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While trying to distract myself from the fact that a Gus Frerotte vs. Norv Turner Super Bowl is still a possibility, I took a look at Sammy Baugh’s statistics. I was surprised to see his rookie season quarterback rating: 50.5, an incredibly low number by today’s standards. Even Heath Shuler (sorry, Congressman Heath Shuler) never posted a mark that low when he wore the burgundy and gold. Yet Baugh’s 1937 campaign was not only good enough to guide the Redskins to their first NFL Championship, but it was also good enough to lead the league in quarterback rating. 71 years ago, the league average quarterback rating was just 34.4.

Quarterback ratings have been slowly rising since the game’s inception. We have reliable passing statistics dating back to 1936, and since then, the league average rating has risen from 28.9 to this season’s all-time high of 81.5. To try to get a sense of how Baugh’s 1937 season would translate into today’s passing environment, I normalized the statistic:

(QB rtg / Lg. avg. QB rtg) * 2008 Lg avg. QB rtg = Relative Quarterback Rating
(50.5 / 34.41) * 81.5 = 119.1

Baugh’s 1937 season would be the equivalent of a quarterback posting a 119.1 rating today. Thanks to the wonders of Microsoft Excel, it wasn’t hard to chart each year’s starting Redskins quarterback:

Year  Redskin           Rtg   LgAvg  Ratio  adjusted for 2008
2008  Campbell, Jason   84.3   81.5  1.034   84.3
2007  Campbell, Jason   77.6   80.9  0.959   78.2
2006  Brunell, Mark     86.5   78.5  1.102   89.8
2005  Brunell, Mark     85.9   78.2  1.098   89.5
2004  Ramsey, Patrick   74.8   80.9  0.925   75.4
2003  Ramsey, Patrick   75.8   76.6  0.990   80.6
2002  Ramsey, Patrick   71.8   78.6  0.913   74.4
2001  Banks, Tony       71.3   76.6  0.931   75.9
2000  Johnson, Brad     75.7   76.2  0.993   81.0
1999  Johnson, Brad     90.0   75.1  1.198   97.7
1998  Green, Trent      81.8   76.2  1.073   87.5
1997  Frerotte, Gus     73.8   75.0  0.984   80.2
1996  Frerotte, Gus     79.3   75.0  1.057   86.2
1995  Frerotte, Gus     70.2   77.5  0.906   73.8
1994  Shuler, Heath     59.6   76.7  0.777   63.3
1993  Rypien, Mark      56.3   74.7  0.754   61.4
1992  Rypien, Mark      71.7   72.8  0.985   80.2
1991  Rypien, Mark      97.9   74.2  1.319  107.5
1990  Rypien, Mark      78.4   75.0  1.045   85.2
1989  Rypien, Mark      88.1   73.3  1.201   98.0
1988  Williams, Doug    77.4   70.6  1.096   89.3
1987  Schroeder, Jay    71.0   72.6  0.977   79.7
1986  Schroeder, Jay    72.9   71.5  1.019   83.1
1985  Theismann, Joe    59.6   70.7  0.842   68.7
1984  Theismann, Joe    86.6   73.2  1.183   96.4
1983  Theismann, Joe    97.0   73.1  1.326  108.1
1982  Theismann, Joe    91.3   70.6  1.293  105.4
1981  Theismann, Joe    77.3   70.5  1.096   89.4
1980  Theismann, Joe    75.2   71.3  1.054   86.0
1979  Theismann, Joe    83.9   67.8  1.237  100.9
1978  Theismann, Joe    61.6   62.1  0.991   80.8
1977  Kilmer, Billy     66.5   57.8  1.150   93.8
1976  Kilmer, Billy     70.3   63.6  1.105   90.1
1975  Kilmer, Billy     77.2   62.8  1.229  100.2
1974  Kilmer, Billy     83.5   61.4  1.359  110.8
1973  Kilmer, Billy     81.3   61.7  1.317  107.4
1972  Kilmer, Billy     84.8   63.5  1.335  108.8
1971  Kilmer, Billy     74.0   59.3  1.247  101.7
1970  Jurgensen, Sonny  91.5   62.5  1.464  119.3
1969  Jurgensen, Sonny  85.4   68.6  1.244  101.5
1968  Jurgensen, Sonny  81.7   65.6  1.245  101.5
1967  Jurgensen, Sonny  87.3   63.7  1.370  111.7
1966  Jurgensen, Sonny  84.5   64.2  1.316  107.3
1965  Jurgensen, Sonny  69.6   70.2  0.991   80.8
1964  Jurgensen, Sonny  85.4   68.0  1.255  102.4
1963  Snead, Norm       58.1   68.4  0.849   69.2
1962  Snead, Norm       74.7   69.4  1.076   87.7
1961  Snead, Norm       51.6   65.2  0.791   64.5
1960  Guglielmi, Ralph  55.7   61.0  0.913   74.4
1959  LeBaron, Eddie    54.0   64.1  0.842   68.7
1958  LeBaron, Eddie    83.3   62.8  1.326  108.1
1957  LeBaron, Eddie    86.1   59.9  1.437  117.1
1956  Dorow, Al         64.2   57.1  1.124   91.6
1955  LeBaron, Eddie    50.5   54.6  0.924   75.4
1954  Dorow, Al         54.2   59.0  0.918   74.9
1953  LeBaron, Eddie    28.3   50.9  0.555   45.3
1952  LeBaron, Eddie    65.7   51.8  1.268  103.4
1951  Baugh, Sammy      43.8   52.3  0.837   68.3
1950  Baugh, Sammy      68.1   49.8  1.367  111.4
1949  Baugh, Sammy      81.2   51.2  1.585  129.3
1948  Baugh, Sammy      78.3   60.0  1.305  106.2
1947  Baugh, Sammy      92.0   57.6  1.597  130.0
1946  Baugh, Sammy      54.2   47.6  1.138   92.7
1945  Baugh, Sammy     109.9   47.6  2.308  187.9
1944  Filchock, Frank   86.0   42.1  2.042  166.3
1943  Baugh, Sammy      78.0   48.6  1.604  130.6
1942  Baugh, Sammy      82.5   40.3  2.047  166.6
1941  Baugh, Sammy      52.2   39.6  1.318  107.3
1940  Baugh, Sammy      85.6   38.6  2.217  180.5
1939  Baugh, Sammy      52.3   39.7  1.317  107.2
1938  Baugh, Sammy      48.1   35.5  1.354  110.3
1937  Baugh, Sammy      50.5   34.5  1.463  119.1
1936  Battles, Cliff    17.1   28.9  0.591   48.2
1935  Shepherd, Bill    24.5   25.4  0.964   78.5
1934  Hokuf, Steve      23.7   18.8  1.260  102.6
1933  Musick, Jim        5.4   26.3  0.205   16.7
1932  Hughes, Honolulu   5.8   27.2  0.213   17.4

A couple of things immediately stand out. First, the Boston Braves had a quarterback named Honolulu Hughes. Second, notice that while the league average quarterback rating has risen over time, it hasn’t always been a flat slope. The first time the league average broke 60.0 was 1948, yet it took another 10 years for the average rating to break that mark for good. The same thing happened in 1965, when the league average surpassed 70.0 for the first time ever. Quarterback ratings slumped back into the 60s, and it wasn’t until 1980 that ratings were back into the 70s.

The maximum quarterback rating is 153.8, but for this exercise, there is no reason why we can’t exceed that limit. And good thing, because Baugh broke the barrier three times by himself. Forgotten Redskin Flingin’ Frank Filchock, Baugh’s understudy and teammate, also accomplished the feat.

The numbers illustrate how incredible Baugh’s 1945 season really was. It still stands as the highest single-season mark in franchise history, and it was done at a time when the league average was roughly half of what it is today. Plenty of other interesting oddities can be identified, including the sad fact that Heath Shuler’s 1994 season was actually a slight step up from Mark Rypien’s 1993. Also, look at how Jurgensen and Kilmer combined for ten consectuive years of 100+ relative quarterback rating from 1966-1975, yet the team produced just four playoff appearnces and zero championships. It just goes to show that the quarterback is only one guy.

If we sort by the normalized statistic, here would be the ten best seasons:

Year  Redskin           Rtg   LgAvg  Ratio  adjusted for 2008
1945  Baugh, Sammy     109.9   47.6  2.308  187.9
1940  Baugh, Sammy      85.6   38.6  2.217  180.5
1942  Baugh, Sammy      82.5   40.3  2.047  166.6
1944  Filchock, Frank   86.0   42.1  2.042  166.3
1943  Baugh, Sammy      78.0   48.6  1.604  130.6
1947  Baugh, Sammy      92.0   57.6  1.597  130.0
1949  Baugh, Sammy      81.2   51.2  1.585  129.3
1970  Jurgensen, Sonny  91.5   62.5  1.464  119.3
1937  Baugh, Sammy      50.5   34.5  1.463  119.1
1957  LeBaron, Eddie    86.1   59.9  1.437  117.1

Sammy Baugh dominates, no real shock there. I was surprised to see Eddie LeBaron sneak into the top 10. This is interesting, but in terms of seeing how a guy like Baugh might stack up against guys like Jurgensen and Theismann, a more useful number would be a career mark. To find this, I multiplied each season’s 2008-adjusted quarterback rating by passes attempted, added those numbers up, and divided the sum by career passes attempted. I didn’t bother doing this for every quarterback in team history (sorry, Jeff Rutledge) but rather the most notable and most recent:

Redskin            Rtg
Baugh, Sammy      126.3
Jurgensen, Sonny  104.7
Kilmer, Billy     101.9
Theismann, Joe     91.1
Johnson, Brad      90.8
Williams, Doug     90.3
Rypien, Mark       88.9
LeBaron, Eddie     83.7
Brunell, Mark      83.2
Schroeder, Jay     82.6
Campbell, Jason    81.0
Frerotte, Gus      78.1
Ramsey, Patrick    77.9
Snead, Norm        73.6
Shuler, Heath      61.8

I’ve always operated under the impression that Baugh, Jurgensen and Theismen were the three best quarterbacks in team history, in that order. I’ve always believed that Shuler was the worst, and everyone else falls somewhere in between. These rankings back up a lot of that. Baugh is in first by a wide margin, Jurgensen second, and Heath Shuler last.

But there are a few things that did surprise me. One was how ordinary Norm Snead was – I always thought that he was a better player (and to be fair, he did go on to have better years with the Eagles and Giants). Another is that Kilmer outpaces Theismann by a pretty substantial margin. I would guess that Kilmer gets underrated because he played with and after Jurgensen, inviting immediate comparisons. And of course, Theismann’s XVII Super Bowl ring and 1983 NFL MVP Trophy don’t hurt his cause.

So far, normalizing quarterback ratings appear to be a good way of comparing quarterbacks across eras. If I can compare Sammy Baugh to Sonny Jurgensen, why not to Joe Montana or Tom Brady?

I calculated the career numbers of all the NFL Hall of Famers, as well as the no-doubt future Hall of Famers (Manning, Brady, Favre). I also tossed in Ken Anderson, who was the league’s leader in quarterback rating four different seasons. The only other guys to accomplish that feat are Sammy Baugh, Roger Staubach, Steve Young and, depending on how you want to count AFL seasons, Len Dawson. (Of course, all those guys also won championships.):

Player              Rtg
Clark, Dutch        137.6
Herber, Arnie       133.7
Luckman, Sid        129.0
Baugh, Sammy        126.2

Graham, Otto        125.5
Parker, Ace         113.1
Dawson, Len         110.5
Staubach, Roger     108.9
Van Brocklin, Norm  108.1
Young, Steve        105.2
Montana, Joe        103.4
Jurgensen, Sonny    102.7
Tarkenton, Fran     101.9
Griese, Bob         101.9
Anderson, Ken       101.3

Tittle, Y.A.        100.2
Starr, Bart          99.9
Waterfield, Bob      98.6
Unitas, Johnny       98.3
Manning, Peyton      98.3
Brady, Tom           96.0

Fouts, Dan           95.5
Marino, Dan          95.3
Kelly, Jim           92.9
Layne, Bobby         91.4
Favre, Brett         90.6

Bradshaw, Terry      89.4
Moon, Warren         88.8
Aikman, Troy         88.4
Namath, Joe          88.4
Elway, John          87.7
Blanda, George       86.7

There’s a lot that makes sense here, especially the bottom five of Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Joe Namath, John Elway and George Blanda. Ken Anderson stacks up nicely with the Hall of Famers. But the top is pretty worrisome. All of the pre-modern players finish in the top six. To say that I’m not ready to declare Dutch Clark as the greatest passer in football history would be an understatement.

This doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense, so let’s take a look at the single-season league leaders:

Year   League Leader        Rtg   LgAvg  Ratio  adjusted for 2008
1934   Herber, Arnie        72.6   18.8  3.861  314.3
1935   Danowski, Ed         69.7   25.4  2.744  223.4
1945   Baugh, Sammy        109.9   47.6  2.308  187.9
1940   Baugh, Sammy         85.6   38.6  2.218  180.5
1943   Luckman, Sid        107.5   48.6  2.211  180.1
1942   Isbell, Cecil        87.0   40.3  2.158  175.7
1941   Isbell, Cecil        81.4   39.6  2.055  167.3
1944   Filchock, Frank      86.0   42.1  2.042  166.3
1936   Herber, Arnie        58.9   28.9  2.038  165.9
1933   Newman, Harry        51.7   26.3  1.965  160.0
1953   Graham, Otto         99.7   50.9  1.958  159.4
1932   Herber, Arnie        51.5   27.2  1.893  154.1
1960   Plum, Milt          110.4   61.0  1.809  147.3
1962*  Dawson, Len          98.3   55.2  1.780  145.0
1971   Staubach, Roger     104.8   59.3  1.767  143.9
1955   Graham, Otto         94.0   54.6  1.721  140.1
1950   Van Brocklin, Norm   85.1   49.8  1.708  139.1
1947** Graham, Otto        109.2   64.5  1.693  137.8
1966*  Dawson, Len         101.7   60.6  1.678  136.6
1949** Graham, Otto         97.5   58.4  1.669  135.9
1968*  Dawson, Len          98.6   59.5  1.657  134.9
1949   Thompson, Tommy      84.4   51.2  1.648  134.2
1948   Thompson, Tommy      98.4   60.0  1.640  133.5
1966   Starr, Bart         105.0   64.2  1.635  133.1
1976   Stabler, Ken        103.4   63.6  1.625  132.3
1961*  Blanda, George       91.3   56.3  1.621  132.0
1948** Albert, Frankie     102.9   64.2  1.602  130.5
1959   Conerly, Charlie    102.7   64.1  1.602  130.4
1947   Baugh, Sammy         92.0   57.6  1.597  130.0
1951   Waterfield, Bob      81.8   52.3  1.564  127.3
1974   Anderson, Ken        95.7   61.4  1.558  126.9
1989   Montana, Joe        112.4   73.3  1.533  124.8
1973   Staubach, Roger      94.6   61.7  1.533  124.8
1963   Tittle, Y.A.        104.8   68.4  1.532  124.7
1977   Griese, Bob          87.8   57.8  1.519  123.6
1938   Parker, Ace*         53.5   35.5  1.507  122.7
1964*  Dawson, Len          89.9   59.7  1.505  122.6
1970   Brodie, John         93.8   62.5  1.500  122.2
2004   Manning, Peyton     121.1   80.9  1.496  121.9
1975   Anderson, Ken        93.9   62.8  1.495  121.7
1946   Luckman, Sid         71.0   47.6  1.491  121.4
1984   Marino, Dan         108.9   73.2  1.487  121.1
1994   Young, Steve        112.8   76.7  1.470  119.7
1992   Young, Steve        107.0   72.8  1.469  119.6
1957   Unitas, Johnny       88.0   59.9  1.469  119.6
1937   Baugh, Sammy         50.5   34.5  1.463  119.1
1965*  Dawson, Len          81.3   55.6  1.462  119.0
1956   Brown, Ed            83.1   57.1  1.455  118.5
1999   Warner, Kurt        109.2   75.1  1.454  118.4
2007   Brady, Tom          117.2   80.9  1.448  117.9
1939   Hall, Parker         57.5   39.7  1.448  117.9
1961   Wade, Billy          93.7   65.2  1.437  117.0
1969*  Cook, Greg           88.3   61.5  1.435  116.9
1958   Unitas, Johnny       90.0   62.8  1.433  116.7
1967*  Dawson, Len          83.7   58.5  1.430  116.5
1964   Star, Bartt          97.1   68.0  1.427  116.2
1968   Morrall, Earl        93.2   65.6  1.420  115.6
1987   Montana, Joe        102.1   72.6  1.406  114.5
1963*  Rote, Tobin          86.7   62.1  1.396  113.6
1997   Young, Steve        104.7   75.0  1.396  113.6
1981   Anderson, Ken        98.4   70.5  1.395  113.6
1998   Cunningham, Randall 106.0   76.2  1.391  113.2
1965   Unitas, Johnny       97.4   70.2  1.387  112.9
1952   Van Brocklin, Norm   71.5   51.8  1.380  112.4
1988   Esiason, Boomer      97.4   70.6  1.379  112.3
1991   Young, Steve        101.8   74.2  1.371  111.7
1967   Jurgensen, Sonny     87.3   63.7  1.370  111.6
1978   Staubach, Roger      84.9   62.1  1.367  111.3
1954   Burk, Adrian         80.4   59.0  1.362  110.9
1979   Staubach, Roger      92.3   67.8  1.361  110.8
1985   O'Brien, Ken         96.2   70.7  1.360  110.8
1993   Young, Steve        101.5   74.7  1.358  110.6
2000   Griese, Brian       102.9   76.2  1.350  109.9
1982   Anderson, Ken        95.3   70.6  1.349  109.9
1990   Kelly, Jim          101.2   75.0  1.349  109.8
1972   Kilmer, Billy        84.8   63.5  1.335  108.7
1983   Bartkowski, Steve    97.6   73.1  1.335  108.7
2005   Manning, Peyton     104.1   78.2  1.331  108.4
2002   Pennington, Chad    104.2   78.6  1.325  107.9
2001   Warner, Kurt        101.4   76.6  1.323  107.8
2003   McNair, Steve       100.4   76.6  1.310  106.7
1962   Starr, Bart          90.7   69.4  1.306  106.4
1995   Harbaugh, Jim       100.7   77.5  1.299  105.8
2008   Rivers, Phillip     105.5   81.4  1.296  105.5
1996   Young, Steve         97.2   75.0  1.296  105.5
1986   Kramer, Tommy        92.6   71.5  1.295  105.4
2006   Manning, Peyton     101.0   78.5  1.286  104.7
1980   Sipe, Brian          91.4   71.3  1.281  104.3
1969   Tarkenton, Fran      87.2   68.6  1.271  103.5
1946** Albert, Frankie      69.8   55.4  1.259  102.6
1960*  Tom Flores           71.8   59.6  1.204   98.1
* American Football League season
** All-American Football Conference season

Now this completely fails the smell test. The idea that the top ten seasons in NFL history all occurred before 1950 doesn’t make any sense. The notion that Peyton Manning’s historic 2004 season would only rank 40th in NFL history is absurd. Obviously, this system favors the older players. The early greats like Baugh and Luckman were further ahead of the curve than today’s best like Manning and Brady, but that doesn’t neccesarily mean they were better. It’s a good reminder that statistics can mislead, especially in a sport as unique and ever-changing as football.

But there was no way I was going come up completely empty after all this work, so I tried a different, if less scientific, exercise.  I identified the seasons in which the league-leading quarterback finished with a quarterback rating at least ten points higher than his closest competitor, not just in that same season, but also the seasons before and after. For example, Tom Brady’s 2007 (117.2) was better than any other quarterback’s 2006, 2007 and 2008:

Year  Player             Rtg   Year  Next Closest          Rtg   Diff   Length
2007  Brady, Tom        117.2  2007  Roethlisberger, Ben  104.1  13.1   3 years
2004  Manning, Peyton   121.1  2004  Culpepper, Daunte    110.9  10.2   3 years
1994  Young, Steve*     112.8  1993  Harbaugh, Jim        100.7  12.1   3 years
1989  Montana, Joe*     112.4  1990  Kelly, Jim           101.2  11.2   5 years
1971  Staubach, Roger*  104.8  1970  Brodie, John          93.8  11.0   3 years
1953  Graham, Otto       99.7  1953  Van Brocklin, Norm    84.1  15.6   2 years
1945  Baugh, Sammy*     109.9  1944  Filchock, Frank       86.0  23.9   2 years
1943  Luckman, Sid*     107.5  1942  Isbell, Cecil         87.0  20.5   2 years
*won NFL Championship

By “length”, I mean the number of years it took for another quarterback to post a mark within ten points of the mark. For example, no quarterback got within Joe Montana’s 1989 mark of 112.4 until Steve young posted a 112.8 five years later in 1994.

It’s a short list. The feat has only been accomplished eight times in NFL history, and never twice by the same man. Baugh had the highest “margin of victory”, but Joe Montana’s mark lasted the longest. I think if you were going to make a list of the five best single seasons, those five championship seasons would be a pretty good place to start.

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