Is Terry Bradshaw Overrated?

Terry Bradshaw was once a struggling quarterback, then a Hall of Famer. But is he overrated?

I was talking recently with a friend of mine (just for sake of argument, let’s call him, oh, Dan Loney) about quarterbacks. We seem to be hearing a lot about quarterbacks lately, especially this week, what with Tom Brady of the Patriots poised to become one of the all-time greats (unless you believe total idiots like Bill Plaschke).

Somehow we got around to the guy you see above, Terry Bradshaw. Now, I wasn’t a huge Steelers fan, but they were the dominant team when I started following pro football in the mid-to-late 1970s (and I do have a Steelers #12 throwback jersey), and I respect that.

Dan and a lot of other folks don’t seem to respect ol’ TB, though. His name comes up a lot when you discuss the greatest quarterbacks and it seems like his name gets dismissed a lot (hey, how many Super Bowls does a guy have to win around here, anyway?) pretty quickly. This, despite the fact he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, something only 13 other quarterbacks can say.

My argument was two-fold: one, that it’s hard to judge quarterbacks of yesterday by the standards of today (“Dan” agreed with me on this much); and two, that Bradshaw was, for his era, one of the top guys. I don’t know how much more you can ask of guy than that he be one of the best of his era – let other people figure out how to do the Official Trans-Era Comparison Transmogrification Matrix.

All I know is, Bradshaw was good. Damn good.

In fact, once he got this pro football thing figured out (it did take him about five years – remember when that used to be the truism? That it took five years to become a good NFL quarterback? You’re lucky if you get five games now.) he was terrific. His legend was basically formed in the years 1975-1979, but from 1976-1982, he ranked at or near the top in most passing categories in the NFL:

1Dan Fouts2,907
2Jim Zorn2,759
3Brian Sipe2,747
4Joe Ferguson2,597
5Ken Stabler2,420
6Ken Anderson2,382
7Terry Bradshaw2,380
8Joe Theismann2,332
9Ron Jaworski2,316
10Jim Hart2,297
1Dan Fouts1,745
2Brian Sipe1,549
3Jim Zorn1,483
4Ken Stabler1,479
5Ken Anderson1,391
6Joe Ferguson1,355
7Joe Theismann1,299
8Terry Bradshaw1,266
9Ron Jaworski1,236
10Steve Bartkowski1,232
(1,500 attempts)
1Ken Stabler61.1%
2Dan Fouts60.0%
3Archie Manning59.2%
4Ken Anderson58.4%
5Roger Staubach57.1%
6Bert Jones56.9%
7Brian Sipe56.4%
 Craig Morton56.4%
9Joe Theismann55.7%
10Tommy Kramer55.6%
11Lynn Dickey54.8%
12Steve Bartkowski54.4%
13Jim Zorn53.8%
14Ron Jaworski53.4%
 Richard Todd53.4%
16Terry Bradshaw53.2%
1Dan Fouts22,885
2Brian Sipe19,117
3Jim Zorn18,876
4Terry Bradshaw18,333
5Ken Stabler18,005
6Joe Ferguson17,651
7Ken Anderson17,098
8Joe Theismann16,086
9Ron Jaworski16,039
10Steve Bartkowski15,745
(1,500 attempts)
1Dan Fouts7.87
2Terry Bradshaw7.70
3Steve Grogan7.58
4Roger Staubach7.55
5Ken Stabler7.44
6Bert Jones7.41
7Craig Morton7.33
8Ken Anderson7.18
9Archie Manning7.07
10Lynn Dickey7.05
(800 completions)
1Steve Grogan14.70
2Terry Bradshaw14.48
3Danny White13.23
4Roger Staubach13.22
5Richard Todd13.12
6Dan Fouts13.11
7Joe Ferguson13.03
8Bert Jones13.02
9Craig Morton12.98
1Dan Fouts146
2Terry Bradshaw144
3Brian Sipe126
4Ken Stabler122
5Ron Jaworski114
6Steve Grogan110
7Steve Bartkowski103
 Ken Anderson103
9Joe Ferguson102
10Jim Zorn100
(1,500 attempts)
1Terry Bradshaw6.1%
2Steve Grogan5.4%
3Bert Jones5.2%
 Roger Staubach5.2%
5Dan Fouts5.0%
 Ken Stabler5.0%
7Ron Jaworski4.9%
8Brian Sipe4.6%
 Steve Bartkowski4.6%
10Richard Todd4.4%
1Ken Stabler145
2Steve Grogan126
3Jim Zorn124
4Terry Bradshaw120
5Dan Fouts117
6Brian Sipe116
7Richard Todd112
8Steve Bartkowski110
9Joe Ferguson109
10Jim Hart105
(1,500 attempts)
1Steve Grogan6.2%
2Ken Stabler6.0%
3Richard Todd5.3%
 Lynn Dickey5.3%
5Terry Bradshaw5.0%
6Steve Bartkowski4.9%
7Jim Hart4.6%
8Jim Zorn4.5%
 Craig Morton4.5%
10Tommy Kramer4.3%
(1,500 attempts)
1Roger Staubach1.79
2Bert Jones1.36
3Dan Fouts1.25
4Ron Jaworski1.23
5Terry Bradshaw1.20
6Ken Anderson1.16
7Brian Sipe1.09
8Joe Theismann1.02
9Tommy Kramer1.00
(1,500 attempts)
1Roger Staubach86.4
2Dan Fouts84.9
3Bert Jones81.8
4Ken Anderson79.5
5Terry Bradshaw77.7
6Ken Stabler75.9
7Brian Sipe75.8
8Archie Manning75.6
9Craig Morton75.5
10Ron Jaworski75.1
TEAM WINS 1976-1982
 San Francisco1

Do you see enough to figure out what the guy’s game was? It wasn’t efficiency, not by a longshot. The West Coast Offense? Get out of here with that. Despite ranking only seventh in attempts, eighth in completions and 16th in completion percentage, Bradshaw was fourth in yards, second in average gain, second in yards per completion, second in touchdown passes and first in touchdown percentage.

Yeah, he threw a lot of picks, too. A lot. Fourth-most in that period. Fifth-worst percentage of them.

But that was his game. That was his team. With the Steel Curtain defense, he could afford to throw an extra interception here or there. Chances were Joe Greene and company would get him the ball right back.

This was professional football in the mid-to-late 1970s, before Bill Walsh had success with the controlled passing game and everybody started to imitate it. Could Bradshaw have adapted his game to the coming era? I don’t know. We’ll never know. It took him five years to figure out what Chuck Noll wanted him to do (losing his job to Joe Gilliam, of all people in the process) and Noll’s offenses looked like fourth-grade math compared to the calculus Walsh was teaching. Hollywood Henderson said Bradshaw was so dumb he couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the c and the a (this was right before Bradshaw threw for 318 yards and four scores on that fancy book learnin’ Doomsday Defense), so maybe the West Coast thing wouldn’t have been his bag, baby.

But it didn’t have to be. For his time and for what pro football was at that time, the man could flat-out throw the ball. They won (yes, I know he had a lot of help – can you name me a winning quarterback who didn’t?) as much as almost anybody and won more championships than anybody of the time. Bradshaw wasn’t the only reason, but he wasn’t just some hick bystander, either.

Narrowing the focus to just 1976-1982 removes (conveniently, some might say) the first six years of Bradshaw’s career, during which he was….well, he sucked, quite frankly.

But not everyone sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus like Dan Marino did. Dan Fouts was brutal for his first three years. Steve Young‘s first two years in Tampa Bay were terrible. Bart Starr‘s first four years in Green Bay were no great shakes. Bob Griese‘s first four years were nothing to write home about.

From the time he became an outstanding quarterback, Terry Bradshaw was one of the best in the league, and he did it for eight years, so this isn’t Bill Kenney we’re talking about, where a guy threw for 4,000 yards once but other than that wasn’t very good. This is a guy who was a league MVP, three-time Pro Bowler, four-time Super Bowl champion, two-time Super Bowl MVP, and who clearly out-performed the vast majority of his contemporaries.

And if you’re demonstrably at least as good or better than almost all of your contemporaries, how can you be overrated? What does that even mean?

Is Bradshaw “overrated” because he didn’t throw for 4,000 yards a season? Nobody did that in the 70’s. Is he overrated because he didn’t throw for 30 touchdowns a season? That didn’t happen in the 70’s. Is he overrated because he completed 53 percent of his passes? He was right around the league average for the time period.

You can’t judge quarterbacks of the 70’s by the standards of 2008. The guy played at a very, very high level for eight years, won four Super Bowls, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I don’t know how you can overrate that.

Well, you can, I guess, and many say he has been overrated. I just don’t see it.

Here are the NFL passing leaders in various categories for the decade of the 1970s (including Bradshaw’s first six years doesn’t affect things much – he was the same kind of quarterback and still ranked highly in most categories):

1Ken Stabler130
2Terry Bradshaw129
3Craig Morton128
 Jim Hart128
5Roger Staubach125
6Bob Griese122
7Fran Tarkenton120
8Ken Anderson119
9John Hadl112
10Archie Manning105
1Fran Tarkenton3,445
2Jim Hart3,386
3Roger Staubach2,911
4Terry Bradshaw2,859
5Ken Anderson2,785
6Archie Manning2,587
7Craig Morton2,498
8Ken Stabler2,481
9Bob Griese2,391
10Roman Gabriel2,267
1Fran Tarkenton2,056
2Jim Hart1,739
3Roger Staubach1,662
4Ken Anderson1,570
5Ken Stabler1,486
6Terry Bradshaw1,474
7Archie Manning1,405
8Bob Griese1,392
9Craig Morton1,322
10Roman Gabriel1,217
1Ken Stabler59.9
2Fran Tarkenton59.7
3Bob Griese58.2
4Len Dawson58.0
5Roger Staubach57.1
6Dan Fouts56.9
7Ken Anderson56.4
8John Brodie56.0
9Bert Jones55.9
10Brian Sipe55.1
11Archie Manning54.3
12Roman Gabriel53.7
13Craig Morton52.9
14Joe Theismann51.8
15John Hadl51.7
16Terry Bradshaw51.6
1Fran Tarkenton23,863
2Jim Hart23,026
3Roger Staubach22,279
4Ken Anderson20,030
5Terry Bradshaw19,918
6Ken Stabler19,078
7Bob Griese18,129
8Craig Morton17,623
9Archie Manning16,568
10Dan Fouts14,739
1Ken Stabler7.69
2Roger Staubach7.65
3Bob Griese7.58
4Dan Fouts7.35
5Steve Grogan7.29
6Ken Anderson7.19
7Bert Jones7.18
8Len Dawson7.15
9John Brodie7.12
10Joe Namath7.08
11Craig Morton7.05
12Terry Bradshaw6.97
1Fran Tarkenton156
2Roger Staubach152
3Ken Stabler150
4Terry Bradshaw147
5Bob Griese140
6Jim Hart137
7Ken Anderson125
8Craig Morton110
9John Hadl101
10Joe Ferguson92
1Ken Stabler6.1
2Bob Griese5.9
4Roger Staubach5.2
5Terry Bradshaw5.1
6John Brodie5.1
7Bert Jones4.9
8Brian Sipe4.7
9John Hadl4.6
10Fran Tarkenton4.5
1Terry Bradshaw163
2Jim Hart145
3Ken Stabler143
4Fran Tarkenton132
5John Hadl123
 Archie Manning123
7Craig Morton121
8Bob Griese118
 Jim Plunkett118
10Joe Namath116
1Roman Gabriel3.26
2Bert Jones3.52
3Ken Anderson3.63
4Roger Staubach3.68
5Fran Tarkenton3.83
6Jim Hart4.28
7Joe Ferguson4.45
8Len Dawson4.54
9Joe Theismann4.56
10Ron Jaworski4.59
11Archie Manning4.75
12Brian Sipe4.83
13Craig Morton4.84
14Bob Griese4.94
15Dan Fouts5.04
16John Brodie5.05
17John Hadl5.66
18Terry Bradshaw5.70
19Ken Stabler5.76
1Steve Grogan14.62
2Joe Namath14.16
3Joe Ferguson13.61
4Terry Bradshaw13.51
5Jim Plunkett13.44
6Roger Staubach13.40
7Craig Morton13.33
8Jim Hart13.24
9Ron Jaworski13.08
10Bob Griese13.02
1Fran Tarkenton198.9
2Dan Fouts184.2
3Jim Hart179.9
4Roger Staubach178.2
5Joe Namath171.5
6Ken Anderson168.3
7Bert Jones168.2
8Steve Grogan166.5
9John Brodie158.6
10Archie Manning157.8
11Steve Bartkowski156.3
12Terry Bradshaw154.4
1Roger Staubach83.6
2Bob Griese81.1
3Bert Jones80.3
4Ken Stabler80.2
5Fran Tarkenton79.8
6Ken Anderson78.9
7Len Dawson75.0
8John Brodie74.2
9Dan Fouts72.8
10Roman Gabriel72.5
11Brian Sipe71.8
12Craig Morton70.1
13Joe Ferguson68.9
 Jim Hart68.9
15Joe Theismann68.4
16Terry Bradshaw67.5
5Los Angeles98

By the way, because I figure you’re going to ask: Unitas and Montana and anybody you want after that. But this kid Brady is forcing his way into the conversation, no matter what that idiot Plaschke says.

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch

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