It’s impossible to make everybody happy when discussing the top quarterbacks in NFL history. There will always be those ranked too high, too low, or entirely snubbed. The league has drastically changed in the past decade, let alone since the dawn of the Super Bowl era.
The Pro Football Network Staff conducted a meeting of the minds and had some intense discussions to develop the 10 names on the list. But before we begin, it’s essential to go over exactly how we came to these decisions.
1) Super Bowls are not and should not be the end-all, be-all. However, when an individual has more than any singular NFL franchise, it’s difficult to argue against them as the greatest of all time, even if there was a discussion about it.
2) A player’s overall résumé is important, but it was used more as a tiebreaker than its own category.
3) Surrounding talent and situation mattered to us. If a player was not asked to be the load-bearer for their team’s great success, why should we elevate them for their win-loss record?
4) Physical talent and ability as a passer were weighed the heaviest throughout the ranking process.
5) A 100-game sample size was the requirement for consideration.
6) All names ranked played the majority of their careers in the Super Bowl era.
Top Quarterbacks in NFL History
1) Tom Brady
If Tom Brady’s early struggles in Tampa would have persisted, there may have been an argument to keep him out of the No. 1 spot in the discussion for the top quarterbacks in NFL history. However, the old man turned it around and won a Super Bowl without legendary head coach Bill Belichick.
Yes, Brady’s first three Super Bowl victories were led by the defense and Adam Vinatieri. But Brady has played in more Super Bowls (10) than he has missed while fully healthy (8). That’s asinine. It’s difficult to envision a career so long with such consistent top-tier team success, given the parity and one-and-done nature of the sport.
Brady’s longevity is also legendary. Nobody in the league’s history has played at such a high level at such an advanced age. Brady will presumably end his career as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards. He also will most likely be the first quarterback to throw for 600 touchdowns in a career. Additionally, the former Patriots’ great won an MVP award at 40-years old. At age 30, he produced what — for my money — was the most impressive single passing season of my lifetime, despite his records falling to Peyton Manning in his own historic 2013 season.
2) Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback of all time (for now). He holds a 4.6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. For reference, that’s twice the rate of Drew Brees, who is widely regarded as the most accurate passer of all time.
Rodgers’ ability to blend aggression with responsibility protecting the football has blurred the lines on what is possible as a quarterback. Despite not being an overwhelming athlete, his ability to create out of structure could very well be why Patrick Mahomes exists.
Rodgers doesn’t have the Super Bowls that many require to place him in such an esteemed position as second on the list. Just turn on a football game Rodgers is playing in. He’s the best player on the field for either team every time out. But as revolutionary as his play is, Rodgers has butted heads with the front office in Green Bay and multiple coaching regimes.
If Rodgers weren’t so petty, maybe he’d have another ring or two. Then again, is it the constant chip on his shoulder that elevated his game to legendary status this whole time? The drafting of Jordan Love suggests that might be the case, as he came off multiple down seasons (relative to his regular play) to win another league MVP.
3) Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning would get my vote as the greatest quarterback of all time because of the cerebral way he went about dominating the position. He’s one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history and one of the most unathletic quarterbacks we’ve seen.
I also believe he was the best quarterback of his generation, and his seven All-Pro honors would agree compared to Brady’s three. Moreover, Manning owns a staggering five league MVPs, two more than any other player in NFL history.
Yet, even though Manning is 3-2 against Brady in the playoffs, Brady still has five more Super Bowls victories than Manning. If that five Super Bowl advantage were its own player, it would be tied with Charles Haley for the player with the most Super Bowl titles ever. That is how insane Brady’s résumé is. And despite the overwhelming personal accolades Manning possesses, as Herm Edwards most famously said, “You play to win the game.”
4) Joe Montana
Many regarded Joe Montana as the best quarterback of all time up until Brady. That conversation ended after Super Bowl wins five and six. Montana led the league in completion percentage five times in his career. His 1984 season was awe-inspiring as the 18-1 San Francisco 49ers might have been the most complete NFL team of all time.
Montana’s accuracy was his calling card, making him one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history.
His biggest claim as the best quarterback of all time was his unbelievable performances as a playoff quarterback. His run of playoff performances from 1988-1990 was legendary, as he posted an 11:1 TD/INT ratio. Yards aren’t necessarily a great stat to go by, but Montana raised his yards output from 211.2 yards per game in the regular season to 251 in the playoffs.
I almost forgot to mention he went undefeated in Super Bowls (4-0). There is a reason he received the nickname “Joe Cool.”
5) Dan Marino
Dan Marino’s 1984 campaign is the most ridiculous era-adjusted season ever. Marino was the first 5,000-yard passer, and he threw 48 touchdowns, beating the previous record by 12.
Nobody other than Marino had a 40-touchdown season until Kurt Warner in 1999. His 48-touchdown record stood until Peyton Manning broke it in 2004. The next 5,000-yard passing season was Drew Brees in 2008. That alone could make him one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history.
Marino was the last of the six quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft. That draft provided one of the best quarterback classes of all time with Hall of Famers John Elway and Jim Kelly. Marino’s quick release and velocity made the Dolphins quarterback widely considered the most talented of his generation. The numbers don’t lie.
6) Drew Brees
Brees is arguably the most prolific passer of all time. He’s ranked as one of, if not the most accurate signal-callers of all time. The argument between him and Marino for the fifth spot was the most difficult. Brees owns an NFL record five 5,000-yard seasons. There have been 12 such seasons total, and nobody else has more than one.
Furthermore, Brees has the highest completion percentage of all the quarterbacks that met the grading criteria. Additionally, he possesses the highest yards per game of the group. He’s led the league in passing yards seven times, completion percentage six times, and touchdowns four times. The most impressive part of Brees is that he never boasted a considerable arm or athleticism. Oh, and the San Diego Chargers moved on from Brees after he tore his labrum in 2006.
7) Steve Young
Steve Young is one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history for a multitude of reasons. One significant one is that despite retiring well before the modern NFL quarterback, he was in the mold of such an athlete.
Young’s career is interesting because it really didn’t begin until he was 30. His career was relatively short-lived. Still, his production in his eight seasons starting 10 or more games was that of legend.
He led the league in completion percentage, passer rating, and yards per attempt five times each in those eight seasons. He even led in adjusted yards gained per pass attempt six times and in touchdowns four times.
Young won two league MVPs — and don’t forget — was voted a three-time All-Pro. In 1992, he generated the highest touchdown and lowest interception rates in the league. Young’s efficiency is reminiscent of Brees’s a decade-plus later.
8) Roger Staubach
Captain America wasn’t even a discussion for the top quarterback in NFL history. But we weren’t leaving the meeting until Roger Staubach received his due. His career was brief as he served four years in the military after attending the Naval Academy and took a tour in Vietnam. When he returned, he played eight seasons, four Super Bowls, and became the face of the NFL.
Staubach went 85-29 as a starting QB in the NFL. That is second only to the man who ranks first on this list, Tom Brady. Staubach could have a top-five argument if it weren’t for his four years of service (thank you, Mr. Staubach) and concussion issues. He led the league in passer rating and adjusted net yards per pass attempt during his career.
9) Brett Favre
Brett Favre is an absolute legend. The story about not knowing what nickel defensive personnel was is one of the more hilarious anecdotes I’ve seen. The word “gunslinger” was created for Favre. He’s one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history and possibly one of the first true divas at the position. He came out of retirement three separate times in his career.
Nobody has been as “dumb tough” as Favre. He started 297 consecutive regular-season games and 24 playoff outings, making his total number of consecutive starts 321. Will anybody ever break that streak? Furthermore, he’s the only player ever to win three straight MVPs.
10) Warren Moon
Warren Moon never enjoyed the playoff success of the rest of these quarterbacks. Nevertheless, Moon was one of the greatest pure throwers of the football in the history of the National Football League.
He’s also one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history, period.
His career could have been completely different, too. However, those in charge of NFL organizations thought he should play receiver. Good thing that doesn’t happen anymore. Right guys?
It’s impossible not to wonder what could have been if Moon would have received a chance to play in the NFL right away. In 1982, he threw for exactly 5,000 yards, and in 1983, he threw for 5,648 yards. The Edmonton Eskimos won the Grey Cup in five of Moon’s six seasons in the Canadian Football League.
Kelly’s run with the Buffalo Bills from 1990-1993 was some of the best team football that has ever been played. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to seal the deal with a Super Bowl win, but Kelly played consistently well throughout those years despite throwing passing in the Buffalo winters. Things also could have been different if he hadn’t played his first two seasons in the USFL.
Unitas would be near the top of the list had he played a bigger bulk of his career in the Super Bowl era. Unitas was the first of the modern style of NFL quarterback. He is the reason we have the two-minute drill. His five first-team All-Pro honors also provide clarity on his greatness.
Tarkenton’s numbers for his generation outshined that of his peers by quite a number. Tarkenton dragged a bad Minnesota Vikings franchise to three separate Super Bowl appearances and set all the passing records for his generation. His play style was wild, as he’d scramble around avoiding sacks and making seemingly impossible escapes and throws. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Elway was widely regarded as one of the most physically talented quarterbacks ever to play the game. However, despite his great physical attributes, it wasn’t until the very end of his career that he won his championships. And those came on the back of Terrell Davis, largely. He had mobility, an impressive arm, and he also led the Broncos to three Super Bowls early in his career.
Warner is one of the ultimate underdog stories. When people talk about somebody bagging groceries to becoming an NFL player, that stems from Warner’s story. The crazy stat for Warner is that, despite losing two of the three Super Bowls he appeared in, he threw a touchdown with less than three minutes left in each to either tie the game or give his team the lead.
“Big Ben” is a curious case of quarterback play. Early in his career, he was surrounded by an incredibly stout defense and a great rushing attack. He drove the bus to the Steelers’ two Super Bowl victories with him under center. However, his proficiency as a passer and his mere presence in the pocket gives him honorable mention status on this list. He is the best quarterback in Pittsburgh’s history. That is a hill worth dying on.
Another name that didn’t make the list simply because of when he played the game. He was the most prolific passer of his generation. He also won three NFL championships and was voted a seven-time All-Pro. His 9.0 yards per attempt average for his career would have led the NFL… in 2020! He did that over a 10-year career!