Stats, Rings, Guts and More: The True Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks
Over the many decades of professional football's existence, few positions have changed—and changed the game like the quarterback. The premier high-profile position, the QB is often the most cheered and reviled player in the game.
The debate raging around who's the greatest ever never seems to cease. Top 10 programs, articles, books, conversations and arguments have existed since the forward pass was invented, it seems. How, then, does this list promise to put at least one nail in the coffin?
To be an all-time great quarterback, several factors have to be attended to. Too often a "greatest ever" list gives one guy credit for stats, another for wins, another for longevity, nostalgia, rings and so on. This list will take all those factors into account, along with where the QB stood among his peers, how he may or may not have changed the game and crunchy details like win percentage, ratings and team offensive scoring.
But this list will do one thing no other list does—what writers, columnists, and fans seem afraid to do:
This list will take the losses, the interceptions, the failures and put them out there right in everyone's faces and make people acknowledge them.
This will not be some hypocritical list where one guy gets credit for stats and wins, while another guy gets slammed for his system or his defense or his coaches. What's good for one is good for all. I'll also make comparisons among the quarterbacks on this list, so as arguments no doubt will ensue, we'll have some frames of reference for the choices that I've made.
So, without further ado, I present my list of the top 10 quarterbacks of all time...
Honorable Mention No. 1: Norm Van Brocklin
I had to add two very important players to this list as honorable mentions. The first, Norm Van Brocklin, deserves to be on this list as the first true great passer. While keeping track of wins, losses, etc. is extremely difficult for player from his era, a few notable stats keep The Dutchman relevant even today.
He was a two-time NFL champion—once with the Rams and once with the Eagles, the latter giving Lombardi's Packers their only playoff loss under the legendary coach. He led the league in passing three times. His team set the record for points in a season (since broken) at 466, and the average of 38.8 per game still stands.
His teammate Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch set the NFL record for receptions (84) and yards (1495). Hirsch also tied the touchdown receptions mark of 17 that year. Van Brocklin ended up splitting time with Bob Waterfield—but he set the mark for passing yards in a game (554 yards) that still stands, proving he was a true gunslinger
Also noteworthy was that he didn't start the NFL Championship against the Browns in 1951, but he threw the game-winning touchdown pass: a 73-yarder to Tom Fears.
He also led the team to the 1955 Championship game: a rematch with the Browns. Van Brocklin played a very poor game, throwing six interceptions in a 38-14 defeat. Of course, he was up against our other honorable mention—the most controversial quarterback in "greatest of all time" lists...
Honorable Mention No. 2: Otto Graham
Few players cause controversy on any "best of" list like Otto Graham. He played his first four years with the AAFC, and then six more in the NFL.
During his 10-year professional football career, he took his team to the championship 10 times. While in the AAFC, he took the team four times and won all four. In the NFL, he took his team six times and won three of those.
When he retired, he was at or near the top of several categories—wins, QB rating, etc.; however, the quality of his AAFC opponents is widely criticized.
Contributing to this controversy is the lack of film and statistics from many of those AAFC games. There is no controversy regarding his ability to win and win consistently. He even was part of an NBA championship with the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings).
Regardless of which side of the Otto Graham fence you are on, if you judge a QB by winning, winning championships and winning a lot, then it's hard to leave Otto out of the discussion regardless of the era.
The List Begins! No. 10: Troy Aikman
Troy Aikman. Three-time NFL champion. Three-time Super Bowl dominator. Against the Bills, twice, the games were so lopsided it was near unwatchable. Yet here he sits at No. 10. Regardless of what you (or he) may think, being on this list is an amazing accomplishment and a true honor.
The Cowboys of the '90s were about as close to a dynasty as you could get, and Aikman was their leader.
True, they benefited from some of the greatest players to play their positions. Few could argue that players like Deion, Emmitt, Haley, Larry Allen and Irvin were near the greatest to play their positions during that span. These are players that, in some cases like Deion and Larry Allen, are in the greatest-of-all-time debate at their positions.
But the wins and the losses fall on the quarterback's shoulders more than anyone else on the field.
So why isn't Aikman higher? A 3-0 Super Bowl record is pretty rare air. Elway didn't do it; Brady hasn't either. While some of the blame can be put on the NFL's all-time leading rusher being on the same team, Aikman simply never put up the stats compared to other QBs.
Part of this making this list is showing how good you were in comparison with your competition. Aikman never led the league in any major passing category (yards, TDs, rating). Several great quarterbacks have been able to at least get one statistical victory, even playing on a team with a dominant rushing attack. He did go to six Pro Bowls, the same as Roger Staubach.
The second knock on Aikman is due to his games and games won. People say, Wait, Troy Aikman won more games than Staubach did. And they're right: 94 versus 85. The difference is in win percentage. Aikman has the worst win percentage on the list, with a .570 (versus .739 for Roger).
Part of making this list is winning and winning often. A .570 with three Super Bowl wins indicates a bright flame in Dallas that burned fast. It's not all on Aikman, don't get me wrong, but the QB takes the heat more often than not.
No. 9: Bob Griese
While I'm sure this will be the subject of some debate, true historians are finally getting the message out: Bob Griese was a heck of an NFL quarterback.
Griese took his team to three Super Bowls in a row, winning the last two. His 92 wins are comparable to Troy Aikman's; however, his win percentage of .601 is far superior. Over the course of his career, he went to eight Pro Bowls.
People tend to think that Griese didn't pass enough to be counted as a great QB. They like to fall back on the running game or defense or system argument. However, in a situation similar to Aikman, he played in 161 games (versus 165 for Aikman). While he threw for fewer yards than Aikman (25,092 compared to 32,942), Griese threw more touchdowns (192 to 165), proving that he was a capable passer in his own right, even on run-dominant teams like the Dolphins of the '70s.
So then, what's the bad? Why isn't Griese even higher on the list?
His 2-1 Super Bowl winning mark (67 percent) is higher than quarterbacks like Elway, Brady, Favre, etc. But there are some that say he didn't throw it enough in the Super Bowls to really see how good he was. In spite of the fact he led his team the way it was built, focusing on defense and ball control, the fact that he doesn't have the highlight reel tosses like Bradshaw, for example, tends to hurt his case.
But when it counted, Bob could air it out, and he could win.
No. 8: Roger Staubach
It's true, and there is no debate: Roger was one of the best quarterbacks ever. Yes, better than Aikman by a wide margin. The NFL's original "Comeback King" made Dallas "America's Team" and one of the best teams of his era.
Roger Staubach was one of the top quarterbacks of his era, no two ways about it. He managed to lead his team to four Super Bowls, winning two of them.
His team didn't have the best running game every year, the best defense, etc. Staubach just had "it"—the ability to win. His winning percentage of .739 is second all-time behind only Tom Brady (whose career is incomplete, so only time will tell the final mark).
While Staubach's 85 career wins seem low (he actually started and won the least amount of games among quarterbacks on this list), it's worth mentioning he only started 115 games (and played in 131) because of a late-starting career due to his Naval obligation. Brandon Weeden fans take note: Staubach didn't enter the NFL as a rookie until he was 27 years old.
Regardless of win percentage, though, the short career definitely affected his place on this list. He didn't start a full season till his fifth year in the league, when he was 31.
Staubach also won two league MVPs and one Super Bowl MVP. He also led the league in touchdowns once and in passer rating four times. One can only imagine what could have been if Staubach had come out and played in 1964 when he was drafted.
Roger Staubach deserves some honest praise for honoring his military duty and then proceeding to become a Hall of Fame quarterback, Super Bowl champion and one of the best all-around guys on and off the field the NFL has ever seen.
No. 7: Brett Favre
Being on this list of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time isn't just about the rings. Take the case of Brett Favre.
Forget all the off-the-field nonsense. The constant retiring or not retiring circus soured a lot of people on the most prolific passer of all time. His career almost ended before it started due to alcohol and Vicodin abuse when he was a backup with the Atlanta Falcons. But Brett got traded, Brett got smart, and the rest is history.
Favre's collection of records and accomplishments is nearly impossible to list and even harder to believe. He won 186 games, played in 302 games and started 297 straight. He owns every meaningful career passing record, most by a large margin. His winning percentage over that span is .624.
In Super Bowl 31, Favre took the Packers to their first Championship since the Lombardi days in Super Bowl 2. Favre took them back to the Super Bowl the very next year, when they fell to another QB higher up on this list. Favre is one of the few quarterbacks to duplicate the Van Brocklin feat of taking a team to two Super Bowls.
He also led the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC championship game. The Vikings lost in overtime to the eventual champion New Orleans Saints.
In many circles, this win is tainted, as the NFL alleges the New Orleans Saints and Saints Linebacker Jonathan Vilma were involved in running a bounty program that specifically put Brett Favre on a bounty list. The investigation is still ongoing, though there is little doubt as to the validity of the claims, as suspensions have been handed out harshly to Saints coaches and players involved.
One has to wonder if the Vikings would have beaten the Colts that day and given Favre his second title. We'll never know.
All this (rightful) praise has to make some wonder, why is Favre this low on the list?
It has nothing to do with his off-the field life, retirement issues, etc. It's the fact that in 20 years (albeit not all as a starter) he only took his teams to two Super Bowls, winning only one of them. One Super Bowl win when you've played longer than anyone on this list and been to fewer Super Bowls than anyone on this list knocks you down a bit.
But Favre's longevity, wins and records can not be overlooked. Add to that his undeniable passion for the game, and you have an old-school quarterback who ranks among the best.
No. 6: Johnny Unitas
As I write this, I realize I should probably have done this under an assumed name. Johnny Unitas at No. 6! Blasphemy! Lynch him! Everybody relax and allow me to explain.
There is no doubt most experts list Johnny Unitas at No. 1, or at least in the top two of all-time greats. I see things a little differently.
Unitas played a long time; his total games and games started are third on this list. His 10 Pro Bowls are second best on this list as well. His win percentage of .645 is high on the list. He led the league in touchdowns four times, yards four times and rating four times. He's 3-1 in Championship games, and he played in some of the most important games in NFL history.
Why No. 6 then?
Johnny Unitas was a good QB in the '50s and '60s. By the dawn of the Super Bowl, there wasn't much left of him, even though he played into the '70s. Unlike other QBs who played very well as they aged (Favre and Elway come to mind), Unitas had surely left his best game behind him.
In Super Bowl 3, he didn't get into the game until it was already decided, and he was 11/24 for 110 yards and an interception. In Super Bowl 5, he barely registered on the stat sheet, going 3/9 for 88 yards, one TD (which was 75 yards of his 88 in one play) and two INT while losing arguably the worst Super Bowl ever played. A mockery full of turnovers and miscues, the Blunder Bowl, as it came to be known, did little to make the Colts feel like champions.
So, while Unitas played in two Super Bowls, winning one, Johnny was terrible in both games. He went on to play two more years. And for those who remember his last year with the Chargers, hopefully you can understand why some QBs can't let go, even when it's time.
People like to yell about Brett Favre playing until he was 40. Well, Johnny Unitas did, too. But whereas Favre was playing at a Pro Bowl level, Unitas had nothing left. In his last three years, Johnny Unitas threw a total of 10 touchdowns. He didn't eclipse 14 touchdowns in any of his last six seasons, throwing single digit touchdowns four times.
In all honesty, the NFL should probably erase any footage of Unitas the Charger...I wasn't even part of that, and it hurts to see it. I like to consider Unitas the best quarterback of the pre-merger NFL. However, he played well into the post-merger era as well, and compared to his compatriots, I think myth, hype and nostalgia tend to cloud most writers' judgements just a little bit.
No. 5: John Elway
John Elway has the distinction of being one of only two quarterbacks to start in FIVE Super Bowls. Five. The first three were horrific losses—so bad that if this list was made on the day after that third defeat, Elway wouldn't have even been mentioned. But it's the last two, when he was at the end of his career at age 37-38 (roughly the same age range as Unitas and Favre at the end of their careers too), that have people talking Elway up in the greatest of all-time lists.
Elway's 148 wins were the record until Brett Favre broke it. His winning percentage of .643 is better than Favre's as well, and it's only .02 below Johnny Unitas, despite having played and started the second-most games on this list.
Elway never led the league in QB rating or passing touchdowns, but he did lead the league with 4,030 yards in 1993. Discounting his rookie year and injury-affected 1993 campaigns, in his remaining 15 seasons in the league, he never threw for fewer than 2,500 yards or single-digit touchdowns.
Elway also rushed for 33 touchdowns, leading all players on the list and one more than the next man. For the record, John Elway has rushed for as many touchdowns as Michael Vick—not bad, huh?
So then, why is Elway No. 5 on this list? The three losses. Only Fran Tarkenton and Jim Kelly can say they lost as many Super Bowls as Elway did. There are other QBs who, like Elway, have won two Super Bowls, but without the humiliating defeats. Jim Plunkett was 2-0; Big Ben is 2-1 and still playing. Eli Manning is 2-0 and also still playing. If either Ben or Eli wins a third at a younger age than Elway won his first, this list is going to see a serious shake up.
But this list isn't just about the rings. John Elway was an exciting gunslinger who was scary in the fourth quarter and consistent and healthy throughout almost all of his career. His career totals are still impressive today—he still ranks fourth in passing yards and fifth in passing touchdowns.
No. 4: Tom Brady
When making this list, I was reluctant to add anyone who is still playing to the list. You never know for sure how their careers are going to turn out. No one could have predicted Namath the Ram, Unitas the Charger, Manning the Bronco—and the list goes on. There are no crystal balls in the NFL.
However, it seems improbable that Tom Brady could do anything to diminish his legacy as one of the all-time greats. And what he's accomplished already is so amazing, he's earned his place on this list.
I refuse to get into the hypocritical debates of Montana/Rice vs. Brady/Moss(Welker), Lombardi vs. Belichick, even Steel Curtain vs. 46 vs. Gritz Blitz vs. the Pats' uniquely powerful multiple D. Tom Brady is a winner of an historic magnitude. End of story.
Brady has 124 wins, already third-best on the list, with a titanic .780 winning percentage, easily the best of all time at this point in history. He is a multiple-time league and Super Bowl MVP.
So, why only No. 4, then? This one really gets the Patriots fans upset, but bear with me.
When the Patriots can keep a game close, like his three Super Bowl wins, Tom Brady simply marches down the field, and the kicker wins the game. I can point to three instances where his legacy is lessened because when his team needed its quarterback to deliver a touchdown to win the game, Tom Brady couldn't do it.
The first was the AFC championship game against the Colts. The second, the first Super Bowl loss to the Giants. The third? The second Super Bowl loss to the Giants. If the NFL hadn't cheated the Raiders with the "tuck rule," the Pats' kicker wouldn't have even gotten them to the Super Bowl in 2002.
This isn't to say it isn't tough to drive the team under pressure to kick the field goal. I just knock Brady down a little because he has no defining drive—no moment that will live on in NFL history for decades like Montana or Elway or even Roethlisberger.
But, like I said, be patient. He's still playing, and at an All-Pro level. The Patriots might get him one more Super Bowl win, and to appear in six, win or lose, would be something no one has ever done before. (No disrespect, Otto Graham.)
No. 3: Terry Bradshaw
Believe it NFL fans, Terry Bradshaw is No. 3 on this list, and it there's more to it than simply four Super Bowl wins.
As I make my case for Terry Bradshaw as the No. 3 all-time quarterback, let's look back over his career. The first thing to take into account is when Bradshaw played. In the '70s, maybe more than any other decade since, the opponents weren't just tough, they were legends. There were true dynasties everywhere you looked—the Cowboys, the Dolphins, the Raiders, even the Vikings made it to multiple Super Bowls.
The Steelers had a strong team, loaded much like the '80s 49ers, the '90s Cowboys and the Patriots of the 2000s. But Bradshaw ran that team in a way that surpassed even Montana, Aikman or Brady. When Harris had his three-year streak of double-digit touchdowns broken, Bradshaw led the league in touchdown passes. When he had to manage a game, he did just that.
But Bradshaw did something that players like Elway and Brady, even Montana can't say they did. Terry Bradshaw, along with Roger Staubach, was one of the last quarterbacks who called his own plays. (In fact, it was Coach Landry's desire to take play-calling away from Staubach that contributed directly to Staubach's retirement; Coach Landry tended to be a little over-obsessed with what he called his "system" and was a bit of a control freak, it seems.)
Over the course of his career, Bradshaw led the Steelers to 107 wins with a .677 win percentage. Terry Bradshaw is one of only 11 quarterbacks with 100 or more victories. (He ranks ninth, ahead of Warren Moon  and Jim Kelly .)
The Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons with Bradshaw leading the way, and it wasn't all thanks to the Steel Curtain defense. In fact, over the course of the Steelers' last two Super Bowl wins, the defense gave up a combined 50 points, forcing Bradshaw into an exceptionally exciting shootout in Super Bowl 13.
Another thing to take into account is who he won those games against. The starting quarterbacks that faced off against Bradshaw were Staubach twice, Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton and Vince Ferragamo. OK, Ferragamo doesn't exactly instill fear, but remember that going into that game, the Rams had the No. 2 offense and were actually winning the game when the fourth quarter started.
Bradshaw struggled with injuries at the end of his career, and elbow surgery clearly affected his arm.
He sat out the '83-'84 season until the second to last game of the season against the New York Jets. Bradshaw was 5/8 for 77 yards and two TDs before his elbow started to flare up, and he took himself out of the game. Cliff Stoudt finished the Jets off, as the Steelers cruised 34-7.
Bradshaw couldn't play in Week 17, a loss to the Browns, but the Steelers still made the playoffs. Bradshaw couldn't play yet again, and the Raiders crushed the Steelers 38-10.
Terry Bradshaw retired before the next season started, but he had clearly made his mark on the NFL.
No. 2: Bart Starr
Most of us never got to see Bart Starr play. Heck, most of us didn't get to see him coach either. The legacy he left behind, though, for those who look will last forever.
It took a few years for someone to realize how good Starr was, and that someone was Vince Lombardi. Starr didn't start his first few years until Lombardi became the Packers head coach and made Starr the starter, a position he never relinquished until his retirement.
Starr was part of that old-school quarterback club that called his own plays, which makes his five championships even more impressive. The legendary win in the Ice Bowl, the gutsy call to sneak it in—that was Starr. No QB today has the trust of his coach to run a game the way Starr did. Starr also had 94 victories, the same as Troy Aikman, but with a .618 win percentage.
When he retired, he had the NFL's second-best QB rating of all time (behind Otto Graham). He was also 9-1 in the playoffs; the only defeat was the one he shared with Lombardi as their only postseason defeat together (to Norm Van Brocklin's Eagles). His playoff quarterback rating is still second-best all-time, behind only Aaron Rodgers. His completion percentage of 57.4 percent was the NFL's best when he retired as well.
Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers won five championships in seven seasons, from '61-'67. They missed the playoffs in 1963 with an 11-2-1 record, beaten out by the Bears who had an 11-1-2 record. They lost the '64 championship game as mentioned earlier. They are the last team to win three championships in a row. Starr also had a league MVP and both Super Bowl MVPs to his credit.
It's been so long and the game has changed so much that people tend to discount what Bart Starr was able to accomplish and how it set him apart from the rest of the quarterbacks of his time. Take the time to look back over Starr's career, and I think you'll agree he was truly among the elite of the elite.
#1: Joe Montana
Throughout the course of NFL history, few players have even earned the right to be in a discussion with Joe Montana. Joe Montana came into the league, much the same way as other championship quarterbacks have: a great quarterback, in a great system, with a great coach. But unlike some other quarterbacks, he proved he could still win even when he didn't have that system, or that coach, or those players.
Montana is only the second quarterback with four Super Bowl rings, along with Terry Bradshaw, and no defeats. He won 117 games, with a .713 win percentage. That's 3rd best of all time, and one of only four that are over a 70%. (The others being Brady, Staubach, and Big Ben - though two are still active, and those ratings might change one way or the other.) Joe Montana is also the only three time Super Bowl MVP.
Montana is also defined by his clutch play in big games, like his drive to beat the Cowboys in the NFC championship game, with "the catch." as well as the drive to beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. Much like the Packers of the 60s, the 49ers didn't dominate the league in any one area, they just played their game, their way - and they played it so good you just couldn't stop it.
Montana's legacy is further cemented by what happened after he was taken away from the 49ers. Injuries to Montana paved the way for Steve Young to take over the starting job, and Montana was traded to the Chiefs. The Chiefs were terrible, aside from aging Hall of Famer Marcus Allen at running back, the Chiefs players were a far cry from the great players Montana had before. Nonetheless, Montana took the Chiefs to the AFC championship game his first year there. He was denied his shot at the Van Brocklin as the Chiefs lost the game, but Montana wasn't finished quite yet.
In his second season in Kansas City, the Chiefs also reached the playoffs, but lost in the first round. Montana's age, the toll of many seasons under center, and the general feeling it was time led Joe Montana to retire after the playoff defeat.
Some notable victories for Joe Montana that add to his legendary status were victories as Montana's victory over his old team, the 49ers, led by Steve Young and a thrilling back and forth victory over John Elway. In that game, Elway, in true Elway fashion, led the Broncos down the field with a late 4th quarter touchdown to give the Broncos the lead. Montana had only a little over a minute in the game to match Elway's touchdown with one of his own. Not to be outdone, Joe Cool led the team down the field in a methodical 75-yard drive for the winning touchdown.
In addition, when Montana retired, he had the highest passer rating of any NFL quarterback. (92.3). He threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his Super Bowl career, and has the most attempts and completions without an interception in Super Bowl history.) He also tied Terry Bradshaw's postseason record of seven consecutive games with at least two touchdowns. He also was the fast quarterback to reach 100 victories until Tom Brady surpassed him in 2008.
Joe Montana had it all, and remained a class act throughout his Hall of Fame career. Even though some have more wins, some have more yards, some have more touchdowns, and so forth, none have it all put together in a career the way Joe Montana did.
What Lies Ahead?
This list is controversial, and I'm OK with that.
In order to be fair to those who retired, some not so gracefully, I had to mark many active players out of the rankings. That being said, it's what makes this list so exciting.
There are quarterbacks, like Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, who would merit serious consideration on this list if they were to win another Super Bowl. Peyton Manning's amazing statistical career coupled with a second Super Bowl would have to make him another one to consider, not to mention he'd accomplish the Van Brocklin. Some people think that all Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers need to make the list is one more Super Bowl as well.
Take into account, as well, the possibility of Tom Brady simply making it to record sixth Super Bowl—now imagine him winning it, and who knows how much higher he might move himself up this list.
For many other quarterbacks, the clock is ticking. Players like Rivers, Romo, Vick and Palmer have built themselves a good statistical career. But without at least one ring, they fall into the category of Fouts, Marino and Moon. Then there's the new wave of stars—Matt Stafford, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, RG3 and Andrew Luck—who are gunning for the title of best ever as well.
The NFL is evolving into even more of a passing league than ever before. Numbers and stats will continue to inflate, that much is certain. As I stated at the beginning of this list, it's going to take more than numbers to make it onto this list. And no matter who throws for how many yards or how many touchdowns, the greatest of all-time are going to be the winners throughout the regular season, throughout the playoffs and throughout their careers.