Every fan has their opinions and everyone has their favorites. The following list represents the opinion of this sports fan who has followed pro football for 30 years as to the greatest quarterbacks to ever have played the game of football at the highest level.
The only restrictive criteria for me was that he had to play in what I consider the ‘modern era’ of pro football, though that era stretches back further than it would for baseball and other sports. For me that era begins post-World War II, when the NFL truly began to racially integrate.
The quarterbacks on this list would probably make most lists of this type, but I know for a fact that there are a couple guys who would not make many lists, and others who would be listed in different orders. At the bottom of this post is a ‘label’ for comments. Feel free to leave your own commentary and your own ranking.
Some have said that a quarterback should be judged by the number of championships that he has won. I firmly disagree with that statement. There have been any number of marginally talented QB’s who have won the Super Bowl, and there have been tremendous talents who never got it done. That said, most of these men have won championships, some of them multiple times.
My list reflects what I have witnessed personally and what I have learned about the history of the game over these three decades as a fan. I have judged the players on my own list according to their overall accomplishments and talents, as well as factoring in that championship factor when I feel it was the QB who particularly made the difference.
So in honor of tomorrow’s Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints, two teams with great quarterbacks of their own in Peyton Manning (pictured here helmeted with fellow listee Tom Brady) and Drew Brees, and with particular apologies to Drew Bledsoe, Donovan McNabb and Boomer Esiason, here goes my listing of the ‘Top Twenty Quarterbacks in Pro Football History’:
#20> DAN FOUTS – the 9th-highest of all-time with 43,040 passing yards and 12th with 254 passing TD’s who was selected for the NFL’s 1980’s All-Decade Team. As leader of the storied San Diego Chargers ‘Air Coryell’ he was the first QB to ever throw for 4,000 in consecutive seasons, and is one of only 7 NFL QB’s to throw 30 or more TD passes in consecutive seasons. He was a 2-time AP NFL and UPI AFC MVP including in 1982 when he was also selected as the NEA NFL MVP and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. In last year’s celebration of the franchise’ 50th anniversary, Charger fans voted him the ‘Greatest Charger of All-Time’.
#19> WARREN MOON – the 5th ranked yardage passer in NFL history with 49,325 yards and 6th with 291 touchdown passes, Moon was black-balled out of the NFL in the late 70’s because he was a black QB who refused to change positions, and thus played his first six seasons in the Canadian Football League. There he helped Edmonton win 5 straight Grey Cups while throwing for over 21,000 more yards and 144 more TD’s. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is also a member of the CFL Hall of Fame.
#18> JOE NAMATH – he would make this list if for no other reason than his incredible ‘guaranteed victory’ MVP performance in Super Bowl III which truly put the AFL on the map. A first round draft pick in 1965 of both the NFL and AFL, he was alternately known as ‘Broadway Joe’ or ‘Joe Willie’ and threw for over 27,000 yards and 173 TD’s in an injury-plagued and shorterned career. In 1974 he was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. Namath was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is also a member of the AFL’s All-Time Team.
#17> JIM KELLY – the 15th-highest yardage passer in NFL history with 35,467 and 18th with 237 TD passes, Kelly began his career with two seasons in the USFL. There he led was the league MVP in 1984 and threw for 9,842 more yards and 83 more touchdowns. When the USFL collapsed, Kelly moved to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills where he led the team to the playoffs in 8 of his 11 seasons, including to the Super Bowl four straight years (losing each.) He was elected in 2002 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
#16> PHIL SIMMS – the MVP of Super Bowl XXI in 1987 and a career member of the New York Giants who ranks 20th in all-time NFL passing yards with 33,462 and threw for 199 career touchdowns. A two-time Super Bowl champ with the Giants, he was the winner of the NEA player’s poll for 1986 NFL MVP, and was the MVP of the 1985 Pro Bowl. Coming out of college in 1979, Bill Walsh actually wanted to draft Simms rather than Joe Montana, but the Giants surprised many by taking Simms with their 1st round selection.
#15> TROY AIKMAN – the MVP of Super Bowl XXVII in 1993 who threw for 32,942 yards and tossed 165 TD’s as a 3-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys. He was the #1 overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and led the Cowboys franchise, which had fallen on hard times, back to prominence. He was the winner of the Walter Peyton Award as the NFL Man of the Year in 1997, and in 2006 was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
#14> KURT WARNER – the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 when he threw for a record 414 yards who led two teams to the NFL’s ultimate game. Warner threw for 32,344 yards and tossed 208 touchdowns and is widely recognized as one of the most accurate passers in NFL history. He holds the NFL record for highest completion percentage in a single game, is one of only 2 NFL QB’s with a passer rating over 120 in 4 consecutive games, and is one of only 3 QB’s to record 3 games with a perfect passer rating in their careers. He was the winner of the Walter Peyton Award as the NFL Man of the Year in 2008, as well as the 2-time AP and 3-time NEA NFL Most Valuable Player.
#13> KEN STABLER – the left-hander nicknamed ‘the Snake’ who threw for 27,938 yards and 194 TD’s mostly with the Oakland Raiders. He led the Raiders to a victory in Super Bowl XI and was selected for the NFL’s All-1970’s Team. He was the NFL passing champion in 1976, a 2-time AFC Player of the Year, the 1974 NFL MVP, the 1976 Bert Bell Award winner as the top pro football player, and also was the last winner of the Hickock Belt as the top pro athlete of the year in 1976. He has been black-balled by the Pro Football Hall of Fame due to off-field antics including at least 3 DUI arrests while in retirement.
#12> BART STARR – the Most Valuable Player of the first two Super Bowls in history and the iconic leader of the great Vince Lombardi-coached 1960’s Green Bay Packers. He threw for 24,718 yards and 152 TD’s for a team and in an era when running the ball was the dominant philosophy. Selected to the 1960’s NFL All-Decade Team, he remains the only player to ever quarterback his team to 5 NFL Championships. He later went on to become the head coach of the Packers, leading them in 1982 to their only playoff appearance in a 2-decade period. He was the consensus 1966 NFL Most Valuable Player and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
#11> FRAN TARKENTON – the 1975 NFL MVP, Bert Bell Award, and Offensive Player of the Year Award winner who led the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls during a four year stretch in the mid-70’s only to lose them all. He is 6th all-time with 47,003 passing yards in the NFL and 4th with 342 touchdown passes. Nicknamed ‘The Mad Scrambler’ early in his career, he is considered perhaps the greatest scrambling QB in NFL history and rushed for 3,674 yards and 32 TD’s in his career. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
#10> DAN MARINO – ranked 2nd in NFL history with 61,361 yards and 420 TD passes, it’s amazing that he is this low, until you see the nine names ahead of him and factor in that he never won an NFL championship, leading his Miami Dolphins to an appearance in the Super Bowl just one time early in his career. He was the consesus NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1984, and a decade later was still good enough to be named the 1994 UPI AFC Player of the Year and the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He was the first QB to pass for over 5,000 yards and the first to pass for over 4,000 six times. He was the 1998 Walter Payton Award winner as the NFL Man of the Year, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
#9> TERRY BRADSHAW – the first player selected in the 1970 NFL Draft when the Pittsburgh Steelers won a coin toss for the chance to get him, he became a 4-time Super Bowl champion and the only back-to-back Super Bowl MVP in XIII and XIV. He threw for 27,989 yards and 212 passes in his career with the legendary ‘Steel Curtain’-era Steelers teams before injuries derailed and then ended his career prematurely in the early 1980’s. A member of the 1970’s NFL All-Decade Team, he was the 1978 NFL MVP and Bert Bell Award winner. He has enjoyed a lengthy and popular post-playing career as a TV analyst. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
#8> JOHNNY UNITAS – the man nicknamed ‘Johnny U’ was also considered as ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’, an appendage that threw for 40,239 yards which is 11th all-time and 290 TD passes which is 7th all-time. Between 1956 and 1960 he threw a touchdown pass in 47 straight games, still a record. He led the Baltimore Colts to 3 NFL Championships, including the 1958 title that has been nicknamed ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ as well as a title in Super Bowl V in 1970. He was selected to the NFL 1960’s All-Decade Team, is a 3-time winner of both the NFL MVP and Pro Bowl MVP honors, a 3-time winner of the Bert Bell Award, and was the 1970 NFL Man of the Year. In 1994 he was one of four QB’s selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
#7> ROGER STAUBACH – ‘Roger the Dodger’ whose Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry described as “possibly the best combination of a passer, an athlete and a leader to ever play in the NFL.” He threw for 22,700 yards and 153 TD passes, and ran for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns despite a career that started late due to a 5-year commitment to the U.S. Navy, which included a stint serving in Vietnam. He was a 2-time Super Bowl champion and the MVP of Super Bowl VI. Upon his retirement, his 83.4 completion percentage was the highest of all-time. Selected to the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
#6> STEVE YOUNG – the great-great-great grandson of Mormom icon Brigham Young and the 2nd lefty on this list, Young is also another who began his career in the USFL. Perhaps the greatest dual-threat QB in history, he threw for 33,124 yards and 232 touchdowns while rushing for another 4,239 yards and 43 TD’s in the NFL. In his brief USFL career, Young became the first pro QB to ever pass for more than 300 yards and rush for more than 100 in a single game. He was a 3-time Super Bowl champion including as the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX. He was a 2-time consensus NFL MVP and 2-time Bert Bell Award winner and retired with a 96.8 career quarterback rating.
#5> PEYTON MANNING – the man best-positioned to some day move up on this list, he will try to lead the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title for the 2nd time in 4 years tomorrow night. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XLI, and is 4th in NFL history in passing yardage with 50,128 and 3rd with 366 touchdown passes. He turns 34 years old next month, is healthy, and appears poised for many more years of prolific passing. He is a 4-time AP NFL Most Valuable Player, and was selected for the NFL’s 2000’s All-Decade Team. There is no doubt that he will wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame upon completion of his playing career.
#4> BRETT FAVRE – the all-time NFL leader in passing yardage with 69,329 and passing touchdowns with 497 says (again) that he will retire, but might a shot at 500 career TD’s and 70,000 career passing yards as well as another shot at a Super Bowl cause him to (again) reconsider? He was a Super Bowl champion as the long-time QB of the Green Bay Packers and was selected to the NFL’s 1990’s All-Decade Team. He was named the AP NFL MVP three straight years from 1995-97, and is a 5-time NFC Player of the Year. He is also the NFL’s ‘Iron Man’ having started a record 285 consecutive games, and as with Manning he will undoubtedly be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after his final legitimate retirement.
#3> JOE MONTANA – the 10th highest yardage passer in NFL history with 40,551 and 9th with 273 TD passes, he is widely considered the best ‘big-money’ QB the game has ever known. ‘Joe Cool’ won 4 Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and was named the MVP three times in XVI, XIX and XXIV. He was a 2-time winner of the AP NFL MVP Award including in 1989 when he was the consensus league MVP, the Offensive Player of the Year, and the Bert Bell Award winner. He won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1986, and was named to the NFL’s 1980’s All-Decade Team. In 1994 he was one of four QB’s selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
#2> JOHN ELWAY – perhaps the most naturally gifted quarterback in NFL history and arguably the flat-out strongest arm, he passed for 51,475 yards which is 3rd all-time in the NFL and for 300 touchdowns which is 5th all-time. He led the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl three times early in his career but lost all three times. After almost a decade passed he finally returned Denver to the NFL’s ultimate game and they won Super Bowl XXXI in an upset over Favre’s defending champ Packers. The following year he was the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXIII as he led the team to it’s 2nd straight title, meaning that he led the team to five total Super Bowl appearances. He was named to the NFL’s 1990’s All-Decade Team, won the 1987 NFL MVP Award, and was a 2-time AFC Offensive Player of the Year. In 2004 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
#1> TOM BRADY – anyone surprised to see him at the top of the list should consider the offensive weapons that he has had to work with compared with those behind him. He has passed for 30,844 yards and 225 TD’s in his career, and at age 32 is poised to make a big move on the all-time NFL leader boards in both categories over the next several years. He is the undisputed leader of what is already a 3-time Super Bowl championship dynasty with the New England Patriots, including as the MVP of both Super Bowl XXVI and XXXVIII. He was the SI Sportsman of the Year in 2005, and in 2007 was the AP Male Athlete of the Year, and both the NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. This past year of 2009 he was selected as the NFL Comeback Player of the Year after missing all of ’08 with a severe knee injury. He has a career 93.3 quarterback rating, and will undoubtedly be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame some day after retiring, which may not happen until the 2nd half of this decade. To top things off, Brady is married to Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, with whom he now has two children.