Johnny Unitas vs. Bart Starr: Impact of Postseason Performance on Legacies

Posted on May 18, 2014 at 5:10 PM
In the minds of many, postseason performance is the definitive measure of a quarterback's greatness. Regular season dominance is often dismissed, labeld as "bulk stats" and "numbers", as postseason performance is elevated to the very summit of public opinion. They scoff at the careers of Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts and Sonny Jurgensen—all four of whom won zero championships in a combined 68 years of play.

“Anybody can play when there’s really nothing at stake, regardless of the game, regardless of the situation. I really think the measure of the player is how well he plays under pressure when you have to win.” -Bart Starr

Starr played with nine to ten Hall of Fame teammates and was coached by a Hall of Famer in Vince Lombardi during every one of his five championship seasons, but hey, he was a winner. Johnny Unitas was considered to be the greatest to ever play the position by some, but he didn't have the same success Starr had in the postseason.

Unitas (postseason career): 120 of 226 (53.1) for 1,663 yards, 7 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. 68.9 passer rating.
Starr (postseason career): 130 of 213 (61.0) for 1,753 yards, 15 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. 104.8 passer rating.

Where Unitas' passer rating sunk from 78.2 in the regular season to 68.9 in the postseason (-9.3), Starr's rose from 80.5 to 104.8 (+24.3). Unitas was the regular season master—winning three league MVP awards (1959, 1965, 1967) to Starr's one (1966). But what's more important: individual awards or championships? To make matters more interesting, Unitas' postseason performance plummeted after 1959. His 1970 wild card win over the Bengals stands out as the lone positive outlier.

Unitas (postseason after 1959): 76 of 157 (48.4) for 1,050 yards, 4 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. 54.9 passer rating.
Unitas (six of nine postseason games): 70 of 140 (50.0) for 905 yards, 2 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. 48.7 passer rating.

Unitas was much like Sammy Baugh in the same way that Starr was much like Sid Luckman—with the latter's superior postseason performance leading to more rings. History recognizes Baugh and Unitas as the two finest quarterbacks of their generations, and the QBS system backs up that notion. Unitas' career QBS of 249.5 far surpasses Starr's 109.0. Yet, it is Starr who was the perennial "winner" who would have been glorified ten-fold has he played during the 21st century.

Unitas was the better quarterback—by a country mile. Only his postseason resumé, in totality, is largely overlooked and would not pass for G.O.A.T. caliber by today's very flawed standard of analytics.

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