Who is the greatest quarterback of all time?
It’s a question that has been posed countless times. You might have a good idea on who is No. 1. But what about Nos. 2-25? Now that is the spot in the football universe where the QB debate gets pretty darn interesting.
Makes for good conversation, too. The last time I completed a ranking of the best quarterbacks to ever lace ’em up was back in 2014. A few years later I heard the list being discussed on the radio, leading me to think the list needed a refresher (and in some respects, a drastic makeover). With the 100th NFL season also on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the game’s most exalted position, and to contrast the most celebrated players that played it. Well, they weren’t always celebrated, as even the Hall of Fame and HOF-caliber players below often heard as many jeers as cheers. Perhaps that, as much as anything, makes this exercise so worthy of the time — the subjective nature of it all, and the concerted effort to quell that subjectivity and morph it into educated objectivity.
Easier said than done, but to that end I enlisted the support of Jack Andrade, research maven for NFL Network. He and I have collaborated on historical pieces before, such as comparing quarterbacks from 1992 and 2017 with a statistical equalizer. You will see a little of that below, with some reference to Jack’s handiwork.
As for the rest, there are facts and there are opinions. The following includes a portion of the former, and plenty of the latter. Many of these players are compared with their peers from the same era as well as quarterbacks from a different decade. It should make for interesting arguments in your head or at your favorite pub. Send me your strongest take. Would love to hear it. @HarrisonNFL is the place.
First, let’s start with the greatest quarterbacks to not make the top 20. An appetizer, if you will.
25) Norm Van Brocklin
A part-time starter for one of the NFL’s greatest offenses of all time in 1950, Norm Van Brocklin set a passing record of 554 yards in one game the following year. It still stands, remarkably. After being traded from the Rams to the Eagles in 1958, Van Brocklin went on to be selected first-team All-Pro, win MVP, and become the only team to ever topple the Lombardi Packers in the title game — all in 1960. Then he retired. What a way to go out. Check out some of these throws.
24) Len Dawson
With apologies to Joe Namath, Len Dawson was the AFL’s premier quarterback. He led the younger league in completion percentage seven times, passer rating six times, and touchdown passes four times. Dawson won three titles — the AFL championship in 1962 and 1966 pre-Super Bowl, then a blowout win in Super Bowl IV. He also would become one of the first passers to play until he was 40. “Lenny the Cool” just isn’t talked about enough.
23) Fran Tarkenton
Tarkenton is known for starting and losing three Super Bowls. What you should know is that he is one of the all-time unique players at the position. Tarkenton was a starter in each of his 18 NFL seasons, and was traded from Minnesota to the Giants in 1967, then back to the Vikings in 1972. That’s when his brilliant third act began, as Tarkenton led the Vikings to three NFC Championship Games and an MVP. He was also the passing yards leader in his final campaign in 1978.
22) Warren Moon
Moon could be higher on this list; he could be lower. Those who would say others belong ahead of him would have a point in that Moon never enjoyed success in the playoffs, winning only three postseason starts (and never advancing to a conference title game) in his 17-year career. Yet, what those pundits miss, and why Moon could be (should be?) higher on this list, is the fact that he had to spend the first six years of his pro career in the Canadian Football League before he got a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. Supposed super-smart, forward-thinking college coaches and NFL scouts thought he should play wide receiver instead of quarterback — yes, at every level of his career he encountered racial stereotypes before proving them all very wrong. Moon would later pace the NFL in passing yards in back-to-back seasons, and might be the top pure thrower of the football anyone this side of Joe Namath has ever seen.
21) Jim Kelly
Buffalo Bills, 1986-1996
Put the four Super Bowl losses aside. Sure, Kelly and the Bills‘ offense didn’t play great in any of those contests. But what about all the playoff games to get them there? Kelly was a leader who, unfortunately, doesn’t own the stats to stand up to some of the other top passers of his era. One reason is because he spent his first three seasons playing in the USFL. Check that, he was lighting up the USFL. The second reason? Remember that Kelly was throwing passes in November and December in Buffalo. While it provided the Bills an incredible home-field advantage, it didn’t exactly lead to racking up fantasy points.
* * * * *
That’s your bonus five right there. Hated to leave out Y.A. Tittle, whose run from 1961-1963 is up there with the most incredible three-year performances in league history. Doubly hated omitting Bobby Layne, who won back-to-back titles in Detroit and made the sad-sack Steelers respectable in the early 1960s. Then there’s Philip Rivers, and I didn’t forget about either Kenny — Stabler or Anderson. One word: under-freaking-rated (actually that’s three words and two hyphens).
20) Kurt Warner
When it comes to rating Warner, most folks can’t get past the mid-career lull. Their argument is, essentially, that he didn’t enjoy enough of a prime. Well, that might be true. But it sure as heck wasn’t all his fault. How about the talent evaluators who missed on him coming out of college? Where’s their culpability? Or the Rams, who benched him in 2003 after he sustained injuries to go with Marc Bulger? Then there were the Giants. They sat Warner in his lone season with the team, despite posting a 5-4 record with him, to play Eli Manning (who went, ahem, 1-6). Let’s not forget about the Cardinals, who were hellbent on turning Matt Leinart into the next Neil Lomax. How’d that work out? Anyway, all Warner did in his limited time as a QB1 was win two league MVPs, a Super Bowl MVP, start three Super Bowls, and retire at the top of his game. Not to mention, there must be some kind of merit scholarship for taking the Cardinals to Super Sunday. I was always most impressed with his ability to hold onto the ball on those seven-step drops, deliver the mail, and take the hit.
Stat you need to know: Warner went 1-2 in his three Super Bowl starts, but did you know that he threw a touchdown to tie the game or take the lead in the final three minutes of all three games? That puts things into perspective.
19) Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004-present
Maybe the most difficult guy on this list to rate. Roethlisberger has, at times, played brilliantly. He led the NFL in passing yards in 2018 (5,129), his 15th season. He posted a passer rating of 98.1 and went 14-1 as a starter during his first season (including the playoffs). He’s won two Super Bowls, and started a third. On those merits alone, he should probably go higher than 19th here. Then again, has Roethlisberger ever been the best or second-best player at his position? Another question: How often has he been at the center of a distraction to the team? Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer right now. How high he climbs on the list of all-time great quarterbacks might depend on the next couple of seasons.
Stat you need to know: While Roethlisberger’s career is marked by two Super Bowl wins, it’s his productivity since his last title that sticks out. Roethlisberger has averaged 290.3 passing yards per game since turning 30, the second-highest average in NFL history to only Drew Brees.
18) Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks, 2012-present
Wilson hasn’t put in nearly as much time as the other players that are listed here among the league’s pantheon of all-time quarterbacks. That’s OK, because his first seven seasons as a starter rate just as well as that of almost any QB in league history. Forget that he’s already started two Super Bowls, and only missed the postseason once. Wilson has proven over the last four seasons that, as the team around him has decayed and lost many a key part, that he can carry his squad to victory. Sure, early during his career, Wilson could trot out there and say, “We score 17 points today we might win.” Now, the entire Seattle fan base looks to him to pull a rabbit out of a hat when a game looks like a lost cause. He’s the most effective player in the NFL, by far, at knowing when to use his legs and when to throw the ball away. His career passer rating is over 100. Career passer rating. Most importantly, he’s clutch, even when the chips are way down. Remember the 2015 Divisional Round game in Carolina, when the Seahawks were down four scores and nearly came back to tie it up? I do.
Stat you need to know: NFL Research maven Jack Andrade found that since Next Gen Stats began tracking comprehensive passing stats in 2016, Russell Wilson leads all QBs in passing yards outside of the tackle box (2,122) and passing yards while on the run (2,087). He also leads the league in touchdown passes on tight-window throws (22) and deep completions (32), which are categorized as throws that travel 20 air yards or more. Too bad Seattle didn’t air it out more against the Cowboys in the Wild Card Round.
17) Terry Bradshaw
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970-1983
There are those, particularly the aforementioned NFL Research guru Jack Andrade (who I’ve done many a historical-research deep-dive with), who think Bradshaw was an average NFL quarterback. If you consider the body of his regular season career alone, you wouldn’t be as far off the mark as many of Bradshaw’s passes were from 1970-1974. Yet, from 1977 until 1982, he was quite effective, shrugging off injuries and a coach who was not the easiest for QBs to play for in Chuck Noll. So why is Bradshaw here? Because when it came to big games, particularly the Super Bowl, he was often masterful (more on this below). His heave to Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X might be the greatest throw in Super Bowl history. His second-half work in Super Bowl XIII and XIV put him in Canton. It’s one thing to be above average and win a Super Bowl or two. To win four rings, and play at a high level in those title contests, is a whole nother ballgame.
Stat you need to know: While Bradshaw has been maligned by some for his regular season stats (a general misunderstanding of what NFL offenses were like in the 1970s might be a culprit there), there’s no questioning the man’s Super Bowl efficiency. Of the 29 QBs who’ve attempted at least 40 passes in the Super Bowl, Bradshaw is No. 1 in yards per attempt with 11.1 (no one else is over 10). Similarly, Bradshaw produced a gaudy 10.7 touchdown percentage. What does that mean? That 10.7 percent of his passes went for TDs. Don’t give me any of this but the Pittsburgh defense gave him the ball at the one crap. Most of his TD throws were vertical.
16) Sid Luckman
Chicago Bears, 1939-1950
Severely underrated. Vastly underrated. Whatever other adjective you can come up with that applies here, please do. There’s a reason why some of the Bears‘ passing records still belong to Luckman. He was the second-best quarterback of his era — the Peyton Manning to Sammy Baugh’s Tom Brady, if you will. Although, Luckman was a little like the latter, in that he won four NFL titles (and lost another) in 12 years for Chicago. Those Bears teams led by Luckman might have won more if so many of their players (including Luckman) had not served in World War II. Still, he led the NFL in passing yards three times, touchdown passes three times, and passer rating three times. His 8.4 yards per attempt still ranks second all time, higher than Manning or Brady or any player whose name doesn’t rhyme with Grotto Ham. Chicago’s record while Luckman was there was 98-32-3. Remember when Manning threw seven touchdowns in a game? So cool, right? Perhaps this is an appropriate time to mention that Luckman did that back in 1943.
Stat you need to know: Luckman led the NFL in yards per pass attempt seven different times in his career, which is a record. But it was his 1943 season that was unbelievably special. He averaged 10.9 yards per throw (still the all-time record), and a record 19.9 yards per completion. Wow. His passing touchdown percentage that year was also the highest in history, a whopping 13.9 percent. Just for good measure, he tossed five more touchdowns in the Bears‘ championship win that December. What a stud.
15) Steve Young
Steve Young retired in the previous century, but he’s a prototype of the modern player who can throw, run, and throw on the run. In fact, he might be the most complete quarterback to ever lace ’em up. You read that right. He was the Russell Wilson of his day, using his athleticism to make plays with his legs, yet knowing when to call it a day and play another down. He was as accurate as Drew Brees, and he was as tough as they come. Young’s touch? Well, sorry, no one in the NFL displays that now. Not like Young, anyway. He didn’t become the 49ers‘ full-time starter until 1991, his fifth season with the team, yet what he accomplished in limited time is remarkable. Young won one Super Bowl as a starter, two MVPs, and led the NFL in passer rating six times. He’s one of the all-time leaders in rushing yards by a quarterback. Most importantly, he played brilliantly when he did reach the Super Bowl, helping the 49ers take their fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Stat you need to know: Young is the only player in NFL history to lead the league in passer rating for four consecutive seasons (1991-1994). He was able to pull that feat off while replacing a legend in Joe Montana, which is beyond admirable. Young was tops in passer rating two more times before retiring, which gave him six such titles in eight seasons as San Francisco’s starting quarterback.
14) Troy Aikman
Dallas Cowboys, 1989-2000
If Young was the prototype for the modern-day quarterback, Aikman was the embodiment of what every GM in pro football was looking for at the position from 1950 until Y2K. That is, a tall, steady presence in the pocket and in the huddle, complete with a strong arm that operated with a tight release. Aikman could see, sense and let it fly as quickly as anyone, despite not being necessarily known for doing so. You might have heard that Aikman’s numbers aren’t as impressive because the Cowboys‘ offense was all about running the football. Well, that isn’t exactly true. What is accurate is that Dallas’ offense was a replica of the Air Coryell attack, which threw for quality, not quantity. With the Cowboys leading so often late in games in the ’90s, there was no need to keep chucking it. From 1992 through 1995, the Cowboys led the league in fourth-quarter rushing attempts every season. Thus, the low passing yards. Moreover, Aikman was a master of the intermediate throws: the deep outs and the skinny posts. So, no, his passer rating didn’t soar over 100, because he didn’t incessantly toss the Sam Bradford-to-Jerick McKinnon 2-yard dumps that inflate completion percentage and passer rating. What Aikman did do was win. He won his first seven postseason starts, ultimately finishing with an 11-4 playoff mark. He was outstanding when the Cowboys needed him to be. From 1992 through ’95, there was no better playoff quarterback. Perhaps what is most notable is what many opponents (and the legendary Pat Summerall) said about Aikman: That he was the most accurate passer they ever saw.
Stat you need to know: As many avid historians and sports bar debaters already know, Aikman doesn’t hold a batch of impressive records and bloated stats. What you might not know is the data behind that, uh, lack of impressive data. From 1991 through ’96, when the Cowboys were in the postseason every year and hoisted three Lombardi Trophies, Dallas not only threw the ball less, but the number dwindled by the quarter. Here are the Cowboys‘ league rankings for percentage of plays in which they threw the ball, by quarter …
First quarter: 15th
Second quarter: 25th
Third quarter: 29th
Fourth quarter: Last
It’s tough for a passer to get into a rhythm, or rack up garbage-time stats, when there is no garbage time.
13) Bart Starr
Green Bay Packers, 1956-1971
Starr always gets placed third among the Packers quarterbacks. It’s not fair, especially when most analysts say the game is about winning and not stats. Who can match Starr’s 9-1 postseason record? (Answer: Nobody.) Starr ranks below Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers here — and it’s cloooooose — only because he struggled early on and near the end of his 16-year career. Starr was not quite the same player without Vince Lombardi, with the exception of maybe the 1968 season. Yet, that doesn’t downgrade his game. In other words, Lombardi might not have been nearly as successful without Starr. Consider that the Green Bay icon’s postseason passer rating was 104.8, with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. This was back in the 1960s, when an 80 passer rating put a quarterback near the top of the charts. The Packers‘ offense was known for the vaunted sweep, but Starr’s teammates have often discussed how that sold their quarterback short. After all, this was a guy who was known around the league for routinely going deep on third-and-1. When Starr did take chances downfield, it often paid off. He hit two huge deep balls in perhaps the finest performance of his career, the 1966 NFL Championship Game, on his way to four scoring strikes and no picks. That was a year before the most famous play of his life, the QB sneak in the Ice Bowl. That’s the play everyone mentions. We mentioned it. How about some more perspective …
Stat you need to know: To this day, Starr still owns the highest postseason passer rating at 104.8 (minimum 150 pass attempts). That’s no anomaly. Starr was the first quarterback in league history to have two seasons featuring a triple-digit passer rating, which he did all the way back in 1966 and ’68. To think, the entire league only produced six 100-plus passer ratings during the 1960s, and Starr owned two of them.
12) Brett Favre
Similar to his Hall of Fame forebearer in Green Bay, Favre is often remembered for one aspect of his career: the ironman streak of 297 consecutive starts. It zooms far past being impressive, no doubt. So did the man’s lasers. However, if there is one thing not mentioned quite enough, it’s the fact that Favre won three straight MVPs. Sure, fans and analysts are aware of the hardware. But think about what it takes for a league to say, “OK, you are the most important player in highest level of football for the THIRD year in a row.” Without overstating the accomplishment, that might never happen again. Tom Brady hasn’t been able to do it. Peyton Manning couldn’t get it done, and he won five of those things. Aaron Rodgers has won two total. It’s consistency at its highest level. (And yes, I know Favre shared the award with Barry Sanders in 1997. Doesn’t take away from the achievement.) Favre would go on to set many career records, some of which have fallen, but his true impact on the game was measured by his toughness and his stature as the best player in the sport for multiple seasons. He darn near won the award again in 2009, when he led the Vikings to the NFC title game at age 40. Favre’s ability to improvise was up there with that of John Elway, and in some ways, akin to the derring-do of Patrick Mahomes or Steve McNair. He is one of the best pure throwers of the football ever, a la Warren Moon or Norm Van Brocklin. The only thing keeping him out of the top 10? Some of those late-game postseason errors, which frankly, have probably been too underlined over the years. Put another way: If you want Favre over Aaron Rodgers, you will get no argument from me.
Stat you need to know: Favre’s consistency under center as a performer over the years is well chronicled. But I was taken aback to learn from Jack Andrade that he was the first quarterback to ever throw 35 touchdown passes in three consecutive seasons. Just to give you an idea of how rare that is: Aaron Rodgers, for all of his incredible numbers, has never done that.
11) Sammy Baugh
Washington Redskins, 1937-1952
Too high, right? Sammy Baugh, a guy who came into the league in 1937, shouldn’t sniff this rarefied air, right? Whatever. Yes, Baugh played in some of the NFL’s prehistoric days, back when throwing for over 100 yards in a game was a solid outing. Except he threw for 335 and three touchdowns in the 1937 NFL Championship Game, winning the title as a rookie. Guessing 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL would take that line. Baugh revolutionized the passing game, catapulting off the strides made by the Packers‘ Arnie Herber to make throwing the football more than just an idle threat. As a tailback his first few years (the tailback did most of the passing chores in 1930s offenses), Baugh was hamstrung by a scheme that resembled nothing of today’s spread attacks. But as more teams went to the T-formation in the ’40s, and Baugh got under center, the air game took off. “Slingin’ Sammy,” as he came to be known, was feared around the league for how quickly he could push Washington down the field. After World War II, offenses really opened up, with Baugh at the forefront. In 1945 he completed 70.3 percent of his passes. The league average that year: 45.6. In 1947, he nearly threw for 3,000 yards. That was in a 12-game season when the top 10 was rounded out by a guy who managed 1,004. Baugh was highly accurate, leading the NFL in completion percentage eight times! Lastly, if this were a ranking of the greatest football players and not quarterbacks, Baugh would leapfrog near the top of the pack. Want proof? OK …
Stat you need to know: Baugh recorded so many out-of-this-world numbers that it’s impossible to pick one. For example, in 1943, Baugh boasted the NFL’s highest passer rating, intercepted the most passes and led the NFL in punting average. As if that weren’t enough, Slingin’ Sammy’s ’45 campaign defies all odds. Despite the fact that you could whack quarterbacks upside the head, chuck their receivers all the way down the field and offensive linemen couldn’t extend their arms to pass protect, Baugh produced a 109.9 passer rating. The rest of the league’s average passer rating: 43.0. Please crosscheck those figures yourself to make sure I’m not crazy.
* * * * *
So, those are Nos. 11-20. The next 10, the elite of the elite, have been scrutinized through every possible metric, consideration, and of course, subjective reasoning. Only one member of the top 10 never won a title. Meanwhile, four of the signal-callers below played the bulk of their careers over the last 20 years, which is indicative of the improved play at the position as a whole. Rule changes aren’t the only explanation for the improvement, though. With ever-evolving high school and college offenses, and quarterback camps starting in middle school, today’s passers have honed their skills from youth, putting in thousands of hours perfecting their craft before they reach the NFL. That said, leaving an old-timer like Baugh out of the 10th spot was the toughest decision of the entire lot.
10) Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers, 2005-present
There will be those in the peanut gallery who would expect to see Rodgers higher than 10th, and those that would be just fine putting him behind Favre. (And even a few cheeseheads would slot Rodgers behind Starr.) Frankly, putting Rodgers at 10 was the hardest selection, particularly since it placed him over Baugh, who was the top quarterback of his era. Can we say that definitively about Rodgers? Stats-wise, yes. His 4.23:1 TD-INT ratio defies logic. His career passer rating is in the over-100 stratosphere. Rodgers also boasts two MVPs despite competing with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees for those accolades.
What Rodgers doesn’t own is multiple Super Bowl rings, which brings us to the conundrum. Rodgers has only one ring, and hasn’t pushed his team to any more Super Bowl appearances. Starr started in two Super Bowls, plus four NFL title games before the Ultimate Game was invented. Favre started back-to-back Super Bowls, and led his teams to five conference championship games. See an inherent problem in the logic of labeling Rodgers numero uno from that group? He sits where he does in this rundown because I don’t think the position should be solely judged on winning. There are 22 guys on the field determining the outcome at all times, not 10, like in the NBA. More often than not, Rodgers is better than the other 21. That’s what matters. That, and as long as he doesn’t fold in the clutch, which Rodgers doesn’t. Time and again he has pulled out wins from desperate situations. Perhaps the ultimate judge of his value is how poorly Green Bay has fared without him in recent vintage. Lastly, the eyeball test says so much about this player. Similar to Dan Marino, Rodgers wows us with incredible throws that he makes look routine. All things considered, including his regular season record (100-57-1), the back end of the top 10 feels right for the Packers‘ franchise quarterback for now.
Stat you need to know: When Rodgers entered the league in 2005, Steve Young was the NFL’s all-time best in terms of TD-INT ratio. His 232 touchdowns to 107 interceptions represented a 2.17:1 ratio. Fourteen seasons later, Rodgers has nearly doubled that mark, throwing 338 touchdown passes to 80 interceptions for a 4.23:1 ratio.
9) John Elway
Denver Broncos, 1983-1998
If winning is the lone gauge for determining the finest quarterbacks in league history — a method we discussed in the Rodgers section but one I don’t subscribe to — then Elway’s career received a boost from those back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1997 and 1998. In fact, immediately after winning those rings, I recall some folks vaulting Elway to Johnny Unitas-level status. Reasonable? Well, you can view Elway’s career from several prisms. One of the most common is for critics to say he was a Hall of Fame quarterback, but far from the greatest, due to the fact that Denver’s late 90s championship teams won because of a supercharged running game behind Terrell Davis. Or, there is the vantage point of Elway’s early chapters, when he was considered a one-man band that willed the Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances in his first seven years. Yet another view stems from a pure talent perspective. For all you Patrick Mahomes junkies out there, hop on YouTube and watch yourself a scoop of Elway from 1985 or ’86. What an arm. Extremely mobile, too. While Davis deserves every ounce of respect he gets (yes, he deserved to make the Hall of Fame even with a shorter catalog), the ’97 and ’98 teams don’t win it all without their veteran quarterback. He became a leader, and that as much as anything is why he not only belongs this high, but deserves to be mentioned in Unitas’ breath. Especially when you consider …
Stat you need to know: Elway was the first quarterback to start in five Super Bowls. Yet, even more noteworthy was how often he rescued the Broncos from what appeared to be certain defeat. At the time of his retirement, Elway had the second-most game-winning drives by any QB since 1950 with 40 (he had six more in the postseason). While his 1986 comeback drive against the Browns in the AFC Championship Game is the most famous, his frenzied drive to bring Denver back against the Oilers — including converting two fourth-and-longs — in the 1991 Divisional Round might have been more dramatic. He moved the Broncos from their own 2 to the Oilers’ 11, without a timeout, to set up the game-winning field goal.
8) Roger Staubach
Dallas Cowboys, 1969-1979
There is only one Roger Staubach. There will never be another player like him, much less quarterback. He served in the Navy for four years, including a tour in Vietnam, upon graduating from the academy and was the ultimate franchise representative, embodying all that was right about professional sports while never being a distraction to his team, save for the artificial one Tom Landry created when he began rotating a young Staubach and Craig Morton EVERY PLAY. What young quarterback has ever had to deal with THAT? Staubach was the face of the franchise, and by the late 1970s, the face of the entire league. In the middle of it all was a relatively brief, yet exemplary career. In only eight seasons as a starter, Staubach started four Super Bowls (winning two), led the league in passer rating four times, and finished with an 85-29 record.
Losing out on those four seasons while he served in the Navy and the fact that he might have played longer had injuries, especially concussions, not piled up on him ultimately hurts Staubach on this list. Rightfully so, as longevity is part of the deal. Yet, Staubach didn’t go out with a whimper like so many Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He led the NFC in passer rating in each of his final three seasons, and made the Pro Bowl in each of those years. Staubach led a ferocious comeback in his final regular season game, throwing two touchdowns in the final two minutes and change to beat the Redskins, and win the NFC East. He didn’t merely end with a flourish, either. In Staubach’s first full season as a starter, he went 13-0, won the Super Bowl, and finished with a 104.8 passer rating, the loftiest mark of the 1970s.
Stat you need to know: Staubach’s .746 winning percentage ranks second all-time among quarterbacks with 100 starts. Only Tom Brady can claim a superior winning percentage with a sterling .775. While Staubach “only” went 2-2 in his four Super Bowl starts, his two losses came by a grand total of eight points. The Cowboys averaged almost 25 points per game in those contests, despite going against defenses that had finished third, second, third, and first in points allowed in the season when they met. Combined, those opponents — the Dolphins, Broncos, and both Steelers defensive units — gave up 11.7 points per game. So you could say Roger the Dodger did more than all right.
7) Dan Marino
Miami Dolphins, 1983-1999
Marino is considered the universal exception to the “thou shalt win a Super Bowl to be great” sports proverb that has pervaded analysis over the last 25 years. It used to be, back when the Super Bowl was young, that Y.A. Tittle, Dan Fouts, and other quarterbacks who never won a title but displayed excellence, and put forth gaudy numbers (for their time), could be counted among the top-shelf passers in league history. No more, except for Marino, it seems. So how has Marino transcended one of the most tired, stale, dumb*@$ arguments in sports? Although I can’t be sure, the educated guess is that the Dolphins legend’s wow factor was so off the charts that he couldn’t be denied. While Marino displayed an impressive release and arm strength in college, he seemed to grow into his body by the time he entered the NFL. He was quicker and stronger from an arm standpoint at 22 than he was at 19 or 20. The ball zipped off his hand, and it only took .30 seconds to cock the arm and let fly. Marino was phenomenal as a rookie, going 7-2 as a starter and finishing as the AFC’s top-rated passer. His sophomore season is the most incredible offensive season in 100 years of the NFL. The line: 5,084 passing yards, 48 touchdowns, and a 108.9 passer rating. Those are Mahomes-esque numbers in an era that had never conceived of Mahomes-esque numbers (more on the greatest offensive campaign ever below). Marino led the NFL in passing yards in 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1992. The ’86 campaign is particularly notable in that his 44 scoring tosses were 19 ahead of the next closest guy! That discrepancy is an NFL record. Marino was not quite the same player after an Achilles injury in 1993, but he was still among the top quarterbacks in the game. Prior to that injury, the discussion of the best QBs in the game was reserved for Marino and Joe Montana. Except Marino never handed the ball off to Wendell Tyler or Roger Craig like Montana and didn’t have four defensive backs on his team make the Pro Bowl in one season like Montana, or the benefit of having the entire fate of the team always on his shoulders. Thus, seventh he sits.
Stat you need to know: “Elliot loves Dan Marino’s 1984 season, and for good reason. His 48 touchdown passes broke the single-season record of 36 and stood for 20 years. He became the first QB to break the 5,000-passing-yards barrier. He was sacked just 13 times (fewest in the NFL among QBs to attempt 200-plus passes) despite leading the league with 564 pass attempts.
Adjusted for era, like Elliot did here, Marino’s 1984 season equated to a QB throwing for 5,668 yards and 58 touchdowns in 2018.” — Jack Andrade, NFL Network Researcher
6) Drew Brees
Much like Marino, Brees has made a living producing gaudy numbers. Many in the football business think he’s been underrated, partially because his record 74,437 passing yards have come in workmanlike fashion. Brees is not the imposing presence Cam Newton is. He doesn’t have Aaron Rodgers‘ arm. Although a nice-looking athlete, Brees has never been the GQ cover-boy-type like Tom Brady or a young Joe Namath. All he does is produce, year after year. Brees is pro football’s version of duct tape: good for every occasion, durable, and the most reliable (football) thing on the planet. Just as my neighbor Elmer could cure all manner of ills with a bit of duct tape, think of all the Saints‘ deficiencies Brees has masked over the years. Now that New Orleans has a squad, and head coach Sean Payton can call on the run game for more than just a dash of paprika, Brees missed throwing for 4,000 yards last season for the first time since 2005. Of the 11 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history, he has posted five of them. Brees’ career has been about unmitigated, unstoppable production. He’s like the Ford Motor Company of the 1920s. If Brees is not as slick as Namath in pantyhose, he’s easier to root for. Considered too short to go in the first round, and allowed to walk out of San Diego without a contract to make way for Philip Rivers, all Brees has done is provide a steady current of wins, Pro Bowls, and now, NFL records. While Payton has played a massive role in Brees’ development as a future Hall of Famer, the latter’s ability to move within the pocket has been the secret to his success. Marino, Brady and Brees are the all-time Jedi masters at feeling pressure, then making the subtle movements to ensure the ball finds its intended recipient.
Stat you need to know: The fact that Brees has finished ahead of all comers in passing yards seven times, a league record, doesn’t validate the uniqueness of his production. Rather, it’s how often Brees has reached numbers that other greats either never do or rarely do. For example, while he has passed the aforementioned 5,000-yard-barrier five times, no other player has managed that total more than once. He has completed over 70 percent of his passes four times, and no other player has surpassed that number more than one time.
5) Otto Graham
Cleveland Browns, 1946-1955
Arguments can be made for an old-timer like Graham ranking this high that, unfortunately, some football fans just won’t consider. Imagine a world in which people only believe what they want to believe, basing their opinions on alternative facts. Thank goodness that only happens in pro football. The stat/number/fact that you hear the most about Graham is concise and carries import: 10 seasons, 10 championship game appearances. The first four came in the All-America Football Conference, a rival league that contributed three franchises to the NFL: the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts (who later folded, then reformed.) Graham’s Browns dominated the AAFC, winning the title all four years. During those seasons, Graham not only engineered plenty of wins, but he also generated impressive stats in a prehistoric era for the passing game, including a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 99.1 passer rating. In 1950, Graham’s Week 1 assignment was to lead the Browns against the two-time defending champion Eagles. Graham threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another in leading the league’s newbie franchise to a 35-10 win. Graham helped Cleveland reach a 10-2 record that first year in the NFL, then threw for 298 yards and four scores (and rushed for 99 yards) in the championship game win over the Rams. The Browns played for the NFL title in each of the next five years, winning in ’54 and ’55. During that time, Graham acclimated to defenses that were superior to those he faced in the AAFC. He paced the NFL in completion percentage in ’53, ’54, and ’55, while producing the highest passer rating in two of those seasons (’53 and ’55). That final year, Graham also led the league in yards per completion (17.6) and touchdown percentage (8.1), was named first-team All-Pro and won the last title for Paul Brown’s Cleveland teams. And he did it all with class.
Stat you need to know: I have always thought that yards per attempt was the most unheralded measure of a player, or at least quarterback, in pro football. It’s a simple data point: How much bang for the buck does a quarterback give his team when he cocks his arm? It’s also the one area that older passers, such as Graham, can be measured fairly equally with players of today. Guys like Graham threw down the field, as opposed to tossing none-yard outs to Danny Amendola and three-yard ins to Jarvis Landry. All of which is to say that no stat in this article is more impressive than Graham’s career yards-per-attempt mark of 9.0. The dude almost got a first down every time he released the ball! When I sat down with Jack Andrade to go over the numbers, Jack had the brilliant idea of finding out how many times Graham would have had to spike the ball into the dirt for the next closest player to catch him on the all-time list. The answer: 174 times! For the next active passer? More than 200! Next.
4) Johnny Unitas
The innovator of the group, Johnny Unitas altered the way the quarterback position was played in a similar manner to another Colt some four decades later. Much of what you see in the passing game today can be attributed to Unitas. He morphed the disorganized approach losing teams used to make a comeback late in a game into the routine two-minute drill we know today. Before this monumental shift in strategy, offenses ran their normal attacks, clocks be damned, and more often than not, ran out of time (only Bobby Layne achieved regular success with this inefficient approach). With Unitas’ late-game heroics came clock management and precision passing. The timing he developed with fellow Hall of Famer Raymond Berry is represented in every prolific combo since, be it Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin, or Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. He achieved this breakthrough early in his career. Not coincidentally, Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to back-to-back championships in his third and fourth seasons. He would later guide them to a championship game appearance in 1964 and a Super Bowl V title following the 1970 campaign.
Like Peyton Manning, Unitas won a ring on a team (’70) that didn’t need to lean on him as in years past. But, also similar to Manning, his individual ascendancy as a player made him worthy of being leaned on, as supported by three league MVP awards. Manning, of course, won five, but believe it or not, the MVP was as likely to go to a running back as a quarterback in the late ’50s and ’60s. From 1956 to 1967 — Unitas’ rookie year to what was essentially the tail end of his prime — he was the top quarterback in pro football. Unitas was named first-team All-Pro five times and made the Pro Bowl in 10 of those 12 seasons. He led the league in both passing yards and touchdown throws three different times during that span. He was never quite the same player after injuring his elbow in 1968, and it’s worth recalling that surgical techniques 50 years ago didn’t always get players back on the field in perfect operating condition as they do now. Even when his physical game deteriorated, Unitas’ mind was still able to beat defenses. He called his own plays even when other teams started to give the head coach that responsibility. It’s a huge reason his career record (including the postseason) was a sterling 124-65-4. Maybe we can pretend that 1-3 season as a 40-year-old in San Diego never happened.
Stat you need to know: Unitas is the only player to lead the league in passing touchdowns four straight years, a feat he pulled off from 1957 to 1960. During that time, he also completed a streak of 47 straight games with at least one touchdown pass. Drew Brees beat it in 2012, some 52 years later. However, when Unitas produced his record streak, he was throwing the ball fewer than 29 times per game. Brees? Nearly 40. Huge difference. Moreover, while Brees tossed a touchdown on 6.2 percent of his passes during his span, an excellent number, Unitas did the same on 7.6 percent of his attempts. That Unitas streak from the late ’50s is every bit as golden as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
3) Peyton Manning
What can you say about Peyton Manning that hasn’t already been said? Not much. The key with Manning is pointing out how he changed the way the position was played. Lost in all of the passing yards (he ranks second), passing touchdowns (he ranks first) and those five MVP trophies lies the undercurrent of innovation. By the time he was drafted in 1998, quarterbacks had long ceased calling their own plays. The Raiders were the last holdout. They quit the practice in the mid-1980s. Sure, Dan Marino called many of his own via audible as he got more experienced. Jim Kelly called them on the reg out of the K-Gun, the Bills‘ rip-off of the Bengals‘ no-huddle offense that befuddled the AFC in 1988 (so Boomer Esiason should be mentioned here, too.) Manning began calling plays at the line constantly in the mid-to-late 2000s, but his approach was different. He would identify defensive formations at the line, choose the best play to counter what he saw and routinely yell out dummy calls more than anyone else. Opponents would do their best to match wits and identify keys, only to have Manning switch the play up, or shift it to the opposite side, seconds before snapping the ball. Only veteran middle linebackers or defensive play-callers, such as a Ray Lewis or the too-often forgotten Zach Thomas, could even attempt to keep pace with Indy’s Hall of Fame quarterback.
Manning’s wobbly throws often resembled some Dan Fouts specials, but like the phenomenal Chargers quarterback, the ball always got there. At times Manning was more like a veteran pitcher than quarterback (think Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series), mixing it up and confusing hitters even when his fastball was 10 years in arrears. He even managed to change fantasy football. You know why so many fantasy leagues end by Week 17? Because Manning and the Colts had so thoroughly dominated the AFC that he only played a drive or two the final week of the season to stay fresh, making way for backups Jim Sorgi or Curtis Painter (Yay). Other teams followed suit upon clinching. (OK, I don’t know if that’s 100 percent true, but it holds up, right?) Back to those MVPs for a moment. To be considered the most important player at the highest level of pro football is special. But five times!? Good grief. Someone on here will be a snob about Manning not winning more “big games.” First, someone please define big games, because based on the media blanket which exists today, they all seem rather big. Second, look at some of the ways his teams lost. Was he perfect? No. But if Mike Vanderjagt doesn’t slice that field goal in the 2005 Divisional Round, Indy would have gone on to win that Super Bowl. They were the best team in the league. Either way, two rings ain’t bad, right? Don’t forget a few of the clutch throws he made in Super Bowl 50 either, even if he was clearly past his prime at that point.
Stat you need to know: Back in 2016, I worked with Jack Andrade on another project. I was trying to develop a non-complex, if not simple, stat that calculates the percentage of positive plays a quarterback produces (first downs and touchdowns), whether it comes from running or throwing. The system also downgraded quarterbacks for negative plays like interceptions. I called it N3P, or net positive play percentage, at least as a working title. Well, Jack went and looked through every season since the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger and found that Manning owned three of the top six N3P seasons among all the quarterbacks. Not only that, Manning’s 2004 campaign was the No. 1 overall N3P season.
2) Joe Montana
For a long time, it was Joe Montana and then everybody else in the greatest quarterback of all time conversation. Under Bill Walsh’s tutelage, Montana ushered in a new era of offense in the NFL, a fresh take on an old moniker. The West Coast offense spawned a legion of imitators, with many of its principles still present in today’s game.
Montana didn’t own the strongest arm, but he was highly accurate and much more mobile than people remember. He threw perhaps the most catchable ball ever. Watch some of those Jerry Rice and John Taylor highlights. Notice how all the slants each took to the house hit them on the run, softly in stride. What stuck out more than the kind of passes Montana tossed was the quality of them; specifically, the circumstances in which so many of his greatest performances occurred. Montana was so often a maestro in contests against the NFC’s toughest competition — the 1988 NFC title game in frigid Chicago against that Bears defense springs to mind immediately. Against the AFC’s premier teams in the Super Bowl, Montana was close to perfect. He won four of four, and was named MVP three times. In the ’89 postseason, he threw 11 touchdown passes with no interceptions, while sporting a passer rating (146.4) straight out of “Tecmo Super Bowl.” Montana’s overall postseason record was a sterling 16-7, complete with clutch comebacks that were successful (1993 Wild Card and Divisional Rounds for the Chiefs), and those that ultimately fell short (1983 NFC Championship Game). He authored the largest regular season rally in the NFL’s 99 years, leading the Niners back from a 35-7 deficit against the Saints in 1980. It came in his sixth career start. In his first full season as Walsh’s QB1, Montana completed a higher percentage of his passes than anyone else in the league (63.7), topped the NFC in passer rating (88.4), won more starts than any other quarterback (13-3) … and threw the most famous pass in NFL history … and won Super Bowl MVP.
His 1984 season was, along with Marino, the first 100 passer rating season since 1976. Montana went 18-1 as a starter that year for perhaps the most complete squad in Super Bowl history. His 1989 campaign, when he won the first of two MVP awards, was insane. Despite playing under rules that made the quarterback position much more arduous than it is today, Montana completed more than 70 percent of his passes with a 112.4 passer rating. Those numbers would still be right around the top of the charts today. Don’t forget his time in K.C., when in 1993 he took the Chiefs to their first AFC Championship Game since the AFL-NFL Merger. Patrick Mahomes became Kansas City’s first quarterback to equal that feat in 2018.
Stat you need to know: Montana’s Super Bowl feats are well-documented. What is not as highlighted is how effective he was during a three-year span in which he almost lifted the 49ers to the first three-peat. Montana’s postseason run from 1988 to 1990 pushed him to the lofty perch of being the greatest quarterback of all time, as he posted a 100-plus passer rating in eight straight playoff games, winning all but one start. That was the 1990 NFC Championship Game, when Montana got knocked out in the second half by the Giants‘ Leonard Marshall. San Francisco was winning at the time of his injury. Montana’s TD-to-INT ratio in those eight games: 22:2. Gooooodnight.
1) Tom Brady
New England Patriots, 2000-present
He’s the all-time leader in the QB clubhouse, though not in any of the major statistical areas. Except, that is, for the category that has always resonated the most with this position: winning. Brady owns the most wins at the position by a wide margin. His 207 regular-season victories are 21 more than second-placed Manning. His 30 postseason wins blow everyone out of the water. Early in his career, Brady was known for being an accurate passer who was smart with the football and could dial up big plays when the defensive-minded Patriots needed it. He was cool in the pressure moments, too. Brady let the game come to him toward the end of Super Bowl XXXVI, taking the checkdowns and short stuff to maneuver kicker Adam Vinatieri into range to finish off the “Greatest Show on Turf.” A less-heralded, but equally important, drive came at the end of Super Bowl XXXVIII, when Brady moved the Patriots‘ offense just enough to set up Vinatieri for another Super Bowl-winning kick. No such theatrics were needed the next year, as Brady was efficient in helping New England to its third Super Bowl in four seasons.
That seems like a lifetime ago. All he has accomplished since that time is win three more Super Bowls, start three others, win all 16 regular-season starts in a season for the first time in league history and throw up a top-five all-time offensive season from the quarterback position. And then there’s Brady’s 2010 season, sneakily the best year of his career. He led the NFL in touchdown passes (36), adjusted yards per attempt (9.0) and passer rating (111), while ranking first in both touchdown and interception percentage (7.3% and 0.8%, respectively). He even topped a little-known record set by Don Meredith way back in 1968, finishing the season with nine straight games of at least two touchdown passes and zero picks. Unfortunately, Brady and Co. were knocked out of the postseason by Rex Ryan’s pesky Jets. Since that time, Brady has made it to the AFC championship every year. Every. Year. That’s eight straight conference championship game appearances, a record that will never be matched. While his six Super Bowl rings are the most of anyone, Brady came oh so close to winning a couple more (in fairness, he was quite fortunate to prevail in two, too). A key drop late in Super Bowl XLVI could have been the difference in a Patriots win. He famously threw for more than 500 yards in the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Eagles. Perhaps it’s an indication of Brady’s dominance of the sport that all the post-game memes focused on his dropped pass, while Philly quarterback Nick Foles famously caught his. Never mind that the pass to Brady was directly over his helmet and about 50 times harder to catch than the shotput right to Foles’ mitts.
Paramount to Brady’s success has been his focus on what’s in front of him. He refuses to lose, and early in his career, refused to be distracted. He’s taken less money every year to ensure New England has the resources to build a quality team around him. He supports his teammates, even guys who are forced to move on from the organization (like Malcolm Butler). Despite so many accomplishments in his incredible career, winning a Week 2 home game against the Dolphins still remains as important to him as ever. As part of that immense drive, Brady has readdressed his body and conditioning in a manner pertinent to his age and the position he plays. It’s functionality over fashion, despite his ease with the latter. Although not known for stats, and Brady’s seemingly indifference to them, he has managed to finish No. 1 in passing yards three times, touchdown passes four times and passer rating twice. Brady has also produced the lowest INT percentage in a season four different times in his career — a truly rare feat. He minimizes mistakes without sacrificing production, then wins the important downs so his team wins in the standings, game after game, year after year. Brady is the NFL’s top all-time quarterback, if not player. Yep. He is probably that, too.
Stat you need to know: Brady’s career has been a study in steady greatness, but it’s also bookended by both individual and team accomplishments. There simply hasn’t been much decline, and if anything, Brady might have improved in his later years. His first and most recent MVP seasons came a decade apart. Brady’s first and most recent passing yards titles were 12 years apart. His first and most recent passing touchdowns titles were 13 years apart. More than any other numbers, a single line exemplifies what Brady’s legacy will be: In 17 healthy seasons as a starter, he’s made more Super Bowls (9) than he’s missed (8).
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.