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Why Bart Starr is a top-10 all-time quarterback in NFL history

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And the best Packer quarterback of all time.

Chiefs v Packers Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

I think there is a certain tendency among modern analysts to both minimize the accomplishments of the past and to underrate champions. The first is understandable. Football changes from era to era unlike almost any other sport, and the game as it was played in the 1960s bears only a passing resemblance to the game today.

The second is the result of a modern skepticism born of a mistrust of quarterbacks like Eli Manning and, going back a bit, Terry Bradshaw. That skepticism is warranted as many commentators still focus on “ringz,” but it’s worth keeping in mind the Montanas among the (Eli) Mannings. Bart Starr, first of among legendary Packers, is much closer to the former than he is given credit for.

Starr was the greatest leader a team could ask for: humble to a fault, happy to spread credit to his teammates, and not flashy. Flashy here will be represented by QBSLG, or more simply, Yards per Completion. Joe Namath existed for celebrity, and his game reflected it before his knees abandoned him. Most quarterbacks of this era did. Starr always seemed like someone’s dad, or failing that, their older brother, and his game reflected it as well. I’ve adapted QBOPS for modern QBs as well as for college QBs, and there is no reason it cannot also tell us the tale of the classic era. Here is what you need to know about Bart.

I limited the sample to quarterbacks who actually pass, including anyone from 1950 to 1975 who threw over 1750 passes. If you go down to 1500 it doesn’t impact much, and nothing at the top. What it shows you is that Starr does suffer for lack of flash, finishing 20th with a good, if not great QBSLG at .670. That’s fine, it’s not who Starr was. But if you enjoy watching Aaron Rodgers play now, with his incredible care for the ball, dotted by occasional huge strikes and unerring accuracy, you should have more respect for Starr than you probably do.

QBOPS+ 1950-1975

Bart Starr* 0.339 0.670 1.009 0.790
Otto Graham* 0.329 0.759 1.087 0.787
Don Meredith 0.299 0.720 1.019 0.779
Fran Tarkenton* 0.331 0.649 0.980 0.777
Johnny Unitas* 0.322 0.697 1.019 0.775
Earl Morrall 0.303 0.740 1.043 0.767
Sonny Jurgensen* 0.337 0.649 0.986 0.764
Frank Ryan 0.301 0.721 1.023 0.763
Daryle Lamonica 0.292 0.729 1.021 0.755
Bill Nelsen 0.298 0.721 1.019 0.754
Len Dawson* 0.337 0.659 0.996 0.751
Norm Van Brocklin* 0.316 0.741 1.058 0.748
Joe Namath* 0.297 0.739 1.036 0.745
Ed Brown 0.282 0.805 1.087 0.740
Craig Morton 0.307 0.698 1.005 0.738
Charley Johnson 0.302 0.689 0.991 0.724
Jim Hart 0.291 0.682 0.973 0.723
Tom Flores 0.288 0.699 0.988 0.720
Billy Wade 0.320 0.663 0.983 0.718
John Hadl 0.297 0.701 0.998 0.716
Milt Plum 0.319 0.658 0.976 0.714
Bob Griese* 0.321 0.654 0.975 0.712
Billy Kilmer 0.316 0.642 0.957 0.708
Jack Kemp 0.276 0.724 1.000 0.702
John Brodie 0.324 0.626 0.950 0.701
Bobby Layne* 0.289 0.738 1.027 0.694
Y.A. Tittle* 0.327 0.656 0.983 0.694
Norm Snead 0.308 0.664 0.973 0.679
Charlie Conerly 0.292 0.674 0.966 0.665
Eddie LeBaron 0.295 0.731 1.026 0.634

In this sample, Starr was first in QBOPB with .339, just edging Sonny Jurgensen, Len Dawson, and Fran Tarkenton. Importantly, his QBSLG is higher than everyone just mentioned, and it is not until you get to Otto Graham that someone surpasses him. The problem with Otto was the picks. The problem with a lot of these guys was the picks. Interceptions were not as big a deal 60 years ago, but they had the same negative impact they do today, and here we punish Starr for being conservative instead of praising him for being a forward-thinking genius. By raw QBOPS Starr is 13th, just barely trailing Unitas, however when we adjust for interceptions in QBOPS+, he soars to first.

The fact is that Starr was one of the most accurate passers of his day, and smart enough not to take the risks of his contemporaries. If his Yards per Completion were more along the lines of modern game managers, some criticism might be warranted, but the fact is that Starr barely sacrificed anything in this category while completing passes at an unprecedented rate, and providing the Packers with extra possessions in an era that did not appreciate them properly. Combine all of this with his incredible post-season success, and the fact that they ran a fundamentally pass-based offense for the time, and it’s ridiculous that he is often left out of the discussions of all-time greats.

Brett Favre was great, but he was a bit of an accumulator and he had his problem with picks. Favre only appears at the top of lists that require longevity. Rodgers’ story isn’t finished, but his second act finds him sacrificing too much explosiveness for his fear of turnovers.

Only Starr managed the balance of winning all of his titles, doing so with uncanny accuracy, hitting his big plays to legends and drunks alike, and maintaining passing records to this day. Starr appears among the greatest counting-stat quarterbacks and among the greatest rate stat quarterbacks, and he should appear on any honest list of top ten quarterbacks ever. If your list includes Otto Graham or Johnny Unitas, Starr was better. Y.A. Tittle, Joe Namath, or Fran Tarkenton? Starr was better.

Compared to his contemporaries, no Packer quarterbacks are his equal, and only the truly elites of their era compare.