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:
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):
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.