Best QBs in History: 49-101

I've been studying NFL history throughout my life. It's a journey that began the first time I watched my dad's copy of NFL's Greatest Hits on VHS, accelerating when I read Total Football II, and continuing when I began sportswriting over a decade ago.

Something I've never done is to publish my list of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Sparked by a project at Football Perspective, I'm finally stepping into the ring. But because I've done so much research over the years, this is not a simple list. Instead, I'll present my choices as a series of articles, highlighting about 10 players per list, and counting down to number one. We began last week, with quarterbacks who preceded the Modern Era, like Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman.

This week, I'm profiling the players who rank about 50th on my list, as well as recognizing some other fine QBs who missed the cut. I wanted to do these articles in groups of 10: 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, and so on. But I found that the way I rate players doesn't always fit neatly into groups of 10, so instead, we'll begin with the QBs I ranked 49-52.

Here are the 49 Modern-Era players who fill out my top 101, in alphabetical order: Frankie Albert, George Blanda, Drew Bledsoe, Ed Brown, Kerry Collins, Daunte Culpepper, Steve DeBerg, Joe Ferguson, Jeff George, Steve Grogan, Matt Hasselbeck, Ron Jaworski, Brad Johnson, Charley Johnson, Billy Kilmer, Bernie Kosar, Tommy Kramer, Dave Krieg, Greg Landry, Neil Lomax, Andrew Luck, Johnny Lujack, Archie Manning, Eli Manning, Jim McMahon, Don Meredith, Earl Morrall, Craig Morton, Cam Newton, Ken O'Brien, Carson Palmer, Chad Pennington, Milt Plum, Jake Plummer, Jim Plunkett, Tobin Rote, Frank Ryan, Matt Ryan, Mark Rypien, Matt Schaub, Brian Sipe, Norm Snead, Tommy Thompson, Michael Vick, Billy Wade, Danny White, Doug Williams, Russell Wilson, Jim Zorn.

George Blanda is in the Hall of Fame, but as much for his kicking as his passing. Blanda retired as the NFL's all-time leader in scoring — and interceptions. He only started about 100 games at QB. Three young players made the list: Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson. Luck and Wilson are stars, their talent unmistakable. They've reached the playoffs a combined six times in six seasons, including two Super Bowl appearances for Wilson. Luck has improved every year, and I'd love to see what Wilson could do on a team with legit receivers. Both of them look like future Hall of Famers. Newton is on the list because Luck and Wilson are. He's got one more year of experience, and he's done some heroic things on a team without many other weapons. Newton is one of those rare players who can create offense on his own.

Many fans rank the Mannings, Archie and Eli, in the top 50. Both Mannings would make my top 75, and Eli is in the top 60. Eli Manning played great in his two Super Bowl appearances, but the other 170 games of his career are pretty close to average. He's not accurate, he's inconsistent, and his turnover rate is unacceptable in modern football. Over the past 10 seasons, Eli committed 213 turnovers, by far the most in the NFL. Drew Brees is next (184), and no one else is within 50 of Eli. Manning brought his A-game in the two most important games of his career, and that's something we should consider when ranking him, but I don't believe he has a special clutch "ability" other players lack. Despite his "winner" reputation, Manning's Giants have made the playoffs in only five of his 11 seasons, and they've lost their first playoff game more often than they've won (2-3). Eli is a good player, but he's not Bart Starr.

Archie was stuck on terrible teams, running for his life. But I'm not convinced he was a great pro quarterback. The argument for Archie is a what-if scenario. His stats are terrible, and they would have been better on a different team, but they'd need to be a lot better to get Arch anywhere near the top 50. He made 2 Pro Bowls, which is good, but not really top-50 territory. Every team he played for immediately improved when he left. Manning didn't actually do enough to rank among the best of all time. There are several Archie Manning-type players, good QBs stuck on bad teams, whom I think have a stronger argument:

Drew Bledsoe
New England Patriots, 1993-2001; Buffalo Bills, 2002-04; Dallas Cowboys, 2005-06
44,611 yards, 251 TD, 206 INT, 77.1 rating

The Patriots were a train-wreck in the early '90s. They went 1-15, 6-10, 2-14. That's worse (.188) than any three-year stretch in Saints history. Then New England hired Bill Parcells and drafted Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots made the playoffs in Bledsoe's second season, and the Super Bowl in his fourth season.

In that first playoff season (1994), Bledsoe was 22, playing quarterback for a team that was 19-61 over the previous five years. The only meaningful additions were Bledsoe and a rookie linebacker named Willie McGinest. New England's leading rusher in '94 was Marion Butts, who gained 703 yards with a 2.9 average. The top WRs were Michael Timpson and Vincent Brisby. Fortunately, tight end Ben Coates, a non-factor his first two years, clicked with Bledsoe; Coates wasn't a game-breaker, but he was the go-to receiver. The offensive line was shaky: only two of the starting offensive linemen were still with the team two years later (the others were backups on other teams, or out of the league entirely). The defense produced no Pro Bowlers, though it was close to average. In this talent-starved environment, Bledsoe led the NFL in passing yardage and the Patriots went 10-6. Yes, Bledsoe led the league in passing yards with Michael Timpson and Vincent Brisby as his top wide receivers.

Bledsoe was a four-time Pro Bowler. Other than a couple years with Curtis Martin, he never really had a running game, and opposing defenses knew he was going to pass. He faced aggressive blitzes and nickel defenses on first down, even in two-receiver sets. He was the engine that drove the Patriots' offense, and he produced points on teams without a lot of weapons in the receiving corps. He was the youngest QB to reach 10,000 passing yards, and he still ranks among the all-time top 10 in passing yardage.

Tobin Rote
Green Bay Packers, 1950-56; Detroit Lions, 1957-59; San Diego Chargers, 1963-64; Denver Broncos, 1966
18,850 yards, 148 TD, 191 INT, 56.8 rating

Tobin Rote was the Archie Manning of the 1950s, mired on a hopeless Packers team stuck between its dynasties of the early '40s and the 1960s. The Packers of that era routinely had the worst defense in the NFL, and the running game was so weak that during his seven years in Green Bay, Rote himself led the team in rushing yards three times and rushing touchdowns five times. Rote did have one great season with the Packers, 1956, when he led the NFL in passing yards and TDs, and rushed for 11 TDs (in 12 games). Following the season, Detroit traded four players to obtain Rote from Green Bay.

It was a prescient move. With Bobby Layne injured, Rote led the Lions to an NFL Championship. In the title game, he passed for four touchdowns and ran for another. The Lions traded Layne a year later, making Rote the starter, but the championship core of the early '50s was aging or retired, and the team's success didn't last. Rote played poorly in 1959 and was cut after the season. He played three years for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, setting multiple CFL records, before Sid Gillman brought Rote to the AFL's Chargers. Rote was named AFL MVP, and led the Chargers to their first and only championship, a 51-10 win in which Rote passed for two TDs and ran for a third. Norm Van Brocklin and Rote are the only quarterbacks to win a major league championship with two different teams.

Rote's career had a strange shape, with a stint in the CFL and his prime years on the NFL's worst team. Rote made a lot of negative plays, but he was in desperate, must-pass situations. He was top-10 in career passing yards upon his retirement, and he was a brilliant runner, perhaps the best running quarterback before Randall Cunningham. Rote led all QBs in rushing six times, and retired with the most rushing yards of any quarterback in history. He was genuinely outstanding in 1956, and he quarterbacked multiple championship wins, plus he played great in both title games (combined 6 pass TD, 2 rush TD, teams scored 110 pts).

Norm Snead
Washington, 1961-63; Philadelphia Eagles, 1964-70; Minnesota Vikings, 1971; New York Giants, 1972-74, 1976; San Francisco 49ers, 1974-75
30,797 yards, 196 TD, 257 INT, 65.5 rating

History has not remembered Norm Snead kindly, but he was an above-average QB for a long time, and he did have several standout seasons. Snead's reputation suffers because he played mostly on bad teams, and he was traded for future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen. That's a tough comparison to overcome.

Snead threw an appalling number of interceptions, but partly made up for it with stats that don't show up in the rating formula: he scored 23 rushing touchdowns, and he didn't fumble a lot. Snead distinguished himself as a volume passer who threw for a lot of yardage, every year for a decade. Upon retirement, he ranked in the all-time top 10 in pass completions, yards, and TDs.

Snead was a four-time Pro Bowler, and he was good enough to spend 14 years as a starting quarterback in the NFL. Compare Snead to Earl Morrall: most analysts rate Morrall ahead, but throughout their careers, teams consistently viewed Snead as a starter, and Morrall as a backup. Maybe Snead would have done pretty well with the '68 Colts and '72 Dolphins, too? Following a poor rookie season (11 TD, 22 INT, 51.6 rating) on a hopeless Washington team, Snead threw for at least as many TDs as INTs in four of his next six years — not bad for the early '60s. Coming off a Pro Bowl season in 1967, Snead broke his leg in a 1968 exhibition game. Over his remaining nine seasons, Snead threw as many TDs as INTs only once.

Snead's production is what I look for with the Archie Manning argument. Snead played for terrible teams. Washington didn't have a winning season between 1956-68. Philadelphia's only winning record from 1962-77 came with Snead as the primary starter ('66). The Giants never made the playoffs between 1964-80. Snead's teams were awful, never just "one player away" from contending. It's tough to succeed in that environment, but Snead at least partly overcame the challenges, making a handful of Pro Bowls and posting career passing totals that still show up on today's leaderboards. That's what I wanted to see from Archie Manning.

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Now, let's look at the top 52 QBs of the Modern Era. This series will become an ordered list, but there's not a big difference between #49 and #52, so for now, we'll just proceed in alphabetical order.

Mark Brunell
Green Bay Packers, 1993-94; Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2003; Washington, 2004-07; New Orleans Saints, 2008-09; New York Jets, 2010-11
32,072 yards, 184 TD, 108 INT, 84.0 rating

Mark Brunell started in the NFL for 11 seasons, and he had a 19-year career, continuing to play as late as age 41. In his prime, Brunell was a dual-threat QB, an efficient passer and a good runner. He is the only quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in passing yards and lead all QBs in rushing the same season. He passed for over 3,000 yards six times and rushed for over 200 yards seven times.

Brunell is one of the finest left-handed quarterbacks in history. Teamed with Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, he helped the expansion Jaguars become one of the best teams in the AFC. Brunell also went to the playoffs with Washington in 2005, quarterbacking the team's only postseason win of the 2000s.

Some readers may question why Brunell made the top 52, and Drew Bledsoe did not. These two are easy to compare, because both were rookies in 1993. Bledsoe passed for many more yards (44,611) and TDs (251), but Brunell had better completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD%, INT%, passer rating, and net yards per attempt ... he was a far more efficient passer. And of course, Brunell was a far superior runner, with an edge of 5 TDs and about 1,500 yards. The most striking difference is that Brunell committed 137 turnovers (108 interceptions, 29 fumbles lost), compared to 262 for Bledsoe (206 INT, 56 FmL). Brunell played with better receivers and nicer weather, but that's a titanic difference, 125 turnovers.

I'm not trying to denigrate Drew Bledsoe, because he was a good quarterback. But he's commonly ranked higher than this, so it seemed important to explain why each player rates where he does.

Trent Green
San Diego Chargers, 1993; Washington, 1995-98; St. Louis Rams, 1999-2000, 2008; Kansas City Chiefs, 2001-06; Miami Dolphins, 2007
28,475 yards, 162 TD, 114 INT, 86.0 rating

Trent Green started his first season opener in 2001. He was 31. But Green quickly showed that flashes of promise with Washington and St. Louis were no fluke. Most passing yards, 2002-05:


For a period of four years, Trent Green was arguably the second-most effective QB in the NFL. Of course, Green benefitted from a supporting cast that included two Hall of Fame linemen (Willie Roaf and Will Shields) and the greatest tight end of all time (Tony Gonzalez), as well as standouts like Priest Holmes and Brian Waters. There was a sense around the league that Green was a product of his team, and not the key player.

There's certainly some truth to that idea, but Green's success in Kansas City is validated by his time with the Rams. When Kurt Warner got injured in 2000, Green (16 TD, 5 INT, 101.8 rating) played at a similar level to Warner (21 TD, 18 INT, 98.3 rating). With such a brief starting career and so many talented teammates, you wouldn't want to rate Green much higher than this, but he quarterbacked the greatest offense of the early '00s.

Phil Simms
New York Giants, 1979-93
33,462 yards, 199 TD, 157 INT, 78.5 rating

Phil Simms played maybe the most perfect Super Bowl of any quarterback. Facing the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, Simms went 22-of-25 for 268 yards and 3 TDs. Two of the three incompletions were drops, though one of the three touchdowns came on a deflected pass, which probably evens out. Thirty years later, Simms still holds the record for the highest passer rating in a Super Bowl.

A first-round draft pick in 1979, Simms began his career as a disappointment. He struggled with injuries and inconsistency before securing the starting job in 1984. The 1986-90 Giants went 55-21 with two Super Bowl victories. Those teams succeeded with dominant defense, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust ground game, and a pass attack that was whatever Phil Simms could manufacture. The team's best wide receiver was Lionel Manuel, and tight end Mark Bavaro was the only real standout Simms could throw to. The defense kept New York in nearly every game, but it was largely up to Simms to produce enough points to win.

Simms' stats are good (although he kept his interception rate low by taking a lot of sacks), but they don't do justice to a player who overcame his lack of weapons and often saved his best performances for the biggest moments. He led the Giants to their first playoff appearance in 18 years, he was a two-time Pro Bowler, and he was MVP of Super Bowl XXI.

Vinny Testaverde
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1987-92; Cleveland Browns, 1993-95; Baltimore Ravens, 1996-97; New York Jets, 1998-2003, 2005; Dallas Cowboys, 2004; New England Patriots, 2006; Carolina Panthers, 2007
46,233 yards, 275 TD, 267 INT, 75.0 rating

This is a seven-part series on the greatest quarterbacks of all time. When we get close to the top, we'll go in order, but in this part of the rankings, we're looking at groups of players. Can I tell you with any confidence whether Tobin Rote was better than Drew Bledsoe, or Mark Brunell compared to Trent Green? Not really. We're comparing similar players, and the similarity that ties together many of the QBs in this article is that they began their careers playing for bad teams.

From 1983-96, Tampa Bay went 64-159 (.287) and never had a winning season. The Bucs were terrible before Testaverde arrived, and they were terrible after he left. During his six seasons in Tampa, Testaverde threw 77 TDs and 112 INTs, but I don't believe he was a bad quarterback; he was stuck in a hopeless situation. From 1985-86, a Buccaneers QB named Steve Young threw 11 TDs and 21 INTs. Don't judge Vinny by his career numbers, or his seasons on one of the worst teams in history.

Testaverde ranks among the all-time top 10 in both passing yards and passing TDs, but it's not just the compilation of statistics that distinguishes Testaverde's career; he had some genuinely great seasons. Below are stats for two QBs from 1996. Other than net yards per attempt, these figures do not include sacks.


Which player do you want? QB A had more touchdowns and fewer interceptions, but B passed for 300 more yards on the same number of attempts. B was also a better rusher (188 yds, 5.5 avg, 2 TD) than A (136 yds, 2.8 avg, 2 TD), and he had fewer fumbles (11-9). Statistically, they're really close. QB B is Vinny Testaverde, and QB A is NFL MVP Brett Favre.

That's not Testaverde's only great season. Two years later, he led the AFC in passer rating (101.6), went 13-2 as starter, and took the Jets to the AFC Championship Game. That was at age 35, and very few players have a great season after that point, but Testaverde played 21 seasons in the NFL, finally retiring when he was 44. Warren Moon, Favre, and Testaverde are the only players with a 3,000-yard passing season after age 40, and Testaverde is the oldest starting quarterback to win a game in the NFL. A quarterback's abilities decline rapidly in his mid-30s, so a guy who could still play in his mid-40s was obviously pretty good before the decline.

* * *

Last week, we highlighted the best pre-Modern Era quarterbacks: Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Ed Danowski, Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sid Luckman, Bernie Masterson, Ace Parker, and Bob Waterfield.

Next week, we'll profile the QBs ranked 40-48.

Comments and Conversation

May 26, 2015

Brad Oremland:

102-110: Steve Bartkowski, Jeff Blake, Chris Chandler, Joe Flacco, Jim Harbaugh, Bobby Hebert, Jeff Hostetler, Bill Nelsen, Neil O’Donnell

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