Ranking the NFL's Top Quarterbacks from Each Decade (With Video)
To me, it’s hard to make a list of the best quarterbacks of all time. It depends on how long of a list you make. Making a list of the best per decade is no walk in the park either.
It's not hard to make a list of the best quarterbacks ever. The complexity lies in deciding how they rank within their particular decades. I take into consideration the exact time they played at their best, how they executed in that decade with championships, Pro Bowls, winning seasons, etc.
Another thing I looked at was if the player overlapped in decades, which raises the question, was he the best player during a certain decade with only "x" amount of years played during that time period?
In this slideshow, I have put together the best quarterbacks per decade. Throughout the history of the NFL, the quarterback position has been probably the hardest and craziest position on the field.
The pre-1950s was a time when the league was based on ball control; very few quarterbacks actually evolved into what a quarterback should be.
After the 1950s, a new breed of signal callers were left for the wolves. Guts and glory seemed like the motto to become the prototypical field general.
Times started to change, and so did the rules, and the offense finally had the boost it was looking for.
Protecting the quarterback started to become an essential key in how the game is played today. Stats caught fire, and records seemed to get broken and set every time you turned the tube on.
The West Coast system was the new look in the '80s. Defensive units had their hands full of hair trying to deal with the intelligence of Bill Walsh’s new system for quarterbacks. Roger Craig was the first to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving in a single year.
The West Coast brought a whole new set of cards to the table and opened up the modern style run and gun we see today.
In the 1990s, the West Coast system boomed, and more teams started to use Walsh’s system and even modified it to fit their teams. The '90s was a time when offensive points started to fill the boards and stats started to jump from state to state.
Mobility in the 2000s became quite popular with quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, and Daunte Culpepper. Defensive schemes are getting more praise these days to take out the quarterback and set new standards for sacks in a year. I still think pocket passers will always have reign over run-first guys.
Enjoy the slideshow, and feel free to express your thoughts and views in the comment box. Don’t be afraid to click the “like” button. Thank you!
Quarterback of the Pre-1950s—Sammy Baugh, Washington (1937-52)
He was known as "Slingin' Sammy.”
It was during his time as a baseball player that he earned the nickname "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 and the first to make the forward pass an effective weapon rather than an "act of desperation.”
Baugh is considered one of the most versatile quarterbacks to play, if not the best ever. Sammy was a three-sport guy in college, playing baseball, basketball, and football.
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.
In 1943, Baugh led the league in passing (55.6), punting (45.9), and interceptions (11). He was a defensive back for six years, recording 31 interceptions. Imagine if he played his whole career as a defensive back; I believe we’d still be talking about this guy.
He still holds the league record for single-season punting (he averaged 51.4 yards per kick in 1940).
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.
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 (1938-1942), 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 the Most Versatile Player of All Time by the NFL Network (2007), and named to the NFL’s 1940s All-Decade Team.
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.”
Honorable Mention: Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears (1939-1950)
Quarterback of the Decade 1950s—Otto Graham, Cleveland (1946-55)
Let my voice be heard for a brief moment like it was Bob Sheppard: “Otto Graham, No. 14, Otto Graham. He is the best quarterback of all time (echo) time.”
Graham, nicknamed "Automatic Otto" for his precision passing, led the league in completion percentage once and quarterback rating four times.
Let me remind you, when he played in the All-American Football Conference, he had an astonishing record of 47-4-3 with four championships. In 1950, when he started in the National Football League, he went 57-13-1, winning three NFL championships.
Throughout his career, Graham posted a record of 105-17-4 and led the Browns to 10 straight championship berths, winning seven of those. He also went 14-0 in 1948, a perfect season!
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 10 seasons of play.
Graham was also a three-time (1951, 1953, and 1955) MVP and a two-time (1947 and 1948) MVP in the AAFC. Graham was also named to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team.
In 1999, he was ranked No. 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 No. 60, the Browns retired his No. 14 jersey while 60 remains in circulation.
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.
Honorable Mention: Norm Van Brocklin, Los Angeles Rams/Philadelphia Eagles (1949-60)
Quarterback of the Decade 1960s—Johnny Unitas, Baltimore (1956-72)
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-yard line. “Mr. Clutch” then went 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 the chance to demonstrate all of his marvelous attributes—confidence, courage, leadership, play-calling genius, and passing skill.
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 (1957-1964, 1966, and 1967).
Unitas’ career statistics include 40,239 yards and 290 passing TDs. He will forever be known as one of the most decorated quarterbacks of all time.
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 the next year.
Unitas was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team.
In 1999, he was ranked fifth on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, only behind Joe Montana among quarterbacks.
Johnny Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Honorable Mention: Len Dawson, Kansas City Chiefs (AFL) (1963-75)
Quarterback of the Decade 1970s—Roger Staubach, Dallas (1969-79)
I am truly sorry to all of you Pittsburgh fans. Terry Bradshaw may have won four Super Bowls in the '70s, but Roger Staubach was the better quarterback.
Staubach was a key part in the development of the Cowboys and helped them become America's Team. He led the team to nine of the Cowboys' record-setting 20 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.
Roger served in the Navy for a four-year term, which stalled him from playing in the NFL until he was 27. I think Roger should have had the nod over Craig Morton from the start.
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 inscribed in football folklore ever since, and the "Hail Mary Pass" has entered the field 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 that 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 six times (1971, 1975-1979) during his 11-year NFL career (1969-1979) and named to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team. He also was inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.
In 1999, he was ranked No. 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.
Honorable Mention: Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings (1972-78)
Quarterback of the Decade 1980s—Joe Montana, San Francisco (1979-92)
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).
He passed for more than 300 yards in a game an amazing 39 times, 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.
He was named All-NFL three times and All-NFC on five occasions, as well as being 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.
Many say Montana isn't just the best quarterback of this decade. He is, without question, the best ever.
Honorable Mention: John Elway, Denver Broncos (1983-98)
Quarterback of the Decade 1990s—Steve Young, San Francisco (1987-99)
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 (96.8), and he won six NFL passing titles, a record he shares with Sammy Baugh.
Throughout the 1990s, Steve went to the Pro Bowl seven times (1992-1998), and he was the first quarterback ever to record a triple-digit passer 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 was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX as the 49ers defeated the San Diego Chargers, 49-26. He finally got that monkey off his back!
He threw for 3,969 yards, a then-franchise record 35 touchdown passes with only 10 interceptions, while completing 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 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.
In 1999, he was ranked No. 63 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, and his 4,239 rushing yards are the second most ever gained by a quarterback, behind Randall Cunningham.
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 Feb. 5, 2005—he was the first left-handed quarterback to earn the honor.
Honorable Mention: John Elway, Denver Broncos (1983-1998)
Quarterback of the Decade 2000s—Peyton Manning, Indianapolis (1998-)
Yes, I know Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls, but put Manning on the Patriots and Manning may have five Super Bowls.
Peyton Manning is considered one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He has the record for most NFL MVP awards with four.
The Colts drafted him as the first overall pick in 1998. In his rookie season, he passed for 3,739 yards with 26 touchdowns and set five different NFL rookie records, including most touchdown passes in a season, and was named to the NFL All-Rookie First Team.
Manning holds NFL records for consecutive seasons with over 4,000 yards passing and the most total seasons with 4,000 or more yards passing in a career. Manning holds the fourth-highest career passer rating (95.2) behind only Steve Young (96.8), Philip Rivers (95.8), and Tony Romo (95.6).
He is the all-time Colts franchise leader in career wins, career passing yards, pass attempts, pass completions, and passing touchdowns.
Manning already has thrown for 50,128 yards and 366 touchdowns in his 12-year career. At the pace he's on, he's likely to hold every major career passing record by the time he's done playing.
In 2009, The Sporting News listed him as the No. 1 player in the NFL today. Also in 2009, Fox Sports named him player of the decade.
Since the Colts drafted Manning in 1998, the team has the highest conversion rate on third down (44.6 percent) and fourth down (61.1 percent) plays in the NFL.
While leading the Colts to their Super Bowl XLI victory in 2007 (Super Bowl MVP), Manning helped the team to an NFL record by converting 56.1 percent of its third downs.
Manning has been named to 10 Pro Bowls (1999, 2000, 2002-2009). He is a four-time AP NFL MVP (2003, 2004, 2008, and 2009) and was also named to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team.
Honorable mention: Tom Brady, New England Patriots (2000-present)