College Quarterbacks Much Better than in Old Days

Pat Forde has an interesting survey of the evolution of the college quarterback.

High completion percentages key to modern QB (ESPN)

Photo: If judged by 2005 QB standards, 1970 Heisman winner Jim Plunkett would have been benched. Louisville sophomore quarterback Brian Brohm had just finished throwing completion after completion in a 7-on-7 passing drill in the summer heat. In an hour’s time, you could count on one hand the number of Brohm’s passes that hit the ground.

When he was done, I ran some theoretical quarterback stats by the kid. “Suppose a guy throws for 2,700 yards, with 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, and completes 53 percent of his passes,” I said. “Where would that get him with Bobby Petrino?” “I think he’d be on the bench,” Brohm said. “That wouldn’t fly in this system. Efficiency is the name of the game.”

Congratulations, Brian. You’ve just benched Jim Plunkett in his Heisman Trophy-winning season at Stanford in 1970 — and done it justifiably. Retro cool doesn’t extend to quarterbacking. “That ’70s Show” doesn’t play on fall Saturdays in 2005.


Offensive football steadily has metamorphosed from the Notre Dame box to the single wing to the wing T to the wishbone to the I formation to the run and shoot to the West Coast to the spread, with countless other variations and mutations along the way. Where next, nobody knows. But for today, it’s more important than ever to throw the ball — not just frequently, but efficiently. High completion percentages and low interception totals are the modern imperatives.

Popular football theory says the running game is paramount, but look at the NCAA numbers from 2004. The top seven teams in passing efficiency had an average record of 11-1 and six were ranked in the final Top 25 — five in the top 10. The top seven teams in rushing yardage had an average record of 7-4, and only four of them were ranked in the final Top 25 — one in the top 10.


Archie Manning was a folk hero at Mississippi, throwing for 4,753 career yards with 31 touchdowns and 40 interceptions, and completing 53 percent of his passes from 1968-70. His sons, Peyton and Eli, dwarfed daddy. Peyton threw for 11,201 yards with 89 TDs and 33 picks, completing 63 percent. Eli threw for 10,119 yards with 81 TDs and 35 interceptions, completing 61 percent.

The same year Plunkett won the Heisman and Archie Manning finished third, Kansas State quarterback Lynn Dickey finished 10th in the voting — while throwing an ungodly 28 interceptions with just seven TD passes. A quarterback would be busted down to the scout team before reaching such an interception total today. Nobody threw more than 19 picks in all of Division I-A last year, much less anyone who finished in the Heisman top 10.

Quite amazing.

Partly, this is a matter of philosophy–it’s easier to complete passes if they are short and not mostly on 3rd and long. Still, it’s undeniable that offenses–and defenses–have gotten markedly more complicated over the last couple of decades.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. dw says:

    There’s also a great little article with that package on the pass-happy Tulsa teams of the late 60s. Sadly, they’ve been forgotten to history, but there was a brief period when they rewrote the entire passing chapter in the NCAA record book.

    And this was all before Steve Largent showed up….

  2. JWS says:

    There is no arguing that statistically players like Manning and Plunkett don’t compare with division 1 quarterbacks today.

    However, I have never seen a quarterback who was more exciting to watch than Archie Manning. If it was 4th down and 25 yards, you were on the edge of your seat because you knew he could run and throw and something was going to happen. And there was no ‘quit’ in him.

    Archie was recently chosen the no. 1 all-time SEC quarterback. Peyton was selected 4th. Manning was earlier chosen the greatest quarterback in the first 75 years of the SEC.