I love a good sports argument as much as the next guy. Who was better, who would you want on your team? Who are the guys lost to time? All of which brings me to Dan Marino and John Elway. Elway won two Superbowl games right at the end of his career and completely changed the discussion about who was the greater player. This even though the Broncos won with a stout defense and Terrell Davis taking handoffs. Elway was still good, but he wasn’t still John Elway. Meanwhile Dan Marino ended his career with Jimmy Johnson trying to recreate Dallas and failing to do so in Miami. I’ve argued many times that Marino actually had a better career, but Elway had a better ending. Let’s see what the cards tell us.
The Quarterback Class
I graduated from college in 1983 so I always liked that I am a part of the great QB class of ’83. I mean I didn’t play QB but I got half of it! To recap the ’83 draft opened with the Stanford Legend who had told the Baltimore Colts to pound sand getting taken first by, the Baltimore Colts. Eric Dickerson went second to the Rams, not many drafts can boast a Hall-of-Famer with the first two picks. In fact, a total of six Hall of Famers went in the first round, the first two picks and the last two picks, Marino and Darrell Green. Jim Kelly and Bruce Mathews were the other two, which means 3 QBs from round one are in Canton. Richard Dent, in the eighth round, was the only other HOFer chosen in this draft. Seven tickets to Canton, that’s pretty good.
In addition to Elway, Kelly and Marino the QB class included first rounders Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and late rounders Bruce Mathison, Gary Kubiak, Tom Ramsey, Babe Laufenberg, Jeff Christensen and Reggie Collier. Different than today, at the time it was unusual for a QB to go #1 overall, prior to ’83 the last time it had happened was Steve Bartkowski in 1975. The next time it would happen would be Vinny Testaverde in 1987.
The NFL gets their Bird and Magic
So, Marino and Elway move into the league and immediately the comparisons began. It became apparent before the first game that Marino had been underrated and Don Shula put him under center in game one. Elway had to wait behind Steve DeBerg until halftime of the first game. He came in and wasn’t very good and the pair split time most of the season. A look at their cards tell the whole story of the opening round. Marino is a 4 to Elway’s 2. Marino has a 1 on 66, Elway a very weak 3. Elway has a 24 & a 22 while Marino just has a 22. Check out 31 and 51, Marino has 8’s and Elway 17’s. I mean, this isn’t close out of the gate.
For round two things get better for John, he’s a 4 and he can complete passes. Sadly, for Broncos fans, Marino also gets better. A lot better. Elway moves to a 4 in his second year, but Marino stays ahead of him as a five. A straight comparison of their cards gives Marino a 17-10 advantage. I am giving Elway a + for his 26 and 27 results because he can run, and Marino can’t. Elway has another 24 but this time Marino matches him. They both have full fumbles, but I am guessing that’s a little worse for Elway since he’ll take off and run far more than Dan will. All in, at the end of the second round, if this were a Heavyweight fight the ref would be keeping an eye on Elway.
Getting to Primetime (But not like Deon)
The first thing you notice about the 1985 cards is Elway’s R column. He stops being an all-purpose runner and is an outside scrambler for the first time. The second thing you notice, or maybe it’s 1A is that he has 17 single number R results. That’s excellent. Both guys keep their ratings from last year so three years in the #1 pick has not been rated higher than the #27 pick. 1985 is also the year that another ’83 #1 pick got his team to the Superbowl games as Tony Eason started for the Pats. That was a disaster for another time but he’s the only class of ’83 QB that got his team to a Superbowl games and didn’t get himself to the Hall of Fame. Once again Marino has a superior passing card, for some reason Elway gets a better result at 35 for the second year in a row but he has 9’s at 31 and 51 to Marino’s 7’s. No 1 on 66 this year for Dan but a 2-3-3 is certainly better than a 2-5-5.
1986 is Elway’s first trip to the Superbowl. His performance in the playoffs was outstanding and the entire pregame conversation was could Superman lead his team to victory. The answer was, of course, “yes” because Superman wore 56 for the Giants. Elway’s card had several errors which you can see have been corrected. I didn’t confirm these, but I feel sure they’re accurate corrections. It doesn’t matter, Marino is still a 5 and Elway a 4 and Marino gets his 1 back for 1-2-5-5 to 2-4-5-5. Marino has 8’s at 31 and 51 to Elway’s 9’s and again, mysteriously, Elway has a better result at 35. Elway again has 17 single digit run numbers. That’s powerful and in hindsight would have been a problem to replicate if we were still playing the old football game. I think capturing QB scrambles was high on the “must have” list for the new game. Elway would be exhibit “A”. We are 4 seasons in, and Marino is 4-0.
Ready For Primetime Players
The Broncos go to their second straight Superbowl in ’87, Elway becomes the first QB from ’83 to go to two. 1987 gives us the first nickname, as Elway checks in with “Wood”. One wonders, what exactly is that? Setting it aside, before I get in trouble, both QBs seem to hit their peaks simultaneously, both guys get a 5 rating. Very uncommon for there to be two five QBs. I know that when it happened in 1976 it was the first time any QB had gotten a five in years. Something I have never really understood. Elway gets his best card to date but it’s, again, not really close to as good as Marino’s. Elway gets 3 26’s, which should lead to some nice runs as he, again, has an excellent R column. But Marino has 2-2-5-5 to John’s 2-3-5-6. The superior result on 35 flips to Marino as well. I’m not sure why I am fixated on this, but I seem to be.
Both guys drop back to a 4 in 1988. Elway missed a game, so he gets a J4 and his 26’s become 27’s. He also loses his 2 on 66. That’s a killer especially for a guy that scrambles. No reason to play the pass on this card. His 3-3-5-5 power is very pedestrian. Marino, as always, has better power with a 2-3-5-5. In fact, Marino has a far better card except for, wait for it, result 35 where Elway gets an 8 and Marino a 9. Interestingly Elway has a 22 and 22 while Marino gets stuck with a 24, both have the same INT. % for the season. It’s going to be tough to turn Elway over in S and there’s no good reason to go D, so I think he’d come in under his INT % for the season. Neither guy has a full fumble number, especially important for Elway since he is going to run. If you’re keeping score, Marino has had a better card 7 times, out of 7 seasons. Elway has 2 Superbowl games to 1, anyone doubt that if the Broncos had taken Marino first that’d be different.
1989 marks Marino’s worst season to date. He lead the league in interceptions for the first and only time. His QB rating falling below 80 for the first time. Fair to note that Elway had only been above 80 once. Despite what I would call pedestrian numbers both guys get a 4. That’d be a reputation rating more than anything. Elway and Marino both get 2-3-5-5 power, so far this is the first time that Marino wasn’t better. While closer than normal, Marino still has a better card. Both guys have a 24 this go around, Elway still takes off 3 times, 2 27’s and a 26. He’s down to 16 single digit results. That’s still strong but doesn’t offset some of the completion issues. Once again, this season Elway ends up getting crushed in a Superbowl. He’s been to three now. His reputation gets battered worse and worse each time.
As the decade turns to the 90’s both guys hold steady at a 4 rating. Elway though takes a step back from his Superbowl card with a 3-4-5-5 power card, which is really pretty dreadful. Marino is not a lot better at 2-4-4-5. This is the worst number that Dan has gotten on 11. It’s not terrible but it’s pretty bad. Overall, I can be persuaded either way on these cards. Elway still has a great R column behind 3 R numbers. Someone must have gotten into Dan’s ear because he goes from a 24-pick number to a 22, which is better than Elway’s’ 23. Still I think I will select Elway on this one, if for no other reason than to get him on the board. I have it as Marino 7 to Elway 1.
1991 shows some improvement on Marino’s card and one significant improvement on Elway’s card. Marino’s power is 2-3-4-5 with 5’s on 44 and 55. That’s a great medium pass card. Elway is 3-3-5-5. Again, not having a 2 on 66 is a big hit to a QB in APBA. I am actually a little surprised how often Elway has not gotten a 2 so far. The big improvement for Elway is his nickname. The borderline uncomfortable “Wood” gives way to “Duke”. That’s a great QB nickname. Marino’s card is again the better card, 8 times in 9 seasons that’s the case. Elway will have to get a better card than Marino for the rest of his career to pull even. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t.
Marino gets a 5 back in 1992. It’s the first time for either of them since the both pulled it down in 1987. While his card isn’t bad it’s not as good as the moving to a 5 might make you think. His power is 3-3-3-3, which isn’t as good as you might think, in fact it’s really sort of odd. The lack of a 2 is one thing but getting 4-3’s, that’s really strange looking. Elway gets 3-3-5-5, again no 2. Elway has a 24 while Marino only has a 23 and Elway’s fumble number is a 33 while Marino only has a partial number. This is as bad a card as Marino has had in my opinion and it’s still a lot better than Elway’s.
Beginning to Go Grey
When you’re playing your 10th year in the league you are already pretty special, and you are probably pretty beaten up. 1993 is the year that made Scott Mitchell rich as Marino got hurt and only played in 5 games. His XF card gives him a 4 rating, something that surprised me a little. There’s been some talk of new sets where injured guys get good ratings and how that was not “how it was done”. Well 1993 was a long time ago and it was done that way than. Marino does get a good card with 2-3-3-5 power and a 22-pick number. Elway gets a 2-3-5-5 and actually has better power throughout the card. He only has 2 R results down from his usual 3 and he has a 22-pick number. John does lose the full fumble result as well. No question that this year belongs to Elway. After 11 cards it’s 9-2 Marino.
Marino rehabbed his way back to his prime and this card shows it. He’s a five once again with 2-3-5-5 power, interestingly Elway follows suit with the same rating and power numbers. Marino and Elway have much closer result numbers, but Marino continues to edge Elway out. Results 45 and 46 are typical in that Elway gets a 14 and a 16 and Marino an 11 and 12. That’s a big difference throwing short. Think about the fact that in 1994, 11 years into their careers, both guys are still cranking out 5’s.
The 1995 cards seem to suffer from some justification issues. Elway’s card just looks bad to the eye. Marino gets another 5 while Elway drops to a 4. Once again both guys check in with 2-3-5-5, Marino has a 24 while Elway only has a 23. Elway still takes off a lot but with only 8 single digits in the R column his days of being a gazelle seem long past. In 1996 it’s Elway who gets the 5, with Marino stepping back to a 4. Elway gets the 2-3-3-5 again but Marino changes it up with a 2-2-4-5. I think I like Marino’s power better here but it’s close. Elway gets a 23 but Marino only threw 9 interceptions, so he gets a 21 as his worst result. That seems a little low to me. I’d have expected a 22. Even though Elway can run a little, I think Marino’s card is still clearly superior in both these seasons.
Where the Critics rave
We’ve come to that part of our journey where Elway leads his team to two straight Superbowl victories. Prior to 1997 he has gone to 3 Superbowl games and gotten destroyed 3 times. The Broncos run to the Superbowl and subsequent victory were the feel-good story of the year and it was capped by the famous “this one’s for John” moment. This is the season where people start to talk about Elway as the greatest from his class or of his generation because he “has his ring”. Certainly, he’s in the discussion. Marino on-the-other -hand is getting disappointing results in Miami. After a 10-6 season they beat Buffalo but got waxed by Denver in the divisional round. That game is where the Elway is better discussion started. In fact, he may have been better in 1997. His power is 2-3-3-5 versus Marino’s 2-3-5-5. Elway adds a 5 on 44 for good measure. Elway gets only a 22 but Marino doesn’t even have that number. Both guys can fire it around. I think it’s close but with the 5 and at least a decent R column I score this one for Elway.
Back to back Superbowl games, that’s why people talk Elway instead of Marino. He passes Jim Kelly for most Superbowl games from a class of ’83 QB. The guy also closed out his career with a 5 for the second straight year, which is incredible. Marino is still a 4, with power numbers 2-3-5-5 versus Elway’s repeat of 2-3-3-5. So, John closes it out with two 5’s and his two best production years. Still a match-up of the cards still favors Marino. It’s closer but Marino has more completion numbers. Elway has a 22 but again Marino only has 20’s. It’s really remarkable how he has lost his INT numbers in the last few years. Elway is a 5 and won the Superbowl but I don’t think it’s close. This is all Marino.
A last Hurrah
Elway retired after the Superbowl, Marino came back to try and win one. No truth to the rumor that Elway heard APBA was going to produce green cards and he wanted no part of that. For the first time Marino is less than a 4 checking in as a 3. His 2-3-5-5 is familiar but his 23 is a new addition after being solid for several years. This card is perfectly acceptable but not what you want from Marino.
And in the End
In the end, in the sixteen seasons they played together Marino had a better card 13 times. Elway was a 5 six times and Marino 7 times, while Elway got a 2 in his first year and Marino a 3 in his last, all the rest were 4’s. Marino far more consistently had a better power card with a 1 or 2 on 66 15 times to Elway’s 11. 8 times Marino has a better number on 31 (which I see as sort of the end of the line for single digit numbers by and large) while Elway never had a better number on 31 than Marino.
I don’t think it’s close, at least it’s not here in APBA which is really all I care about. Dan Marino was a far better Quarterback than John Elway. If you want to argue the point, I’d love that. Let’s get a beer!