Sunday, April 2, 2023

Comparing the superior QB draft classes of 1983 and 2004, headlined by Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger

For nearly 40 years, the gold standard for quarterback draft classes has been the quarterbacks selected in the 1983 draft, headlined by Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly. That class largely went unrivaled until 2004, when three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks were selected during the first 11 picks. 

It didn’t take long for comparisons to be made between the two quarterback draft classes. Comparisons had been somewhat premature until Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement earlier this offseason. With Roethlisberger now joining Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in retirement, the conversations can truly begin as to whether or not the class of Big Ben, Manning and Rivers was able to supplant the ’83 group as the greatest quarterback draft class of all time. 

Here was the criteria used when determining which was the better class. 

  • Statistical excellence 
  • Individual accolades 
  • Team success 
  • Enduring legacy/impact on the game 
  • How each individual quarterback ranks all-time 

Without further ado, let’s dive right in. 

Statistical excellence 

  • Edge: Class of ’04 

Sure, you can (rightly) argue that the ’04 quarterbacks have an unfair advantage here. They had the benefit of playing in a more modern passing era that included more focus on throwing while defenses faced more restrictions when it comes to hitting receivers and quarterbacks. That may be true, but it’s to no fault of the ’04 quarterbacks, who took full advantage of their situation. 

Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger are each top-10 all time in career passing yards and touchdown passes. Marino, who broke Fran Tarkenton’s career passing record in 1975, is currently seventh all time in career passing yards and touchdown passes. Elway is 11th all time in passing yards and 13th in touchdown passes, while Kelly is 29th in career passing yards, just behind Russell Wilson, Matt Hasselbeck, and Alex Smith and just ahead of Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He is also 29th all time in touchdown passes. Kelly threw for nearly 10,000 yards and 83 touchdowns during his two seasons with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers. 

Individual accolades 

  • Edge: Class of ’83 

Marino (1984) and Elway (’87) both won league MVP awards, something that no member of the ’04 quarterback class won during their respective careers. Along with his league MVP, Elway capped off his career with an MVP performance in Denver’s 34-19 win over Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII. Manning was named MVP of both of the Giants‘ Super Bowl wins over the Patriots. Conversely, Roethlisberger’s receivers left with the MVP award following each of Big Ben’s Super Bowl wins. Big Ben did take home Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2004 after breaking Marino’s record for most wins by a rookie quarterback. 

As far as Pro Bowls and All-Pros are concerned, Marino takes the mantle with nine Pro Bowls and three All-Pro nods. Elway (nine times) and Rivers (eight) combined for 17 Pro Bowl selections but no All-Pro nods. Roethlisberger (six) and Manning (four) earned a combined 10 Pro Bowl nods and no All-Pro selections. Conversely, Kelly earned one All-Pro nod (1991) to go with his five Pro Bowl selections. 

Team success 

  • Edge: Class of ’04

This was the closest category to determine a winner. Marino, Elway and Kelly each led their teams to the Super Bowl, but Elway was the only one with a Super Bowl championship ring. Marino fell short in his only Super Bowl appearance, while Kelly went 0-4 in the big game. 

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Roethlisberger went 2-1 in Super Bowls, while Manning won both of his Super Bowl starts. Rivers never made it to the Super Bowl, but his gutty performance in leading the Chargers to within one game of the Super Bowl in 2007 — despite playing with a torn ACL — is the stuff of legend. 

Roethlisberger is fifth all time in career wins, while Elway, Marino and Rivers are also in the top 10 in career wins. Kelly tallied an impressive 110-67 overall record as Buffalo’s starter, while Manning posted a .500 record as the Giants’ regular-season starter. His 8-4 record in the postseason helped his and the ’04 quarterbacks’ case in this category. 

Enduring legacy/impact on the game 

  • Edge: Class of ’83 

Here’s where the ’83 quarterbacks benefit from having played earlier, as their careers have aged extremely well over time. Marino is still considered as one of the greatest pure passers in league history while inspiring future Hall of Famers that include Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. His 1984 season still stands up among the greatest seasons ever, as his 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns that season were both league records. He also owns the dubious distinction of being the greatest quarterback in league annals to not win a Super Bowl. 

Kelly owns the distinction of being the only quarterback to lead his team to four consecutive Super Bowls. His mastery of the K-Gun offense helped inspire future prolific offenses. 

Elway’s legacy includes his iconic drive late in the 1986 AFC Championship Game and his helicopter spin in the Broncos‘ Super Bowl upset win over the Packers. Elway, who won games with his arm as well as his legs, ended his career with the greatest final game for a Hall of Fame quarterback, winning Super Bowl MVP before riding off into the sunset.

It’s hard to match the legacies of the top-three quarterbacks of the ’83 Draft, and the ’04 quarterbacks fall just short. That said, the ’04 quarterbacks have a pretty remarkable legacies. Roethlisberger is the youngest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Three years later, he led one of the greatest game-winning drives in Super Bowl history that was punctuated by his game-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. The Steelers‘ all-time leader in games played, Big Ben played 18 seasons despite absorbing more sacks than any player in league history. His toughness and unique style of play showed that, in the words of Tom Brady, “there’s more than one way to bake a cake.” 

Manning’s epic Super Bowl wins over Brady’s Patriots — especially his performance late in Super Bowl XLII — has earned him a permanent place in NFL lore. Rivers doesn’t have those type of moments, but he will go down as one of the most entertaining — and outspoken — quarterbacks of his era, a John Wayne-like figure who seemingly always had the ball in his hands late in the game with the outcome still in doubt. 

How each individual quarterback ranks all time

  • Edge: Class of ’83

Elway, Marino and Kelly’s careers reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Each player was selected in his first year of eligibility. Roethlisberger is considered a shoo-in for induction when he is first eligible in 2027. Rivers should expect to get his Hall of Fame call soon after he is eligible in 2026. Given how hotly contested Manning’s candidacy was debated upon his 2019 retirement, one would expect that debate to rekindle in 2025, when Manning is first eligible for induction. 

Along with being Hall of Famers, Elway and Marino were just two of 10 quarterbacks named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team, further solidifying their place as two of the greatest quarterbacks ever. 

Winner: Class of ’83

The ’04 quarterback class had a lot to live up to after early comparisons to the ’83 class. Roethlisberger, Manning and Rivers responded by compiling extremely successful careers while confirming early proclamations of their greatness. But as great as they were, they go down as the No. 2 greatest quarterback class ever, just behind the class that continues to set the standard.  

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