The recent retirement of Dan Marino means two things: 1) we can at long last close the book on the legendary quarterback class of 1983 and, 2) we can now rightfully begin the debates over who is the greatest quarterback of all time.
First, to the former. Let's grind some numbers.
In short, the quarterback class of 1983 has lived up to it's promise as the best quarterback draft of all time. Last year's class of Couch, McNabb, Smith, McNoun, and Culpepper have similar promise, but the standards established by their predecessors are going to be awfully hard to live up to.
Now, who was the best of the lot? A fascinating question to be sure, and one which will keep many a bar hopping with lively debate for decades to come. One point that will go unchallanged is that the six QB's could easily be separated into two groups: The Three Hall-of-Famers and The Three Trivia Question Answers.
Example Question: Name the two QB's drafted ahead of Dan Marino in 1983 who DIDN'T make it to a Superbowl. Answer: Ken O'Brien and Todd Blackledge.
Ken O'Brien had a decent career with a sorry Jets franchise and it would be interesting to see what he might have done with a better team like, say, the Patriots, who took Tony Eason to an ill-deserved Superbowl appearance in 1985. Ah, well. He'll just have to console himself with the knowledge that he is the best of the worst three quarterbacks from his class, followed by Eason and the dreadful Todd Blackledge.
But back to the high-rent district, this is where the debates get fun. Kelly led his team to an unprecedented four CONSECUTIVE Superbowls, but never won one. Marino only made it to one, and lost it, but does have the gaudiest passing numbers of the group. Elway made it to five and actually won two, but both were at the end of his career and should probably be credited as much to Terrell Davis' legs as to Elway's arm.
So who is it? You come to me with the question, and I shall give you the answer.
First, we eliminate Kelly. Sorry Bills fans, but of the three your boy had far and away the most talent around him and it showed. It says right here in black and white that if O'Brien had wound up just a little further north HE would've been flashing Superbowl runner up rings to impress the chicks and Kelly would be sharing the paragraph above with Eason and Blackledge. And don't cry to me about, "If Norwood hadn't missed that chipshot, Kelly would've had his ring." As memory serves, if Kelly hadn't been handing out INT's in Superbowl XXVIII like they were campaign buttons, he'd have his ring AND a guaranteed trip to Canton.
That leaves Elway and Marino and endless debate which I will boil down two one simple sentence: If Terrell Davis doesn't come along, we would not even be discussing this.
Look at the numbers:
Most career passing yards (61,361).
But the critical point to remember, the one that establishes Marino above not just Elway on the all-time QB list, but above names like Bradshaw, Staubach, Baugh, Tittle, Tarkenton, et al, is this one: He accomplished all of the above-mentioned records with absolutely no running game, and without a superstar-caliber receiver.
Bradshaw had Swann and Stallworth to throw to and a running game powered by Franco Harris and Rocky Blier.
Montana and Young each had Rice and Taylor to throw to with Roger Craig and Rickey Watters running the ball.
Staubach had Drew Preston and Tony Dorsett.
Tarkenton had Ahmad Rashaad and...well...I guess that's why he couldn't win the big one either.
The best Marino ever had to throw to was Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, and as nice as that pair was, there is little chance of seeing either one of them in Canton any time soon.
Sure, a Superbowl win would have been nice. But the bottom line is this: no quarterback in history has ever done so much for so long with so little talent around him as Dan Marino.