Ranking the Greatest Modern Era QBs of Each NFL Franchise
The NFL's most vibrant position is the quarterback. He is a man, typically a leader, who has to possess the ability to make split second decisions with accuracy and efficiency.
He must produce positive results in the face of various defensive schemes against men whose weight and speed combine to usurp the physical skills of even most of society's most able people.
Not surprisingly, NFL history is mired by mediocrity at the position. The bulk of seasons for most franchises is dominated by signal callers who are average at best.
Yet, separated from the normalcy of most passers are a select few elite field generals who define success at the position for their respective teams.
While eras have redefined the responsibilities of the role, certain elements have never changed or varied, such as those that concern winning.
In other words, he is simply a unique breed.
The majority of teams' greatest quarterback serves as a monument to the game's most important position. A few other franchises are still awaiting for their installment among the greatest of the elite.
For those teams who have suffered "Q&A" (quarterbacking and anemia), there is another NFL squad whose history at the position is a lesson in the spoils of greatness.
Manning vs. Unitas.
Starr vs. Favre...vs. Rodgers?!
Staubach vs. Aikman.
Who is the greatest quarterback of all time for franchises that boast historic supremacy at such a key position?
This countdown is a selection of the greatest quarterbacks from the Super Bowl era of every NFL team—with a twist! These all-time great passers, whether scramblers vs. pockets purists or traditional vs. modern, will be ordered from worst to first.
In other words, either Manning or Unitas will not make the list. Their spot on this countdown will be dependent on where they stack against other quarterbacks who were the best ever to wear the respective helmet and jersey that defined them.
No. 32: Scott Mitchell(Detroit Lions)
The selection criteria of "modern" quarterbacks hurts no franchise more than the Detroit Lions. In the Super Bowl era, one of the few teams to never reach the big game is not surprisingly at the bottom of the quarterbacking bushel.
One would suspect Matthew Stafford to take this nod exclusively. In a few seasons, especially if healthy, he surely will. But, as it stands, he's still only played a full season of games in three years, and surely this list can't be based on straight potential.
Other Lions fans likely expect Charlie Batch to be at this spot. Like Mitchell, however, Batch had a decent four-year stretch. For his time in silver and blue, it was Scott Mitchell who was the more explosive player.
Detroit takes a great deal of heat from critics for signing Mitchell, given his relative inexperience. The Lions needed a quarterback.
Erik Kramer had moved on from the team and they were left with a lone signal caller on the roster when they signed Scott from the Dolphins.
In Miami, Mitchell was the backup for Dan Marino. In 1993, an injury to the Dolphins legend brought Mitchell into the Miami heat, but he basked in the glow of both glory and the California sun.
His success in his role off the bench in Miami put him in the sights of NFL franchises that needed a lift at the most important position.
In his career with the Lions, Mitchell was mostly mediocre, much like quarterback Charlie Batch (who narrowly missed the list).
Yet, in 1995, the stars aligned for the largely forgotten one-year wonder and Detroit's offense exploded with the combination running of Barry Sanders and career high passing of the "worst best quarterback" on this list.
The Lions started 3-6 before finally hitting their stride. With Mitchell's 32 touchdowns and 4,300 passing yards coming as a delightful surprise in the Motown, the Lions won their final seven games. Detroit scored 118 points in their final three games of the year.
Unfortunately, the third game in that stretch was a wild card affair against Rodney Peete and the Eagles. The Lions lost 58-37.
The score would indicate that Mitchell fought valiantly, only to fall short under the pressure put on the team offense by a putrid defense. While the latter observation would be accurate, the notion that Mitchell helped Detroit in any way is flat wrong.
His four interceptions caused the team to put in veteran Don Majkowski, the infamous Packers quarterback whose injuries allowed Brett Favre to make his first of many starts.
No. 31: Brad Johnson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Maybe in a few more seasons, Freeman fanatics!
When head coach Tony Dungy entered Tampa Bay, he transformed an NFL afterthought into a defensive powerhouse and annual winner.
A defense anchored by Warren Sapp, John Lynch and (later) Derrick Brooks made the Buccaneers a team that no longer served as an automatic win for football powers.
Much like any success in Tampa, wins often came largely in spite of the quarterback—and often the entire offense.
As seasons passed, the weight of exclusivity along the defense became too much, and the team brought in coach John Gruden for offensive support and a fiery charge.
Trent Dilfer, the quarterback at the helm during the Bucs' turnaround, had left town. Shaun King, who had led the franchise to the 2002 NFL Championship Game (an 11-6 loss to the "Greatest Show on Turf"), was clearly not the answer.
Gruden brought in the competent Brad Johnson to lead his offense. The result was a greater balance that brought the Lombardi Trophy to Tampa Bay.
For most teams, a quarterback with such a limited portfolio of success (three seasons in Tampa) would not serve as the greatest. Yet, the teams early in this list are mostly devoid of the benefits of superb quarterbacking.
In 2002, the Buccaneers received great quarterbacking.
While not quite a swashbuckling Buc, the real treasure of Johnson's tenure with Tampa was his ability to run the Gruden offense effectively, an attribute that the coach failed to find afterwards, largely resulting in his current non-coaching status.
In his championship year, Johnson threw 22 touchdowns and protected the football, limiting his interceptions to six. Most fans will remember his timely passes in the 2003 NFL playoffs.
After a 31-6 trouncing of the 49ers, Johnson's most memorable throw came in the NFC Championship Game.
He hit Joe Jurevicius over the middle, and the receiver took advantage, running freely down the left sideline before getting tackled deep in the red zone.
This set up the go ahead score for the Bucs, and they would never relinquish their lead, winning 27-10.
In the Super Bowl, Johnson hit Keenan McCardell with touchdown passes directly before and after halftime, expanding on the Bucs' lead over the Raiders from 10 points to 24.
The real killer of the second score was the nature of the drive led by Johnson, consuming more than half of the third quarter.
No. 30: Jake Delhomme (Carolina Panthers)
It's a fact that one season can cost you. Jake Delhomme is proof.
The fiery Panthers quarterback showed off his intensity in his first season with Carolina, exuberantly showing his emotions after rallying his team for the lead over New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
After losing the lead again, Delhomme rallied the Panthers for a second time to tie the game in the final minutes.
In a wild championship game, the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady eventually seized the victory. This result was in spite of a fine effort by Delhomme, whose three touchdowns without an interception would have won most Super Bowls.
It was evident the next season that Carolina, the young franchise which began NFL play in 1995, had found its quarterback of the future.
Initially, it seemed that Kerry Collins would carry that torch, but Collins would go on to be a journeyman quarterback throughout his voluminous—though often inefficient—career.
The next two seasons, Delhomme averaged over 3,500 yards, throwing over 20 touchdowns in both campaigns.
He had interception issues, but in his tenure the Panthers were successful. After a down year, the 2005 installment of the young franchise went 11-5.
After losing to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship, Delhomme continued to play decently well, though he lost time in subsequent seasons.
By 2009, Carolina had not returned to its stellar form of the mid-decade and Jake's main weakness—his penchant for interceptions—caught up with him.
In 11 games, he threw eight touchdowns and 18 interceptions. His stock fell hard and like panicked stock brokers, fans across football were yelling, "sell, sell, sell!"
Despite having a largely successful tenure in North Carolina, Delhomme's name is commonly coupled with an apathetic "eh..." by fans who hear it.
In an era where the quality of quarterbacks is watered down severely, Panthers fans (and NFL fans) would do well to remember the success that Delhomme brought to a team that struggled mightily heading into the new millennium.
No. 29: Joe Namath (New York Jets)
Surely to the chagrin of a certain green fireman, I wanted to rank Joe Namath lower on this list.
He's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite numbers that do not warrant such acclaim. Regarding his rank on this countdown, there are two fields of people reacting:
Those who are saying, "Aha! Finally, somebody calls out the Namath blindfold!"
The others are the loyalists, ready to defend Namath to the death, replying, "football is more than numbers, numbskull!"
He has 47 more interceptions in his career than touchdowns and struggled to complete 50 percent of his passes. To quote the song in the video, "He can pass a football through a needle's eye."
Sadly, a lot of those needles stitched jerseys that were not green.
It would be easy to give him a pass, stating he played in a different era and radically changed the definition of a polished quarterback. Butt where is the evidence?
There were far, far more efficient quarterbacks who were also winning championships at the exact same time—or within a few years of Broadway's career (a few later in this list).
In fact, a pedestrian quarterback with as many interceptions as touchdowns and a meager 55 percent completion rate would have better numbers than Joe Namath. Numbers don't lie.
Wearing that yellow jacket was certainly a proud moment for Joe Namath, who challenged preconceptions of how a professional quarterback and team leader should carry himself, always being the first to buck convention for the sake of individualism and flamboyance.
There is no doubt that his guaranteed win over the Baltimore Colts in the third AFL/NFL Championship Game changed the perception of the AFC, and thus the history of football.
There can be no debate that his big arm, outspoken attitude and colorful persona in such a huge market like New York were anything but good for the game of football.
The problem is that the guarantee, which was considered a fluke by many until Len Dawson and the Chiefs beat Minnesota one year later, also changed the perceptions Namath's career.
Looking at his statistics, had the Colts played their best game on that Sunday against the Jets, would the jet-setting Namath of gridiron and pantyhose fame be in the great hall?
In fact, looking at his numbers, Namath garbed in a yellow jacket seems counter-intuitive to the greatness of the players in the almighty shrine.
With a 65.5 career quarterback rating, let's be perfectly honest. A great quarterback Namath was not. Yet, he is a reflection of times that Jets fans look back on fondly. He is arguably one of the fathers of the football we know today.
In that manner, to take the name of the hallowed hall literally is to focus on the word fame. Joe had plenty of that, rising to the top of lists such as "men who have ladies batting their eyelashes" and Richard Nixon's "enemies list."
Sadly, one of those lists was quite real.
While his statistical efficiency doesn't add up to even the lowest quarterbacks on this list (Jake Delhomme or Scott Mitchell had more efficient numbers), my ancestors always talk about how the big-armed Namath changed the way the game was played with his willingness to pass downfield.
So for all of his lackluster, or moreover awful passing numbers, what gives? Why isn't he ranked lower than even Scott Mitchell?
One word: impact. He made a difference in the history of the game.
How much of that is skewed by the mythology of a single guarantee can be debated. I can't justify a higher ranking. In fact, I hesitated during his selection as the finest Jets' quarterback ever.
That said, he was a champion and an important face in the history of the NFL.
Further, I truly believe most New York fans idolize Namath for something beyond his numbers: for the life he breathed into the game and the excitement that surrounded him.
For that reason above others, Namath is popularly regarded as the Jets finest all-time QB.
No. 28: Jim McMahon (Chicago Bears)
Was the Bears' "funky quarterback" as great as advertised?
Honestly, membership on the '85 Bears roster would skew the perception of any athlete.
Yet, unlike Joe Namath, most fans seem fully aware that McMahon was simply good (perhaps at best), and more than comfortable with the type of leadership he presented:
McMahon energized the position and showed everybody that being a team leader isn't necessarily a lesson in refinement and professional polish.
As any Bears fan will tell you, not pretty, just a winner.
They'll tell you of McMahon's legend, coming off of the bench, throwing a touchdown on his first pass and rallying the Bears from a substantial deficit in Minnesota.
As McMahon told everyone (see video), "Outrageousness? Nothing more than a way to wake people up. Wake 'em up!"
Chicago was wide awake in 1985 as the Bears and the 46 defense were dominating the NFL landscape.
If not for a timeless game in Miami, where Dan Marino and the Dolphins preserved their franchise's lone undefeated campaign in history, the Bears and McMahon would likely own the second season consisting of all W's
But a spade is a spade. A great quarterback McMahon was not. He had a timeless personality and his accessible and eccentric character allowed NFL fans to appreciate him without really trying.
The game is always better for unique athletes on and off the field.
During the height of his success with the '85 Bears, McMahon threw 15 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
While these accomplishments don't stand the test of time against the prolific passers of the era, many great quarterbacks weren't known for volume statistics.
With the great Walter Payton running the ball and Mike Singletary anchoring the Buddy Ryan defense, nothing short of a Ryan Leaf meltdown could have kept the Bears from succeeding.
However, they didn't just have succeed. They nearly went undefeated. That requires confidence and key plays from the most important position.
From his headbands to his shades, McMahon gave teammates a sense of fun and a breath of fresh air. While his statistics are mediocre, his legend is timeless.
No. 27: Matt Schaub (Houston Texans)
The former backup to Michael Vick in Atlanta, it was always evident that Matt Schaub was gifted.
In relief for the aforementioned ex-Falcon (whose name is no longer mentioned in the state of Georgia), the Pittsburgh native caught the eye of many scouts and general managers.
Eventually, Schaub was given his chance as the main man in Houston. If 2009 and 2010 are any indication, Texans fans have great reason for excitement.
What has Schaub done to be ranked ahead of Super Bowl winners?
Hampered by ineffective defenses, Houston's QB has quietly (only lately has he garnered any respect) been magnificent.
His play likely deserves a higher ranking, but his small portfolio of work demands some modesty. Make no mistake: continuing to play at a high level will ensure that Schaub skyrockets atop similar countdowns someday.
With arguably the greatest receiver in football at his disposal, Schaub's natural and fundamentally sound skills will be on full display again in 2011.
He has had three consecutive seasons with a 90 or higher rating. In that time, he's completed approximately 65 percent of his passes.
As efficiency is concerned, Schaub's offense gets the job done and it does it well. Aside from Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels has flourished in the Houston offense. Arian Foster has benefited from defenses' respect of the Schaub passing attack.
Schaub is not a quarterback that a defense can allow to be comfortable. A "rhythm passer," Schaub is the equivalent of watching Jesse James aim for glass milk bottles lined up on a deck across the way.
A lot of calcium would be spilled. Okay, maybe that's overstating it.
In any case, with an improving defense and an obvious commitment to offense in Houston, the quarterback seems in a prime situation to climb his way further up this list in the years ahead.
Becoming the first Texans' quarterback in franchise history to take his team to the playoffs would certainly further justify his rank ahead of iconic champions such as Joe Namath and Jim McMahon.
It seems the perfect time for his ascension as Peyton Manning sits out in an AFC South that features pedestrian teams.
If the Texans don't make the playoffs this season, it will not be because of Schaub, who has been the first consistent and exciting force in this young franchise's history.
No. 26: Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)
Since Trent Dilfer won the Super Bowl with the Ravens, the team has been looking for a field general. From Ted Marchibroda to Brian Billick and John Harbaugh, Baltimore had never reaped the blessings of a great offense or a franchise quarterback.
In 2008, those problems may have been solved with the arrival of Joe Flacco. Behind the strength of a great defense and fiery leader, the Ravens were always ravenous on defense.
Quote the Ravens in most seasons, "never score."
With Flacco, the offense made strides. The young quarterback led Baltimore to two road playoff victories in January 2009, ultimately losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
Since that first postseason, the Ravens have gone to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, winning games in each trip. Aside from affairs against Pittsburgh, Flacco had been unflappable.
Against the Steelers, Flacco had been dubbed a Fluke-o.
While not a playoff game, Flacco finally pulled the proverbial monkey off his back in Week 1 with an incredibly efficient performance against Pittsburgh.
He finally defeated the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger under center, a feat that the team was unable to accomplish in its first five tries with Flacco.
With a new offensive philosophy and talented running back, receiver and (apparently) tight end, Flacco seems primed for a big season.
With Ray Lewis aging and the defense reaching its twilight years, the time is perfect for Flacco to completely come into his own and be the leader of the offense that "Sugar Ray" is to the defense.
Someday, he'll have to be the team leader...period.
Since his arrival, Ravens players have spoken to Flacco's big arm. They unwaveringly express their faith in his ability. With three straight winning seasons and four road playoff wins already under his belt, it seems the best is yet to come for the promising young signal caller.
Trent Dilfer may have won Super Bowl XXXV, but Baltimore's most promising quarterback is trying to lead the team back to football's summit.
No. 25: Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons)
While fans in Atlanta won't see their current franchise quarterback on this list, a few more seasons and great performances could ultimately land him as the greatest Falcons signal caller ever. Who knows?
Until then, nobody has electrified the Georgie Dome quite like Michael Vick. He may have been boo'ed in a recent return to Atlanta, but the Falcons flew (more accurately, ran) during Vick's tenure.
During his time under center, especially in 2004, the threat of Vick's ability to break runs put so much defensive concentration on containing the quarterback that running lanes broke wide open.
In other words, Vick's strengths didn't just benefit his own stat line. An athletic phenom, the Vick prototype had not been seen before his arrival.
While other running quarterbacks such as Randall Cunningham and Kordell Stewart broke the mold of the stereotypical pocket passer, Vick took the game to a different level.
His blazing speed made him a the entertainment icon of the NFL and the choice of fans in EA Sports' annual Madden football game. His cannon arm made every throw possible, but his accuracy was a lone drawback.
Defenses that could contain the athlete often found that Vick was unable to consistently make key reads and throws, thus preventing him from being an essentially unstoppable force.
For his deficiencies, secondaries had to be on alert, as Vick's southpaw cannon could fit the ball into the tightest spaces.
Barring mass success in the next few seasons, he won't be remembered for limb that defines most passers, but for his lower extremities.
For defensive fronts unable to contain the perimeter, defending the NFL's brand new weapon was a lesson in futility.
Having never participated in a championship bout certainly lowers his ranking, where other quarterbacks with fewer physical gifts have attained more consistent numbers or long-term success.
Certainly, Vick's ranking below other less nimble athletes will be faced with scrutiny.
Today, Vick quarterbacks the Philadelphia Eagles, where his amazing 2010 season gives the promise of a complete veteran able to win a championship.
As No. 7 continues to refine his craft, it remains to be seen to what heights Vick will rise wearing green.
No. 24: Phil Simms (New York Giants)
He had a tumultuous relationship at times with his head coach. His statistics were not always glowing, but he came through in a number of big games.
He isn't discussed among the best quarterbacks ever, but he was a winner. Phil Simms' finest seasons actually came after his greatest moment.
In the Super Bowl, he had a day that quarterbacks dream of, completing 22 of 25 passes (a Super Bowl record) in a 39-20 win over the Denver Broncos and heralded John Elway.
Simms was the first MVP who appeared in a Walt Disney commercial following the game, quoting the famous line, "I'm going to Disney World!"
Averaging well over seven yards per attempt in his career, Simms had the arm to get the ball downfield, but many questioned his decision making.
The young signal caller, who appeared to receive little support at time from coach Bill Parcells, threw as many interceptions as touchdown.
In fact, during his championship season, he had a decline in nearly every statistical category, throwing for 3,400 yards (from 4,000 in 1984 and 3,800 in 1985), completing barely over 55 percent of his passes and compiling more interceptions than touchdowns.
Winning the Super Bowl brought a calm to Simms, which was evident in his statistics. After 1986, Simms' quarterback rating increased dramatically.
In 1990, he threw 15 touchdowns versus four interceptions, leading the Giants in what appeared to be a championship season.
But injury handed his finest season over to Jeff Hostetler, who won the Super Bowl for the Giants.
For his record championship performance and unheralded play, Simms is beloved by Giants fans as an underrated quarterback who got the job done when it most counted. His claim to fame, an uncanny completion percentage in Super Bowl XXI, may never be outdone.
Drew Brees completed 32-of-39 passes years later, finishing of 29-of-32 in Super Bowl XLIV. His 3-of-7 start prevented him from breaking the record, a proud accomplishment for a quarterback whose path to NFL stardom wasn't always easy.
No. 23: Mark Brunell (Jacksonville Jaguars)
When Jacksonville was awarded an NFL franchise, most fans thought that they would struggle like most expansion teams.
As news came out about additional draft picks and a new system to help bolster the ability of these squads to compete, many wondered if they would win more quickly.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers both came out of the gates strong, combining for 11 wins in 1995. For Jacksonville, four victories included a win over the eventual AFC Champion Steelers.
In 1996, the Jaguars lost to Pittsburgh in a lopsided 28-3 affair. The team fell to 4-7 before rallying to a playoff berth and their first ever winning season.
Mark Brunell's coming out party led Jacksonville to a stunning upset. John Elway proclaimed on "America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions" that the loss to the Jaguars was his "worst ever," describing it as the lowest he had been during his career.
In that game, Brunell established himself on the NFL landscape as a winner. Completing 18 of 29 passes, Brunell also ran for nearly 50 yards, making huge plays in critical situations.
As the teams exchanged scores in the fourth quarter, Brunell made two backbreaking plays for Denver. A long run set up Jacksonville deep in Denver territory, and a touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith effectively ended the game.
Having garnered attention after his amazing performance, Jacksonville entered 1997 as a dark horse favorite in the AFC.
Brunell was injured but made an early return in a gutsy win against Pittsburgh. The Jaguars eventually lost to the Denver Broncos in a revenge game from the previous playoffs.
Under Brunell's guidance, young Jacksonville won consistently, culminating in their finest season ever. The 1999 Jaguars finished 14-2, but lost three times to Steve McNair and the eventual AFC Champion Titans.
While he was never able to rally the Jaguars to the Lombardi Trophy, Brunell's play allowed the new franchise to reach heights unseen by previous franchise teams aside from counterpart Carolina.
Opposed to the Panthers, the Jaguars maintained a winning edge throughout their first half decade. In this stretch, Brunell consistently threw for over 3,000 yards (a benchmark at the time), peaking at over 4,000 yards in 1996.
In nearly every season, he had far more touchdowns than interceptions, doubling his turnovers with scores regularly. Moreover, his mobility enhanced his performance, allowing himself additional time in the pocket and yards via the run.
An underrated field general, Brunell built a great rapport with receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, threatening NFL records with the former.
During his time in Jacksonville, the Jags had a franchise quarterback who helped them win immediately.
No. 22: Ken Stabler (Oakland Raiders)
Some guys are just damn cool, like it or not. Jake Plummer was called "Jake the Snake," a nickname that worked due to the rhyme.
When you are dubbed "The Snake" and your name is Ken, you're doing something to earn respect and attention.
For Stabler, it was mostly winning. A glance at his stats shows more interceptions than touchdowns and a quarterback rating below 70.
Stabler is difficult to rate, especially against the greatest quarterbacks of every NFL franchise. After all, he piloted the Raiders during the peak of their power, a time when the team consistently won and played for titles.
On the other hand, they often fell short in those games, thus John Madden's winning percentage in the playoffs dropped dramatically from his regular season success.
While Stabler didn't have great career statistics, he had superb numbers in various campaigns at the height of power of one of the league's most iconic franchises.
How far can we dig a quarterback mathematically without allowing ourselves to consider the biased factors of mystique and the basic eyeball test?
After all, Joe Namath had horrendous career statistics and he didn't rank lower than other signal callers with much higher ratings.
Like another famous quarterback of the era, Stabler had a big arm, albeit a southpaw, which worked perfectly for the vertical offense Al Davis desired.
Throwing to Cliff Branch, Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper, the renegade Raiders outfit was a dangerous band of perceived NFL rogues. They proudly kept winning with their B.A. (not Bachelor of Arts) leader.
Stabler's stats only truly suffered in his seasons after the glory of being with the Raiders in their finest days.
During his time with the silver and black, Stabler had magnificent campaigns, including his 1974 season with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Rich Gannon has far more efficient numbers and Jim Plunkett won more Super Bowls.
Yet, Stabler—a champion under head coach John Madden—found the perfect blend of both during his peak with Oakland. That harmony came together in the mid-70s.
In his later years with other teams (the Oilers and Saints), Stabler's statistics took a sharp decline. With the Raiders, it was clear that with the franchise's "commitment to excellence" came the focus of a sharp quarterback.
Known for his ability to get out of hot spots and make plays from absolute breakdowns, Stabler was at the helm of some of the most iconic moments in league history:
The Sea of Hands knocked the two-time defending champion Miami Dolphins out of the playoffs after the 1974 season.
The Holy Roller sent Chargers fans home in stunned disbelief. And, who can forget the Ghost to the Post, a beautiful throw from Stabler to Casper?
A winner, the quarterback helped propel John Madden to a 103-32 record in the regular season, adding a Super Bowl title to the mix in 1976. In the mid-70s, Stabler could be careless, but he made up for it with touchdowns and victories.
While the end of his career paled to his vibrant early play, the legend of Ken Stabler lives on in Raider and NFL mythology.
No. 21: Bernie Kosar (Cleveland Browns)
Awkward. A word with two W's. Yet, W's suited Bernie Kosar just fine. During his time at quarterback with the Browns, Cleveland won many games.
Sometimes, you're the dog. Other times, you're in the dog house. During his stead in Cleveland, Kosar was more the former.
Many labelled the quarterback's mechanics as odd and he was often ridiculed for a lack of natural athleticism that graced many other signal callers.
Kosar overcame these apparent deficiencies with an on-field swagger. His peak in the late 80s came from 1986-87, when the awkward quarterback completed over 60 percent of his passes for 39 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
In four seasons, he led Cleveland to three AFC Championship Games. If not for a man seen later on this list, he would have likely played in the Super Bowl at least twice.
The Drive. The Fumble.
Kosar put the Browns in position to win, yet they didn't. Ultimately, neither event had much to do with Kosar aside from the fact that he was there.
Aside from some heartache, fans in Cleveland remember Kosar fondly.
They hold him in such regard that many responded with anger when Bill Belichick ultimately moved on without the man who gave so much of his ability to the city of Cleveland.
No. 20: Matt Hasselbeck (Seattle Seahawks)
"We want the ball, and we're gonna score." Can't say the kid didn't have confidence, right?
In Seattle, the former Brett Favre protege worked under Mike Holmgren, whose tutelage chiseled out superb modern quarterbacks.
While many Seahawks fans will lobby for Dave Krieg, the franchise's leading winner is Hasselbeck, the sure-fire West Coast pupil with the shiny scalp. All kidding aside, Hasselbeck's tenure in Washington saw the Seattle franchise reach new heights.
Most notably, the team participated in a Super Bowl and consistently qualified for the postseason.
Many critics will note that during his NFC Championship season, the quarterback benefited from the record running of Shaun Alexander.
During Alexander's drop off the next year, the quarterback was also more tranquil. Yet, in 2007, another season with rushing totals that paled to records of 2005, Hasselbeck played superbly and achieved a 91 quarterback rating.
Rhythmic with the West Coast passing style, the quarterback became known for his quick reads, quick drop and quick release.
In other words, his approach fit the offensive philosophy, filled with intermediate and precise passing routes, beautifully. In his career, he's completed over 60 percent of his passes, peaking at completing nearly two thirds of all attempts in 2005.
Shades of his brilliance were seen against the Baltimore Ravens, reaching the 300-yard benchmark against a defense that had annihilated an AFC power a week earlier.
It appears there are reserves left in the tank of the former backup turned top Titan.
No. 19: Joe Theismann (Washington Redskins)
The early years in Washington were struggles for Joe Theismann, whose main habit was throwing incomplete passes. In fact, his first handful of seasons in the NFL never included a 50 percent completion rate.
In the ultimate demonstration of improvement for a quarterback and his offense, Theismann went on to lead one of the most explosive offensive attacks in NFL history.
Many NFL fans thought the Redskins of the early 80s would become an NFL dynasty. Truly, they were a complete team and their offense set numerous records.
The most impressive record was their 541 points in 1983, an NFL record at the time.
After years of mediocrity, Theismann flashed his potential and won the Super Bowl in a strike-shortened 1982 campaign.
Many critics cite the short year as a catalyst for the title, though every team had the same advantages and disadvantages.
While the 'Skins came up short one year later against the Raiders, their assault of the record book and fantastic season showcased that both they and their franchise quarterback were not the mere beneficiaries of a strike-shortened season.
For the second straight year, the Washington quarterback completed over 60 percent of his throws for 3,700 yards with 29 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. His 97 quarterback rating was impressive, even for today and especially for the time.
Theismann certainly benefited from a well-rounded attack that included running back John Riggins. The Redskins defense also contributed to the domination and the team finished with a record +43 turnover margin.
Great quarterbacks need the appropriate talent around them to fully realize their potential. At the peak of his potential, Theismann put Washington of the early 1980s into NFL history.
Abruptly, Theismann's career came to an end during his 37th sack of 1985.
No. 18: Dan Fouts (San Diego Chargers)
He was that flame that inflated the "Air Coryell" balloon.
At the turn of the decade in the late 70s, Dan Fouts and the Chargers' offense was flying high. Don Coryell coached a franchise that looked as much like the perception of an AFL team than any other in football.
The forward pass was the highlight of a revolutionary offensive philosophy, with weapons galore and a scoreboard that changed as though connected to a pinball machine.
Sure, there wasn't much for San Diego to brag about on defense, but football was certainly fun out west. The man with the ball in his hands was the same quarterback who wore a t-shirt that read "M.F.I.C." to practices.
What did it stand for? You can figure it out.
Fouts made big plays with his big arm. He averaged nearly nine yards per pass attempt in various seasons during the height of his success. One drawback to the entertaining offense was that Fouts threw a number of interceptions.
Unlike other circus offenses in later NFL decades, Fouts peaked at a rating in the mid-90s. For three straight seasons, the Chargers passer put up over 4,000 yards, a marvel of the time in the game.
In fact, the Chargers led the league in passing a record six consecutive seasons from 1978-83.
While Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow bolstered the offensive's performance, Fouts' big arm and downfield cannon maximized the returns, catapulting the "Air Coryell" offense into the NFL record books and into the fondest places of fans' memory banks.
For all of his efforts with one of the most revolutionary and effective units of all-time, Fouts never won a championship. For all of their ability, the defense was exactly the opposite of the offense.
Chargers games that ended with both teams scoring in the upper-30s or 40s were not uncommon.
In a classic playoff shootout, San Diego beat Miami 41-28 in overtime. The contest became famous for the carry off of Kellen Winslow, whose body was cramped and worn after physical exertion.
People debate whether or not Winslow's actions were a sign of heroism or weakness, but nobody in Fouts' huddle ever questioned his character.
Simply, he was the M.F.I.C.
No. 17: Steve McNair (Tennessee Titans)
Tough. Sometimes, single adjectives tell an entire story.
He was willing to play through pain and able to manage various injuries. He was an iron man. In 2002, he was so beat up that he couldn't practice, yet he started every game for his team.
It was easy to see why he had the confidence of head coach Jeff Fisher, who kept his job in Tennessee throughout the tenure of the reliable McNair.
Drafted in 1995, "Air McNair" set himself apart with his abilities as a physical runner, able to make plays with both his arms and legs.
In 1999, the Titans upset the Jacksonville Jaguars to meet St. Louis in the Super Bowl. Trailing 16-0 at halftime, Tennessee came back to tie the score, though a late Kurt Warner touchdown bomb gave the Rams the lead late in the game.
Highlights show the St. Louis defense completely worn, fearful of the mixed running and passing threat offered by McNair.
The quarterback was bullish in a final drive, making miraculous plays and drive-saving scrambles to set the Titans up for a final play. His final pass to Kevin Dyson resulted in a tackle at the 1-yard line, preventing a potential championship.
After reaching the NFL's ultimate game, it was obvious that McNair's confidence was high. Tennessee won double-digit games with consistency and McNair's passing efficiency continued to improve.
By 2003, he was an elite NFL passer. His 100.4 quarterback rating earning him co-MVP with Peyton Manning.
McNair was a great athlete and quarterback. If not underrated by fans, he was certainly under-appreciated in general for his skills at the position and as a pioneer for breaking down racial stereotypes about quarterbacking that existed even into the 1990s.
No. 16: Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia Eagles)
While his stock has declined in recent seasons, the Syracuse alum who was heckled by Philadelphia fans on draft day turned in one of the finest eras of Eagles football along with new coach Andy Reid.
For all of his critics—from those who question his ability to perform in championship games to ex-quarterbacks who critique his fundamentals—McNabb continued to erase stereotypes while producing some of the finest seasons in Philadelphia history.
While McNabb wore green on Sundays, it was most other passers who were green with envy as the Eagles rose from afterthought to winners in the early century.
Limiting his interceptions to fewer than 2 percent of his passes in multiple seasons, McNabb also made plays with his legs. His ability to scramble opened up opportunities not afforded to less athletic quarterbacks.
He perplexed fans at times, but more often, he left his doubters silenced.
Simply, he won. And, often, he won with a few magnificent plays to add to his personal highlight reel (see video).
While many criticized his delivery and accuracy, the elusive McNabb typically completed nearly 60 percent of his passes. He has thrown twice as many touchdowns than interceptions.
Eat your heart out, Joe Namath.
While he never did win the grandest of prizes, his competition in the Super Bowl was the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots, a hard draw for any football team. In that game, fans questioned the urgency of McNabb's offense late.
He had three touchdowns but his uncharacteristic three interceptions were ultimately the difference in a 24-21 loss to the newly dynastic Patriots.
Those who criticize McNabb for four losses in NFC Championships forget that the young quarterback took a team that had been 4-12 in 1999 directly to the playoffs the next year in his first year as a full-time starter.
By 2001, the string of consecutive NFC Championship contests started. It would end with four straight trips, the last resulting in a victory and trip to the Super Bowl.
In those 2004 playoffs, McNabb posted quarterback ratings of over 100 in both NFC games against the Vikings and Falcons. In that year, admittedly with the assistance of Terrell Owens at receiver, McNabb had nine games with a quarterback rating over 100.
Finishing with 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions, McNabb's best campaign was a display of statistical efficiency. In six different seasons, the passer had at least a 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio.
For his immediate success, breathing validity into a proud franchise falling on hard times and bringing excitement to the city of brotherly love, McNabb should be remembered more for his play earlier in the decade.
No. 15: Ken Anderson (Cincinnati Bengals)
He led the league in passing twice, won NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, made 4 Pro Bowls and participated in a competitive Super Bowl with Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
Likewise, Anderson led the NFL in passer rating four times. Completion percentage? Three times. Yards per attempt and total yards? Twice each.
Most fans have no idea how much Anderson accomplished in his career.
He is regarded as one of the most accurate passers ever and his attributes helped Bill Walsh to refine the West Coast offense during his time in Cincinnati. Ironically, Walsh would later use the offense to beat the Bengals in that championship affair.
In his early seasons, Paul Brown—one of the greatest offensive minds (and football geniuses) in the game's illustrious history—aided Anderson's development. The result was one of the most efficient quarterbacks to not grace the halls of Canton.
In one of the greatest games ever played by a passer, Anderson completed 20 of 22 passes in a 1974 contest. Who was the opponent?
Only Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Andy Russell and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were in the process of putting together their first ever championship season.
Playing through the low-scoring 70s and into the early 80s, Anderson was a model of efficiency, leading the league in various categories throughout his career.
His passing was polished and it especially showed in 1981 when he threw for over 3,700 yards and 29 touchdowns. He had only 10 interceptions on 479 attempts.
Fans often overlook Anderson as one of the game's finest quarterbacks, but he was quietly one of football's finest.
No. 14 : Kurt Warner (Arizona Cardinals)
After engineering the "Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis, time and football seemed to pass Kurt Warner.
He struggled at the end of his tenure in Missouri, then struggled some more in New York. Eventually, Eli Manning became the entrenched starter in the Big Apple and life seemed to be taking a bite out of Kurt Warner.
Eventually, the journeyman—whose nomadic ways began nearly a decade earlier when his life at the grocery store transformed into an NFL stadium—landed in Arizona.
By 2008, the hopes of the franchise for USC prodigy Matt Leinart were fading. Ken Whisenhunt and the Cardinals had learned to start Warner, hoping his experience would carry them to some wins.
It was the revival of a wonderful story and a great quarterback. Redemption was sweet for Warner, who took the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
In the movie "Back to the Future II," sports almanacs were used to create fortunes for those who took them to the past. Can you imagine reading back in 2006, after the famous Denny Green rant following a comeback loss to the Bears, that the Cardinals would nearly win Super Bowl XLIII?
It would sound funny to anyone who wasn't aware that it happened. One could credit his stud receivers for his offensive revival, but that didn't help Leinart. Indeed, Warner's greatness at the position propelled the lowly Cardinals into being highly regarded—at least for a few days.
After completing two thirds of his passes for over 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, Warner nearly led the 2008 Cardinals back from the dead in Super Bowl XLIII.
Trailing 20-7, Warner's two touchdowns in the span of minutes late in the fourth quarter set up one of the most dramatic finishes in the game's history.
As this countdown is limited to the Super Bowl era, there was nobody else who could even compete as the Cardinal's front running QB.
Warner not only holds the three highest passing totals in Super Bowl history, but his tenure in Arizona proved that he still had some of the magic that made him arguably the best quarterback in football at the turn of the century.
Gosh, the Arizona Cardinals played in a Super Bowl. Nah, that can't be right.....
No. 13: Jim Kelly (Buffalo Bills)
The K-Gun: a fast paced offense utilized by the Buffalo Bills to keep opposing defenses off-balance. Those Bills went on to four straight Super Bowls.
Four consecutive conference championships is no small feat. Indeed, the K-Gun. Guess what the "K" stood for...
Actually, it was tight end Keith McKeller. Still, Jim Kelly did a pretty damn good job managing the offense at the quarterback position.
The strong armed passer from the AFL's Houston Gamblers finally arrived in Buffalo, leading the team to eight playoff trips in his 11 seasons as their starter.
His cannon right arm led him to 35,000 NFL passing yards and over 45,000 professional passing yards.
In 1991, he led the league with a 101 quarterback rating. He followed up in 1992 with a league high 33 touchdowns.
During these years, his two finest seasons, the Bills were in the midst of their four-peat as AFC Champions.
While his Super Bowl performances detract from his legacy, he led Buffalo in their most successful era of football by far.
Under his guidance, Buffalo refined, if not revolutionized, the no-huddle offense, put a wide receiver into the Hall of Fame (Andre Reed) and scored at a torrential pace.
Still, if not for some late January misfortune, perhaps his ranking would be even higher. After all, four straight Super Bowl losses did cause fans to create a brand new acronym:
BILLS: Boy, I Love Losing Super Bowls.
Here's another acronym:
KELLY: Kills Every Linebacker with Lopsided Yardage.
OK, maybe the first one was better.
No. 12: Len Dawson (Kansas City Chiefs)
Long before Drew Brees became a Boilermaker favorite, Len Dawson was the acclaimed quarterback at Purdue.
Leading the Big Ten in passing during his three years as a starter for the program, Dawson’s collegiate career was bolstered by a close relationship with quarterback coach Hank Stram.
As fate would have it, the two met again when Dawson was signed by the AFL’s Dallas Texans. In his lone year as a Texan, Dawson became league MVP.
With head coach Hank Stram, the franchise won the AFL title. It was the first of three for the team that would become known as the Kansas City Chiefs in 1963.
Dawson’s Chiefs lost to the Packers following a second AFL Championship, but the team returned to play in Super Bowl IV three seasons later. Most historians cite their beating of the Minnesota Vikings as the true affirmation of equality between the AFL and NFL. Dawson was the game’s MVP.
With the Jets’ victory over the Colts regarded by cynics as a fluke, a win over the Bud Grant’s Vikings reaffirmed the ability of the once belittled upstart American Football League.
The roster was filled with talent and innovation, especially the concept of a “moving pocket” implemented by Stram. Executing the offensive approach was Dawson, the key piece to the Chiefs’ success.
A balanced quarterback, Dawson finished his career with over 1,000 rushing yards and over 28,000 career passing yards—an achievement for the time and the balanced offense the Chiefs utilized.
More impressively, Dawson threw 58 more touchdowns than interceptions, dispelling the notion that more heralded (and less efficient) quarterbacks were simply victims of the era in which they played.
Unlike many of his celebrated peers, one of whom also gets most of the credit for the late AFL surge prior to the merger, Dawson’s rating and performance displayed better control of the game and more football savvy.
Hank Stram demanded a professional and cerebral approach from his players, and Dawson was the perfect fit for his coach’s high expectations.
No. 11: Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints)
New Orleans is known for its voodoo and spirituality. Now the community is known for its Saints. After the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Drew Brees was a saint to the community, helping those in need and giving fans something to cheer about on Sundays.
Since Brees' arrival in 2006, the franchise that saw its fans wearing brown paper bags and enduring losing seasons now knows winning.
After a career-threatening shoulder injury with San Diego, many NFL teams did not want to take a chance on the former Purdue star.
Most regret it.
By 2008, Brees and the offense had reached full flight and the quarterback threw for over 5,000 yards. This also began a stretch of three straight seasons in which the quarterback obtained over 30 touchdowns, a streak that is still alive in 2011.
The field general has been the answer to Saints fans' prayers and he hasn't been too shabby on fantasy football rosters either.
The unbelievably accurate Brees (completing over two thirds of his passes with New Orleans) is a student of the game, spreading the ball around to all of his receivers and engineering an incredibly diverse offense.
He sees the field with clarity, which was never more evident than in a 32-for-39 passing performance in Super Bowl XLIV.
On that wonderful evening, Brees led the Saints to victory over the Colts. In 2011, Brees is on torrid pace once again, threatening NFL passing records for the fourth straight year.
From accuracy to quarterback rating and touchdowns to yards, no benchmark is too high for Brees to obtain.
He is one of the NFL's current elites and one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks to play the game of football.
No. 10: Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh Steelers)
The Blonde Bomber led the offense of one of the most powerful dynasties in NFL history. The defense was stifling. On offense, there was talent across the board, from Franco Harris to two star receivers.
Bradshaw's O-line was dominant, featuring one of the finest lineman to ever play the game in center Mike Webster.
With so much talent around him, was Bradshaw’s success the result of a great team? After all, his peers insinuated he was not a good decision maker, even that he was stupid.
Prior to Super Bowl XIII, the Cowboy’s Hollywood Henderson famously quoted that “Bradshaw couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A.”
Was the acclaimed quarterback really that stupid? Sure. Stupid like a fox.
In that contest, Bradshaw lived up to his trademark, coming through in the biggest games. His four touchdown passes earned him MVP honors in a 35-31 victory over Henderson’s Cowboys.
In his first Super Bowl, Bradshaw hit tight end Larry Brown to give Pittsburgh a 16-6 lead over the Vikings, securing their first championship.
One year later, the quarterback and receiver Lynn Swann put on an aerial showcase, as the ballet student’s fancy footwork and gravity defiance boosted Pittsburgh to a 21-17 lead.
After his third Super Bowl (above), Bradshaw capped his big game heroics in a fourth and final Super Sunday. In the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV, a deep touchdown to John Stallworth put the Steelers ahead to stay.
Notice a pattern?
For his heroics in the clutch, Bradshaw is a four time champion. Only two quarterbacks can use their rings to put a complete and most elaborate set of brass knuckles on their hands.
Bradshaw is one of them. Sure, he had nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns. A true gunslinger with a cannon arm, Terry had a slow start to his career.
At his peak, he was more of a deadly sniper than a gunslinger. Even for his turnovers, who could blame him for being willing to take some extra chances with such dynamic talent around him?
What few remember about Bradshaw was that he was an incredible athlete—difficult to sack, able to move well in the pocket and determined to make a positive result of almost every play.
Remind you of a more current Steelers QB? It just so happens that Bradshaw is the four time champion version of this winning prototype.
No. 9: John Elway (Denver Broncos)
John Elway has been remembered in the minds of NFL fans and hearts of Broncos fans for many reasons. His athleticism and cannon arm. His fourth quarter comebacks. His perseverance: two Super Bowl wins following three losses.
His statistics may not stands up against Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Dan Marino, but those who saw Elway play understood that one word best described him: winner.
Often, the term winner is ascribed to those passers who aren't gifted but find ways to accomplish the ultimate NFL feat of winning games. For Elway, the term winner does not serve as a cover for deficiencies.
No. 7 truly had it all. Poise in the pocket, big play capability, mobility.
Fans knew he had the attributes to play well, but what about the intangibles in the biggest moments?
On January 11, 1987, he answered all those who questioned his aplomb. Denver's young franchise QB led the Broncos on a 98-yard scoring drive late in the fourth quarter at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.
A five yard touchdown laser throw to Mark Jackson tied the game before another Elway drive sent his team to the Super Bowl.
In the late 80s, Elway was a Browns bane, defeating them in three AFC Championship Games over a four year span.
Yet, Super Bowl losses tainted his accomplishments. The man who helped carry Denver to three Super Sundays had a trio of gloomy Mondays.
In truth, Elway's numbers into the early 90s were pedestrian. Like any great quarterback, an infusion of talent was needed to truly harness his full potential.
In fact, the quarterback finished his career with a 79.9 rating. That figure doesn't tell the full story, as Elway's talents catapulted the Broncos to heights they'd have never reached without him.
Likewise, his best days came in the twilight of his career. With a running game to assist, a fine offensive line and improved receivers (including great tight end Shannon Sharpe), Elway's numbers began to reflect his skills in the mid-90s.
By 1997, Elway had become (at the time) the winningest starting quarterback in league history, throwing for over 40,000 yards. His touchdown totals rose to the upper 20s and his interceptions dipped dramatically.
His flair for the dramatic was not matched by his ability to make wise decisions. He was aging like a fine wine but his legacy was about to be spilled on a white carpet, leaving a stain that Dan Marino knows too well.
Elway still sought his elusive Super Bowl title.
In January 1998, Elway hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, defeating the Green Bay Packers and ending a long AFC drought in the championship.
Unlike most gridiron heroes, Elway's story had a true fantasy ending that even Hollywood couldn't script. In arguably his finest season, the sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback finished with a 93 rating.
In his last game to culminate 1998-99, Elway won a second Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl MVP. It was an appropriate sendoff for a legendary player.
No. 8: Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings)
Ever wonder where the term "scramble" came from?
Those who played against him revere him as one of the finest quarterbacks they'd ever seen, a man who deserved to win a championship.
In three Super Bowl losses, Tarkenton started the "Super Hard Luck" club (not really) that Jim Kelly would later join. Both fine quarterbacks never got their rings, and both are historically underrated as a result.
While he is judged for these losses, many lesser men also felt defeat at the hands of the Steelers dynasty, the formerly undefeated Dolphins and John Madden's swashbuckling Raiders. Winning any of those games would have been a major accomplishment.
Sadly, Tarkenton won none. Certainly, if only for the validation of a man who played so well, he deserved a championship.
What can be said about Fran the man? Well, he played like mad and left defenders sucking wind.
In fact, his scrambling was so novel that many peers held the penchant against him. Some judged it as weak—that is, until they played him. Or, should it be said, chased after him.
Who would believe in spite of success that a team would rid themselves of Tarkenton for this philosophical difference in the role of a quarterback?
Not coincidentally, Tarkenton was back in Minnesota in the late 70s.
In his career, he ran for over 3,600 yards and 32 touchdowns. He ran for a touchdown in 15 different seasons, an NFL record.
He is sixth all time with just over 47,000 career passing yards and ranked fourth with 342 touchdowns.
His overall quarterback rating of 80.4 may seem pedestrian, but it is elite for the era of his playing days. In fact, much of Tarkenton's career came during one of the lowest eras for scoring in NFL history, the mid-70s.
Scramblin' Fran was a quarterback who preceded his time, whose artistry in the backfield and wonderful passing made him one of the most exciting quarterbacks in one of the NFL's most hard-nosed eras.
No. 7: Kurt Warner (St. Louis Rams)
He's the man so nice, he made the list twice!
Nobody has had a finer first season as an NFL starter than Kurt Warner. It seems unlikely that anybody ever will.
In a torrent of offense and a vast revelation of potential, one of the greatest stories in league history unfolded in 1999.
In his three full seasons as a starter for the St. Louis Rams, the franchise reached the height of its power, winning a championship and thrilling fans league-wide.
Arena football met the National Football League, and in Rams games it seemed that the AFL had the edge.
Warner's quick release to receivers like Az-zahir Hakim, Isaac Bruce, Tory Holt and Marshall Faulk gave defenders little time to react.
Between Kurt's ability to manage the big play offense and the amazing running and short passing game of Faulk, the Rams offense became the most dynamic in NFL history.
It was an aerial circus.
In 1999 and 2000, Warner threw for over 4,000 yards. His first full season was his finest, ending with 41 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Approximately one month into the season, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The caption asked, "Who is this guy?"
Who, indeed? Warner would throw for over 400 yards in the Super Bowl, earning MVP honors and winning the Lombardi Trophy to end a magical campaign.
From working at a grocery store to quarterbacking an NFL squad to winning the Super Bowl in one of the finest seasons by an NFL passer, Warner was an acute dose of here and now for a league in which players traditionally needed time to become accustomed to the game's speed.
Warner was ahead of the pack from the start, throwing three touchdowns in all of his first three NFL starts. The feat has still not been duplicated.
After an injury-riddled 2000 season in which Kurt gained nearly 10 yards per pass attempt, Warner was truly back in form in 2001.
Completing over 68 percent of his passes, he threw for over 4,800 yards and "The Greatest Show on Turf" continued to marvel fans.
The season ended in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, as upstart Tom Brady—who took over for the Patriots after a season-ending injury to Drew Bledsoe—pulled an ironic turnabout on Warner.
Brady and the Patriots won the Super Bowl over Warner's Rams on a field goal in the final seconds. While defeat was bitter, Warner ended Super Bowl XXXVI with the two largest passing days by a quarterback in NFL history.
Injuries and circumstance ended Warner's time with the Rams shortly after the championship heartbreak.
Warner's trio of seasons in St. Louis are arguably the most explosive overall in league history. His sudden impact created a phenomenon and his story was one of the most heartwarming in sports.
During his tenure, the Rams won their only championship and struck fear into opposing defenses, most of whom were thoroughly embarrassed by the journeyman.
No. 6: Roger Staubach (Dallas Cowboys)
Jolly Roger was the quarterback of America's Team. The Cowboys had risen to the height of their popularity, and their unflappable leader would assure it went along with the height of their success.
Truly, Staubach was worthy of the Dallas star. He was the glamor position on the league's most glamorous team.
After serving his country, Staubach returned to quarterback one of the finest teams in the NFL.
Splitting time with Craig Morton early on, Tom Landry ultimately concluded that his team's best shot of winning came with Staubach under center. The Cowboys would win two Super Bowls under his leadership.
With so many nicknames, a man must be great. "Roger the Dodger" Staubach was very elusive in the pocket. "Captain America." After all, he did lead America's Team. "Captain Comeback?"
Indeed, Staubach engineered one of the game's finest comebacks. In a playoff duel with the great Minnesota Vikings (coached by Bud Grant), he launched a hail mary to Drew Pearson. The receiver was well-covered but made a miraculous catch for a 50-yard score to win 17-14.
As much as in the playoffs, Staubach was a winner in all of his competitive football. His winning percentage in regular season starts exceeds 75 percent.
Six pro bowls and four league leading passing seasons (based on rating) are not as bright on Staubach's trophy case as those shiny Lombardis.
The Cowboys beat the Miami Dolphins in a duel that saw Staubach win the game MVP. Then, a win over the Broncos' Craig Morton—with whom Roger had competed in his early Cowboys career for playing time—surely felt sweet.
Sadly, his finest season was his last season. As passing games opened up later in the 70s, Staubach threw 27 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions in 1979, accumulating over 3,500 yards.
A hit by L.C. Greenwood in Pittsburgh left lingering effects on the quarterback, who retired after the '79 campaign largely due to injuries.
No. 5: Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins)
'Nuf said, right? Dan Marino's legacy was more than his best season, where he broke NFL records in passing yards (5,084) and touchdowns (48) amidst numerous other all-time marks.
Who doesn't know Dan Marino? With such a popular figure, little is not known about him by most fans. We all know he threw a rocket and most consider him the deadliest pure passer in league history.
So, what are people missing?
Many perceived him as slow and immobile, which was true. Yet, he was incredible in the pocket, able to elude pass rushers with uncanny presence and the simplest motions. Many said he had eyes in the back of his head.
Really, we all know the rest, both good and bad.
Whether the result of roster deficiencies, poor philosophies or bad luck, Marino never won a Super Bowl. That hole in his resume may be the lone driving force that keeps him from being the top quarterback in most countdowns.
His release was unbelievably fast, his balls reaching their targets with pinpoint accuracy at extreme velocities.
As it concerns dropping back and hitting a target, the game has a prototype and its name is Marino.
After setting records with the Marks Brothers (Clayton and Duper) in the 80s, the quarterback went from record-setter to mere upper-tier. Still, any time a defense played Dan Marino, the secondary was always on high alert.
The statistics speak for themselves, with over 61,000 passing yards and mounds of big aerial numbers.
He was the fastest quarterback to reach the 100 and 200 touchdown milestones. He is still the leader in fourth quarter comebacks even though those accolades tend to be bestowed on guys named Favre and Elway.
What else don't people know about Dan Marino? Even though he didn't win a Super Bowl, he was a champion in the hearts of those who watched him play the position.
No. 4: Bart Starr (Green Bay Packers)
Starr. The Packers. Champions.
It all blends together very easily. Starr was a great quarterback and one of a number of Hall of Fame Packers from a great dynasty.
When he retired, Starr had the second highest career passer rating of any quarterback in history, trailing only Otto Graham.*
Likewise, his completion percentage of 57.4 was the best of any passer ever. At the start of his career, Starr was mediocre. He struggled to complete half of his passes and turned the ball over.
Like most cerebral players, Starr needed an organized system of play and discipline infused into the team's talent.
Enter Vince Lombardi. Starr was his prize pupil and the duo won five championships together including the first two AFL-NFL World Championship Games.
Later, the contests would become known as Super Bowls I and II.
While many think of Lombardi's approach to football as run exclusive, the rushing focus did not deprive Starr of key opportunities to make plays and act as leader of the team.
In a three year span in the mid-60s, Starr reached the height of his play, achieving statistics that were great for the era.
From 1964-66, he threw 45 touchdowns to only 16 interceptions, throwing for over 2,000 yards in each campaign.
In Super Bowl I, he made the famous throw to Max McGee when the hungover tight end caught the football with one hand before galloping into the end zone for the first ever score in the NFL's biggest game.
Starr was a fiery leader, and his teammates have often indicated the confidence he gave them in the huddle. His defining moment came in "The Ice Bowl."
Trailing 17-14 to the Dallas Cowboys amidst negative temperatures and an icy field, Starr's offense faced a fourth and goal from the 1-yard line with one last play left to win a third straight NFL championship.
Starr felt that he could maneuver into the end zone, considering the slippery footing had tripped up runners on prior plays.
After explaining his desire to keep the ball on the play called "31 wedge," Lombardi told Starr to run it.
The rest is NFL history.
*-Graham did not make the list as it is exclusive to Super Bowl era quarterbacks.
No. 3: Johnny Unitas (Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts)
For those expecting Peyton Manning, we interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this announcement:
Do you love passing in the NFL? Thank Unitas.
Do you feel annoyed that Unitas made this list instead of Manning? Then, ignore this slide, close your eyes, focus very hard and put Manning at no. 5 (where I would have ranked him).
Unitas played quarterback from the 50s and into the 70s, or as we call it, the Super Bowl era. Surely, this is a surprise for a few of you.
As he qualifies for this list, a look at his overall skill requires a delve into the pre-merger NFL.
Here is some perspective: he threw for over 2,800 yards, 19 touchdowns, and only six interceptions in 1964.
He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for over 3,400 yards and 20 touchdowns in 1967.
He won NFL championships and a Super Bowl ring in 1970-71, thus qualifying for this countdown. Sorry, Peyton. It's just rotten luck that the father of the forward pass was eligible.
40,000 yards. 290 touchdowns. And he retired before the Dolphins, Steelers, or Cowboys ever won a Super Bowl.
He was a three-time MVP, 10-time Pro-Bowler and the sixth best player in league history according to NFL.com.
Sure, his best playing days preceded the NFL merger. Still, the man has seen the glimmer of a Lombardi Trophy, and for that reason the most influential quarterback on the passing game in NFL history makes our countdown.
No. 2: Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers)
When Bill Walsh brought the west coast offense to the San Francisco 49ers, he needed a smart, accurate and efficient quarterback to execute the strategy.
The offense was predicated on precise mid-range passing, utilizing all players on the field in new ways.
With Joe Montana, Walsh had his perfect passer to compliment his wildly successful vision for offensive football.
Nobody split seams with a pigskin better than Joe Cool, whose penchant for calm in the biggest moments surely factored into his unbelievable success when the stakes were highest.
When he hit Dwight Clark in the back of the endzone against Dallas in January 1982, few knew that the legend of Montana was just beginning. Still, everyone knew the potential for something special was brewing.
After winning the Super Bowl that season, Montana continued to improve as a passer in the complex and wildly diverse 49ers offense. Using his passing skills and surprising mobility, Montana led the 49ers to a 15-1 record in 1984.
His 102.9 rating was unbelievable for the time and his precision and execution manifested in a beating of Dan Marino's Dolphins in the Super Bowl. In that campaign, Marino set NFL records as the game's best passer, but there was no better quarterback in football than Montana.
A fine passer in his own right, Montana was heady and played with a cerebral savvy that most quarterbacks simply lack.
In 1987, he threw 31 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions before San Francisco was upset in the playoffs by the Vikings.
In 1988, the 10-6 49ers avenged the loss to the Vikings before winning a third championship. In that game, Montana had his career-defining moment, leading San Francisco on a late touchdown drive to win in a comeback, 20-16, over Cincinnati.
Most famously, Montana preceded the drive by asking his huddle, "Is that John Candy?" Sure enough, the comedian sat in the stands across the field.
Before time caught up to him, Montana had his finest season in 1989, completing 70 percent of his passes for over 3,500 yards with 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. His rating of 112.4 was his career best.
In the ultimate coronation, Montana's 49ers beat John Elway and the Denver Broncos in a complete blowout. With a final score of 55-10, Montana had one of the best passing days in league history.
As game MVP, Montana completed 22-of-29 passes for nearly 300 yards and five touchdowns, arguably the greatest championship performance ever witnessed.
No. 1: Tom Brady (New England Patriots)
In my opinion, Tom Brady's rank as the best quarterback is obvious.
As rifles fire with every touchdown at Gillette Stadium, the popping sound and smell of cordite are a demand to take notice that Brady just put another bullet through another opponent's heart.
With Brady, championships are won. With three Super Bowl victories under his belt, he is a lone win away from tying Bradshaw and Montana for most ever.
With one more Super Bowl appearance, he will tie John Elway for five starts by a quarterback.
Touchdowns? After Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino's single-season record in 2004 with 49 touchdowns, Brady surpassed the peer against which he is directly judged.
In a virtuoso season, Brady threw 50 touchdowns and nearly led his team to only the second undefeated season in league history. Before that record campaign, Brady had already earned his pedigree as the finest quarterback in the game.
He's engineered the longest home winning streak (current) and total winning streak (21 games) in NFL history.
He's embarrassed proud defenses. Ask the Steelers how they felt after his 31-of-41 passing performance in 2005.
Peyton Manning and the Colts, another team that served as an AFC heavyweight in Brady's career, have had similar struggles.
Winning three Super Bowls in his first four seasons, a lapse in Lombardis has fans wondering if the guy still has it.
His teammates would never question his leadership or competitive edge. For those having watched him in the past month, it is obvious Brady is the league's best under center.
While the defense is New England is porous, he led the squad to 14 wins in 2010 and the offense again looks invincible this season.
As Brady's performance is concerned, a tough luck game is few and far between. In fact, he is playing the best football of his life. Denying this fact is futile.
In his years as a starter, his quarterback rating has exceeded 110 three times, including the start of 2011—this despite four interceptions in Buffalo.
In his first two games of the season, he threw for nearly 1,000 yards and he stands on pace to shatter virtually every NFL passing record.
Who wants to bet against him?
While championships are the result of hard teamwork, winning Super Bowls without a great quarterback is a tall order.
With Brady at the helm, New England will have high odds of securing a fourth title throughout the foreseeable future.
For his ability, records and championship pedigree, Tom Brady is the finest NFL quarterback of them all.