The quarterback position is the most glamorous in the NFL, and maybe even in all American sports, today. We’re lucky that there are so many great players currently at the position, but how do these modern stars stack up against their predecessors? Today we will be looking at the 20 greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game.
Going into this exercise, we must acknowledge that the difference in eras means not all quarterback statistics are directly comparable. You cannot take a quarterback’s total yards from the 1960s and compare them against a quarterback’s production from the 2000s. That being said, the main credentials examined to create this list include accolades, statistics, and winning.
Before beginning, I’ll acknowledge some honorable mentions who just missed the list. Norm Van Brocklin won the league MVP in 1960 and won two NFL Championships, but failed to crack my list. Len Dawson led the league in completion percentage eight times on his way to three AFL Championships and Super Bowl IV. Dan Fouts ran the innovative Air Coryell offense for years and took the NFL passing game to another level.
Jim Kelly went to four Super Bowls, but championship glory evaded him. Warren Moon had an incredible run, despite only entering the NFL at age 28. Joe Namath won Super Bowl III and was the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a single season. All of these quarterbacks are all-time greats, but they just couldn’t crack the top 20.
20. Troy Aikman (1989-2000)
You have to look deeper than the stats to understand Aikman’s impact. He went to six Pro Bowls and won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. The MVP of Super Bowl XXVII, Aikman led a team that was predicated on the run game. Because of that style, he never put up flashy numbers and is often slammed by critics who misinterpret his career stat line.
19. Ben Roethlisberger (2004-Present)
I was hesitant to put Roethlisberger on this list ahead of quarterbacks from past generations, but Big Ben has been going off in recent years. After winning two Super Bowls and losing a third to Green Bay, Roethlisberger has peaked. He has led the NFL in passing yards per game in three of the past five seasons and has a 144-69-1 career record. He is also top seven in career completions, yards, and touchdowns all-time. 2018 was Roethlisberger’s best passing season. He completed 452 passes for 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns.
18. Fran Tarkenton (1961-1978)
Tarkenton displayed extreme longevity for the era that he played in. The nine-time Pro Bowler was the league’s MVP in 1975 and retired as the all-time leader in pass completions, yards, and touchdowns. Tarkenton started and lost three Super Bowls during his long career. Had he won all three games, his legacy would be viewed completely differently.
17. Kurt Warner (1998-2009)
Warner had a very up and down career. He only went to four Pro Bowls, but he won two league MVPs. He also went to three Super Bowls and won one with The Greatest Show on Turf offense. Warner’s story alone is legendary, but it’s hard to overlook how bad and injured he was from 2002-2006. His peaks were high, but they didn’t last long.
16. Aaron Rodgers (2005-Present)
While there’s an argument to be made that Rodgers is the most talented quarterback in NFL history, he hasn’t produced a lot of success in the playoffs. His only Super Bowl win came in Super Bowl XLV and he was named the game’s MVP. Rodgers has two regular season MVPs and is the league’s all-time leader in passer rating. Before he retires, Rodgers will be challenging for a top ten position on my list. For some other writers, he’s already a top ten quarterback.
15. Sid Luckman (1939-1950)
A pioneer at his position, Luckman led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns three times apiece. During his time with the Chicago Bears, Luckman was a First Team All-Pro five times and won four NFL Championships. His 10.9 yards per attempt in 1943 is still a league record.
14. Bart Starr (1956-1971)
The first great Green Bay Packers quarterback was Vince Lombardi’s most trusted lieutenant. He led the team to five NFL Championships and two Super Bowl victories during a decade of dominance. An underrated passer, Starr was the league’s MVP in 1966 and won both Super Bowl MVPs. Lombardi’s offense was heavily run-based, which didn’t allow Starr to fully display his passing prowess.
13. Terry Bradshaw (1970-1983)
While Bradshaw wasn’t the most prolific passer, he was good enough to win the league MVP in 1978 and become the first quarterback with four Super Bowl victories. He finished his career with a 107-51 starting record. Often, Bradshaw’s success is attributed entirely to the Steel Curtain, but the quarterback won two Super Bowl MVPs is an all-time great quarterback.
12. Steve Young (1985-1999)
The San Francisco 49ers were fortunate to transition from Joe Montana to Young. The stud quarterback won two league MVPs and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX. He led the NFL in completion percentage five times, passing touchdowns four times, and passer rating six times. At the time of his retirement, no retired quarterback had a higher passer rating than Young’s 96.8.
11. Roger Staubach (1969-1979)
The most beloved quarterback in Cowboys history won two Super Bowls with the organization. Staubach went to six Pro Bowls and was responsible for the development and coining of the Hail Mary pass. He led the NFL in passer rating four times and retired with an 85-29 record. The U.S. Navy veteran didn’t post flashy career totals, but he did lead the NFL in quarterback rating four times.
10. Sammy Baugh (1937-1952)
One of the first great quarterbacks in history, Baugh led the league in completions percentage eight times and passing yards four times during his career. He won two NFL Championships, went to six Pro Bowls, was selected as a First Team All-Pro four times, and retired with the most passing touchdowns in history.
9. Drew Brees (2001-Present)
Statistically, Brees is the most dominant quarterback of his era and perhaps even of all-time. He is responsible for five of the eleven 5,000-yard seasons in history. He also won Super Bowl XLIV and was named the game’s MVP. Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage five times and passing yards seven times. He is already the all-time leader in passing completions and yards, and he’s second in passing touchdowns and third in passer rating. He broke his own single season completion percentage record this past season, connecting on 74.4% of his attempts.
8. Dan Marino (1983-1999)
Marino thrived as offenses became more centered on throwing the football. He led the NFL in passing completions six times, yards five times, and touchdowns three times. The 1984 league MVP was never able to win a Super Bowl though. Marino retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in completions, yards, and touchdowns by far, but his lack of Super Bowl rings still haunts him today. He would be higher up the list, if not for that glaring hole in his résumé.
7. John Elway (1983-1998)
The 1987 league MVP struggled to win a Super Bowl. He went to the big game five times but lost in each of his first three appearances. Things finally came together though and he won Super Bowls in the final two years of his career. When he retired, Elway was second all-time in passing completions and yards and was third all-time in passing touchdowns.
6. Brett Favre (1991-2010)
Favre led the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XXXI, but that was his only title. He displayed true grit, not missing a start for 17 straight seasons. Favre retired with three league MVPs and career records in completions, yards, touchdowns, and regular season wins. All of those records have already fallen, but that doesn’t diminish the gunslinger’s impact on NFL history.
5. Otto Graham (1946-1955)
If there was one thing Graham was good at, it was winning. During his ten-year run with the Cleveland Browns, Graham won three NFL Championships and four AAFC Championships. Graham led the league in passing yards five times and was a First Team All-Pro seven times. At the time of his retirement, Graham had the most passing yards and the highest passer rating in history.
4. Johnny Unitas (1956-1973)
When Unitas arrived in Baltimore, he quickly became one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The former ninth-round selection went on to win three NFL Championships, a Super Bowl, and three league MVPs. When the ten-time Pro Bowler finally retired after 1973, he owned the records for most passing yards and touchdowns in history, and he was viewed as the greatest quarterback to ever play.
3. Peyton Manning (1998-2015)
Manning retired owning several major quarterback career records, including passing yards and touchdowns. Manning was selected as a First Team All-Pro seven times, which is unprecedented in the modern era. Throughout his career, Manning amassed five MVPs, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, and two Super Bowl titles. While Manning was never as successful in the postseason as he wanted to be, he still cemented himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
2. Joe Montana (1979-1994)
Montana rose to unprecedented prominence in the 80s and 90s. During his 15-year career, Montana went to four Super Bowls and won them all. He won three Super Bowl and two league MVPs. He also led the NFL in completion percentage five times, becoming one of the most accurate quarterbacks at the time. When Montana retired, no other retired quarterback had a higher career passer rating than his 92.3. Montana found ways to win when it mattered most.
1. Tom Brady (2000-Present)
Somehow, this is the most and least controversial decision on this entire list. Some people believe Brady is unquestionably the greatest quarterback and player of all-time. Others laugh the idea off. Well, Brady has three MVPs, the most regular season and Super Bowls wins by a quarterback, and is top-four all-time in passing attempts, completions, touchdowns, yards, and passer rating. He might not be the most talented quarterback in league history, but overall Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time.