Especially since the Peyton Manning - Tom Brady era, much has been written and said about who is better or if any quarterback is better in NFL history. For many, the issue involves the relative strength of the teams they have played on, the offensive lines, their receiving corps, and other speculation about the relative talent of their teams.
When picking their favorites even for a season, excuses often predominate the debate. The most recent example is the Vick - Brady MVP debate. That Vick could be considered at all as MVP raises questions about how one evaluates talent and success in the NFL.
There are also many who argue that counting the number of championships a quarterback has won, or even looking at the quarterback's playoff record, is unfair to those who toil with more modest resources in any given season. They spend time arguing that better talent wins. And they give a lot of slack to those who work on inferior teams.
They can reinforce their arguments by citing the Felix Hernandez situation in Major League Baseball. Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award despite an almost 50% win record.
But the Cy Young is for a single season not the best in history. And if the situation in the NFL were as exceptional as that in Hernandez' case, with a player with a clearly inferior team, perhaps this could be a consideration for any given season. However, baseball is very different than football. The scoring system and game makes wins less important. A pitcher can lose a game because of blown saves. No such issue exists in the NFL.
We can make all the arguments we want about why Peyton Manning has won only one Super Bowl, why Donovan McNabb never won a Super Bowl, and why it took John Elway so long to win his first ring. These arguments are relevant only because of one thing.
Only Super Bowls Count
Winning championships is the first criterion for greatness in all sports, and arguably the deciding factor. While great quarterbacks come in many flavors, the most important criteria must be winning. To win an NFL championship you have to have a great quarterback. To reach the NFL playoffs, the quarterback is still the key. Without a great quarterback, the team loses at some point. Thus, counting playoff and Super Bowl wins seems the most important criteria for any quarterback and for the best NFL quarterback in history.
While it is tempting to look at all quarterbacks in history, it is just not the same with the Super Bowl. The competition of the AFL in the first Super Bowls, and then the AFL's merger of the NFL created a different animal than the old NFL before the Super Bowl. So it is that we turn to rating the NFL's best quarterbacks during the Super Bowl era, considering only Super Bowl performances.
If you are in the playoffs, the talent of every team is usually not that disparate from top to bottom. A team will rarely lose because of obviously inferior personnel overall, especially after the first round. While exceptional players can be found at any position, few if any have even half the impact of the quarterback. Whatever you say about receivers, you have to get them the ball.
So inferior overall talent can triumph in the NFL for many reasons. But not with an inferior quarterback. The football quarterback is and has been by far the most important player of all, perhaps in all team sports. And so the credit needs to go to the quarterback for a good part of the wins.
Fifteen Playoff Appearances Required
The number of times a quarterback has played in the playoffs is another determining factor when considering if a quarterback makes the list. We have cut off those not involved in Super Bowls already. This one is perhaps more arbitrary.
It was tempting to use 10 playoff appearances as the cutoff. Doing so would allow Bart Starr, Ben Rothlisberger, Ron Jaworski, and Jim Plunkett to make the list. But Rothlisberger is too young and Plunkett and Jaworski (by his own judgment) do not belong. And 10 was just too few in the Super Bowl era. Too many make the cut, diluting the talent far more than appropriate. Surely, Plunkett is not someone who belongs in the same breath as Brady and Manning.
So we have made 15 playoff decisions another criterion. If you have not made at least that number of appearances, you were not enough of a winner either due to history (Starr was too old by the time of the Super Bowl) or sheer ability to make the cut. This also eliminates Steve Young and some others you may think deserve mention.
One Super Bowl Win Required
Super Bowl wins have counted the most. Thus, if you have not won at least one Super Bowl, then you are not counted among the very best in this analysis. Despite the fact that he appeared in a record four straight Super Bowls, Jim Kelly missed the mark because of this requirement.
At Least Two Super Bowl Appearances Required
You must have appeared in at least two Super Bowls. Donovan McNabb missed the cut because of this one. Although he played in 16 playoff games, McNabb was only in one Super Bowl which he won.
The Qualified Quarterbacks
Here are the seven quarterbacks who qualify to be considered as the Best Quarterback of All-Time under these criteria: Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, and Roger Staubach. Hopefully, these limitations will not be viewed as entirely arbitrary when those who missed the list are reviewed. You can judge for yourself if and where they belonged in this list.
With this said, total playoff and Super Bowl appearances and wins, and the playoff and Super Bowl winning percentages were considered for the overall rating of each of these quarterbacks. Although it was tempting to weight each of these criteria, I chose to make them equal weighted. I also chose to do the evaluation by a simple ranking, with the best getting the highest number(s) (7 was the most, with that number and lower numbers divided in case of a tie) whenever and the worst the lowest number(s) (1 unless there was a tie).
So here we go. The NFL's All-Time Quarterbacks. The combined score of the top quarterbacks was close but Joe Montana was far above all but Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady. Of course, both Brady and Manning are still active. I have included their latest appearances in the scoring.
1. Joe Montana - Total Score = 35
With Montana, we have the best statistics assisted in part due to his perfect Super Bowl record of 4-0. Two other qualified quarterbacks share the undefeated record, with Bradshaw the only one with with four wins, and Troy Aikman with three. Of those who are still undefeated, Ben Roethlisberger is the most likely to have a chance to get to that record or even break it.
2. Terry Bradshaw - Total Score = 32
Bradshaw remains the most underrated quarterback in NFL history. Perhaps his immaturity and obvious depression and other problems have muddied the waters here. Mark his position in history, and everyone is quick to say what a great catch the Immaculate Reception was, how great his running backs were, and other comments on the team as a whole. Yet, without Bradshaw these teammates would have been little more than an afterthought. He got them to the playoffs and won four Super Bowls. Enough said.
3. Tom Brady (Active) - Total Score = 29
Tom Brady has played in the same number of playoff games as Peyton Manning. But his playoff record is the best among the contenders and just shy of the best in history when considering quarterbacks who have played more than one or two playoff games. With many more years possible, few would doubt but that under these criteria Brady will exceed both Bradshaw and Montana. Of course, at one time Tiger Woods was a shoe-in to do the same with golf's all-time Major record. Many think he will exceed all other quarterbacks, and already rank him the best of all-time. It is ironic that in the same time as we have seen Raphael Nadal and Roger Federer, we have seen Manning and Brady. Does this bode for even greater athletes in the future for most sports. Stay tuned.
4. John Elway - Total Score = 24.5
Elway was in more Super Bowls than any other quarterback, and remains the all-time clutch performer with mind-boggling statistics. As we have said about Michael Vick, you have to be behind in order to have to win with a winning drive. Yet, Elway managed so many. If Brady reaches the Super Bowl this year, he matches Elway's record number of Super Bowls.
5. Troy Aikman - Total Score = 22
One of the all-time performers in the game, a competitor above most others, Aikman's undefeated Super Bowl record shows he wins the big games. With only 15 playoff appearances, Aikman barely made the cut.
6. Roger Staubach - Total Score = 16
You might have guessed that Staubach would be the major break in this group of stellar quarterbacks. Although he had a great career, imagine what it would have been if he had not been in the Navy for five years. Surely, close to if not the best of all-time.
7. Peyton Manning - Total Score = 10.5
Despite the admittedly proper respect given for Manning, he is nowhere close to the best, and would fare worse if he were included with all quarterbacks who were in at least 10 playoff games.
So there you have it. You may disagree with the use of these statistics, as anyone might. What, no Dan Marino? But at the same time, if you believe in championships, these statistics do not lie.