TAMPA, March 5, 2017 — As soon as Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl title, far too many sportswriters declared him the greatest quarterback in the history of the National Football League. Some pundits even declared him the greatest NFL player ever at any position.
Those with short memories need to be reminded of the many great quarterbacks who preceded Brady. He is one of the very best, and will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his first ballot. However, those living outside of New England are aware that football greatness existed before Brady.
Lists are always controversial, but that is part of the fun. Everybody has an opinion, and these debates will hopefully never be settled. The top 10 NFL quarterbacks of all time will be debated forever.
Sid Luckman, Sammy Baugh, Dan Marino, Bart Starr, Jim Kelly, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers, Ken Stabler, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Warren Moon did not make the list. Bradshaw had the Steel Curtain defense. Montana and Young were system quarterbacks. Montana had no arm strength, and the 49ers did just fine when he left.
Young lost too many big playoff games at home. Stabler played on a team of legends who won it all after he was traded away.
With that, here are the top ten NFL quarterbacks of all time.
1.) Johnny Unitas — He was the very best. He won three NFL championships before the Super Bowl era and a fourth one in the modern era. His 1958 Baltimore Colts victory over the Giants in overtime is known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The Colts won it all again in 1959 and one last time in 1968. While the Colts did lose a shocker in Super Bowl III, an injured Unitas sparked a late rally that fell short after starter Earl Morrall was bottled up all game.
The 1970 Colts did win Super Bowl V. Unitas was the NFL passing leader four times and the NFL touchdown leader for four straight years from 1957 through 1960. In 1959, 1964 and 1967, Unitas was the NFL MVP. He led the Colts for 17 seasons. Peyton Manning has called Unitas the best.
2.) Otto Graham — His Cleveland Browns went to the championship game 10 straight years from 1946 through 1955. Those downgrading Graham will point out that from 1946 through 1949, the Browns played in the All American Football Conference and not the NFL. Those four straight AAFC Championships count because the Browns maintained their level of success when they joined the NFL in 1950.
Six NFL championship games produced three more championships. He had Paul Brown, one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time. He also had running back Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest NFL player of all time. Graham retired after the 1955 season, so there is no telling how many more championships he could have won. In his 10 seasons, he never missed a game. He went to the championship every single year he played.
His Browns won their final two championships by a combined score of 94-24. The Browns have won 0 championships in the 52 years since he retired.
3.) Tom Brady — When you reach seven Super Bowls and win five, you are among the very best. Brady is a polarizing figure with regards to his ranking for several reasons. He had Bill Belichick as his coach for his entire New England tenure. There were the scandals from Spygate to Deflategate and the controversial Tuck Rule game in the snow.
His Patriots won all five Super Bowls by a combined 19 points. The Patriots absolutely should have lost their two most recent Super Bowl victories. The 2014 Seattle Seahawks and 2016 Atlanta Falcons literally gave the games away. Nevertheless, Brady has won with great receivers and average receivers. His Super Bowl record 466 yards passing in this most recent Super Bowl should stand for a long time.
Leading the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history by overcoming a 25-point second half deficit also matters.
4.) Peyton Manning — Until this year, he could have ranked above Brady. He is the only five-time NFL MVP. No other player has won it more than three times. He has won two Super Bowls with two different teams and lost two Super Bowls with those two teams.
He owns all the records for yards passing in a single season, yards passing in a career, and total touchdowns.
Preventing him from ranking higher is his repeated playoff losses, many of which came against Brady’s New England squad. Manning was the greatest regular season quarterback of all time. His second Super Bowl victory came when his defense carried him over the top.
5.) Drew Brees — Brees is the pinball wizard. He has thrown for over 5,000 yards a stunning five times. Brady and Dan Marino topped 5,000 yards once. No other quarterback has ever done it. Brees led the San Diego Chargers to a 12-4 record before being traded away to the New Orleans Saints.
Brees came to a 3-13 team reeling in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and led the Saints to a 10-6 record and trip to the NFC Title Game in his first season in the Bayou. His 2009 Saints won it all. He has had Sean Payton as his coach during his entire tenure in New Orleans. What Brees frequently has not gotten is anything remotely resembling defensive help.
He carried this team to its only Super Bowl title, beating Manning’s Colts.
6.) John Elway — Elway may have the strongest arm the NFL has ever seen. He could roll to his right and throw the ball 70 yards to his left. Without a strong offensive line, Elway’s right arm willed the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowls in the 1980s. Elway would rank higher but the Broncos were blown out in those games by margins of 19, 32 and 45 points.
Nearly a decade later, Elway finally had a running back and offensive line to take the pressure off of him. After winning Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999, Elway retired after 16 seasons in Denver. As the team president, he has taken Denver to two more Super Bowls, winning one. On the field, he led numerous fourth quarter comebacks.
The most memorable came in 1986 when he moved the Broncos 98 yards in the AFC Title Game, forever known as “The Drive.”
7.) Brett Favre — This iron man played 20 seasons. In 16 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he had only one losing season. He played in 321 straight games including playoffs. No other quarterback even comes close to that. He played in five NFC Championship games and two Super Bowls, winning one. He won the NFL MVP three straight seasons from 1995 through 1997.
In 1996, he broke through the NFL hierarchy and toppled San Francisco and Dallas, a changing of the NFL guard. Favre holds the NFL record for most completions and most pass attempts. He also holds the record for most starts. Knocks on Favre are that he also holds the NFL record for most interceptions. His costly interceptions twice in three years in the NFC Title Game cost two different NFL teams a trip to the Super Bowl.
He is the only quarterback to have defeated all 32 NFL teams.
8.) Bobby Layne — He was the epitome of a team leader on and off the field. To quote the late Art Donovan, “When Bobby said play, you played. When Bobby said drink, you drank.” He led the Detroit Lions to NFL championships in 1952 and 1953. In 1954 the Lions reached the championship game for the third straight year but were blown out by Graham’s Browns 56-10. The Lions got revenge in 1957 when they blasted Graham and the Browns 59-14.
Although Layne led the Lions most of that season, a broken leg in the second-to-last regular season game saw the Lions win it all with Tobin Rote at quarterback. When Layne was traded the following year, he put a curse on the Lions that they would not win another championship in his lifetime. In nearly 60 years since, they still have not, winning only one playoff game in 1991.
When Layne retired in 1963, he held the NFL records (all since broken) for passing attempts, completions, touchdowns, yards, and interceptions. Layne was one of the last players to play without a face mask and is credited as having created the two-minute drill.
9.) Roger Staubach — Tom Landry coached Staubach for his entire career, and Staubach led the Dallas Cowboys to four Super Bowl experiences. He was the backup quarterback on the 1970 Cowboys team that lost the “Blunder Bowl” Super Bowl V. He was the first quarterback to frequently play in the shotgun formation, and his deep balls were unmatched.
He is credited with inventing the term “Hail Mary” when his 1975 NFC Title Game deep prayer led the Cowboys to a stunning 17-14 road victory over Minnesota. In 1971 Staubach took over a struggling 4-3 team from Craig Morton and the Cowboys ran the table to their first Super Bowl victory. Staubach would win another Super Bowl in 1977 over his former teammate Craig Morton. Staubach also lost a pair of agonizingly close Super Bowls to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In the 1975 loss to Pittsburgh, a Staubach bomb was intercepted on the final play. Staubach would rank higher but critics say he was a product of Landry’s system. While Staubach’s successor Danny White did not reach the Super Bowl, he did lead the Cowboys to three straight NFC Title Games.
10.) Dan Fouts — Fouts never played in a Super Bowl. The San Diego Chargers in 1980 and 1981 fell in the AFC Title Game. Bad weather played a role as the Chargers fell to the Oakland Raiders in the rain and the Cincinnati Bengals in one of the coldest games ever played. That came one week after the Chargers outlasted the Miami Dolphins 41-38 in overtime in scorching heat.
Before the NFL became a primarily passing league, the Chargers led by Don “Air” Coryell were scorching defenses. Fouts fired at will early and often. He had to keep scoring because the Chargers never had a Super Bowl defense. Fouts and the passing game carried the Super Chargers.
The ultimate compliment came during the 1980 AFC Title Game. Raiders defensive legend Ted “Mad Stork” Hendricks pointed to his own quarterback Jim Plunkett and said of Fouts, “You’ve got to keep scoring. We can’t stop him.” Other quarterbacks won Super Bowls, but Fouts did more with less.