Well, a lot of sports fans were at best indifferent in terms of their personal opinion when they saw my original article: My Top Five Quarterbacks Of All Time. Some believed that Terry Bradshaw shouldn’t be on it, others believed that he should be higher. Some had mixed feelings about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But the one by far that frustrated people the most was how I put John Elway before Joe Montana in the rankings. Here’s a look at what they have said:
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Montana was undoubtedly one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but not in front of John Elway. Here are the points that other fans have when they disagreed with this:
“Joe Montana won four super bowls and John Elway only won two, therefore Montana is better than Elway…”
“John was not as good long-term as Joe throughout his whole career. How do you still think that Elway is better than Montana?”
“Joe Montana is undefeated (4-0) in Super Bowls and John Elway is only 2-3 in super bowls, showing that Elway isn’t as clutch as Montana…”
“The only reason why John Elway made it to those first three Super Bowls was because the AFC was terrible, so he did not carry the team on his back…”
I am going to tell you why all of these points are inconsequential my research and belief in the big picture that Seven was better than Sixteen. Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge all of these as relevant points, they are just being referenced in a smaller context…
1986-1987: Super Bowl XXI Giants vs. Broncos.
John Elway was the only Hall-of-fame caliber player on the Broncos roster during the ’86-’87 NFL season. The New York Giants had Hall-of-famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson. I would also argue that despite not being in Canton, Phil Simms is a hall-of-fame caliber quarterback. Even without Phil, that is an obvious rough matchup. Everyone knows that two is greater than one, and two linebackers without an offensive line is an unfair matchup. Not even the best quarterback could beat a Lawrence Taylor in his prime with another Hall-of-fame linebacker without at least some protection. Dave Studdard, Keith Bishop, Bill Bryan, Mark Cooper, and Ken Lanier were still better than some recent Broncos offensive line lineups, but I don’t know if I would say that they could stop LT or HC. In the game, Elway was 22-37 with 304 passing yards and one touchdown, one interception, and one fumble (Pro Football Reference). Fumbles from quarterbacks tend to result from being smothered without protection (Unless you’re Mark Sanchez, then there is a little too much protection). I will admit, the interception was on him, but just the fact that he averaged 13.8 yards per pass is pretty impressive, especially to average that 22 times! The Broncos ended up losing 39-20 in the game and I would say that they were carried on the back of John Elway, despite their losses.
1987-1988: Super Bowl XXII Redskins vs. Broncos
This Super Bowl was a little different than the other one for John. His numbers were 14-38 for 257 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.That alone looks like a horrific game for him, but upon further examination you might understand that it was out of his control. In that game, Elway was sacked five times! In addition to that detail, he also ran three different times for 32 yards! Usually quarterbacks won’t run unless the play call is a quarterback sneak and even then the yardage will be very low. What his rushing stats tell me is that he was forced out of the pocket multiple times. He was absolutely smothered out there. Once again, Elway was the only Bronco on the team that has been inducted to the Hall of Fame, whereas cornerback Darrell Green and wide receiver Art Monk have been inducted. Elway didn’t have enough time in the pocket to work his magic because the line was not super great and it sure showed throughout this game with the score in their loss of 10-42.
1989-1990: Super Bowl XXIV 49ers vs. Broncos
This was a perfect example of how a really good player cannot overtake multiple good players on the other side if they don’t have any teammates that can help compensate for all of their effort. This was completely lopsided. Once again, the only Hall-of-Famer on the Broncos was John Elway. The list of the 49ers players that participated in this Super Bowl are as follows: quarterback Joe Montana, safety Ronnie Lott, quarterback Steve Young, defensive end Charles Haley, and wide receiver Jerry Rice. The combination of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and running back Roger Craig (not listed above, but still really good) was pretty hard to stop. The easy part for Joe was he had a Hall-of-Fame quarterback as his backup as well, so he could take periodic breaks to refresh his body, whereas John Elway had to stay in or else Gary Kubiak would come in as his backup (all due respect to Mr. Kubiak, he is one of the all-time great NFL coaches, but he was decent at best at the quarterback position). The defense with Charles Haley and Ronnie Lott was probably the hardest aspect for Elway though. In the game, John was 10-26 with 108 yards and two interceptions. Can you guess why this game was so bad as well? He was sacked four times in a game. One thing that not every football fan knows is that one sack is usually not a big issue for a quarterback. It becomes an issue when they see on getting demolished worse and worse each time and they begin to add up. Joe Montana’s stats seemed much better without proper context. He was 22-29 with 297 yards and 5 touchdowns. Do you know how many times he was sacked? Once.
To prove a point, these years for the Broncos were carried on the back of Elway. In 1986-1987, the Broncos had a tied regular-season record with the Patriots (11-5), and the Browns were 12-4. The AFC teams this year weren’t terrible that year. This was probably most apparent when the Broncos and Browns were clashing against each other in the AFC Championship where the Broncos were down 13-20 and John Elway had 5:32 left in the fourth. He took the ball the full 98 yards and scored in just over 5 minutes. The Broncos would end up winning that game but it wouldn’t be without Elway’s clutch-ness. In fact, the Pro Football Hall of Fame website said that Elway “quickly developed an unique ability to rally his team to last-minute victories. He even surpassed the record of Roger Staubach, who rallied his Dallas Cowboys to fourth-quarter victories 23 times.”
John Elway was one of a kind where he would carry his team in complete clutch moments. Elway did not have a lot of experience either — this was only his fourth NFL season.
In 1987-1988, the Broncos were the best in terms of record, but not by much. The Broncos finished their season with a 10-4-1 record, while other teams like the Browns ended 10-5 and the Colts 9-6. This season was less competitive than the previous season in my opinion, but not drastically.
In the 1989-1990 regular season, the Broncos finished 11-5. The other top two teams in the league were the Browns (9-6-1) and the Bills (9-7) –which let’s not forget had one of the greatest quarterbacks of the time and future member of the hall of fame, Jim Kelly.
1997-1998 Super Bowl XXXII and 1998-1999 Super Bowl XXXIII:
In Super Bowl 32, John Elway was 12-22 for 123 yards with only one interception. I think that he did better because he was sacked zero times! In Super Bowl 33, he wasn’t sacked again — which helped him go 18-29 for 336 yards and one touchdown and one interception (Football Database). Not bad right? Granted, it did help him that Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, and Rod Smith all joined the team and the offensive line got seriously upgraded.
When people tell me that Montana was better than Elway long-term, I absolutely disagree. Another big reason for my opinion is the fact that John stayed with the Broncos for his whole career, whereas Joe Montana left the 49ers for the Chiefs during the ’93 and ’94 season. If Joe Montana truly was the best quarterback ever at the time, wouldn’t the 49ers want to keep him longer and pay him a bigger contract?
So in the end, all of us sports fans are going to think differently about who we consider to be the greatest quarterbacks of all time. But if I were to have to choose between having John Elway or Joe Montana on my squad to win the game, I would choose John.