The Top 10 Quarterbacks of All Time

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2017

The Top 10 Quarterbacks of All Time

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    The NFL has seen plenty of quarterbacks who have changed the game, from Slingin' Sammy Baugh's introducing the concept of a gunslinger in the late '30s to Joe Montana's role in pioneering the West Coast offense. 

    Regardless of the strides a quarterback made in his own time, it takes something more for one to go down in the annals of history as an all-time great. Virgil Carter led the NFL in completion percentage in 1971; Cam Newton holds the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback; Bart Starr won the first two Super Bowls. 

    But to be considered among the top 10 quarterbacks of all time, a player's accomplishments and sheer talent have to transcend offensive systems, Super Bowl wins and season records. 

    Let's take a look at the 10 quarterbacks who have done just that. This list could look quite different if we were placing more emphasis on the stats of today, but because we're measuring greatness over the entire history of the game, some younger players have a harder time placing near the top. 

    The following signal-callers were all evaluated by their numbers as well as by their intangibles: football IQ, arm strength, footwork, ability to evade pressure. Andsay it with me folks—wins are not a QB stat, so while Super Bowl victories are a weight on the scale, they aren't the sole determinant. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Associated Press

    There are a handful of players who didn't make this list but would no doubt appear in other top 10s. These signal-callers would have been included in a list of the 15 greatest passers in NFL history and remain some of the most impressive players in football history. 

            

    Joe Namath 

    Broadway Joe finished his career with 27,663 yards, 173 touchdowns, 220 interceptions and a passer rating of 65.5. That high interception rate (5.8 percent) is one of the reasons he didn't crack the top 10. In fact, he's the only passer on this list to have thrown more picks than touchdowns throughout his career.

    Still, there's no denying that Joe Namath had a cannon for an arm, becoming the first pro quarterback to hit 4,000 yards in a season in 1967, per Chris Greenberg of the Huffington Post. He called his shot when he guaranteed the New York Jets would win Super Bowl III—he was also named MVP of that game. 

             

    Drew Brees

    Some will argue that if Aaron Rodgers can be included on this list, so can Drew Brees. There's no question that the future Hall of Famer will go down as one of the all-time great quarterbacks. Heading into the 2017 season, he's passed for 66,111 yards and 465 touchdowns, with 220 interceptions and a passer rating of 96.3.

    His mechanics, despite his height (listed at 6'0"), comprise one of his most impressive strengths. He also helped lead his team to victory in Super Bowl XLIV and was named MVP of that game. So why is Brees so underrated? Is he a product of a New Orleans system that inflates passing statistics? Is it because the Saints are so rarely contenders?

    There's definitely a case for Brees to round out this list in place of Otto Graham or Roger Staubach, but it might take the perspective that only time gives for his career to take its place in the top 10. 

            

    Bart Starr

    He won Super Bowls I and II and five league championships overall and has the highest postseason passer rating of any quarterback to this day (104.8). There's no question that Bart Starr was a winner. He also called one of the most famous, effective plays of all time in the infamous Ice Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys in 1967.

    So why doesn't Starr crack the top 10? Though he has the wins, his stats don't approach the other passers' on this list: 24,718 yards, 152 touchdowns, 138 interceptions and a completion percentage of 57.4. He also benefited from being on one of the most talented teams in NFL history under one of its greatest coaches in Vince Lombardi.

    Still, Starr's name deserves to be in the conversation. 

10. Otto Graham

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    HAROLD P. MATOSIAN/Associated Press

    By the numbers: 23,584 yards; 55.8 completion percentage; 9.0 yards/attempt; 174 TDs; 135 interceptions; 5.1 interception percentage; 86.6 passer rating; three-time NFL champion; three-time UPI NFL MVP; five-time Pro Bowler

             

    The intangibles: Otto Graham did not start playing football until his sophomore season at Northwestern, but it was clear he was a natural passer. In his book The Best Show in Football: The 1946–1955 Cleveland Browns, Andy Piascik described how teammates praised Graham for having "great touch in his hands," whether he was launching long bombs or finessing short strikes.

    His years of basketball allowed him to easily evade pressure in the pocket with a great spin move, as John Keim noted in his 1999 book Legends by the Lake: the Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium

               

    Why he's here: Graham's career may have been short compared to the other players on this list, but it was mighty. There's no question Automatic Otto is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in league history: He was part of the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team and the NFL 75th Anniversary Team, was a First Team All-American, and the Cleveland Browns retired his No. 14.

    Graham led the Browns to the championship game for 10 straight years (1946-1955) and won seven. His record nine yards per attempt career average may never be touched, and is frankly incredible for the contemporary NFL, never mind the pre-Super Bowl era. 

9. Roger Staubach

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    Associated Press

    By the numbers: 22,700 yards; 57.0 completion percentage; 7.7 yards/attempt; 153 TDs; 109 interceptions; 3.7 interception percentage; 83.4 passer rating; two-time Super Bowl champion; Super Bowl VI MVP; six-time Pro Bowler

                 

    The intangibles: Like John Elway after him, Roger Staubach—Roger the Dodger—was known for his scrambling ability and penchant for pulling out late wins. Captain Comeback had 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.

    Staubach also became the unofficial father of the Hail Mary pass after he connected with Drew Pearson on a 50-yard touchdown with :24 seconds to play, leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 17-14 victory in the 1975 playoffs. He said a "Hail Mary" as he did so, as the 1975 story in the Victoria Advocate goes.

            

    Why he's here: Staubach's 3.7 interception percentage and relatively low completion percentage can't be ignored, but for what he lacked in accuracy, he more than made up for in exciting, clutch play and a legacy of winning.

    For as much weight as you care to give a quarterback's wins, Staubach's 74.6 winning percentage has been hard for anyone at the position to touch. He was also a 27-year-old rookie after serving in the military, so there's an element of projection involved here, too; for as demonstrably great as he was, he had the potential to be even better. 

8. Aaron Rodgers

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    By the numbers (through 2016): 36,827 yards; 65.1 completion percentage; 7.9 yards/attempt; 297 TDs; 72 interceptions; 1.5 interception percentage; 104.1 passer rating; Super Bowl XLV champion; Super Bowl XLV MVP; six-time Pro Bowler; two-time NFL MVP

                

    The intangibles: When it comes to intangibles, Aaron Rodgers may be the most talented player on this list. Need a poised pocket passer? He can be that. Need someone who can detect and evade pressure, extending plays for seven, eight, 10 seconds? He can do that, too.

    Rodgers' ability to diagnose and read defenses approaches Peyton Manning's, and his football IQ is among the highest the league has seen. His arm strength is off the charts, demonstrated by his many successful Hail Mary passes and the fact that his 7.9 yards per pass average is the second-highest on this list after Graham. 

             

    Why he's here: It's important to understand how truly exceptional Aaron Rodgers' accuracy is. Consider this: in the 2017 season he will become the only quarterback in NFL history to hit 300 touchdown passes with fewer than 100 interceptions. As Elisha Twerski pointed out, the other 10 quarterbacks to have hit that milestone averaged 171 interceptions when they did so.

    But for someone with his statistical prowess, Rodgers does have mechanical flaws. He often throws off his back foot and can hold the ball too long. He is the youngest player on this list at 33, and some will argue he needs to play the rest of his career at or near the level he has demonstrated so far to earn a spot.

    That's a fine opinion, but not entirely a fair one. In some ways, we're always going to judge maybe not apples against oranges, but oranges against clementines, kumquats and tangerines when ranking great quarterbacks. Different eras and different career lengths leave a great deal up to the eye test. And there is no shortage of people, from analysts to former players to coaches, who have said Rodgers is the best player they've ever seen at the position. And he's not done yet. 

7. John Elway

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    By the numbers: 51,475 yards; 56.9 completion percentage; 7.1 yards/attempt; 300 TDs; 226 interceptions; 3.1 interception percentage; 79.9 passer rating; two-time Super Bowl champion; Super Bowl XXXIII MVP; 1987 NFL MVP; nine-time Pro Bowler; two-time AFC Offensive Player of the Year

           

    The intangibles: John Elway was ahead of his time for his ability to run the ball; he is the only quarterback in NFL history to score a rushing touchdown in four different Super Bowls. In all, he rushed for 3,407 yards and 33 touchdowns over his 16-year career—a significant amount. He was also clutch in the postseason, with four fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives in the playoffs. 

              

    Why he's here: Elway is both one of the most clutch quarterbacks of all time and one of the more inaccurate, as his 3.1 interception rate and 56.9 completion percentage suggest. He led his team to five Super Bowls but lost three.

    In short, for all his greatness—and he is a truly great quarterback, especially in play style—there are factors that make No. 7 a fair spot on this list for Elway. His 300 career touchdowns are still good enough for a top-10 spot all time, but there are 226 interceptions to go with them.

    Elway's performance in Super Bowl XXXII is a great example of why Super Bowls wins are a team accomplishment, not a QB accomplishment; the Broncos won 31-24, but Elway only went 12-of-22 for zero touchdowns and one interception.

6. Dan Marino

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    By the numbers: 61,361 yards; 59.4 completion percentage; 7.3 yards/attempt; 420 TDs; 252 interceptions; 3.0 interception percentage; 86.4 passer rating; 1984 NFL MVP; nine-time Pro Bowler; 1984 NFL Offensive Player of the Year; 1983 NFL Rookie of the Year 

            

    The intangibles: Dan Marino had one of the quickest releases of any passer in league history. Combine that with his ability to diagnose defenses, and you quickly understand how he amassed such stellar stats. He also had almost no help in the way of a supporting cast on his Miami Dolphins teams, instead elevating the players around him and carrying his teams to greatness. 

                    

    Why he's here: Evaluating NFL quarterbacks is a balancing act between stats, playing style and wins. Marino has everything you'd want from the first two categories, but his teams never won a Super Bowl, which hurts him in the great-quarterbacks conversation.

    But just because Marino never hoisted a Lombardi Trophy doesn't mean he didn't win; in his 17 seasons with the Miami Dolphins, he reached the postseason 10 times. Marino is consistently ranked lower than he should be, given that championships are team, not individual, efforts. There's no denying Marino is special, though, as evidenced by the fact that when he retired, he held almost every passing record.

5. Brett Favre

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    By the numbers: 71,838 yards; 62.0 completion percentage; 7.1 yards/attempt; 508 TDs; 336 interceptions; 3.3 interception percentage; 86.0 passer rating; Super Bowl XXXI champion; 11-time Pro Bowler; three-time NFL MVP; 1995 NFL Offensive Player of the Year

             

    The intangibles: "The Gunslinger" wasn't known for his accuracy. At 3.3 percent, Brett Favre has one of the highest interception percentages of any passer on this list—and yet he demonstrated one of the most powerful arms football has ever seen over his 20 seasons. Football's Iron Man also made a career out of his durability, setting an NFL record with 297 consecutive starts over 19 seasons and famously taking the field on Monday Night Football a day after the death of his father.  

           

    Why he's here: Favre rounds out the five best quarterbacks ever to play, his sheer production and durability outweighing his penchant for throwing untimely picks. And there's no question that those interceptions mar Favre's legacy—336 is a significant number.

    Favre wasn't a surgeon by any means, and there are perhaps dozens of signal-callers with better mechanics. But when considering who the great QBs of the NFL have been, a huge amount of emphasis must be placed on what those players meant to their franchises.

    Favre's 508 touchdowns, including nine seasons with 30-plus, are indicative of how much he helped his teams. He led the league in passing touchdowns in four seasons. Some will hold the fact that he only won one Super Bowl ring against him, but, if we must discuss wins relative to a quarterback, Favre knew how to do it; he holds the record for most regular-season wins, with 186. Favre is also first in passing completions (6,300), second in yards (71,838) and second in passing touchdowns (508). 

4. Peyton Manning

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    By the numbers: 71,940 yards; 65.3 completion percentage; 7.7 yards/attempt; 539 TDs; 251 interceptions; 2.7 interception percentage; 96.5 passer rating; two-time Super Bowl champion; Super Bowl XLI MVP; 14-time Pro Bowler; five-time NFL MVP; two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year

             

    The intangibles: If you were to create a quarterback in a lab, the first thing you would give him is Peyton Manning's brain. Manning's ability to diagnose coverages, audible at the line of scrimmage and win the mental battle against opposing defensive coordinators is second to no one.

    Manning increased the burden of football IQ and film study irrevocably for all future passers. He also consistently made his offensive line's job easier by evading pressures; his efficiency and diagnosis ability helped him keep his sack numbers ridiculously low (303 in 17 seasons). 

                 

    Why he's here: Manning is one of the best regular-season quarterbacks in history; his five NFL MVP awards speak to that. But, unlike someone like Tom Brady, Manning wasn't the linchpin for his teams' postseason success, and his playoff failures will always factor heavily into his ranking among the all-time greats.

    Manning won the MVP award for Super Bowl XLI, but it was a relatively average performance (247 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). The Chicago Bears turned the ball over five times in that game, which generated a ton of offense for the Indianapolis Colts. Still, looking at the regular season, almost nobody did it better than Manning. To display the accuracy he did, with a 65.3 completion percentage, while still attempting 9,380 passes is incredible. 

3. Johnny Unitas

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    Associated Press

    By the numbers: 40,239 yards; 54.6 completion percentage; 7.8 yards/attempt; 290 TDs; 253 interceptions; 4.9 interception percentage; 78.2 passer rating; Super Bowl V champion; two-time NFL champion; 10-time Pro Bowler; three-time NFL MVP

                        

    The intangibles: Joe Montana would earn the nickname Joe Cool for his ability to keep calm under pressure, but Johnny Unitas exemplified that trait years earlier. And, like Drew Brees (6'0") would decades later, Johnny U made a name for himself as an undersized passer (6'1") who nonetheless led one of the most deadly passing offenses the league has seen.

    He also made his teammates believe they could win—and they did, with two NFL championships and a victory in Super Bowl V. "The type of quarterback he was, the leader he was, he was totally focused on moving the football, scoring points and winning," former teammate and Baltimore Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry said, per the Baltimore Sun

                 

    Why he's here: Unitas wasn't known for his accuracy, as his 54.6 completion percentage and 4.9 interception percentage are among the lowest and highest, respectively, on this list. But he revolutionized the quarterback position for his sheer offensive production in a run-first era. In his 1959 MVP season with the Baltimore Colts, Unitas led the NFL in passing yards (2,899), touchdown passes (32) and completions (193), numbers that stand up to the high-octane passing of the modern NFL.

    Unitas' record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass stood for 52 years, until Brees broke it in 2012, underscoring how crucial Unitas was to his teams' success. 

2. Joe Montana

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    By the numbers: 40,551 yards; 63.2 completion percentage; 7.5 yards/attempt; 273 TDs; 139 interceptions; 2.6 interception percentage; 92.3 passer rating; four-time Super Bowl champion; three-time Super Bowl MVP; eight-time Pro Bowler; two-time NFL MVP; 1989 NFL Offensive Player of the Year

             

    The intangibles: Joe Montana possessed one of the most crucial traits for a great quarterback: the ability to keep calm and operate at a high level under pressure. With Joe Cool under center, his teams were never out of it. The Comeback Kid led the San Francisco 49ers to a fourth-quarter win down 16-13 with a 97-yard drive in Super Bowl XXIII. 

                      

    Why he's here: Yes, Montana won four Super Bowls and was a three-time Super Bowl MVP, which often boosts his place in rankings like these. But his No. 2 spot here is about more than his championships. When his teams needed him most, he delivered. Tom Brady's postseason stats may be better, but Montana's are nothing to sneeze at; in the 49ers' 1988-89 playoff runs, Montana threw 19 touchdowns to just one interception as San Francisco won two consecutive Lombardi trophies.

    He never lost a Super Bowl. Some will try to argue that fourth-quarter comebacks should be a deficit when evaluating quarterbacks, because they let their team fall behind in the first place, but that places too little emphasis on the role of the defense. What it comes down to is which passer you want on your team when you're in a pickle, and given his come-from-behind, gutty performances, it's hard not to say Montana. 

1. Tom Brady

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    By the numbers (through 2016): 61,582 yards; 63.8 completion percentage; 7.5 yards/attempt; 456 TDs; 152 interceptions; 1.8 interception percentage; 97.2 passer rating; five-time Super Bowl champion; four-time Super Bowl MVP; 12-time Pro Bowler; two-time NFL MVP; two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year

                     

    The intangibles: Tom Brady may not have the mobility or arm strength of some of his contemporaries, but his other intangibles—namely, accuracy, decision-making and football IQ—exist in rarefied air. His work ethic is tireless and has allowed him to overcome some of the aspects of his game that saw him fall to the sixth round in the 2000 NFL draft. He's also one of the most consistent passers in NFL history. He's never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season and his completion rate has never dipped below 60 percent since he became a starter. 

    Brady is also changing the way quarterbacks both train for and play the game in terms of nutrition and strength and conditioning, and he may very well go down as the oldest quarterback in NFL history before he retires. 

           

    Why he's here: We've arrived at the G.O.A.T. spot, and when taking the sum of all the parts—stats, sustained success, arm strength, championships—it's hard to arrive at anyone except Brady. Wins are not a quarterback stat, but Brady has helped lead his team to Super Bowl glory in almost every circumstance imaginable.

    Whether he was engineering a comeback from the greatest deficit in Super Bowl history (21-3 to the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI) or leading last-minute fourth-quarter drives to set up a game-winning score (Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII), Brady and his passing prowess drove the Patriots' five Super Bowl wins since 2001.

    Given that he's attempted more than 8,000 passes in his career, his completion percentage of 63.8 is incredible, and the only quarterback on this list with a lower interception rate is Aaron Rodgers.