The Top 15 Quarterbacks Of All Time

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIMarch 5, 2009

Otto Graham was voted the second (after baseball great Stan Musial) most underrated athlete on ESPN Classic's "Who's #1: Most Underrated" series.  I never saw Graham play, however, he was, along with Bart Starr—the ultimate winner—playing in a league championship game 10 years straight years (winning seven—first four were in AAFC)! 

And it would not surprise me that he is underrated by people (like myself) who never saw him play, but he was one of only four quarterbacks (along with Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Montana) on the NFL's 75 Anniversary Team (chosen in 1994). 

So, how underrated is he?  I ask that question because he would not be my first choice for most underrated NFL quarterback.

No, my first choice for that title would be Roger Staubach, who I think was maybe the most underrated athlete of all-time. (It should be noted I was born in 1959, I started watching football in 1965, and I grew up a Green Bay Packers fan, and not a Dallas Cowboys fan.) 

I have seen lists (experts and otherwise) where Staubach did not make their list of top 10 quarterbacks of all-time. I consider Staubach to be the greatest quarterback of all-time, hence, needless to say, I find these lists to be absurd.

I realize I am in a minority views point of Staubach as No. 1 all-time, however, I have good reasons for my viewpoint and I am prepared for any attack. Like Muhammad Ali—in this bout—I can take a punch.

Also, I am aware that currently (September 2008) Joe Montana would win most, if not all, expert's and not-so-expert's rankings of top quarterback of all-time.  It would be far from universal, however, Montana would still win. 

And just so Montana fans don't get their pants (changed on purpose—this is manly football, after all) in an uproar, I rank Montana 2nd all-time. 

Plus, I think it is very close between Staubach and Montana and I could easily make a case for Montana if need be (besides—I am a lawyer—I know how to argue both sides when needed). 

Four (for four) Super Bowl wins while throwing 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions is a good start for making a case for Montana. I could go on, however, I am sure Montana fans are very familiar with his exploits.

Give me a chance to make case for Staubach. He could do everything Montana could do, plus he was more mobile (better scrambler and runner) and threw a better long ball. When he retired he had the highest quarterback rating of all time.  He missed the first five years of his NFL career fulfilling his Navy obligations. 

He led the Cowboys to 4 Super Bowl appearances, winning two and losing two—both times to great Pittsburgh teams. 

While Montana was 4-0 in Super Bowls, the level of competition that he faced in the Super Bowls was not as great as what Staubach faced. Do you think Montana would have gone 4-0 and threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions if two of those Super Bowls were against the Steelers and their great defenses?

If you are being honest, Montana fans, I think you know the answer to that question is no. 

Just something to think about if you are one those fans who think it is all about winning championships for quarterbacks. By the way, both quarterbacks were 4-2 in Conference Championships Games. 

So, while Montana was 4-0 in Super Bowls, he was 8-2 in big games (identical to Bradshaw by the way)—not perfect—although better than Staubach who was 6-4.

Non-Montana fans will point out that part of Montana's success was the result of being on great teams with a great coach, of throwing to the best receiver in the history of the NFL, and of being part of a great system which was ahead of its time. To be fair, Staubach had similar advantages, although not to the same extent. 

After Montana left San Francisco, Steve Young picked up where Montana left off, won a Super Bowl and went on to be the highest rated quarterback of all-time (Montana is currently fifth).

I looked at everything I could think in my evaluation of the quarterbacks: Quarterback ratings and all the stats that go into them; the era they played in, the strength of their arm, championships won, records in big games (conferences championships, NFL championships, and Super Bowls) and playoff games, how much their team won, leadership, mobility, decision making, the quality of teams they played on, and longevity.

As usual, how much weight you put on each of these factors will greatly affect your rankings. 

(And while I don't expect you to agree with me, I will add this: Professional football is my favorite sport; I have watched a lot of football since 1965; I have also read and researched a lot about pro football; and I did not take making this list lightly.)

While I admit that a quarterback's job is to lead his team to victory because of the nature and importance of his position, it is still a team sport and he is just one player.  Hence, it is unfair to blindly just count Super Bowls wins, for example, in rating a quarterback. 

Terry Bradshaw, while a great quarterback, had 10 times the talent around him during his career than poor Archie Manning.  Just something to think about. And while Manning did not make my top 25 because of his numbers and lack of team success, perhaps he should have.

He was a great quarterback and exciting to watch (the few times that the New Orleans Saints were on television).

While the quarterback rating is a good way of evaluating a quarterback, it is a subjective tool since determining how much weight should be put on each statistic is a matter of opinion.

And it favors the west-coast-type offense that is currently is in vogue in the NFL since it values completion percentage. In addition, there have been rule changes over the last thirty years that favor the offense in passing situations. 

Hence, you cannot fairly compare the quarterback ratings of today's quarterbacks with older quarterbacks. Well, you actually can, if you adjust each quarterback's rating based on what the average quarterback rating was in the league that year. 

This has been done in statistic-oriented baseball with batting averages, for example; but so far, to my knowledge, it has not been done in football. The task was too big for me to tackle, but feel free if you are into numbers.

It is hard to write an article about all-time quarterbacks without at least mentioning Joe Namath.  No, he did not make my top 25, but in terms of talent, he might make the top

10.  If you search the Internet as much as I do (for potential questions and articles for the site), you will quickly find that Joe Namath is currently considered the most overrated athlete in the history of sports (at least in North America sports). (Boxer Jack Dempsey actually is, but that is for another article.) 

Honestly, if you saw him play the first five years in the league (before he injured his knees for the first time) and witnessed him be the first quarterback to throw for 4000 yards in his third season, you would know that title is a bit much. 

Besides, while he is more famous than many quarterbacks that were better than him, no one currently seems to be saying he is one of the all-time greats.  So, how is he that overrated?  Just wondering. 

Ego (forcing the ball in tight spots resulting in too many interceptions) and injuries affected his numbers (and they are deceptive because of the era).

However, I will tell you if are too young to remember, he threw a beautiful football, was good at reading defenses and calling plays, and with the exception of Dan Marino—had the quickest release I have ever seen.   

After Graham and Staubach, Sonny Jurgensen is probably the next most underrated quarterback for the simple reason that he he never played in a championship game. He did at the time of retirement, however, have the highest quarterback rating of all-time (soon after topped by Staubach).

Starr also may be a bit underrated although he does get his props ( actually rated him No. 1 all-time).  While he did not have as strong an arm (compared to the others on the list) and did have a lot of talent around him—he was a winner and rarely made mistakes (nowadays called managing the game well).

Starr has the highest post season quarterback rating of all time (104.8) and he has an all time best 7-1 record in big games (2-0 in Super Bowls, 3-1 in NFL Championships Games, and 2-0 in NFC Championship Games and also an all time best 9-1 record overall in the post season (winning 9 straight after losing his first one). 

Plus, he engineered the most difficult (the temperature was now 18 below, the winds were 40 mph, the wind chill at least 49 below, and the field was a sheet of ice) and famous game-winning drive of all-time when he drove the Packers 68 yards (he was 5-for-5 for 59 yards during the drive) in the last 4:54 minutes of the game culminating with a one-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown with 16 seconds to play.

Perhaps I underrated Graham (7th) and perhaps Elway, Bradshaw, Baugh, and Aikman (6-1 in big games; 3-0 in Super Bowls) all belong in the top 10.  (Elway and Bradshaw were much more inconsistent than their fans realize.) 

Peyton Manning needs another Super Bowl win to jump up and I do not think Tom Brady is done making a name for himself. 

Here is my top 15:

1. Roger Staubach
2. Joe Montana
3. Tom Brady
4. Johnny Unitas
5. Brett Favre
6. Bart Starr
7. Otto Graham
8. Peyton Manning
9. Steve Young
10. Dan Marino
11. John Elway
12. Terry Bradshaw
13. Sammy Baugh
14. Sonny Jurgensen
15. Troy Aikman

My Dozen Honorable Mentions:  Len Dawson, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Ken Anderson, Warren Moon, Norm Van Bronklin, Fran Tarkenton, Ken Stabler, Daryle Lamonica, Y.A. Title, Sid Luckman, and Kurt Warner


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