Best QBs in Pro Football History

This is the final article in a seven-part series. Below is an update to my 2015 ranking of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. I won't be offering detailed player stories or explanations of the rankings, because [1] not much has changed in the last three years, and [2] I've spent the last month and a half writing about the top 100 QBs of the Modern Era, as ranked by by QB-TSP. If you haven't read that series already, I'd really encourage you to do so before continuing here. At least read the posts on the quarterbacks ranked 1-40.

Best Statistical QBs: 81-100
Best Statistical QBs: 61-80
Best Statistical QBs: 41-60
Best Statistical QBs: 21-40
Best Statistical QBs: 1-20

The previous articles in this series ranked QBs using objective statistical criteria. This article offers my subjective rankings, looking beyond the stats. Players are ranked within tiers, indicating close calls. Within a given tier, you have my blessing to shuffle the rankings; I have no interest in arguing about rankings within each tier, viewing those players as essentially equal.

The players ranked below are Modern-Era quarterbacks only, but please don't misinterpret that as lack of respect for exceptional two-way players like Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, and Benny Friedman. I'll have brief notes about those players below.

1. Peyton Manning

Pretty clearly the greatest statistical quarterback of all-time, and for me personally, the most visually impressive and fun to watch, but also a pioneer who changed the way the position is played. Everything Tom Brady and Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers do well, Manning did first.

I've described the Brady-Manning debate as religious: people believe that one or the other is better, in a way that forms part of their self-identity. From that perspective, disagreements can not derive from weighting variables differently or from reasonable disagreement, and people on the other side are accused of bias. I don't entirely exclude myself from that. It's very hard for me to understand pro-Brady arguments without linking them to a pre-existing preference for that outcome. Maybe I'm doing the same thing on the other side, without realizing it.

But I'm not a Colts fan, or an AFC East rival, or a Vol or a Buckeye. I don't especially like Tom Brady — he doesn't seem like a nice person — but I don't especially like Peyton Manning, either. Dan Marino seems to make enemies more easily than friends. I rank Fran Tarkenton much higher than most people, and I have problems with him, too. Maybe I'm wrong about these guys; I've never met them and I could probably be persuaded that they're great people. But there's no reason for me to artificially downgrade Brady so I can boost one or more of the others.

I believe that Super Bowl wins are a team stat, not an individual stat. I think that Joe Montana and Bart Starr were better postseason players than Brady. I think Manning's personnel advantages are insufficient to explain his vastly superior regular-season statistics and postseason honors (All-Pro, etc.), and I'm not aware of meaningful evidence that domed stadiums have a major influence on passing statistics. Perhaps I have misjudged one or more of those factors, but this ranking is based on what I think, not what I feel.

2. Tom Brady
3. Otto Graham
4. Dan Marino
5. Johnny Unitas
6. Joe Montana

Three years ago, I ranked Tom Brady 7th. I stand by that ranking. At the time, Brady had four 2,000-TSP seasons, five 1,800-TSP seasons, and six 1,600-TSP seasons. Those are excellent numbers, but they don't compare to Manning (10, 13, 14), Marino (7, 9, 11), Montana (7, 8, 8), Unitas (7, 8, 8), or even Graham (5, 7, 8), who played only 10 professional seasons. Brady's teams had won four Super Bowls, and I ranked him significantly higher than Terry Bradshaw or Bart Starr, who had similar championship résumés and superior postseason stats.

Since then, however, Brady has had three great seasons (he's up to 5, 8, 9 in the counts above) and played well in two more Super Bowls. He's played twice as many games as Graham, and he's done more than Montana with fewer weapons.

7. Fran Tarkenton

If I included Sammy Baugh in these rankings, he'd rate about the same as Tarkenton. I didn't include Baugh or his peers in this ranking, though, because it's almost apples to oranges. Baugh played under different rules, in an era with different offensive philosophies, and he had to play 60 minutes. He was a standout defensive back and the best punter of his era. Purely as an offensive player, I think he's in the same ballpark as Tarkenton, but it's a difficult comparison to make with any confidence, because their situations were so different and there's so little film of Baugh.

8. Steve Young
9. Drew Brees
10. Brett Favre

Because he succeeded Joe Montana, Steve Young's consistent record of winning games, and his historic performance in Super Bowl XXIX, tend to get glossed over. The 49ers went 91-33 in games started by Young (.740), compared to 100-39 (.719) for Montana. In his lone Super Bowl start, Young passed for 325 yards and 6 TDs, plus he led all rushers with five runs for 49 yards.

At the same time, those of us interested in analytics sometimes get carried away praising Young. He was not impressive with the USFL's L.A. Express, or with the Buccaneers. In Tampa, Young's teams went 3-16; he threw twice as many INTs as TDs and had a 63.1 passer rating. There's an argument to be made that he was a product of the 49ers' system and personnel. Young's teams were successful in the postseason (8-5), but never won a playoff game on the road, and repeatedly suffered disappointing home losses. Young's Niners went 1-2 in the playoffs against Dallas and 1-3 against Green Bay — five of those seven games were in San Francisco — with Young held below a 70 passer rating in all four games against the Packers.

11. Roger Staubach
12. John Elway
13. Sonny Jurgensen
14. Norm Van Brocklin
15. Warren Moon

Everyone in this tier led the NFL in QB-TSP at least once. The quarterbacks ranked 1-15 led in TSP more times (39) than all other QBs combined (33).

16. Aaron Rodgers
17. Dan Fouts
18. Bobby Layne
19. Bart Starr
20. Terry Bradshaw
21. Y.A. Tittle

The one in this group who's really underrated today is Bobby Layne. A contemporary of Van Brocklin and Tittle, he was regarded as the best of the three. His stats were limited by the Lions' personnel, especially in the receiving corps. Layne's leading receivers in Detroit were Cloyce Box, Dorne Dibble, Box again, running back Doak Walker, Dibble again, Dave Middleton, Middleton again, and Jim Doran. Box was legit, but only for a couple of seasons. There's no Tom Fears or Crazy Legs Hirsch in that group.

There have been 13 or 14 first-ballot HOF modern-era QBs: Bobby Layne, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, George Blanda (QB/K), Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, and Brett Favre. Aikman is the only one rated below this tier. Of the nine players in or above this tier who were not first-ballot HOFers, four are not yet eligible (Manning, Brady, Brees, Rodgers) and one retired before the Hall of Fame opened but was quickly inducted, with his status never really in doubt (Graham). The others are Tarkenton (3rd ballot), Jurgensen (4th), Van Brocklin (6th), and Tittle (2nd). Among those four, only Van Brocklin ever won a professional championship. The voters put a lot of weight on team success, though this is somewhat less true than it used to be. Fouts was the first opening-ballot Hall of Fame QB without multiple league titles.

Including Pre-Modern QBs, I would rank Sid Luckman near the top of this group, probably between Rodgers and Fouts.

22. Philip Rivers
23. Ben Roethlisberger
24. Joe Namath
25. Randall Cunningham
26. Donovan McNabb
27. Jim Kelly

This tier is my Hall of Fame standard. The next group I feel are borderline, but these top 27 I think should be in. I'm sold on Rivers and Roethlisberger, which I wasn't three years ago. If you're a Small-Hall advocate, maybe you prefer to stick to the top 21; if you're Big-Hall, you probably want to include the next tier as well.

Personally, I think a Small-Hall approach is no longer viable. Given that Namath and Kelly and five QBs ranked below this are already in, it would be inconsistent and unfair to snub Rivers, Roethlisberger, Cunningham, and McNabb. Paraphrasing Bill James ... after the Hall of Fame has already honored the 33rd-best and 46th-best quarterbacks, does it degrade the Hall of Fame to then include players who rank in the mid-20s? Does it not, in fact, enhance the integrity of the honor, to show that the institution is capable of some minimal consistency in its selections?

I lean towards a Big Hall that includes the top 33 QBs, but I think a standard including at least this tier is clearly set in precedent. Rivers and Roethlisberger are not yet eligible, obviously, but I believe they'll both get in. Namath and Kelly got elected easily. Cunningham and McNabb have generated no support from the voters, but they have something in common working against them, which reflects more poorly on the voters than the players.

Benny Friedman, who played in the 1920s and '30s, was the NFL's first great passer. He would rate in this tier, perhaps about the same as Cunningham.

28. Len Dawson
29. Troy Aikman
30. Bob Griese
31. Ken Anderson
32. Doug Flutie
33. Kurt Warner

An NFL-only analysis of Flutie's career omits his age 28-35 seasons, and you can't credibly evaluate a player without considering those years. Flutie was an effective NFL QB from ages 36-41, including a no-doubt Pro Bowler in 1998. His success at that age suggests an even more exceptional player in his athletic prime. In the CFL, he dominated exactly the way you'd expect an elite NFL QB to do: setting records, winning Most Outstanding Player every year, and single-handedly turning bad teams into champions. I find it implausible that Jim Kelly or Troy Aikman would have been any more successful in the CFL than Flutie was, and he made the Pro Bowl at an age when they were both retired. If you haven't read my piece explaining why Doug Flutie ranks here, please check it out.

I also want to defend Bob Griese in this space. His stats are not impressive, but his Hall of Fame reputation is not merely a function of team success. Griese was a two-time All-Star before the Dolphins ever had a winning season. Before they reached their first Super Bowl, Griese was a four-time AFL All-Star or NFL Pro Bowler, with two second-team All-Pro nods from NEA, and a consensus first-team All-Pro selection in 1971. The argument that Griese's reputation was solely or even primarily due to his team is provably false.

34. John Brodie
35. Boomer Esiason
36. Tony Romo
37. Roman Gabriel
38. John Hadl
39. Steve McNair
40. Matt Ryan

I hate ranking players in mid-career, but this seems like a reasonable and relatively conservative rating for Ryan. He already ranks among the all-time top 20 in passing yards and TDs, he was Offensive Rookie of the Year, he's made four Pro Bowls, he was NFL MVP, and he's Matty Ice, known ever since his rookie season for leading clutch comebacks. He ranks 27th in Career Value and 30th in Year-Points.

41. Jim Hart
42. Bert Jones
43. Jeff Garcia
44. Rich Gannon
45. Daryle Lamonica
46. Ken Stabler
47. Joe Theismann
48. Jim Everett
49. Phil Simms

This is the same group I ranked 40-48 three years ago, except that Matt Ryan is ahead of them now, and I swapped New York Giants (Phil Simms in, Charlie Conerly out) based on the teams around them.

If you want to include Bob Waterfield among Modern Era QBs, I would probably rank him at the bottom of this group. Purely as a quarterback, he wouldn't crack the top 40, and even top 50 is questionable, but Waterfield was a good player on defense and special teams as well, and some of his best seasons don't jump off the page statistically because he platooned with Norm Van Brocklin.

50. Tobin Rote
51. Charlie Conerly
52. Vinny Testaverde
53. Mark Brunell
54. Drew Bledsoe
55. Norm Snead
56. Russell Wilson

The more I examine Norm Snead's career, the more highly I rank him. He made the Pro Bowl with three different teams. The only other quarterbacks to do that are Brett Favre and Warren Moon. I would be willing to make a Top-50 argument for Snead.

Russell Wilson should outgrow this group quickly.

57. Eli Manning
58. Carson Palmer
59. Cam Newton
60. Trent Green
61. Billy Kilmer
62. Billy Wade
63. Milt Plum
64. Craig Morton
65. Doug Williams

Palmer and Green are the only players in this tier not to start a championship game.

66. Brian Sipe
67. Charley Johnson
68. Dave Krieg
69. Earl Morrall
70. Daunte Culpepper
71. Bernie Kosar
72. Matt Hasselbeck
73. Brad Johnson
74. Matthew Stafford
75. Greg Landry
76. Johnny Lujack
77. Tommy Thompson
78. Frankie Albert
79. Jim Plunkett
80. Danny White
81. Archie Manning
82. Steve Grogan
83. Joe Ferguson
84. Jim Zorn
85. Ron Jaworski
86. Steve Bartkowski
87. Steve DeBerg
88. George Blanda
89. Neil Lomax
90. Frank Ryan
91. Don Meredith

This is the late-1970s, early-1980s group. I don't have any confidence distinguishing Jim Plunkett from Brian Sipe, or Archie Manning from Ron Jaworski, or Danny White from Jim Zorn, etc. I peppered in a few players from other eras who seem like they should rate about the same, but please understand that at this point, the distinction between ranks has gotten really small. You could probably adjust a given player up or down one tier and I wouldn't argue.

92. Tommy Kramer
93. Jake Plummer
94. Bobby Hebert
95. Jeff George
96. Kerry Collins
97. Mark Rypien
98. Chad Pennington
99. Ken O'Brien
100. Ed Brown

There are some fine QBs who missed my top 100, and if their absences offend you, take solace that the difference was likely minimal. The gap between 100 and 120 or so is too small to distinguish with much confidence, so if you want to bump Michael Vick or Jim Harbaugh or someone into the Top 100, you'll get no argument from me.

Among active players, the closest to making the list were definitely Alex Smith, Matt Schaub, and Andrew Luck. Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins could enter the Top 100 as early as next season if they play well.

I hope you've enjoyed this series. If it's caused you to look at players from new angles, then I've done my job as a writer. Thanks for coming with an open mind; thanks for reading.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site