As the NFL prepares to embark upon its historic 100th season, compiling a list such as this presents a grand opportunity to pay tribute to 25 of the very best quarterbacks who have ever played in the world’s greatest sports league.
Make no mistake about it, not only is the starting quarterback the most important position on any team, it is also the most important position in any team sport (besides hockey goalie), along with being the most difficult to master and only at a higher level. Therefore, when a list such as this rates the top quarterbacks, we’re ranking some of the top players in the game.
One term you won’t be reading on this list is “G.O.A.T’ which for decades referred to the schlub player who blew the game. Think Sleepy Floyd versus North Carolina in 1982, Bill Buckner versus the Mets in 1986 and Leon Lett versus the football in 1993. That’s what “goat” used to mean, before it mutated into today’s lazy acronym that just sounds wrong whenever associated with a great player.
So leave the farm animals to Old McDonald, and let’s start the countdown to true professional football greatness:
25. Philip Rivers
Rivers has still yet to deliver his franchise, the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, to the promised land of the Super Bowl, but there is no disputing his talent and his fiery will-to-win. Rivers was drafted fourth overall by the New York Giants in 2004, then traded to the Chargers for Eli Manning, who had been the overall number one pick of the Chargers.
For any who doubt Rivers’ inclusion on a list such as this, realize he has a career passer rating of 96.0, which ranks him an impressive eighth all time among quarterbacks who’ve made at least 1,500 passing attempts in their careers. And when it comes to consecutive-game durability among active quarterbacks, Rivers is number one with 208 and counting. If he starts the Chargers’ first three games in 2019, he’ll leapfrog both Manning brothers to be second only to Favre in that category.
24. Warren Moon
Though he might be surpassed in the demographic category by the likes of Pat Mahomes or Cam Newton, for now Moon remains the greatest African-American quarterback in NFL history. This designation is somewhat ironic considering it was in the Canadian Football League (CFL) in which Moon achieved his initial professional success that lead to a successful transition to the best pro football league.
Moon was foolishly undrafted in the 1978 NFL Draft, so he took his game to the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL, where he won a Tom Brady-like five Grey Cups (the CFL equivalent of the Super Bowl) before returning to the NFL in 1984 to play with the Houston Oilers first, then three other NFL teams. Though he never won an NFL title, Moon retired with 291 career touchdowns, a number that would otherwise easily exceed 400 had he been properly drafted in ‘78.
23. Otto Graham
Graham is a player perhaps not as familiar to today’s readers, but deserves a place on a prestigious list such as this. Graham was a three time NFL MVP (1951, 1953, and 1955), and was one of those old-school players who fought in World War II, yet brought a modern sensibility to the game with his scrambling ability, as he translated his basketball skills into a spinning, moving pocket presence that confounded defensive linemen who were used to stiffer quarterbacks.
Graham also had the versatility to mix up throwing short, tight hard passes to gain critical yardage with the longer, softer bombs intended for long gains.
22. Len Dawson
Dawson could have been football’s version of Pete Rose, after the long-time Chiefs’ quarterback became a subject of an investigation after being linked to a professional gambler, who, even though he was no relation, had the unfortunate last name of “Dawson” as well (first name Donald). T
hough Dawson’s name was cleared, he had to deal with all that external pressure while preparing to lead Kansas City in Super Bowl IV versus the Minnesota Vikings and their imposing “Purple People Eaters” front line that included two hall of famers (Alan Page and Carl Eller). Dawson rose to the occasion, securing MVP honors for the game after leading KC to a 24-7 triumph.
21. Troy Aikman
While Troy Aikman doesn’t have the greatest career stats compared to many of the quarterbacks listed here, his deadly pinpoint accuracy and three-for-three in winning Super Bowl titles for the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys dynasty ensured his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Aikman retired with a 61.1 lifetime completion percentage in the NFL, and frankly, we were surprised it was not higher, given Aikman’s precision passing over the years.
Aikman was a college star at both Oklahoma, and later, UCLA and there was little doubt that then-Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson was going to make him the number one overall choice in the 1989 pro draft.
20. Kurt Warner
If there was ever an “Arena League” version of this list, then Warner would surely be profiled there as well, for his starring role as the Iowa Barnstormers’ quarterback playing indoor pro football. Warner’s rags-to-riches story is one unique in the annals of the NFL, and certainly improbable in it produced one of the NFL’s all-time great gunslingers.
Before Brady and Manning had fully established themselves, Warner was the dominant QB of the early 2000’s, leading the “Greatest Show on Turf,” the then-St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls, wining XXXIV versus the Titans.
Perhaps an even greater testament to Warner’s superior skills is that he actually took the forever mediocre Arizona Cardinals’ franchise to Super Bowl XLIII, nearly upsetting the Steelers in the process.
19. Y.A. Tittle
A legend from pro football’s pre-merger past, even though Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Jr. did not begin his career in the NFL. Instead, he opted for the Baltimore Colts of the now defunct AAFC league in 1947. When the Colts joined the NFL but then financially folded, there was an ancillary draft of Baltimore’s players. The San Francisco 49ers nabbed Tittle in 1951 and the rest was history.
Not only did Tittle first throw the long-gaining “alley-oop” pass downfield, he is credited with coining the term. He was also the first NFL player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated, and was part of the 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield” along with Hugh “The King” McElhenny, Joe “The Jet” Perry and John Henry Johnson.
18. Dan Fouts
Most fans today know Fouts from his insightful TV color commentary of NFL games, but for the better part of a decade spanning the late ‘70’s to the mid-80’s, Fouts was the Brady/Manning/Brees of his generation, head and shoulders above any other quarterback at the time in terms of combing laser accuracy with a weaponized right arm.
Fouts’ greatest flaw is that he could never take his San Diego “Super” Chargers to the pro football’s “land of milk and honey,” a/k/a the Super Bowl, partly due his team’s shoddy defenses.
But Fouts always had the skills and ability to march the “Bolts” up and down the field, forcing the opponent to play a basketball-style game to keep up. Fouts was the ideal quarterback to execute the innovative offensive schemes of Chargers’ head coach Don Coryell.
17. Fran Tarkenton
If you (or your Dad) were fortunate enough to grow up in the greatest decade of them all, the 1970’s, then you might have some sweet memories of Monday Night Football’s Howard Cosell delineating the greatness of “Sir Francis” leading the Vikings to victory after victory.
Even though Tarkenton always came up short in Super Bowls against superior AFC defenses (the AFC ruled the ‘70’s like the way the NFC would later rule the 80’s and most of the 90’s), there is no denying his greatness. With his combination of sure-fire passing and big-gain scrambling, one could reasonably argue Francis Asbury Tarkenton was the best quarterback in the NFL from 1973-to-1978, his final year.
16. Sammy Baugh
Baugh is another old school quarterback cracking this list, and for good reason, as he lead the Washington pro franchise to two NFL Championships in 1937 and 1942. In an era when the run game was dominant, Baugh was a pass-first machine, an old-school Brady or Brees, leading the NFL in completion percentage eight times and four times in passing yardage, including his first season (’37) when he was technically a tailback!
Baugh was truly one of those players who pioneered and helped transform the game from one-dimensional ground attacks to exciting aerial displays of passing prowess.
15. Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger would probably be regarded as one of the all-time greats simply for his toughness and the difficulty defenders have in bringing down the massive man known aptly as “Big Ben.” But combine that with 3 AFC Championships, two titles, and there’s no doubt of Roethlisberger’s legacy.
Hard to believe now he was was drafted tenth overall by the Steelers in 2004, with both Eli Manning and Philip Rivers being chosen before him. But Ben has since surpassed both those players in terms of both stats and Super Bowl starts. And while Eli is clearly declining, Ben is getting better with age; in 2018 he threw for over 5,000 yards for the first time in his career along with tossing a Steelers-franchise record 34 touchdown passes.
14. Jim Kelly
Jim Kelly is the only NFL quarterback to take his team–in this case, the Bills of Buffalo–to four straight Super Bowls, and not even Tom Brady has accomplished that feat. Kelly’s misgiving was coming up short in all four ultimate contests, in which he threw but two touchdowns versus seven interceptions.
In our postmodern “win or you’re nothing” culture, it’s easy for cynics to dismiss Kelly, but he actually came oh-so-close to winning the Bills’ first Super Bowl (XXV) versus the New York Giants, and had a halftime lead in their final Super Bowl (XXVIII), a rematch against the Cowboys. Had Kelly but split his four Super Bowls, he would be much more highly regarded, and receive more credit for being a master of the Bills’ “K-Gun” no-huddle offense.
13. Bart Starr
Starr was the biggest winning quarterback during the 1960’s and established the great Green Bay legacy of quarterbacks that eventually extended to Favre and Rodgers. Starr is another QB who doesn’t sport the most gaudy stats, yet his five titles (1961 and ’62, as well as 1965-through-1967) earns him instant credibility like few other passers.
Starr was MVP in the first two Super Bowls, which didn’t really count for much as it does today in the fully merged NFL. The first four Super Bowls were between separate-league NFL and AFL champions just to see who was better and for publicity. Since Super Bowl V (1970-71 season), the game actually determines the NFL champion in a unified league.
12. Terry Bradshaw
On paper, Bradshaw’s stats aren’t very impressive; a TD-to-INT rate of merely 212-to-210. But with “TB,” stats only tell part of the story, as he remains the only quarterback in NFL history to win back-to-back Super Bowls not once, but twice. Unlike some of the quarterbacks on this list, Bradshaw did not enjoy early success; in fact he wasn’t the starting signal caller at the start of the Steelers first Super Bowl-winning season in 1974.
Terry had to scratch and claw to put his hands under center for the team that would go on to be the NFL’s dynasty of the ‘70’s, winning four Super Bowls in six years, a feat still unmatched by any franchise.
11. Johnny Unitas
Let’s face reality; without Unitas, we’re probably watching horrifying soccer every Sunday in autumn instead of the greatest sports league in human history, the NFL. Unitas stands alone for the simple but profound fact that he revolutionized the passing game in an era when the rules and regulations did not favor the quarterback.
Unitas threw for 40,000 career yards when such a total was unimaginable. “Johnny U” was also the NFL’s first superstar QB, ushering in the hype and popularity that is now routinely doled out to the Bradys and the Mannings of the post-merger NFL (since 1970).
Unitas was the star and winning hurler of the “greatest game ever played,” the 1958 NFL Championship that ushered in the modern popularity of a game that had previously been subordinate to both baseball and college football for decades. That all changed, thanks in large part to Johnny U, the NFL’s first alpha dog.
10. Steve Young
This two-time NFL MVP (1992 and 1994) was the San Francisco 49ers’ anointed successor to Joe Montana, and was actually more physically gifted and talented than Montana. The main knock on Young is that he only managed to appear in and win a single Super Bowl (XXIX), three less than his predecessor.
Young is the rare left-hander to make this legendary list, and he was also unique in that he was an extremely deft scrambler, but combined that with an ability to stand strong in the pocket and deliver the ball to receivers like Jerry Rice with great touch and deadly accuracy. Most “running quarterbacks” do so due to lack of height or a strong enough arm, but Young had it all.
9. Aaron Rodgers
Many of the quarterbacks on this list are regarded as being “clutch,” but Green Bay’s starting quarterback is a cut above when it comes to making tying/winning touchdown passes at the end of games. The thing with Rodgers is, he’s the one QB who could still ascend higher when it comes to such a ranking system, it’s truly up to him and his amazing talents as to how far he can go.
Forget the controversy over departed former Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy, that train had left the station. Now it’s time for Rodgers to get a fresh start with new head coach Matt LeFleur, as “A-Rod” and his magical arm try to ascend to the top of the NFL mountain once more.
8. Roger Staubach
Staubach’s greatest failing was coming up short in Super Bowls X and XIII against Terry Bradshaw’s Steelers, but the original “Captain Comeback” won two Super Bowls (VI and XII) anyway. Staubach was the model for the cool, calm and clean efficiency that was a hallmark of the Dallas Cowboys’ incredible success during the 1970’s.
When he won Super Bowl VI versus the Miami Dolphins, Staubach became the first player to win college football’s Heisman Trophy as well as a Super Bowl MVP award, the feat since matched by three other players. Give Staubach credit for bravery, he could have served his Naval requirements in safe America, but volunteered to serve a year overseas in the death-filled nightmare also known as the Vietnam War.
7. John Elway
The raw talent just dripped off Elway, even if he did have trouble winning a Super Bowl for most of his career. However, it should be noted that those Denver Broncos teams of the 1980’s had no business even attending those three Super Bowls (XXI, XXII, and XXIV) as part of the crowd, let alone playing in them.
Elway personally carried those Broncos teams on his back. Like perhaps no other quarterback before or since, Elway combined a cannon arm with a running back’s legs and a fiery competitive spirit coupled with great football instincts that he picked up from his football-coach father, Jack Elway.
6. Dan Marino
Let there be no doubt, Daniel Constantine Marino, Jr. remains the one of the best “pure passers in NFL history” (if you do question that claim, do a web search on the subject). Marino’s only drawback was his failure to deliver titles like Unitas, Brady, Manning etc. He’s also criticized for reaching but one Super Bowl (XIX), in which he did not play well and was clearly out dueled by a more precise Joe Montana. But one game–win or lose–does not a career make.
When Marino burst onto the scene in 1983–somewhat under the radar due to being drafted only 27th overall by Miami in that iconic NFL Draft that included the likes of John Elway–he immediately turned the formerly turgid, run-heavy Dolphins into an aerial attack the likes of which pro football had never seen. Aided by the “Marks Brothers,” (outstanding wideout pair Mark “Super” Duper and Mark Clayton), Marino helped transform the NFL into the pass-first league we currently experience.
5. Drew Brees
The perfectly named Brees makes everything about being a quarterback seem so easy, just like a cool wind sorely needed during the hottest part of the day. Until Brees came along, the Saints were one of those franchises you thought of as having a legacy of cruddy quarterbacks, as New Orleans’ all-time greatest quarterback had been either Archie Manning or Bobby Hebert, slim pickings there.
Brees has set an incredible standard that any future Saints quarterback may find impossible to challenge, let alone achieve, such as 74,437 yards and 520 touchdowns (versus only 233 picks) and counting. Brees has obviously thrived in the offensive system devised by Saints’ coach Sean Payton, and despite not having the same physical tools as many quarterbacks on this list.
4. Brett Favre
Pound-for-pound, Brett Lorenzo Favre had to be the toughest quarterback in NFL history. At 6-2, 222, Favre endured as much abuse as any quarterback to ever play the game, yet he still managed to start 321 consecutive games, regular and postseason combined, for three different franchises, the Packers, Jets and Vikings.
The majority of that time was with Green Bay, as he lead the Pack to their first Super Bowl title in the post-merger era, and first one that really counted (the first two Packer Super Bowl triumphs were basically glorified exhibition games).
Favre remains the only player to win three consecutive NFL MVP awards (1995-1997). When Favre retired, he held many NFL passing records that have since broken by Peyton Manning and/or Tom Brady.
3. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning is as good as an NFL quarterback can get; all the physical tools, a born leader, mastery of the mental game, passion to play and excel, a tireless worker, and relentless competitor. Manning translated those positive qualities into a career that places him among the elite of the elite.
Peyton’s career stats say it all, highlighted by throwing for nearly 72,000 yards (that’s almost 41 miles of completed passes), and an astonishing 539 touchdowns. Manning played in four Super Bowls, winning two of them.
Peyton is the best passer from an incredible football family that features father Archie, who mostly overachieved for a terrible New Orleans team in the 1970’s, and brother Eli, who was a very serious contender to make this list.
2. Joe Montana
While three-time Super Bowl MVP Montana lacked the power passing skills of many of the QB’s populating this list, “Joe Cool” was the quintessential catalyst of the “West Coast Offense” system perfected by late 49ers’ head coach Bill Walsh. Montana’s detached precision was the necessary ingredient to manifest Walsh’s sophisticated passing designs.
Together they forged a dynasty in San Francisco that would eventually see their offensive schemes lead to five Super Bowls championships with two different coaches and quarterbacks, the second being Steve Young. When Montana was traded to Kansas City in 1993 to make room for Young to take over, it was an earthquake like no other that hit the Bay Area.
1. Tom Brady
With his accomplishments of the last few years (three Super Bowls won in the past five seasons) combined with his already remarkable body of work, Tom Brady may be no “goat,” but he is one of the finest quarterbacks to have ever stepped on the gridiron.
Having captured six NFL titles (and counting), Brady has won more Super Bowls than most people have had good days in their entire lives. When it’s all said and done, perhaps the only thing eluding TB will be that unblemished season that the Patriots came oh-so-close to in 2007-08 before Eli Manning and the Giants snatched away perfection.