After the 2018 season, I adjusted the conventional passer rating metric in order to more accurately evaluate passing performance and account for the era in which a player played in. The result was Adjusted Passer Rating. It’s measured on a scale from 0 to 100 where 50 represents a league average quarterback.
I figured it would be interesting to see which quarterbacks enjoyed the best careers in terms of Adjusted Passer Rating. I calculated the best passers of all-time and ranked them below. I did, however, adjust for the number of eligible seasons a quarterback played in the Super Bowl era. For example, maintaining an Adjusted Passer Rating of 65 over 6 seasons would be considered less impressive than an Adjusted Passer Rating of 64 over 16 seasons.
The one flaw in the metric that should be noted is that there is a bias towards quarterbacks who played in the 1970s. In the earlier days of the NFL, the worst quarterbacks were really bad, which naturally makes the best quarterbacks look even better when you use era-adjusted stats. In the modern era, however, the quarterback hierarchy is far more competitive. This didn’t cause a huge problem for these rankings, but there are a couple of 1970s quarterbacks who you could argue should be a bit lower.
10. Sonny Jurgensen: 6 Seasons, 63.59 APR
Of course, Jurgensen did not only play six seasons in his illustrious career. However, the bulk of his time in the NFL was before the AFL-NFL merger, so APR cannot be calculated for those seasons. One could argue that this actually gives Jurgensen an advantage because it doesn’t count his earlier seasons where he was subpar, but there’s no solution to the problem.
In 1960, Jurgensen backed up fellow Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin, who led the Eagles to an NFL title over Bart Starr’s Green Bay Packers. Brocklin promptly retired and Jurgensen was given the reigns to the offense in 1961 at the age of 27. He threw for a league-best 3723 yards and 32 touchdowns while leading the Eagles to a 10-4 record.
9. Drew Brees: 17 Seasons, 60.66 APR
I was surprised to see Brees this low — using purely statistical approaches to evaluate quarterbacks usually creates positive results for Brees. However, Brees’ relatively mediocre stint with the San Diego Chargers dragged down his rating. He has a 62.77 APR while playing for the New Orleans Saints, which would push him higher up the list, but we obviously can’t just cut out a chunk of his career to make him look better. You could even argue that he should be at the tenth spot on the list behind Jurgensen because of the sizeable gap in APR, but considering that Brees has played 11 more eligible seasons and Jurgensen benefited from playing that short period of time in the 1970s, I thought it made sense to give Brees the edge.
Brees’ best season was his 2009 campaign (72.96 APR), where he led the Saints to a 13-3 record and their first title in franchise history. His worst season with the Saints came the very next year when he posted an APR of 52.20, which is still slightly above average.
8. Kurt Warner: 8 Seasons, 63.17 APR
Warner’s career was not as long as some other all-time greats, but it was just as memorable. In 8 eligible seasons, Warner was named to the All-Pro First-Team twice and won the league’s Most Valuable Player award twice as well. In 1999, he led the St. Louis Rams to their second Super Bowl win in Franchise History.
The St. Louis Rams’ offenses in 1999, 2000, and 2001 are collectively known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.” The team scored 32.9, 33.8, and 31.4 points per game respectively, an unprecedented achievement before the league-wide passing explosion of the later 2000s. Unsurprisingly, these three seasons were also the best of Warner’s career in terms of APR (1999: 72.98, 2000: 72.05, 2001: 68.37).
7. Aaron Rodgers: 11 Seasons, 62.80 APR
Many fans argue that Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback of all-time in terms of pure passing ability (not ‘legacy’). That very well may be the case. Rodgers is a 2x MVP and a 2x member of the All-Pro First-Team ever since earning the starting job for the Packers in 2008. He won his first and only Super Bowl in his third season as a starter in 2010.
Unsurprisingly, Rodgers’ best season in terms of APR was his 2011 campaign (80.80 APR). It ranks as the 5th best season in NFL history according to APR and the best since Peyton Manning’s legendary 2004 season.
6. Tom Brady: 17 Seasons, 62.30 APR
The vast majority of fans regard Tom Brady as the greatest player in the history of the sport. Of course, that doesn’t make this ranking surprising — nobody uses statistics as their reasoning for Brady’s status as the GOAT. He’s simply the greatest winner the game has ever seen and it isn’t particularly close. Of course, that’s not to say he isn’t an all-time great individual talent as well. Brady has been selected to the All-Pro First-Team thrice and has also won the MVP award on three separate occasions — 2007, 2010, and 2017.
Brady’s greatest season came in 2007 when he threw for a record-breaking (at the time) 50 touchdowns to lead the New England Patriots to a 16-0 record. As we all know, the Pats were upset in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants, but Brady’s six Super Bowl rings probably act eases some of the pain from that loss.
5. Dan Marino: 16 Seasons, 62.56 APR
In Dan Marino’s first three seasons as a full-time starter, he was selected as a member of the All-Pro First-Team thrice. he averaged 4656 yards and 40.7 touchdowns per season through this stretch. Those are phenomenal numbers in today’s league. This was in the 1980s. There is absolutely no questioning Dan Marino’s otherworldly ability to throw the football.
Unfortunately, his astounding regular season numbers are often overshadowed by his lack of postseason success. Marino and Jurgensen are the only two players on this list without a Super Bowl win and Marino himself has had a lot of horrible playoff performances. In Marino’s best season (1985: 83.98 APR), he led the Dolphins to a 12-4 record and a first-round bye. However, in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, Marino was abysmal: 20-48, 248 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and an APR of 41.28.
It was only fitting that Marino’s final game was a 62-7 loss in the 1999 playoffs where Marino completed just 11 passes out of 25 attempts for 95 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 picks — good for an APR of 7.87.
4. Roger Staubach: 8 Seasons, 67.62 APR
Staubach boasts the highest career APR of all-time by a fairly large margin. All of his eight eligible seasons were spent during the APR-inflated 1970s, where Staubach led the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins. I think it’s safe to say that even #4 is a bit of a high ranking for Staubach. A significant number of people don’t even believe that Staubach was the best quarterback of the 1970s. I’ll leave him here as a reminder of the inevitable flaws in all purely statistical evaluatory methods.
Staubach’s best season came in 1971 when he led the Cowboys to a 10-0 record. with a league-leading ANY/A of 7.81. The next closest quarterback was Bob Griese at 6.35. Nonetheless, Staubach wasn’t even named to the All-Pro First-Team because he only played 10 games. It’s no coincidence that this happened to be the year Alan Page won the MVP award as a defensive tackle. In any case, Staubach’s incredibly efficient season ranks as the 2nd best season of all-time with an APR of 85.52.
3. Joe Montana: 13 Seasons, 64.26 APR
How could we leave off Joe Cool? After accumulating two MVP awards and winning 4 Super Bowls for the San Francisco 49ers, Montana was widely regarded as the greatest quarterback to ever live … until that Brady dude showed up. Regardless, Montana’s legend will certainly stand the test of time. All 13 of his seasons had an APR of at least 55, and 10 of them earned an APR of at least 60. His consistency is simply unmatched.
Joe Montana’s 1989 season (77.16 APR) may have been the best of his career. He completed 70.2% of his passes for 3521 yards, 26 touchdowns, and just 8 interceptions. In Super Bowl XXIV, Montana completed 22 passes out of 29 attempts for 5 touchdowns and no interceptions, resulting in a perfect APR in a 55-10 blowout over John Elway’s Denver Broncos.
2. Peyton Manning: 17 Seasons, 63.90 APR
Peyton Manning’s career has had it all. Seven All-Pro First-Team selections, five MVP awards, two Super Bowl wins, and even an unbelievable comeback from a potential career ending injury to win the 2012 AP Comeback Player of the Year award. The most common criticism of his Manning is his supposed lack of postseason success. Needless to say, that has been a bit exaggerated in the years following his retirement. Manning’s era-adjusted postseason stats are actually nearly identical to Brady’s, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Manning currently holds the record for single-season passing yards and passing touchdowns, both set in 2013 with the Denver Broncos. He passed for 5477 passing yards, 55 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions. However, this likely wasn’t even the best season of his career. In 2004, Manning threw a touchdown on nearly 10% of his attempts, by far the greatest TD% of the modern era. He broke records for single-season passer rating and ANY/A as well in the most efficient single-season passing performance of all-time. Unsurprisingly, Manning’s 2004 campaign also earned the highest single-season APR (85.58) in NFL history.
1. Steve Young: 9 Seasons, 66.97 APR
It’s almost unfair that 49ers fans got this guy right after Joe Montana. While Steve Young’s longevity is not on par with Montana’s, his peak is unmatched. The fact that Young only played 8 eligible seasons was not enough to discredit the greatest four-year stretch in NFL history.
1991-92: 76.51 APR
1992-93: 78.71 APR
1993-94: 70.49 APR
1994-95: 77.68 APR
There’s a reason many people believe that Steve Young was the most talented quarterback of all-time. His 1994 season is often considered the best all-around quarterback season of all-time. His regular season numbers were great, but it may be the only all-time great season in which the quarterback followed up the regular season performance with a Super Bowl win. Manning couldn’t finish the job in 2004 or 2013, nor could Brady in 2007, and Rodgers came up short in 2011. Young, however, followed up his 77.68 APR in the regular season with an APR of 79.29 in the playoffs, as he threw for nine touchdowns without a single turnover.
Steve Young’s peak was so incredible that his APR during his time with the Niners is an astounding 70.04. It’s a shame that the NFL caught such a short glimpse of Young’s greatness.