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Marcus Mariota can make case for greatest QB of all time

1/5/2015



In a new AT&T commercial, Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker, sitting around watching the new College Football Playoff on ESPN, try to tease Joe Montana about his not winning the bronze statue. Montana seems duly impressed.

"What an accomplishment," he says. Only he raises his hand to his face, and it features four Super Bowl rings and a ring for the 1977 national title he won at Notre Dame.

#winning!

When it comes to team sports, particularly in this country, winning championships trumps eye-popping statistics and individual accomplishments. That's why no one ranks Dan Marino ahead of Montana on lists of all-time great quarterbacks, even though Marino was a better pure passer.

This is an important sports cultural note because we are on the cusp of potentially making a huge distinction. If Oregon beats Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T on Jan. 12, Marcus Mariota will have a strong case for the greatest quarterback in college football history. He'll have the Heisman, eye-popping numbers over three brilliant seasons and, most important, that championship. It would further boost his case that Oregon's first Heisman winner also led it to its first football national title, the Ducks then being the first first-time national title winner since Florida in 1996.

Ah, Florida. It can counter with two legitimate entrants to the discussion of best quarterback in college football history: Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow. Both put up huge numbers over multiple seasons and won Heismans. And both won national titles.

By those measures, you'd also have to include USC's Matt Leinart in the discussion. He won the 2004 Heisman and finished sixth in 2003 and third in 2005. While his overall numbers aren't as sparkly as Mariota's, Weurffel's or Tebow's, he went 37-2 as a starter and nearly won three consecutive national titles.

If winning is our primary measure, how can QBs like Tommie Frazier and Vince Young be overlooked? Frazier and Young each finished second in Heisman voting, but Frazier won consecutive national titles at Nebraska (1994 and 1995) without losing a game -- that 1995 team ranks among the best in the history of the sport -- while Young resurrected the Longhorns and won the 2005 national title.

Our old-timers are reminding us that college football is more than a few decades old. Any discussion of all-time greats needs to include TCU's Sammy Baugh, who was slinging the ball around well before passing was a significant part of the game, and the Horned Frogs claimed a national title in 1935 with Baugh behind center. The two-time All-American had 39 career TD passes and also ended up an NFL Hall of Famer.

So what is Mariota's case should he prevail against the Buckeyes? The CFP, in itself, would be a good Point A: His winning a national title will rate a bigger accomplishment than those of his predecessors because he will have to win consecutive games against highly ranked, top-four foes in order to earn that final No. 1 ranking. Those who won BCS or pre-BCS titles didn't have the added rigor of the CFP.

As for numbers, both this season and career, Mariota's case is strong. He leads the nation in Total QBR, ESPN.com's advanced metric for measuring a QB's efficiency and overall effectiveness, by a wide margin, and his 91.7 rating is third best since 2004. He finished ranked second in QBR the previous two seasons to Heisman winners Jameis Winston of Florida State and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Those QBR numbers rank 10th and 17th of all time, making him the only QB since 2004 to have three seasons ranked in the top 20.

The same lofty measures hold true with standard QB efficiency ratings. Mariota is No. 1 this season after ranking seventh in 2013 and 2012. Those ratings rank 6th, 55th and 97th all-time (since 1956). His career efficiency rating ranks second all-time behind Oklahoma's Sam Bradford.

Mariota has been responsible for more touchdowns (134) and racked up more yards of total offense (12,661) than any other player in Pac-12 history. He has thrown a touchdown pass in all 40 career starts, the second-longest streak in FBS history. He is on pace to set the FBS record for career interception percentage, as only 13 of his 1,130 career attempts have been picked off (1.15 percent).

With any subjective measure, as this undoubtedly is, you can highlight or downplay aspects to suit an argument. Leinart and Frazier led dynastic runs of sustained excellence but were hardly one-star constellations for college football superpowers. Young completed an outstanding 2005 season -- second to Reggie Bush in Heisman voting -- with a tour de force performance in a thrilling victory over Leinart, Bush and USC in the national title game. Tebow finished first, third and fifth in Heisman voting, was a significant part of a second national title team, had 145 career TDs and put up strong efficiency numbers.

A further complication in this debate is blocking out how these quarterbacks were evaluated by the NFL and then produced as professionals. The only aforementioned QB who succeeded in the NFL was Baugh. Wuerffel and Tebow were widely doubted by NFL scouts in advance of the draft. Injuries ended Frazier's career before he could play on Sundays. Leinart and Young were top-10 picks in 2006, but they both flopped in the NFL.

Mariota is expected to be a top-10 pick this spring and could go No. 1 overall. In terms of NFL prospects, he's decisively better than Wuerffel and Tebow, and it's already clear he has a superior arm compared to Leinart and is far more advanced mechanically than Young. In terms of pure QB ability and talent as it would translate to the NFL, Mariota is the best prospect of the bunch, even before you factor in his ability as a runner.

Of course, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer can do his old QB Tebow a favor in this debate. If the Buckeyes triumph over the Ducks, Mariota won't get to flash a championship ring, a prerequisite for inclusion in our "best ever" conversation.