Here's something to chew on, folks: Brett Favre's record-breaking season this year only proves that Dan Marino is still the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.
You read that correctly, so just follow along with me on this.
Before Marino's records started to fall to Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, it was so simple to call Marino the greatest QB of all time. After all, he had every major passing record locked up. The statistics were there in black and white, and they were indisputable.
Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest running back ever, once remarked, "I hold more than a dozen records and as a result have been turned into a statistic."
Unfortunately, Marino has suffered a similar fate. In the eyes of many people, Marino is little more than his numbers, and now that those have been surpassed, he is no longer relevant.
This reaction is understandable to a certain degree. In his book "From Ritual to Record," Allen Guttmann lays out the seven defining characteristics of modern sports, with the sixth being quantification. He says that "modern sports are characterized by the almost inevitable tendency to transform every athletic feat into one that can be quantified and measured...Despite the elegant rhetoric about playing the game rather than thinking about the numbers, the spectator's attention becomes fixed in a relentless search for quantification."
Now, just so you know - I am a stat guy. I loved the advent of sabermetric analysis in baseball, and I think it's crucial to have an objective way of rating individual players. However, it should never be lost on people that the more subjective means of analyzing players are just as important to the overall rating.
This was never more apparent to me than after the Green Bay Packers season ended with a loss to the Giants and after hearing an incredibly simple but powerful statement by a Hall of Fame QB.
Fran Tarkenton recently called into the Mike and Mike radio show on ESPN, to talk about the Conference Championship games. When asked about Brett Favre's performance, he said bluntly that no great quarterback makes both the kind and number of foolish plays that Favre does.
I couldn't agree more.
And that is what makes his passing of Marino in the record books so frustrating. Because when it really comes down to it, Favre's ability to play the QB position cannot hold a candle to Marino's abilities.
Seeing Marino's records fall has forced me to set aside statistics and look directly to the level of play. I'm talking about a player's pure fundamental ability to play the quarterback position. And suddenly, once the records are set aside, it becomes much easier to defend Marino's title as greatest of all time. Marino had The Release. He had the most impeccable timing, the cannon arm, and the ability to slice up a defense like a block of cheese.
Ironically, many of those same people who dismiss Marino based on his records falling, continue to call him the greatest "pure passer" to ever play, based on those very attributes I just named. I am absolutely flabbergasted that someone could differentiate between the best pure passer and the best quarterback. Aside from making forward passes, the only other areas of consideration that come into play when critiquing a QB are his decision-making abilities and his leadership - both areas that Marino excelled in. Sure, some QBs are great at running the ball as well, but that is not a traditional duty of the position. And while Marino was as dangerous as a slumbering sloth when running downfield, he had some of the best in-pocket movement I've ever witnessed.
The major problem with this subjective way of analyzing a player is that it loses strength over time as fewer and fewer people can remember or care to find out exactly how a certain player actually played the game. Statistics are a much more widely available resource, and numbers are easier to compare than scouting reports.
Normal statistics also fail to point out important differences in the competitive conditions of players' situations.
I can think of no better way to illustrate this point than to show how current players like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady have all played their entire careers (or a majority of them) during a period when offensive production has exploded as a result of changing philosophies and altered rules. (As a note, Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. Brett Favre was drafted in 1991, but did not see regular playing time until his sophomore season.)
In 1994, the pass interference rules were changed by the league in order to do away with intentional contact by a defender against a receiver downfield. According to John Clayton, after the 1994 rule change, passing yardage went up 26 yards per game to 427.2 yards - the second highest total in the modern era. The number of completions and attempts rose and so did the number of passing touchdowns. Favre has played 14 of his 17 seasons post-rule change; Marino only played the final 6 of his 17 seasons in that altered environment.
Then, following the 2003 playoffs, the NFL again looked into its pass interference rules in order to further open up offensive scoring. Clayton again predicted the same kind of statistical results that occurred after the 1994 rule change, and he was proven right. From 2002-03, only one team (Oakland) threw for more than 4,500 yards. In 2004, five teams (Favre's Packers being one) accomplished the feat.
For more information on these rule changes, and their statistical results, see these sites:
With that historical context in place, it should be quite easy to see that Favre's accomplishments do not add up to Marino's. In fact, in Favre's four seasons from 2004-07 (post-rule change) he posted two seasons with 4,000+ passing yards. In his 13 previous seasons, he had only 3 such seasons.
In a recent article on ESPN.com, Jeffri Chadiha wrote about the effect of the changes to the illegal contact rule and commented that, "If Marino had that advantage going for him, nobody would've ever matched the season he produced 24 years ago."
While I hope to have shown you how such counting statistics as TDs or passing yards can be deceiving in some instances, there are certain rate states which can be helpful when comparing players.
The following are career stats:
Getting away from QB stats now, I want to address the popularly held notion that quarterbacks, apart from all other positions, are judged based on the number of Super Bowls won. That is just patently ridiculous. Yes, the QB is the single most important position on a football team, but he is indeed part of a team - a team that employs three distinct and equally critical phases.
According to that logic, Trent Dilfer, Mark Rypien, Jeff Hostetler, Jim McMahon, and Brad Johnson are all better than Marino. Well, those five examples prove how absurd that "logic" really is.
Teams are judged on winning; individuals are not. Throw the number of rings a guy has out the window when judging quarterbacks - it's that simple.
Rather than rings, I think Steve Grogan pointed to an excellent way of determining who the greatest QB of all time is. He recently said that the truly great quarterbacks are the ones who succeed in spite of their surrounding cast. He went on to say that he knew of no other QB who did more with less than Dan Marino.
This argument has been made several times before, but I think it is useful to explore it in terms of the Marino/Favre parameters.
As far as defense goes, Favre consistently benefited from having better defenses protect his leads and get him the ball back. In Favre's 16 seasons as a starter, his defenses have averaged about 12th in the league in scoring defense. Marino's averaged 15th in the league. Also remember that for a majority of Favre's career there were more than 30 teams in the league, while for a majority of Marino's career there were only 28 teams in the league, making his defense's average rank of 15 a bottom-half unit.
In Favre's career, he has benefited from 7 top-10 scoring defenses and a dozen top-15 defenses. Marino had only 5 top-10 and 7 top-15 scoring defenses.
The importance of a running game also cannot be overlooked when judging a QB. If a team is no threat to run the ball, the opposing defense can drop more people into coverage to protect against the pass. Having an effective running game is a QBs best friend.
Well, during Marino's career, the Miami ground game was the prime example of inconsistency. The Dolphins had ten different leading rushers over Marino's 17 year career. Marino had only a single season with a running back who gained over 1,000 yards. Just one season!
In comparison, Favre has benefited from three separate 1,000 yard rushers, who put up a combined nine 1,000+ yard seasons. From 1999-2004, Green Bay had six consecutive years with a 1,000+ yard rusher.
Essentially, I am arguing for the ranking criteria of the greatest QBs of all time to include both statistical achievements and contextual achievements and to throw out team achievements like Championships.
One need only to look at Favre's most recent game against the Giants, in which he played horribly and essentially threw the game away for his team by making the kind of stupid mistakes that have become synonymous with his style of play. Those were not isolated incidents. That is how Favre plays the game. As Tarkenton said, great QBs simply do not play like that.
Marino may not hold the records any longer, but the way he played the game will never change - and that level of quarterback play remains far and away the best this game has ever seen.