I didn’t really watch that much of Gannon in truth, so I’m not really in a position to pass judgement on him.

    Jeff, though – I can see exactly where you’re coming from. He always made me think that he was Montana’s smaller, slightly more awkward brother. Proof positive that you don’t have to be 230 lbs or have a grenade-launcher for an arm to be a success in the NFL. I loved Jeff’s intelligence, and his mobility, and his ability to just somehow make a play when you really needed him to. If he had been the QB of one of the five Super Bowl-winning SF teams, he would no doubt have won a ring. And yet he would get to the end of the season, and you’d think he’d been only so-so, and his numbers would be exceptional.

    Would he have made my personal top 10? Possibly not. But he would certainly have been a near-miss, so I won’t complain at all about you putting him at number 6. I think we may still be in a small minorty, though! 🙂

    • txtmstrjoe said, on 26/01/2011 at 13:49

      Heh, I had a feeling putting Garcia and Gannon on this list (and higher than the expected picks, no less) would generate some heat.

      I guess I just have some core values that I stick to when it comes to looking at QBs, and I have my own (Walsh-inspired, admittedly) ideal QB type. Garcia and Gannon are obviously closer to that ideal QB type than some of the other QBs on my list.

      I LOVED your description of Garcia: “He always made me think he was Montana’s smaller, slightly more awkward brother.” In watching some game film of Garcia, it’s a spot on description. Some of Jeff’s longer throws looked less graceful than what we’d all alike, but they all got to where they needed to go and they didn’t get picked off.

      Even Montana threw a few fluttering ducks in his day, after all. 😉

  2. […] To read about #s 10 and 9, click here; for #s 8 through 4, click here. […]

  3. […] year, I wrote a three-part blogging miniseries on my personal Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks.  (Parts 1, 2, and 3)  The compilation of my ten favorite NFL quarterbacks came as a result of a random flood of […]

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