By the title here, you should understand the list does not include guys like Tom Brady or Brett Favre.
There have been a great number of good quarterbacks throughout the history of the NFL, but just over a handful of elite quarterbacks to step foot on the field and be the main guy the defense wants to put out of the game.
Each one of these quarterbacks had some of the greatest attributes one can have. Toughness, (mental/physical) durability, and vision are some of the keys to a successful career in the NFL.
You want someone exceptionally durable, physical, aggressive, and mentally strong. When the quarterback makes that bad play, he needs to be able to forget about it.
He needs to be a leader on and off the field. He needs to have the ability to take control and needs to put in the extra time.
All of these quarterbacks are perfectionists.
A quarterback who possesses the ability to score points in vital situations is, at the end of the day, more valuable than one with good statistics who cannot lead his team to victory.
The ability to see the field is so under-appreciated and nonetheless so vital. A guy with great vision can see an open route out of the corner of his eye and turn an incomplete pass or short gain into a touchdown.
Only the very best deserve a spot in the top 10 of all time. Here are my picks of the greatest quarterbacks that deserve that accolade.
Joe Montana had a stellar career with the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs. A master of late-game comebacks, Montana directed his teams to 31 fourth quarter come-from-behind wins during his illustrious career, including a 92-yard drive in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XXIII.
Montana won the NFL’s passing title in both 1987 and 1989. He topped the NFC in passing five times (1981, 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1989).
Thirty-nine times he passed for more than 300 yards in a game, including seven times in which he surpassed 400 yards. His six 300-yard passing performances in the postseason are an NFL record.
He also owns the career playoff record for attempts, completions, touchdowns, and yards gained passing.
Montana led his team to the playoffs 11 times. Along the way, he captured nine divisional championships and victories in Super Bowls XVI, XIX, XXIII, and XXIV. His outstanding play in Super Bowls XVI, XIX, and XXIV earned him Most Valuable Player honors in each game.
Named All-NFL three times and All-NFC on five occasions, Montana was voted to the Pro Bowl eight times, which was a league record for a quarterback at the time.
In 1992, after missing 31 consecutive games due to an injury to his throwing arm, Montana made a dramatic comeback. In the second half of the regular season finale, a Monday Night Football offering vs. the Detroit Lions, Montana performed his magic of old, completing 15 of 21 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns as the 49ers defeated the Lions 24-6.
In 1994, Montana became just the fifth quarterback to pass for more than 40,000 yards in a career.
At the time of his retirement, he ranked fourth in career passing yardage (40,551 yards), attempts (5,391), and passing touchdowns (273). His 3,409 completions ranked third all-time, and his career passer rating of 92.3 was second all time.
Unitas’ first pass was intercepted for a touchdown, but from that moment on, he never looked back. For the next 18 seasons, "Johnny U" ran up a ledger of game-winning exploits seldom matched in NFL history.
Without a doubt, it was his last-second heroics in the 1958 NFL title game, often called "the greatest game ever played," that turned Unitas into a household name.
The New York Giants, with two minutes to play, were leading 17-14, when the Colts started a last-gasp drive at their own 14. “Mr. Clutch” went coolly to work with seven straight passes that set up a game-tying field goal with seven seconds left. Unitas then engineered a textbook perfect 80-yard march to win the game in overtime.
The game, played before a national television audience, gave Unitas his chance to demonstrate all of his marvelous attributes—confidence, courage, leadership, play-calling genius, and passing skill.
Unitas’ career statistics include 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns passing.
His record of at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games may stand forever. A genuine team player, Unitas was selected the NFL Player of the Year three times (1959, 1964, 1967), and named to 10 Pro Bowls (1957, 1958, 1959 (MVP), 1960 (MVP), 1961, 1962, 1963 (MVP), 1964, 1966, 1967).
The Colts won the NFL championship under Unitas' leadership in 1958 and in 1959 (called the rematch), by twice defeating the New York Giants: 23–17 in sudden death overtime and 31-16.
In 1970, Unitas led the Colts to Super Bowl V. He was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, after throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass (setting a then-Super Bowl record) that helped lift the team to victory.
Unitas was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and to the NFL’s 1960’s All-Decade Team.
In 1999, he was ranked No. 5 on "The Sporting News" list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, behind only Joe Montana among quarterbacks.
Johnny Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
In 1946, he was switched to quarterback, where he would lead the team to the league championship game in each of his 10 seasons, winning on seven occasions.
Graham won the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1947 and 1948, sharing the honor the latter year with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Frankie Albert.
During the AAFC's four-year existence, the Browns won the championship each year as Graham threw for 10,085 yards and 86 touchdowns and rushed for 11 more.
The Browns joined the National Football League in 1950, and won the league championship in their first NFL season, deflecting the criticism of their domination of the AAFC. Graham, nicknamed "Automatic Otto" for his precision passing, was four-for-four when it came to All-American Football Conference championships (1946-49).
Graham helped the 1951 team to 11 consecutive wins following a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener. The streak helped him win NFL Player of the Year accolades.
Graham would go on to win Player of the Year honors that year and skip a year and win it again in 1955, scoring himself a total of three MVP awards in the NFL. He also racked up two more when he was in the AAFC.
During an astounding career in which the Browns compiled a 105-17-4 record, at the time of his retirement Graham's 86.6 career pass rating (combined AAFC and NFL) served as one of the best of all time, tossing 188 touchdowns in ten seasons of play.
In 1999, he was ranked number 7 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the highest-ranking player who had played in the AAFC.
Although Graham was better known with number 60, the Browns retired his number 14 while number 60 remains in circulation.
Graham's 57-13-1 record as a starter in the NFL represents the highest winning percentage of any quarterback (.810).
Jimmy Murray once said, "Imagine a quarterback leading his team to 10 straight Super Bowls today and you have a measure of the kind of man Otto Graham was."
Otto Graham was selected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
By his second year in the league, Elway set team records for passing attempts, completions, and yards.
In 1987, he embarked on what is considered to be one of the most clutch performances in NFL history, when he helped guide the Broncos on a 98-yard, game-tying drive in the AFC Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns.
The moment is known in National Football League lore as The Drive. Following the AFC Championship Game, Elway and the Broncos lost in Super Bowl XXI to the New York Giants.
After two more Super Bowl losses, the Broncos entered a period of decline; however, that would end during the 1997 season, as Elway and Denver won their first Super Bowl title by defeating the Green Bay Packers, 31–24, in Super Bowl XXXII.
The Broncos repeated as champions the following season in Super Bowl XXXIII by defeating the Atlanta Falcons, 34–19. Elway was voted MVP of that Super Bowl, which would prove to be the last game of his career.
The versatile Elway is the only player in National Football League history to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 200 yards in the same season seven consecutive times. He was only the second quarterback in NFL history to record more than 40,000 yards passing and 3,000 yards rushing during his career.
Elway was selected to play in nine Pro Bowl games (1986, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, and 1998). Elway was a first- or second-team All-Pro choice three times and a first- or second-team All-AFC choice five times. In addition to his all-league honors, he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1987, AFC Offensive Player of the Year in 1993.
The Denver Broncos retired his No. 7 jersey, also in 1999; he was ranked number 16 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.
At the time of his retirement, he ranked second all time in three of the game’s most significant passing categories: passing yards (51,475), attempts (7,250), and completions (4,123).
Elway was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, in his first year of eligibility.
Steve Young played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but is best known for his time playing with the San Francisco 49ers.
Young was named the Most Valuable Player of the NFL in 1992 and 1994 and the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX. Young holds the NFL record for highest career passer rating and won six NFL passing titles.
Young finished the season with 3,456 passing yards and 537 rushing yards, along with an NFL-best 25 touchdown passes and 107.0 passer rating. These accolades earned him the NFL Most Valuable Player Award and his first selection of seven to the Pro Bowl (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998).
He was the first quarterback ever to record a triple digit rating in consecutive seasons.
On the strength of a six touchdown performance that surpassed the previous Super Bowl record of five, owned by the man Young replaced, Joe Montana, Steve Young was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX, as the 49ers defeated the San Diego Chargers, 49-26.
He threw for 3,969 yards, a then-franchise record 35 touchdown passes with only 10 interceptions, completed an NFL record 70.28 percent of his passes, and broke Montana's single season mark with a then-record 112.8 passer rating. He was named NFL MVP for the second time in his career in 1994.
Although he did not become the 49ers' starter until his eighth NFL season and he played a full season only three times during his 15-year career, Young compiled impressive career numbers. He threw for 33,124 passing yards and 232 touchdowns, with 107 interceptions, and 43 rushing touchdowns.
His 96.8 career passer rating is the highest in NFL history. His 4,239 rushing yards are the second most ever gained by a quarterback, behind Randall Cunningham.
He has the third-highest single-season passer rating at 112.8 (set in the 1994 season), next to Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning (121.1 QB rating in 2004), and New England Patriots' Tom Brady (117.2 QB rating in 2007).
In 1999, he was ranked No.63 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.
The San Francisco 49ers retired his No. 8 jersey, and he became the 11th player in team history to receive this honor.
Steve Young was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on February 5, 2005; he was the first left-handed quarterback to be so honored.
The Miami Dolphins, much to their surprise at the time, found University of Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino still available when it came time to make their first pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
Five other quarterbacks, including Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and John Elway, had been taken before the Dolphins grabbed Marino with the 27th pick overall.
Marino earned the starting role early in his rookie season. For the next 17 years, the fortunes of the franchise rode on his shoulders. By the time he retired following the 1999 NFL season, Marino had literally rewritten the passing section of the NFL's record book.
He became the first player ever to pass for 5,000 yards in a single season finishing with a remarkable 5,084 yards. His 48 touchdown passes obliterated the previous record, 36 touchdowns passes held by Y.A. Tittle and George Blanda. By season's end, he had set six league records and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player (1984).
In Super Bowl XIX, Marino completed 29 of 50 passes for 318 yards, passed for one touchdown and threw two interceptions as the Dolphins fell to Hall of Famer Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, 38-16.
Marino's passing prowess continued at a record pace and by the end of the 1995 season, had supplanted Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton as the career passing leader in attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns.
Marino's career totals are staggering, as he completed 4,967 of 8,358 passes for 61,361 yards, and threw 420 touchdowns during his 242-game NFL career.
Thirteen times in his career, Marino passed for 3,000 yards or more in a season, which includes the six seasons he reached the 4,000-yard plateau.
He passed for 300 yards in a game 63 times and threw for 400 or more yards in a game 13 times.
Marino led the Dolphins to 36 fourth-quarter comeback victories, most all time. He had 116 wins under Don Shula (the most by a head coach/quarterback combination in NFL history).
Miami Dolphins retired his jersey No. 13, and Dan Marino was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
He was known as "Slingin' Sammy.”
He is credited for making the forward pass an integral part of the offensive play in the NFL.
He was the first to play the position of quarterback as it is played today, the first to make of the forward pass an effective weapon rather than an "act of desperation.”
During his rookie season in 1937, Baugh played quarterback, defensive back, and punter, set an NFL record for completions with 91 in 218 attempts and threw for a league-high 1,127 yards. He led the Redskins to the NFL Championship game against the Chicago Bears, where he gave Washington a 28–21 victory.
He set another record as a rookie quarterback, throwing for 335 yards in a playoff game.
By the time he retired, Baugh set 13 NFL records in three player positions: quarterback, punter, and defensive back. He is considered one of the all-time great football players.
As Michael Wilbon, of The Washington Post says: "He brought not just victories but thrills, and ignited Washington with a passion even the worst Redskins periods can barely diminish.”
Two of his records as quarterback still stand: most seasons leading the league in passing (six, tied with Steve Young) and most seasons leading the league with the lowest interception percentage (five).
He is also third in highest single-season completion percentage (70.33), most seasons leading the league in yards gained (four) and most seasons leading the league in completion percentage (seven).
Baugh was named a five-time All-Star (1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1942), seven-time first-team All-Pro (1937, 1940, 1942, 1943, 1945, 1947, and 1948), and a one-time Pro Bowl selection (1951). Baugh was also a two-time NFL Player of the Year (1947, 1948).
Baugh was selected to these all-time teams: 50th Anniversary Team by the NFL (1969), 75th Anniversary Team by the NFL (1994), Named as the Most Versatile Player of all-time by the NFL Network (2007), and named to the NFL’s 1940’s All-Decade Team.
Additionally, he was honored by the Redskins with the retirement of his jersey number, No. 33, the only number the team has officially retired.
He was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
Staubach was key part in developing the Cowboys to become America's Team and led the team to nine of the Cowboys record-setting twenty consecutive winning seasons. Staubach led the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl victory, and as a result, he was named MVP in Super Bowl VI.
Legendary coach Tom Landry described Staubach as "possibly the best combination of a passer, an athlete, and a leader to ever play in the NFL."
He led the club to five Super Bowl appearances (V, VI, X, XII, and XIII), with victories in Super Bowl VI and Super Bowl XII. Staubach was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl VI becoming the first of four players to win the Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl MVP.
Perhaps his most famous moment was the controversial "Hail Mary Pass" in the 1975 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings. With seconds on the clock and the Cowboys trailing 14–10, Staubach launched a 50-yard bomb to wide receiver Drew Pearson, who caught the pass and strode into the end zone for a 17–14 victory. After the game, Staubach quipped he prayed a "Hail Mary" before throwing the pass.
The moment has been emblazoned in football folklore ever since, and the "Hail Mary Pass" has entered the realm of football nomenclature.
Staubach was one of the most exciting NFL players of the 1970s. Known as "Roger the Dodger" for his scrambling abilities, and also as "Captain Comeback" for his fourth quarter heroics, Staubach had a penchant for leading scoring drives which would lead the Cowboys to improbable victories. He led his team to 23 game-winning drives (15 comebacks) in the fourth quarter, with 17 of these coming in the last two minutes.
He was named to the Pro Bowl (1971, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979) six times during his eleven-year (1969-1979) NFL career and named to the NFL’s 1970’s All-Decade Team. He also was granted to the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.
In 1999, he was ranked number 29 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the second-ranked Cowboy behind Bob Lilly.
Staubach retired from football in March 1980, as the then-highest-rated passer of all time at 83.4, and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
At the time of his retirement he owned every major quarterback record, Tarkenton held NFL career records in pass attempts, completions, yardage, and touchdowns; rushing yards by a quarterback; and wins by a starting quarterback.
He is best known for his years with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants, and then traded back to the Vikings.
He played for the Vikings from 1961 to 1966, during which time he frequently locked horns with head coach Norm Van Brocklin, who disdained the idea of a mobile quarterback, a concept that Tarkenton dramatically advanced in the NFL.
Tarkenton was given the nicknames "The Mad Scrambler," "Frantic Fran," and "Scramblin' Fran" because he frequently ran around in the backfield to avoid being sacked by the opposition.
He led the Vikings to three Super Bowls (1973, 1974, and 1976) in the 1970s, but lost all of them.
In Tarkenton's first Super Bowl appearance they lost to the Miami Dolphins 24–7, they lost the second to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a defensive struggle 16-6, and in the last Super Bowl Tarkenton would ever play, the Vikings were blown out by the Oakland Raiders 32-14.
Tarkenton won the NFL's MVP award after the 1975 season, capturing All-Pro honors in the process. Tarkenton was also second Team All-Pro in 1973 and earned All-NFC selection in 1972 and 1976. He was named second Team All-NFC in 1970 and 1974. Tarkenton was selected to play in nine Pro Bowls (1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, and 1976).
In his 18 NFL seasons, Tarkenton completed 3,686 of 6,467 passes for 47,003 yards (6th) and 342 touchdowns (4th), with 266 interceptions.
He also is fifth on the all-time list of wins by a starting quarterback with 124 regular season victories. He also used his impressive scrambling ability to rack up 3,674 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 675 carries.
In 1999, he was ranked number 59 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.
Fran Tarkenton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 1972, Bradshaw threw the pass leading to the "Immaculate Reception," which is among the most famous plays in NFL history.
“Last chance for the Steelers, Bradshaw trying to get away. And his pass is...broken up by Tatum. Picked off! Franco Harris has it! And he's over! Franco Harris grabbed the ball on the deflection! Five seconds to go! He grabbed it with five seconds to go and scored!” (Curt Gowdy)
Bradshaw led the Pittsburgh Steelers to eight AFC Central Championships and recorded four Super Bowl rings (IX, X, XIII, and XIV).
In four Super Bowls, he passed for an impressive 932 yards and nine touchdowns. In 19 postseason games, he completed 261 passes for 3,833 yards.
Bradshaw won back-to-back Super Bowls between the 1974 (Minnesota) and 1975 (Dallas) seasons.
In 1978, Bradshaw won Super Bowl XIII against the Dallas Cowboys and was named Super Bowl MVP and 1978’s regular season MVP as well.
He would return to the Super Bowl in 1979 for his fourth Super Bowl win against the Los Angeles Rams (19-31) and be named to his second Super Bowl MVP award.
Bradshaw also went to three Pro Bowls in 1975, 1978, and 1979 and was named to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team.
In his 14-season career, Bradshaw completed 2,025 of 3,901 passes for 27,989 yards and 212 touchdowns. He also rushed 444 times for 2,257 yards and 32 touchdowns.
While the Steelers no longer officially retire uniform numbers (with the exception of Ernie Stautner's No. 70), they have not reissued Bradshaw's No. 12 since he retired, and it is generally understood that no Steeler will wear that number again.
In 1999, Bradshaw was ranked number 44 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.
Terry Bradshaw was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989, his first year of eligibility.