clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What Makes an NFL Quarterback Great?

The "No Debate" question for this week had a few interesting answers. But a discussion in the comment thread got me thinking about what makes a quarterback great. Is it his throwing arm, his ability to run or something that's a little harder to define?

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

When I think of the best quarterbacks of all time, the names I come up with make my mind swirl. It's also been a subject of debate that started in 1920 when the NFL began. It's a topic fans get emotional about too if their favorite team has a candidate worthy of mention on the list of the greatest players to ever play quarterback. Think about the names you could put on the list, let alone the names that are passed over because they don't meet an ever morphing criteria of what makes them the best of the best.

In fact, it's unfair to think I could write an article like this, because there is no possible way to mention only a few of the greatest players to ever play the position. There will always be names left off the list due to expediency, let alone word count. I'm a research fanatic. When I simply typed in "Greatest Quarterbacks of All Time" in my Web browser, the search engine spit out 61,200,000 results. To say opinions vary is an understatement. So I decided to exclude the names of all the great quarterbacks - both past and present - to focus on what the criteria should be to make an "All Time Great" list.

Let's start the list off with the one thing every quarterback has to have to play the position: a great throwing arm. It begins the very first time anyone plays football. I'm trying to recall the first time I ever threw a football. Years cloud the mind, but I'd have to guess the first time I touched a Voit rubberized football was at the age of 5 or 6... My need to try this game started by watching games with my Dad, and I'd have to say this may be a singular constant for every football player. I wonder how many kids' first football came as a birthday present or on Christmas Day? Once unwrapped, I wonder if you can remember who you threw your very first pass to? Raise your hand if the first words you heard after that fateful pass were - "No playing football in the house!" Moms are like that aren't they?

Next comes the pick up games with friends on the street in front of the house, or at the nearest grass field after your Mom starts to decry how many pairs of jeans you've torn up playing on asphalt. The games have a natural selective process, as one kid separates himself from the others because he can throw the ball better than the others. Kid grumbles aside, we all accept the fact we are better at one part of the game or the other. The "One" who throws the ball the best suddenly takes a giant leap up the adolescent social chain too, and is ALWAYS the first one picked when choosing sides for a game. Next comes Pop Warner football, and the first realization that nepotism may be a word to learn. Some coaches make their own kid the quarterback over better qualified and talented kids. Others find ways to build a team around a young kid who can run and throw. Invariably, the team that win at this level of football aren't all that different than the NFL. "That kid can throw" is now on the resume of a future star, though very few continue down the path first marked as possible in that initial pick up game. Life thins the herd of players, but the ones with "the arm" continue onward to a great degree. In high school, kids get their first real taste of coaching, and once again there's a separation from those that aspire to play quarterback, and those who truly can. Colleges begin to scout players with "The Arm", and the pool of quarterbacks continues to thin. Think about the 10-s of millions of kids who play in those street games, and then consider how many wind up playing at the college level. According to the NCAA, in 2010 there were 66,313 football players in divisions I, II, and II. This Darwinian knife cuts its way through the ranks of football loving kids each and every year. Now imagine how few of these players are quarterbacks. It all started with "The Arm"...

The next thing I'd look at for a quarterback would be his intellect. Smart quarterbacks can expand what a head coach's offensive play book can be. Leadership skills come into play too. Can they take a the "Xs" and Os" and translate them into success on the field. People will talk about a quarterback's vision, or ability to "see" the field, but hawked eyed vision means nothing without the ability to translate what they see in seconds. To my mind, this is the defining trait for every great quarterback. The ones who can see, think, and react the best are the ones who move on to the NFL.

There's another aspect of a great quarterback that adds a dimension to consider. A quarterback who's mobile - able to run or move around to avoid a pass rush - creates a player with awesome possibilities. Off and on, throughout NFL history, there have been quarterbacks who can run the ball. The one from the past who comes to mind is the Chicago Bear's Bobby Douglas (1969 - 1975). At 6'4" and 224 lbs., he set a rushing record for quarterbacks with 2,654 yards. In 1972, he rushed for 968 yards. But what nature gave him in the skills to run, it left out when it came to throwing the ball. I've never seen uglier passes than the ones he threw. They looked like wounded Ducks as they fluttered and wobbled through the crisp Chicago air. Fast forward through other mobile quarterbacks like Steve McNair, Randell Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, et al to Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. All of these quarterbacks threw the ball extremely well, not relying on their mobility alone.

So here we are considering what makes an NFL quarterback great, with a baseline of attributes to consider. Who would you choose for your Top 15 quarterbacks list, and why. Is there a single greatest attribute you hold higher than others? Is it the throwing arm, rifling passes in-between defenders, or the ability to make something out of nothing running the ball. Do you hold the intelligence of a quarterback high on your list, and is this what make some "winners"? Which quarterback - throughout NFL history - has the best mix of all the skills I mentioned?

Better still, this Sunday's St. Louis Rams - Tampa Bay Bucs game features two quarterbacks - Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman - trying to find what possible greatness they have within themselves. How do they stack up against your "All Time Greatest" list?