Rating the NFL Quarterbacks and NBA Players: Sports Most Intriguing Questions

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIJanuary 28, 2011

23 Sep 1990:  Quarterback Joe Montana #16 of the San Francisco 49ers stares into the backfield as he turns to hand off the football to his running back during a play in the 49ers 19-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Candlestick Park in San Francisco,
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

If you are a sports fan, almost any ranking question is interesting, difficult and, of course, subjective.  However, all-time rankings of NFL quarterbacks and NBA players are the two most intriguing, difficult and subjective of all the ranking questions (at least in sports popular in the US).  This is because sports fans include the additional criterion (or factor) of how many championships won by an individual when rating all-time players in these two instances.

In all other instances, how many championships won really is an unfair additional criterion of a player in a team sport when ranking them for all-time purposes.  This is because in team sports, an individual rarely influences the outcome of a game enough for this to be a fair additional criterion.  They are, after all, team sports, and there are too many other players on the field or court for one player to dominate to the necessary extent.

However, this is not true for NFL quarterbacks and NBA players, and this is a fair additional criterion if you are ranking them as an all-time great (say, a top 25 player) or the best current player (if you limit it to the top two to three quarterbacks or the top three to five NBA players). 

Frankly, all other players are not good enough to realistically drag their team to a championship.  Additionally, it is fair to say that the lower the ability of the player, the less important how many championships they won is when ranking them.

The unique nature of an NFL quarterback and an NBA player give them the opportunity to greatly influence the outcome of a game.  In football, the quarterback touches the ball on practically every offensive play, or over 40 percent of the time.  Additionally, he can either pass the ball or run with it to help his team. 

But, just as important, he has to run the offense, or as modern sports commentators like to say, manage the game.  He must read defenses and change plays in a split second, know when to take a sack or to throw the ball away and know when to run past the line of scrimmage or scramble and look for a receiver to get open. 

As a result of all this, he greatly influences how many turnovers his team has in most games, which greatly influences his team's chances of winning any particular game.

In basketball, there are only five players per team on the court at a time (as opposed to six, nine or 11 as there are in other sports) and each one plays both offense and defense.  Additionally, a basketball court is much smaller than a football or soccer field or a baseball diamond, which, of course, allows him to have a greater impact on the game. 

And in basketball he is on the court a higher percentage of time (approximately 80 percent of the time during the playoffs) than any other sport except soccer (football:  just over 40 percent; baseball:  about 55 percent; and hockey:  about 50 percent (for star players).  All one has to do is watch the final six minutes of a close playoff game to see how much influence a super star NBA player can have in the outcome of a game.

Also, because of the nature of the sports, an NFL quarterback or NBA player can influence the outcome of the game with his clutch play (or lack thereof) more often than almost all other team sport.  For the quarterback, it is the all important “two-minute drill”, which can (or cannot) result in a game-winning drive or fourth quarterback comeback. 

In basketball, it is the game-winning shot, or a timely steal or blocked shot near the end of the game.  And a star player’s ability in the clutch often influences how sports fans rate a player all time (or currently, if he is a super star).

Interestingly, the ranking of the greatest NBA players of all time has more agreement (not by a lot, but still noticeable) than the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time.  Perhaps this is because an NBA player can influence a game slightly more than a quarterback, and hence, championships won is weighted more heavily by sports fans for NBA players.  For once (lol), I am not sure.  I do know that because of this, you could argue that ranking NFL quarterbacks is a slightly more intriguing and difficult ranking question.  Perhaps, I am just splitting hairs.

In basketball, a clear majority of basketball fans feel (and rightfully so) that Michael Jordan is the greatest player ever in NBA history.  However, the next seven (eventually eight once Lebron plays some more years and wins some championships; personally I would put him there now, but I am in a minority) players could really be put in any order it would be reasonable (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, and Oscar Robertson, in case you are wondering). 

And the same goes for the next group of players for the 9-15 rankings (Jerry West, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Elgin Baylor and perhaps Julius Erving and Lebron).  But, this is just my opinion and far from universal.

In football, in a poll of a million knowledge NFL fans, Joe Montana would win, but only by a small margin.  And I suspect even more quarterbacks than NBA players would get first place votes.  Besides, Montana, I have seen the following quarterbacks listed first:  Bart Starr (coldhardfootballfacts), Roger Staubach (me and I have been a Packers fan for 50 years), Brett Favre, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Otto Graham, Dan Marino, Sammy Baugh and even Jim Kelly (I grew up an hour from Buffalo and even I find this a stretch). 

And I suspect that Steelers fans will tell that the two greatest quarterbacks of all time are Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger although I have not seen them first on any lists (yet).   

I think you get the picture: football fans are all over the place with all-time quarterback rankings.  Besides championships won there are several other criteria knowledgeable football fans consider, such as:  quarterback rating, postseason quarterback rating, touchdown and interceptions thrown (and the related ratio), yards passed, yards per attempt gained, and fumbles lost, fourth quarterback comebacks and game-winning drives. 

Not to mention how good was the talent around them, including the offensive line, running backs, receivers, and last but not least, the defense of their team.  It is a lot easier to win championships when you play with a great defense—just ask Trent Dilfer (and conversely, Marino).

With all these criteria (or factors) for us to consider it is no wonder that we sports fans cannot come close to agreeing how to rank the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time.  And that is why (along with the additional criterion of championships won) ranking the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time (with the greatest NBA players of all time a very close second), is the most intriguing, difficult and subjective ranking question in sports.  

Just remember that the next time you tell another sports fan that they do not know anything about football and basketball because their ranking list is different than yours.  Especially if it is me, because then you would be sadly mistaken.