NFL quarterbacking has hit a renaissance since the turn of the millennium. Spurred on by defensive contact and other safety rules that had the side-effect of bolstering offensive production, quarterbacks have re-written the record books in the past 15 seasons, putting up performances that rival any other era in NFL history. It’s been a golden age for players throwing the ball.
The 20 seasons with the most completions in NFL history? All have happened since the turn of the century. The top five yardage seasons by a quarterback ever have all taken place since 2011. The top three passing touchdown seasons have all occurred this millennium, as well, as have the top six seasons in terms of passer rating. Quarterbacks are throwing more, they’re more accurate and they’re throwing for more yards than ever before.
It isn’t just a few future Hall of Famers at the top of the class that have made the recent quarterback crop special, though. There’s been more solid second-tier quarterbacks in recent memory than in past years. While expanding to 32 teams has somewhat diluted the NFL’s talent pool compared to days gone by, there are strong arguments to be made that the tenth-best quarterback of today is significantly better than the tenth-best quarterback of two decades ago. The sheer number of very good quarterbacks is perhaps higher today than ever before in NFL history.
Here are the 15 quarterbacks who have performed the best over the past 15 years. We’re just looking at performance from 2001 on, so accolades from the ‘90s don’t count, even if the player in question continued to play into the 2000s—sorry, Vinny Testaverde. It was a tough battle, with multiple-time Pro Bowlers like Matt Schaub, Russell Wilson, and Jeff Garcia ultimately ending up on the outside looking in. These 15, though, are the cream of the cream.
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15 Steve McNair (1995-2007)
We’re not counting Steve McNair’s early seasons in Houston here; he entered the NFL in 1995, so only just over half of his NFL career counts for this list. That half, however, includes a co-MVP he won in 2003, as he became the youngest player in NFL history with 20,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards. In many ways, he was a prototype for the current wave of dual-threat quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. Air McNair is the Titans’ all-time leading passer, made the Pro Bowl three times in the past 15 years and consistently showed toughness by playing through pain and injuries. You can’t leave an MVP with solid years of service off your list.
14 Kurt Warner (1998-2009)
While the 15-year cutoff doesn’t include the magical 1999 Super Bowl XXXIV winning season for the stockboy-come-NFL superstar, it does include his last year at the helm of The Greatest Show on Turf, winning an MVP and leading the league in passing yards with the St. Louis Rams in 2001, one of the greatest quarterback seasons of all time. After that, injuries and benchings derailed him for about five years, until he emerged once again as the quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals, making the Pro Bowl once again at age 37 and leading them to their only Super Bowl (XLIII) appearance in 2009. Warner might be the best quarterback in both St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals history. He’s given hope and brought success to two franchises which have both lacked in recent years.
13 Trent Green (1997-2008)
The Kansas City Chiefs sometimes get forgotten when we’re talking about the great teams of the 2000s, but they produced some of the greatest offensive machines the league has ever seen, leading the league in points or yards in four consecutive seasons. At the helm was two-time Pro Bowler Trent Green. Green is one of only 11 quarterbacks in NFL history to have three consecutive seasons with over 4,000 passing yards and he was always right at the top of the various passing leaderboards during his stint in Kansas City. Never the best quarterback in the league in his tenure, Green was nevertheless always right there among the top in terms of sheer production.
12 Donovan McNabb (1999-2011)
Donovan McNabb made the Pro Bowl five times in the past fifteen seasons, helming what always seemed to be the second best team in the NFL in the Philadelphia Eagles. He helped lead the team to four consecutive division titles, five NFC Championship Games and Super Bowl XXXIX. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in every significant passing statistic and he could scamper as a runner as well. He holds the NFL record for most consecutive passes completed with 24 and he was the first player in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions in a season, which he did in his Super Bowl 2004 season. McNabb seems to be historically underrated because he never really had Philadelphia’s fans warm to him, but he’s arguably the best passer the franchise has ever had.
11 Brett Favre (1991-2010)
Forget the three MVPs, the first-team All-Pro nods, and the Super Bowl ring; that all happened in the ‘90s and thus doesn’t count for this list. The Brett Favre we’re talking about is the gray-haired gunslinger who led the league in interceptions twice and wasn’t afraid to put the ball into the tightest of spots—the ultimate boom-or-bust passer. Favre might not have been quite the same player in his 30s and 40s as he was in his 20s, but he still sits in the top 10 for the decade in yards and touchdowns. Six of his 11 Pro Bowl appearances came in this millennium as well. Favre would have an outside shot at the Hall of Fame if he had skipped his 20s entirely and just been the player we remember who was constantly dodging retirement rumors. It’ll be a few years yet before this gray-haired iron man falls off of a list like this; he’s one of the greatest to ever play the game.
10 Matt Ryan (2008-Present)
The first active player on our list is also the youngest, every other player was drafted no later than 2005 and thus has had more than a decade to rack up accolades. Matt Ryan is the best quarterback of all the players drafted around him, topping names like Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford. Anyone younger than that hasn’t put up the resume to join this list quite yet. Ryan’s already made the Pro Bowl three times in his short career and his 260 yards per game are the fifth-most in the past 15 years. The 2008 Rookie of the Year is already Atlanta’s all-time leader in every relevant passing stat and while his teams haven’t always had the best records, Ryan has been consistently performing at a very good level regardless of the chaos around him.
9 Carson Palmer (2004-Present)
Through Caron Palmer’s first few seasons in Cincinnati, it looked like he was destined to join the very top of lists like these. He led the league in touchdowns in only his second season in the NFL and was named to back-to-back Pro Bowls. Then, he suffered a series of injuries and was involved in conflict with ownership, leading to a premature retirement in 2010. After a few years scuffling in Oakland, Palmer has revitalized his career in Arizona, where he was arguably the best quarterback in the league last year at age 36, nearly leading the league in touchdowns and setting all sorts of Cardinals single-season records. Palmer’s in the top 10 in yards, touchdowns, and wins over the past 15 years, and looks to have solidified himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the game today.
8 Eli Manning (2004-Present)
Eil Manning is rated this high because of his two Super Bowl MVP-winning seasons; without those performances on the biggest stage of them all, he drops out of the top 10. Some would argue that a couple games shouldn’t make as big of an impact on Manning’s rating, but when you beat the Patriots twice, the best team in the league in recent years, including derailing their attempt at a perfect season, you get tons of credit. Manning’s not just a performer in the clutch, though; he joins his brother, Tom Brady, and John Elway as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with 44,000 career yards, 290 touchdowns, four Pro Bowls, and two Super Bowls. He also holds every significant New York Giants regular season record; impressive for a franchise that has been around since the 1920s.
7 Tony Romo (2004-Present)
I’ve now enraged all New York Giants fans by putting their rival's quarterback a spot above their own—how is that possible, when I just praised Manning for his performance in the clutch? Tony Romo’s struggles in the fourth-quarter or playoffs has been far blown out of proportion; Cowboys fans saw this past season what their team would be like without Romo putting together his usual great performances. Romo’s a four-time Pro Bowler who has broken most of Troy Aikman’s team records. His 2014 season saw him lead the league in completion percentage and quarterback rating as he led the Cowboys on a deep playoff run. His 97.1 quarterback rating is the fourth-highest in the past 15 years. He also has put together 30 game-winning drives in his career, seventh-most in the league in the 21st century. He’s just fine in the clutch, thank you very much.
6 Philip Rivers (2004-Present)
While the Giants took home the Super Bowls, you can argue that the Chargers got the better of the draft-day trade that swapped Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. The five-time Pro Bowler hasn’t looked back since taking over the starting job from Drew Brees in the 2006 season, putting together a 14-2 season in his first year and continuing from there. Rivers has a career 65% completion percentage, as opposed to Manning’s 59%, and his quarterback rating of 95.5 places him in the top 10 of all time. In recent years, Rivers has lacked the defense to propel him into the playoffs, but he’s continued to put up high-quality numbers, even as the team hit rock bottom last season.
5 Ben Roethlisberger (2004-Present)
That 2004 draft class was a bit of a smash, wasn’t it? Ben Roethlisberger is the proud owner of two Super Bowl rings, with another appearance in the big game in 2010 to along with it. His defense and running game really carried him to the Super Bowl XL win, but by the time of Super Bowl XLIII, Roethlisberger had grown into the tough, gutty quarterback he is today. He’s kicked his game up to another level since 2011 or so, seeing his statistics jump up a rung or two. He’s led the league in yards per game in each of the last two seasons and shows no signs of slowing down in the near future.
4 Aaron Rodgers (2005-Present)
Though Aaron Rodgers was drafted in 2005, he didn’t manage to get into the starting lineup until 2008, thanks to Brett Favre’s presence on the Packers’ roster. Since then, he’s proven he was worth the wait, winning a couple MVP awards and bringing a Super Bowl (XLV) victory back to Green Bay—all in as many seasons in the lineup as Matt Ryan down back at number 10. He is currently the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating and has the best ever touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s been named to the Pro Bowl five times and both of his MVP seasons are up there as two of the greatest seasons ever produced by a quarterback. Not bad for a guy who slipped from first to 24th in the 2005 draft. With everyone else above him on this list either retired or beginning to run out of steam, it looks like Rodgers will top a list like this some day…but not quite yet.
3 Drew Brees (2001-Present)
Drew Brees had the unfortunate luck to play in an era with two quarterbacks who have significant claims to being the best of all time. In almost any other era, Brees would rightly be regarded as either the best quarterback in the league or right there in the argument; instead, he’s played a pretty clear third fiddle. That hasn’t stopped him being the only quarterback to throw for more than 60,000 yards in the past 15 seasons. It didn’t stop him setting the NFL record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass. It didn’t stop his tremendous 2011 season, when he set the then-record for most passing yards in a season. It didn’t prevent him from bringing the long-suffering New Orleans Saints franchise their first Super Bowl (XLIV) title or helping the city recover emotionally from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Brees may have benefited from the more liberal passing rules in the modern era, but no one has taken advantage of them more than Brees.
2 Tom Brady (2000-Present)
It was always going to come down to these two men; the question was just which order they would appear in? Tom Brady has placed himself right at the top of the discussion of greatest quarterbacks of all time. One of the two quarterbacks on the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team, Brady has tied the record for most Super Bowl wins (XXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX) and MVPs, and no quarterback has appeared in more Super Bowls than Brady’s six. There has arguably never been a better clutch performer in the playoffs than Brady and only Brady and Joe Montana have won multiple MVPs in both the regular season and Super Bowl. Brady’s case really was solidified starting in 2007, when his regular season numbers started setting records of their own. No one would be blamed for having Brady as their top quarterback ever, much less of the last 15 years.
1 Peyton Manning (1998-2015)
In the end, though, we had to go with Peyton Manning. Five times, he has been named the NFL’s MVP; no one else has won it more than three times. He is the all-time leader in every significant passing statistic, from yards to touchdowns to wins. He has the career records and regular season records in both yards and touchdowns, as well as the single-game record for TDs. He has been the better regular season quarterback than Brady and his 14 playoff wins are tied for third-most all-time—his reputation for poor playoff performances is somewhat overblown. What put it over the top, however, is this: Brady has had the benefit of working with Bill Belichick for his entire career. Manning has reached the Super Bowl with four different head coaches, a record that will likely never be broken. Manning’s unparalleled regular-season dominance and his ability to succeed under a variety of different coaches bumps him to the top slot on my list.
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