John Elway’s career is an illustrious one — nine Pro Bowls, five AFC Championships, two Super Bowl rings, and a life of memorable comebacks, but the numbers have never matched the legend. Is there a reasonable explanation for this, or is the original Captain Clutch more fable than factual?
I’m not sure if there was ever a more definitive and effective career turnaround than the one John Elway experienced in the late ‘90s.
Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a top-ten list of quarterbacks that omitted Elway. He was already a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer before the rings, sure, but the difference in historical remembrance for “Three-time Super Bowl loser John Elway” and “Back-to-back Super Bowl champion John Elway” is vast enough to make the Grand Canyon blush. It is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge of legacy makeovers.
As was on display in my Broadway Joe piece, I have an affinity for retrograding the statistics of old-timers and putting them in a modern light. I had a lot of fun with that one, mostly because I got to wax poetic on the importance of avoiding sacks and show why a two-time MVP was so well regarded by those who actually watched him play. Today is more of an autopsy than a staunch defense. While Joe Namath’s numbers are regularly skewered by today’s generation of fans, Elway has remained relatively unscathed, riding a wave of media immunity due to the way he went out on top as a player and his success as Denver’s current-day general manager. But I’ve always been surprised at the lack of criticism Elway received in his younger days for his lack of statistical prowess, something that No. 1 picks today would be envious of.
As inspired by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, consider some of these factoids about Elway’s first ten seasons in the league. From the years 1983-1992, Elway …
— Threw 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions.
— Never finished top-five in passing touchdowns in a season. He finished in the top-ten just three times (1985-1987).
— Finished top-five in passing yards only three times despite being second in attempts during that time span.
— Posted an above-average Yards per Attempt figure in just four seasons. While excellent in 1987, his MVP year, the other three were 1989 (by .2 above the league mean), 1991 (.3), and 1992 (.2).
— Was picked to the All-Pro team once, as a Second-Team selection in 1987. He would later repeat this in ’93 and ’96, but Elway would retire without ever being named to the First-Team.
The media loves counting stats, which can vary greatly depending on offensive strategy and team personnel, so let’s look at Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, a Pro-Football-Reference.com concoction and a personal favorite of mine that is calculated by the equation (Pass Yards + (20 * Pass TDs) – (45 * INTs) – Sack Yards)/(Pass Attempts + Sacks). I find it to be much preferable to other quick-and-dirty amalgamations like standard passer rating and ESPN’s QBR.
Elway played in a golden age of quarterbacks, notably overlapping careers with seven other Hall-of-Famer signal-callers*. Let’s compare their career ANY/A.
Like almost every other passing statistic, the league average ANY/A has risen over time as interception and sack rates have fallen due to favorable rule changes and shorter passing attacks. Nine of the top 13 marks in history belong to quarterbacks that are currently playing, and one of those names is Matt Schaub. Thankfully, though, we can compare ANY/A over time by adjusting it to the league average. It’s referred to as ANY/A+, most likely homage to OPS+ in baseball — a prorated statistic that controls for league mean and park effects on batters.
In a post-merger list of players that started at least half of their team’s games in their age 23-32 seasons and on average threw the needed amount of passes to qualify statistically (14 per game on Pro Football Reference, or 224 a year since the move to a 16-game season), Elway only finished 46th among the field. 100 is the NFL average, and each point up or down is one percentage point above or below league average during that time span. While Peyton Manning was a quarter better than the average competitor, Elway’s number resides at 101.
He was — statistically! — a league-average quarterback his first ten years in the league. That may be tough to digest all at once. It doesn’t mean that Elway was in fact a mediocre quarterback; it means that his numbers were indisputably mediocre … before giving them context (more on that soon).
Elway led the NFL in passing yards in 1993 and had a great year overall, but he turned in another mixed effort the next season, being sacked a league-high 46 times. But 1995 heralded in the two best personnel moves of Elway’s career — management’s decision to replace the fired Wade Phillips with his old offensive coordinator and the drafting of Terrell Davis in the sixth round.
Elway’s career numbers essentially have to be split into two parts — pre-TD and post-TD. Along with the signing of Ed McCaffrey and the maturation of Rod Smith and Shannon Sharpe, Mike Shanahan’s West Coast offense led to Elway posting three of the best ANY/A totals of his career … in his mid-to-late thirties.
In fact, Elway was one of the best age 35-and-up quarterbacks in the history of football.
Again, Manning is absurdly good. But Elway was damn impressive for a guy that could have (and should have, honestly) been ruined at that point by the unimaginative offenses that plagued Phillips and Dan Reeves’ tenures.
This is where it gets tricky, however. We’ve established that Elway was an average quarterback statistically for the first decade of his career until becoming an elite one in his late thirties, and that defies all conventional thought on the aging curve; future Hall-of-Famers like Manning, Brady, and Brees have continued to dominate in their advanced ages, but they didn’t become noticeably better quarterbacks than what they were in their younger days.
The variable that likely affected Elway’s play over the years is an obvious one — his supporting cast.
Elway’s lack of help on offense pre-Shanahan is one of the rare narratives in sports that is completely based in fact. Using the same Hall-of-Fame passers from the first chart, here is the amount of offensive Pro-Bowlers and/or All-Pros** each played with over the first 12 years of their career*** — total and by position:
Some quick takeaways …
– That Cowboys dynasty was just as talented as your dad said it was. The Michael Irvin/Jay Novacek combo was named to the Pro Bowl in five consecutive seasons (1991-1995), and Aikman played behind at least three Pro Bowl selections on the offensive line from 1993 to 1996. Four of his linemen were selected in ‘95 and ’96. And, you know, he had Emmitt Smith in the backfield.
– I was surprised to see Moon finishing second on this list, but he threw the ball a lot, giving his receivers the chance to pile up the yards, and those Oilers lines anchored by Bruce Matthews and Mike Munchak are one of history’s more underrated units.
– Not only did Marino never play with a Pro Bowl running back in that time span, he never played with a 1,000 yard rusher. His first didn’t come until 1996, when Karim Abdul-Jabbar (yes, really) pounded together 1,116 yards on a measly 3.6 Y/A.
– Until seventh-round pick Shannon Sharpe emerged as a legitimate receiving threat in 1992, the only Pro Bowl skill players Elway had ever played with were plug-and-pound tailbacks. Sammy Winder was the only Pro Bowler he threw or handed the ball off to in the ‘80s, and his 1987 selection was a farce. Winder hauled in five touchdown receptions from Elway but had a miserable year running the ball, compiling just 789 yards on 3.3 Y/A.
This lies in stark contrast to the last four years of Elway’s career, where the Broncos won 47 games and had 15 non-Elway Pro Bowl selections on offense … six alone coming in 1998. Davis was the league MVP that year and the AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year in ’96.
Pro Bowls aren’t a perfect measurement of team strength, of course, and it certainly isn’t scientific. The selection process can become a glorified popularity contest in some cases — as evidenced by London Fletcher merely being a two-time nominee while Jeff Saturday was picked in 2012 despite being one of the worst centers in football (he was benched by Green Bay while leading the position in fan voting!) — and lesser-known players can be forced to play at a high level for years before getting probably recognized by his peers and other coaching staffs. It is possible that such examples existed on those 1983-1994 Denver teams; Elway could have been playing with more talent than the chart insinuates.
Just judging by the information we have available, though, it seems safe to assume that Elway received considerably less help than fellow quarterbacks of his caliber; he also played several years under tenuous relations for a coach who openly disliked him. I don’t think it will mislead anyone to suggest that Elway was dealt a difficult hand in the ‘80s, even if the narrative that he single-handedly willed three overmatched teams to the Super Bowl during that span is an exaggeration****.
So what happened here? Did the improved offensive talent around Elway allow him to play up to his true abilities, or was he carried by the league’s best roster? Was ’83-’94 the real Elway, and did the Davis-Smith-McCaffrey-Sharpe core simply inflate his numbers?
That is impossible to prove, unfortunately; the “Who made who?” question about quarterbacks and receivers is football’s equivalent to the chicken and the egg. Almost all of Elway’s top receiving targets — the aforementioned Smith-McCaffrey-Sharpe corps of the ‘90s and the “Three Amigos” of the ‘80s (Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson, and Ricky Nattiel) — played their entire careers in Denver, and only Sharpe earned a Pro Bowl selection on another team. A common narrative with Manning is that he “makes” receivers, as Eric Decker and his agent now know first-hand, but sixth-round pick Pierre Garcon just led the NFL in receptions for Washington. And Reggie Wayne hasn’t lost a step in the Andrew Luck era.
Maybe the issue isn’t complicated. It may just be as simple as “Poor supporting cast equals average numbers, great supporting cast equals outstanding numbers” for a player as physically gifted as Elway. A lot of great quarterbacks have posted mediocre statistics with mediocre teammates — Brady finished 15th in ANY/A last season — and many of them have dominated when surrounded with weapons. Few would argue that ’84 Marino, ’04 Manning, ’07 Brady, and ’11 Aaron Rodgers weren’t blessed with a slew of great receivers.
My personal take on Elway’s legacy is one shared by many. He was the greatest prospect in NFL history, the best player on three AFC Championship teams that had no business being in the Super Bowl, and one of the only quarterbacks ever who played at an elite level in his late thirties. And as if to show he wasn’t merely Davis’ lackey, Elway played superbly in Super Bowl XXXIII and was named MVP in the final game of his career.
He will never be regarded as a statistically great passer, and deservedly so. He wasn’t. But Elway may be the quintessential case of a signal-caller whose abilities and contributions exceeded what went in the box score, and he remains a high-profile example of how even the best quarterbacks need help from their front office.
* Terry Bradshaw retired at the end of Elway’s rookie season, but I decided to omit him on the account that a majority of his numbers were compiled before the 1978 rule changes.
** As in, each selection from a player counts as a tally in the box. Emmitt Smith alone is responsible for eight in Aikman’s RB/FB slot, for example (Daryl Johnson accounts for the other two).
*** Jim Kelly only played 11 seasons in the NFL, devoting the first three of his career to the USFL.
**** Elway may not have had much assistance on offense, but the other side of the ball was the team’s strength in those years. The 1987 Broncos defense finished 7th in points allowed, and the ’89 unit led the league with a 14.1 mark. Denver was middle of the pack in 1986, but they held New England (2nd in scoring offense that year) and Cleveland (5th) to a combined 37 points on the way to the Super Bowl.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.