Brett Favre Brett Favre Brett Favre

A couple weeks back, TMQ devoted part of his column to Jerry Rice, who was just enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.  He points out that it would be easy to claim that Jerry is the greatest football player ever, due in large part to his statistics and how far they are above everyone else.  In case you don’t want to click over, here’s the relevant part:

“On baseball’s all-time list, Barry Bonds has 1 percent more home runs than Hank Aaron. In basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabber has 4 percent more points than Karl Malone at No. 2. In hockey, Wayne Gretzky has 12 percent more goals than Gordie Howe. On the NFL all-time lists, Bruce Smith has 1 percent more sacks than Reggie White at No. 2; Emmitt Smith has 10 percent more rushing yards than No. 2 Walter Payton; Brett Favre has 13 percent more passing yards than No. 2 Dan Marino.

But Rice! He has 31 percent more career touchdown receptions than Randy Moss at No. 2. Rice has 40 percent more receptions than the all-time No. 2, Marvin Harrison. Rice has 49 percent more all-time receiving yards than No. 2 Terrell Owens. Runaway margins like this are unheard of in sports, which often are about straining like mad to become a tiny bit better than the next best.”

I was thinking about this ‘margin’ issue because, as you know if you watched the Monday night Vikings-Jets game, Brett Favre just hit some major milestones of his own, becoming the only quarterback to throw for 70,000 yards or 500 touchdowns (he was already first in both categories).  Is Jerry Rice that much better than other receivers than Favre is compared to other quarterbacks?  As TMQ points out, Favre only has 13% more passing yards than Marino.

The main issue, as you’ve likely figured out if you’re skeptical about Brett Favre being the best quarterback ever, is that he’s played more than other guys.  This is especially true for Jerry Rice.  Jerry Rice played in 303 games, far more than his statistical competitors.  Marvin Harrison (2nd in receptions) played 190 games, Terrell Owens (yards) 210 so far, and Randy Moss (TDs) 190 so far.  So Jerry Rice has played nearly 100 more games than his competitors, which is part of why he can amass such huge statistical margins.  He has 30-50% more receptions/yards/touchdowns because he’s played 50% more games.  If we adjust for this advantage, Rice is still great but not the greatest; for example, Jerry is 7th in career yards per game for players with over 16 games.

Enough about Jerry Rice, we’re here to talk about Brett Favre Brett Favre Brett Favre (as TMQ sometimes calls him because of his seemingly selfish behavior).  What if Brett had the advantage in games played that Jerry Rice has?  So far Brett has started 285 games (I’m going to ignore the 8 he played in but didn’t start, as the number is small and unlikely to greatly contribute to his stats).  I’m going to use Dan Marino as a fill-in for second place in each category even though sometimes he’s a little further down the list; Marino started 240 games.  To adjust Brett to Rice-like levels, I’m going to multiply his stats by 364/285 = 1.278, which would be like if Brett started about 364 games, which is 51% more than Marino played.  Alternatively, I could just give him 100 more games than Marino, which is the same margin Rice has over his competitors.  That would put Favre at 340, in which case I could multiply his stats by 340/285 = 1.19.  Getting to 364 starts would require Favre to start every game for the next 5 years, while 340 is only 3 and a half seasons, which is plausible (if frightening to the people sick of his yearly retirements).

Including (I believe) this past week’s game against the Jets, Brett Favre has the following stats: 285 games started (of 293), 181 wins, 502 TDs, 70190 passing yards, 6157 completions, 9942 attempts, 324 interceptions.  If we give him the 28% boost, those numbers become: 364 games started, 231 wins, 641 TDs, 89646 passing yards, 7864 completions, 12968 attempts, and 414 interceptions.

Dan Marino has the following career stats: 240 games started (out of 242), 147 wins, 420 TDs, 61361 passing yards, 4967 completions, 8358 attempts, 252 interceptions.  If Brett made it to 364 games, he would have the following margins over Marino: 57% more wins, 53% more TDs, 46% more passing yards, 58% more completions, 55% more attempts, and 64% more interceptions.  So with a similar longevity boost over Dan Marino as Jerry Rice enjoys over his competitors, Brett Favre would lead his categories by as much or more as Rice does.  With the more conservative extra 100 games, the margins are still above 40%.  So if Brett can hold out another three seasons and produce at roughly his career averages, TMQ might have to acknowledge that his nemesis Brett Favre Brett Favre Brett Favre is statistically just as great as Jerry Rice.

But does this mean that Brett Favre would be the greatest ever?  Maybe not; projecting TO and Randy Moss’ receptions out to 303 games still puts them about 50 behind Jerry, Moss would have more yards, and both would have more touchdowns.  Anquan Boldin and Andre Johnson are the current career leaders in yards per game (of players who have played at least a season); given Jerry’s 303 games, both would easily pass his number of receptions and yards but not his touchdowns.  So Jerry was very good at getting into the end zone and he had amazing longevity.  What if we look at the current contender to the quarterback throne, Peyton Manning?

Here are Peyton’s stats so far: 192 games started (197), 131 wins, 377 TDs, 51737 passing yards, 4378 completions, 6747 attempts, 183 interceptions.  If we multiply each by 285/192 = 1.48 to put him at Brett’s current experience level or 364/192 = 1.896 to get up to Rice-like levels, they would become the following: 194/248 wins, 560/715 TDs, 76797/98084 passing yards, 6499/8300 completions, 10015/12791 attempts, and 272/347 interceptions.  Those numbers are all better than what Brett has now or would have if he played three more seasons.  So if Peyton can play as long as Favre, or as proportionately long as Jerry Rice has, he will be the statistical best quarterback ever.

But if this discussion has taught us anything, it’s that we have to decide on what we mean by ‘best ever’ before we decide what numbers to look at.  If you mean who performed the best the longest, allowing them to accumulate big numbers of touchdowns and yardage, then feel free to pick guys like Jerry Rice and Brett Favre, and there isn’t much room for debate.  But if you mean the guy who you would take for one game or for one season, you need to adjust those numbers to the game level or maybe look at their peak season.  You might still decide to go with Rice and Favre, but you could also probably go with Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, maybe Andre Johnson at WR and Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Steve Young, or maybe Marino at QB.  Those discussions are probably more entertaining.

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