Peerless Passers: Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and ... Tony Romo?

At least once in his of her life, every single Dallas Cowboys fan out there has been involved in a debate about how the different quarterbacks the Cowboys have had over the last 50 years compare to each other  .

There is a school of thought that in Dallas, the QB position is measured by Super Bowl rings and nothing else - after all, we are not the Philadelphia Eagles. A splinter group of this Reductionist Train of Thought uses a very simple question to rank the Cowboys QBs: "If you had only one game to win, who would you pick as your QB?" Not unsurprisingly, these folks are often Staubach fans.

Then there is the group of fans whose QB evaluation is closely linked to their own date of birth. If you're below 20, Tony Romo easily looks like the best thing that ever happened to the Cowboys. If you witnessed the Triplets in their prime, you'll likely come down on the Aikman bandwagon. And if you're old enough (and/or healthy enough) to remember the 70s, Staubach is probably your man.

There are many more groups, like the Selective Memory fans who will always argue along the lines of: "If you had ever seen [insert QB name here] play, we wouldn't be having this discussion". The Intangibles Fraction will chew your ear off with things like leadership, character, playmaking ability or all-round badness. The Romosexuals like to argue that Romo holds or will soon hold every single passing record in Cowboys history. And of course there's a whole universe of Statisticians out there who will try to answer the questions with some kind of number, be it winning percentage, playoff wins, completion percentage, efficiency measures and other numbers. And on and on ...

Regardless of where you fall, the difficulty in these discussions is that you're discussing different players, on different teams, in different eras. And you can't really compare them. Or can you?

The passer rating is an official NFL stat and, for better or worse, it is the preeminent stat for measuring quarterbacks and has been since the early 1970s. We've looked at the passer rating in great detail in a few recent posts: We saw that today's quarterbacks are breaking NFL passing records left and right (see The NFL Arms Race). We saw that rule changes and changing offensive strategies led to the average NFL passer rating increasing by a good 20 points vs the early 1970s (see Passer's Paradise). And finally, in Passer Rating 101, we saw how the weight of the individual components making up the passer rating formula has changed significantly.

What all three posts made very clear is that it doesn't make a lot of sense to compare the passer rating of different QBs in different eras. But what we can do is use the passer rating to compare a given QB with his peers of the same era, and that's exactly what we'll do in the table below. We look at passer rating vs. peers in two different ways and throw in a winning percentage for free:

Cowboys QB Stats (click column header to sort)

QB Years
Seasons
as Starter
Top 10
passer
seasons
NFL Avg.
Passer
Rating
QB Passer
Rating
Index vs.
NFL Average
Cowboys
Winning %
Eddie LeBaron 60-61 2 0 63.4 57.0 90 .154
Don Meredith 62-68 7 4 66.9 77.2 115 .565
Craig Morton 69-70, 72 3 2 64.4 78.7 122 .681
Roger Staubach 71, 73-79 8 7 62.3 85.3 137 .746
Danny White 80-85, 87 7 5 71.8 81.8 114 .674
Steve Pelluer 86, 88 2 0 71.1 71.1 100 .296
Troy Aikman 89-00 12 6 75.2 81.6 109 .570
"Primetime" Troy Aikman 91-96 6 5 75.3 88.9 118 .724
Quincy Carter 01 & 03 2 0 76.6 69.2 90 .516
Chad Hutchinson 2002 1 0 78.6 66.3 84 .222
Vinny Testaverde 2004 1 0 80.9 76.4 94 .333
Drew Bledsoe 2005 1 0 78.2 83.7 107 .545
Tony Romo 06-09 4 4 80.5 95.6 119 .691

 

Top 10 passer seasons: A simple approach to comparing QBs is to count how often a QB finished a season as a league leader in passer rating. Roger Staubach managed that incredible feat in four separate seasons, but no other Cowboys QB has ever led the league for a full season before or after. So I broadened the comparison a little, and looked at how often each QB finished a season in the league top 10 in passer rating.

Staubach finished in the top ten in seven of his eight seasons as a starter for the Cowboys, Aikman had six top ten seasons, Don Meredith and Tony Romo both have four. Of note, Romo has been in the top ten of qualified passers in the league every year he has started (06: 5th,  07: 5th, 08: 8th, 09: 8th).

Passer Rating vs. NFL average: This is an attempt to quantify how much better a given quarterback was versus his peers who were playing at the same time.

Take Staubach in the table above. Roger the Dodger started eight seasons for the Cowboys (1971 and 1973-1979). In these eight seasons, he had a combined passer rating of 85.3. The NFL average passer rating during those exact same eight seasons was 62.3. Roger Staubach was indexing at 137 versus the NFL average, or in other words, he was 37% better than the average of all other quarterbacks playing at the same time. The fact that this is about twice as high as the next best QB in Cowboys franchise history shows you just how extraordinary this number is.

In 1971 Roger Staubach notched a season passer rating of 104.8 when the NFL average for qualified passers was 62.2. In percent, Staubach was 68% better than the league average, the best value achieved by any quarterback in the Super Bowl era (CHHF.com have a list of the leading passers and their %age vs NFL average for every season here).

Craig Morton and Tony Romo rank second and third with an index of 122 and 119 followed a little further down by Dandy Don Meredith and Danny White with 115 and 114 respectively. All of these QBs were easily top 10 QBs in the league in their heyday. Troy Aikman comes in at a 109 index, somewhat disappointing for a man who owns three Super Bowl rings.

There is a popular and nagging misconception that Troy Aikman was an average passer surrounded by great talent who paved his way to Canton with some outstanding postseason and Super Bowl play. And his career average passer rating of 81.6 would seem to bear that out.

Some have argued that using the passer rating to measure Troy Aikman is wrong because the Cowboys ran a 'passer-rating-unfriendly' offense: Aikman threw for more than 20 TDs in a season only once in his entire career (1992: 23). No surprise if you have a RB like Emmitt Smith behind you who scored 10 or more touchdowns in 9 seasons, including two seasons with more than 20 TDs ('94: 22, '95: 25). Would you throw a lot of three or four-yard touchdown passes if you had Emmitt Smith running behind you?

I say bunk to all that. I've included a line in the table above called 'Primetime Troy Aikman' based only on his Pro Bowl seasons from 1991 to 1996. In these six years Aikman ranked 6th, 3rd, 2nd, 5th, 3rd and 12th in the league in passer rating. Over those six years he was indexing at 118 which about what Don Meredith and Tony Romo achieved.

Troy Aikman was an outstanding passer in his prime. His career numbers are hurt by a slow start and a (too) long decline at the end.

Winning Percentage: This is the winning percentage a QB compiled over his entire career with the Cowboys. Roger Staubach leads all QBs by a wide margin, Tony Romo is second on the career list and only topped by Troy Aikman in his prime.

Conclusion: Compared to their peers in their own eras, the Cowboys have had a number of excellent QBs. However, Roger Staubach stands tall above all others in the peer comparison. Craig Morton, Don Meredith and Danny White all compare very favorably to their peers in their time, but will always carry a little asterisk in the Cowboys history books for what they did not achieve. Tony Romo is arguably one of the best Cowboys QBs since Roger Staubach, and his task is clear: avoid the asterisk.

More often than not, you will intuitively know whether a set of stats makes sense or not. Does this peer comparison match your gut feeling?

***UPDATE***

By popular request here is an overview of how selected QBs rank (* denotes a HOF QB). All of the QBs below started their career after the merger year 1970, so all are based off the same statistical base.

QB Years NFL Avg.
Passer Rating
QB passer
rating
Index
Steve Young* 91-99 75.5 101.4 134
Joe Montana* 79-94 72.9 92.3 127
Peyton Manning 98-09 78.4 95.2 121
Dan Fouts* 73-87 68.1 80.2 118
Tom Brady 01-09 79.2 93.3 118
Dan Marino* 83-99 74.0 86.4 117
Jim Kelly* 86-99 74.1 84.4 114
Brett Favre 92-09 77.4 86.6 112
Warren Moon* 84-00 74.2 80.9 109
Terry Bradshaw* 70-83 65.4 70.9 108
John Elway* 83-96 73.7 79.9 108
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