The Top 10 All-Time NFL Quarterbacks

Aaron Nagler@Aaron_NaglerNFL National Lead WriterMay 18, 2012

The Top 10 All-Time NFL Quarterbacks

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    It's that time in the offseason where NFL fans need something to argue about. We've done the power rankings both pre and post-draft. Speaking of the draft, we've argued about who would draft whom as well as who had a good draft and who didn't.

    With OTAs and mini-camps providing little in the way of good debate material, I thought it a perfect time to bring out my top 10 NFL quarterbacks for everyone to rip to shreds.

    Everyone seems to have their own set of criteria when naming their top 10 greatest quarterbacks. Some people love to quote statistics. Others think it begins and ends with championships. Still others look at the type of dominance a quarterback had in his particular era. 

    I guess I fall into a grey area between all three of the above, with one more important thing added in.

    No one still playing the game gets ranked, so don't demand to know where Tom Brady or Peyton Manning are. There will be time to put their careers into proper context once they are done playing. Until then, they are not in my discussion of the 10 greatest NFL quarterbacks ever to play the game.

    Who is in that discussion? The 10 players listed here kept out some excellent quarterbacks, guys like Warren Moon, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly and even multiple Super Bowl champions like Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman. 

    Also not making the cut were guys from earlier eras whose games I truly appreciate but could not justify including here. Players like Sid Luckman, Bobby Layne and Sonny Jurgensen are more than deserving of recognition, but looking over their careers, it's hard to see a case for inclusion here. 

    Speaking of other eras, one note for the unimaginative folks who always seem to ask "How can you have an opinion on a quarterback you never saw play?" There's a very long and involved answer to this, but I'll skip to the short version, which is: I never saw Abraham Lincoln in the White House, but I'm pretty confident in declaring him one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever seen. 

    Alright. Enough with the history lesson. Let's find out who made the cut and let the arguments begin...

No. 10: Brett Favre

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    Favre became an incredibly polarizing figure toward the end of his career, but go back to when he was winning three consecutive league MVP awards, and you'll see one of the best ever to play the game.

    Yes, he owns the all-time interception record, and his tendency to give the ball away, especially later in his career, is what keeps him from moving up here. But take the consecutive games started streak and all the other passing records Favre holds and put on the tape of his 1995 or 1996 season, and you see why the guy has to be on this list. 

No. 9: Roger Staubach

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    Staubach could beat you with his arm and with his legs and did an excellent job taking care of the football. He won two Super Bowls and probably would have won a third had it not been for a dropped pass by Jackie Smith. 

    Winning four passing titles in a career that didn't start until he was 29 (take note Brandon Weeden and Cleveland Browns fans...) due to a military commitment, Staubach also rushed for a total of 20 scores and 2,264 yards in his 11-year career, making him a true all-around threat. 

    He took over a Cowboys team that had seen five playoff losses in five straight seasons, including three in championship games, and almost instantly helped change the perception of the Cowboys from a team that couldn't get it done to that of "America's Team."

No. 8: Steve Young

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    Young was another quarterback who could beat you with his legs, as his 43 career rushing touchdowns attest to. If he had not spent the early part of his career in the wilderness of Tampa, he may have been higher on this list.

    That said, Young led the league in passer rating six times, a mark that has yet to be equaled. Many like to dismiss Young's accomplishments because of the talent around him and the fact that he only won one Super Bowl, but it's impossible to ignore the extended period of brilliance Young displayed at the quarterback position. 

No. 7: Dan Marino

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    In 1995, Dan Marino threw 34 or more passes in eight of the Dolphins' last nine games. This was the story of Marino's career. The team started every September saying they needed to make the running game a priority, only to turn to Marino's arm come late fall/early winter. One can only wonder what our perceptions of Marino would be if he had been given a Terrell Davis-like assist late in his career a la John Elway. 

    We all know the knocks against Marino. Not only did he never win a Super Bowl, he only got his team there once and that was in his second year. Despite that, Marino is included here simply because he was the greatest pure passer I have ever seen. 

No. 6: Otto Graham

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    Quarterbacks don't win games; teams do. But the quarterback has arguably the biggest say in a team's wins and losses. "All he does is win" is a weak argument at any time, and it's even worse when talking about a quarterback. But when it comes to Otto Graham, you almost have to make an exception because it's pretty close to what he did. 

    Graham went 52-4-3 as a starting quarterback in the All-American Football Conference and won four straight titles in the '40s. Overall, he led the Cleveland Browns to a championship game in each of his 10 seasons, winning seven of them. 

    After Graham departed, the Browns remained competitive under head coach Paul Brown, winning an NFL championship in 1964, but that's the only championship the team has seen since Graham retired.

No. 5: Sammy Baugh

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    It's not a stretch to say that Slingin' Sammy invented the modern quarterback position. While Baugh could certainly make plays down-field with his arm, he was never afraid to take off and run, often looking for contact as he went. Occasionally, Baugh would need to pop his shoulder back into place during a game, but not once in his 16-year career did he ask out of a game. Not. Once. 

    A two-way player who could do pretty much anything he wanted on a football field, Baugh led his team to what is probably the only other upset in a championship game that rivals the Giants' defeat of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, when he led the Redskins to victory over the previously undefeated Bears in the 1942 title game. 

No. 4: John Elway

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    Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII sealed a legacy for a quarterback who spent much of his career falling short in championship games. From "The Drive" to his famous helicopter play against the Packers in the Super Bowl, Elway left us with some incredible drama to remember him by to go along with the fantastic quarterback play.

    Still the only QB who amassed 40,000 yards passing and 3,000 rushing in his career and still the only guy I've ever seen throw a laser across his body all the way across the field—while on the run. Elway put up amazing numbers and won tons of games both early on and late in his career, getting his team to five Super Bowls and winning the last two. 

No. 3: Bart Starr

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    The most underrated quarterback in the history of the National Football League, Bart Starr gets knocked for playing under the great Vince Lombardi and for playing alongside a slew of Hall of Famers in a "run-first" offense. What people discount is how much of that offense was actually his to call during a game. Starr was calculating and efficient in how he ran Lombardi's offense and is the main reason the Packers became the dynasty they did in the '60s. 

    The MVP of the first two Super Bowls is probably best remembered for his sneak in the Ice Bowl, but the drive he led to get his team to that point, going 5-for-5 in sub-zero temperatures, is buried in the minds of those who would deny Starr's greatness. One of the greatest leaders to ever step on a football field; only the brilliance of the two men in front of him stop Starr from claiming the top spot on my all-time quarterbacks list. 

No. 2: Joe Montana

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    While many discount Starr due to Lombardi, few discount Joe Montana for Bill Walsh, even though it was the marriage of Walsh's system to Montana's brilliance as a quarterback that brought four Super Bowl championships to the city of San Francisco. With that said, Montana is by far the greatest modern-era quarterback and played the game with a style that combined precision and playmaking in a way not seen before or since. 

    For an example of Montana at the height of his powers, one need look no further than arguably his most dramatic moment when he engineered one of the most incredible drives in NFL history as he took the 49ers 92 yards in Super Bowl XXIII against the Bengals, punctuated by a 10-yard TD pass to John Taylor that Montana had no business throwing.

    That was Montana—he made the impossible, possible—nearly every game.

No. 1: Johnny Unitas

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    Known as "Mr. Clutch," Johnny Unitas holds the record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 47. To understand how incredible this is, you have to go and watch coaches tape prior to the league's liberalization of the passing rules. Receivers were routinely mugged all over the field. Yet Unitas was still able to find the end-zone 47 games in a row. That in and of itself is a marvel, but records and passing stats are not what define Unitas. 

    Unitas was tough, and not in the shopworn mythology-type way that Brett Favre was made out to be tough by the modern media. No, Unitas was as down and dirty as any lineman, as any linebacker looking to take his head off.

    As Bubba Smith once told ESPN Classic, "A guy broke through the line, hit (Unitas), pushed his head in the ground. He called the same play, let the guy come through and broke his nose with the football." 

    Unitas called all his own plays, including in overtime in what became known as the "Best Game Ever" when he took the Colts 80 yards in 13 plays in frozen Yankee Stadium against the league's best defense for the winning touchdown to make the Baltimore Colts into champions. 

    Not only was he Mr. Clutch, he was The Best That Ever Was