SI Vault
August 10, 2011
An SI senior writer sifts through a wealth of West Coast options and makes his case for the Pac-12's greatest quarterback of all time
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August 10, 2011

Talk About A Tough Call

An SI senior writer sifts through a wealth of West Coast options and makes his case for the Pac-12's greatest quarterback of all time

IT'S A PERFECT AFTERNOON, WARM BUT NOT TOO WARM. THE OUTDOORS ARE calling, so you grab your worn football and head out with your buddy or your brother, your dad or your kid. You windmill your throwing arm to get loose, and then you wave to him to go deep, fling the football and watch it soar against blue sky.

Haven't we all done that? Maybe that's why the Pac-12 seems to have attracted more elite quarterbacks than any other conference. It's a thrower's paradise. Granted, not every day is filled with sunlight and gentle breezes—just ask Oregon and Washington residents—but generally speaking, there is no better part of the country for guys who like to sling it down the field.

Alas, picking the single greatest of the Pac-12's long list of standout signal-callers is even harder than lifting your arm the day after one of those impromptu passing sessions. Almost every school in the conference has at least one who deserves a place in the discussion. (Sorry, Arizona fans.) But someone has to be named No. 1.

How do you define greatness? If it's membership in the College Football Hall of Fame, you might lean toward Stanford's Jim Plunkett or John Elway, or perhaps Norm Van Brocklin of Oregon or Cal's Joe Kapp. If it's leading a team to a major victory, you might again vote for Plunkett, who carried the underdog Cardinal past Ohio State in the 1971 Rose Bowl, or USC's Matt Leinart, who led the Trojans to the 2004 national title (later vacated).

If you're more of a numbers cruncher, Plunkett still might appeal to you. He set the conference record for single-season passing yardage as a sophomore, then again as a junior and a senior. His career 7,887 yards of total offense was a national record that stood for 15 years. Or perhaps you're more impressed by the QBs who have put up huge stats in today's pass-happy era, like the Ducks' Joey Harrington, who threw for 6,911 yards and 59 touchdowns over three seasons, or Leinart, who completed 64.8% of his passes for 99 TDs with only 23 interceptions in three seasons, all as a starter.

Are awards and honors important? If so, Plunkett won the Heisman Trophy in 1970 and was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, as was fellow Heisman winner Carson Palmer of USC. Oregon State's underrated Terry Baker also won the Heisman and was named SI's Sportsman of the Year in 1962.

NFL success shouldn't be a major factor, but extra points go to UCLA's Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls, and Plunkett and Elway, who each won a pair. They're all enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with Washington's Warren Moon and Dan Fouts of Oregon.

Only one name has appeared in every category so far. Though he never won a national championship, Plunkett elevated his nonpowerhouse program. That's something that most of the other contenders couldn't do. In fact, Stanford's 20-23-1 record during Elway's otherwise stellar career is the only blemish that keeps him from edging Jim Plunkett as the best Pac-12 quarterback of all time.

But maybe you think Elway was the best anyway, or someone I haven't even mentioned, such as Arizona State's Jake Plummer or Washington State's Drew Bledsoe, who were conference players of the year. There are so many worthy candidates that debate is inevitable. Don't get too upset if you don't agree with my pick. If you're in Pac-12 country, it's probably a nice day. Go outside and throw the football around. It's guaranteed to make you feel better.