It is the most interesting, constantly changing, and ever-heatedly discussed topic in football. Who are the elite quarterbacks and where do they rank across history?
It’s a debate that will rage on throughout a season, into the playoffs, and then again through the spring and summer. The most important position in the game, and the most visible, is the quarterback. So much goes into how we simply decide whether one is good or not, and we allow factors such as supporting cast, coaches, and even demeanor inform our decisions and how we value them.
Even more varied is how people define greatness and being elite. Obviously the first criterion has to be winning, because that after all is why you play the game. However, Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer won Super Bowls, but we don’t necessarily think of them as among the best ever, or even elite for that matter. For those kinds of QB, we throw around the term game-manager, which has always been, and will continue to be, sort of back-handed compliment.
Then there has to be more than just winning. It has to do with consistency too. The level of competition around a player, the era, the changing rules in the league, and records, however sometimes trivial, all must factor in as well. We will always wonder how Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would have fared if they traded receiving corps; Brady has historically had a less than impressive cast around him.
It’s also become harder to rate quarterbacks across the decades because the game has changed so much and continues to move far more towards a passing-first league. Throwing for 4,000 yards isn’t really singularly impressive today. Josh Freeman and Matt Schaub hit that mark in 2012, but have little to no presence in the league just a couple years later. Then again, Peyton Manning has done it 14 times since 1999, including twice when he was only one of two quarterbacks to accomplish that feat in a season.
So where does that leave us? Trying to comb through the stats, the wins, and the intangibles to figure how who is the best of the best. Here’s what we have.
25 Ben Roethlisberger
At times polarizing and other an afterthought, it’s hard to deny the stats and his ability to win. Ben Roethlisberger belongs on this list and his has plenty of time to move up. Two Super wins, three Pro Bowl seasons, 106 wins, 2511 passing touchdowns, and nearly 40,000 passing yards, and he’s only 32. One thing that sets Big Ben apart was that he was great right away, earning the Rookie of the Year award. Since then he has proven tough, durable, and athletic, while a future with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell looks promising.
24 Drew Brees
There is still much more to be written for this great QB, but Brees has proven himself a perennially great QB who, similar to some of his contemporaries, piles up impressive statistics and regular seasons accolades. Still, Brees has a Super Bowl (and Super Bowl MVP) to his credit, and is still moving up the list for most TD passes, where he currently sits fourth with 396 (he’s also fourth with 56,033 passing yards). What’s more, Brees has regularly played with a Saints team that doesn’t necessarily boast the best running game or the best defense, forcing him to take control of the game and be a leader. 25 fourth quarter comeback wins doesn’t hurt the case either.
23 Eli Manning
He will always be in his brother’s shadow, but the fact remains that Eli Manning has two wins in two Super Bowl appearances, and will forever belong in the highlights reels. Part of being great means making important plays when it counts, being unfazed, and doing all those things that can’t be taught or coached. He has certainly been shaky at times, with a penchant for picks, but there is an argument to be made that even that stat is distorted, as they aren’t all on him. Manning is 15th on the all-time list for most passing yards, with a chance to move in to the top ten, if not higher, before his career is done. With Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants will have a shot at the playoffs next year and Manning can continue to confound.
22 Steve Young
Following one of the greatest quarterbacks is no easy task, but Young was the heir to Montana – a Montana that had yet to retire – and made the 49ers his own. Traded from the Bucs, and backing up a future Hall-of-Famer, Young got his chance with an injury to Montana, but then lost out to Steve Bono with an injury of his own. Young got one more chance to prove himself (another injury), and didn’t waste it this time. Young won a Super Bowl in 1994, finished a career with 232 TDs, including a league-leading 36 in 1998. Injuries, including concussions, would riddle his career, but he maintains a 96.8 passer rating and the third most rushing yards by a QB.
21 Jim Kelly
Kelly only played 11 seasons in the league, all with the Bills, but he was consistently great, leading to Buffalo to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls, six divisional titles, and eight post-season appearances. Of course he never won a ring, but the Hall-of Famer finished his career with 237 TDs, over 35,000 yards passing, and just about every Buffalo Bills record. Also, he has yet to be replaced as a franchise QB in Western New York. Kelly was also known for leading the ‘no-huddle’ offense, which of course is used with great frequency today, and was part of one of the greatest offenses joined by Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas.
20 Sonny Jurgensen
Another one of the great early quarterbacks, Jurgensen was a five-time Pro Bowler and an NFL Championship winner in 1960 with the Philadelphia Eagles. When he was traded to Washington, however, a Super Bowl remained elusive despite record-setting seasons. While Jurgenson enjoyed a lengthy-career as a wild, risk-taking passer, he was embroiled in QB controversy with Billy Kilmer due to injuries and opposing styles of play. Jurgensen would still set records despite splitting time later his career. He threw a lot of picks (189), but found the endzone 255 times through the air and another 15 on the ground.
19 Randall Cunningham
Across 16 seasons in the NFL, Cunningham proved to be one of the first and best duel-threats as a quarterback. He was both a Pro Bowler (something tangible), as well as a team leader and playmaker (less tangible). His numbers weren’t consistently great every year, but he finished his career with 207 passing TDs, nearly 30,000 yards passing, with another 35 TDs and 4,900 yards gained on the ground. Cunningham never won a Super Bowl and was only 3-6 in the postseason, but rallied the Vikings against the Giants for a most memorable Wild Card win, and famously bested Brett Favre and the Packers on Monday Night Football with four TDs and 442 yards passing. Cunningham was also the first black quarterback to lead the league in passer rating.
18 Y.A. Tittle
Across the late 40s, 50s, and early 60s, Tittle amassed a staggering 242 passing TDs, two MVP awards, and an NFL Championship. He wasn’t always the starting QB for his teams, however. Tittle also holds a most famous record, passing for seven TDs in one game. The mark of course is shared with six others, but Tittle did it without throwing an interception, just like Peyton Manning and Nick Foles. Tittle is also known for playing through extreme pain, including enduring a concussion and cracked sternum bank, a moment solidified in one of the most famous pictures in football history.
17 Dan Fouts
Fouts was ahead of his time: across the seasons he threw for 4,000 yards, it was the second, third, and fourth time it happened in the NFL. The 1982 MVP and six-time Pro Bowler threw for over 43,000 yards in his career to go with 254 TDs, and was known for his big arm, and staying in the pocket to take big hits. A less-than-adequate defense though often takes the blame for Fouts and the Chargers never making the Super Bowl despite venturing to the post season four straight years and finishing with a 3-4 postseason record.
16 Warren Moon
The nine-time Pro Bowler, best known for playing on the Houston Oilers following his success in the CFL, was a consummate leader and elite talent. He never quite had the winning touch like others on this list, but he lacked elite help and had injury issues. He led the league in passing yards twice, was the Offensive Player of the Year in 1990, and upon retirement, was top-five in yards passing, TDs, attempts, and completion. On top of this, Moon was the first undrafted quarterback to be selected to the Hall of the Fame (why he was undrafted is absurd) and the first African American quarterback to be honored by the Hall.
15 Aaron Rodgers
What’s most startling is that Aaron Rodgers, already this high on the list, is only 31 years old, and looks like he'll be competing for Super Bowls for at least the next five years. He already has one under his belt. Sitting on the bench behind another quarterback on this list for the first few years of his career, Rodgers assumed his duties with poise and success. The four-time Pro Bowler and 2011/2014 MVP has only seven full seasons under his belt, and already a slew of single-game and single-season Packer records.
14 Kurt Warner
With nine playoff wins including one Super Bowl, Warner was the quarterback of the Greatest Show on Turf, one of the fastest, most electrifying offenses in the late 90s and early 2000s. The two-time MVP was a fearless player in the playoffs: in his 13 games, he has the highest completion percentage, highest yard-per-attempt ratio, and second highest passer rating. In his three Super Bowl appearances (two with St. Louis and one with Arizona late in his career), Warner threw for the third most yards ever recorded in the game. Sadly for him, his two losses in the big game were by a combined seven points, both of which were lost in the last minute (and one on the final play) of the game.
13 Terry Bradshaw
Across six seasons in the seventies, Bradshaw won four Super Bowls leading the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was the first QB to win the championships three times, let alone four (only two other QB have four). The number one overall pick and Hall-of-Fame quarterback set Super Bowl records at the time for passing yards and touchdowns. Of course in his era, passing wasn’t a different animal: in his career he threw for over 300 yards in a game just seven times. However, he did it when it counted, including twice in the Super Bowl. Conversely, he was propelled by one of the most dominate defenses in the history of the game, as well as a power running attack led by Franco Harris (and then there was the immaculate reception as well). He retired due to injury, but not before throwing a touchdown on his final pass. Now that’s dramatic.
12 Otto Graham
A perennially successful quarterback in the 1950s for the Browns, Graham led his team to a staggering 10 straight title games and won the NFL Championship three times. Again, however, this was a much different game, so it’s more difficult to qualify these stats, especially considering what were generally weaker defenses. He was also know for triumphing with the Wing T offense, something rather pedestrian by today’s standards. Still, he was a winner and the best of those who were playing, leading the AFC and NFL in passing five different seasons.
11 Troy Aikman
A three-time Super Bowl champion, Aikman was an impressive 11-4 in the postseason, while earning six Pro Bowl invitations, a Walter Payton Man of the Year award, and leading America’s team in career wins, among others records. He was 3-0 in Super Bowls, and threw for four TDs in one of the most lopsided championships ever. Under the pressure of playing for the most popular team in the league, Aikman rose to the occasion as the first overall draft pick, throwing for over 32,000 yards and 165 TDs in his 12 seasons. Unfortunately, Aikman’s career ended early due to injuries, including back pain and hits to the head. His tenth concussion in 2001 would be his last, playing his final game of his career.
10 Bart Starr
Starr certainly played during a different era, but he was elite then and still among the greats who have come along since. Winner and MVP of the first two Super Bowls, Starr has the best career playoff passer rating and an impressive 9-1 record in the postseason. Starr had 152 TDs through the air and another 15 on the ground, and was the model of consistency across three decades from 1956-1971. A four-time Pro Bowler and five-time NFL Champion, Starr is one of the most clutch quarterbacks ever, who played his best when it mattered on third and fourth down, in the playoffs, and of course when it was freezing cold in Green Bay.
9 Fran Tarkenton
Tarkenton never won a Super Bowl, losing three times to Miami, Oakland, and Pittsburgh, but across 18 seasons, the Hall-of-Famer amassed 342 TDs passing (sixth all time) and over 47,000 yards in the air. What is often forgotten is how great Tarkenton was with his feet. He ran for at least 300 yards in seven seasons, and ran for a TD in 15 different years. His over 3,600 yards on the ground are fourth all time among QBs. When he retired, he was tops ever in yardage, completion, and touchdowns, and held the QB rushing mark until the appearance of Randall Cunningham, Steve Young, and Michael Vick.
8 Peyton Manning
Manning will likely be known as the greatest regular season quarterback ever, as he’s a five-time MVP winner, and has the record for single-season passing TDs. But the regular season isn’t the only thing this list is about. A less than impressive record during the postseason gives us pause. He has one Super Bowl, and that’s staggering considering how accomplished he and his teams have been during the regular season. Still, Manning’s records speak for themselves, and he will forever be known as a consummate professional, great leader, and arguably one of the smartest tacticians to have ever played.
7 Roger Staubach
One of the best quarterbacks of the 70s, Staubach’s 11-year career with the Cowboys saw five Super Bowl appearances, two wins, and an MVP in one of those victories. Staubach’s stats, including 153 TDs, 109 picks, and 22,700 passing yards aren’t the most impressive, but he did the most important thing: win. Only one season did the Cowboys not make the playoffs (finishing 8-6), and only twice did Dallas fail to win a postseason game. It’s bittersweet to wonder about what else Staubach would have done were it not for spending four years of his prime at the Naval Academy; he was first a starting QB at the age of 29 and he was still one of the best ever.
6 Brett Favre
The iconic Brett Favre will forever be known as one of the great gunslingers, never afraid to throw a pick if there’s a chance for a big play (he does have the all-time INT record). The three-time MVP has the most career wins (186), the second-most TD passes (508) and a Super Bowl ring to his credit. That TD record is impressive too, and even though Peyton Manning broke it earlier this year, it seems pretty clear that Manning is playing in a different era while getting those scores. Favre also holds one of the most impressive streaks in all sports, starting 321 consecutive games, showing his dedication, durability, and talent (just think of the teams in the league now who want a QB to be able to start just one entire season).
5 Dan Marino
Part of the great draft of 1983, Marino, like his contemporary and rival (and friend) Jim Kelly, never won a Super Bowl. In his only appearance in the big game, he lost to Joe Montana. However, Marino was the first to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season, a feat that is still incredibly difficult to achieve today, and he was the first to throw for 40 TDs in a year (his 1984 season, with 5,084 and 48 TDs might be the best year ever). Marino was particular good in primetime too, with the 20 wins, 74 TD passes, and nearly 10,000 yards on Monday Night Football, and remains the paragon of the strong-armed, precise, and poised pocket passer.
4 Johnny Unitas
The Golden Arm was one of the first great quarterbacks of the NFL, and one of the greatest players in the history of the game. His off-the-field story is just as impressive as on his on the field play, where Unitas led the Colts from 1956 to 1972, setting a long-time record for most consecutive games with a TD pass, earning three MVPs, 10 Pro Bowl Selections, three NFL Championships, and one Super Bowl. He is still ninth all time in TDs passed with 290. He became known as Mr. Clutch for his performance in crunch time, especially working a two-minute offense while calling his own plays. That was all after playing semi-pro football for a reported $6 per game, having once been cut by the Steelers, and working in construction to support his family. Just imagine if he played today with the money and support players get now.
3 John Elway
This is how to go out on top, by leaving the audience wanting more. The Hall of Famer and nine-time Pro Bowler capped his illustrious career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins. Those of course came after a point early in his career where the Broncos were blown out in the Super Bowl three times in four years. While his statistics weren’t particularly great in the first championship (12 completions, no TDs), Elway would be the MVP the following year in Miami. His 148 wins as well as 14 playoff wins are among the tops in history, while his 300 TDs are seventh all time and 35 fourth-quarter comebacks are third. Elway was a threat to stay in the pocket and chuck it deep, but also scramble and take the hit.
2 Tom Brady
Look at Brady now: after a thrilling finish to Super Bowl 49, he has four wins in six appearances (with one yet to be determined), and it will long be remembered what foiled two more Championships (crazy plays by Eli Manning). A man with 35 fourth quarter comebacks, nearly 400 touchdowns to his name, and year-in and year-out consistency with a Patriots team that never really had the greatest receiving core or running game, Brady belongs near the top of any list. However, there are still the last few chapters of the story to be written and they could go in any direction. He has a chance at another Super Bowl or two, which would move him up, but a recent scandal will offer more insight into someone on the Patriots, potentially Brady, who cheated. Regardless, Brady will remain one of the greater competitors and quarterback to have ever played.
1 Joe Montana
Four Super Bowl Appearances, four victories, three MVPs, 11 touchdowns passing. It’s hard to argue with that in the big game. He also beat out John Elway and Dan Marino in two of those games. Montana mastered the West Coast offense, earning 40,551 career passing yards. He was one half of the indelible reception that was so amazing it simply became known as ‘The Catch.' Across 15 seasons he was the picture of consistency, constantly rising to any occasion and claiming victory as his own, and being the best at the most important time. Montana, without question, was the most calm and quarterback to ever play, unflappable when the big play needed to be made and victory was within reach.