People who know me understand there are a few Jets conversation topics that push my buttons as a football fan. One of the biggest is how it has become a cool thing among football fans to say Joe Namath was overrated. People don't just say he was not a Hall of Fame level player. Some actually claim he wasn't even average. People look at his statistics. They see the completion percentage that looks low and all of the interceptions. They either ignore or do not understand that football has evolved so since Namath played in terms of sophistication, rules, schemes, and philosophies that the passing game of Namath's time is almost indistinguishable from what teams do today. The whole "different era" thing does not seem to resonate so let's look at things a different way.
The great website ProFootball-Reference.com is a go-to source of football statistical information. One of their best assets is they calculate where quarterbacks rated compared to the league average in almost every major statistical category in a given year. So this gives us an opportunity to look at where Namath rated relative to his peers and show what that really meant in modern terms.
Namath's prime lasted around ten years. After that, the knee injuries caught up to him, leading to some frustrating years with the Jets and that one forgettable year with the Rams. So let's take a look at how Namath looked in his prime. We will average out where Namath rated relative to the league in those years. We will ignore 1970, 1971, and 1973 where he was limited to five or less starts.
This is not going to be a perfect measure. It does not account for things like offensive system, rules, quality of teammates and opponents, the ways in which medical advances could have help Namath's knee problem, and other variables. It should, however, get us into the ballpark of putting his numbers into context.
Completion percentage: In an average prime year, Namath's completion percentage was about 105.14% of the league average. In 2012, that would have been a completion percentage of 64.0%.
Yards per attempt: In an average prime year, Namath's yards per attempt average was about 113.71% of the league average. In 2012, that would have equated to an average of 8.07 yards per attempt.
Touchdowns: In an average prime year, Namath's touchdown pass rate was 103.28% of the league average. In 2012, that would have equated to a 4.44% touchdown rate.
Interceptions: In an average prime year, Namath's interception rate was 96.71% of the league average. In 2012, that would have equated to a 2.51% interception rate.
QB Rating: In an average prime year, Namath's quarterback rating was 107.28% of the league average. In 2012, that would have equated to an 89.90 rating.
Adjusted 2012 Stat Line:
If Namath threw the average number of passes in 2012, his rates come out like this.
355/552; 24 TD; 13 INT; 4454 yards; 89.9 rating
That doesn't really tell the whole story. The Jets put their offense on Namath. In those seven years we looked at, he was in the top five of pass attempts in his league. Is this skewed because most of those years were in the AFL, a league with a handful of teams, for most of that time? Not really? In 1965, he ranked fifth even though he only started nine games. In the rest of those AFL years, he led the league twice and was no lower than third.
Let's give Namath the fifth most passes in the league, the 627 passes Andrew Luck threw in 2012.
401/627; 5,060 yards; 27 TD; 15 TD; 89.9 rating
This isn't to say Namath would have been a lock to threaten the NFL passing record in a typical year if he played today. This should, however, provide some context into what Namath's 1960's and 1970's stats meant in today's terms. Broadway Joe was an excellent quarterback and very efficient in his day. If his raw numbers do not look impressive, it is truly because he played in a different era.
Just talking about numbers doesn't really do Namath justice. He transcended his statistics and even the two MVP's he won. Namath is a legend because of the way his top level play and his star power helped change the game. These things are part of why the American Football League had so much success that it forced the NFL to adapt and eventually merge. These things helped build the NFL we know and love today. Without the success of the AFL, professional football would look very different, and probably for the worse. We would not have the Jets to cheer for. The NFL would have missed out on numerous innovations. The league would not be as attractive to television and advertisers. I could go on. Namath was not the only figure in the rise of the AFL, but he was a central one.
The intangibles were more important. Just don't forget that the tangibles were pretty good too.