The Super Bowl is the test by which all NFL quarterbacks are ultimately judged. Rightly or wrongly, every starting quarterback's place in history is irrevocably tied to his success in getting to—and winning—the biggest professional sporting event on the planet.
Stats like yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and even wins are important. But when you're talking about defining a quarterback's career and legacy, step No. 1 is counting the championship rings.
That might not seem fair, but it's how success is defined in the NFL: Success is winning the Lombardi Trophy; everything else is different degrees of failure.
But then what?
Once a quarterback has led his team to the mountaintop, how do you differentiate him from all the other ring-bearing NFL signal-callers? How do you split hairs between all-time great quarterbacks? How do you pick apart a bunch of players who were all good enough to be the best?
Today, here on Bleacher Report, I'll try.
Every Super Bowl-winning quarterback has been evaluated based on a single criteria: If I were the GM of a club entering the Super Bowl without a capable quarterback, and I had a time machine and could go get any signal-caller in his prime, who would I fetch?
Everyone remembers (or has learned about) Joe Namath's bold guarantee that the New York Jets would win Super Bowl III and his subsequent cashing of his verbal check.
However, Broadway Joe made his hay by throwing an awful lot of passes, and a huge percentage of them were interceptions. Namath threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 11 of his 13 seasons in the NFL.
He ended his injury-afflicted career with a 62-63-4 losing record as a starter.
Namath is a New York icon and a Hall of Famer, but his performances were a lot more glamorous than good.
Though Trent Dilfer was drafted with the No. 6 pick in the first round of the 1994 draft, he struggled his entire career to carve out a starting spot for himself.
In 2000, he managed it, though not until Elvis Grbac opened the door for him.
Dilfer's career spanned 13 years, but his lifetime passer rating of 70.2 shows he was barely mediocre for most of it.
Still, the strength of the Ravens D got him "on the list" for this very exclusive club.
Doug Williams' story is a great one: He was the first African-American quarterback to play in a Super Bowl (and remains the only victorious one).
However, it's also a sad story.
After being drafted in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams spent five years as their starter. However, Williams' contract was much lower than that of other quarterbacks, and he eventually joined the USFL.
When he rejoined the NFL four years later, he was entrenched as a backup. Williams had one glorious calendar year, when he supplanted incumbent Jay Schroeder, won the Super Bowl, played well and then couldn't hold off Mark Rypien.
If I were rating quarterbacks on what their careers could have been, Williams would be much higher. But I can't justify placing him any further up this very prestigious list.
Jim Plunkett's resumé is an eyebrow-raiser. A suspiciously prominent factoid on his Wikipedia entry: He's the only Hall of Fame-eligible quarterback to start and win two Super Bowls but not be enshrined.
Despite boasting all the classic quarterback badges of honor (Heisman Trophy, No. 1 overall draft pick, two Super Bowl rings), Plunkett was the prototypical Al Davis boom-or-bust quarterback.
His career average yards per completion was an excellent 13.3, but his average yards per attempt was a meager 5.5. His brutally low 52.5 percent completion percentage had a lot to do with it.
Plunkett may have won two championships, but his game wouldn't fly very far outside of Oakland.
Earl Morrall was a No. 2 overall pick out of Michigan State, had a career spanning 20 years, was twice a first-team All-Pro and played in two Super Bowls, winning one.
Still, he was stuck backing up all-time greats like Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese.
Morrall only started 102 games of the 255 he played, but he compiled a 63-37-3 record in those 102 games. Morrall led the Colts to victory in Super Bowl V when Johnny Unitas couldn't go. He also led the Dolphins to a majority of their wins during their undefeated 1972 season.
With his body of work, he's unquestionably the greatest backup quarterback in the history of the NFL.
That doesn't get you too high on this list, though.
Jeff Hostetler had to fight his way out of Phil Simms' shadow, and despite winning a title in relief of Simms, the two of them were locked in a years-long controversy.
Hostetler failed to distinguish himself outside of Bill Parcells' system, though, in five years as a Raider and Redskin.
Unlike most of the quarterbacks on this list, Mark Rypien wasn't a No. 1 overall draft pick, or even a first-rounder.
He was born in Canada, attended Washington State University and was drafted in the sixth round.
In his six years with the Redskins, Rypien was a two-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl winner and a Super Bowl MVP.
But after his crowning moment, Rypien and the Redskins struggled. Rypien went through five different teams in the last five seasons of his career, including a one-year comeback in 2001 after going three seasons without playing.
Brad Johnson has always been steady, seemingly born a reliable journeyman quarterback.
Johnson played in five stints on four different teams for 15 seasons, seemingly always stuck behind more gifted players.
But in 2002, Johnson's steady hand at the tiller was all the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed to cash in on their destiny—and he provided it.
Johnson was always a very impressive backup, and rarely a very impressive starter. He goes here.
Len Dawson's Hall of Fame resumé includes seven Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro nominations, two Super Bowl appearances and one win.
In his 18-year career, Dawson had a 94-57-8 record in 159 starts.
Dawson's accuracy and mobility made him perfectly suited to Chiefs coach Hank Stram's offense, but I'm not sure how well it would translate to the modern game.
This is the first of a mess of players I'd like to rank higher, but there are so many great players higher up.
The iconic "punky QB" who led the 1985 Chicago Bears to the Lombardi Trophy is an interesting case.
There's no doubt Jim McMahon was the driving force behind some excellent teams, but his struggles with injury, consistency and general zaniness might be too much to bear.
From 1979 to 1993, Phil Simms was the New York Giants quarterback, covering Bill Parcells' entire tenure there (plus one).
Together with Parcells' vaunted defense, Simms won two Super Bowls. He was named Super Bowl MVP once and was elected to two Pro Bowls.
Simms' career totals are impressive; 33,462 yards is nothing to sneeze at.
But his career completion percentage of 55.4 and career passer rating of 78.5 highlight that he was a great competitor but an imperfect passer.
Joe Theismann had a slow start to his NFL career, sidetracking to the CFL and moonlighting as a punt returner before succeeding Billy Kilmer as the Redskins quarterback.
An athletic, mobile passer with solid decision-making skills, Theismann excelled as soon as he took over the starting gig permanently in 1978.
In 1982 and 1983, Theismann made the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro.
His outstanding performances at quarterback (throwing 42 TDs to just 20 INTs) led the Redskins to the Super Bowl in both seasons, and to the Lombardi once.
Eli Manning is a tough nut to crack. He is relatively young and inconsistent, his career incomplete.
His lone Super Bowl appearance was dominated by his defensive line more than by his own effectiveness.
But in his eighth season, Manning has taken a huge step forward, producing big plays at an elite level without committing his usual mistakes.
In Super Bowl XLVI, he has a chance to move much further up this list.
Terry Bradshaw is the epitome of the 1970s quarterback.
Blessed with physical talent, paired with a staunch run game and incredible defense, he took shots downfield and did very little else.
As a result, Bradshaw's production looks suspect (212 TDs/210 INTs, to name one metric). But from 1977 to 1981, Bradshaw had a great go of it by any standards.
Ben Roethlisberger is magic.
That's what it seems like, anyway, when Big Ben escapes certain doom three or four times by the slimmest of margins, then manages to complete an improbable pass to convert a third down when any mere mortal would have been sacked at least twice.
Roethlisberger has seemed superhuman since his incredible Super Bowl-winning sophomore season. That year, the Steelers won in spite of Roethlisberger's 9-of-21 passing, zero TDs and two INTs.
In 2009, though, they won the Lombardi because of him.
Ken Stabler might be the most decorated quarterback not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He can boast four Pro Bowl nods, two All-Pro selections and an NFL MVP award.
Moreover, his statistics hold up to the modern game: He completed 59.8 percent of his passes, with an NFL passer rating of 75.3.
The Snake's wild scrambling ability was slowly degraded by injuries, but he honed his passing craft and mastered the art of the comeback drive.
In 1976, Stabler achieved passing nirvana: He completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 2,737 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 INTs all in just 12 games!
His passer rating that season was an astounding-for-the-time 103.4, and the Raiders won the Super Bowl.
Troy Aikman is a ridiculously well-honored quarterback.
From his six Pro Bowls to his three times as an All-Pro to his three rings, he led his team to about as much glory as any quarterback possibly could.
Aikman, however, is blessed and cursed by the those he played with. Over the years, those awards have taken on a duller gleam as '90s Cowboys like Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin entered the Hall of Fame.
How much of the Cowboys' success was his? Was he the driving force, or just the triggerman for the '90s version of the Greatest Show on Turf?
I always liked Bob Griese.
As a kid, the fact that a professional football player could wear dorky glasses and still be a Hall of Fame quarterback was incredibly inspiring.
His eight Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro nods and two Super Bowl rings didn't hurt either.
Kurt Warner is a wildly mixed bag.
On one hand, he's a four-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team All-Pro and two-time NFL MVP with three Super Bowl appearances and one ring.
On the other, he's an oft-injured, wildly inconsistent and inaccurate turnover machine, who started only 31 games in the middle five years of his career.
No matter his starting situation, teammates or health, though, Warner always brought his best to the table in the playoffs—and at his best he was almost unstoppable.
For one game? He ranks very high.
In terms of field vision and offensive execution, Drew Brees might be the best on this list—which is to say, the best ever.
His ability to see the field, find the open man and deliver a catchable, timely ball is unparalleled.
That's why he's a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro (!) and a Super Bowl champion.
It is too soon to be talking about Peyton Manning's legacy, but not nearly as much as it was a few months ago.
We as fans should prepare for that eventuality.
But for one game, healthy, in his prime (basically his entire career), there are not a lot of people I'd pick before Manning.
Having said that, he earned a reputation for choking in the postseason when he was younger, and the way his second Super Bowl appearance ended brings that reputation to mind. That's why he slides a few spots down from the summit.
Roger Staubach is not often thought of as a player ahead of his time. People think of his scrambling, his comebacks and his big wins.
They think of six Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl rings and a Super Bowl MVP award. They think, of course, of his military service—but they don't think of his efficient decision-making.
Staubach retired as the highest-rated passer of all time, and his 153 TDs to just 109 INTs show that all that macho talk glosses over just how smart his play was.
Aaron Rodgers is very, very high on this list, and he's only going to get higher.
His body of work is still too flimsy to put him any closer to the peak, though.
Tom Brady is an enigmatic figure on the field.
All he does is make the big plays and win the biggest games, but the way he does it is so workmanlike.
He plays the game "easy" and makes it look like it's no big deal, and his clinical approach keeps him cool under the brightest, hottest lights.
Brady possesses a very rare combination of graciousness and aggression, and it's helped him navigate through a landslide of awards, honorary degrees—and Super Bowl rings.
There's nothing I can say about Brett Favre that hasn't already been said.
He's the No. 1 leader in every statistical category, and some non-statistical ones, too.
When he's on, he makes throws nobody else alive can make—maybe not even any dead people either.
When he's off...well...he's very, very off.
I am a "Steve Young Guy."
Young was the total package: vision, decision-making, accuracy, arm strength, athleticism and leadership.
Picture this: Steve Young played his rookie year in the USFL, then two years being the only guy who could play in the wretched Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization, then three years as Joe Montana's backup and his career was shortened at the back end with concussions.
Despite all that, Young was a seven-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro, two-time NFL MVP and won three rings.
With just a few more years on his career, we'd be talking about Young as one of the very best (as I'm doing now).
For one Super Bowl? In his prime? Young should be on everyone's short list.
Bart Starr won two Super Bowls—the first two Super Bowls.
Before that, he led the Packers to three NFL championships for a whopping five rings. He was named to the Pro Bowl four times and was twice named All-Pro.
He was the Super Bowl MVP in both of his Super Bowls, and in 1966, he earned the NFL MVP award.
Flatly, he's the granddaddy of 'em all; he put the titles in Titletown.
Unless and until someone else can put that many Lombardis to their name, Starr will always have an upper hand.
Let's just put this in list form, shall we?
From Johnny Unitas' Wikipedia entry:
10-time Pro Bowl selection (1957, 1958, 1959,1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967)
Six-time First-team All-Pro selection (1957, 1958, 1959, 1964, 1965 and 1967)
One-time Second-team All-Pro (1963)
One-time Second-team All-Conference (1970)
Three-time AP NFL MVP (1959, 1964, 1967)
That pretty much says it all right there.
Unitas was way ahead of his time, partially inventing the modern passing offense. Hard to top those credentials.
We never got to see John Elway in a Super Bowl at the peak of his powers; either they came in his youth, when he'd drag his Broncos there kicking and screaming, or when he'd reached the "can't run like he used to" phase of his career.
Elway's arm is one of the strongest ever. He's one of the "clutchest" quarterbacks ever. He was blessed with incredible natural athleticism but chose football over baseball, and we're all the richer for it.
But he couldn't quite get past the last guy on the list...
The man is Joe Cool.
Say what you want about his coaching, his supporting cast, anything...Joe Montana did it four times.
He was Super Bowl MVP three of those four times, won NFL MVP twice, made the Pro Bowl eight times and was six times named All-Pro.
One night, at his best, for all the marbles? I'll take Montana.