The Greatest NFL Quarterbacks of All Time
Sep 7, 2017
by Chase Gage
Who is the greatest quarterback of all time?
To answer this controversial question, I turned to the most tried and true method: statistics.
Will my list match up with the general “consensus” of greatness? Probably not. Will it match up with my own personal list? I highly doubt it. Women lie. Men lie. But numbers never lie.
To figure out who the true greatest quarterback of all time is, I used several different statistical methods. First, I picked a handful of players who are considered to be some of the greatest. I then looked at six major categories to find out who truly belonged:
- Super Bowl Wins
- Super Bowl MVPs
- Regular Season MVPs
- First Team All-Pro Selections
- Second Team All-Pro Selections
- Pro Bowl Appearances
Based on those statistics, only 15 players remained. Those 15 then went under the microscope a little further. I added up the total number of super bowl wins, MVPs, etc. for the entire field and then compared that to which percentage each player owned. Sound confusing? Let me break it down.
The category of “Super Bowl Wins” was worth the most in my analysis. I rewarded 100 total points to all 15 candidates. The points were divided up by how many Super Bowl wins each player had. They all combined for 32 Super Bowl rings. John Elway, for example, had two of those 32, or 0.06%. Thus, Elway received 0.06% of the 100 total points, which was 6.25.
I did this method with every player in all of the aforementioned categories with different total points possible for each category based on the degree of the accomplishment. This comprised my list of “Greatest of All Time Based on Accomplishments”. But I didn’t stop there.
More goes into what makes a great quarterback than just winning Super Bowls and MVP awards. The true stats of a quarterback are yards and touchdowns, no? I then researched where all 15 candidates ranked all-time in a few statistical categories:
- Passing Yards
- Passing Touchdowns
- Touchdown/Interception Ratio
- Completion Percentage
- Passer Rating
After figuring out their all time ranks, respectively, I ranked them versus each other. For example, if a player was 15th all-time in passing yards, but 11th highest out of the 15 candidates, they were ranked 11th. Easy enough, right?
After analyzing all six categories, I used a system that would weigh them all equally. Similar to how college football teams are ranked, I treated each category as a vote for a certain ranking. Basically, finishing first equals 15 points. Second is 14 and so on. The player with the most total points was ranked first, with first-place finishes being the tie-breaker.
After the list of “The Greatest of All Time Based on Statistics” was decided, I was ready to make a final list.
Simply enough, I averaged the two lists to get a “definitive” top 15, based on all of the previously stated categories. If there was a tie, I referred to the accomplishments list finish as the ultimate tie-breaker, since most would argue Super Bowls are more impressive than completion percentage.
So ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here are your top-15 quarterbacks of all-time. Enjoy.
In no particular order.
- Joe Namath
- Fran Tarkenton
- Otto Graham (only left off because this list was designed for Super Bowl era quarterbacks)
- Jim Kelly
- Eli Manning
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Warren Moon
- Y.A. Tittle
15. Roger Staubach
Staubach may be the manliest man on this list. How many other Hall of Fame NFL quarterbacks won a Heisman Trophy and served a tour of duty in Vietnam for the U.S. Navy?
Had he just stuck to football, he very well could have gone down as one of the greatest to ever play, but some things are bigger than sports. We salute your service to our country, if you’re reading this Mr. Staubach, and respect the fact that our country came first and sports came second.
Staubach led the Cowboys to five Super Bowls during his 11-year career, winning two of them and earning a Super Bowl MVP in the process. He will go down as one of the first ever greats in the Super Bowl era of the NFL, and his impact on the sport is still felt today.
14. Troy Aikman
Aikman was one of the luckiest quarterbacks to ever play the game. How many guys get to play with a guy like Emmitt Smith in the backfield and Michael Irvin out wide?
I won’t knock him for playing with a couple of Hall of Fame players, though. Aikman was great in his own right. He won three Super Bowls in his time with the Cowboys, after all.
Though he may have lined up under his offensive guard once, Aikman will always be remembered as the embodiment of what it meant to be a Cowboy in the 90’s, which was to be a champion (ironic when you compare that to the modern Cowboys, isn’t it?).
13. Bart Starr
Bart Starr was the first ever Super Bowl Champion and MVP. He followed up that feat by also being the second. The Super Bowl was not Starr’s first run at greatness, though, as he had already won five NFL Championships before the Super Bowl even existed.
Starr was truly the first, well, star of the Super Bowl era NFL. With the help of his legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, and his Packers organization, he laid the foundation of the modern NFL. He will forever be a legend in the football mythos.
12. Dan Marino
The best quarterback to never win a Super Bowl? Well, maybe besides Cam Newton (that’s a joke guys. Cam is my favorite current NFL quarterback if you didn’t know).
Marino literally wrote the record book for all things passing-related during his tenure with the Dolphins. Before the emergence of Brett Favre, Marino held basically every all-time record you could think of. Many thought it impossible for anyone to ever touch his records, but I guess they exist just to be broken.
His legacy is much bigger than his lack of a Super Bowl ring, but when it comes to this list, that little detail hurts him tremendously. Is he a top-10 all-time quarterback? Of course he is. The numbers just disagree in this instance.
11. Kurt Warner
The most famous Arean Football quarterback of all-time? Without a doubt. An all-time great NFL quarterback as well? You bet.
Warner has one of the most interesting stories in the history of the NFL. He didn’t join the NFL until he was 27 years old. His career started in the Arena Football League before he eventually signed with the St. Louis Rams. In his first three seasons, he led the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances. After winning two MVP awards, a Super Bowl and a Super Bowl MVP with the Rams, Warner was all but thrown to the curb. He signed with the New York Giants, only to be replaced as the starter by rookie Eli Manning. He then signed with the Arizona Cardinals and had a career resurgence. He led the Cardinals to their first (and only) ever Super Bowl appearance in 2008, where they lost to the Pittsburg Steelers. Talk about a crazy career.
If Warner had remained healthy or gotten a chance to play in the NFL earlier in his career, he may very well have fallen inside the top-10. However, his lack of huge stats hurt him when it comes to this list. I don’t think it hurt him too bad, however, as this placement feels just about right anyway.
10. Terry Bradshaw
Bradshaw literally has some of the worst stats you’ll ever see when looking at an all-time great. He finished either close to last or dead last in almost every statistical category I looked at.
But it’s not always about passing numbers. Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowls and earned two Super Bowl MVP trophies along the way. Whatever ‘it’ is, he had it. He was one of the greatest leaders of his generation in the NFL. He was the primary play caller for the Pittsburg offense and served as the catalyst that kept their team at the top of the NFL year in and year out.
It’s kind of funny how everyone used to say Joe Montana was the best because he was 4-0 in the Super Bowl. Bradshaw was 4-0 in the Super Bowl as well. Kareem has six rings too, Jordan fans.
9. John Elway
It feels like Elway is ranked just a tad too low, but that’s what the stats have to say. The former Denver quarterback, now current Denver GM and Vice President of Football Operations and 1998 National Jerry Seinfeld Lookalike Contest Runner-up, was one of the greatest of his generation and definitely left his mark on the game of football.
Elway lost his first three Super Bowl appearances, a feat that nearly destroyed his legacy. Just as it was almost time to hang it up, the Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII over the Packers. Instead of riding off into the sunset on a game in which he only had 11 completions, no touchdowns and one interception, he decided to give the NFL one more go-around. The Broncos won Super Bowl XXXIII the next season behind Elway’s 336 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing). He was named Super Bowl MVP in his last game.
8. Johnny Unitas
Unitas was a modern quarterback playing in the wrong era. He truly set the standard for what it means to be a legendary quarterback.
He led the Baltimore Colts to victory in Super Bowl V in 1971, but that wasn’t his first taste of being a champion. Before the Super Bowl era, Unitas led the Colts to three NFL Championships, in 1958 and 1959, and then again in 1968* on his way to Super Bowl III.
Unitas will always be remembered as one of the first true legends in the NFL, and if he played in today’s league, he would be much higher on this list with the likes of Brady and Manning.
*(Before the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, there was an NFL and AFL Championship, then each winner would face eachother in the Super Bowl. After the merger, this became the NFC and AFC Championship games)
7. Drew Brees
This feels too low and just right at the same time. Brees is, to me, the most underrated quarterback on this list. He has played in the shadow of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady his entire career. If not for them, he would be easily the best quarterback of the current generation. This man has put up five 5,000 yard seasons, which is more than the rest of the history of the NFL combined. He led the Saints to their only Super Bowl victory in 2010 and has somehow never won the regular season MVP award.
Brees’ big numbers more than made up for his lack of team-related accomplishments on this list. If he can stay healthy, it is possible that he could finish his career as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (currently third), passing touchdowns (currently third) and completion percentage (currently first). All those stats and he’s only number seven? He must have some tough competition.
6. Aaron Rodgers
I know what you’re saying already. This is way too high for Rodgers right now. I agree fully. Though I have already disclosed that I am FAR from being a Rodgers fan, that has nothing to do with my ranking systems. I leave all bias at the front door (laptop screen?) when it comes to sportswriting.
Rodgers was helped out in this system for having an astounding passer rating and touchdown/interception ratio. Pair that with a Super Bowl, Super Bowl MVP and two regular season MVP awards, and you’ve got a great resume that will only get better with time. I don’t think he deserves to be this high yet, though he may reach this level by the time he calls it quits, but then again, who am I to argue with statistics?
5. Steve Young
Talk about riding a coattail. I actually had to go back and alter my algorithm (slightly) because of Steve Young. Yes, he technically has three Super Bowl rings. Two of those, however, rightfully belong to Joe Montana. Should it count toward your greatness if you rode the bench all the way to the Super Bowl? Not on my watch.
All that being said, Young is one of the greatest to ever play the game. Like Aaron Rodgers (ugh) sitting behind Brett Favre, this is a classic case of “wow the new guy is so good but he’ll never fill the legacy that his mentor left behind”. Young was one of the first true dual-threat quarterbacks that loved to beat you with his arm, but could beat you with his legs if you took your eyes off of him for even a split second.
Had he been a starting quarterback earlier in his career, he may have ended up higher on this list, but perhaps he benefitted from learning from one of the greats and then inheriting that guy’s team with a receiver named Jerry Rice (don’t know if you’ve heard of him) on the roster. Who knows. All I know is that Mr. Brigham Young will go down as a great quarterback and a subpar/average announcer/analyst.
4. Brett Favre
Favre has one of the craziest stories in the history of the NFL. It all started in Atlanta…
Favre was drafted by the Falcons in 1991. He threw four passes that season, two of which were intercepted (including his first ever NFL pass that resulted in a pick-six) and the other two were incomplete. His only other snap he took that season resulted in a sack. He was then traded to the Packers. The rest is history.
With the Packers, the “old gunslinger” established himself as one of the all-time elite quarterbacks. He started 297 consecutive games for the Packers from 1992 to 2008, winning a Super Bowl and three-consecutive NFL MVP awards somewhere in-between.
Then, he retired. For like nine minutes. He announced his retirement in March of 2008, then returned to the NFL in July of the same year, only this time as a member of the New York Jets. He had a solid season and decided to hang it up for good.
More like for a good month. This time he was retired from April 2009 until August 2009. So, yeah, the same amount of time. He signed with the Vikings and his career had a resurgence.
He finally retired for real in January of 2011 as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
3. Joe Montana
I already know that this will be the most controversial ranking on this list. Before the era of Manning vs. Brady, it was common knowledge that Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback to ever put on shoulder pads and a helmet. To many, he still is. To numbers, however, he falls just a bit short.
Don’t take this ranking as any disrespect to Montana. Finishing third, especially to the two that bested him, is no small feat. You can still make the argument that he is the greatest, and I’m sure multitudes would agree. Four Super Bowls and three Super Bowl MVPs? Those stats have only been surpassed by one individual (recently, may I add). He may be the most clutch quarterback in the history of the league, but as far as this list is concerned, he falls just outside of the top two in terms of all-time greatness.
2. Peyton Manning
The Sherrif was my favorite player growing up. He still is. When I was seven or eight years old, I wanted to play quarterback because of Peyton Manning. When I eventually did play quarterback, I studied his tape to try to be the best I could be. I had his jersey. My uncle made helmets for all my cousins and myself one Christmas. Guess which player I picked for mine? You got it. I still have that helmet, in fact.
None of that matters in this list.
Manning put up some of the greatest stats we have ever witnessed during his time in the NFL. He holds the record for most regular season MVP awards, as well as total passing yards and touchdowns. He held the record for most wins when he retired, though he has since been passed on that list by some bum I have yet to mention. Manning will always be the greatest of all time to me because on top of being a legendary quarterback, he was always an outstanding man off the field as well.
1. Tom Brady
Brady has won five Super Bowls. The discussion is over. When he was 4-2 in the Super Bowl, he left the door slightly ajar to be compared to Montana. Now, he has removed any doubt.
Four Super Bowl MVP awards and five rings are the gold standards for greatness now.
|QB||Super Bowls||SB MVP||MVP||Pro Bowl||First Team||Second Team|
|Johnny Unitas||1 (3 NFL)||0||3||10||5||2|
|Bart Starr||2 (5 NFL)||2||1||4||1||2|
- Super Bowls = 100 Points Total
- MVP = 75 Points Total
- Super Bowl MVP = 50 Points Total
- First Team All-Pro = 30 Points Total
- Second Team All-Pro = 15 Points Total
- Pro Bowl = 25 Points Total
All Time Ranks in Statistical Categories
- Peyton Manning (2) – 81 Points
- Tom Brady (1) – 77 Points
- Drew Brees (1) – 73 Points
- Brett Favre – 63 Points
- Aaron Rodgers (2) – 61 Points
- Dan Marino – 56 Points
- Steve Young – 53 Points
- Joe Montana – 53 Points
- John Elway – 43 Points
- Kurt Warner – 41 Points
- Johnny Unitas – 31 Points
- Troy Aikman – 30 Points
- Roger Staubach – 21 Points
- Bart Starr – 19 Points
- Terry Bradshaw – 18 Points
|QB||Accomplishment Rank||Statistical Rank|