The debate over which quarterbacks belong among the top five all-time best is a long and heated one. The fact we have had so many great ones to choose from hasn’t made the issue any easier to resolve. A lack of statistics keeping from the earlier days of football can also aggravate the discussion and make things more cloudy. Then there is the question of which criteria quarterbacks should be judged on, passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions, wins, SuperBowl victories, playoff appearances, Pro-Bowl games, passer rating, etc. Well, for the purposes of this list I have chosen to judge based on the overall affect a quarterback has had on his team, his opponents, and the culture of the game. I chose this criteria because, more often than not, a quarterback that has had a great affect in these areas has also delivered impressive statistics and victories. This list is in no particular order.
Joe Montana started his career with the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, he would go on to play in the NFL until 1994. During his 16 year career he would pass for a total of 40,551 yards, 273 touchdowns, just 139 interceptions, a 63.2% completion rate, and a passer rating of 92.3. He led his 49ers teams to four SuperBowl appearances, winning all of them without throwing a single interception in 122 pass attempts. He compiled a regular season record of 117 wins and 47 losses, that is a 71.1% win rate. His win percentage is 3rd all-time among quarterbacks who have played a minimum of 100 games. He was also selected to eight Pro-Bowls, was All-Pro three times, was a two time league MVP, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Before drafting Joe Montana the 49ers were a perennial middle-of-the-road football team. They would occasionally have a strong season, but they would just as often have a horrible one. However, they consistently hung around the 50% win mark in most of their seasons. In just Montana’s third year in the league they would win their first SuperBowl after going 13-3 during in the regular season. Joe Montana would lead his teams (he was traded to the K.C. Chiefs in 1993) to a total of 13 winning seasons, culminating in a 15-1 record in 1984 with the 49ers. He would go on to win the 1984, ’88, and ’89 SuperBowl games, making him one of the most dangerous postseason quarterbacks in history.
Tom Brady was selected in the 6th round, 199th overall, in the 2000 NFL draft. He is still active and has thus far played his entire career for the New England Patriots, the team that drafted him. He currently boasts 68,035 passing yards (4th highest of all-time), 504 touchdowns (third all-time), just 167 interceptions, a 64% completion rate, and a passer rating of 97.6 (third best all-time). He has led the Patriots to eight SuperBowl appearances, winning five of them. Brady has the highest win percentage of any quarterback that has played a minimum of 100 games, with a regular season record of 201-57 (77.9%). He has been selected to 13 Pro-Bowls, is a three time All-Pro, and a three time league MVP.
He was a backup during the 2000 season as the Patriots stumbled to a 5-11 record. However, he would be named the starter for the 2001 season and lead his team to an 11-5 regular season record and would go on to win that year’s SuperBowl. He has led the Patriots to 17 straight winning seasons, only once winning fewer than 10 games. He is also the only quarterback to lead his team to a regular season record of 16-0. Before Brady took over as the starter, the Patriots had been a subpar football team for a handful of years. He has also performed at a high level despite not always having a true number one wide receiver. Opposing teams have to be careful where they place the emphasis of their defense due to Brady’s ability to see the field and his knack for spreading the ball around. Brady has helped define what a modern quarterback is, often playing without a reliable ground game, with a much stronger focus on moving the ball through the air. At 41 years old, he has shown no signs of being ready to hang up his cleats.
Brett Favre was selected in the second round, 33rd overall, in the 1991 NFL draft by the Atlanta Hawks. He would be traded to the Green Bay Packers after the ’91 season and become their starter. Over the course of his career he would amass a total of 71,838 passing yards (third highest of all-time), 508 touchdowns (second all-time), 336 interceptions, a 62% completion rate, and a passer rating of 86. His overall regular season win-loss record is 186-112, which is a win rate of 61.8%. He played most of his career for the Packers, but also played one season for the New York Jets, followed by two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He lead his teams to a total of 18 winning seasons and led the Packers to SuperBowl appearances in 1996 and 1997, winning in ’96. He was selected to 11 Pro-Bowls, was a three time All-Pro, and three time league MVP.
Favre was the kind of quarterback that could light up a defense for 300+ yards and 4 touchdowns on any given night. However, he was also known as a bit of a gunslinger and rash decision maker. He would often take the burden of winning upon his shoulders and do everything he could to force a victory. This sometimes resulted in him throwing interceptions when the game was on the line because he would try and force a pass somewhere dangerous. He never let these failures weigh him down for long though, he was always ready to play and try again. Favre was known as an ironman that would play in a game no matter what injury he had. Even though he wasn’t the most accurate quarterback, or the best decision maker, the opposing teams knew he would do anything to win and that he could create a major play at any moment. Before trading for Favre, the Packers had just two seasons with a record above .500 in the previous 20 years.
Peyton Manning was selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the first pick of the 1998 NFL draft. He played for the Colts from 1998-2010 and the Denver Broncos from 2012-2015. He has career totals of 71,940 passing yards (second highest of all-time), 539 touchdowns (first all-time), 251 interceptions, the fifth best completion rate of all-time at 65.3%, and a passer rating of 96.5 (seventh best of all-time). Manning has a regular season record of 186-79, that is good for a win rate of 68.5%. He took each of his teams to two SuperBowls, winning one for each of them. He played a total of 17 seasons in the NFL, leading his teams to winning records 15 times, with a career best record of 14-2 in both ’05 and ’09. He was a 14 time Pro-Bowl selection, a seven time All-Pro selection, a Hall of Fame inductee, and a five time league MVP.
What made Manning so dangerous for opposing defenses was his cerebral approach to the quarterback position. He was a very intelligent player with a great ability for recognizing defenses and calling audibles at the line of scrimmage. Not only was he a quick thinker, but he also had a strong and accurate throw. He wasn’t afraid to air it out deep down the field to a diminishing target. In the 20 years before drafting Manning, the Colts were either barely above .500 or were complete bottom feeders.
Steve Young was the first player selected in the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft of players from the USFL and CFL. He was chosen by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and played two seasons for them, going 3-16 as a starter. He was deemed a bust and traded to the San Francisco 49ers, where he would be a backup to Joe Montana for four years. During his time as a backup he threw 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He wouldn’t get a chance to start consistently until the 1991 season when Montana was out with an injury. He helped lead the 49ers to a 10-6 record, then a 14-2 record in 1992 in which he won his first MVP award. Young has a career win-loss record of 94-49, which results in a win rate of 65%. He has career totals of 33,124 passing yards, 232 touchdowns, 107 interceptions, 4,239 rushing yards, a completion rate of 64.3%, and a passer rating of 96.8 (sixth all-time). Young was a seven time Pro-Bowl selection, three time All-Pro selection, a Hall of Fame inductee, and a two time league MVP.
Steve Young’s career as a starter was shorter than anyone else’s on this list, really only getting seven solid years of starting, and his stats are probably the least impressive. However, he is a two time SuperBowl champion and league MVP. He was the kind of quarterback that could beat you on the ground if you took away his passing ability, making him a dynamic threat to defenses. He was a smart player, evidenced by his low interception total, which is very good when compared with other quarterbacks of the ’80s and ’90s. If his career had not been riddled with concussions and he had not been traded to a team that already had Joe Montana, there is no telling how much better his statistics and legacy would have been.
Possible Future Replacements
The following are currently active quarterbacks that are likely to replace a player or two on the list above. They just need a bit more time to prove themselves with setting records, getting more wins, or winning some more SuperBowls.
Brees owns the passing yards record with 72,315 notched on his belt, and that number will only continue to grow for at least a couple of more seasons. He is also fourth all-time in passing touchdowns with 501 and is first all-time in pass completion rating, completing 67.2% of his passes. He also has a passer rating of 97.3, which is fourth highest all-time. Brees has a career regular season record of 147-107 for a win percentage of 57.4%. He is an 11 time Pro-Bowl selection, one time All-Pro selection, and one time SuperBowl champ. I would have included him in the top five of all-time if he had a better record in the playoffs, more SuperBowl victories or appearances, a better win rate, had brought something more unique to the game, or had significantly changed the culture of his team.
Rodgers has a current total of 40,499 passing yards, 325 touchdowns, an incredibly low 79 interceptions, a completion rate of 64.9%, and a passer rating of 103.6 (first all-time). He is a six time Pro-Bowl selection, two time All-Pro selection, two time MVP, and a one time SuperBowl champion. I believe he will retire as one of the top five quarterbacks of all time. However, he does need to get some more big victories under his belt to help that along. He already has a reputation as a comeback artist and his ability to thread the needle is well documented. His career win-loss record currently sits at 97-49, which is a 65.1% win rate.
“Big Ben” has career totals of 53,098 passing yards, 341 touchdowns, 180 interceptions, a completion rate of 64.2%, and a passer rating of 94. He is a six time Pro-Bowl selection and a two time Superbowl champion. He has performed well on the big stage, winning in two of his three SuperBowl appearances. I believe he is the greatest quarterback in Steelers history and his consistency in keeping his team in the win column attests to this. In order to supplant someone on the list above though, he needs to make a couple more deep playoff runs and put up some more high yardage and touchdown passing seasons.