Elway v. Montana - The Definitive Answer

Who was better? The Denver Broncos' John Elway or the San Franciso 49ers' Joe Montana. Broncos Update Columnist Jason Looney settles the argument once and for all.

On the list of the 100 greatest football players our world has ever known (maintained by a prestigious sports publication), Joe Montana is ranked 3rd. John Elway, meanwhile, is 16th.

On the list of the 100 greatest athletes of the last century (maintained by the world's largest sports television network), Joe Montana is ranked 25th. John Elway, meanwhile… isn't listed??

Wait a second. This can't be right, can it? You mean to tell me Elway's not even on the list??

John Elway is not on the list. He's not listed. At all. Dan "World Champion" Marino made the list, but Elway didn't. Greg Louganis has a spot, but Elway doesn't. Two different jockeys made the list. As did three horses. Yes, horses.

Just to be clear: This list had room for non-human entities that we gamble on, but not for John Elway.

This leaves us with two options. On the one hand, we could leave town right now and strangle, to death, everyone who has ever worked for the company that made this list. Or, we could stay in our seats and perform our own analysis of the situation.

While we shouldn't be too hasty in ruling out the first option, I suppose we should spend a bit of time on the second. (At least for now...)

Comparing athletes is a dodgy undertaking because, really, how do we do it? In my opinion, the fairest way is to ask, "If we could step outside of time to assemble a Field of Dreams intramural squad, who should we pick?" This makes more sense to me than asking, "Who had a better career statistically?" which seems to be the only concern of these brainless and spineless (and soon to be oxygen-less) list makers.

So let's resolve this Elway v. Montana debate, once and for all. This type of discussion can, at times, resemble a religious war, so let's break it up as best we can into reasonable and objective categories. And let's keep score in units of seven and three, naturally, since God prefers these numbers.

Here we go:

Disclaimer: I was born in Colorado, I live in Colorado, and I've been known to drink ketchup on gameday so that even my urine is Denver Broncos Orange. While I doubt this will affect my judgment in this matter, we should probably spot Montana a couple of scores right off the bat. You know, in the name of fairness.

Score: Montana 10, Elway 0

Joe Montana had a brilliant career. He led his team to four Super Bowl victories, including the trouncing of Elway's Broncos in 1990. He was named the MVP in all but one of those games, and in that contest he led a 92–yard drive late in the fourth quarter to win the championship. He retired with a quarterback rating of 92.3 and, while he threw his fair share of interceptions in the playoffs, Joe Montana threw exactly zero interceptions in four Super Bowls.

Elway's numbers are impressive, but less so. He was the only quarterback to start five Super Bowls, including two victories and one MVP award, but he lost the other three contests badly and, as such, is on the wrong end of many Super Bowl records. His career quarterback rating was an unimpressive 79.9, although he did end up being more durable than Joe. He retired with more completions, yards, touchdowns, and wins, despite the fact that he did more scrambling and took more punishment. In fact, he is ranked either first, second, or third in all major passing categories, while Montana is eighth and ninth.

But Montana's efficiency — especially in big games — was incredible. Enough so that I think he deserves another touchdown.

Score: Montana 17, Elway 0

This is where the analysis gets more… nuanced. While statistics are indeed important, professional football is a game with 22 players on the field and several dozen other players (and countless coaches) on the sidelines. When trying to decide which quarterback to pick for our intramural team in the sky, we need to look behind the numbers. We need to ask things like, "What if this guy had played for another team?" And, "How did his coaches do with other players in his position?" And, "Hasn't history shown that Dan Reeves knew more about licking footballs than coaching football?"

Which brings me to: Bill Walsh vs. Dan Reeves. Walsh was the father of the modern offense; Reeves was hawking blood pressure medication while still "coaching" an NFL team. Bill Walsh is revered to this day; Reeves is but a bad taste in the mouths of numerous teams. Admittedly, Walsh probably gets more credit than he deserves for the so-called west coast offense, but it's hard to deny that his offensive schemes were vastly superior to Reeves' who, inexplicably, never structured his offense around Elway. Instead he would run his famous "four yards and a cloud of dust" offense for 58 minutes, then turn it over to John for the last two.

How bad can a coach be for a player? With Reeves at the helm, John Elway's quarterback rating averaged 72.9. Post-Reeves, it averaged 89.1 — a sixteen point swing. The improvement came practically overnight. The first year after Reeves, Elway threw for over 4000 yards (something Montana never did), 25 touchdowns, and a rating of 92.8.

The recent tailspin of Denver's current coach, Mike Shanahan, is also telling. During the 1996–1998 seasons Shanahan was considered a mastermind who always kept one step ahead of the competition. Since Elway left, however, he's had Brian Griese posting a 100+ QB rating, scrubs and rookies putting up 1500-yard rushing seasons, defensive units ranked second/third in the league, Clinton Portis looking like the love child of Barry Sanders and Walter Payton, and… zero playoff victories.

So, Elway made it to three Super Bowls with horrible coaching and won two Super Bowls with decent coaching. Montana had the advantage of spending the majority of his career within a brilliant offensive scheme.

Touchdown, John.

Score: Montana 17, Elway 7

Supporting Cast
On the first list I mentioned above, Jerry Rice is ranked as the 2nd greatest player in the history of football. On the ESPN list, he's just two spots behind Montana. Rice has proven himself time and again with numerous quarterbacks, and seemingly everyone regards him as the best receiver to ever play the game.

In 1989 (the season Montana and Elway met in the Super Bowl), San Francisco's roster also included:

* Ronnie Lott
* Roger Craig
* John Taylor
* Steve Young
* Charles Haley
* Bill Romanowski
* Brent Jones
* Matt Millen
* Tom Rathman
* Bubba Paris

Meanwhile, John Elway had:

* Steve Atwater
* Karl Mecklenberg
* Dennis Smith
* Ricky… Somebody
* A guy named Vance, I think? (Or was it Steve?)
* Hey, was Bobby Humphrey the guy who married Whitney Houston?
* Is the Super Bowl XXIV blowout starting to make more sense to ANYONE???

So Montana played with a handful of future Hall-of-Famers, including the greatest wide receiver to have walked our planet. John Elway played with guys like the "Three Amigos," all three of whom were out of football within a year or two of leaving the Broncos for other teams.

Field goal, John.

Score: Montana 17, Elway 10

Head-to-Head Competition
Off the top of my head, I can remember two big games featuring the quarterbacks. The first was the lopsided Super Bowl, the second was the infamous "whoever gets the ball last is going to win this thing" Monday night game. Montana won both match-ups.

While this is certainly a worthwhile category, I don't think we can place too much emphasis on it since there are obvious "Coaching" and "Supporting Cast" elements that come into play. Also, I haven't been able to find a comprehensive list of their meetings, so we should probably stick with a field goal on this one.

Score: Montana 20, Elway 10

'John Elway' is a pretty tough name — it brings to mind John Wayne and all — but 'Joe Montana' takes the cake. (Especially if you have never seen his mamma's-boy face.)

Score: Montana 23, Elway 10

As we discussed earlier, God likes the number 7. A lot. So if you've somehow made it outside of time to pick an intramural football team, you might want to take this into consideration. Montana's numbers (16 and 19) might have been shout-outs to guys like Blanda and Unitas, but it's important to keep in mind that neither of these people is God.

But, leaving God's feelings out of this for a moment, let me ask: Which is a cooler number for a quarterback? 7, or 16? Which number inspires more fear in opposing defenses? 7, or 19? Do you think it's coincidence that "seven" sounds like "heaven" and "sixteen" sounds like "sissy?" I don't.

Score: Montana 23, Elway 13

Do I really need to say anything here?

Of the two quarterbacks, only one had receivers spending their off-seasons with machines rifling footballs at 100 miles-per-hour. This same player threw a football 65 yards on the fly, in high school, and was drafted by the New York Yankees coming out of college. (Hint: It's not the player whose name rhymes with Dough Bontana.)

Look, John Elway could make any throw on the field, even if he was falling down or running against the grain. When plays broke down, his receivers were instructed to go long. According to Rick Reilly, players from other teams would beg him to throw them a 40–yard out during Pro Bowl week, just so they could experience catching it. Pat Summerall called him "the master of the inconceivable pass thrown to the unreachable spot." And I'm pretty sure Pat said that before he went senile.

Let's move on.

Score: Montana 23, Elway 20

Legs and Athleticism
We probably shouldn't weigh it too heavily but, all other things being equal, I would take the more mobile of any two quarterbacks. Joe Montana had decent feet, but Elway was the master of the escape. At times, other teams were afraid to blitz him since he did his best work when he was running for his life. While he never reached the same level as The Player Formerly Known as Ron Mexico, he was definitely a better runner than Montana.

Field goal, John.

Score: Montana 23, Elway 23

Well, it's all come down to this. The score is tied and we've saved one of the most important categories for last.

When discussing the relative merits of quarterbacks, leadership ability is, obviously, critical. A good leader will make everyone on their team better, and both Elway and Montana had this quality in spades. A good leader will inspire confidence in their teammates and fans -- both players did this, too.

But John Elway was a better team leader than anyone. He would stomp the sidelines and goad members of the defense. He would chastise receivers in the huddle when they dropped his passes. He would exhort his offensive line to play this down harder than they'd played any down in their lives. And he backed it all up by engineering more comeback victories than any quarterback in NFL history, including several in the postseason.

In Cleveland, he's known for "The Drive." In Houston, he's known for his fourth down heroics. In Super Bowl lore, he's known for his helicopter dive on third down. And in Marty Schottenheimer's therapist's office, he's known as "The One About Whom We Do Not Speak."

Joe Montana was a cool-headed field general, for sure, but it's hard to look back at the 49ers dynasty and say that none of it would have happened without him. In fact, Montana played his last few years in Kansas City because San Francisco figured they were better off with Steve Young, who went on to win a Super Bowl of his own.

Elway, on the other hand, WAS the Denver Broncos. His sheer willpower and determination led his teams — and the entire state of Colorado — to heights they would have otherwise never reached.

In summary, these two guys are arguably the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Each ended their career with an impressive list of records and statistical achievements. Both undeniably, were champions.

But Elway was better.

Final Score: Montana 23, Elway 26

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