Quantifying the Best Playoff Quarterbacks Since the Merger

by Justis Mosqueda

Playoff quarterbacks is a debate that never seems to lose its teeth. Until the end of time, we will be hearing that passers like Joe Montana and Tom Brady did more for their team than anyone in the sport, while quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers could never truly match their regular season success to postseason success.

Is this true, though?

There are many factors in football games. Manning and Rodgers had plenty of games where they would have done enough to win the average football game, but their defenses let them down. In an attempt to quantify exactly how valuable NFL passers have performed in the playoffs, I looked at the defense-adjusted yards per attempt value of quarterbacks since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A):  (Passing Yards + (Passing Touchdowns * 20) - (Interceptions * 45)) / (Pass Attempts)

Defense-Adjusted Yards per Attempt Value: (Quarterback's AY/A - Defense's AY/A in the Regular Season) * Pass Attempts

Defense-adjusted yards per attempt value will give us a clearer look at how valuable a quarterback's playoff performance was, relative to the opponent played (since teams like the 2018 Chicago Bears and the 2018 Kansas City Chiefs are clearly extremely different), independent from what a quarterback's running game, defense or special teams performed (which, shockingly, can influence winning football games.)

The output of defense-adjusted yards per attempt value gives us how many yards above the average NFL quarterback a passer played at over the course of his postseason career after looking at games on an individual level. For the sake of saving time, I only noted games where a quarterback threw more than one pass in a game (sorry, trick play throwers.)

Below are the results for the top 120 of 225 qualifying postseason passers since 1970:

Clearly, the narratives around Montana (who is a mile ahead of everyone) and Brady are correct. Interestingly, though, quarterbacks like Kurt Warner, Ken Stabler and Terry Bradshaw, who at times have been painted as quarterbacks who got into the Hall of Fame because of Super Bowl rings and the success of their teammates, are among the top-six most valuable postseason quarterbacks in NFL history.

Manning and Rodgers, quarterbacks who "didn't win enough considering their talent", are ranked seventh and eighth all-time, well ahead of the likes of Dan Marino (41st) who battled the same narrative a decade or two before them.

Among the 11 quarterbacks since the merger to win multiple Super Bowls, eight of them (Montana: 1st, Brady: 3rd, Bradshaw: 6th, Manning: 7th, John Elway: 9th, Roger Staubach: 11th, Troy Aikman: 12th and Ben Roethlisberger: 13th) were among the 13 most-valuable post-season quarterbacks in the last 49 years. On the outside looking in are quarterbacks like Warner, Stabler, Drew Brees (who is in this playoff), Rodgers and Brett Favre, who each only have one ring a piece in their NFL careers despite their playoff success.

The two-time Super Bowl winning quarterbacks who saw the least playoff success over the course of their NFL careers are Jim Plunkett (18th), Eli Manning (30th) and Bob Griese (48th.)

Also, yes, Walter Payton once did throw multiple passes in a playoff game.

Below are the 105 most-costly post-season passers since the merger:

As you can see, Andy Dalton, the current starting quarterback of the Bengals, is considered to be the most-costly passer in the last 49 years of NFL football when you take into account of his opponent's averages. Drew Bledsoe, New England's starting quarterback before Brady, is the second-most-costly passer in postseason history.

The only Hall of Fame quarterback in the negatives is Sonny Jurgensen, though the stats only measure the later portion of his career, which started in 1957.

2019 playoffs

While Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky and Lamar Jackson are making their playoff debuts as passers this post-season, we still have defense-adjusted yards per attempt value numbers on the following passers:

Tom Brady: +1,272 yards above the average quarterback (third all-time)

Drew Brees: +1184 (fifth)

Philip Rivers: +590 (14th)

Russell Wilson: +490 (21st)

Nick Foles: +326 (27th)

Dake Prescott: +19 (101st)

Jared Goff: -102 (179th)

Andrew Luck: -160 (199th)

Parting shot of note

Collectively, quarterbacks who have thrown two or more passes in postseason games since 1970 have been worth +17,436 yards above their opposing defense's averages. What that means is that passing efficiency actually looks more like the averages that quarterbacks are putting up in the regular season than pass defenses are putting up in the regular season. Shorthand: Offense wins championships.