NFL Quarterbacks Continue to Evolve as Decades Pass
Comparing quarterbacks from different eras is an implausible practice.
Updated: Sept. 2, 2019 • 8:30 AM ET
Tom Brady continues to defy the odds as a passer in the NFL.
NFL fans and media members often compare different generations of players. Using this practice, however, is impractical, especially at the quarterback position.
Various metrics, including passing and rushing attempts, not to mention passing yards, make it implausible to compare quarterbacks of different eras. Over time, the responsibilities of the position have changed, the players’ diets have improved, and schemes and formations have enhanced offenses and increased the frequency of passing in the NFL.
For example, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee named Earl (Dutch) Clark, Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell as the three quarterbacks for the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1930s. Clark played for the Portsmouth Spartans and Detroit Lions, Herber the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, while Isbell also played for Green Bay. But although they played only 11- and 12-game schedules and the league didn’t consistently have at least 10 teams until 1937, their passing statistics pale in comparison to the current crop of QBs.
Clark never threw more than 467 yards in a season (1936), while Herber’s highest passing yardage season (1,239) also came in 1936. Isbell totaled 1,408 passing yards in 1938 and ’39. After failing to reach 800 passing yards in his first two seasons, Isbell threw for 1,037 yards (8 TDs) in 1940, 1,479 yards (15 TDs) in 1941 and 2,021 yards (24 TDs) in 1942. As the 1940’s arrived, league-wide passing attempts per game began to increase (teams averaged 20 pass attempts per game for the first time in 1939).
Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman and Bob Waterfield were the Committee’s top-flight signal callers of the 1940s and surpassed their ‘30s counterparts in nearly every passing metric, despite the league reducing its number of games to 10 from 1943-45.
In the ‘40s, Baugh attempted more than 300 passes in a season twice (1947, 1948) for the Washington Redskins and averaged more than 200 passing yards per game three times (1945, 1947, 1948). He threw for more than 2,500 yards twice and nearly reached 3,000 passing yards (2,938) in 1947.
Luckman threw for more than 2,000 yards in 1943 and 1947 as a member of the Chicago Bears, while also averaging more than 200 yards per game in both seasons. Waterfield never averaged more than 180 yards per game in a season during his eight-year stint with the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams, but did throw for more than 2,000 yards in 1949. The year before (1948), teams averaged more than 25 attempts per game for the first time in league history.
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The NFL briefly expanded to 13 clubs in 1950, ushering in a new wave of quarterbacks. The decade produced several prolific passers, including Otto Graham, Bobby Layne and Norm Van Brocklin, who the Committee selected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1950s.
Graham threw for at least 2,000 yards in seven of his 10 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, but never reached 3,000 passing yards in a season despite averaging 30 pass attempts per game in 1952 (12-game season). Van Brocklin also averaged better than 30 pass attempts per game in a season, his coming in 1959 with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Layne became the first quarterback in league history to accomplish several feats during and after stints with the Chicago Bears, New York Bulldogs, Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers. He became the first player to ever reach 1,000 career completions, 3,000 career completions and 25,000 passing yards.
Although these quarterbacks produced better numbers than their predecessors, league-wide passing attempts per game in the decade actually went down from 27.6 in 1950 to 25.8 in 1959. It’s safe to say Graham, Layne and Van Brocklin were superstars who bucked the trend of a still run-happy NFL.
With the inclusion of four new teams by the end of the decade (16 total teams), the 1960s saw more passers than ever competing at the same time. Bart Starr (Packers), Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers) and Sonny Jurgensen (Eagles, Redskins) led the charge in the decade, according to the Committee.
Starr’s Packers were a run-heavy outfit under coach Vince Lombardi, and his numbers are indicative of that. He had 3,149 career passing attempts, never throwing more than 295 balls in a single campaign (1961). Compare that with Jurgensen’s 4,262 and Unitas’ 5,186 career attempts for the Redskins’ and Colts’ more pass-first offenses. Still, Starr led the league in passing three times during his career and led the league in passer rating five times in the ‘60s.
While Starr led his team to more titles than Unitas (7 total championships to 4), Unitas set many passing marks. He became the league’s first 30-touchdown passer for the Colts in 1959, 3,000-yard passer in 1960 and still holds the record for the most 50-plus yard touchdown passes in NFL history with 51.
Unitas led the league in passing touchdowns for four straight seasons (1957-60), while also leading the league in passing yards four times in the ‘60s. He led the league in passing attempts for three straight seasons (1959-61), while George Blanda accomplished the feat from 1963-65 (Blanda also led the league in completions in those years). Drew Bledsoe is the only other quarterback to ever lead the league in attempts for three consecutive seasons (1994-96). Adding to his resume, Unitas became the league’s first player to ever throw for 30,000 yards and 40,000 yards.
Jurgensen also had his share of firsts. For the Redskins in 1961, he became the first player to have a 3,500-yard passing season. Jurgensen also captured five passing titles in the decade and led league in passing touchdowns twice (1961,1967).
The three standout quarterbacks from the decade all had long careers, as Starr played 16 seasons and Unitas and Jurgensen each quarterbacked 18 seasons. A merger at the start of the 1970s, however, ushered in even more passers to a remolded NFL.
With sideburns, bell bottoms and disco, the 1970s also brought the AFL-NFL merger (1970) that expanded the league to 26 teams. Terry Bradshaw (Steelers), Roger Staubach (Cowboys) and Ken Stabler (Oakland Raiders, Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints) were named the standouts from the decade.
Rings were the story with these three quarterbacks, as none of them are remembered for being prolific passers (Bradshaw ranks 60th all-time in passing yards, highest of the three). The Steelers, Cowboys and Raiders each had a solid rushing attack that complemented their legendary signal callers.
Franco Harris’ 11,950 rushing yards and a Steel Curtain defense helped Bradshaw dominate the decade with four Super Bowl victories (1975, 1976, 1979, 1980), including two over the Cowboys. Tony Dorsett and Calvin Hill, ranked No. 2 and 4, respectively, in Cowboys rushing history, and the Doomsday Defense, assisted Staubach in two Super Bowl victories (1971, 1977). Meanwhile, Mark van Eeghen’s 1,000-yard rushing season helped Stabler win his only championship in 1977.
By the end of the decade, the league had grown to 28 teams.
The All-Decade quarterbacks of the 1980s, Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs) and Dan Fouts (San Diego Chargers), obliterated the passing numbers of the past. And while not a member of the ‘80s All-Decade team, Miami Dolphins signal-caller Dan Marino made a triumvirate of elite quarterbacks during this decade.
League-wide passing attempts eclipsed 30 per game for the first time in 1980; and in 1982, it marked the first year that passing attempts (31.5) were greater than rushing attempts (30.8) per game by teams.
Although he never threw for 4,000 yards in a season, Montana’s ‘Niners dominated the landscape of the 1980s, claiming Super Bowl victories in 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989. And although he never won a Super Bowl, Fouts set several passing records.
Fouts became the first player to throw for 4,500 yards in a season and complete 350 passes in a season, both in 1981. He also has the most consecutive seasons (4) leading the league in passing yards (1979-82).
Marino led the league in passing attempts five times, which is still an NFL record, and completions six times, tied for the most all time with Drew Brees. It only took Marino 44 games to reach 100 touchdown passes and 89 games to reach 200 touchdown passes, both the fewest in NFL history. Marino also produced the first 5,000-yard and 40-touchdown season in 1984. He became the first player to throw 400 touchdown passes and reach 50,000 and 60,000 career passing yards.
His numbers also paved the way for the ‘90s quarterbacks.
Two of the greatest of all time, John Elway (Denver Broncos) and Brett Favre (Atlanta Falcons, Packers, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings), were the quarterbacks selected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
Favre won a Super Bowl with the Packers in 1997, and his 10,169 career pass attempts are the most all time. He had 17 seasons with at least 500 pass attempts, an NFL record, and 18 seasons with at least 300 completions and 3,000 passing yards, both NFL records. He has the most games with at least 150 passing yards (269) and the most games with a touchdown pass (249). Favre also became the first player with 500 touchdown passes, 6,000 completions and 70,000 career passing yards. While he also holds the record for 80-yard touchdown passes (9), Favre has also thrown the most interceptions ever (336).
Elway finished his career with back-to-back Super Bowl victories in 1997 and 1998. He threw for 4,000 yards once in his career and attempted more than 500 passes in a season six times.
By the end of the ‘90s, the league had 31 teams, and it was the first decade that teams averaged less than 30 rushes per game.
While Montana, Fouts, Marino, Elway and Favre are all-time greats, the All-Decade quarterbacks of the 2000s were even more elite passers. Tom Brady (New England Patriots) and Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts, Broncos) were the nuclei of their pass-friendly offenses in the decade, and Brady’s career is still ongoing at 42 years old.
One could argue that Manning may still be playing if it weren’t for a neck injury late in his career. He won two rings, one with each franchise he played for. He had the first 450 completion season in 2010, while also having the most games with a passer rating of at least 140 in NFL history (27). Manning also produced the most games with a perfect 158.3 passer rating (4 tied with Ben Roethlisberger), the most seasons with a 95 or better passer rating (10), the most seasons with at least 550 pass attempts (11), the most seasons with at least 4,000 passing yards (14), the most passing yards in a season (5,477 in 2013), the most passing touchdowns in a season (55 in 2013) and career (539), and the most games with at least 250 passing yards (168). It only took Manning 244 games to reach 500 touchdown passes, the fewest games ever to accomplish the feat. Manning also produced the highest yards per game in a season (342.3 per game in 2013).
Including having the most Super Bowl titles (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, 2018) and being the winningest quarterback ever, Brady has the most games in NFL history with a passer rating of at least 145 (14) and the most seasons with at least a 60 percent completion percentage (17). He’s one of three quarterbacks who has thrown for 50 touchdowns in a single season, becoming the first to accomplish the feat in 2007. Brady has also thrown five touchdown passes in a quarter in a game in 2009, the only quarterback ever to do so.
The NFL grew to its current 32 teams in 2002, and passing attempts were greater than rushing attempts for the third consecutive decade. In 2009, the NFL averages for passing and rushing attempts were 33.3 and 27.5, respectively, the widest gap in the league’s existence favoring the pass.
Factors such as offseason workouts, athletes keeping themselves in shape year-round, a stronger emphasis on healthy eating and weight training have all led to longer careers and better numbers. Famous head coaches like Bill Walsh and Don Coryell brought the “West Coast offense” and “Air Coryell” offenses center stage in the 1980s, influencing a move to a pass-happy NFL.
Offense puts more fans in seats, and rule changes have heavily favored that side of the ball.