Monday, March 10, 2008

In defense of #4

Yes, I'm going to write a pro-Brett Favre post. No, April Fool's Day isn't for another two weeks. Of course, I can't do it without tearing down another Packer legend, so some law of the universe is at least preserved.

ESPN's Sal Paolantonio wrote an article last week explaining how Favre was, essentially, mediocre for the last 10 years of his career but got a free pass from media and fans because of his early success, his durability, and his general manliness. He could throw three interceptions in the first half, but as long as he threw a game-winning touchdown pass at the end (remember, you can't have exciting come-from-behind victories if you aren't behind in the first place), he was celebrated as the best thing to hit Wisconsin since cheese. He uses terms like "blind adulation" and "immune to criticism" to describe the attitudes toward Favre. On these points, I agree with Sal.

Then, about 2/3 of the way through the article, he starts making some unusual claims: namely that Favre was not only not the greatest quarterback of all time, but that he wasn't even the best Packer quarterback ever. Instead, he thinks Bart Starr, due largely to his performance in the postseason, deserves that honor. To which I have to say -- wha?

We'll put aside raw numbers as a comparison. Bart Starr never would have had the opportunity to throw for 61,655 yards and 442 touchdowns. Favre's longevity and durability should count for something, though, as should his 253-158 edge in starts over Starr. Most of Sal's (sorry, but I don't want to type "Paolantonio" over and over in this post) arguments, though, use rating stats as comparison, as they rightly should. Unfortunately, many of them don't hold water when taken in context.

(I'll be referring to, and getting much of my data from Favre's and Starr's respective pages on, as well as the Green Bay Packers franchise page. You might find it useful to have those pages open in tabs as you follow along, as I do while writing.)

Sal says:

"Favre isn't even the greatest quarterback in the history of the Packers. It's not even close. Bart Starr won five NFL championships -- four more than Favre -- and retired as the NFL's most accurate passer."

Starr played in an era before free agency, when teams had much more control over their player movement and a dynasty like the Packers was easier to hold together. Plus, the Packers of the 60s only had 12-14 other teams (except in 1966 and beyond, when the AFL is taken into account) to compete with for the title, compared to the 27 to 31 Favre's Packers had to compete with.

As for the "retired as the NFL's most accurate passer" comment -- well, good for him. Dan Marino automatically becomes better than Favre because he retired as the NFL's leader in every significant passing category. You might debate Favre vs. Marino, if you wished, but in no way should the argument be automatically in Marino's favre -- er, favor. Otherwise, Roger Connor, who retired in 1920 with an MLB-record 138 home runs, is better than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds.

(And...completion percentage? You think Chad Pennington is the greatest QB of all time?)

"Oh, you say Starr was surrounded by a Hall of Fame roster with a legendary coach."

Yes, I do. I'm going to establish Starr's "glory years" as 1960 to 1967. The Packers won five NFL titles (including two Super Bowls) in that period, and Starr started all but nine games for his team over that span. I could conceivably add a few years on either end of that spectrum, but Sal's argument largely revolves around Starr's postseason prowess, and this time frame includes seven of Starr's most active nine years as a passer.

For those eight years, here are the Packers' rank in defensive points allowed:

2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 3

And in yards:

7, 6, 2, 2, 1, 3, 3, 1

And their rushing game, in yards:

2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 10, 8, 2

A few blips there, but otherwise -- pretty freaking awesome. There were fewer teams back then (13 in 1960, 14 from 1961-1965, 15 in 1966, and 16 in 1967), but that's still awfully good.

And what was Starr doing this whole time? Passing less than just about any starting QB in the league. The most passes he attempted in a season was 295, in 1961. And, as this page will show you, no team passed less than the Packers that year. The team also ranked last in passing attempts in 1962, 1964, 1965, and 1966, Starr's #2, #3, #4, and #5 most active years. Even Ryan Leaf could hand off.

So yes, Sal, Starr was surrounded by tremendous talent, and, for the most part, he let them do their job.

Then we get into the crux of Sal's argument, centering around Starr's postseason heroics:

"But Starr still is the NFL record holder with a 104.8 career playoff passer rating, nearly 20 points higher than Favre's. That wasn't Vince Lombardi or Ray Nitschke throwing those passes for Starr, whose career postseason passer rating, by the way, is 38 points higher than Johnny Unitas'."

PFR only has data from a few of Starr's playoff games, so I'll have to take Sal at his word. And a 104.8 rating is awfully impressive. Next, however, we get into a really sticky part of the argument:

"Favre's career playoff record was 12-10. Starr's was 9-1 -- without the benefit of wild-card games."

Seems innocent enough. Starr won 90% of his playoff games, while Favre barely won more than 50%, and only won more games with "the benefit of wild-card games." Ah, but it's the wild-card games that likely doomed Favre to a mediocre win-loss record.

Except for 1967, when Starr played, only two NFL teams made the playoffs (barring at tie in the standings). Thus, those teams tended to be very, very good. From 1960 to 1967, the average Packer team was about 10-3-1. There were no mediocre-to-bad NFL teams in the playoffs, as there are today, when 8-8 or 9-7 teams can slide in, usually to a first-round exit.

In fact, four of Favre's teams were 10-6 or worse going into the playoffs, and all eventually lost. Had there been a wild card in Starr's day, his 11-2-1 1963 squad would have definitely made the playoffs (they were second to the 11-1-2 Bears), and that 8-5-1 1964 team would have been tied with the Vikings (with whom they split the season series) for the fourth-best record in the league, so they might have made it. Who's to say how they would have fared, but it's not impossible to think that the Packers would have lost both games, tarnishing Starr's lovely record to a slightly more manageable 9-3. Still very good, but still.

And, of course, with more playoff rounds and games comes a greater chance for defeat. Favre's Packers, while favored a good deal of the time in the playoffs, still lost. If Starr's Packers had had to play an extra game or two in the postseason each year, how many would they have lost? If anything, the lack of wild-card games helps Starr's record look good; it definitely doesn't hurt it.

Putting playoff wins aside, we come to this:

"Favre threw 28 interceptions in 22 playoff games. Starr threw three in 10. Think about that -- just three picks in 213 postseason attempts."

Impressive, but again, Starr didn't need to throw for 300+ yards a game for his team to win. He had that incredible defense and running game most of the time. In the three playoff games PFR does have for Starr, he threw 23, 24, and 24 passes. In Favre's 22 playoff games, he threw fewer than 23 passes once (though there's still no defending this game). Then there's the whole issue of a small sample size (213 passes), or do you think David Garrard will only throw interceptions on 1% of his passes next year, too?

In my mind, Starr fits the profile of the very good, but not great, quarterback who had a great team around him and played well enough not to screw it up, while also providing enough key moments in big games to cement his legend. I also fit Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman, neither spectacular passers, into that category. All of these men had excellent supporting staffs and didn't make the key mistakes that cost their team the game -- good qualities, to be sure, but only useful to a team that has other ways to win.

Brett Favre was overhyped, of that there's really no doubt. Then again, in today's celebrity culture, it's little surprise that a good-looking, rugged, down-to-earth guy who experiences early success and overcomes a multitude of personal tragedies would be the poster child for his league for over a decade and, thus, receive a free pass from much of the criticism that would else be levied against him. And -- confession time here -- I have to admit that I'd probably like to just hang out and have a beer with the guy. He may or may not have been the greatest quarterback ever, but I'll take him over Bart Starr any day.

Are we done with the love? Good. I feel like I need a shower.

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