The greatest quarterback of all time

Overlooked by most polls, the best person to ever take a snap in the NFL is Bart Starr.

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Last week I wrote that in the NFL, good passing beats good running, and I think I got a nasty e-mail from every reader who ever played high school football. Please, no more “My coach has 35 years’ worth of experience and he says …” e-mails! I know what your coach said; that’s why he’s still a high school coach.

And, please, no more with “Your theory …” What I’ve done is taken 40 years of accumulated football wisdom and tried to cull some lessons from it. So, I’m pleased to see I have a lot of readers. And I’m sure to get a lot more nasty e-mails when I weigh in on the oldest of pro football debates: Who is the best quarterback of all time?

Depends. Are you talking best athlete, most potential, most career value? I’m never sure what someone else is asking, but I know what I want. For instance, is the “best” quarterback the one you want playing for your team in the big game? If it is, then the end-of-century polls have got it all wrong: The best quarterback in pro football history isn’t Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas or Otto Graham or Dan Marino or John Elway. If by best you mean most likely to win championships, then the man you want in back of your center is Bart Starr.

Why do I have to go back 30-some years to pick my best quarterback? Well, for starters, it’s the last time in football when they were full, complete players, as God and Vince Lombardi intended them to be. Unlike the generation that followed, ’60s quarterbacks weren’t automatons, mere “snap-takers” acting out the orders of sideline brain trusts. Quarterbacks were expected to help conceive and carry out game plans, and call their own plays. Bart Starr did this better than any quarterback he played against and perhaps better than anyone ever. Starting with the last four games of the 1959 season through a handful of injury-riddled appearances in 1969, Starr posted a standard of clutch performances in big games unmatched in NFL history.

To appreciate Starr’s greatness it’s necessary to look beyond the popular measurements for quarterbacks. Early in 1974, while previewing the Miami Dolphins-Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl, pioneer football analyst Bud Goode revealed that yards per throw — just plain yards gained passing divided by the number of throws — was pro football’s premier statistic, the one that correlated best with winning. Goode quipped that he wanted the inscription on his headstone to read “Here lies Bud Goode: He told the world about yards per throw.”



A quarter of a century later the football world has yet to fully absorb Goode’s wisdom, even though great NFL coaches have always instinctively known it: Over four decades, from Johnny Unitas’ sudden-death victory over the New York Giants to last year’s Super Bowl, only one team, Bill Parcells’ 1996 New England Patriots, has played for the NFL championship while failing to average more yards per throw on offense than it gave up on defense. Over the last 20 years, the team that averaged the highest number of yards per throw in a game has won more than 80 percent of the time. And interception percentage, the ratio of interceptions per 100 passes, ranked just slightly behind yards per throw as an indicator of offensive strength. (Pass completion percentage was relatively unimportant; one-of-three completed for 10 yards beats two-of-three for nine yards every time.)

Starr dominated these passing stats in the 1960s. His career interception percentage is the lowest of any passer in the decade, and his yards-per-pass mark of 7.85 is better than that of a score of quarterbacks who are generally regarded as among the best in history, including Dan Marino (7.37), Joe Montana (7.52), Roger Staubach (7.67), Dan Fouts (7.68), Sonny Jurgensen (7.56), Fran Tarkenton (7.27), Y.A. Tittle (7.52), Terry Bradshaw (7.17) and Joe Namath (7.35).

And then, there is clutch performance. In 1960 the Western Conference Green Bay Packers lost to the Eastern leader, the Philadelphia Eagles, in the NFL championship game, 17-13. It was to be the first and last big game he ever lost.

In 1961 and again in 1962, the Packers faced the New York Giants in the NFL championship game. Both team’s rosters were littered with All Pros, many of them future Hall of Famers. The most prominent Giant was the balding veteran quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who was enjoying the first two years of an amazing three-season run in which he would throw 86 touchdown passes in 41 games. But in frozen Green Bay on New Year’s Eve in 1961, and then the following year on Dec. 30 in an even more frozen Yankee Stadium, Starr was 19 of 38 for 249 yards, nearly 6.5 yards per pass, while Tittle was able to complete just 24 of 61 passes for 262 yards, just a little over five yards a throw. Tittle failed to throw a touchdown pass in either game and was picked off five times; Starr had three touchdown passes with no interceptions. The Packers won both games by a combined score of 53-7.

The totals don’t seem impressive by today’s standards, but championship games in Starr’s era weren’t played under domes or in palm tree country. It’s difficult for today’s fans to appreciate the hardship quarterbacks faced trying to put together an offensive attack on sheets of ice or frozen slush. Many of Starr’s great performances came under conditions so horrendous that other fine passers were completely nullified. In 1968, in perhaps the most famous pro football game of all time, Don Meredith was completely ineffective in Green Bay’s sub-zero temperature, gaining just 59 yards on 25 passes. Starr threw 24 times for 191 yards as the Packers won their third straight title and fifth in seven years.

In nine postseason games against the best defenses in the National Football League — and at the cap of the 1966 and ’67 seasons, the American Football League — Starr bettered his career averages in yards per throw and interception rate.

Why isn’t Starr’s star higher on the list of all those fans and writers who voted in these all-century polls? The only logical answer I can think of is that Vince Lombardi’s shadow was so huge it made Starr seem like a mere appendage. Starr finished his career throwing nearly 2,000 fewer passes than his great rival, Johnny Unitas, for just 24,718 yards to Unitas’s 40,234 (their career yards per pass average was identical, 7.8). From 1965 through 1967, Starr and the Packers won six consecutive postseason games en route to three championships, and in five of those the first Green Bay touchdown came on a pass from Starr.

Green Bay’s image as a running team, exemplified by the title of Lombardi’s book with W.C. Heinz, “Run to Daylight,” was so strong that it overcame reality. In both 1961 and 1962, the Packers, paced by fullback Jim Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung, led the league in both rushing yards and yards per carry, and Starr’s gaudy passing stats were regarded as a byproduct of the running game. But by the mid-’60s the Packers’ running game had faded badly — in 1965, Green Bay was 11th among 14 teams in yards per rush, and in ’66 they were next to last — and Starr’s passing statistics got better. In 1966, his best season, he threw for 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions and averaged an amazing nine yards per throw.

Starr also played in the shadow of his great rival, John Unitas. From 1958 to 1968, 11 seasons, either the Green Bay Packers or Baltimore Colts went to the NFL championship game in every season but one, 1963. In five of the nine years both men threw enough passes to qualify, Starr was ranked higher than Unitas by the NFL’s system, and in five of those nine seasons, Starr had a higher yards-per-pass average than Unitas. There is a tendency among football writers and historians to write off Starr’s domination of Unitas as evidence of the Packers’ superiority, but in fact from 1960 to 1969, Starr’s last season as a starter, the Packers were 96-37-5 to the Colts’ 92-42-4 — exactly the edge the Packers held over the Colts in head-to-head competition.

Even when Johnny Unitas and the Colts were good, Bart Starr and the Packers were better. In 1967 Unitas was the NFL’s player of the year, and the 11-0-2 Colts played the 10-1-2 Los Angeles Rams for their division’s playoff spot; the Rams, with their great defensive line, “The Fearsome Foursome,” crushed Unitas and the Colts 34-10. Shortly afterward, in the first round of the playoffs, Starr quarterbacked a masterpiece, completing 17 of 23 passes for 222 yards as the Packers trounced those same Rams 28-7, going from there to beat Dallas and then Oakland in the Super Bowl. Bart Starr won on the field, but history has reversed the decision and given Unitas the wins in the popularity polls. No matter; all the polls in the world can’t take those rings away.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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