Monday, May 11, 2009 PTI: Ultimate Debate, The Top 5 NFL Quarterbacks of All Time

This week Adam and I decided to discuss who we think are the top 5 NFL Quarterbacks of all time. We agreed on 3 of them, but we differed on the other 2.


1) Joe Montana – Best known for throwing touchdowns to Jerry Rice, Montana played 17 years in San Francisco, before finishing his career with 2 forgettable years in Kansas City. Joe Montana is the definition of the word greatness. He won 2 MVPs (1989, 1990) and was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1990. He led the 49ers 4 Super Bowl victories, and was MVP in 3 of them. He was also named to 8 Pro Bowls.

2) Dan Marino – Marino is one of those quarterbacks from the 1983 NFL Draft to enjoy great success. His arm was basically a high-powered artillery gun, firing rounds to whoever could run far enough to catch them. Marino played his entire career with the Miami Dolphins. The only knock on Dan is that he never won the big one, but he really never had the supporting cast to get all the way.

3) Brett Favre – Out of Southern Miss, Brett was the 33rd overall pick in the 1991 NFL draft. He played for the Packers from 1992 – 2007 and the Jets in 2008. Favre is the toughest quarterback to ever play the game. He holds the record for most consecutive career starts in the NFL with an impressive 291 games without missing a start. He is the winningest quarterback ever, with 169 career victories. He has been named the NFL MVP 3 times, tied for most with Peyton Manning. He led the Packers to victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. He holds virtually all significant career records for quarterbacks. To go along with the records mentioned above, he is also the all time leader in touchdown passes, passing yards, and completions.

4) John Elway – Elway strapped the Denver Broncos on his back and lead them into 5 Super Bowls, winning back to back Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. The number 1 overall pick in the 1983 draft out of Stanford is probably best known for “The Drive.” Elway led the Broncos on an epic 15-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in the AFC Championship game against the Cleveland Browns to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The Broncos won the game in overtime. Elway just had a knack for finding the end zone. He has the most rushing touchdowns (4) of any quarterback in Super Bowls. He is 3rd in career completions and yards and was named to 9 Pro Bowls.

5) Bart Starr – Vince Lombardi’s Starr quarterback led the Packers to 3 NFL Championships (Pre NFL/AFL Merger) and the first 2 Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967. He won the MVP in 1966 and the Super Bowl MVP in 1966 and 1967. Although drafted in the 17th Round, Starr is a legend. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 1977.


1) Joe Montana- Joe Cool belongs at the top of this list because he embodies everything you want a quarterback to be. Montana was able to combine winning, poise, and talent to form the ultimate QB. Montana was elected to 8 Pro Bowls, due to high statistical achievements such as three seasons with a QB rating above 100 (92.3 for his career), over 40,000 yards in his career, 273 touchdowns, and 2 MVP awards. However, Montana is number one on this list for his other accomplishments. He is one of two QBs to win 4 Super Bowls (Terry Bradshaw being the other) and the only player to be Super Bowl MVP three times. His knack for late game comebacks led to the nickname, “The Comeback Kid.” But the thing that really puts Montana apart from the rest of the field for me, is how he can calmly point John Candy out in the crowd at the Super Bowl and then lead the 49ers to the game winning touchdown in the final two minutes. That is why he is Joe Cool, and that poise and leadership is also why he is the best QB ever.

2) Johnny Unitas- Johnny U was a three time regular season MVP for the Colts, but it was his leadership and consistency that made him one of the greatest. His three MVP awards were over a span of 9 years, showing both consistency and longevity. During his tenure with the Colts, Unitas lead the team to back-to-back championships in 1958 and 1959, the first being the first overtime game in NFL history and widely considered the greatest game ever played. In 1964, Unitas again led the Colts to the championship, but the team lost to the Cleveland Browns. In the Super Bowl era, Unitas played in both III and V. While III is famous for Joe Namath’s guaranteed victory, an injured Unitas did come in late to give the Colts a spark although the comeback fell short. Two years later, Unitas and the Colts won their third championship with a Super Bowl V win over the Cowboys. Johnny Unitas brilliance and consistency, while shown by a 17 season career that left him with 40,000+ yards and 290 touchdowns, is best shown by his NFL record of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass.

3) Dan Marino- Marino is the only QB on my list to not win at least two championships. For me the mark of a great QB is how he combines his physical skills with the ability to win championships. However, I will make an exception for Marino who is one of the best ever despite never winning a championship. Until Brett Farve came along, Marino was all alone atop the NFL record books as the most prolific QB in the history of the league by far. He finished his 17 year career with 61,361 yards and 420 TDs, both of which were records, as well as records for the most attempts, completions, 400 and 300 yard games and numerous others. His 1984 season in which he threw for 5,084 yards (still the record) and 48 TDs (since passed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) and led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl may be the best season ever for a QB. While never winning the big game, Marino also provided the leadership that a QB needs with 37 comeback (4th quarter or OT) wins and 147 wins total, both 3rd all time.

4) John Elway- With all of my talk of wining big games being important to QBs, I had to include Elway on this list. While an outstanding QB statistically with 51,475 yards and 300 TDs (both 3rd all time) and a dual threat dimension as he ran for 3,417 yards (6th all time among QBs) and 33 TDs in his career, it is Elway’s intangibles that put him on this list. Elway played in 5 Super Bowls, more than any other QB in history. While he was just 2-3 in those games, one loss came to Montana’s 49ers and another to Bill Parcells’s Lawrence Taylor-led Giants defense. And to be honest, even though he lost 3 Super Bowls, not many QBs have won 2 either. The most important statistic about Elway for me is the 47 comeback wins, the most ever in the NFL. This shows Elway was able to stay calm and lead his team to victory in high pressure situations, such as a 98 yard drive against the Browns in the AFC Championship game in 1987 to tie the game with 37 seconds left. And many people forget that in college, Elway led Stanford to what appeared to be the game-winning score against California in his final game only to see “The Play” snatch victory away as Cal ran the kickoff back through the Stanford marching band. Elway’s ability to lead his team to victory added to his ability to perform both through the air and on the ground put him in my top 5.

5) Tom Brady- Although he only played 7 seasons, Tom Brady is already one of the most accomplished QBs to ever play. He is a 4 time Pro Bowler and he won the MVP award in 2007 when he set an NFL record with 50 TDs to go with 4,806 yards and a ridiculous 117.2 QB rating. For his career, Brady has over 26,000 yards, 197 TDs, and a QB rating of 92.9 (4th all time), just ahead of Montana. Statistically, Brady is one of the top two QBs (Peyton Manning being the other) in the league since 2001, his first season. But, like most of these QBs, it is Brady’s ability to perform in big games that puts him in the top 5. In 111 starts, Brady has a record of 87-24, including a 16-0 season in 2007. That record averages to a 12-4 record over his career. In the playoffs, Brady is 14-3 with a 3-1 record in the Super Bowl. All three of his Super Bowl wins were decided by 3 points showing his ability to stay tough and pull out the close game, and in the first two Super Bowl wins, Brady led the Patriots to late field goals to break ties after both the Rams and Panthers came back to tie the game. In those first two Super Bowls, Brady was named the Super Bowl MVP. Brady also has 28 comeback wins, and looks to be on pace to challenge Elway’s record of 47. Although still young, Brady would be on this list if he didn’t play another game in the NFL. As his career progresses, he may move up the list, but it would be difficult for him to play his way off of this list.

Of the 5 QBs on Chris’s list, I can’t really complain about who is included, three are also on my list and Starr is a good choice. But I think putting Brett Favre in the top 5 may be a reach. It is difficult to compare statistics across different eras because of rule changes and different strategies for teams. For example, Johnny Unitas led the league with a completion percentage of 58.5% without the benefit of the West Coast offense or generous pass interference penalties. In today’s game, 58.5% would be in the lower tier of the league. So, to support my decision to exclude Brett Favre from this list, I will compare him to his most similar contemporary, Peyton Manning. Manning was probably 6th or 7th on my list, but I took Brady over him because Brady has won 3 Super Bowls and Manning only 1, even though Manning has better statistics. However, Favre and Manning have both won 1, so they are even. Both have also won 3 MVP awards. Manning has the edge in Super Bowl MVPs, one to nothing because Desmond Howard had possibly the best return game ever in the Super Bowl in Favre’s lone victory. Both QBs have very good winning percentages as well, with Favre at 169-100 and Manning at 117-59. Statistically, Manning is the only QB that has a realistic chance to catch Favre’s career passing records in yards and TDs (65,000+ to 45,000+ in yards and 464 to 333 in TDs in 6 less seasons for Manning). Manning has also matched Favre’s durability in starting all 176 games of his career. Manning is the only player who could break Favre’s record of consecutive starts.
The difference for me comes down to who takes care of the ball. Favre has thrown 310 interceptions compared to Manning’s 165. Favre has lead the league in interceptions three times, Manning only once and that was in his rookie year for a 3-13 team. Also, while Favre’s interception totals have remained steady over the years, Manning has cut his totals nearly in half in the second half of his career. This interception margin leads to Manning’s superior passer rating of 94.7 compared to Favre’s 85.4. If I am going to pick a QB to be one of the best of all time, I would prefer an efficient and effective QB like Manning rather than a gun-slinger like Favre. While Favre is fun to watch and a good QB, he is too reckless to be one of the top 5 of all time. While this recklessness is sometimes rewarded, it can also hurt, as it did in the NFC Championship game in 2008 when his interception in overtime led to the game winning score.


I agree that Peyton is likely a top-10, and Unitas is probably my number 6. Brady is also in my top 10. None of these guys has a better claim than Brett Favre as being a top-5 quarterback of all time. Who holds the all time touchdown record? Who has won more games at the position of quarterback than anyone? Who is the toughest player in the last 25 years (based on consecutive start record)? You are pointing out that Favre throws a lot of interceptions. That is true. But that is part of what makes him so great. Brett went out on the field and tried to make something happen even when he didn’t have a play to be made. When it worked, he was making plays that NOBODY else could make. When it didn’t work, he was intercepted. The fact is that Brett went out there and made those incredible plays, carrying a Packers team to a Championship and winning 3 MVP’s in the process. I will take a guy who is not afraid to put it on the line any day over a guy like Brady who dinks and dunks his way to titles because he has a stellar supporting cast. It took an all-star receiving squad to finally get Brady to throw the ball down field. Before the days of Randy Moss, Brady’s Super Bowls can be attributed to (1) unbelievable defense, (2) a great offense surrounding him, (3) cheating on the part of the coaching staff during the whole spy-gate ordeal. In contrast, Brett was out there running from defensive tackles, throwing the ball between defensive backs, and throwing blocks for Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett in the “Packer Screen” play.

Favre is a guy who had guts, character, toughness, and talent. He has the records. He has the championships and MVPs. He belongs in the top 5.

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marc edelman said...

Sacreligious maybe, but I would not call Joe Montana number one, and I am not even sure that he would place him in the top three.

If either of you had read the book Blind Side, it does a great job of showing the career stats of quarterbacks that played under Joe Walsh both before and after Montana. They all put up similar numbers. The biggest difference with Montana, in my mind, was that his prime coincided with Jerry Rice who could take the same slant pass all Walsh quarterbacks threw and break free for huge gains.

Again, I know this is sacreligious to many, but I am not saying Montana is anything short of a Hall of Famer. All I am saying i would rather have Brett Favre, John Elway or maybe Tom Brady for a big game. The same might be true of Unitas or Starr, but I never had the chance the watch either play.

Steve Shoup said...

I don't think Tom Brady deserves to be in the Top five and should be in more of the 9 or 10 range. Winning championships is a team event and the Pats would be 1-3 under Brady if not for the leg of Adam Vinitari. I just don't think one can say he's one of the greatest QB's of all time based on 8 seasons.

That would be like saying Terrell Davis is one of the 5 best running backs of all time. I mean based on those few years he was dominate, he also helped his team win championships as well. But I don't think anyone would put Davis in the top 5 of the last 20 years.

And if we are basing it on Super Bowls, where is Terry Bradshaw or Troy Aikman, each has a better winning percentage in the big game and had HoF careers. I just don't think half a career constitute greatest of all time. Are we going to add Big Ben to the list if he adds another ring in the next few years?

Adam said...

I considered both Bradshaw and Aikman for that 5th spot as well. I felt that all three won Super Bowls consistently. However, Aikman's wins were not close games compared to all four of Brady's games coming down to the wire. That knack for putting his team in a position to win late put him above Aikman for me.
With Bradshaw, his Super Bowl wins were close and he made big plays, but Super Bowl IX was won by Franco Harris's 140+ yards and the Steelers suffocating defense. And Lynn Swann's acrobatics made Bradshaw look pretty good in another Super Bowl win. Also, the Steelers were a more complete team in the '70s than Brady's Patriots. While the Patriots may be an outstanding team, Bradshaw's Steelers had Hall of Famers at wide receiver, running back, center, cornerback, linebacker, and defensive line. Brady didn't have that much support. Also, to say that Vinitari is responsible for two of those wins is only a half truth. The Patriots would not have been 1-3 in those Super Bowls if Vinitari missed, those games would have gone into overtime where Brady would have had another chance to put his team in position to win. And while his clutch kicking did provide the margin of victory, both kicks were set up by Brady's flawless execution of the two minute drill, a skill that the great QBs all possess. Also, I felt that Brady's statistical numbers were superior to Bradshaw's. Terry has nearly a 1:1 TD to interception ratio while Brady's is better than 2:1.
I thought picking the top 4 QBs on this list was easy because they are a tier above the rest. The fifth spot was difficult, but I felt that Brady's combination of championships, statistics, and clutch performances put him apart despite only playing 8 seasons.
As for Rothlisberger, if he wins one or two more Super Bowls and makes a couple more Pro Bowls, I think he should be in the discussion for top 10 of all time and maybe top 5. He would have the championships, his statistics are solid, and he already has 19 comeback victories, well on pace to challenge Elway's record. With QB, finding ways to win is important, and Brady and Rothlisberger do that. While that might not put them in the top 5 hands down, it should at least warrant them being mentioned as a possibility.

Chris said...

Edelman, First, Blind Side is a great book and I agree with your point.

Second, how is Tom Brady NOT top 5? I think he deserves to be there over Favre. I was looking at Favre's numbers last week for a piece I decided NOT to do because all Favre is is mediocrity. Seriously, you play that many games, you are bound to hold the records in almost everything, provided you played mediocre.

2a, The fact that Brady DIDNT have the surrounding cast and still won, wait, forget the fact that he won, Still GOT to the Super Bowl says a lot, and to put Vinnitari in the position to hit the game winners. Brady is top 5. He has the QB TD record single season and has the Rings. What more do you expect a QB to do?

49er fan said...

It's too bad the 49ers didn't keep Joe for a couple more years, would have been nice to see him finish in SF.

Brian Doyle said...

Praising Brett Favre for making stupid plays that turn into INTs doesn't make sense no matter how you spin it. You can say he makes some spectacular plays but at what cost? Is something nifty looking really worth the risk for all those times he turns the ball over? Sometimes it's best to just throw the ball away., Brady would be 4-0 in Super Bowls if his defense stepped up and Asante Samuel didn't let a ball go through his hands/that random guy on the Giants didn't make that catch. He led another game winning drive, but apparently left too much time on the clock. A feat that is impressive since he had no offensive line in that last Super Bowl.

I'm disappointed Randall Cunningham didn't make anyone's top five though.

Adam said...

While I like Randall Cunningham and still play as the Eagles in Tecmo Super Bowl so I can play as him, he didn't have the wins to make this list. Statistically he may have been a notch below as well although I feel he is the best running QB ever, over Vick.

Da Stillers said...

What about Big Ben? All yinz guys are hating on our six pack of Super Bowls. Come to da burgh, enjoy a South Side Slopes at Fatheads, wash it dahn with an Irn City, and then go admire the greatness at Heinz Field.

Chris Stanley said...

I am not trying to say that Brett's interceptions are a positive thing. I realize that interceptions can hurt the team, and they are a negative on Favre.

That being said, you would expect Favre to throw a lot of interceptions given the way he plays the game. He is not content going out there and "throwing the ball away." Some people think that is a terrible terrible thing, or that it makes him "mediocre."

I, and many others, take a different view. Brett Favre wanted to win football games. He did everything in his power to win the game. At times he had players that really helped him. Other times, he was a one man show. The one consisntent thing throughout his career is that he went for it. I think that takes courage, and a desire to win that Brady and other quarterbacks have not displayed. The fact is that at the end of the game, with 2:00 to go I want a guy who goes out there and gives me his all. I dont want the guy that makes the smart plays and throws the ball away while the clock runs out because he isnt sure he can make the throw. Give me Brett Favre in that situation, and I can sleep at night never having to ask what could have been.

Yes Favre has thrown some interceptions in some bad spots. But he goes for it. And so many times, it worked out. He made so many plays that nobody else on this list, or anywhere else would have made. I will take "mediocre" Favre over Brady any day of the week.

And this isnt to say that I value the fact that he provides "something nifty to look at" or whatever that reference was. I value the fact that he puts it on the line, and stands behind it for better or worse.

Chris said...

And what has Tom Brady done to not warrant him as the quarterback you choose with 2:00 or less to go?

Chris Stanley said...

Dont get me wrong, I would love to have Brady with 2:00 to go. There are about 10 guys that I would love to have in that situation. But I would rather have Favre, because I feel that Favre will make the play. Brady is great for going out there and protecting the ball and not doing anything dumb. If I needed a field goal, I might prefer him. But when I need a TD to tie or win the game, give me the gunslinger from Mississippi.

Steve Shoup said...

I just think when you look at all time it should be full careers and not half careers. What if Brady comes back from this injury and his TD:INT ratio goes 1:1 even with the best cast he's ever had. It could happen plenty of great players haven't been able to come back from a serious injury.

As for the point about Brady getting credit for having closer games he should also get some of the blame for that as well. Unless i'm completely misremembering Brady threw an interception that set up on of Carolina's 4th quarter TD's (maybe even the last one). Also both Aikman and Bradshaw have better QB ratings than Brady in superbowls. The fact that Brady threw for more yards and had more completions are only a product of the time/system. Bradshaw and Aikman (esp. Bradshaw) also faced better quality defenses than Brady has had to face.

Again I feel there is way to much hype on the Championships, Brady is one player and by no means the only reason the Pats have 3 Lombardi Trophies. In my opinion players like Tarkenton, Fouts, Moon and yes Peyton Manning deserve to be above Brady. Brady doesn't have the numbers to support the consideration outside of the one season. And to piggy back off Mark's point....look what Cassel did with that cast are we really gonna say that Brady is so great if Matt Cassel can get 11 wins out of that team?? Manning has 20,000 yards on Brady with way more TD's and completions. Putting him in the top 5 is worse that putting Derek Jeter in the top five SS of all time just b/c he has the rings.

Chris Stanley said...

Great Point Steve. I completely agree. I would like to know what type of numbers a guy like Kurt Warner would put up if he had the supporting cast that Brady enjoys. I actually think a guy like Warner, or even Jake Delhomme would step in without much of a negative impact.

Also, I think most of my top ten quarterbacks have been mentioned in the comments, but I also think Steve Young's name deserves a mention. I know some of you might disagree based on the reasoning the Montana isn't number one, and he did have Jerry Rice to throw to, but I still think he is worthy.

Adam said...

Steve, you make a good point about the caliber of defense that Bradshaw had to play against going up against the Purple People Eaters and the Doomsday Defense for his first three titles. And, with the exception of the QB position, I would agree with you that wins shouldn't matter all that much. I agree that Derek Jeter's ability is vastly overrated by people that point to his World Series rings. But there is something about the QB position that I think needs to include the ability to win close games late. I tried to pattern my picks on players like that. I agree that Bradshaw and Aikman, and at least 5 others belong in the discussion. Brady was the best of that tier for me.
If Brady comes back and is barely a shell of his former self, I would take him off this list and replace him with Bradshaw or Manning, but I don't think that will happen. I think he will perform close to the level he has for his career

poker rakeback said...

So Brett Favre holds every major passing record including, passing yards, completions, touchdowns, MVPs, starts, wins, and he doesnt make the top 5? I would also ask you to name 1 player that will ever make the Hall of Fame that he played with on offense. Brady has Moss, Montana had Rice, Bradshaw and Aikman had several HOF'ers. This list is way off base.