At thirty-six years old, Carson Palmer is the second-oldest quarterback to throw a pass in the 2016 NFL season. In last week’s game against Tampa Bay, the Cardinals signal-caller threw thirty-one passes, completing eighteen of them for 308 yards, bringing his career total to 40,615.
Schrags is right: here’s Palmer right up there on the all-time list, ahead of both Unitas and Montana.
It’s tough to write successful biographies while the subject still is alive, and it’s tough to evaluate the legacies of athletes while they still are playing, but you can be forgiven if you think Palmer might not quite belong in the company of Montana and Unitas.
The NFL has changed a lot since Montana was leaving his championship mark on the sport, and it’s changed even more since Unitas made waves simply by wearing hightops in a game. In short, the 40,000 passing yards threshold isn’t what it used to be, and the modern game is so different from prior eras that comments like Schrager’s, above, say more about those broad, sport-wide changes than they do about any individual achievements. Any longer, it simply isn’t helpful to our understanding of professional football and its players’ achievements to compare, for example, quarterback career passing yard totals.
A better way to understand how Palmer’s career achievement stacks up against those of Montana and Unitas is to contextualize it so we can better appreciate what it means for Palmer to have thrown for more than 40,000 yards in his NFL environment as compared to what it meant for Montana and Unitas to throw for over 40,000 yards in their NFL environments. The following is a very rough and limited attempt to highlight the differences between the three.
- Unitas’ NFL career lasted eighteen seasons, from 1956 to 1973, during which he appeared in 211 games. In 1964 (the approximate median season of his career), teams averaged 173.6 passing yards per game.
- Montana’s NFL career lasted fifteen seasons, from 1979 to 1994, during which he appeared in 192 games. In 1986 (the approximate median season of his career), teams averaged 205.5 passing yards per game.
- Palmer’s NFL career currently spans twelve complete seasons, from 2004 to 20215, and one incomplete season, during which he appeared in 162 games. In 2010 (the approximate median season of his career, to date), teams averaged 221.6 passing yards per game.
- Another difference to note: The NFL season was only twelve games long in 1956. It expanded to fourteen games in 1961, and the current sixteen in 1978.
Applying a basic inflation concept (i.e., [career passing yards] * ([2010 average passing yards/team/game] / [average passing yards/team/game in previous era]) = Palmer-era total career passing yards) gives Unitas 51,365 Palmer-era career passing yards and Montana 43,728 Palmer-era passing yards.
I know folks will let me know right away in the comments where my aritmetic and entire mathematical approach went wrong (guessing somewhere around step zero), but this rudimentary number crunching illustrates the basic point: passing yards are much easier to come by today than they were when Montana and, especially, Unitas played, and, contextually speaking, Palmer still has a ways to go before he’ll be the equal of these two greats in that regard.