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Ranking the 25 Greatest Quarterbacks in NFL History
Who is the greatest player of all-time? Who’s the best quarterback ever? Running back? These are questions that seem simple enough, but they’ve been debated, sometimes hotly, for a long time, and there doesn’t figure to be a definitive answer anytime soon, since subjectivity rules such arguments. That doesn’t mean there’s no value in discussing it, however.
This will be the first in a series of articles looking at the greatest players of all-time by position. A quick online search will reveal a multitude of articles looking at the best quarterbacks to ever play, but not so many when it comes to offensive tackle, or defensive end. These articles will go through every position on the field, ranking the top 25 players at each spot. This isn’t mean to be an end to the debate. It’s meant to be a starting point for more debates, because that’s one of the beauties of sports. The games have clocks that run out, and seasons are finite, but a good debate is endless.
I begin, of course, at quarterback. The criteria for this and subsequent lists are my own. I took a number of things into account, including stats, honors, reputation, my own eyes where applicable, longevity, and other smaller things. In the interest of simplifying things for myself, I’ve only included players whose careers, at least in part, occurred in the Super Bowl era. Players before that were hard to rank fairly, and I needed a starting point. Let the debate begin.
25. Terry Bradshaw: It may seem strange to begin this list with a Hall of Fame quarterback who won four Super Bowls, but there it is. His 51.9% completion rate is low, even for the era he played in, and his interception rate of 5.4% ranks 154th all-time. He did earn his way onto this list, however. He was a three-time Pro Bowler, and a member of the 1970’s all-decade team. His ring collection is also pretty nice.
24. Eli Manning: The “other” Manning has had a pretty good career playing in Peyton’s shadow. The four-time Pro Bowler is known by many for his turnovers, but his 3.2% rate is better than that of guys like Warren Moon, Phil Simms, and Brett Favre. He’s also saved his best for the biggest stage. He led the Giants to two championships, completing some of the biggest passes in Super Bowl history in the process.
23. Tony Romo: The lack of a ring keeps him from being higher on this list, but the former undrafted free agent has carved out quite a career. He’s been the brunt of a lot of interception jokes, but he’s actually 27th all-time in interception rate. He’s also top 20 in career touchdown percentage and tied for fourth in NFL history in completion percentage. If he had a championship or two, he’d be much higher on this list.
22. Fran Tarkenton: He was a player ahead of his time, using his legs, in addition to his arm, as a weapon. He ran for 3,674 yards to go with the 47,003 passing yards, which is eighth all-time, he accumulated. He’s also sixth ever in passing touchdowns. He never won a Super Bowl, but he did make it to three of them. He’s been a league MVP, made it to nine Pro Bowls, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986.
21. Dan Fouts: Playing in an offense designed to put up numbers helps, but he made it work. He led the league four times in passing yards, and twice in touchdown passes. His 7.7 yards per attempt is 14th in league history, and he’s also top 20 in career yards per game. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first team All Pro, 1982 NFL MVP, a member of the 1980s all decade team, and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
20. Len Dawson: He was one of the most accurate passers of his time, having led the league an astonishing eight times in completion percentage. He also threw touchdowns at a high rate, and sits fifth all-time in that category. He led the Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory after the 1969 season and was MVP of that game. The Hall of Famer also won three AFL championships before there was a Super Bowl to be played.
19. Bart Starr: A five-time NFL champion, then a two-time Super Bowl winner, he’s one of the biggest winners in football history. His numbers won’t wow, though he led the league in completion percentage four times and is 11th in career yards per attempt, but he consistently got it done. The 1966 MVP was a four-time Pro Bowler, is a member of the 1960s all decade team, and is, of course, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
18. Donovan McNabb: He’s an interesting case, and there’s no denying he put together a great career, but there’s a chance he doesn’t ever make the Hall of Fame. The six-time Pro Bowler did do some incredible things on the field, though. He was a dual-threat, and amassed over 3,400 yards on the ground to go with more than 37,000 through the air. He’s also top 5 all-time in interception rate, and top 30 all-time in yards and passer rating.
17. Kurt Warner: He might have the most interesting career in NFL history. After coming from nowhere to take the NFL by storm, making the Super Bowl in two of three seasons, winning it in 1999 after an NFL MVP season, he quickly faded back into obscurity. Unbelievably, he resurrected his career once again, leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. He won two MVP awards, was Walter Payton Man of the Year, and may wind up a Hall of Famer.
16. Ken Anderson: One of the best players not in the Hall of Fame, he had 16 terrific seasons in the NFL. The four-time Pro Bowler led the league in completion percentage three times, passing yards twice, and passer rating four times. He led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance, and was the 1981 league MVP. One of the better quarterbacks of the dead-ball era, he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.
15. Troy Aikman: While he didn’t play at a high level for as many years as many of the passers on this list, his peak was as good as it gets. He went to six consecutive Pro Bowls and won three Super Bowls in the mid-90s, and was named Man of the Year in 1996. He was one of the most accurate passers in NFL history, standing inside the top 30 in completion percentage. He is, deservedly, a member of the Hall of Fame.
14. Philip Rivers: It’s easy to malign him for the lack of playoff success during his career in San Diego, but history will show he was one of the best ever. The five-time Pro Bowler is currently 14th in career passing yards, 11th in passing touchdowns, eighth in career passer rating, seventh in completion percentage, and 14th in interception percentage. Those are astounding numbers, and he just needs a ring to be talked about as one of the best in history.
13. Jim Kelly: The Hall of Famer and five-time Pro Bowler didn’t get started in the NFL until he was 26 due to a stint in the USFL, but he made the most of his time. His overall numbers aren’t gaudy, partially due to the late start, but he’s still in the top 30 ever in yards and touchdowns passing. An even more impressive feat is the fact that he led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, despite them losing all four.
12. Roger Staubach: The Cowboys have had some great quarterbacks in the team’s history, but none better than Captain Comeback. The six-time Pro Bowler had a ridiculous 85-29 record as a starter, and led the team to two Super Bowl wins. He was voted to the 1970s all decade team, won an MVP award in 1971, and was one of the most accurate passers of the dead-ball era. He is also a Hall of Famer.
11. Warren Moon: The fact that he played for 17 seasons is all the more incredible since he didn’t start in the NFL until he was 28. He spent the first part of his football career in the CFL where he just happened to win five Grey Cups. He’s seventh in career passing yards, and led the league twice in that category. He’s also ninth in touchdowns. He was elected to an amazing nine Pro Bowls during his career.
10. Brett Favre: One of the most beloved figures in NFL history, he is also one of the most accomplished. He made eleven Pro Bowls, was first-team All Pro three times, was MVP three times, was a member of the 1990s all decade team, and won a Super Bowl. He’s the all-time leader in passing yards, though also in interceptions, second is passing touchdowns, and top 25 in passer rating. He’s also a newly enshrined member of the Hall of Fame.
9. Aaron Rodgers: He might be the best quarterback in NFL history in terms of what he can do on the field. His combination of arm talent, intelligence, and savvy is second to none. The five-time Pro Bowler the highest rated passer in league history, and, incredibly, has both the fifth highest percentage of touchdown passes ever, and the lowest percentage of intercepted pass ever. The two-time MVP is also top 10 ever in yards per attempt, yards per game, and completion percentage.
8. Steve Young: It would be fun to know what Young could have done if he hadn’t been a backup for so long, but he accomplished quite a bit anyway. The seven-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer led the league in completion percentage five times, and is in the top 10 all-time. He’s also top 20 in career touchdown and interception percentage. His running ability changed games, and he totaled 4,239 yards on the ground. He won two MVP awards, and was Super Bowl MVP once.
7. Drew Brees: The all-time leader in passing yards per game and completion percentage has done amazing things on the field despite the disadvantage of being “small”. He’s been to the Pro Bowl nine times, was first-team All Pro three times, won a Super Bowl and was MVP of the game, and has led the league in passing yards six times. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer and he’s not even finished yet.
6. Peyton Manning: He’s perhaps the most cerebral player in the history of the league. The all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns is a 14-time Pro Bowler, seven-time first team All Pro, member of the 2000s all decade team, and a five-time league MVP. He’s third all-time in yards per game, fourth in completion percentage, and fifth in passer rating. He’s also a future first ballot Hall of Famer.
5. John Elway: Despite a less-than-stellar 56.9% completion rate, he was one of the most effective quarterbacks ever. He’s sixth in career yards passing and seventh in touchdowns. The two-time Super Bowl champion was also a nine-time Pro Bowler, 1987 league MVP, and 1990s all decade team member. The Hall of Famer was one of the best ever when it came to playing from behind as well, and is credited with the fourth most comebacks in history.
4. Johnny Unitas: The NFL’s original golden boy is also one of its most accomplished passers. He was a four-time league MVP, a ten-time Pro Bowler, and a member of the 1960s all decade team, as well as the league’s 75th anniversary team. The Hall of Famer led the league in passing yards four times and passing touchdowns four times. He’s still top 20 in career passing yards and top 10 in passing touchdowns.
3. Dan Marino: The best quarterback never to win a Super Bowl is third all-time in passing yards, and led the league in that category five times. He’s also fifth all-time in touchdowns and ninth in passing yards per game. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All Pro. The cannon-armed passer was also the 1984 league MVP and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, having been elected on his first year of eligibility.
2. Tom Brady: There’s a case to be made that he should be at the top of this list. He’s a four-time champion, a two-time MVP, 11-time Pro Bowler, and member of the 2000s all decade team. His career record as a starter is a mind-boggling 172-51, and he’s in the top 10 in history in passing yards, touchdowns, passer rating, yards per game, interception percentage, and game-winning drives. He’s a future first ballot Hall of Famer.
1. Joe Montana: The greatest quarterback of all-time doesn’t look the part off the field, but on it, he was lethal. The unflappable “Joe Cool” stood tall in any situation and calmly led the 49ers to four Super Bowl championships and had a 117-47 record as a starter. He went to eight Pro Bowls, was NFL MVP twice, Super Bowl MVP three times, and was a member of the 1980s all decade team and NFL 75th anniversary team.