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ESPN’s Super Bowl-era quarterback ranking is bad and they should feel bad

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The Worldwide Leader says the Patriots have had the best quarterback play of the Super Bowl era, but their reasoning is poor.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

When a pandemic meets the offseason, you get rankings. Media outlets have spent the better part of four months now ranking this and that, and now ESPN has rolled out a doozy of a list, ranking the overall quarterback play of every NFL team through the Super Bowl era.

The list is behind the ESPN+ paywall, and I can only assume they put the list there because it is embarrassing. You guys, it is really bad.

The San Francisco 49ers — who won Super Bowls with Joe Montana and Steve Young, competed well with Jeff Garcia, were reasonably competitive with Alex Smith, and briefly revolutionized the NFL with Colin Kaepernick — come in at fifth. Fifth! And that’s just a start.

There are many reasons to take issue with this list, but the real rub of the article is this: the Packers come in second behind the New England Patriots, and the article goes to great and historically ignorant lengths in a futile attempt to prove that the ranking is based on anything other than Tom Brady’s rings.

ESPN’s criteria is relatively solid: they equally weight the Approximate Value produced by each player, the peak performance of each contributing quarterback, and the team’s overall continuity at the position. And look, if you want to say “the Patriots have had the best quarterback play because their most notable quarterback has the most rings,” that’s fine, but just come out and say it. But don’t try to reverse engineer some justification. This rubric should put the Packers ahead of the Patriots, and ESPN’s reasoning as to why it doesn’t is specious at best.

For starters, this article hangs virtually the entirety of the Packers’ “Gory Years” between the Lombardi Era and the Wolf/Holmgren Renaissance on Jerry Tagge. “Despite its rich quarterback history, Green Bay isn’t first in the rankings because of its bad QB play in the 20 seasons between the Starr and Favre eras (1972-91),” it writes. “That run started with Tagge, the heir apparent to Starr. He had just three touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his career after getting drafted 11th overall in 1972.”

Yes, Tagge was bad. But it’s patently false to paint the entire time between Starr and Favre with the broad brush of “bad quarterback play.” Just for two quick examples, both Lynn Dickey and Don Majkowski led the NFL in passing yards in the 1980s, and Dickey’s peak was at least as good as Steve Grogan’s, the Patriots’ best QB prior to Drew Bledsoe.

Moreover, Tagge’s flameout pales in comparison to that of Jim Plunkett’s. Though he won Rookie of the Year in 1971 after being taken first overall in the draft, he lasted just five seasons with the Patriots and never threw more touchdowns than interceptions in a season after his rookie year. He did go on to win two Super Bowls, but that was with the Raiders, long after the Patriots had given up on him.

ESPN also argues that New England’s quarterback continuity is better than Green Bay’s. If you’ve spent any time on particular corners of the football internet, you know the Packers are consistently criticized for winning “only” two Super Bowls since 1992 despite consistently having good to great quarterback play. If nearly three decades of that doesn’t label you as “consistent,” I don’t know what would. Just having Drew Bledsoe start a bunch of games in the ‘90s shouldn’t count, either. His most notable career accomplishments are losing a Super Bowl because he was too much of a statue to escape the Packers’ pass rush and almost dying so Tom Brady could start.

But at a much more basic level, it simply isn’t true that the Patriots have had more consistency at quarterback than the Packers. 25 different players have started at quarterback for the Packers in the Super Bowl era. The Patriots have started 26.

In summary, the article is bad and ESPN should feel bad.