Countdown to Canton: Ranking the top 10 quarterbacks ever


Photo courtesy of Talk of Fame Network

In less than two weeks, Kurt Warner becomes the 26th modern-era quarterback to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So, to celebrate his enshrinement, we decided to rank the 10 best at his position — calling on Hall-of-Fame voters Rick Gosselin, Clark Judge and Ron Borges, along with NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal, to compile the list.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, our 10 best isn’t 10 at all. It’s 11, with Dan Marino and Aaron Rodgers tying for the 10th spot.

But it was consistent at the top. John Unitas gained all but one first-place vote, Tom Brady was a close second and Otto Graham nosed out Joe Montana for third. You want more? Keep on scrolling.

10. (tie) AARON RODGERS

Photo courtesy Green Bay Packers

One of two active quarterbacks on this list, Rodgers gained all his votes from one selector, John Turney. He ranked him the seventh-best quarterback in NFL history. “Like Elway,” Turney said, “he had all the skills. If he had won more he’d be higher.” Sitting behind Brett Favre his first three years as a pro, Rodgers made an immediate impact when given the opportunity — winning a Super Bowl and getting named Super Bowl MVP in his third year as a starter. A year later, he was the Associated Press Athlete of the Year and the NFL MVP. He led the league three times in touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio, twice in passer rating, once in touchdowns and once in yards per attempt. He’s the NFL career leader in passer rating (104.1), the only quarterback to have a rating in excess of 100 for the regular season, and has the best touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (4.13) in league history. A two-time league MVP, he is a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro.

DAN MARINO

Photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins

The only quarterback on this list never to have won an NFL championship, Marino led Miami to the playoffs 10 times in his 17-year career — including 1984 when the Dolphins won the AFC title and Marino set a then-record of 48 touchdown passes in a season. That was enough to win over Borges, who ranked him seventh on his list. “Although he never won a Super Bowl,” Borges said, “he may be the best pure passer of all time. Despite playing in an era far more difficult to throw in than today’s game, he held almost every passing record when he retired.” A nine-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro, Marino was the 1983 Rookie of the Year, the 1984 league MVP and the 1994 Comeback Player of the Year. Five times he led the league in passing yards, six times he led it in completions and three times he led it in touchdown passes. Known for his quick release and strong arm, Marino led 51 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, an NFL record tied later by Peyton Manning.

9. BRETT FAVRE

Photo courtesy of Green Bay Packers

A 2016 Hall-of-Fame inductee, Favre was one of the most charismatic … and durable … figures in the history of the game. He made a league-record 321 consecutive starts (including the playoffs) before sitting down in 2010, an achievement he called his greatest and one that most analysts believe will never be surpassed. He also won a league-record three consecutive MVP awards and led his teams to eight division championships, five conference championships and two Super Bowls. “He defined the term ‘gunslinger,’ ” said Gosselin. “No quarterback in the game’s history had more fun playing the position than Favre.” When he retired, he was the NFL’s all-time leader in career passing yards and touchdowns — records that have since been broken. An 11-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro, Favre four times led the league in touchdown passes, twice led it in passing yards and was named to the 1990s’ all-decade team. The 1995 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, he holds most of the career passing records for Green Bay and had his number 4 retired by the Packers.

8. and 7. (tie) PEYTON MANNING

Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos

An 18-year pro, Manning holds NFL records for passing yards (71,940), touchdown passes (539), AP MVP awards (five), Pro Bowl appearances (14) and 4,000-yard passing seasons (14). He’s the only quarterback to start Super Bowls with two different teams more than once, the only one to win a Super Bowl with two different franchises and the only one to reach four Super Bowls with four different coaches. He was 186-79 during regular-season play and 14-13 in the playoffs and twice was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year. Moreover, he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month a record eight times and AFC Offensive Player of the Month a record 26 times. He was the first quarterback to reach 200 victories. He holds the NFL record for most passing touchdowns (55) in a season and is tied for the most in one game (7). He had an NFL-record four games with perfect passer ratings, set the league mark for most passing yards in a season (5,477) in 2013 and holds the mark for most consecutive seasons with 25 or more touchdown passes (13). What’s more, he authored a 2006 AFC championship defeat of New England after trailing by 18, the biggest comeback in championship-game history. “Maybe the most technically sound quarterback who ever played,” said Gosselin. “His five MVP awards and three passing titles attest to the fact he maximized his talent.”

SAMMY BAUGH

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Though he played defensive back and punted, Baugh was known primarily as a passer — leading the league in completion percentage seven times, in passing yards four times and in passer rating an NFL-record six times. He also led the league once in interceptions (with 11 in 1943), and his punting average of 51.4 yards in 1940 remains an NFL high. A two-time NFL champion, he was named the league’s Player of the Year in 1947 and 1948 by the Washington Touchdown Club — leading the league in those seasons in completions, attempts, completion percentage and yards. As a rookie, he led the Redskins to a 1937 championship win over Chicago — throwing for 335 yards, the most by an NFL rookie in a playoff game until Seattle’s Russell Wilson broke it in 2012. But in 1943, he had what is considered the greatest season of any NFL player, leading the league in passing, punting and interceptions. In one game that season, a 42-20 defeat of Detroit, he threw four TD passes and had four interceptions. When he retired, he held 13 records — including two that still stand: Most seasons leading the league in passer rating (tied by Steve Young) and most seasons leading the league in lowest interception percentage (five). He also is fourth in the highest single-season completion percentage (70.33), despite playing in an era where the ball was fatter and rounder at the ends, making it more difficult to throw.

6. ROGER STAUBACH

Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys

Called by Gosselin “the most underrated and underappreciated quarterback in history,” Staubach finished with as many votes as Baugh and Manning but gains sixth via a tiebreaker (more high-ranking votes than Baugh or Manning). A quarterback who could win with his arm or his legs, he was with the Cowboys for five Super Bowls (four as the starter) in his 11 seasons there and has the third-best career winning percentage of all time. Like others on this list, Staubach excelled in comebacks — leading the Cowboys to 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including 17 in the final two minutes or overtime. His most famous was the “Hail Mary,” a 50-yard bomb to Drew Pearson in the closing seconds of the Cowboys’ come-from-behind defeat of Minnesota in a 1975 playoff game.  Four times he led the league in passer rating and, when he retired, he had the highest rated passer rating in NFL history. Though his NFL career was shortened by military obligations, Staubach still is recognized as one of the greatest to play the game — with the Dallas Morning News in 2010 naming him the greatest Cowboy of all-time.

5. JOHN ELWAY

Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos

“If you drew up what you would want a quarterback to look like, it would be John Elway,” Gosselin said. “He defined the term ‘swagger’ and probably did more with less than any quarterback in history.” The first pick of the 1983 draft, Elway went to five Super Bowls, won two and was known for late-game heroics — with “The Drive,” a game-tying 98-yard march in the 1986 AFC championship game, his most famous. According to Pro Football Reference, he authored 46 game-winning drives, good for fourth-best all time. Elway could do it all and is the only player in league history to throw for at least 3,000 yards and run for at least 200 yards in seven consecutive seasons. He’s also one of only two players (Hall-of-Famer Thurman Thomas is the other) to score at least one rushing touchdown in four different Super Bowls. He was a Super Bowl MVP and league MVP, and he’s a member of the 1990s’ all-decade team, a nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro.

4. JOE MONTANA

Photo courtesy of the S.F. 49ers

Known as “Joe Cool,” Montana was one of the all-time best at making big plays in big moments of big games. There was “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC champi0nship game. There was the 92-yard, game-winning, drive in Super Bowl XXIII. There were 32 fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories. And there were four Super Bowl victories. Montana was 4-0 in Super Bowls, with 11 touchdown passes, no interceptions and three MVP trophies. What’s more, he outdueled Marino and Elway in two Super Bowls, outscoring them 93-26. He was the fastest quarterback to 100 victories (until Tom Brady broke his record) and has a career record of 133-54, including the playoffs. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro, member of the 1980s’ all-decade team and member of the league’s 75th anniversary team. When he retired, Montana held the league record — since surpassed — for career passer rating (92.3). “Montana is Brady two decades earlier,” said Borges, “in a time when it was still legal to punish the quarterbacks and pound his receivers.”

3. OTTO GRAHAM

Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Browns

Counting his career in the All-America Football Conference, he went to 10 consecutive championship games — winning seven of them. With him as their quarterback, the Cleveland Browns were 114-20-4, including a 9-3 record in the playoffs. “Quarterbacks are judged by winning,” said Gosselin. “No one did it better.” Most of Graham’s records have been surpassed, but he still holds league marks for yards per pass attempt (8.98) and career winning percentage (.814). He was a three-time NFL MVP, a two-time AAFC MVP, a five-time All-Pro, a member of the 1950s’ all-decade team and a member of the league’s 75th anniversary squad. After winning the NFL championship in 1954, he announced his retirement — only to be talked out of it by Paul Brown. So he played one more season, won another league title and was named NFL MVP. But Graham had more than ability. He had durability. Nicknamed “Automatic Auto” for his consistency and toughness, Graham never missed a game in his career. “He was,” said longtime friend George Steinbrenner, “as great of a quarterback as there was.”

2. TOM BRADY

Tom Brady photo courtesy of the New England Patriots

He’s the only quarterback to go to seven Super Bowls. He’s the only quarterback to win five. He’s the only player to win all five with one team. He’s the only player to be named a Super Bowl MVP four times. In short, Brady is Tom Terrific. He has more playoff wins (25) than any quarterback. He has more division championships (14) than any quarterback. His 208 combined playoff and regular-season wins exceed all quarterbacks. He has the second-highest winning percentage in NFL history (Otto Graham is first). He’s third in career passer rating. He’s a two-time league MVP, a two-time Offensive Player of the Year, a 12-time Pro Bowler, a Comeback Player of the Year and a four-time All-Pro. Four times he led the league in touchdown passes, and twice he led it in yards passing. But his greatest accomplishment occurred in Super Bowl LI when, at the age of 39, he overcame the largest deficit (25 points) in playoff history to author a stunning overtime defeat of Atlanta. In the 15 years that Brady has finished the season as starter for the Patriots, they failed to win their division only once — and that was 2002 when they tied for first but lost the tiebreaker to the Jets. More remarkably, he has led the Patriots to conference championship games the past six years. “Although not as dominating a thrower as Dan Marino or Peyton Manning,” Borges said, “he is as accurate as any quarterback who ever played. As he proved in Super Bowl LI, his teams are NEVER out of a game.”

1. JOHNNY UNITAS

Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Colt

Nicknamed “the Golden Arm,” Unitas put the NFL on the map with an electrifying performance in the 1958 championship game — “the Greatest Game Ever Played” — one that he and the Baltimore Colts won in overtime. He called his own plays. He perfected the two-minute drill. He was an outstanding deep thrower. He was a deft ball handler. He was a charismatic leader. He was tough. And he was a winner, named league MVP four times in his career. He also was a rec0rd setter, holding the mark for most consecutive games (47) with a touchdown pass until it was broken by Drew Brees 52 years later. He held the record for most Pro Bowl appearances (12), too, until Brett Favre broke it in 2009. He set the record for most consecutive games with a passer rating of 120 or better (4), later tied by Kurt Warner. He was the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards. He was the first quarterback to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in a season (he had 32 in 1959). He had, according to Pro Football Reference, 40 game-winning drives … but its list only goes back to 1960, or three years after Unitas started for the Colts, and he did it during 12-and-14-game seasons. And he was chosen to the league’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams. “He was the best quarterback in football from 1957 through the late 1960s,” said Borges, “a decade of dominance at the position that is unrivaled.”

ALSO RECEIVING VOTES — Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, Bart Starr.

 

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14 Comments

  1. Tom K
    July 24, 2017
    Reply

    Interesting list. I would of had Baugh and Marino higher. As for guys like Brady, Graham, Montana, and Starr: it’s tough for me to put them in lists along these other QBs because you don’t know if and how much there coaches and/or systems affected them. I’ve never had a set list for QBs becausr it is so hard to rank them among so many eras (as it is for all positions but I feel like it is especially for QBs). I feel like it always comes down to the older guys getting disrespected.

    Side not: Unitas may have perfected the 2 mimute drill but Buddy Parker and Bobby Layne practied it before Unitas was in the league.

    • July 25, 2017
      Reply

      You’re right about the older guys, but not among people who have seen them. Or know about them. I never saw Graham play, but his record speaks for itself. The position of QB is about winning and nobody won like he did. Unitas I did see play. To me, he was … and always will be … the platinum bar against which others are measured. Brady is incomparable among today’s QBs. Rick Gosselin said Elway did more with less than almost any QB, and he’s right … except I would put Brady in that department, too. He doesn’t have HOF receivers or running backs or offensive linemen. Yet he keeps lapping the field. We’re in an age where dynasties aren’t supposed to exist, except New England is the exception … and Brady is the reason. Thanks for the note.

      • Tom K
        July 26, 2017
        Reply

        I disagree that Brady has done the most with less. Sure he doesn’t have any HOF WRs (except for Moss and Gronk if you want to count TE) but he always have guys that consistently fit their offense perfectly. From Welker to Brown to Edelman. They also consistently have backs that are great in open space and great in the pass game like Faulk and Lewis for example. As for Offensive Linemen, for the majority of his career Brady has always had a great Offensive Line. He may not of had 1 legendary guy like Unitas had Parker or Starr had Gregg or Marino had Stephenson, etc but all-around most guys he had were all solid.

        • July 26, 2017
          Reply

          Name one other HOFer Brady played with. Seau? Made his career with the Chargers. Law? Not yet? Moss? Not yet and played only three-and-a-half seasons there. Vinatieri? Not yet, either. And he’s been with the Colts longer than the Pats. As Ron would say, with rare exception, Brady played with a bunch of door knobs for WRs, yet always won and took his team deep into playoffs. There is no overstating the greatness of Brady. He elevates the play of everyone else around and makes them better. Quality of a great player.

          • Tom K
            July 31, 2017

            Belichick doesn’t keep many guys around long enough to be a HOFer. Also considering that many of Brady’s teammates are still playing or very recently retired makes it hard for some of them to be in. Door knob WRs elsewhere. Not with Belichick though. Belichick has a history of making players look better than they really are. Whose to say Brady isn’t one of them either. Nobody knows and no one ever will. I won’t take my chances with a guy with that big of an uncertainty.

          • August 1, 2017

            Belichick: Losing record without Brady. With Brady: 183-52 in the regular season. Seven Super Bowl appearances, five Lombardi trophies in the playoffs. Case closed.

          • Tom K
            August 5, 2017

            He had a Browns team that was near Super Bowl favorites before Art Modell ruined that. Look at guys like Cassell and Garrapolo who have stepped in when Brady was injured. Maybe it’s a coincidence that they’ve played very good and then in Cassell’s case not so well afterwards or maybe it means something. Belichick has a history of making players appear much better than they really are. Whose to say Brady isn’t one of them? For all we know Brady could be a top 15 QB that Belichick is making look like a Top 3 QB. We just don’t know. If you want to give him the benefit of the doubt I can understand that. But if I’m drafting and all time team and I have 1st pick and say I want a QB, Brady (along with others in his situation) won’t be on my mind because they are too risky.

  2. July 24, 2017
    Reply

    Staubach underrated? That’s laughable. He retired as the GOAT, in my opinion, and ESPN ranked him as the best QB of the 1970s. He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of the greatest QBs of all time, along side Brady, Peyton and Montana. That’s the way I see it!

    • July 25, 2017
      Reply

      He is underrated. How many people today mention him when talking about the best QBs? Seems to have been forgotten. But his accomplishments won’t be. He and Starr seldom get the attention they deserve.

      • Rasputin
        July 31, 2017
        Reply

        Speaking of which, were you going to fix the career passer rating thing, Clark? Staubach retired ranked #1 (not “second”) in “NFL” passer rating, ahead of Otto Graham.

        • August 1, 2017
          Reply

          Done. Thanks for the help. You’re hired for the copy desk.

          • Rasputin
            August 2, 2017

            Ha Ha you’re welcome.

  3. Sam Goldenberg
    July 24, 2017
    Reply

    I agree with you Clark, I think Unitas and Brady are 1-2. Unitas was light years ahead of his time, he was putting up modern day numbers and perfected modern day concepts (like the 2 minute drill) when the NFL was a running oriented game. He had a great arm and great football mind. What can you say about Brady? He is just amazing, has everything you want in a QB. He has won with so many different WRs, TEs, and RBs over the years. Brady is the one constant. If he wins one more Super Bowl, I would have to move him to #1. I was happy to see Aaron Rodgers on this list. In my opinion, Rodgers is a better QB than Farve. He has a better arm, and is more mobile.

  4. Rasputin
    July 25, 2017
    Reply

    Roger Staubach retired with the #1 career passer rating in NFL history. Pro Football Reference misleadingly lumps Graham’s AAFC stats in with his NFL stats, inflating them (it’d be like counting USFL stats). The Pro Football Hall of Fame site and other sources correctly have Staubach #1 at retirement.

    NFL Career Passer Rating

    Staubach – 83.4
    Graham – 78.2

    Another reasonable, defensible list. I’ll give a shout out here to Troy Aikman whom in my opinion is the most accurate thrower in NFL history (Pat Summerall agreed, and by then he had probably seen more football with an expert’s eye than anyone else walking the planet). I would take Aikman in his prime on the biggest stage against Brett Favre, Elway, or some of these other guys in a second, though I could understand the argument for them if longevity is weighed heavily enough.

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