The 17 Greatest Quarterbacks in NFL History
A little over a year ago, I embarked on a quest to gather as many top ten quarterback lists from as many people as I could. I came up with a point system for each ranking and combined them after receiving 30 lists. You can view the final product here:
I, of course, included my own list. But, it was a rough, unpolished list. The research was light, and now that I look at it, I am largely unsatisfied.
For the past week or so I have been doing lots of research on almost two dozen quarterbacks. Situational statistics, game logs, whatever I felt necessary to rank these quarterbacks. My original intent was to merely have a top 10 list. After my research I decided it would be more appropriate to have a longer list.
Before I get to the final list I would like to address some of the factors that went into organizing the positioning. First off, we all know that the passing game has transformed dramatically since its inception. From the way it is played, to the rules that govern it. So I organized my quarterbacks into four different eras of the passing game, with each era becoming progressively easier to pass the ball.
The eras are as follows:
1) The Dead Ball Era (1920-1964)
This was the most difficult era to play quarterback. The passing game was virtually nonexistent because of the rules. A quarterback had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage to pass the ball for much of this era. I took this into consideration when ranking these pioneers.
2) Pre-West Coast Era (1965-1977)
Not as strict as the dead ball era, but defenses had little restrictions on what they could do to both quarterbacks and receivers. The passing game had little strategy and mostly was big plays and dump-offs.
3) Post-Mel Blount Rule Era (1978-2002)
This is the groundbreaking change in the passing game as it limited defensive players to only five yards of contact, giving receivers a clear advantage and resulting in an increase in statistics.
4) Post-Ty Law Rule Era (2003-current)
The most recent change in the passing game wasn’t even an official rule change. The NFL just told referees to treat the receivers like ballerinas at the line of scrimmage and virtually destroyed successful jamming at the line of scrimmage. This era is still in its infancy, but in the coming decades expect video game like statistics.
Furthermore, I broke up each quarterback’s career into two pieces: their regular season careers and their postseason careers. I would say I balanced them 40/60 when deciding what position to put them in.
Now that I have let you into my head, I delay no further. I give you, The 17 Greatest Quarterbacks in NFL history.
17. Fran Tarkenton, Vikings (1961-1966), (1972-1978), Giants (1967-1971)
Statistically, Tarkenton was one of the most prolific of all-time. Playing in the Pre-WCO era makes his 342 touchdown passes look even more impressive. Tarkenton also passed for an impressive 47,003 yards and won 124 games in his regular season career.
So why is the fleet-footed Tarkenton ranked so low? Despite his massive statistics for his era, he rarely led the league in a major passing statistic. He led the league once in passing touchdowns (1975), once in passing yards (1978), and once in rating (1969).
Also, for a quarterback who made it to three Super Bowls, I expected great playoff statistics. What I found were rather mediocre. Tarkenton threw 11 touchdowns against 17 interceptions, en route to a poor rating of 58.3 and a playoff record of 6-5.
16. Jim Kelly, Bills (1986-1996)
Jim Kelly was four games away from being, hands down, the greatest quarterback of all-time. His current legacy goes to show just what the Super Bowl means. Kelly had modest statistics, compared to some of the greats. He threw 237 touchdowns and had a career rating of 84.4
His real success was in the win department. In his 11-year career, Kelly led six teams to 10 or more wins. His final record is a very impressive 101-59. Where Kelly makes his mark is in the postseason, namely before the Super Bowl.
We all know the Bills made it to four straight Super Bowls. Kelly was the man behind three and one-third of them. I say one-third because in 1992 he was injured for the first two playoff games, which Frank Reich won. Kelly had a playoff record of 9-8. Four of those eight losses came in the Super Bowl, a tough pill to swallow I’m sure.
15. Troy Aikman, Cowboys (1989-2000)
The man who handed Jim Kelly two of those Super Bowl losses comes in a spot higher than him. Aikman is a three-time Super Bowl champion and the leader of the Cowboys dynasty.
In the regular season, Aikman was less than impressive. He never led the league in yards, touchdowns, or passer rating. However, he did have an above average record of 94-71.
It was in the postseason where Troy Aikman made his mark. From 1991-1995, Aikman posted a 10-2 playoff record, including three Super Bowl championships. He would finish his career with a record of 11-5.
His playoff rating is a very strong 88.3, and a Super Bowl rating of 108.9. While I don’t mean to diminish what Aikman meant to the team, the talent around him on offense is simply undeniable and positively influenced his overall success.
14. Terry Bradshaw, Steelers (1970-1983)
The leader of the Steelers dynasty is one of the most impressive postseason performers in NFL history. His four rings are well known throughout the country, as well as the Hall of Famers that surrounded him on offense and defense.
Terry Bradshaw’s regular season career was nothing special. He finished his career with 212 touchdown passes and 210 interceptions. His final career rating was a 70.9 which, even when taking into account the era he played in, is pretty bad.
It is in the playoffs where Bradshaw makes his mark. He posted a playoff record of 14-5 and a much better passer rating of 83. Bradshaw did enough to help the team win, never truly carried them.
However, despite this postseason success the talent around him simply cannot be ignored when ranking him.
Bradshaw is one of the toughest leaders the NFL has ever seen.
13. John Elway, Broncos (1983-1998)
I too am asking myself the question: How in the world is John Elway this low? The only quarterback to start in five Super Bowls has a legendary career, but a closer look at the numbers simply doesn’t suggest he is one of the all-time greatest.
First of all, John Elway never led the league in touchdowns or passer rating. In fact, in the first 10 years of his career, he only had one season with a passer rating over 80. He did lead the league in passing yards in 1993.
In the playoffs, Elway didn’t do much better. His overall playoff record was an impressive 14-8, five Super Bowl appearances and two championships. His playoff rating is a decent 79.6, but he only threw 27 touchdowns against 21 interceptions.
Elway’s reputation is probably one of the greatest of all-time. He still holds the record for most fourth quarter comebacks. His clutch play in certain playoff games has also tremendously helped his career. He is often given too much credit for his Super Bowl championships, especially the first one in which he posted a passer rating of 51.9
Elway’s career will be fondly remembered for moments like “The Drive” and “The Helicopter.” Not so much his proficiency.
12. Roger Staubach, Cowboys (1969-1979)
In the regular season, Staubach’s most impressive number is his record. An amazing 85-29, never posting a losing season with the Cowboys. Staubach also led the league in passer rating four times, including his final two seasons.
However, like his Cowboy counterpart, Aikman, Staubach’s claim to fame came in the postseason; an impressive record of 12-7 which includes four Super Bowl trips and two championships. He also put up some good numbers in the postseason, including a final rating of 76. This number is deceiving because Staubach posted seven games with a rating over 100.
Staubach could have had a longer football career, but he honorably fulfilled his service to the armed forces after graduation from the Naval Academy.
He is the greatest quarterback of one of the greatest franchises in NFL history.
11. Sammy Baugh, Redskins (1937-1952)
Sammy Baugh is known as the very first “passer” in the NFL. He revolutionized the forward pass and redefined the quarterback position. In fact, Baugh played as a T-Quarterback his first seven years in the league and still managed to put up huge numbers, including a phenomenal season in 1940 where Baugh led the league in passer rating (85.6), touchdowns (12), yards (1,367), and completion percentage (62.7).
His final career rating of 72.2 can be attributed to the era in which he played. He won two championships with the Redskins.
In the playoffs, Baugh was just as impressive. He posted a rather mediocre 3-3 record, but had a good rating of 73.6
The one issue with Sammy Baugh is that he usually threw more interceptions than touchdowns. However, this is usually omitted because he played in an era which the passing game had every kind of restriction imaginable.
10. Dan Marino, Dolphins (1983-1999)
Dan Marino was as unstoppable as any quarterback that the NFL has seen. At the time of his retirement, he held every major career passing record. His postseason failures are well known and often times are summed up with the phrase, “He never won a Super Bowl.”
Marino’s relatively low ranking has little to do with the absence of a ring, and more to do with an 8-10 playoff record. A career playoff rating of 77.1 is a far cry from his career regular season rating of 86.4.
In six of Marino’s playoff starts he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, something that happened rarely in the regular season. The first part of Marino’s career suggests he would easily be the greatest of all-time. But, Marino wore with age, as did his numbers.
After passing for 44 touchdowns in 1986 Marino would only throw for more than 30 touchdowns once more in his career. He led the league in passer rating once, and often led the league in passing attempts.
Marino’s playoff failures mean as much to his ranking as his average play towards the second half of his career.
9. Sid Luckman, Bears (1939-1950)
Luckman was a four-time NFL champion with the Bears as well as being voted first team all-pro five times. His numbers are impressive when you take into account he played in the most difficult era for quarterbacks.
He led the league in touchdown passes three times, as well as leading the league in passer rating twice. His final career passer rating is an even 75.
It is in the playoffs where Luckman truly makes his mark on history. He was an impressive 5-1 in the playoffs including an outrageous 89.4 passer rating, unheard of in the dead ball era.
Luckman’s touchdown pass percentage is still the highest in NFL history (7.9 percent).
8. Otto Graham, Browns (1946-1950)
The only statistic you need to know about Otto Graham is this: Seven league titles in 10 seasons. It is a mark that will never be challenged for as long as the NFL exists. Only problem with this statistic is that four of those titles came in the All-America Football Conference. While I do not believe the AAFC was as inferior to the NFL as many believe, there is no doubt that Graham’s numbers declined when the Browns joined the NFL.
Graham’s most impressive seasons came in the AAFC, but he had successful campaigns in the NFL. Including, leading the league in passing percentage three times to close out his career. His final career passer rating was a ridiculous 86.6, a mark higher than some of the greatest modern passers.
While Otto Graham finished his career 9-3 in the playoffs, his passing performances do not suggest that mark, but when you take into account his six rushing touchdowns, it is clear why the Browns were so dominant with Graham.
Otto Graham is, in my eyes, the greatest Cleveland Brown of all-time.
7. Peyton Manning, Colts (1998-current)
Manning may go down as the most prolific regular season quarterback in NFL history, something he well deserves. Manning’s career is particularly interesting because of how consistent he has been, always throwing for more than 20 touchdowns and 3,000 yards.
Personally, I credit this to the era in which he plays. Right now we are seeing ridiculous passing numbers from at least half a dozen quarterbacks. While Manning has been at the top of the pack, it should be noted his best days have come after the Ty Law Rule.
Currently Manning’s regular season rating is an absurd 95.2. He has led the league in passer rating three times, all three times going over 100. He has led the league in touchdown passes three times and is on pace to break every career passing mark.
It is in the playoffs where, like Marino, Manning stumbles. His rating of 87.6 is not terrible and he has thrown a decent 28 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. However, these numbers have not translated to victories as he currently has a playoff record of 9-9. Six of those nine losses came in his first game.
Peyton can only go up on this list. However, it will have to be through the playoffs.
6. Johnny Unitas, Colts (1956-1972), Chargers (1973)
Johnny Unitas was the winner of the NFL’s first (and only) sudden death overtime title game. Since that game in 1958, Unitas has widely been regarded as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Unitas’s regular season career is pretty impressive. This includes leading the league in yards and touchdowns four times. His career rating of 78.2 is lower than you would expect, but he did lead the league in passer rating three times in his career.
What is truly shocking about Unitas is his postseason career. He posted a 68.9 rating in nine games. If that number isn’t mediocre enough, he threw only seven touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
His postseason record is 6-3, including three NFL championships.
At the time Unitas retired he held 22 NFL records, many of which have since been broken. However, one record that has not been touched is his streak of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass.
5. Steve Young, 49ers (1987-1999), Buccaneers (1985-1986)
Steve Young is easily the most underrated quarterback of all-time. His accomplishments are often overshadowed by his predecessor’s success. In the regular season, Steve Young was absolutely phenomenal. He led the league in passer rating an incredible five times. He finished his career as the highest rated passer in NFL history (96.8).
As a starter with the 49ers, Young went 91-33.
In the playoffs, those stellar stats and incredible efficiency certainly dwindled. His career playoff record as a starter is a decent 8-6. His career playoff rating is 85.8. Steve Young is most known for throwing six touchdown passes in his only Super Bowl appearance.
While Young’s starting career was short, it was certainly a great one. There are enough stats to make the argument that Young is the greatest regular season quarterback of all-time.
4. Brett Favre, Packers (1992-2007), Jets (2008), Vikings (2009-current)
Brett Favre is the most prolific quarterback in NFL history. According to Wikipedia, Brett Favre holds 40 NFL records in both the regular season and post-season. Some of the most notable among these are: Passing touchdowns (497), passing yards (69,329), wins as a starting quarterback (181), consecutive starts (285), career games with four touchdown passes (23), career games with three touchdown passes (71), seasons with at least 30 touchdown passes (9),and consecutive seasons with 3,000 passing yards (18). To name a few…
Favre has led the NFL in passing touchdowns four times and came in second another four times. One of Favre’s biggest flaws is the amount of interceptions he has thrown. He is the NFL leader in interceptions thrown with 317. However, if you take into account how many touchdowns he threw against those interceptions, they seem less costly.
Brett Favre's interception+ is 100. That means that over his career, he threw exactly an average amount of interception as a typical quarterback. Zero interceptions above average. So while he has thrown the most interceptions in NFL history, his touchdowns and overall efficiency make up for them. In fact, Favre’s career interception percentage is an above average 3.2 percent.
In the playoffs Favre’s career takes a series of interesting turns. His overall playoff record is 13-11, an average mark for a quarterback of his caliber. However, his playoff statistics show better. His career playoff rating is a solid 86.3, with 44 touchdown passes (second in NFL history).
In his two Super Bowl appearances, Favre has thrown five touchdowns to only one interception.
In the end, the only real mar on Favre’s career is his playoff performances in the second half of his career. He has thrown three game-losing interceptions, two of which did not need to be thrown. It is always interesting to wonder what Favre’s legacy could be like if he had not thrown those interceptions.
3. Bart Starr, Packers (1956-1971)
In 1960, Bart Starr and his Green Bay Packers lost 17-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Championship. He would never lose another playoff game en route to five NFL championships, including the first and only “three-peat” in NFL history.
His regular season statistics are largely unimpressive, despite leading the NFL in passer rating three times. His overall career stats are modest, having only thrown 152 touchdown passes.
It is in the playoffs where Starr makes his true separation from his peers. Right beside his 9-1 playoff record is a career playoff rating of 104.8, easily the best in NFL history, among qualifiers.
Starr threw 15 touchdowns to only three interceptions. He never had multiple interception games in the playoffs. He surpassed a passer rating of 100 in six games.
Many argue that Starr’s success can be attributed to his Hall of Fame teammates. However, when the results of his playoff games are examined, it is found that his teammates benefited from their Hall of Fame quarterback.
In the 1967 NFL championship, the Ice Bowl, Bart Starr was involved in all 21 points scored by the Packers, including the game winning quarterback sneak.
In the NFL championship the year before that, Starr threw four touchdowns en route to the Packers’ 34-27 victory.
Bart Starr has said himself that he believes “the measure of a quarterback’s success is how well he handles himself and his teammates under pressure in critical games.”
Performance under pressure defines Bart Starr.
2. Tom Brady, Patriots (2000-current)
It is hard to believe that a sixth round draft pick taken 199th overall has transformed into a three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Super Bowl MVP. But, that is the case with Tom Brady.
His career is already worthy of Canton after only eight years of starting (I do not count 2008). He has 225 career touchdown passes against only 99 interceptions. His career rating is 93.3.
What really makes Tom Brady special is his postseason success. In his first three postseason campaigns, Tom Brady went 9-0 and won three Super Bowls. That mark is flat out unbelievable.
At that point, he was already being hailed as the greatest of all-time. But, Tom Terrific could only stay perfect for so long. He lost his second playoff game, in the 2005 Divisional playoffs in Denver. His crucial goal line interception may have cost him perfection.
Tom Brady’s career postseason record is 14-4. His postseason stats show this as well, he has a rating of 85.5 and has thrown 28 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.
What makes Tom Brady’s career so unique is that he doesn’t need to do much more in the postseason to solidify this spot. The regular season stats will come with time, and perhaps even more postseason success.
Brady would be No.1 on this list were it not for the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. Brady’s 3-1 Super Bowl mark is unfair as he has played outstanding in every one of those games. The perfect season would have made Brady the perfect quarterback.
1. Joe Montana, 49ers (1979-1992), Chiefs (1993-1994)
Behind a regular season passer rating of 92.3, a career record of 117-47, 273 touchdown passes, and never finishing a season with a passer rating lower than 80.7, there is one statistic that truly solidifies Joe Montana’s clear superiority over all quarterbacks.
11 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a passer rating of 127.8, and three MVP awards.
Those are Joe Montana’s statistics in his four Super Bowl victories. In the biggest games of his life, Montana has played his best football. To go along with his Super Bowl stats are more playoff statistics that support his dominance. A 95.6 passer rating, and an NFL record 45 touchdown passes have led Montana to a 16-7 playoff record, the most wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history.
Montana’s legacy transcends his peers. Game winning drives, clutch plays, and poise that only few can match. He was also the first true master of the west coast offense that other quarterbacks like Favre, Manning, Young, and many quarterbacks today use.
There was never any doubt surrounding Montana’s No.1 spot on this list. While the names before him shifted around during the writing of this article, Montana never moved. When you compare his career to any quarterback that has played this game, he will always come out on top.
Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback of all-time.
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