Jan 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway and quarterback Peyton Manning (18) after the 2013 AFC championship playoff football game against the New England Patriots at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Was Len Dawson Better Than John Elway?

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The offseason is a time of asking goofy questions which truly have no answer. Rarely, however, are these hypothetical questions and assertions ever backed up with well thought out statistical analysis. This is the case for Football Perspectives’ Chase Stuart, who set out to figure out who is truly the best quarterback of all-time.

In Stuart’s study, which covers two parts and includes his methodology, he ranks the NFL’s best quarterbacks off all-time based on value. Defining “value” can be a never-ending debate, so we’ll just go with Stuart’s definition for now. In short, Stuart uses a version of adjusted net yards per attempt, average dropbacks, strength of schedule, and a few other elements to help calculate the value each quarterback brought to his team. (Again, you can read how he came to those conclusions in his methodology.)

After crunching the numbers, here’s how the top five worked out:

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There are two really interesting things to come of Stuart’s study. First, Len Dawson was rated higher than Broncos great John Elway. Dawson cracked the list at number 20 while Elway wasn’t too far behind at 24th all-time. To add some fun salt to the wounds of Broncos fans, Philip Rivers (21st) and Tony Romo (23rd) each rated ahead of Elway, too.

The key difference for Dawson over Elway is Dawson played an extra three seasons and received an adjusted bump to compensate for the 14-game seasons of Dawson’s era. Most would agree – at least they should agree – that Elway had more physical talent than Dawson in terms of speed and arm strength. Those physical talents may in some ways cause some vitriol reaction to Stuart’s findings.

What most forget is Elway didn’t really come into his own until the final third of his career. From 1983-1992 Elway had a 73.8 quarterback rating and was just as likely to throw an interception (3.6%) as he was a  touchdown (3.6%). But his teams were good (89-52-1), he was the quarterback of three (losing) Super Bowl teams, and was one of the most dynamic players in the NFL when he was “on.” Chiefs fans no that better than anyone.

Elway took that “leap” in 1993 when his physical talent started matching up with football intelligence. His quarterback rating from 1993 to the end of his career was an excellent 88.9, and he reduced his interception rate (2.4%) while increasing his touchdown rate (4.9%). And he did this before the NFL turned into the pass-happy league that it is now.

When you look back to his overall performance in those first 10 seasons, it makes sense why maybe he wouldn’t rank as high as some may have estimated for him.

The other interesting thing to not – and maybe something more pertinent to the Chiefs now – is the ranking of Trent Green. Green ranks 33rd on this list ahead of Hall of Fame/future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Kurt Warner, Troy Aikman, and Warren Moon. Green’s underrated time in KC with Dick Vermiel and Al Saunders (and an all-time offensive line) boosts his statistical value greatly. The result is a surprising ranking.

How this matters for the Chiefs now is Alex Smith and Green are very favorable to each other.

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Keep in mind that Smith just turned 30, and Green was 31 in his first season in Kansas City. Chiefs fans have been on both ends of late-blooming quarterbacks (Green and Rich Gannon) so it would be outrageous to see Smith continue to build on what he’s been doing the past three seasons.

Green almost definitively the second best quarterback in Chiefs history behind Dawson, and Smith is producing at a rate similar to Green. Yes, Green did it for longer than the snap shot of Smith’s last three seasons, but Smith doesn’t the offensive line Green was blessed with plus Smith is accomplishing these numbers at a younger age and with less overall talent.

Reverse the situations with Green and Smith and who knows what our perspectives of both of those players would be. Would Green still be beloved in the way he is now in Kansas City? Would Smith have been a more effective quarterback with that offensive line and Tony Gonzalez in his prime?

While I don’t know the answers to the Smith questions, I am pleased to know there is a strong argument that Dawson was as good/better quarterback than Elway. That knowledge is going to fuel me for the next few weeks.



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Tags: John Elway Kansas City Chiefs Len Dawson

  • area

    while I want to respect elway, I refuse, therefore Lenny was better.

  • paul pace

    Lenny the cool was a very smart QB and used his intelligence to win games. He definitely was a game manager which made up for some of his athletic limitations. He didn’t have a real strong arm like Elway nor could he run/scramble that well but he knew the game of football and how to use the talent he had to work with such as the great Otis Taylor!

    • KCMikeG

      But I didn’t think “game managers” could win the Super Bowl……

      • Ardent Shepherd

        Game managers almost exclusively win the Super Bowl. Year after year, defense wins championships comes up aces.

  • Roger Mihalko

    I always thought there were to many intangibles to compare QB’s from the different era’s. Size of players, speed of players, rules, etc. these things don’t equate to measurable stats. I think most of the QB’s from the 1983 draft and forward could play in the old NFL and be successful, would they be as successful as they were during their own era, hard to say. The QB’s like Len Dawson and others I think would do better because of the changes…how much better, again its hard to say.

    I think the comparisons, if its stat based, should be kept to within the era of the QB’s…Dawson vs Starr vs Bradshaw.

    Didn’t NFL network do a best QB of all time poll last year and Johnny Unitas won that? Could Unitas play today and be successful, sure, but to what level?

    I just couldn’t say.

    To answer the question, No I think Elway was a better QB. even though I hate to have to say that.

  • mnelson52

    The year Elway won his first SB, he wouldn’t have even been there if KC had stayed with Gannon for that playoff game. Gannon had just beat every top team in the second half of the season and never put less than 20 points on the board. The first playoff game, after our bye, Grbac was healthy again but hadn’t played the second half of the season. We lost to Elway 14-10. There were a few other teams that year in the same situation, but they went with the QB that got them there instead of going back to their starter. All those teams won their first playoff games. I loved Marty, but he did always find a way to lose in the playoffs.

  • Larry Devore

    Lenny way better

  • calciomoti

    Don’t tell Chris Harris