It’s been just a year since I ranked my 100 best quarterbacks ever, but following another Super Bowl victory for Tom Brady, it’s time to re-evaluate the all-time best. Is Brady now the best to ever play the position? Does Aaron Rodgers crack the top 10 after another stellar campaign? Where does Matt Ryan stand up against the game’s quarterbacks, present and past?
Let me warn you that my rankings aren’t the traditional, generally accepted quarterback rankings. Those rankings will put Joe Montana and Tom Brady as 1-2, with a spot for Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw in the top 10, because after all, #rings. I don’t value Super Bowl championships the way most fans do; while it’s the ultimate team goal, don’t forget that it’s a team goal.
Tom Brady threw for 145 yards and led the New England Patriots to 13 points (seven came from Ty Law’s pick-six) in his first Super Bowl victory; meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick threw for over 300 yards, accounted for two touchdowns, and led San Francisco to 31 points in his Super Bowl appearance, but because his defense allowed 34 points, he just appears in the “zero rings” list.
What the quarterback did in the regular season is pretty important; in fact, I’ll admit that I value regular season success more than postseason. It’s a significantly larger sample size, and without a productive regular season, it’s tough to even make the playoffs.
While compiling my rankings, I looked at some hardcore statistics and sabermetrics. Passing yards are nice, but what about yards per attempt? How efficient is the quarterback each time he drops back? That’s why I prefer ANY/A (adjusted net yards per passing attempt) over passer rating; it factors in sacks as well. I like quarterbacks who can shoulder a heavy load in the passing game, meaning 35, 40, even 45 passing attempts per game. I like quarterbacks who can stay on the field, quarterbacks who can add yards with their legs, and quarterbacks who don’t take sacks.
I didn’t ignore old-time quarterbacks. Is it difficult to rank Bart Starr and Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman? Yes. There’s no game film and it makes me rely on historical documentation and limited but available statistics. But that’s the fun in it. It’s easy to only rank the quarterbacks you’ve seen. It’s more challenging and more rewarding to try to compare Drew Brees to Johnny Unitas.
I didn’t re-rank all my top 100 QBs based on one extra season, but I did modify the top 50 of the list based on either additional research or a large sample size of seasons (for those who are still active). Click here to read the original articles:
Updated post-2016 rankings are below. Last year’s ranking is in parentheses (if changed).
|1. Peyton Manning|
|2. Tom Brady|
|3. Dan Marino|
|4. Johnny Unitas|
|5. Joe Montana|
|6. Fran Tarkenton (8)|
|7. Steve Young|
|8. Drew Brees (6)|
|9. Otto Graham (16)|
|10. Brett Favre (11)|
Tom Brady made great strides this past season, but he’s still not at the level of Peyton Manning. It’s impossible to rank either one without comparing them against the other. I’ve chosen to go with Manning, because I believe his regular-season dominance (five MVP awards and seven First-Team All-Pro selections compared to two of each for Brady) carries more significance than a statistic of team Super Bowl wins. That’s not to say Brady hasn’t been a key player in the biggest games, but I think Manning could have matched his five rings if given the chance to play for Bill Belichick.
As for Dan Marino, don’t be that guy who discredits him for never winning a ring. Marino never played with a top-10 running game in 17 seasons. He had the fastest release in history, leading the league in sack percentage an unprecedented 10 times. He once went 19 straight games without being sacked, during which he threw for 33 touchdowns. He was the best pure passer the league had seen until Peyton Manning came along.
Johnny Unitas was the best quarterback the league had seen until Marino came along. He epitomized toughness, won three league MVP awards, and led the Baltimore Colts to a pair of championships.
Seeing Joe Montana at #5 may be a shock to some people. He was a phenomenal Super Bowl quarterback who ran Bill Walsh’s system to near-perfection during the 1980s. He was also blessed with a tremendous running game, top-notch defense, and the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game. Injuries were Montana’s downfall, as he started all 16 games in a season just twice. Had he consistently stayed healthy, he probably would be a top-three quarterback on this list.
I moved Fran Tarkenton up a spot. He’s routinely overlooked when discussing the greatest quarterbacks ever, which is absurd considering he sustained nearly two decades of greatness in a time period when other quarterbacks didn’t last past age 34 or 35. Tarkenton retired with the NFL records in career passing yards and touchdown passes, but he was also a dynamic runner, and remarkably so, he didn’t even get injured. His downfall is an 0-3 record and three dismal Super Bowl performances (one TD pass, six interceptions, 43.7 rating).
If you compare Steve Young and Joe Montana head-to-head, Young wins in every single efficiency stat. Young has a higher career completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD:INT ratio, passer rating, adjusted net yards per attempt, and his eight-year stretch from 1991-1998 can stand up against any eight-year stretch of any QB in league history. Montana wins the obvious Super Bowl rings matchup (4-1), but Young also had to face some tough NFC competition in Troy Aikman and Brett Favre. What ultimately keeps Montana higher are his unbelievable postseason performances (eight straight 100 passer ratings from 1989-1991); no one was better when the stakes were higher.
Ho-hum for Drew Brees. Another 5,000 yard season, 37 more touchdown passes, and a 10th Pro Bowl appearance, and he actually drops several spots in my rankings. Brees now has over half of the all-time 5,000-yard seasons, and he’s going to own the career passing yards record by 2018. You could make a strong case that he’s a top-3 statistical quarterback of all-time, but I can’t put him higher than this because his numbers are era and stadium-inflated. It will be difficult for Brees to move much higher on my rankings, but the eighth-best quarterback is pretty solid for a guy whose career was in serious jeopardy after a shoulder injury a decade ago.
I moved Otto Graham way up my rankings. My previous analysis didn’t include his time in the AAFC, which is essentially a minor-league of the NFL, but upon further review, I think it should count. The NFL does include the statistics in its official records, and Graham is right up there with the all-time greats. His 9.0 yards-per-attempt average is the best mark ever. He won three MVP awards in six years in the NFL, plus two in the AAFC, and was arguably the greatest running quarterback (44 rushing touchdowns) this league had seen until Cam Newton came along.
Brett Favre has become historically underrated and overly criticized. He threw too many interceptions, but his prime was every bit as impressive as any quarterback who ever lived. Favre is the only man in league history to capture three straight MVP awards. He made the Pro Bowl 17 years apart, starting every game during that span, won a Super Bowl and played in five conference championship games, and retired with the league’s all-time records in passing yards (71,838) and touchdown passes (508).
|11. Sammy Baugh (9)|
|12. Roger Staubach (10)|
|13. Aaron Rodgers|
|14. Sid Luckman (12)|
|15. John Elway (18)|
|16. Bart Starr (14)|
|17. Ken Anderson (15)|
|18. Dan Fouts (17)|
|19. Len Dawson (27)|
|20. Warren Moon (19)|
Sammy Baugh was the most efficient quarterback of the first 50 years, leading the NFL in completion percentage eight times, interception percentage five times, and passer rating three times. He beats out contemporary 1940s quarterback Sid Luckman because of longevity. Collectively though, they combined for 10 NFL Championship appearances and were among the game’s greatest players of the old-time era. Luckman ranks lower because his career didn’t last as long, but he still earned five All-Pro selections and led the league in passing yards, touchdown passes, yards per attempt, and passer rating three times each.
Roger Staubach is an underrated player. He didn’t become a full-time starter until age 29, but still packed a career’s worth of achievements into a nine-year span: six Pro Bowl appearances, four trips to the Super Bowl, a pair of rings and a Super Bowl MVP award, plus four different seasons leading the NFL in both passer rating and ANY/A. In fact, he’s one of three QBs in history (Manning and Young are the others) to lead the league in ANY/A four times.
Aaron Rodgers makes unbelievable ‘wow’ plays. He’s currently first on the all-time list in lifetime passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio, and still in the prime of his NFL career at age 33 (although I bet he’s older than you’d think). Rodgers has his flaws – he takes too many sacks and just one Super Bowl appearance is relatively low for a great player – but he’s going to be solidly on the list of top 10 quarterbacks ever when he’s done.
I have John Elway way lower than most people, and this is even after moving him up a few spots from my post-2015 rankings. I covered him pretty extensively in last year’s article, and I still believe he’s typically ranked too high on all-time lists, but I bumped him up because I think he’s one of those guys who is better than his numbers and wasn’t helped by an ill-fitted system early on.
Bart Starr was surrounded by Hall of Famers on the most stacked dynasty in NFL history. Still, Starr’s five NFL championship rings (two of which were Super Bowls) and four passing titles in a six-year span attest to his proficiency at the quarterback position. Starr had some awful regular-season performances, but he was tremendous in the postseason (104.8 passer rating in 10 career starts, and in an era that didn’t favor the passing game).
The most underrated quarterback of all-time is probably Ken Anderson. He won a league MVP award and led the NFL in passer rating four times. The only other player to do that since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger is Steve Young, yet curiously Anderson hasn’t been voted into the Hall of Fame.
Dan Fouts is often mentioned as one of the best quarterbacks to never win a Super Bowl. He was flat-out dominant for an eight-year period from 1978-1985, leading the league in passing yards four times and touchdowns twice. Len Dawson was previously ranked just 27th on my list, but I moved him up a ton of spots after taking a harder look at just how dominant he was in the 1960s, even in the old AFL.
The start to Warren Moon’s NFL career was delayed due to the CFL. He didn’t get started until he was 28, and at one point, he was a 30-year-old former undrafted free agent with a 12-33 record as a starter, to go with 40 TD passes, 59 interceptions, and a 69.1 passer rating. He went on to make nine Pro Bowls (including one at age 41!), and finish with nearly 50,000 passing yards. His career numbers compare very favorably with those of John Elway.
|21. Sonny Jurgensen (20)|
|22. Norm Van Brocklin (21)|
|23. Philip Rivers (22)|
|24. Ben Roethlisberger (23)|
|25. Jim Kelly (24)|
|26. Y.A. Tittle (25)|
|27. Kurt Warner (28)|
|28. Tony Romo (31)|
|29. John Brodie (30)|
|30. Donovan McNabb (26)|
Sonny Jurgensen was another classically underrated quarterback, finishing with the highest passer rating ever (82.6) among players who played before the 16-game schedule went into effect (1978). Vince Lombardi, who coached an All-Pro season out of Jurgensen in Washington in 1969, once said he never would have lost a game if he had had Jurgensen in Green Bay.
Norm Van Brocklin loses points for taking part in a two-quarterback system in the 1950s (with Hall of Famer Bob Waterfield), but he put up ridiculous yards-per-attempt numbers and retired following a league MVP and NFL championship title.
Philip Rivers doesn’t get the credit he deserves among national pundits, but he bests Ben Roethlisberger in nearly every single career efficiency stat – completion percentage, TD:INT ratio, passer rating, ANY/A, and sack percentage. He’s been able to stay healthy longer, he’s routinely been surrounded with a worse supporting cast (both running game and defense), and he’s even posted slightly better postseason numbers (85.2 passer rating and 5.88 ANY/A compared to 84.3 and 5.86 for Roethlisberger). It’s easy to put Roethlisberger higher because of the rings argument, but if that’s all you’re going by, it’s a weak argument.
Jim Kelly played on a pretty stacked team, but was still a five-time Pro Bowler himself and league MVP for a team that was a perennial contender and AFC powerhouse. More than two career touchdown passes in four Super Bowl appearances (all losses) would move him up the rankings. Y.A. Tittle’s two best seasons came at age 36 and 37, during which he earned consecutive All-Pro honors, set and reset the single-season touchdown record, and earned an MVP award.
The peaks and valleys of Kurt Warner’s NFL career are as bizarre as you’ll find, but the former one-year D-IAA college starter and undrafted free agent carved out a Hall of Fame career for himself. Warner pulled off the dubious feat of being benched four times in four years, but when he was on his game he was a perennial MVP candidate and signal-caller of The Greatest Show on Turf. Warner’s 102.8 passer rating is a modern postseason record among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts.
Tony Romo’s NFL career may or may not be over, but it’s a shame he wasn’t as appreciated during his prime as he should have been. No one spun out of more sacks than Romo, and while he gets a bad rep for turnovers and poor playoff performances, the reality is that he compares very favorably to Peyton Manning in many statistics (believe it or not). Romo’s career completion percentage, yards per attempt, interception percentage, and passer rating are all better or right in line with Manning’s numbers.
John Brodie is the most underrated quarterback of all-time. He was the NFL’s best quarterback over an eight-year span (1964-1971), primarily due to his unbelievable ability to avoid sacks. Brodie won an MVP award, led the league in touchdown passes twice, and probably should be in the Hall of Fame.
I dropped Donovan McNabb a few spots after taking another look at some of his sabermetric numbers – while his TD:INT ratio was spectacular, his completion percentage was low, his yards per attempt was underwhelming, and he took too many sacks. Had McNabb been able to stay healthy and play better in the postseason, he would rank higher.
|31. Arnie Herber (32)|
|32. Joe Namath (42)|
|33. Terry Bradshaw (29)|
|34. Troy Aikman (35)|
|35. Bobby Layne (41)|
|36. Roman Gabriel (33)|
|37. Ken Stabler (34)|
|38. Cecil Isbell|
|39. Matt Ryan (54)|
|40. Boomer Esiason (37)|
Arnie Herber was the first great quarterback in the National Football League. The passing game was so different back then that Herber once led the league with a 45.1 passer rating. It’s difficult to know how Herber’s game would translate to today’s game, but he was dominant back when he did play. The same goes for the man who replaced him at quarterback, Cecil Isbell, who once threw 24 touchdown passes on just 268 pass attempts.
After a closer look at Joe Namath’s numbers, particularly his exceptional sack rate, I moved him way up the rankings. A QB in today’s era would never be given the chance to throw 220 interceptions to just 173 touchdowns, but that wasn’t that unusual in the 1960s. Namath was a gunslinger with chronically bad knees, and he completely deteriorated by the end, but his good years were special – high YPA, four Pro Bowls in a five-year span, and of course, the legendary Super Bowl win.
Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman have a lot in common – both were former No. 1 overall draft picks who endured dreadful rookie seasons but then went on to win a combined seven Super Bowl appearances for a pair of dynasties. Bradshaw had a lower floor than Aikman, but a much higher ceiling; don’t forget that he did win a league MVP award and a pair of Super Bowl MVPs. Aikman was a largely unspectacular regular-season quarterback who turned in some phenomenal Super Bowl performances.
Bobby Layne is overlooked in today’s rankings, but he was a two-time All-Pro who won two NFL championships, despite awful playoff performances. Roman Gabriel made Pro Bowls with two different teams, won a league MVP award, and took a low number of sacks.
You can’t evaluate Ken Stabler without seeing a barrage of interceptions, and while he threw too many even for his era, he was a playmaker, a former league MVP, and the only AFC quarterback to win a Super Bowl during the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty.
Matt Ryan climbed up these rankings after a phenomenal 2016 season that saw him win the league MVP award, establish the highest YPA average (9.3) of any 16-game starting QB, and post the highest playoff passer rating this league has ever seen.
|41. Dave Krieg (39)|
|42. Bob Griese (48)|
|43. Rich Gannon (40)|
|44. Steve McNair (43)|
|45. Randall Cunningham (36)|
|46. Bob Waterfield (44)|
|47. Russell Wilson (60)|
|48. Jeff Garcia (45)|
|49. Eli Manning (46)|
|50. Mark Brunell (47)|
I moved some players around a little in these rankings, sliding Bob Griese up after taking another look at his impressive yards-per-attempt average and plummeting Randall Cunningham after more evaluation of his horrific sack numbers.
Rich Gannon is the most unlikely player to make this list, considering he was drafted with the intent to be moved to running back and was at one point a 33-year-old journeyman with 66 career touchdown passes and a 75.6 passer rating. He clicked under Jon Gruden’s offense in Oakland, making four straight Pro Bowls and winning a league MVP award before a neck injury ended his career.
Russell Wilson has only played five seasons, but he’s done enough to be on a HOF track. Eli Manning had s bunch of mediocre years, but two strong Super Bowl performances could get him into Canton. Mark Brunell just edges out Carson Palmer for that final spot in the top 50.