Correcting Bill Barnwell

The perspicacious Bill Barnwell has worked out the QB Championship Belt dating back to Johnny Unitas in 1959.  It’s a great article, but I have to take serious exception to his choice to award 1976 to Ken Stabler over Fran Tarkenton.

Ken Stabler, Oakland Raiders

Reign: 1974
Stabler had been impressive taking over for Lamonica during the 1973
season, earning a Pro Bowl berth, but he was just a downfield force of
nature during the following season. He threw a league-best 26 touchdowns
while leading the Raiders to a 12-2 record, winning both first-team
All-Pro and MVP honors. He would have a dismal 1975 season, though,
throwing more interceptions (24) than touchdowns (16). That opened up a
spot for …

Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings

Reign: 1975
This is very reminiscent of the Tittle run from the late ’60s, when a
veteran player who was always very good saw everything coalesce into a
great stretch toward the very end of his career. Tarkenton won his first
MVP award and made his first All-Pro team this year at the age of 35.
He would be pretty good in 1976 before throwing a combined 35 touchdowns
over the final two seasons of his career.

Ken Stabler, Raiders

Reign: 1976-77
The perch once again belonged to Stabler, who completed an incredible
(for the time) 66.7 percent of his passes in 1976 while averaging 9.3
yards per attempt. Adjusting for the era, it’s one of the best seasons
in NFL history for a quarterback. The Raiders would win the Super Bowl
in 1976. Stabler was merely very good in 1977, but there was no superior
candidate to take the title away until 1978.

 Very well, let’s compare the 1976 seasons of Fran Tarkenton and Ken Stabler.

13     10-2-1     255     412     61.9     2961     17     8         Tarkenton
12     11-1-0     194     291     66.7     2737     27     17       Stabler

Now, remember, Tarkenton is already holding the belt at this point and you’ve got to KO the champ to take the belt. Stabler’s performance, while excellent in terms of his completion percentage and number of touchdowns thrown, simply isn’t enough to justify taking it away from the Viking quarterback.  Stabler played in one less game, threw more than 200 fewer yards, threw 30 percent fewer passes, threw more than twice as many interceptions, and had a TD/INT ratio of 1.6 compared to Tarkenton’s 2.1.  Which quarterback would you rather have had behind center?

In 1976, the Vikings scored 305 points.  The Raiders scored 351.  So Tarkenton was still leading the offense into the end zone, he just wasn’t necessarily throwing the ball in there for the final scores.  Both QBs scored one rushing touchdown, but Stabler lost four fumbles while Tarkenton lost two.  That means that Stabler turned the ball over 21 times compared to 10 times for Tarkenton, lowering Stabler’s TD/turnover ratio to 1.3.  This is hardly indicative of the best QB in the game, and it doesn’t merit taking the QB belt away from the Georgia Peach in what was more than a “pretty good” 1976 season.

The big difference I see is that Oakland had a better running game in 1976, averaging 4.1 yards per carry compared to 3.7 for the Vikings.  Stabler didn’t even throw for 6 of Oakland’s 33 touchdown passes, while despite their inferior running game, the Vikings scored more touchdowns on the ground, 18 to 14.  So, that tells us that Oakland preferred to throw in the red zone rather than anything about Stabler being a better passer.

If the Raiders don’t crush the Vikings in the Super Bowl that year, I don’t see any way that Barnwell credibly anoints Stabler the superior quarterback in 1976.  And even with the benefit of the Super Bowl victory, I think it is clear that Stabler’s performance that season was less significant and less remarkable than Tarkenton’s, especially when one takes Tarkenton’s advanced age and reduced mobility into account. So, I hope you will join me in emailing Mr. Barnwell to request that he rectify this historical injustice.