The Greatest Quarterback of All Time: How Do We Objectively Assess Greatness?

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The Greatest Quarterback of All Time: How Do We Objectively Assess Greatness?

If you ask five NFL fans who the greatest quarterback of all time is, chances are you’ll get five different answers. It’s an extremely polarizing question that often has diehard fans at each other’s throats, as they simply cannot believe that the other person doesn’t share their opinion.

Some will argue that Super Bowl rings are the most important indicator of a quarterback’s legacy, and that without one (or more), a quarterback simply cannot be considered for the mantle of “greatest of all time.” Players like Joe Montana and Tom Brady benefit from this methodology.

More will argue that Super Bowl rings aren’t a relevant way to judge a quarterback’s greatness, because football is a team game—a quarterback can’t win all by his lonesome. Dan Marino is generally the poster child for this particular school of thought.

For me, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I refuse to discount team success when evaluating the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but there’s no question that a signal-caller’s statistical merits should be included in the equation as well.

Despite their feelings on individual players, any savvy NFL fan knows that quarterback is the single most important position in football. They have the ball in their hands the most, decide where the ball goes, and are often called upon to save games all by their lonesome. You could have an amalgamation of the ’85 Bears and ’00 Ravens on defense, but if you were trotting out Henry Burris at quarterback, your team would have no chance of winning.

That’s why I think that wins-losses and playoff success should matter when determining a quarterback’s greatness. The truly great quarterbacks find a way to get it done when it matters most, regardless of the talent around them. I find that when I engage fellow NFL diehards in this discourse, most fervently disagree with me. I don’t care.

I know that stat junkies hate to hear this, but I believe there’s something you simply cannot quantify when determining the greatness of a quarterback. More than touchdowns or yardage, the most important characteristic I want in my quarterback is the ability to come from behind and perform well when it matters most.

If the team is down by 13 with six minutes left and the ball, how much faith do you have in the quarterback to lead you to victory?

To me, the greatest quarterbacks are able to overcome incredible odds and win games singlehandedly for their team.

The great Ernie Accorsi, former longtime NFL general manager, was running the Baltimore Colts in 1983 and infamously lost out on John Elway, who pulled an Eli Manning before Eli was throwing footballs to Archie in their backyard, refusing to play in Baltimore. So, in 2004, when Accorsi had the chance to select the player he believed could be the next Elway, he didn’t flinch.

Read Accorsi’s scouting report of Manning. For me, that passage sums up a great quarterback. In that file, Accorsi refers to Manning’s “magic” as something you can’t define. The great quarterbacks all have “magic.”

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Ernie Accorsi saw something magical in Eli when he was at Ole Miss.

Think about the best quarterbacks in present day. Brady has magic. Aaron Rodgers has magic. The Mannings have magic. Drew Brees has magic. Ben Roethlisberger has magic. Heck, even Joe Flacco has magic, and that point is no longer up for debate after his 11-touchdown, zero-interception performance in the postseason.

When the Ravens trailed the Broncos, 35-28, late in their divisional playoff game in Denver, and Flacco needed to engineer a last-second rally to force overtime, I truly believed he would get the job done. I don’t care that Rahim Moore took a hideous angle on the eventual game-tying touchdown to Jacoby Jones. Flacco got the job done, and went on to win the game and the Super Bowl. That’s magic.

When the Rams tied Super Bowl XXXVI against the Patriots late in the game, a second-year quarterback named Brady coolly led the Pats toward a game-winning field goal. That’s magic.

With 5:32 left in the 1986 AFC championship game, Elway and the Broncos took over possession at their own 2-yard line, trailing by seven. Elway led the team on “The Drive,” a 98-yard masterpiece that tied the game, and they eventually won in overtime. That’s magic.

"The Drive".

That’s why a quarterback can have the greatest stats in the world, but if he can’t get it done when it matters most, I don’t want him on my team.

In my opinion, Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback to ever lace up a pair of cleats. The evidence is incontrovertible. Not only does he have the statistical prowess, but he consistently came up aces in big games, with four Super Bowl championships to boot and zero losses in the big game.

I would rank Tom Brady as the second-best quarterback of all time. Brady has the jaw-dropping stats to go along with three Super Bowl rings. But, I do knock him a peg below Montana because of his two Super Bowl losses, where, quite frankly, he was outplayed when it mattered most by Eli Manning (and don’t talk to me about the Wes Welker drop, because the Pats could have salted Super Bowl XLVI well before that play).

The Legend of Tom Brady began here.

In third, I’d place Elway, and he obviously helped himself immensely by winning back-to-back Super Bowls to close his Hall-of-Fame career.

As hard as it is to do so, I simply cannot place Marino, or quarterbacks of that ilk (read: big numbers, no rings) in this particular pantheon of greatness. I know how good he was. I know he possessed arguably the biggest arm and quickest release in the history of the league. I don’t want to devalue him because of the team around him, and because he never won a Super Bowl, but how can I say that he’s on the level of Montana, Brady and Elway when he never won a title and only appeared in one Super Bowl?

Don’t tell me that this means that I think Trent Dilfer is better than Marino because Dilfer has a ring. If that’s the conclusion you’re drawing, then you’re missing the point.

Full disclosure for my next point: I grew up a diehard New York Giants fan. While I still find myself pulling for my childhood team, it’s certainly not the same as it used to be; working in league circles for nearly a decade will jade even the craziest fan.

I remember Eli’s rookie season, and how excited I was when he was inserted into the starting lineup. Then, reality hit: No. 1-overall pick in the draft was terrible. He had clunker after clunker, often looking helpless in the process.

But then, something happened. Flickers of magic started to appear. He nearly engineered a late-game comeback in the penultimate game of the ’04 season in Cincinnati, and then led the Giants on a last-minute touchdown drive to beat Dallas in the finale. It was then that I knew that Eli had magic. Despite his 1-6 record as a starter that season, I felt confident going into 2005 that the Giants had their man. The statistical community would have told you differently, but I don’t go by numbers. I go by feel. I go by magic.

That’s what made me feel go confident in Flacco going into this season, because at the end of the 2011 AFC championship game in New England, he was magical. He did enough to win that game. When they lost, I knew that he’d back in 2012.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Don't tell me Joe Flacco doesn't have magic.

It’s what makes me feel confident in young signal-callers Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Aside from their obvious physical talents, these players have magic. We saw it time and time again last season.

I know that many of you will disagree with my assessment, and, quite frankly, that’s what makes the debate so unbelievably fascinating. There is no one right or wrong answer to this question.

For me, what makes Montana the greatest of all time isn’t just his rings. It isn’t all his touchdown passes. It isn’t his MVPs.

It’s his magic. He’s the greatest quarterback of all time, because he’s the most magical quarterback of all time.

Let the debate begin.

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