The "Greatest Quarterback Ever" debate is, and has always been, one of the most hotly contested debates in all of sports.
It really shouldn't be all that confusing. I mean, each player's body of work is readily accessible on the Internet for anyone who is interested enough to look it up.
There are a few reasons that no two lists are the same.
First of all, there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding criteria. The biggest problem: championships. The school of thought that you need to win "x" amount of championships to be considered for the list is totally ridiculous. Sure, it weeds the field down for you, but it leaves too many passers like Terry Bradshaw around—heroes in their hometowns, but hardly a great player or even really among the top players of the era.
Bradshaw made it to the Hall of Fame, but to be one of the greatest ever, you have to have done more for your team than simply enough to be enshrined by sportswriters. And Bradshaw's best years look very pedestrian when compared to Ken Anderson's best years, or Roger Staubach's best years, or Ken Stabler's best years.
No, the argument for Terry Bradshaw as one of the greatest ever starts and ends with championships. To start and end the argument there would be to ignore the contributions of the 'Steel Curtain', perhaps the greatest defense ever assembled. Essentially, to give Bradshaw the credit that the whole team should share is simplistic and unworthy of intelligent debate.
But there is one other factor that frequently ruins good debates about the greatest quarterbacks. In baseball, there is a system of adjustments that allows us to compare Ty Cobb's stats to those of Barry Bonds, or Ted Williams' .400 season to Todd Helton's 2001.
No such system exists in football. In fact, the pre-WWII NFL was so different from the game we know today that the quarterback position was used only in a handful of offenses. It created an incomprehensible amount of advantages and disadvantages for the players of that era.
So I had to work around the era adjustment when making this list. I had to do it the only way I knew how, leaving the players in context of era. Here are the two best players by era at the quarterback position:
1. Otto Graham, Cleveland
2. Sammy Baugh, Washington
1. Bart Starr, Green Bay
2. John Unitas, Baltimore
1. Roger Staubach, Dallas
2. Ken Anderson, Cincinnati
1. Dan Marino, Miami
2. Joe Montana, San Francisco
1. Steve Young, San Francisco
2. Brett Favre, Green Bay
The Current Era
1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis
2. Tom Brady, New England
Tom Brady was instantly eliminated from this debate, not because he doesn't deserve to be there or because he won't one day, but because it is unfair to the rest of this list to assume that his record-setting 2007 season is repeatable.
Prior to 2007, it could be argued legitimately that he didn't belong in the same class as Peyton Manning because he had yet to separate himself statistically from the Carson Palmer's and Drew Brees' of the world. Clearly, his 2007 season has put that debate to rest, but if he comes back to earth in 2008, he won't belong on this list.
Now for some notable players left off.
The Comeback Kid certainly could have been put on this list if I was using a different method, but he was being compared to other players of his era. Plain and simple, if you were given the choice of Montana, Marino, or Elway to quarterback your team, and you selected Elway, you probably weren't going to last long as a coach. Because he was not a top-two player of his era, Elway gets left off, but his inability to get along with his coach, Dan Reeves, is also troubling.
Stabler matured in his late 30s and blossomed into one of the very best quarterbacks in the NFL. It was a very close race between Stabler and Ken Anderson, but Anderson was a little bit better for a little bit longer, so he got the nod.
As I said before, once you identify the best players of each era, which can be done objectively, it becomes a guessing game as to where you would slot them in an overall list. I did my best though, and here's what I came up with:
1) Steve Young, San Francisco
2) Dan Marino, Miami
3) Joe Montana, San Francisco
4) Otto Graham, Cleveland
5) Bart Starr, Green Bay
6) Peyton Manning, Indianapolis
7) Roger Staubach, Dallas
8) John Unitas, Baltimore
9) Brett Favre, Green Bay
10) Ken Anderson, Cincinnati
11) Sammy Baugh, Washington
In defense of Young at No. 1
Steve Young's career did not start off like that of the greatest to ever play. He was poor for two seasons in Tampa Bay, and then spent his entire youth backing up the No. 3 QB on this list in San Francisco. You aren't supposed to get your chance when you are playing behind an all-time great, and when you finally do, you are supposed to struggle to fill his shoes.
Not only did Young not struggle once legendary coach Bill Walsh gave him the keys, but he took off on one of the greatest runs ever in the history of professional sports. From 1991 through 1997, Steve Young led the league in passer rating six times, and in completion percentage five times.
He was rarely intercepted in that seven-year span, and during an obscene year in 1994, he was the quarterback of what was arguably the greatest team of the modern era, a team that went 14-2 in the regular season, only to torch all of their opponents in the playoffs. Young threw 35 touchdowns and completed 70.3 percent of his passes, the latter a stat that has since never been duplicated, and was accomplished only once prior: Ken Anderson in 1982.
Young did all this with the exact same offense Montana used, except he had George Seifert, not Bill Walsh, to help him accomplish his goal. Manning had Dungy, Brady had Belichick, Marino had Shula, Anderson had Paul Brown, Starr had Lombardi, and so on. Young did all this with George Seifert as his coach.
That's why Steve Young is the greatest to ever play.
A Final Word
Peyton Manning's assault on the record books is not yet complete. When it is, I fully expect him to unseat Young as the greatest passer in NFL history. What Manning has done since 2000 is simply astounding, and likely something we will never see again after him.
If Tom Brady and Randy Moss continue to play like Steve Young and Jerry Rice, he too could find himself atop this list one day. But for now, it's Steve Young who holds the title of 'Greatest Quarterback to Ever Play.'