Best QBs in History: 6-10

I've been studying NFL history my whole life. 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, I'm presenting my choices as a series of articles, highlighting about 10 players per list, and counting down to number one. We previously covered pre-Modern Era QBs, 49-101 in the Modern Era, 40-48, 31-39, 21-30, and most recently, 11-20.

This week, we begin the top 10.

10. Roger Staubach
Dallas Cowboys, 1969-79
22,700 yards, 153 TD, 109 INT, 83.4 rating

Roger Staubach was the best quarterback of the 1970s. He led all passers in rating and in TD/INT differential (+45), the latter nearly doubling a second-place tie between Fran Tarkenton and Kenny Anderson (+24). Despite playing only eight full seasons, Staubach also ranked among the top three QBs of the '70s in both passing yards and rushing yards. He was the first-team QB on the NFL's All-1970s Team.

Staubach's statistics are exceptional. He led the league in passer rating four times, and retired with the highest rating in NFL history. Staubach was distinguished by his combination of short-range and downfield accuracy. Throwing underneath, he hit the receiver in stride, but he was also a great downfield passer. A dangerous dual-threat, Staubach was also known for his running, an ability that earned him the nickname "Roger the Dodger." Staubach rushed for 2,204 yards and 19 TDs, ranking among the top 10 rushing QBs every full season of his career.

Staubach earned another nickname, Captain Comeback, with his many fourth-quarter heroics. His playoff-winning throw to Drew Pearson wasn't the first Hail Mary pass, but it's the play known by that name. Staubach led the Cowboys to a 85-29 record, with six NFC Championship Games, four Super Bowl appearances, and two titles. He was MVP of Super Bowl VI.

With his career delayed by service in the US Navy, Staubach was 27 as a rookie. He retired at 37 due to repeated concussions, following a season in which he set career-highs for yardage and TDs, easily leading the NFL in TD/INT differential (+16, with no one else over +8) and passer rating (92.3, with no one else over 84). His career was shortened on both ends.

When active, Staubach was one of the top QBs in the NFL every season. He was the most accurate passer of his generation, he was the most dangerous dual-threat, he ran the best two-minute drill, and he won the most games of any QB of the decade.

9. Brett Favre
Atlanta Falcons, 1991; Green Bay Packers, 1992-2007; New York Jets, 2008; Minnesota Vikings, 2009-10
71,838 yards, 508 TD, 336 INT, 86.0 rating

From 1994-98, Brett Favre passed for over 30 touchdowns every year. The only other player with five consecutive 30-TD seasons is Drew Brees (and Peyton Manning, if you omit the 2011 season he missed due to injury) — but that's following the illegal contact rule, defenseless receiver rules, and additional protections for the quarterback.

Favre made 11 Pro Bowls, won three NFL MVP Awards, and set career records for passing yards and touchdowns. He led the league in yardage twice and TDs four times. Part of what people loved about Favre, at least early in his career, was his approach to the game. He was fun-loving and exuberant, made jokes on the sideline and tackled his teammates in the end zone. His throwing techniques were atrocious, but he had phenomenal arm strength and he mastered the West Coast Offense. He never gave up on a play, scrambling to avoid pressure, and he would force the ball into any tiny opening. He was fun to watch: a high-risk, high-reward gunslinger who won more often than not.

Favre's willingness to take risks made him the most exciting QB of his generation, but it also contributed to two all-time records Brett probably wishes he didn't hold, and which will probably never be broken: Favre holds the career records for most interceptions (336) and most fumbles (166). No active player is within 100 INT of Favre, and the closest fumbler is Michael Vick (96), who will retire long before he fumbles another 70 times.

I don't want to dwell on Favre's weaknesses, because he was a great player for a long time, but it has always surprised me that people consider Favre a great clutch quarterback. Favre's teams went 13-11 in the playoffs — which is fine, but nothing special — and he was the first Packers QB to lose a playoff game at Lambeau Field. Perhaps most damning, Favre couldn't beat the Cowboys. From Favre's arrival in Green Bay until the end of Troy Aikman's career, the Packers went 1-8 against Dallas, including 0-3 in the playoffs, and with all eight losses by double-digits. I don't know of any other QB of Favre's caliber who struggled against an opponent the way Favre did against the Cowboys.

We don't remember John Elway for his early Super Bowl failures, or Jim Kelly for his interceptions. We don't remember Troy Aikman for his low TD rate or Randall Cunningham for his huge number of sacks. And we don't remember Favre for his turnovers or his struggles against the Cowboys. We remember Favre for his arm strength and play-making. We remember his joy for the game. We remember his 500 touchdown passes and 70,000 yards, his eight division championships, his three MVP seasons. Favre set important career records, and in his prime, he was the best player in the game.

8. Steve Young
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1985-86; San Francisco 49ers, 1987-99
33,124 yards, 232 TD, 107 INT, 96.8 rating

I think Steve Young is the only player on this list whose rank matches his uniform number. This rank also matches the number of productive seasons that Young had in the NFL. He began his career with the USFL's L.A. Express, then spent two dismal years with the Bucs, and finally, four years backing up Joe Montana.

That leaves only eight seasons, before injuries forced his retirement in 1999, but during those eight seasons, Young played about as well as any quarterback in history. From 1991-98, Young made seven Pro Bowls and six all-pro teams, led the NFL in passer rating six times and passing TDs four times, was first-team all-pro three straight years and NFL MVP twice, and had the greatest performance of any quarterback in Super Bowl history.

Every year he started for the 49ers, Steve Young was the best QB in the league, or very close to it. He wasn't just the most efficient QB of the 1990s, he was by far the most efficient. All the ranks below are for 1990-99.

Completion percentage — [1] Steve Young, 66.3; [2] Troy Aikman, 62.2; [3] Brett Favre, 61.1

Yards per attempt — [1] Steve Young, 8.2; [2] Jim Kelly, 7.4; [3] Randall Cunningham, 7.3

Net yards per attempt — [1] Steve Young, 7.2; [2] Dan Marino, 6.6; [3] Jim Kelly, 6.5

Touchdown percentage — [1] Steve Young, 5.9; [2] Brett Favre, 5.4; [3] Randall Cunningham, 5.3

Interception percentage — [1] Neil O'Donnell, 2.0; [2] Steve Young, 2.36; [3] Mark Brunell, 2.41

TD/INT differential — [1] Steve Young, +120; [2] Brett Favre, +94; [3] Dan Marino, +73

Passer rating — [1] Steve Young, 101.2; [2] Brett Favre, 87.1; [3] Randall Cunningham, 86.2

Young was also the most prolific rushing QB of the decade:

Rushing yards — [1] Steve Young, 3081; [2] Jim Harbaugh, 2362; [3] Randall Cunningham, 2304

Rushing TDs — [1] Steve Young, 33; [t2] John Elway and Steve McNair, 22

Not only does Young lead every category (except INT%, where he's 2nd), he leads them by huge margins, with everyone else pretty close to equal. Young, in the 1990s, just performed on a totally different level than the rest of the league. Young's short career limits his rank on the all-time list, but when he played, he was as dominant a QB as the game has ever seen. He was the most accurate passer of his generation, an electric runner, and the greatest run/pass dual-threat in the history of football.

7. Tom Brady
New England Patriots, 2000-14
53,258 yards, 392 TD, 143 INT, 95.9 rating

Like John Elway or Roger Staubach, a multiple Super Bowl loser famous for his clutch play. Tom Brady's career has something to please everyone. He has career milestones like 350 TDs and 50,000 yards. He has four Super Bowl rings and three Super Bowl MVPs. He's been regular season MVP twice, he's thrown for 5,000 yards in a season, 50 TDs in a season, a 117.2 passer rating. No matter what measure you prefer, Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play.

Brady spent a few years throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski could become the greatest tight end of all time if he stays healthy. But for much of his career, Brady has played with no-name receivers. Sometimes he's had a running game, and sometimes not. For most of the last decade, there have been questions about New England's defense. No matter who else is on the team, Bill Belichick and Brady find ways to succeed. Such dramatic shifts in approach are not unprecedented, but they're very rare.

I really don't have anything negative to say about Tom Brady, but I suppose I need to explain why he "only" ranks seventh — and in particular, some readers will require me to explain why I rank Brady beneath Peyton Manning.

Let's begin with the Manning comparison. I think most fans would agree that Brady and Manning have been roughly equal from 2005-14. During those years, Manning was 113-31 as starter, compared to 112-33 for Brady. Each has one Super Bowl victory (and two Super Bowl losses), with one Super Bowl MVP (Brady's others came prior to '05). It's hard to find much difference there. Likewise with passing stats:


If we're agreed that there's not much difference over the last 10 seasons, the question becomes whether Brady was a greater QB, from 2001-04, than Manning from 1998-2004.

The answer is no. Through '04, Brady made two Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowl MVP Awards. Manning made five Pro Bowls and won two NFL MVP Awards. Brady passed for almost 14,000 yards, Manning for almost 30,000. Manning had six 4,000-yard seasons, Brady none. Manning broke the single-season records for TDs (49) and passer rating (121.1), while Brady's single-season highs were 28 and 92.6, respectively. Manning had a perfect passer rating (158.3) in a playoff game, which Brady has never done, and led a 21-point comeback in the final five minutes of a Monday Night Football game against the defending Super Bowl champions, which no one else has done.

For their careers, Brady has thrown fewer completions, with a lower completion percentage. Many fewer yards, and fewer yards per attempt. Fewer touchdowns, and a lower TD%. More sacks for more yards, and many more fumbles. He does have a lot fewer interceptions and a better INT%. He's less wild than Manning, and he doesn't seem to get rattled or frustrated as easily.

It's to Brady's credit that he's played well without elite receivers, but it's also true that he hasn't looked like the best in the game without weapons like Welker and Gronkowski. That doesn't apply to Manning. Edgerrin James left, and the Colts won the Super Bowl. Marvin Harrison retired, and Manning won NFL MVP. And then we all said, well, okay, but it's not like Reggie Wayne is chopped liver. So Manning overcame a career-threatening neck injury, switched to an entirely different team, with entirely new receivers, and set single-season records for yardage and TDs. Eric Decker left in free agency and Welker got suspended, so Manning turned Emmanuel Sanders into a Pro Bowler. Every receiver Manning plays with turns into a superstar. I just don't know how you look at these two QBs and conclude that Brady is more critical to his team than Manning. It doesn't match up in the eye test, the passing stats, the receivers, or the team results. When Brady missed the 2008 season, the Patriots still went 11-5. When Manning missed the 2011 season, the Colts dropped to 2-14.

Tom Brady has been one of the best QBs in the league for over a decade. He's passed for 50,000 yards, nearly 400 TDs, and he's never thrown 15 or more INTs in any season. He holds several postseason records, he's started in six Super Bowls, quarterbacked four Super Bowl winners, and won three Super Bowl MVPs. He's an obvious Hall of Famer, a great quarterback by any measure (except PSI). The idea that he's the greatest ever — better than his contemporary Manning, or better than fellow four-time champion Joe Montana — I think represents incomplete, over-simplified analysis or recency bias. The idea that Brady might be the best QB in Super Bowl history is absurd: Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, at least, are comfortably ahead of him. Brady is still a good player, and it's likely he will rise on this list before his career is over.

6. Fran Tarkenton
Minnesota Vikings, 1961-66, 1972-78; New York Giants, 1967-71
47,003 yards, 342 TD, 266 INT, 80.4 rating

Fran Tarkenton re-wrote the record books. He took down every record set by Johnny Unitas, and retired with the career marks for yardage and TDs. In addition to his passing records, Tarkenton was also the most renowned scrambler in pro football. He rushed for 300 yards seven times, the record for quarterbacks until Michael Vick upped the mark in 2013. There are a handful of passers with more yards than Tarkenton, and a few QBs with more rushing yardage, but no one is ahead of him in both categories. Likewise with touchdowns.

What most distinguished Tarkenton, and what allowed him to drive his career stats so high, was remarkable year-to-year consistency at an elite level. He ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in completions 17 times, including three years leading the league and 11 seasons in the top five. He ranked in the top 10 in passing TDs 16 times, and that doesn't include an average of 2 rushing TDs per season. He was top-10 in passer rating 16 times. Passing yards per game — and again, this doesn't credit his rushing — 17 years in a row, with 12 in the top five. For the better part of his 17 healthy seasons, Tarkenton was one of the best players in football at his position.

He played heroically with the expansion Vikings, leading them to a winning record (8-5-1 in 1964) sooner than Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, who had debuted a year earlier. In his first game in 1961, Tarkenton passed for 4 TDs and ran for a 5th. In 1967, the Giants traded two 1st-round draft picks and two 2nd-rounders for Tarkenton. Teams normally regret that kind of trade, but the Giants improved immediately. Tarkenton set career-highs for passing yards and TDs, the Giants scored 106 points more than the previous year (an improvement of over 40%), and New York rose from 1-12-1 to 7-7, the first of four straight second-place finishes. Even though the Giants never made the playoffs, Tarkenton regards these as the finest seasons of his career.

After five years with the Giants, another blockbuster trade returned Tarkenton to Minnesota, now coached by Hall of Famer Bud Grant and backed up by a brilliant defense featuring three Hall of Famers. The Vikings won the NFC Central in each of his last six seasons, including three NFC titles — and three Super Bowl losses. There's certainly an argument that Tom Brady's excellent postseason record should bump him ahead of Tarkenton for the sixth spot on this list, but Tarkenton was hardly a total wash in the postseason: his teams went 6-2 in the NFC playoffs. Over his long career, Tarkenton made nine Pro Bowls and won the 1975 NFL MVP Award. He was one of the most efficient passers of his generation, one of the greatest running QBs in history, and he played forever with basically no down seasons.

* * *

We began this series by examining 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.

Following that up, we listed the QBs who rank 49-101, with in-depth profiles on Mark Brunell, Trent Green, Phil Simms, and Vinny Testaverde.

The next week we profiled the quarterbacks ranked 40-48: Charlie Conerly, Jim Everett, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, Jim Hart, Bert Jones, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, and Joe Theismann.

From 31-39, we examined Doug Flutie, Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Boomer Esiason, John Hadl, Roman Gabriel, Ben Roethlisberger, and Steve McNair.

The next installment addressed 21-30 on the list: Aaron Rodgers, Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Donovan McNabb, Jim Kelly, Randall Cunningham, Troy Aikman, Bob Griese, and Ken Anderson, John Brodie.

And last week, we entered the top 20: Sonny Jurgensen, John Elway, Norm Van Brocklin, Warren Moon, Drew Brees, Dan Fouts, Bobby Layne, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, and Y.A. Tittle.

Next week we'll conclude this series, with the top five quarterbacks of all-time.

Comments and Conversation

June 30, 2015


Not even a Pats fan but Brady’s 7th? Behind Fran Tarkenton? And another guy with an 11-13 postseason record?
You’re either a clown or a compromised, in-the-tank clown.
Has Tracy Porter stopped running with that Super Bowl losing INT yet?

July 1, 2015


You forgot to mention that Staubach was the only NFC QB to win the big one in the 70’s and that he was and is the classiest player ever to dawn a helmet. Staubach actually played in 5 super bowls, four of those as the primary starter, of course the Cowboys lost 3 of those by a total of 11 points to powerhouses like pitts twice and Baltimore once. They actually could very well have been 5-0 and should have been. Staubach is trhe best QB to ever play the game by anyones standards.

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