Welcome to the most comprehensive and least debatable top 10 quarterback list.
Like most analysts, I know the above statement to be a major fallacy. Each individual is going to have their own rationale for how this list is constructed and who gets placed where. Earlier this week, I released my criteria for the construction of these lists. Within my criteria, I believe the ability to elevate the talent around you (which I agree is incredibly subjective) is the most important thing about being the best quarterback. Any player can play well with greatness surrounding him, but how does he play with lesser players? Let’s not waste anymore time. Here are my top ten quarterbacks of all time.
10. Fran Tarkenton
Fran Tarkenton is a name that you don’t always associate with these lists. He played in the 60s’s and 70’s where the quarterback position was not featured nearly what it is today. It was about running the ball, playing good defense and being calculated with their passing attempts. In fact, it wasn’t rare to see a really good quarterback throw more interceptions than touchdowns. The era itself was just different. In his 18 seasons, Tarkenton only had 4 such seasons. When he retired, Tarkenton held many major NFL passing records including:
Completions and Attempts-3,686/6,467
Not only did he hold those records, Tarkenton also was the leading rusher at the quarterback position with 3,674 until Randall Cunningham broke it in the mid ’90s. He was the original scrambling quarterback along with a true vertical threat. While he does get lost in the shuffle, he is a bonafide top 10 quarterback.
9. Warren Moon
This is one that won’t necessarily register to the average fan. On the surface, Moon’s stats are good. He won 5 Grey Cups in 6 seasons in Canada signed with Houston in 1984 and thrived once Jack Pardee and June Jones instituted the Run N Shoot offense in the late 80’s. Those teams with Haywood Jeffires, Ernest Givins, Curtis Duncan and Drew Hill were not only fun, but also lethal. Moon put up some incredible numbers in the NFL including back-to-back seasons in 90 and 91 where he threw for 4,689 and 4,690 yards.
Operating the run n shoot was a unique task for a quarterback. Once a concept was called on the field, it’s all about cohesion and communication. Both the receiver and quarterback need to make the same read on each play so the ball goes to the right spot. The toughest part to navigate with the offense was the free rusher coming almost every play. The offense constantly sends 5 receivers so that leaves Moon to navigate a treacherous pocket. Even with multiple HOFers on the offensive line, it was still difficult. When everything clicks though, it’s nearly unstoppable. Moon consistently made throws that would make your jaw drop.
These throws were commonplace for Moon and the offense in which he ran. Those elements are why he is so highly on this list. Did Moon ever win a Super Bowl? No he didn’t. However, I don’t hold that against him. The massive dysfunction in the Oilers organization hindered that from ever happening. Buddy Ryan helped drive the wedge between the offense and defense and right after owner Bud Adams blew up the team. Another element to consider is the systematic racism that prevented him from getting a job in the NFL right out of college. Because he was a black quarterback in the 1978 draft, he didn’t get a second look. That is why he ended up playing for Edmonton in the CFL and throwing for 26,000 yards, which if you add up his combined passing yards, it would put him 3rd place all time.
8. Drew Brees
What more can you say about Drew Brees? The only quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards multiple times (4/9 total seasons) and the second-most accurate quarterback of all-time (0.1% behind Deshaun Watson), Brees led some prolific offenses to top finishes and even won a Super Bowl in 2009. One of the questions is why he is so low on the list? As good as he was, he never was that transcendent player who could overcome anything to succeed. There were way too many 8-8 and 7-9 records and his talent was not top tier like others on the list
7. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning was a fantastic football player. Likely the smartest player to ever play the game of football, Manning spent his career shattering records both single season and career. When he retired, he held the all-time records for passing yards, completions, attempts and touchdowns. He set single season records for touchdowns twice in seasons where he won one of his 5 MVP awards. Manning also made 2 Super Bowls winning one of them and was a top quarterback for his entire career.
Of all the players that made the list, the one I know that will get the most blowback is Peyton Manning. Why is he as low as he is? Two main reasons: limited physical ability and performance in the clutch. While Manning had one of the best careers in league history, it wasn’t due to his physical ability, which the players above him all have more of. He also had a few too many instances where he would crumble in high pressure situations. The 41-0 loss to the Jets, multiple losses to the Patriots in New England, the OT loss to Baltimore where he threw the game sealing interception and more. For me, these things knock him down a few notches but still easily keep him in the top 10.
6. Aaron Rodgers
One of the most talented players to ever play the quarterback position, Aaron Rodgers does things that kids dream about playing football with neighbor kids in their backyard, especially this one from 2016.
Aaron Rodgers just simply does things on the football field that amaze you incessantly. The off-platform, pin-point accuracy he has is astounding. He can make any throw from any spot to anyone on the field. Pair that with his ability to evade the rush and you have a nearly unbeatable combination. Rodgers most impressive stat is a 4.63 TD/INT ratio which is second in league history only behind Patrick Mahomes at 4.75. His elite talent and ability to do some amazing things have him high on the list. If he can continue at the pace he is on (and wins another Super Bowl or two), Rodgers will end up higher on the list.
5. Dan Marino
The quarterback on here with arguably the least accomplishments on this list is Dan Marino. Even though he made one Super Bowl and a couple AFC championship games, Marino was a remarkable quarterback. In his first full season as a starter, he threw for then NFL records with 5,084 passing yards and 48 touchdowns, both of which stood for 20+ years. What made Marino unique was that he was a statue in the pocket yet was incredibly mobile. Marino had masterful feet that allowed him to slide and shuffle within the pocket to avoid pressure. While that is a great trait that Marino posesses, it’s nothing compared to his arm, which I argue is the best the NFL has ever seen.
Dan Marino had an absolute rocket, piss missile, cannon, etc of an arm. Whatever comparison or analogy you can think of to describe his strong arm, it’s correct. His arm could make every throw with incredible zip. It felt like a lightning bolt was being shot out of his hand. His release is the (unconfirmed) fastest in NFL history and would also be delivered with unparalleled power. The closest arm we have seen to Marino’s is Patrick Mahomes, and his is great in different ways. If Marino would have been more successful in the playoffs and come up clutch in big games, he would have a much stronger argument to be the best quarterback on this list.
4. Brett Favre
Nobody visibly had more fun playing football than Brett Favre. His child like joy came across on the screen in every game. Does this make him great? No, but he was. Favre had a rocket ball that made him a legend in practice, having broken numerous wide receivers fingers from Donald Driver to Antonio Freeman and Greg Jennings. A true gunslinger, there wasn’t a throw that Brett Favre didn’t think he could make.
When he retired, Favre held records in completions, attempts, yards, and touchdowns. His best trait of being a gunslinger also was his biggest downfall.
The other record that Brett Favre held when he retired is one that he will likely hold for the rest of his life: interceptions. The 2009 season with the Minnesota Vikings is the epitome of his career: you live by the arm and die by the arm. From the week 3 game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Lewis on the back end of the end zone with 2 seconds left to the above interception that dashed the Vikings Super Bowl hopes, Brett Favre has experienced every emotion his gunslinger playstyle can invoke. While he was consistently a top 5 quarterback for the better part of 15 years, that inconsistency is why he is not higher up on the list.
3. Joe Montana
When Bill Walsh was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, he started crafting his own offense, soon to be known as the West Coast Offense. A nickel and dime based attack, Walsh wanted to use timing and short routes to distribute the ball to his playmakers and give them the opportunity to make plays in space. When he finally got the opportunity to become a head coach in San Francisco, he needed a quarterback. Enter Joe Montana.
One of the tough things to quantify with a player like Montana is that he is a true system quarterback. In all honesty, most quarterbacks are. Outside of a few transcendent talents, I believe you can call most quarterbacks system guys. There isn’t anything wrong with that either and, unless the system is explicitly designed to hide glaring weaknesses, a player shouldn’t be punished in a list like this. Montana did a little bit of everything for the 49ers in the 1980’s leading them to 4 Super Bowl championships. A true technician, Montana was accurate, calculated and had the ability to create within and outside of structure. Even though he didn’t possess great size or a powerful arm, Montana could make every throw and with good accuracy. In fact, Montana is the 24th most accurate quarterback of all-time. While that ranking doesn’t feel impressive, of the 23 above him:
-Only 3 played a down down before the year 2000 (Manning, Young, Warner)
-One of those played a down in the 80’s (Young)
-None of them played a down in the 70’s (The next QB to have played in that decade was Ken Stabler at 57th with 59.8%)
This is why I believe so strongly in comparing stats across eras. On a generic list, its a fine stat. However, when you compare to guys that he played against, he is far and away the best of the bunch. Why is Montana not higher than 3? I firmly believe that the top two are the best ever at what I believe is the most important trait when discussing these lists: the ability to elevate those around you.
2. John Elway
You’ve heard it before from many draft analysts that John Elway and Andrew Luck are the best prospects that they have ever scouted. When you watch the film, it’s beyond evident why John Elway is one of the best ever.
Elway had everything you could want in a quarterback. He had a rocket arm, was accurate, prototypical size, and could run the ball with great effectiveness. His arm talent was and still is absurd as the above video shows. In fact, Elway is the catalyst of my favorite play in the history of football.
Elway always had that killer instinct about him. From the drive against the Browns to the above helicopter play, Elway would do anything to win. That’s also what helped make him a great elevator of talent. Until the teams of the late 90’s with HOF players in Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis, combined with really good receivers in Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, he never really had a great supporting cast around him. He took what little he had around him to 3 Super Bowls. Once he had a great supporting cast, he took them over the hump with two Super Bowl titles right before he retired. While he was great throughout his career, his stats aren’t phenomenal (56.9%, 51,475 yards, 300 TD, 226 INT along with 3,407 and 33 TD), he did so much outside of sheer breathtaking numbers that has him elevated up to the second spot on this list.
- Tom Brady
In my opinion, Brady is the clear-cut number one quarterback on this list and the reasons are bountiful. I could go on and on about the records he set and his 7 Super Bowl championships but I wanted to focus on two things: his astronomically great playoff stats and how he elevates those around him.
His playoff numbers are insane. His 45 starts and 34 victories are both 18 more than his next closest competitor. In those 45 games (essentially 3 extra seasons of football), Brady has 12,449 yards and 83 touchdowns (both playoff records). In those 18 playoff appearances, he was a one and done an incredible 3 times (16.67%) and made the Super Bowl in 10/18 playoff appearances. QB wins aren’t what I would consider a great stat, but when they are this much better than anyone else who has played the game of football, you have to take it seriously.
The toughest part of the discussion with Tom Brady is the discussion about talent. From 2007 and on, there have been many seasons where Tom Brady was surrounded with Hall Of Fame caliber players. Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski just to name a few. It’s what he did with the lesser known players that has me in awe of Brady as a player. How he elevated guys like Troy Brown, Julian Edelman, David Patten and Jermaine Wiggins to either stardom or leading roles in their perspective seasons. It’s never mattered with Brady who is on the field with him. He takes them to the next level.
The last and probably most impressive thing about Tom Brady is the fact that he is still playing at a near elite level well into his 40’s. In the 4 seasons in which Tom has been age 40 or older, he has thrown for 17,622 yards and 125 touchdowns. Those are really good numbers for a 30 year old quarterback not one who is about to turn 44.
Well there it is, my list of the ten greatest quarterbacks of all time. Will there be some disagreements? Absolutely there will be. I know quite a few people that have Manning and Rodgers as the best to have ever played the game. Those are perfectly valid opinions. However, when I use the criteria which I have crafted for these lists, I believe that this list is the correct one. Let me know on Twitter @TheRealForno your thoughts and why you either think I’m brilliant or absolutely insane.