The Great Debate: The Greatest Quarterback of All Time

Jordan LeeAnalyst IJune 30, 2008

There is no position more demanding in sports than that of the quarterback in professional football. No other position is measured by winning championships in a team game. They are measured by their individual stats, but not the quarterback.

They must know what every player is doing on every play, they must be able to read defenses and make clutch throw while 300-pound linemen and blitzing linebackers bear down upon them.

They are the face of the franchise, the leader of their team, and ultimately the win, or loss, falls squarely on their shoulders. Few are made tough enough to withstand the pressure that the quarterback must endure.

And who, you ask, are the best of the best at filling the role of the field general? Here are the five quarterbacks I considered for greatest of all time, in alphabetical order: John Elway, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, and Johnny Unitas.


John Elway, Denver Broncos (1983-1998)

John Elway was selected No. 1 overall in what is widely regarded as the greatest quarterback draft of all time. Elway is a nine-time Pro Bowler, 1987 MVP, and Super Bowl XXXIII MVP. He is widely regarded as the most clutch quarterback of all time, leading the Broncos on 45 game-tying or go-ahead scores.


Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins (1983-1999)

Dan Marino may be the greatest passer of all time (he ranks second in passes completed, pass attempts, pass attempts/game, passing yards, and passing TDs, as well as top five in numerous other categories) and has an extremely quick release. The only knock against Marino is his lack of Super Bowl rings.


Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts (1998-present)

Peyton Manning has been the top quarterback (yes, better than Brady) of the past decade. He is the leader of the perennial offensive juggernaut that is the Colts' offense, and he has hooked up for more TDs with Marvin Harrison than any other QB/WR combo ever. By the time he retires, Peyton could hold every major QB record.


Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs (1979-1994)

Joe Montana, a three-time MVP and four-time Super Bowl MVP, came up big when it mattered most. Montana holds playoff records for TDs and passing yards, as well as others, and went 83-122 for 1,142 yards and 11 TDs, as well as an amazing zero interceptions, posting a QB rating of 127.8 in his Super Bowl appearances.


Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers (1956-1973)

The "Golden Boy" was a nine-time All-Pro selection and three-time MVP. He led the Colts to the 1958 NFL Championship. Unitas completed touchdowns in 47 straight games, a record that has not even been approached by any QB since.


How They Fare Against Each Other (Career)

Elway (16 seasons, 234 games): 4,123 completions, 7,250 attempts for 51,475 yards and 300 TDs and 226 INTs (1.33:1 TD/INT ratio) 57 comp%, Super Bowl Victories: 2

Marino (17 seasons, 242 games): 4,967 completions, 8,358 attempts for 61,361 yards and 420 TDs and 252 INTs (1.67 TD/INT ratio) 59 comp%, Super Bowl Victories: 0

Manning (10 seasons 160 games): 3,468 completions, 5,405 attempts for 41,626 yards and 306 TDs and 153 INTs (2:1 TD/INT ratio) 64 comp%, Super Bowl Victories: 1

Montana (15 seasons 192 games): 3,409 completions, 5,391 attempts for 40,551 yards and 273 TDs and 139 INTs (1.96 TD/INT ratio) 63 comp%, Super Bowl Victories: 4

Unitas (18 seasons 211 games): 2,830 completions, 5,186 attempts for 40,239 yards and 290 TDs and 253 INTs (1.15 TD/INT ratio) 55 comp% Super Bowl Victories/Championships: 2



How They Fare Against Each Other (Season)

Elway: 257 completions, 453 attempts for 3,217 yards, 19 TDs and 14 INTs

Marino: 292 completions, 491 attempts for 3,609 yards, 25 TDs and 15 INTs

Manning: 347 completions, 541 attempts for 4,163 yards, 31 TDs and 15 INTs

Montana: 227 completions, 359 attempts for 2,703 yards, 18 TDs and 9 INTs

Unitas: 157 completions, 288 attempts for 2,236 yards, 16 TDs and 14 INTs




How They Fare Against Each Other (Game)

Elway: 17 completions, 31 attempts for 220 yards, 1.28 TDs and 0.97 INTs

Marino: 21 completions, 35 attempts for 254 yards, 1.74 TDs and 1.04 INTs

Manning: 22 completions, 34 attempts for 260 yards, 1.91 TDs and 0.96 INTs

Montana: 18 completions, 28 attempts for 211 yards, 1.42 TDs and 0.72 INTs

Unitas: 13 completions, 25 attempts for 191 yards, 1.37 TDs and 1.19 INTs



It is obvious by looking at the stats that the passing game is heavily affected by the era that the quarterback played in.

During Unitas' era, the passing game was second to the run, and when used was less imaginative than today's game. The rules of today also help the passer and protect the quarterback, as they are designed for a pass-happy league, whereas in yesteryear, there was hardly any limitation on what you could and could not do to a player.

Statistically speaking, Dan Marino is the greatest quarterback per career, while Manning is the greatest per season and game, with Montana in third.

But, as I said before, quarterbacks are measured by championships, and Marino's lack of a ring prevents him from earning the top spot.

Montana however was the face of a dynasty and is the consummate winner, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy four times. It is for this reason that Montana separates himself from everyone else and is, as of right now, the greatest quarterback to ever play.

Although if Peyton Manning can win another ring and continue his record-breaking play, he could very well take Montana's place.

Verdict: Joe Montana


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