The Greatest Quarterbacks of All Time — The 1970's
Welcome to my new series; where I break down the best Quarterbacks in NFL History based on the decade they played in.
By breaking down the Quarterback performances into decades, we can see a more like-for-like comparison between the passers than by comparing those of yesteryear with modern day players. For example, it’s hardly fair to compare the passers of the 1970’s who attempted an average of just 23 passes and threw for an average of 157 yards per game with those of the current decade, where the average is now nearly 34 attempts and 240 yards. When you also consider how many rule changes have allowed the growth of the passing game over the past 40 years, by keeping comparisons to peer groups, we can see who were the standout players from each era of the NFL. The below graphs show the trends in pass attempts per game and passing yards per game since 1970 and hopefully visualizes why it’s important to compare Quarterbacks by era rather than as a total group.
I’ve ranked the players based on my own ROPE Index metric that I developed for studying Quarterback play. Based loosely on the Passer Rating formula, the ROPE Index utilizes six rather than four metrics to make the calculation and each individual performance is rated on a 0–100% scale. On top of this benchmark, I have also weighted the Quarterback grade based on win percentage. Some may believe wins are far from an accurate measure of Quarterback performance, but I argue that Quarterback is the single most important individual position in any sport and therefore they have a significant impact on team success. The qualifying criteria for the ROPE Index rating is based on games where the Quarterback attempts at least 10 passes and I’ve only included Quarterbacks that played in at least 50 games (Regular season and playoffs), during each decade. A final point to note is that my source data is direct from NFL.com, which starts at 1970, so is why I have not covered the whole of the Super Bowl era.
ROPE Index Rating 55.6%
After going undrafted out of Southern Illinois in 1966, Jim Hart latched onto the St Louis Cardinals after a try out thanks to former College coach, Don Shroyer. After several average years as starter, Hart’s career took off after the Cardinals hired Don Coryell in 1973. Hart made four consecutive Pro Bowls between 1974 and 1977 and a second team All-Pro in 1974 as he led the ‘Cardiac Cards’ to three consecutive ten win seasons and back to back division titles in 1974 and 1975. The 1974 division title was the Cardinals’ first since 1948, when they were still the Chicago Cardinals. Such was the influence of Coryell on Hart’s career, he averaged a ROPE Index score 11 percentage points higher (60.4%) during those seasons (73–77), than the rest of the decade (49.3%). Hart and Coryell also helped put tight end Jackie Smith into the Hall of Fame. Hart stayed with the Cardinals for 17 seasons but was never better than the Coryell years of the mid-70’s.
ROPE Index Rating 55.8%
The man Bill Belichick once called ‘the best pure passer I’ve ever seen’, Bert Jones was drafted with the 2nd pick of the 1973 draft as the heir apparent to Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, who had been traded to the San Diego Chargers in January of that year. Jones had a rough start to his professional career, playing on a winning team just twice in his first 18 games. Jones’ fiery competitiveness and natural passing ability soon helped to turn the Colt’s fortunes around and he led the Colts to three consecutive AFC East titles from 1975–77, though they lost in their first playoff game in each of those three seasons. Jones’ ROPE Index rating in those three playoff losses were 13.6% lower than his regular season grades (42.9% vs 56.5%).
1976 was the highlight year for Jones, as the Colts went 11–3 and Jones won the MVP award and 1st team All-Pro honors with the second highest ROPE Index season grade of the entire decade (62.8%). Injuries meant Jones only played six games over the last two years of the decade (and the Colts won five of those games) and he never again hit the heights of that 1976 season. He retired in 1982 due to a neck injury, after a short spell with the Rams.
ROPE Index Rating 56.0%
Hall of Fame Class of 1989
The most decorated quarterback of the 1970’s, Terry Bradshaw was the first quarterback to win four Super Bowl titles, and is the first Hall of Famer to appear on this list. You might have expected Bradshaw to be placed higher in this ranking, though if wins were not a weighing factor in the ROPE Index, Bradshaw would sit a lowly 13th. Known as a strong-armed quarterback who called his own plays and liked to throw deep, Bradshaw’s game can be summed up by three statistics. Compared to the rest of this top ten list, Bradshaw had the highest yards per completion (13.6), but also the highest interception percentage (5.7%) and an all-decade touchdown to interception ratio of 0.9 (the top 10 quarterbacks average a 1.1 ratio). I suppose when you are playing on a team famed for it’s defense and that put seven players and the coach into the Hall of Fame in addition to yourself, you’d play with a high level of confidence.
Bradshaw played more games than any other quarterback in the 1970s (146) after being drafted first overall in 1970 by the 1–13 Steelers and he tied Roger Staubach for the most quarterback wins (101) during the decade. As well as the four Super Bowls in six years, Bradshaw led the Steelers to seven AFC Central titles in eight years and was voted to three Pro Bowls and made the 1970’s all-decade team (2nd team). His 1978 season, which culminated in his third Super Bowl win was his standout season as Bradshaw won both the MVP and 1st team All-Pro honors and was the year he had a career high ROPE Index grade of 60.2%. What Bradshaw had compared to others on this list was an ability to step up in big games as his ROPE Index grading for his 18 playoff appearances was nearly twelve percentage points higher than his regular season grade (59.4% vs 47.6%) and his four Super Bowl appearances were even higher at 65.5%. A one-team man, Bradshaw played fourteen seasons for the Steelers before retiring after the 1983 season and went on to be a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1989.
ROPE Index Rating 56.2%
Hall of Fame Class of 1993
Dan Fouts is the second player on this list who was drafted to replace Johnny Unitas, when he was taken in the third round of the 1973 draft. He is also the first quarterback who appears in multiple decades of these rankings (spoiler alert; Fouts was even better in the 80’s). His career in San Diego got off to an inauspicious start, and over his first five seasons, Fouts was in and out of the team, playing in only 49 of 70 regular season games, with his only full season coming in 1976.
All that was to change in 1978 when Don Coryell took charge and the Chargers’ offense took off. From an offense that totaled just 2,442 passing yards in 1977 (Fouts 869 yards), Fouts threw for 2,999 yards in 1978 and then over 4,000 yards in 1979, as the Chargers made their first playoff appearance of the Super Bowl era and Fouts earned 1st team All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods and led the league in passing yards for the first of four consecutive years. He led the Chargers to their only playoff appearance of the decade in 1979, though they were beaten by the Oilers as Fouts threw five interceptions in a 17–14 loss.
Fouts was your prototypical pocket passer, dropping back from under center to throw deep to a bevy of quality pass catchers, including Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. His style led to him taking many hits but his toughness in fighting through injuries to throw for thousands of yards was a hallmark of his Hall of Fame Career.
ROPE Index Rating 56.8%
Probably the biggest surprise in the top ten is Billy Kilmer. Kilmer had played professionally for ten years for both the 49ers and the Saints before he was traded to the Redskins under George Allen in January 1971. He was supposed to be the backup to future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen but Kilmer took advantage of injuries to Jurgensen and started 15 games in his first season, leading the Redskins to their first playoff appearance in 26 years. The following season he led them back to the playoffs and all the way to the Super Bowl before they lost to the unbeaten Dolphins. That 1972 season Kilmer led the league in touchdown passes, passer rating and ROPE Index (57.5%), and was voted to the Pro Bowl and the All-NFC team. Overall Kilmer took the Redskins to the playoffs five times in six years, though by 1976 he’d started to share the starting job with Joe Theismann, who took over full-time from Kilmer in 1978. Kilmer retired after the 1978 season, aged 39.
Never the strongest passer, Kilmer played within his skill set and threw limited turnovers, which endeared him to George Allen who was a defensive minded coach. Jurgensen was a great teammate to the man who ultimately usurped him, helping Kilmer to improving his throwing technique. Kilmer says this saved his career as he learnt to throw utilizing his lower body and putting less strain on his throwing arm, which had been a source of constant pain for him throughout his career.
ROPE Index Rating 56.9%
Ken Anderson is held by many to be the best quarterback not in the Hall of Fame and is the second quarterback in these rankings who appears in more than one decade. Drafted by the Bengals in the third round of the 1971 draft, Anderson played for sixteen seasons in the NFL, all in Cincinnati.
Thanks to his quarterbacks coach, Bill Walsh, Anderson is considered to be the First QB to run the West Coast offense in the NFL and he put up some of the best numbers of the decade on a golden run in 1974 and 75. In both of those seasons, Anderson led the league in passing yards and QBR and was a second team all-pro selection in both years. His 62.3% ROPE Index rating in 1975 was also a league best for that year and he was voted to two Pro Bowls in 1975 and 76.
Anderson led the Bengals into the playoffs twice in the 1970s, in 1973 and 1975, losing in the divisional round on both occasions.
ROPE Index Rating 58.4%
Hall of Fame Class of 1986
Fran Tarkenton is an all-time great in anyone’s book. For someone who retired nearly 40 years ago but remains in the top 10 all-time in passing yards and 6th all-time for passing touchdowns, it shows how ahead of his time his achievements were. Drafted in the third round of the 1961 draft by the Vikings, Tarkenton would play in Minnesota for fourteen seasons in total, broken up by four seasons for the Giants in between.
Tarkenton was a prolific passer and the original scrambling quarterback. In the 1970’s he attempted and completed the most passes of any player, with 300 more passes attempted and 350 more completions than the next highest player. He was so prolific over such a long period, Tarkenton led the league in passing yards in his final season, at age 38. He is also currently 4th all-time in quarterback rushing yards.
Tarkenton led the Vikings to three Super Bowls in the 1970s (1973, 1974 & 1976) but they lost in all three and Tarkenton had some bad days at the office, posting an average ROPE Index rating of 37.4%, some 14 percentage points below his regular season rating during the decade.
In terms of personal honors, Tarkenton was voted to four Pro Bowls (1970, 74–76) as well as two All-Pro teams (1st team 1975, 2nd team 1973) and was the league MVP in 1975.
At the time of his retirement, Tarkenton was the all-time leader in pass attempts, completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns and quarterback wins.
ROPE Index Rating 59.7%
Hall of Fame Class of 1990
Known as the ‘thinking man’s quarterback’, as he called his own plays throughout his career, Griese was considered more a leader of men, rather than a prolific passer. Of the 29 players who qualified for the rankings, Griese attempted the least passes per game in the 1970s (20.9 ppg). Griese led the Dolphins to three straight Super Bowls in 1971–73 and it’s in the two victories of Super Bowls VII and VIII that his game management skills are exemplified. Across those two victories, Griese attempted just 11 and 7 passes respectively, completing 14 passes with as three sacks and an interception which he threw in Super Bowl VII.
Just because Griese didn’t stack up the numbers of some of his counterparts, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t recognized for his performances on the field. In the 1970s, Griese was voted to six Pro Bowls, made two 1st team all-pro teams (1971, 1977), as well as being the league MVP in 1971. He is also the only quarterback on this list to have a 100% ROPE Index score for a game, one of only four in the whole decade (out of over 4200 qualifying games). That 100% rating came In week 16 of the 1978 season, as Griese led the Dolphins to a 23–3 over the Patriots, going 12 of 13 for 171 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions or sacks.
Griese retired in 1980 with a shoulder injury and had his number 12 jersey retired by the Dolphins in 1985.
ROPE Index Rating 61.4%
Hall of Fame Class of 1985
Drafted out of the naval academy in 1964 after winning the Heisman trophy in 1963, Staubach didn’t enter the league until 1969 aged 27 after completing a four-year military commitment. Over the course of his career, Staubach led the Cowboys to four Super Bowls, winning two of them. Staubach didn’t win the starting job from Craig Morton until the middle of the 1971 season, but once he did, he made history as he led the Cowboys on a 10-game winning streak that culminated in the Cowboys’ first ever Super Bowl title as they defeated the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. Staubach was named Super Bowl MVP, becoming the first player ever to win both the Heisman and the Super Bowl MVP award.
Staubach’s physical, scrambling style earned him the nickname ‘Roger the Dodger’ and he was the player who coined the term “Hail Mary” after completing a 50-yard last second winning touchdown pass to Drew Pearson in the 1975 playoffs over the Vikings. After the game Staubach said he threw the ball and said a “Hail Mary”, and the phrase has stuck ever since.
Staubach was named to six Pro Bowls in his career and was named to the 1970s all decade team (1st team), as well as being named Man of the Year in 1978. He led the league in passer rating four times and in ROPE Index twice (1971, 1979) and led the league in touchdown passes in 1973 with 23.
Staubach retired in 1979 to protect his health, having suffered from some 20 concussions during his career.
ROPE Index Rating 63.2%
Hall of Fame Class of 2016
The top rated quarterback of the 1970’s didn’t even become the full time starter until five years into his NFL career. Ken ‘The Snake’ Stabler was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in round two of the 1968 draft. He didn’t make his first appearance until two years later and then shared playing time with Daryle Lamonica and George Blanda until taking the starting job midway through the 1973 season.
Stabler was a scrambler early in his career, but knee injuries meant he became more of a pocket passer and he became known for his accuracy, completing just under 60% of his passes throughout the decade, the highest of any quarterback to play in at least 40 games. Never a strong armed thrower, Stabler nevertheless was incredibly accurate at all levels, either throwing deep to multiple Pro Bowler Cliff Branch or in the intermediate range to Hall of Famers Dave Caspar and Fred Biletnikoff. His yards per attempt (7.7) and touchdown percentage (6.1%) were both the best of any player in the decade.
Stabler broke the record for the fastest quarterback to 100 wins, achieving that feat in just 150 games. In the 40 years since, only three players have reached 100 wins faster, and they have 13 Super Bowls between them (Terry Bradshaw 147 games, Joe Montana 139 games and Tom Brady 131 games).
Stabler was incredibly productive through the middle years of the 1970s, culminating in the 1976 season where he finished with the highest ROPE Index season of any player in the decade with a rating of 65.9% (74.2% wins adjusted) in 15 games, and a Super Bowl victory.
In addition to the Super Bowl win, Stabler was named to four Pro Bowls and two 1st team All-Pro teams (1974, 1976) and the 1970’s all-decade team (2nd team). Stabler also led the league in touchdown passes in 1974 and 1976 and was named the league MVP in 1974. That he didn’t made the Hall of Fame until after his death in 2016 was such a shame for not only one of the biggest characters of his era, but ultimately the top rated quarterback.
Next up, the top quarterbacks of the 1980's.
Originally published at thereadoptional.com on May 14, 2017.