We all know the names that would top the list of greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time: Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, etc. The more interesting question is: Who are we leaving out?
A couple of notes on this list before we get started. I had to narrow NFL history down a little bit, so I’m concentrating only on quarterbacks who played the majority of their careers after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. I appreciate the talents of Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle and Sid Luckman as much as the next guy, but you won’t find them on this list.
Also, you’ll see a fair amount of active players making the cut. Though some of these passers have only begun to build their career resumes, they deserve recognition for excelling during an era of football that asks more of its quarterbacks than ever before.
Philip Rivers has only been a starter in the NFL for six seasons, but he’s already established himself as one of the most efficient passers ever. Rivers’ career passer rating of 95.8 ranks fifth all-time. His 63.7 percent completion rate ranks tenth all-time.
Even more amazing is that Rivers has maintained this efficiency while also stretching the field. In his short stint as a starter, Rivers has already put up four seasons of over 4,000 passing yards and led the league in yards per attempt three times. In fact, his 8.0 yards per pass ranks sixth all-time.
One of the most well-traveled quarterbacks in NFL history, Vinny Testaverde hung around long enough to register the seventh-most passing yards ever in his 20-year career.
Testaverde’s longevity has earned him a few dubious distinctions (a 90-123 record isn’t really anything to smile about), and truthfully, his best accomplishment is his longevity. He was never blessed with many great teammates (playing the prime years of your career in Tampa Bay and Cleveland will do that), but he still managed to pull his teams through 29 career fourth quarter comebacks, which ranks seventh all-time.
Many current NFL fans might know Mark Brunell as a career backup, but before he carried a clipboard, Brunell was a very good starting quarterback. He actually ranks 31st all-time in passing yards (ahead of Terry Bradshaw and Joe Namath) and 29th all-time in passer rating (ahead of John Elway and Troy Aikman). In his heyday, Brunell’s accuracy and scrambling ability made him a poor-man’s Steve Young.
In 1996, Brunell took the one-year old Jacksonville Jaguars all the way to the AFC championship game. Brunell generated nearly 5,000 yards of offense that season, leading the league in passing yards and mixing in 480 yards on the ground as well.
Boomer Esiason was one of the best and most under-appreciated quarterbacks of his era. He ranks 16th all-time in both passing yards and touchdowns, and has a higher lifetime passer rating than John Elway and Johnny Unitas.
In 1988, Esiason performed the impressive feat of leading the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, he had to play Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers when he got there. We all know how that turned out.
Phil Simms ranks 23rd all-time in passing yards, but perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was his performance in Super Bowl XXI. Simms completed 22 of his 25 passes (two of those incompletions were drops) for three touchdowns, a passer rating of 150.9 (which still stands as an NFL postseason record) and, most importantly, a victory.
He's not on this list for just one game. Simms had an outstanding career otherwise, but any quarterback capable of a performance like that under such immense pressure deserves his rightful place in history.
"Air" McNair is one of the great warriors in NFL history. He battled through injuries throughout his career, but had an incredible capacity to play through pain. McNair's stats are more than solid (he's 33rd all-time in passing yards), but his greatness was defined more by toughness and leadership than yards and completions.
While it's unfair to give a quarterback too much credit for his team's success, it's hard to deny McNair's track record as a winner. He was 91-62 as a starter and led his teams to a record of .500 or better in seven of his eleven seasons. In 1999, he took the Tennessee Titans to within a fingertip of a Super Bowl title.
Before he was Wally Pipped (first by Tom Brady in New England and then by Tony Romo in Dallas), Drew Bledsoe was a darn good quarterback. Bledsoe ranks eighth all-time with over 44,000 passing yards and put up eight seasons of more than 3,500 passing yards.
Bledsoe has never had a reputation as a great clutch player, but by the numbers, he was one of the best of all-time. His 31 career game-winning drives and 24 career fourth-quarter comebacks both rank tenth in NFL history.
Tony Romo certainly deserves some blame for his notable failings, but botching a hold on a field goal shouldn't diminish his accomplishments as a passer.
Though he's only been a starter for six seasons, Romo has already established himself as one of the most efficient passers ever. Romo's career passer rating of 96.8 is tied with Steve Young for second-best in NFL history. He also ranks sixth all-time in both yards per pass (8.0) and completion percentage (64.4).
Given the fact that he began his career as a starter at age 26, Romo will probably never amass the volume numbers of some of the other players on this list, but his efficiency numbers warrant a place among the best passers ever.
Even before he played his first game in the NFL, Donovan McNabb was booed. That trend continued throughout his career, as the fans of Philadelphia expressed their frustration with a quarterback that could never quite carry their Eagles to the mountaintop.
That relationship came to define McNabb's career, overshadowing a resume that will receive strong consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
McNabb made six Pro Bowls as the starter for the Eagles and ranks 17th all-time in passing yards, ahead of HOFers Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Troy Aikman.
Before Michael Vick led an air/ground assault for the Philadelphia Eagles, Randall Cunningham paved the way.
Cunningham was the greatest dual-threat quarterback of his era. His 1990 season is one of the most impressive displays of passing and rushing ability ever. Cunningham threw for 3,466 yards and 30 touchdowns while rushing for 942 yards and five TDs.
Cunningham's career passer rating of 81.5 puts him just 47th all-time, but does rank him ahead of some of the more heralded dual-threat passers in NFL history, including Vick and John Elway.
Warren Moon is often overlooked because of the time he spent in the Canadian Football League. After six years in Edmonton, Moon joined the NFL's Houston Oilers in 1984 at age 28. From there, he led his team to a steady improvement, peaking in 1990 when Moon threw for a 4,689 yards and 33 touchdowns, posting a career-high passer rating of 96.8.
As he aged, Moon's performance remained remarkably consistent. He threw for over 4,200 yards in a season four times after he turned 34, and played well into his forties. At age 41, Moon started 15 games for the Seattle Seahawks and threw for an NFL-best 245.2 yards per game.
Moon ranks fifth all-time in passing yards with 49,325. Add to that the 21,228 yards that Moon rolled up in Canada, and he would rank second all-time.
Kurt Warner's NFL career lasted only 11 years, but during that time frame, he put up some of the best seasons in NFL history. He burst onto the scene in 1999, leading the league in completion percentage, touchdowns and passer rating in his first season as a starter.
One of the most accurate passers ever, Warner ranks third all-time in completion percentage and never completed fewer than 62 percent of his passes in a season in which he started at least 10 games. Warner ranks seventh all-time in passer rating, ahead of Joe Montana and Dan Marino.
Although many of his teams seemed to be on a constant crusade to replace him with a younger quarterback, Kurt Warner was a consistent winner. He led the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls, winning one, but Warner's greatest accomplishment was dragging a 9-7 Arizona Cardinals team to within a tip-toe of a Super Bowl championship at age 37.
Fran Tarkenton ranks sixth all-time in passing yards and fourth all-time in passing touchdowns, yet he never seems to be mentioned among the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Tarkenton was a true dual threat, averaging 7.3 yards per pass and 5.4 yards per rush for his career.
Tarkenton was one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks ever. In his 18-year career, he engineered 34 game-winning drives. That ranks sixth all-time, ahead of Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Johnny Unitas.
Dan Fouts came into the NFL 20 years too early. His San Diego Chargers teams played an air-it-out style reminiscent of today's game, but were trapped in a time when most NFL teams preferred the "three yards and a could of dust" approach.
Even in that unenlightened era of football, Fouts managed to amass 43,040 passing yards, which ranks fifth in NFL history.
Fouts ranks ninth all time in passing yards per game, averaging a shade under 238 yards per game for his career. It's an impressive stat on its own, but comparing it against other quarterbacks during Fouts' era further amplifies his greatness.
No other quarterback that began his career before 1975 averaged even 200 yards per game. The next closest is Joe Namath, who began his pro career in 1965 and averaged 198 yards per game. That puts Fouts a full 40 yards per game ahead of his closest contemporary.
Drew Brees has been unquestionably great this season, but it’s been tough for him to carve his rightful place in history while playing during the same era as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Even at just 31 years old (two years younger than Brady and three years younger than Manning), Brees’ accomplishments compare favorably with the all-time greats. He already ranks 13th in career passing yards, just ahead of Tom Brady and hot on the heels of Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.
By the time Drew Brees is finished, his resume as a passer will surpass that of either Brady or Manning.
Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino’s single-season passing record; he's already racked up 4,780 through 14 games. Topping that record would also win Brees another place in history. He would become the all-time career leader in passing yards per game.
However, Brees isn’t all about volume, he’s also one of the most efficient passers in NFL history. Brees ranks second all-time in completion percentage and eighth all-time in quarterback rating. If he continues his current pace in 2011, he’ll set the all-time single-season record for completion percentage and become the only passer ever to complete 70 percent of his passes in two separate seasons.