Top 25 NFL Quarterbacks of All Time: Why We Need To Take a Fresh Look at History
The position of quarterback has long been the most important position in the game of football. The focus on the position far exceeds any other and sorting through the all-time greats was no easy task. I'm only as good as my research and I've done some dense reading to put together the most faultless list to date.
As time has gone by, writers have ranked certain quarterbacks far too high or low simply based off of public opinion or simple statistics. I've attempted to ignore both of those to a much larger extent than the lists made to this point.
This list is not based off a formula either. The quarterback position is constantly evolving and I find it insane when writers attempt to create formulas that could compensate for that. NFL rules have made it easier on the passing game and in the past few decades, we have seen better passing statistics than ever before.
The only constant attributes that can be judged, regardless of the era, are toughness, leadership and a winning mentality.
Placing the current NFL quarterbacks was the toughest aspect of this list, but I think I've inserted them fairly. There is no doubt that current quarterbacks do belong on this list so I've placed them based off of their skills and performance to this point in their careers.
Now that I've explained all of that, let's begin.
25. Bob Griese: Miami Dolphins
Bob Griese has to be commended for what he did for the Dolphins franchise. Griese was the leader of the new franchise and made them into a perennial contender. He was victorious in three consecutive AFC Championships and two Super Bowls.
Griese was the definition of a game-managing quarterback in his era. The Dolphins' strong running game allowed Griese to be efficient and keep mistakes to a minimum.
Despite battling injuries throughout his career, Griese's accolades include six Pro Bowl appearances and two AFL All-Star selections.
24. Roman Gabriel: Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles
There may not be one quarterback in NFL history who has been more neglected by the Hall of Fame. Gabriel is clearly deserving of enshrinement and it's a shame that he's not.
Gabriel was a prototypical NFL quarterback. He had the size that teams would covet today and the leadership skills that are required for success. He was also one of the smartest players of his era. He was great at reading defenses and his skills were on par with other greats of the time, such as Johnny Unitas.
Gabriel's accolades include four Pro Bowl selections and an NFL MVP award.
23. Norm Van Brocklin: Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles
Norm Van Brocklin was a sports icon during his time. He was an entertainer just as much as he was a quarterback.
Norm's path to greatness was not typical in the least bit. He had to share playing time with another great quarterback, Bob Waterfield. Despite this, he was able to win two passing titles while sharing playing time with Waterfield.
Van Brocklin was clutch in the 1951 NFL Championship and led the Rams to victory. He also led the Eagles to an NFL title in 1960, defeating Vince Lombardi and the Packers, the only quarterback to do so.
His accolades include nine Pro Bowl selections and an MVP award.
22. Jim Kelly: Buffalo Bills
Jim Kelly started off his career in the USFL, where he was one of the league's most dominant players. Eventually though, Kelly was forced to enter the NFL when the USFL folded, where he signed with the Bills.
Kelly was an integral part of a very powerful Bills offense in the '90s. He was immensely talented and had the necessary intelligence needed to run the no-huddle offense for the Bills. His strong arm and great decision-making helped turn the team into a dynasty.
Kelly, despite never winning a Super Bowl, was one of the most successful quarterbacks in the league's history. He took the team to four consecutive Super Bowls, an achievement that no player may be able to say ever again.
Kelly's achievements include four Pro Bowl selections and a USFL MVP award.
21. Troy Aikman: Dallas Cowboys
Aikman is one of many quarterbacks in the league's history who was thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie and struggled early on. However, within two seasons, Aikman began to show signs of greatness and the team turned around.
By 1992—Aikman's fourth NFL season—the Cowboys reached the Super Bowl and the young quarterback led the team to a convincing 52-17 victory. Aikman received Super Bowl MVP honors.
Aikman would go on to win two more Super Bowls with Dallas, and go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in league history. By the end of his career, he was selected to six Pro Bowls and won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 1997.
20. Sonny Jurgensen: Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins
Sonny Jurgensen threw the football as well as any quarterback from his era. He was as much of a gunslinger as the league has ever seen and it's hard to not compare him to another all-time great, Brett Favre.
Similar to Favre, Jurgensen played for many, many years. He entered the league at the age of 23 and did not retire until he was 40. He barely showed signs of aging, posting a 94.5 passer rating in his final season.
Even Vince Lombardi recognized him as one of the best the league had ever seen, and I don't take Lomardi's comments lightly.
Jurgensen was a five-time All-Pro in his illustrious career.
19. Kurt Warner: St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals
Kurt Warner retired in 2010 after a five-year stint with the Cardinals. Although he was incredibly successful in Arizona and he made a magical run to the Super Bowl in 2009, Warner is known best for his years in St. Louis.
Warner signed with the Rams at the age of 27. While that is not old for a quarterback, he did miss out on some potentially successful seasons because NFL teams did not give him the chance that he deserved.
Warner started out quick and led the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances in his first three NFL seasons, winning one. It's tough to argue with Warner's leadership, as he won everywhere he went, even turning around an Arizona franchise that was in the dumps.
Warner was selected to four Pro Bowls and awarded with two NFL MVP awards. Just as important are his Walter Payton Man of the Year award and Bart Starr Man of the Year award.
18. Terry Bradshaw: Pittsburgh Steelers
Statistically, Bradshaw is one of the worst quarterbacks on this list. Even in the grand scheme of NFL history, his statistics are only average. That should serve as proof that you need to look beyond the stats to determine the value of a quarterback.
Bradshaw had an excellent arm, but what set him apart was his mentality. He was the unquestioned leader of the Steelers and even called the plays for his team. You can't underestimate that trait, as his play-calling led the team to four Super Bowl victories. Bradshaw earned two Super Bowl MVP awards in those victories.
Bradshaw earned three Pro Bowl selections and one NFL MVP award.
17. Warren Moon: Houston Oilers, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks
Warren Moon was doubted coming out of college because of the offense he ran at Washington and by some because black quarterbacks hadn't experienced much success in the NFL. Needless to say, Moon shattered all expectations and played for an astonishing 23 professional seasons.
Moon impressed with excellent arm strength and athleticism. He led the league in passing multiple times despite not entering the NFL until the age of 28. Had he been given a chance in the NFL earlier in his life, it is possible that he would be mentioned among the top quarterbacks the league has ever seen.
The Hall of Famer was selected to nine Pro Bowls and won an MVP award as well as an Offensive Player of the Year award.
16. Dan Fouts: San Diego Chargers
When Fouts arrived in San Diego, there were near the bottom of the division and didn't have a lot of talent. Fouts started a new era for the Chargers and won loads of respect around the league.
By his seventh NFL season, Fouts put the Chargers in the playoffs, but they were never able to reach the pinnacle of sports. He was not to blame though. The Chargers lacked a complementary running game to take the pressure off of their quarterback and the defense was not championship-worthy. Nonetheless, Fouts was stellar in the playoffs.
He was selected to six Pro Bowls and won two NFL MVP awards.
15. Y.A. Tittle: Baltimore Colts, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants
Y.A. Tittle was one of the greatest quarterbacks of the '50s and '60s. He never had great surrounding talent in San Francisco, but when he moved to New York, it became evident that he was one of the best the league had ever seen.
Tittle's efficiency with the Giants was unsurpassed and his consecutive 30-touchdown seasons broke barriers for the position. If he had been able to get over the hump and win a Super Bowl, he would be in the debate as a top-10 quarterback all time.
Tittle was selected to seven Pro Bowls and won four NFL MVP awards.
14. Len Dawson: Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs
After being drafted with the first overall pick by the Steelers, Dawson was never given much of a chance to become the team's quarterback. After a short stint in Cleveland, Dawson signed with Dallas and his career took off. He led the league in passer rating for six seasons and he threw for over 20 touchdowns in his first six seasons with the franchise.
However, Dawson's most notable season was not statistically his best. In 1969, Dawson led the Chiefs through the playoffs in a run that culminated with an upset victory over the Vikings in the Super Bowl, where Dawson was awarded with the Super Bowl MVP.
In his 19-year career, Dawson was selected to six AFL All-Star Games, one Pro Bowl and he still holds the record for most consecutive seasons leading the league in completion percentage.
13. Sid Luckman: Chicago Bears
Sid Luckman revolutionized the quarterback position. He was one of the greatest to play during the early years of the NFL and was also one of the most athletic quarterbacks of his time. Luckman also played halfback for George Halas and won one of the league's first MVP awards in 1943.
With Luckman at quarterback, the Bears won four Super Bowls, making him one of the most successful players ever to play the position. The Bears' use of the T formation was made effective by the big-armed quarterback and he was an integral part of the most dangerous offense in the NFL.
12. John Elway: Denver Broncos
Elway ended his career in magical fashion. In his final two seasons, Elway won consecutive Super Bowls and decided to retire on top.
Elway's career very well could have ended differently though. Elway was traded to Denver by the Baltimore Colts in a move that has implications that last to this day—think Peyton Manning. In Elway's final six seasons, he was at his best. By 1986, Elway began to make a name for himself as one of the top clutch quarterbacks ever. His 98-yard touchdown drive in the AFC title game is now simply known as "The Drive" due to its notorious stature in Denver and Cleveland sports history.
Elway was selected to nine Pro Bowls and was the NFL's MVP in 1987.
11. Brett Favre: Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings
Favre is one of the most successful quarterbacks ever. He was a part of only two losing seasons and reached the playoffs 12 times, winning a Super Bowl on one of his trips.
Favre's gunslinger mentality set him apart from many of the quarterbacks of his time. He was never afraid to make a mistake, always moved on to help his team come away with a win and often won games with his magical and unconventional plays.
During his 20 years in the NFL, Favre was selected to 11 Pro Bowls and was awarded with three consecutive NFL MVP awards.
10. Roger Staubach: Dallas Cowboys
After winning the Heisman Trophy at Navy in 1963, Staubach had to serve for six years before playing in the NFL. When Staubach finally earned the starting job for the Cowboys, he didn't waste any time. The team went undefeated in his first season and won the Super Bowl.
Staubach would go one to play in three more Super Bowls and won one. His 85-29 record as a starter is one the most impressive of any quarterback in NFL history and it is clear that his intangibles and ability in the clutch have made him one of the most respected players ever.
The Cowboy's prime-time performer was selected to six Pro Bowls.
9. Fran Tarkenton: Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants
Tarkenton was never the biggest quarterback, but he made up for it with confidence and tenacity. He quickly earned a starting job for the Vikings and was incredibly consistent over his entire career.
By the time he retired, Tarkenton topped the record books in passing completions, touchdowns and yards. He was not one-dimensional, though. He rushed for almost 4,000 yards in his career for a solid 5.4 YPC.
He earned Pro Bowl honors in nine out of his 18 seasons and won one NFL MVP award, but was never able to win a Super Bowl.
8. Steve Young: San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Steve Young had as near to a spotless career as I could find. He has multiple rings, MVPs and records. There isn't much more that can be asked from this guy. He was an extremely well-rounded quarterback and he is underrated by many NFL historians.
Young led the league in passer rating six times and holds the NFL record for passer rating, rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and touchdown passes in a Super Bowl. Young had a tough task in continuing the legacy left behind by Joe Montana and he did more than just hurdle that roadblock.
He was selected to seven Pro Bowls and won two NFL MVP awards.
7. Dan Marino: Miami Dolphins
In Dan Marino's first few seasons with the Dolphins, he took the league by storm. No one could have expected the type of success that he would have and it likely won't ever be matched again. In his second NFL season, he threw for a league-record 48 touchdowns and 5,084 yards and was on his way to a record-breaking career.
However, I'm sure Marino would give up all of his records for a ring. He was never able to get back to the Super Bowl after his second season and that is something that is a big hit to his legacy. Nonetheless, his talent is obvious and some even suggest that he is the best quarterback in NFL history.
Marino was awarded with one NFL MVP award and was selected to nine Pro Bowls.
6. Bart Starr: Green Bay Packers
Bart Starr is proof that in the NFL, you can never count a player out and the 17th-round draft pick beat all the odds to become one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks ever. Vince Lombardi took a chance on the young quarterback and would never regret it.
Starr would go on to win five NFL Championships and two Super Bowls. He was very intelligent and led an efficient Packers offense. His performance in the clutch was stellar as well—he won the first two Super Bowl MVP awards ever given out.
Starr was selected to four Pro Bowls and won one MVP award.
5. Tom Brady: New England Patriots
Tom Brady has had two of the best individual seasons in NFL history, catapulting him into the discussion for the best quarterbacks ever. However, Brady has mainly put himself in the discussion with his performance in the playoffs. Three times did Brady lead his team to a Super Bowl win and that alone is enough to land him a spot on this list.
Like Bart Starr, Brady was doubted coming out of college. He wasn't drafted until the sixth round and he was sitting on the bench during his sophomore season until veteran Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury. Brady didn't look back and won the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter.
Now in his 12th NFL season, Brady has a 111-32 career record, six Pro Bowl selections and two NFL MVP awards.
4. Otto Graham: Cleveland Browns
Graham was never asked to throw the ball too much, but when he did, he was great. He played in the late '40s and early '50s where the forward pass was still being refined and Graham was well ahead of his time with his 87 career passer rating, which included five seasons of ratings above 94.
However, Graham was not anything close to individual player. He dominated the All-America Football Conference for four years, before Paul Brown moved the franchise to the NFL, where they were dominant once again, winning championships in three out of Graham's six seasons in the league.
Graham was named NFL MVP three times (AAFC MVP once) and was a nine-time All-Pro.
3. Johnny Unitas: Baltimore Colts
Johnny Unitas fought through more roadblocks than any other player on this list. Unitas was an eighth-round draft pick who was originally cut by the Steelers and then signed a $17,000 contract with Baltimore in 1956. He wasn't given a chance to start until midseason and his first pass was picked off for a touchdown.
Unitas turned his legacy around with his performance in "The Greatest Game Ever Played." He led the Colts and two straight touchdown drives of 80 and 86 yards to win the game. This clutch performance was not his only shining moment though. He won the NFL title once again the following year and a Super Bowl late in his career.
He was a 10-time Pro Bowler and won four NFL MVP awards.
2. Peyton Manning: Indianapolis Colts
Manning may be the best pure passer the league has ever seen. He is dead accurate and can throw with the best in terms of accuracy. Although, what makes Manning the second-best quarterback ever is his mental ability to manipulate defenses.
Manning still has a few years left to move up to No. 1 one on this list and I wouldn't be shocked if he did exactly that. He's been a model of consistency and getting another ring would be a huge boost to his already great legacy.
Manning has been selected to 11 Pro Bowls in his 13-season career and has won four NFL MVP awards.
1. Joe Montana: San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs
Joe Montana is the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback ever at this point in history. He was a clutch fourth-quarter performer, an unquestioned leader and a fantastic football player. Montana threw the ball with great accuracy, he never gave the defense time to breathe and he rarely missed an open man.
He was an essential part of the greatest dynasty ever and his confidence and ability in the playoffs were largely responsible for building that dynasty. Montana was king of the comeback and finished his career with 31 comebacks in the fourth quarter.
Montana is one of the most persistent NFL players ever and his ability to bounce back from injury and continue to be wildly successful are what make him the top quarterback the NFL has ever seen.
He finished his career with eight Pro Bowl selections and two NFL MVP awards.