When you think of Hall of Fame quarterbacks and their legacies in the National Football League, you remember their most exciting and amazing plays. You remember Joe Montana slinging the football past a closing cornerback to a streaking Jerry Rice for a touchdown. You recall Terry Bradshaw tossing a quick slant to Lynn Swan who eludes four defenders and scores in the closing seconds of a playoff game. Maybe you are reminded of Peyton Manning throwing a deep out to a leaning, stretching Marvin Harrison in the corner of the end zone in the conference championships. All these quarterbacks had strong arms. All these quarterbacks won National Football League championships. Manning and Montana possessed the accuracy of highly trained neurosurgeons, but they all had one more thing in common, a Hall of Fame wide receiver. The greatness of a quarterback is inextricably intertwined with the physical ability of his favorite target. Throughout league history and even currently in the NFL, the most talented quarterbacks usually have a athletically, gifted athlete receiving his passes.
Quarterbacks are the leaders of their teams. When the team flourishes, they get acclaim because they are the most visible players on any given franchise and they decide the plays for their offenses. They are expected to guide other players to their spots and read defenses for weaknesses in formations. Though quarterbacks are one of the most important pieces when starting any NFL franchise, their ability to execute the offense is contingent on having adequate talent around them. Many NFL quarterbacks careers peaked with the addition of talented wide receivers or bottomed out without them. Eli Manning seemed to be on course to a more decorated career than his Hall of Fame brother, Peyton Manning, with Plaxico Burress, his favorite wide receiver. At 6’6” Burress was one of the tallest wide receivers in the league and one of the fastest with 4.3, 4.4 speed. They beat the unstoppable New England Patriots and their high-powered offense in the championship game in 2008. On the last offensive play of Super Bowl XLIV for the New York Giants, Plaxico out-jumped the cornerback that was guarding him as the defender turned to intercept the football, snatched the ball out of his hands, and out-ran the safety to the end zone for the go ahead score. The Giants won a championship that year, because the had an exceptional talent at wide receiver. Conversely, since the Burress’s departure from New York, the Giants have underachieved and missed the playoffs altogether for several years, despite having two serviceable wide receivers. Donovan McNabb, a future Hall of Fame quarterback, made his only appearance in a Super Bowl when future Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens played with him in Philadelphia. The only 18-0 regular season in the NFL happened when future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady had future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss catching the ball. QB Tony Romo was thought to be the savior of the Dallas Cowboys franchise. With Terrell Owens as his first option, he commanded the offense down the field at will. Without him, the Dallas offense has been mercurial, despite the emergence of Miles Austin as a top receiver and the revival of Roy Williams career. Neither Austin or Williams are marginally as athletic as Owens, therefore the Dallas offense has stalled. These are only a few examples of the impact of position players. Quarterbacks need great wide outs to reach their full potential.
Dan Marino, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre stand alone as the only outliers to this rule. Marino never had a great player to pass the football to, and finished his career as the leader in every tangible passing statistic. Brees produced better overall statistics without his best receiver, Marques Colston in 2008. And except for the 2009-2010 season, which was arguably his best statistical year and the year that he had a sure-handed, athletic Sidney Rice catching the ball, Favre has put up relatively similar numbers every year of his career. He also finished his Hall of Fame career, this year, as the statistical leader in almost every passing category. By reviewing the statistics of other NFL quarterbacks’, one realizes the importance of having a star #1 receiver on the field. The years of serious injury, or in Vick’s case, absence from the league, are omitted to express a realistic view of the quarterback’s normal output. From 1981-1990, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49′ers averaged 11.2 wins, 22.6 touchdowns, and had a completion percentage of 63.6 with Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice. When he was traded to Kansas City from 1992-1994, he averaged 8.5 wins, 14.5 touchdowns, and only completed 60.7% of his passes. His best receiver there was Buster Davis. From 1999-2002, Peyton Manning averaged 10.9 wins, 33.0 touchdowns, and completed 65.0% of his passes with future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison. From 2002-2006, Manning threw the ball interchangeably to either Harrison or his younger, more athletic understudy Reggie Wayne. In these years, Manning averaged 12.0 wins and 36.0 touchdowns, with a completion percentage of 67.3. And from 2006-2010, he averaged 13.0 wins, 30.3 touchdowns, only completing 67.1% of his throws. The increase in wins was due to poorer divisional competition, because his other stats declined, specifically touchdowns. Players like Michael Vick and Tom Brady know firsthand the rewards of having better talent around them. Vick was considered more of a physical talent and an athlete, than a quarterback in Atlanta. His statistics do not prove otherwise. He broke an NFL record for QB rushing and was the only quarterback to ever rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. From 2002-2006, he averaged 7.4 wins, 13.8 touchdowns, and 54.4 completion percentage (his team lead the NFL in dropped passes in those years). In one year with the Philadelphia Eagles, Vick won 10 games, threw 21 scores, and completed 62.6% of his pass attempts. Tom Brady, widely regarded as one of the most accurate passers in the league, never won a NFL MVP until he played with future Hall of Fame wideout Randy Moss. In 2007, Brady broke two NFL records by connecting on scores with Moss 23 times in that season, more than any other QB-WR tandem in NFL history, and by throwing 50 touchdowns altogether. They won every regular season game; five more wins than his average. And he nearly doubled his touchdown average that year while averaging over 5 percentage points higher in passing completion, from 63.6% to 68.9%.
The talented wide receiver is integral to any quarterback’s success. They turn average quarterbacks into good quarterbacks, and change good quarterbacks into great ones. QBs are important to the overall achievement of their club. They make calls at the line and change given plays into audibles. The hand off the football to running backs or sometimes drop back to pass. And when they do pass the football, as it turns out, they are only as good as who they are throwing to.