Is John Elway a top 10 quarterback of all time?

Is John Elway one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time? Everyone always seems to say so. In fact, Colin Cowherd once said that Elway was the best football player he has ever seen. I feel this is blasphemous. Or maybe it’s not? Let’s see.

Elway played an impressive 16 seasons in the NFL. He ranks 9th in all-time passing yards with 51,475 yards. Impressive. He played in 5 super bowls across 1986 to 1998 and managed to win 2 of them. In 1987, he won an MVP, and he has been voted into 9 pro-bowls. Well, although these are all great accomplishments, they don’t paint the full picture of his career.

Throughout John Elway’s career he excelled past all of his peers. In his first 10 years, there were 15 quarterbacks who played at least 80 games. Among them, Elway is 14th in passer rating. Well that’s no good. But that’s just one stat. Elway had a low passer rating because he took risks and threw deep. He also ranked 14th in ANY/A, which is one of my favorite stats for telling the average amount of passing yards a player gets for each attempt. Now, even though I did pick these particular stats over others, Elway still ranks in the middle between all these players in most statistical categories. One thing I found interesting was that he actually performed worse statistically than random, undrafted nobody, Dave Krieg. Seriously.

From 1983 to 1992, (Elway had 3 superbowl appearances and an MVP during this time) Elway had a lower completion %, 1.6 more passing yards/game, less TD/game, the same amount of INT/game, 7.5 more rush yards/game, a far worse passer rating, and worse ANY/A.

But I don’t know, I guess that’s not fair because it’s common knowledge that Elway performed very average in the regular season of 10 years of his career? I mean, every legendary player famously sucks for 10 years. But wait! He also had a poor record in the playoffs during that span. He was 7-6! It must have been his team that was pulling him out of the playoffs, right? No. I’m afraid he did that to himself. During those games he had 16 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 73.7. During those 3 superbowls he played in, he had 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. In two of those games he didn’t even get a passer rating higher than 40! Could you imagine the kind of heat a player nowadays would get if they willed their team to death with a passer rating of 19.4? Brady was called un-clutch for a fumble during a superbowl where he had over 500 passing yards. I know passing is easier now, but my point is that people like to forget about Elway’s poor performance in the superbowl because of their nostalgia. 

Well this all has been unfair to Elway. Any great player can be excused for horrible play in 10 years of their career as long as they put up great stats for another 6 and win 2 superbowls. Well, I don’t think that Elway was playing great in his last 6 years. He was putting up worse stats than Steve Young, young Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, and old Dan Marino. His stats were comparable to guys like Mark Brunell, Vinny Testaverde, and Chris Chandler (I had to look that last one up. Apparently his greatest accomplishment is he lost to Elway in the superbowl.). Out of those 8 other players I mentioned, Elway would be 5th in completion %, 5th in TD%, 4th in passer rating, 3rd in y/a, and 4th in y/g. That is average among that group. If you are going to be considered a top 10 quarterback of all time based on a few elite seasons, and you are comparable to guys like Chris Chandler during that time, that makes no sense.

But wait! I forgot to mention his superbowls! John Elway won 2 superbowls in his career, and they were both during his last 6 years. Let’s look at how John Elway single handedly won two superbowls for the Broncos.

In his superbowl against the Packers, Elway really proved all the haters wrong. He passed for an outstanding 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, and 123 yards. Crazy stats considering he had no help during that game. His running back, Terrell Davis, was nowhere to be found as he only picked up 165 yards and 3 touchdowns. “But wait!” I hear you calling, “Elway led a comeback drive in the final 3 minutes to win the game!”. You’re right. After a great defensive stop, the Packers had to punt. Elway would begin his drive on the Packer’s 49. Elway made an impressive handoff to Terrell Davis. This run play would end in a defensive penalty and put the Broncos on the 32. I still can’t believe Elway pulled that off. After another great handoff, Elway would make his first throw of the drive. It was a screen pass that would result in the broncos getting all the way to the 8 yard line. Incredible job by Elway in throwing that 3 yard screen. Two elite handoffs later, the Broncos would score and win the game.

I won’t rip into Elway for his last superbowl. He managed to throw 336 yards, pick up 3 touchdowns and only 1 interception. It was definitely an above average performance.

When we look at adjusted stats to this era of football, he is still bad. Using an era-adjusted advanced stat (RATE+) we can see how good his stats compare to nowadays. A 100 rating would be exactly average so keep that in mind. Elway had a literal BELOW AVERAGE rate of 97.1 in his first 10 years. In his last years (his best 6 seasons) he had a rate of 115.3, which is good. I’d say a good modern comparison of Elway is Eli Manning. Eli’s best 6 years had a rate of 115.7. BETTER than Elway’s. Remember Chris Chandler? He had a rate of 115.8 during Elway’s best 6 years. To put in perspective, an actually really good quarterback, Steve Young, had a rate of 147 in his 1994 season. Elway’s career rate of 103.9 is very average. In fact, Phillip RIvers, Matt Ryan, Trent Green, Carson Palmer, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith all have a better career rate. And those were just the surprising ones. Almost every good quarterback beats Elway on this. Marcus  Mariota has a career rate of 100.5! That is only 3.4 away from Elway.

So is that it? That’s his career that people always rave about? 10 below average years followed by 6 slightly above average years? 4 very poor superbowl performances followed by 1 above average one? I must be missing something.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Elway was a great quarterback. But calling him a top 10 quarterback of all time is ridiculous. I think he is on the level of guys like Eli Manning. That seems fair. He had a ton of passing yards during his long career and a couple of superbowls that he may or may not deserve. Where does he rank among the best though? In my opinion, he is around the 17-20 range. Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Johnny Unitas, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Otto Graham, Patrick Mahomes, Steve Young, Russell Wilson, Kurt Warner, Roger Staubach, Warren Moon, and Fran Tarkenton are all better than him. You could also make the case for other guys like Sammy Baugh, Bart Starr, Troy Aikman, Mike Vick, Sid Luckman, and Lamar Jackson just to name a few. 

credit to pro football reference u/toughscene on reddit for stats.

What do you think? Comment below and tell me I’m wrong.

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