There is no position in sports like the NFL quarterback. Quarterbacks get more control than anyone else on the field, and they often get all of the pressure with success and failure hinged on them. In the modern NFL, a good quarterback is the single most crucial factor in a team's success, by a wide margin, too. The greatest quarterbacks in NFL history are the most well-known names across every era of the NFL. Here are the 20 best NFL quarterbacks ever.
20. Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan ends up as the butt of a lot of jokes. Playing for the Atlanta Falcons and blowing a Super Bowl in the worst way possible tends to do that. However, it also tends to erase the appreciation for the true greatness that Ryan put together during his time in Atlanta. Ryan was the first actual franchise-altering start for Atlanta post-Michael Vick, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008. He's been selected to four Pro Bowls and won an MVP award for his incredible 2016 year that powered the Falcons to that Super Bowl appearance.
He was behind one of the league's best passing attacks of the 2010s, with Roddy White and Julio Jones the primary beneficiaries. He brought a long-suffering franchise back to relevance. Who knows if he has a year or two left in the tank to turn back the clock, but he's already accomplished more than almost anyone else in league history.
19. Norm Van Brocklin
Despite playing in the early days of the forward pass, Norm Van Brocklin lit the NFL on fire. In 12 years as quarterback, the Dutchman led the league in passing twice while not even playing every offensive snap as the starting QB. To this day, he still owns the record for most passing yards in a game with 554. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler who brought the Los Angeles Rams their only title in LA until the 2020s and took the Philadelphia Eagles to the 1960 NFL Championship through Lombardi's Packers. They are the only team to do so in a championship game. Not to mention, Van Broklin also won NFL MVP in his final season in 1961. One of the greatest NFL quarterbacks ever.
18. Ben Roethlisberger
No one has burst onto the scene in the NFL like Ben Roethlisberger did back in 2004. Stepping in for an injured starter and leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 15-1 record and an AFC Championship game appearance was a sign of things to come. Roethlisberger would lead one of the NFL's best teams of the 2000s and 2010s, winning two Super Bowls and making a third.
He led one of the best offenses in the NFL alongside Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, who could never entirely stay healthy at the right time to make it back to the Super Bowl. He threw for over 5000 yards in a season and was a six-time Pro Bowler. His size and strength made him the game's best at extending plays and pushing the ball downfield. Roethlisberger was also elite in the clutch, repeatedly pulling games out for the Steelers in the fourth quarter.
17. Terry Bradshaw
For anyone involved in football, making it to multiple Super Bowls begins to put you in rarified air. Winning them takes it to another level. And Terry Bradshaw was a certified Super Bowl winner. He finished 4-0 across six years with the most dominant team the NFL had ever seen. Sure, he began as little more than just another piece of an incredibly talented team, but by the end of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bradshaw had an MVP to his name, a Super Bowl MVP, and a Hall of Fame resume.
Bradshaw was incredibly fortunate to be a part of the teams he was on. Everyone on those teams was. But he provided a deadly long ball threat that allowed the Steelers to morph from dominant on one side of the ball to lethal across all three game phases. And when everyone was healthy and in their prime, they didn't lose in the postseason.
16. Troy Aikman
Another elite quarterback on an elite team, Troy Aikman, was the guy in Dallas in the 1990s. Which helped bring the Cowboys three Super Bowls in four years. Like other QBs on this list, Aikman had elite weapons and defense backing up his dynasty. But in the NFL, it's still an achievement to accomplish what your talent indicates you can achieve. Aikman was a perennial Pro Bowler during the mid-1990s and the Cowboys' Super Bowl runs, and even took home a Super Bowl MVP for his troubles. Aikman's accuracy and ability to push the ball down the field when needed opened up space for Emmitt Smith to run all over teams and unlocked Micahel Irvin's ability on the outside. Together, they were truly dominant.
15. Bart Starr
Bart Starr came along in the middle of many of these quarterbacks. After the early dynasties of the NFL and before the champions of the early Super Bowl era. Starr bridged the divide between pre and post-merger football with the Green Bay Packers. And while, for good reason, Vince Lombardi receives most of the attention in that era of Packers football, Starr was the guy behind center, making it all happen for the offense. Starr never racked up incredible statistics, but he was ruthlessly efficient, providing a solid compliment in the air to a strong ground game and dominant defense. Starr would win seven total championships, including the first two Super Bowls and Super Bowl MVPs, and the league MVP in 1966. Lombardi always had complete confidence and belief in his QB and was rewarded every time.
14. Roger Staubach
Although Roger Staubach's team accolades in the 1970s would be overshadowed by the dominance of the 1970s Steelers, the Cowboys and Staubach still carved out a slice of history for themselves. Staubach would lead Dallas to their first two Super Bowl titles and two other appearances. He was selected to the Pro Bowl six times, finished in the top five in MVP voting three times, and was Super Bowl VI MVP. He was an elite scrambler, able to buy time to look downfield or to function as a prototypical dual-threat quarterback. And he did all that despite not becoming a full-time starter until age 29. Who knows how many Super Bowl titles the Cowboys would have won without his naval service in the late 1960s and early 1970s?
13. Otto Graham
Ten years, ten championship appearances, and seven championships. A resume no other quarterback, let alone player, can match. Otto Graham dominated the league every year he played. From 1946-1955, he was the best player on the best team. Graham led the Cleveland Browns to four AAFC titles, three NFL titles, and a 9-3 playoff record across his ten years in the league. Graham routinely led the league in passing yards, completion percentage, touchdowns, and nearly every passing statistic that matters. In the dark ages of the forward pass, Graham was one of the few NFL quarterbacks who worked to drag the sport into the light.
12. Patrick Mahomes
If ever there were a chosen one in Pro Football, it's Patrick Mahomes. He was drafted into the perfect coaching situation and hasn't looked back. In his first year as a starter, he threw 50 touchdowns and won league MVP. In his five years as a starter, he's been a Pro Bowler each year and led Kansas City to three of the last four Super Bowls, winning two. He's the reigning league MVP and will be the guy any AFC team needs to beat to make a Super Bowl for the next decade. Mahomes is the final evolution of the modern quarterback.
He came into the league with a cannon and has developed the physical and mental skills to be highly aggressive and efficient. He has mastered the art of draining the clock in the fourth quarter to take or seal a lead so that it feels inevitable. Mahomes can beat you with his legs, arm, or mind and has earned a reputation as one of the premier magicians in the NFL, routinely turning a nothing play into something incredible. There is no telling how high up this list Mahomes will be at the end of his career. Pro-Football-Reference gives him over an 80% chance of making the Hall of Fame if he retired today.
11. Johnny Unitas
Long before the Spread Offense, West Coast Offense, or even the Mel Blount Rule, Johnny Unitas was the quarterback standard in the NFL. After being cut by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, Unitas dominated pro football with the Baltimore Colts for nearly two decades. During his career, Unitas would win three MVP awards, three NFL Championships, and one Super Bowl. He led one of the few teams capable of standing up to Vince Lombardi's Green Bay juggernaut. And he did so utilizing skills that would not become commonplace in the league for decades. Unitas' passing ability far outclassed his peers of the pre-Super Bowl era. He led the league in passing yards and touchdowns four times during his career. Baltimore often would play directly into Unitas' skill as a passer, consistently either leading or nearing the top of the list in attempts and completions.
Unitas set quarterbacking on a path it would follow over the next half-decade. His ability to read and understand the game, change calls at the line of scrimmage, and patience and poise under pressure is the modern quarterback blueprint. His peers recognized him as a step above the rest, and his ability to rise to the occasion in clutch situations and elite leadership skills are factors all quarterbacks since have strived to emulate. If you strip down all the layers of where the best quarterbacks today trace their talent and inspiration back to, in the end, when all you have left is the foundation, you'll find Johnny Unitas, the godfather of the modern quarterback.
10. Drew Brees
Often lost in the epic duels between quarterback greats Tom Brady and Peyton Manning during the 2000s is that a third all-time great was quietly racking up otherworldly numbers in Louisiana. Although starting in San Diego, Drew Brees is the greatest New Orleans Saints player in franchise history. Brees somehow never won an MVP award, but his resume stacks up against anyone's despite that. He holds an astonishing five seasons with over 5,000 passing yards when no one else has more than one. He led New Orleans to their first and only Super Bowl title over Manning's Colts.
Brees was knocked for years on his size and height but repeatedly proved doubters wrong. He could pick apart defenses all over the field and orchestrated a sustained period of success and relevance never before seen by Saints fans. The New Orleans Saints were consistently laughingstocks of the NFC and the league. And Brees and former head coach Sean Peyton turned New Orleans into a powerhouse. Brees was the ultimate pocket passer and an excellent leader. He rotated through a solid cast of characters at receiver, running back, and tight end but never had all-time great weapons to utilize like many peers on this NFL quarterbacks list. Despite that, Brees' efficiency and production was unmatched.
9. Brett Favre
Brett Favre isn't the only top-ten quarterback to be traded from his original team and go on to have a fantastic career. In this case, the Atlanta Falcons were missing out on franchise-altering talent, moving Favre to the Green Bay Packers. Some of this can be attributed to Favre's party habits not suiting a lifestyle in Atlanta. But the coaching staff and front office weren't on the same page about Favre, so the coaches winning out and getting him moved only for him to go and prove the front office right has to hurt.
Favre brought the Packers back to national relevance for the first time since the Vince Lombardi days, and they haven't fallen out of that status since. During his time in the league, he was MVP three times, a Pro Bowler 11 times, and led the Packers to their first Super Bowl win in almost 30 years. Favre was the ultimate gunslinger, capable of throwing his teams in and out of games with nearly the same frequency. But with Favre, you took the extra interceptions because he was just as likely to pull out something magical to change the game.
8. Fran Tarkenton
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Fran Tarkenton would've been an incredible quarterback in any era of the NFL and was a revolutionary in the 1960s and 1970s. Others have recently done Tarkenton more justice, but the short version is that you could take Fran Tarkenton out of his time playing and stick him into an NFL offense today, and he'd dominate playing a game more tailored to his skill set. Tarkenton was a lethal passer, but his ability to scramble, by time, and punish teams with his legs made him a true revolutionary. He racked up throwing and rushing records for quarterbacks and did so initially at odds with a coach and league history that hadn't imagined that possibility for quarterbacks yet.
Tarkenton was the ideal 21st-century quarterback, playing over a half decade before his skills would be most appreciated. And despite that, he turned the Minnesota Vikings into one of the best teams in the league. During his time as a Viking, he led Minnesota to three Super Bowl appearances and one of the best records in the league across his time as one of the better NFL quarterbacks.
7. John Elway
John Elway spent his entire career climbing the mountain, and in the end, he finally got there. Elway was considered one of the greatest quarterback prospects ever coming out of school, and once he leveraged his way onto the Denver Broncos, he never looked back. He developed a reputation as an elite passer with a cannon for an arm, an elusiveness in the backfield, and an ability to move the ball with his legs. Elway was incredibly clutch, repeatedly leading drive after drive in the clutch to will the Broncos to win. From “The Drive” to decimation at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl to fighting his way to the top with back-to-back Super Bowl wins in his final two seasons, Elway embodied the highs and lows of being a quarterback in the NFL.
He could do it all on the field, throwing for over 3,000 yards and rushing for more than 200 for seven straight seasons. And sometimes he would try to do too much, finishing every year of his career with double-digit interceptions. But Elway's highs were always much higher than the lows. He'd win one league MVP award and one Super Bowl MVP and play the quarterback position at an elite level for over a decade and a half.
6. Steve Young
It's wild that Steve Young could've spent his career toiling away on a terrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise without a trade to the San Francisco 49ers. Or maybe he would have turned things around in Tampa Bay. But we'll never know because the Bucs gave up on him after one season and traded him away. That was a mistake. Young waited in the wings behind Joe Montana, backing up the fellow Hall of Famer on his way to two more Super Bowl rings.
As Montana began to age, Young made a case for passing the torch to him. And eventually, he broke through. Montana went to Kansas City to finish his career, and Young took the reins. What followed was the best quarterback play of the 1990s. Young won league MVP in his first year, starting all 16 games, and would win another two years after. He'd lead the 49ers back to the Super Bowl and win the franchise's fifth title and Super Bowl MVP honors. Not bad for a backup.
5. Dan Marino
Dan Marino was at the forefront of an increased emphasis on the passing game throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1984, just his second year in the NFL, he threw for over 5,000 yards, marking the first time that feat had ever been accomplished. Marino would earn his NFL MVP award that year and announce himself as one of the league's premier quarterbacks for the next 15 years. Never blessed with the talent around him, as the rest of his fellow elite NFL quarterbacks of that era did, Marino did just about as much as they did. Marino led the league in passing yards five times, completions six times, and three touchdowns. He held the passing touchdown record for twenty years and the yards in a season record for nearly 30.
The great Joe Montana even has Marino as his best quarterback in league history. Like many on this list, Marino was an innovator who pushed the game forward. He serves as a bridge between the old NFL and the new. He marks the shift in league-wide philosophy from run and shoot to the spread influences that would slowly grow over the thirty-plus years since his retirement. Marino was the quintessential pocket passer who did more with less in 17 years with the Miami Dolphins. He would fall to Montana in the only Super Bowl he'd make it to. The Dolphins haven't approached the heights they did with Marino since. And the only other time in franchise history they were as good as Marino made them, the Super Bowl was still in single digits.
If I had a nickel for every time a franchise had a top-ten quarterback ready to replace another top-ten quarterback, I'd have two nickels. Which isn't a lot, but it's definitely weird it happened twice. Rodgers was notably passed over by the 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft, falling to the Packers. He entered as the backup to Brett Favre. Like Steve Young, he slowly built a case to take over from the aging legend. It took Rodgers three years on the bench until the Packers were ready to run with him over Favre. And in his first year as a starter, the Packers went 6-10. But Rodgers showed signs of potential and entered 2009 with raised expectations. Then he took the Packers to an 11-5 record and his first Pro Bowl appearance. The following year, he won the Super Bowl, and then in 2011, his first MVP.
Rodgers would win four MVP awards during his time in Green Bay. There, he authored legend after legend of clutch drive after clutch drive and displayed every quarterbacking trick in the book. Rodgers and Green Bay were an excellent match for a very long time. Eventually, though, the Packers tried to do the same thing they had done years earlier and find Rodgers' replacement in the draft early. After years of being unable to put the right pieces around him, Rodgers will suit up for his next chapter with the New York Jets.
3. Joe Montana
Joe Montana was a time traveler, showing the world how the quarterback position would be played in the future two decades early. Montana and Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense was a match made in heaven, not to mention having the greatest wide receiver of all time on the outside. Montana brought the poise and confidence that turned the San Francisco 49ers into world-beaters in the 1980s and 1990s. He was the ultimate pocket passer, capable of slicing and dicing defenses. He could hit any spot on the field and solidified the quarterback archetype of clutchness. In a career full of iconic moments, the biggest one will always be his game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXII. With just 3:10 left and down late, Montana took the Niners nearly 95 yards down the field to rip the heart out of Cincinnati Bengals fans.
Montana's resume stacks up against anyone in the history of the league. Four Super Bowl titles and three Super Bowl MVPs are just the start. That's not to mention the two league MVPs and the second act in Kansas City that saw him come oh-so-close to another Super Bowl berth. Montana was the standard for QB success for years, all the way up until the modern era. He is incredibly deserving of his spot on this list.
2. Peyton Manning
When I think of the pocket-passing quarterback archetype, I think of Peyton Manning. Supremely skilled, intelligent, and driven to win, the only thing Peyton Manning didn't have was the ability to run. Manning had unparalleled accuracy from the pocket and lightning-quick release and often understood the defense's play call more than the defenders did. Winner of five league MVP awards, Manning also authored an incredible comeback with the Denver Broncos after neck injuries threatened to derail the last few years of his career with the Indianapolis Colts.
In 2013, his second year in Denver, he set the single-season passing record with over 5400 yards on his way to his final MVP award. He was a 14-time Pro Bowl selection, seven-time All-Pro, and two-time Super Bowl champion, winning one Super Bowl MVP. Manning was so synonymous with taking charge of offense on every level that even his audibles at the line went viral. Manning helped usher in the modern view of a quarterback as an on-field coach and coordinator and did it better than anyone else. He's one of the best NFL quarterbacks.
1. Tom Brady
Tom Brady will occupy the top spot on this NFL quarterbacks list for the foreseeable future. Patrick Mahomes is the only active player with a chance at knocking him off, and that will require another almost two decades of elite play. Brady was the architect of the greatest dynasty in the modern NFL. He's won more Super Bowls than any NFL individual franchise has.
Brady repeatedly challenged all preexisting assumptions about longevity and consistency, defying typical aging curves. No player has impacted the sport in the last 25 years to the extent that Tom Brady has. His partnership with Bill Belichick was perfect, as the two ruthless competitors were always in the upper tier of Super Bowl favorites during their run together. And if that wasn't enough, during his final act in Tampa Bay, Brady proved he was not the product of a system once and for all, winning in a completely different environment. Seven Super Bowl titles, three-time MVP, five-time Super Bowl MVP, and 15-time Pro Bowler is a resume none can match.