Question #2 – Is McCarron the Best QB to Ever Play at Bama?

It seems like it has taken all summer, but here we are up to question #2.

Richard Todd

I’ll admit, this is my third pass at the question.

My first stab involved AJ McCarron and his focus on the season based on his off-season activities. But my concerns about that have slowly disappeared as the time has passed.  So I deleted that draft…

My second involved a comparison between McCarron and Manziel based on their off-the-field activities. But, quite frankly, I’m bored of Johnny Manziel and after seeing McCarron’s latest tattoo, I’m not sure who has had a worse off-season.  So, I deleted that draft also.

Slowly but surely, my question #2 has evolved to this: Are we witnessing the best quarterback to ever play at the University of Alabama?

That’s saying something, isn’t it? To even ask this question would seem some sort of sacrilege for most of us. After all, our pantheon of great quarterbacks at the University of Alabama includes Joe Namath, Bart Starr and Kenny Stabler. These guys aren’t just ‘Bama quarterbacks, they are some of the brightest stars to ever play the game – at any level.

Beyond those three, we’ve seen first-round draft picks like Richard Todd and others such as Pat Trammel, Terry Davis, Jack O’Rear, Jeff Rutledge, Steadman Shealy and Jay Barker.

But we’ve reached the point where we need to ask the question.  Is AJ McCarron the best quarterback to ever play at Alabama?  As in ever.

When measuring quarterbacks at Alabama, you don’t start by looking at passing yards and touchdown throws. In our case, most stats are for losers.  Nope, you start by looking at two things:  WINS and CHAMPIONSHIPS.  And not just any championships, mind you.  We’re talking the big ones, national championships.

To get started, I looked for a list of the Tide’s all-time winningest quarterbacks and found one here.  This is a link to the 2012 version of ‘Bama’s football record book and on page 19 I found the list I needed.

Ken Stabler

From this list, I created the table below.  You’ll notice three names added to the list:  McCarron, Ken Stabler and Steadman Shealy.  McCarron will, I’m sure, be added to the 2013 version, but I’m not sure why Stabler is omitted.  I’m guessing there is some sort of minimum games played requirement for the record book, though I could not find this parameter.  Stabler has the fewest games played of any of the players on the list, so I’m guessing he just missed the mark.

This leads us to another problem, as well.  I’m not exactly sure how many games some players, especially those under coach Paul Bryant, actually started.  Stabler, for example, was suspended at some point during the 1967 season, but appears to have accumulated a full season’s worth of stats.  Therefore, I gave him credit for the Tide’s 8-2-1 mark that year.

A similar situation exists for Steadman Shealy who played for Alabama from 1977 through 1979.  Shealy was a member of two title teams, but only started for the 1979 team.  I’m assuming he didn’t start any games prior to 1979 and I’m also assuming he started all of the 1979 season, however, I didn’t find any independent confirmation of this.

A name you won’t find on the list is Bart Starr.  Though he was a member of the 1952-55 Tide teams, he basically only started during his sophomore season.  The Tide finished 6-2-3 that season and lost in the Cotton Bowl. Though Starr is a fantastic human being as was an incredible NFL quarterback, he was barely noticeable as a Tide signal caller.



Title Teams

As Starter


Winning %

Career Passer Rating

Steadman Shealy







Jay Barker







AJ McCarron










Dixie Howell







Greg McElroy







Ken Stabler






Joe Namath








Terry Davis





Pat Trammel







Jeff Rutledge







Harry Gilmer





So, based on this list, who would be your all-time, best-ever University of Alabama quarterback?

First, let’s talk national titles.

The only players with multiple rings are McCarron (3), Shealy (2), and Namath (2).  McCarron and Shealy each were part of a title team as a backup, though Shealy actually played while McCarron took a redshirt during the 2009 season.

Namath was a freshman member of the 1961 team quarterbacked by Trammel, but in those days freshmen were not allowed to play.

To be fair, Stabler should have one championship as well, for the undefeated and untied 1966 season.  He also backed up Steve Sloan who quarterbacked the 1965 champions.

Rutledge came close to two as well with a title in ’78 and a second place finish on an 11-1 team in ’77.  He threw five picks in a loss to Nebraska and that finished the ’77 season before it really got started.

When you add it all up, that leaves only one quarterback to earn more than one championship ring as a starter for the Tide – AJ McCarron.  Sure, he was mostly a “game manager” type player for most of the 2011 season – and one could argue his tentative play cost the Tide in the November loss to LSU, but there’s no doubt he stepped up huge in the rematch against the Tigers.

Next, let’s talk winning percentage.

It’s hard – or rather, impossible, to have a better mark than Shealy in his lone season as a starter (12-0).  I guess you could knock him for only starting 12 games during his career (I think) for the Tide, but Shealy also played a good bit as a backup during two other seasons.  He was also tough as nails, an incredible leader and is a super human being.

Jay Barker

Barker and his gaudy .934 percentage stand out for two reasons:  that’s an incredible number and he achieved it over 38 games.  That’s the second most number of games on the list, three behind Harry Gilmer’s 41.  That’s a gaudy stat, my friends and puts Barker in rarefied air as a ‘Bama quarterback.  (It’s also worth noting that Gilmer was a single-wing quarterback.  He was the team’s primary passer, but the position was much different from today’s QB.)

Barker led an often times anemic offense through an unexpected 11-1 1991 season, an even more unexpected 13-0 national title run in 1992, a “dreadful” 8-3-1 1993 season and, finally, a 12-1 1994 season. Obviously, Barker did not start all of the games during his four year run as ‘Bama’s quarterback.

At this point, we also don’t need to forget Greg McElroy who led the Tide to the 2009 title. McElroy will always be more remembered for his brain versus his,  but he also should forever be remembered as a winner. He took over for the departed John Parker Wilson in 2009 and was an immediate upgrade because of his ability to complete passes to open receivers with very few turnovers. That combination worked perfectly with a pounding running game and a lights out defense.

Namath and Stabler also had stellar winning percentages (although, as stated above, I’m not 100% certain I have Stabler’s number correct).  Much like McElroy and McCarron, these two players came along when the Tide was rolling at an extremely high  rate.  (As a side note, in the 1960s, Bama’s lineup of quarterbacks was a definite murderers row: Trammell, Namath, Steve Sloan, Stabler and Scott Hunter. That’s an impressive string of QBs.)

Steadman Shealy

When a quarterback of any era can play for two or three seasons, like Namath, Stabler and McElroy, and have a winning clip of almost 90% it’s obviously very impressive.

McCarron has an other-worldly .926 winning percentage through 27 games, but his place in history, at least as far as this calculation, is far from settled. The way I see it, the Tide could finish this season anywhere between 14-0 and 10-4. The latter would include a loss in the SEC championship game and three other losses. Finishing 14-0 would create a winning percentage for McCarron of .951, clearly the best in ‘Bama history. A 10-4 record would leave a career mark of .854 and put him near the bottom of this distinguished list.

To put it simply, for McCarron to finish this season with a better mark than Barker, the Tide will need to go undefeated. Anything else won’t get it done.

I also added career passer rating to the chart as a tie-breaker of sorts. Obviously, the passing game has changed tremendously and been used differently through the years. Rules have changed, schemes have changed and players have changed. But the passer rating can tells us how effective a passer was no matter if he passed three times per game or 30.

The first thing you’ll notice here is that McCarron and McElroy clearly stand out versus the others. This is primarily because of three things: very high completion percentages, lots of TD passes and very few interceptions.  In any era, though, their ratings of 160.3 and 155.4, respectively, are outstanding.

Rutledge also stands out with a rating of 145.6. As coach Paul Bryant’s wishbone system continued to evolve through the 1970s, passing became a bigger part of the offense and Rutledge was his most prolific passer of that era.  In order to see this, just compare the era of Richard Todd to that of Rutledge.  Todd passed 189 times for 1,642 yards compared to Rutledge’s 372 and 3,351.

Stabler and Namath also have respectable marks of 128.0 and 125.7, respectively.

To help keep these marks in perspective, though, take a look at passing attempts for these five quarterbacks:

Yes, times have changed, but McCarron and McElroy have achieved incredible results in an era with twice as many attempts and in an era with better overall athletes and competition.

AJ McCarron

And, for the record, McCarron will likely end his career with these spots in Alabama’s passing record book:

  • Attempts:  probably second behind John Parker Wilson’s 1,175;
  • Completions: a good shot a first over Wilson’s 665;
  • Career completion percentage:  a good shot at first over McElroy’s 66.3% (he currently has a career mark of 66.7%);
  • Yards:  he’ll smash Wilson’s mark of 7,924; and
  • Touchdown Passes:  he already owns the career record of 47 and he’ll make a good run at 80.

So, based on this analysis, who is the best quarterback to ever play for Alabama?  Well, let’s review for a moment.

If we’re talking national championships only, we have a pretty short list:  McCarron.  He’s the only Tide quarterback to win two titles as a starter.  Shealy and Namath are the only others to win two, but each had only one as a starter.

If we’re talking winning percentage for quarterbacks having won a title, we also have a pretty short list:  Shealy (1.000), Barker (.934) and McCarron (.926).  McCarron won’t ever beat Shealy’s mark and can only eclipse Barker with an undefeated 2013.

If we’re talking best passer, it’s McCarron hands down who has a career passer rating of 160.3 and has a good shot of owning most of the Tide record book by the end of this season.

Who is the best quarterback to ever play for Alabama?  AJ McCarron.