If you recall back around the Super Bowl, there was a spirited debate about quarterbacks. On one hand, if Brady had won, would he be the greatest of all time? On the other, since Eli Manning won his second Super Bowl, where does he rank amongst the all-time greats? Let’s cut through the crap here…the best way to get a bunch of football fans arguing is to start a debate over a list of all-time greats, and no position gets a bigger reaction than the quarterback.
There are three main problems inherent in creating lists like this. For openers, everybody has personal biases and/or their favorites. Trust me, as you read this list, you are likely to find a guy who you will think I rated too low. Conversely, you are likely to find a guy who I rated too high or you may find a guy you don’t like rated above your favorite. The second issues is the subjective nature of “greatness;” this feeds into the “personal bias” issue and it isn’t easily solved by merely clinging to statistics, which leads to the third problem. The argument over “greatness” takes a major trip over the difference in eras; let’s face it, professional football is not the same game in 1940 as it is today. This is why I developed a list of criteria designed to mitigate those problems as much as possible.
Ability as compared to others in a player’s era – 30% of grade: This is what I consider the true measure of greatness. It is safe to assume that the players in the NFL at any time were the best football players on the planet, and standing out amongst the best of the best is a pretty good definition of greatness.
Athleticism – 20% of grade: Great quarterbacks have to make great plays, and that requires athletic skill. Another factor is that one-dimensional quarterbacks tend to rate lower in this criteria; the immobile pocket passer who can’t avoid a rush suffers in this category as well as the “scrambler” who can’t throw. To be at the top of this list, a quarterback really needs a high score here.
Performance in the “Clutch”- 15% of grade: Here’s where you get the play-off performances, fourth-quarter comebacks, and all those sort of greatness-defining moments. Conversely, if we are going to value winning championships, we also have to examine big-game failures.
Skill as a Passer – 15% of grade: This would be the statistic-heavy criteria on this list. Regardless of era, passing has been largely a sole responsibility of the quarterback.
Winning as a Team – 10% of grade: In the immortal words of Herm Edwards, “You play to win the game.” Winning is winning, and while regular-season wins are important, play-off wins and championships carry most of the weight for this criteria, but in the sense that football is a team sport, and quarterbacks are measured in this case as to how well they contributed to the performance of their team. In other words, a quarterback who never won championships can certainly make the list, yet one who didn’t have a regular-season winning record would find it very difficult. Also, A quarterback with winning-regular season record but a bad play-off record would suffer.
Leadership – 5% of grade: I’ve always thought this criteria for quarterbacks was a bit over-rated. Teams do need leaders, but that doesn’t always have to be the quarterback. It’s a bonus when that is the case, but it isn’t essential.
Toughness/Durability – 5% of grade: This is rather simple; you can’t be great if you can’t play, and you can’t play if you can’t stay on the field.
Really I’m trying to expand beyond the shopworn “who won more championships vs. who had better stats debate;” ESPN gives us a steady diet of that, but it also presents us the problem that really isn’t solvable. Not only is that debate an important part of the discussion, but any list of criteria is going to leave somebody out. Thankfully, this is why blogs have comments section. Peruse this list and share your thoughts.
First, look at the notable quarterbacks who didn’t make the cut. It’s a safe bet Eli Manning cracks the top 30 by the time he’s done, and of the current quarterbacks who aren’t included here, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers seem to be the best bets to be in this discussion by the time their careers are done.
- Archie Manning
- Bob Griese
- Bob Waterfield
- Boomer Esaison
- Craig Morton
- Dave Krieg
- Donovan McNabb
- Drew Bledsoe
- Eli Manning
- Jack Kemp
- Jim Hart
- Jim Plunkett
- John Hadl
- Joe Namath
- Joe Theismann
- Ken Stabler
- Kerry Collins
- Phil Simms
- Randall Cunningham
- Roman Gabriel
- Ron Jaworski
- Vinny Testaverde
Now, for the actual Dubsism list of the 30 Greatest Quarterbacks to date:
30) Ken Anderson
Never a champion, but never a loser either. Despite the fact that Anderson played for some bad Cincinnati Bengal teams, that might be the best way to describe him. Anderson is the best quarterback who isn’t going to get into the Hall of Fame. The best thing on Anderson’s “great quarterback resume” is the fact he made the Bengals relevant for close to a decade and a half despite the fact the “Queen City Kitties” are one of the historic dysfunctional franchises in all of sport.
Even though he likely never gets into Canton, Anderson does have Hall of Fame worthy numbers as a passer; his stats are better than several guys long since immortalized in bronze. Granted his won-loss record in the regular season isn’t spectacular, but Anderson may be the best post-season quarterback who never won a championship. Anderson’s post-season passer rating is second only to Joe Montana, and that also happens to be the guy to whom Anderson lost his only Super Bowl appearance. Not to mention, Anderson’s 1982 single-season record of a completion percentage of 70.6% stood for 27 years; since when it has been passed twice by a guy who is likely to end up in the top ten of this list: Drew Brees.
29) Steve McNair
Steve McNair is the first example on this list of a quarterback who could beat you with his arm or his feet. His career year in 2000 with the Tennessee Titans exemplifies that. McNair registered career passing highs with 3,350 passing yards, 264 completions, 21 passing touchdowns, and a 90.2 quarterback rating. On top of that, he was also one of the team’s most effective rushers, tying for the team lead in rushing scores with five. This multi-faceted attack allowed McNair to become both the Titans’ all-time leading passer and one of the great running quarterbacks in NFL history.
McNair led the Titans to the playoffs four times, as well as once with the Baltimore Ravens. He came within one infamous play – the last-second, just-short-of-the-goal line completion to Kevin Dyson – of winning a Super Bowl. McNair was a three-time Pro Bowler and was All-Pro and Co-NFL MVP in 2003.
28) George Blanda
Throughout 26 seasons and 340 games in professional football as a quarterback and place-kicker, George Blanda was known for his toughness, versatility and longevity. He led the Houston Oilers to the first two AFL titles in 1960 and 1961. It took the Dallas Texans (later the Kansaa City Chiefs) double -overtime to keep Blanda and the Oilers from a “three-peat.”
Blanda’s professional career started for $600 in 1949. While the Chicago Bears primarily used Blanda as a quarterback and placekicker, he also saw time on the defensive side of the ball at linebacker. It would not be until 1953 that Blanda would emerge as the Bears’ top quarterback, but an injury the following year effectively ended his first-string status. For the next four years, he was used mostly in a kicking capacity.
Blanda retired after the 1958 NFL season because of Bears owner George Halas insistence of only using him as a kicker, but returned in 1960 upon the formation of the American Football League. He signed with the Houston Oilers again as a quarterback and kicker. He was derided by the sports media as an “NFL Reject,” but he went on to lead the Oilers to the first two championships in AFL history, and he was the All-AFL quarterback and won AFL Player of the Year honors in 1961. During that season, he led the AFL with 3,330 passing yards and a record 36 touchdown passes. That record, although tied by the Giants’ Y.A. Tittle in 1963, was not surpassed in pro football until 1984 when the Dolphins’ Dan Marino tossed 48 scores.
In 1962, Blanda had two 400-yard passing days for the Oilers; a 464-yard, 4 touchdown effort against the Buffalo Bills and a 418-yard, 7 touchdown blasting of the New York Titans. Blanda threw at least 4 touchdowns 13 times during his career and once attempted 68 passes in one game. Blanda would have easily been comfortable in today’s pass-happy game; from 1963 to 1965, Blanda led the AFL in passing attempts and completions, and ranked in the top ten for attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns during seven consecutive seasons. A four-time member of the American Football League All-Star team, Blanda’s already-long career seemed over when he was released by the Oilers in 1967. However, the Oakland Raiders signed him later that year, seeing his potential as a contributing backup passer and a dependable kicker.
During the 1967 season, Blanda’s kicking saw him lead the AFL in scoring with 116 points. The Raiders went on to compete in Super Bowl II, but the following two seasons ended in heartbreak as they lost in the AFL Championship games both times. In 1970, Blanda was released during the preseason, but bounced back to establish his 21st professional season with one of the most dramatic comebacks in sports history. Beginning with the game at Pittsburgh, Blanda put together five straight clutch performances.
Against the Steelers, Blanda threw for three touchdowns in relief of an injured Daryle Lamonica. One week later, his 48-yard field goal with three seconds remaining salvaged a 17–17 tie with the Kansas City Chiefs. Against the Browns, Blanda once again came off the bench to throw a touchdown pass to tie the game with 1:34 remaining, then kicked a 53-yard field goal with three seconds left for the 23–20 win. Immediately after the winning field goal, Raiders radio announcer Bill King excitedly declared, “George Blanda has just been elected King of the World!” In the Raiders’ next game, Blanda again replaced Lamonica in the fourth quarter and connected with Fred Biletnikoff on a touchdown pass with 2:28 remaining to defeat the Denver Broncos. The streak concluded one week later when Blanda’s 16-yard field goal in the closing seconds defeated the San Diego Chargers, 20–17.
In the AFC title game against the Baltimore Colts, Blanda again relieved an injured Lamonica and had a superb performance, completing 17 of 32 passes for 217 yards and 2 touchdowns while also kicking a 48-yard field goal and two extra points, keeping the Raiders in the game until the final quarter, when he was intercepted twice. At 43, Blanda became the oldest quarterback ever to play in a championship game, and was one of the few remaining straight-ahead kickers in the NFL.
Kansas City Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt said in jest, “Why, this George Blanda is as good as his father, who used to play for Houston.” Although he never again played a major role at quarterback, Blanda would serve as the Raiders’ kicker for five more seasons. Blanda played in his last game at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium on January 4, 1976, in the AFC Championship Game at age 48. Blanda went out on a 41-yard field goal and one extra point as the Raiders lost to the Steelers 16-10.
Blanda finished his 26 professional football seasons having completed 1,911 of 4,007 pass attempts for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns. Blanda also held the NFL record for most interceptions thrown with 277, until Brett Favre broke in 2007. He rushed for 344 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground, kicked 335 of 641 field goals, and 943 of 959 extra points, giving him 2,002 total points. Additional stats include 1 interception, 2 kickoff returns for 19 yards, 22 punts for 809 yards, and 23 fumble recoveries.
In 1976, at the age of 48, he retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
27) Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger became the youngest Super Bowl-winning quarterback to date when he led the Steelers to a 21–10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in his second professional season at the age of 23. Four years later, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a second Super Bowl Championship. Roethlisberger never gets credit for what an efficient passer he is because of his ability to scramble and extend plays. He currently ranks 11th all-time in NFL passer rating (92.1), 5th in yards per attempt (8.0), and 12th in completion percentage (63.1%) among quarterbacks with a minimum of 1,500 career attempts. He also has a .700 winning percentage in the regular season. Having said all that, Roethisberger has plenty of time to move either up or down on this list.
26) Bart Starr
Starr is the quintessential model of efficiency and not beating one’s self. Starr is not the guy who will blow you away with his huge stats or game-winning plays, but he did lead the Packers dynasty that won five championships in seven years during the 1960s. His .900 winning percentage in the post-season e may be the most efficient passer ever and his 9-1 post season record is the best by a quarterback. As I said, Starr doesn’t have the huge stat sheet, but he does have 5 championships, an NFL MVP award, and 2 Super Bowl MVP’s. Let’s be honest, the great ones win when it matters.
25) Kurt Warner
Warner might just be the ultimate NFL “rags-to-riches” story. During journey from the fields of Iowa to the NFL, Warner at times bagged groceries and starred in the Arena Football. Nobody drafted him out of Northern Iowa and ended up having one the great careers of all time. He was the NFL MVP twice, Super Bowl MVP once, and owns the three highest single-game passing yardage totals in Super Bowl history.
24) Bobby Layne
For a guy who was never considered an “elite” passer, when Layne retired he held the league record’s for most career pass attempts, completions, passing yards, and touchdown passes. He was also one of the best running quarterbacks on this list. He won NFL Championships in 1952, 1953, and 1957, and just missed a fourth in 1954. The Lions haven’t won a championship since the shipped Layne to the Steelers in 1958. Bobby Layne is also the only player on this list who has a Dubsy Award named for him.
23) Norm Van Brocklin
‘The Dutchman” is the only quarterback to split the signal-calling duties with two other Hall of Famers during his career; Bob Waterfield in Los Angeles and Sonny Jurgensen in Philadelphia. Van Brocklin played in 9 Pro Bowls and was a first-team All Pro selection in 1960. He won two NFL championships and is the only quarterback to beat a Vince Lomabardi-coached Packers team in a championship game.
22) Drew Brees
This is a guy who is only going up on this list. After only 10 seasons, he already has 40,000 passing yards, 281 touchdowns, six Pro Bowl Selections, one first-team All-Pro selection and a Super Bowl MVP award. Barring injury, Brees has at least four or five high-level seasons left. Seems to me 400 touchdowns and 60,000 passing yards is in reach. Tack another championship to those numbers and Brees looks to be a top ten quarterback waiting to happen.
21) Len Dawson
Dawson was never flashy, and he never blew your mind with eye-popping statistics, but he was great nevertheless. Efficiency was his main weapon. Dawson led the AFL in completion percentage and passer rating six times and led the Chiefs to three championships. Along the way, he was a six-time AFL All-Star and was the MVP of Super Bowl IV.
20) Y.A. Tittle
Tittle’s is like the 1960′s answer to Jim Kelly. Tittle had the pieces around him and he was good enough to get his guys to the Championship on multiple occassions, but was never able to get over the hump. He came the closest in 1963 when he set a single-season record with 36 touchdown passes; a record that stood until Dan Marino threw 48 touchdowns in 1984.
19) Jim Kelly
Kelly is another quarterback who spent time in an inferior league (the USFL wasn’t a bad league, but it was closer in terms of talent to the CFL than the NFL). Even though he lost them all, playing in four straight Super Bowls was impressive, one can make an argument the Bills were over-matched in talent in two of them. If Scott Norwood makes that field goal in 1991, so many thing change. The Bills become discussed as one of the great teams of all time, the Bills likely win at least one more Championship, and Kelly moves up this list.
18) Warren Moon
The fact that Moon had over 49,000 passing yards and 291 touchdowns in the NFL is astonishing considering he spent the first five years of his pro football career in Canada. Even if one were to consider his CFL stats in the total (which is a bit ridiculous since one would need to assume the talent levels of the two leagues are comparable), he becomes the the only guy besides Brett Favre with 70,000 passing yards and one of only three quarterbacks as of this writing (Favre, Marino) with 400 touchdowns. Moon was never a successful play-off quarterback, but he was selected to nine Pro Bowls was named NFL MVP in 1990.
17) Dan Fouts
If Dan Fouts isn’t the best pure passer on this list, there’s no denying he is in the top three. He was a six-time Pro Bowler and was twice a first-team All-Pro. He was the first to throw for over 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, and his 4,802 passing yards in 1981 was a single-season record. However, his won-loss record was only 86-84-1, and he never appeared in a Super Bowl, having gone 0-2 in conference championship games.
16) Terry Bradshaw
Bradshaw started out as a bumpkin in cleats, and ended up winning four Super Bowls. However, in between, Bradshaw was a model of inconsistency. He would rapidly alternate between greatness and gruesome. He put together seasons which made him a 3-time Pro Bowler and once was named first-team All-Pro; he also had seasons in which he threw 25 interceptions, or only completed 45% of his passes, or got benched for some other reason. Inconsistency is a brutal enough factor to keep a league MVP and two-time Super Bowl MVP in the bottom half of this list.
15) Fran Tarkenton
Tarkenton greatness as a passer gets overlooked largely because he was such great runner (3,674 yards) and he was the first quarterback to lose three Super Bowls. His 47,000 career passing yards was #1 all-time when he retired. He completed 60 percent of his passe sin five of his final six seasons, which is incredible given that he played for 18 seasons, and at the time a completion rate that high was not common.
14) Brett Favre
Brett Favre was the ultimate riverboat gambler. He played at a high level into his 40′s. Of all the records he set, the one that nobody who is alive today will live long enough to see broken is 285 consecutive starts. He’s got 70,000+ passing yards, 500+ touchdowns, and he was an 11-time Pro Bowler, 3-time first team All-Pro, and a 3-time league MVP. That seems like a guy who should be in the top five. So, why isn’t he?
For starters, the fact that he threw 336 career interceptions, which is almost 60 more than the 2nd-place guy. More importantly, he threw way too many of those picks in crunch time, which helps to explain how a quarterback with a 186-112 regular season win-loss record was only a 13-11 performer in the play-offs, and only 3-6 in conference champiosnhip games and Super Bowls.
13) Troy Aikman
The New York Mets offered Aikman a contract when he came out of high school, but instead he chose to pursue football. 94 career wins, three Super Bowl championships and six Pro Bowls later, Aikman landed in the Hall of Fame as the quarterback with the most wins in any decade until he was surpassed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Aikman retired as the Cowboys passer despite the fact his career was cut short by injury issues.
12) Roger Staubach
The only reason Roger Staubach isn’t higher on this list is his career simply wasn’t long enough to rack up big numbers. He was a 27-year-old rookie in 1969 because he had a four-year service commitment after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. His career gets even shorter when you consider that head coach Tom Landry didn’t name him as the full-time starter until 1971. But when he was on the field, there was none better. Between 1971 and 1979, Staubach won two Super Bowls and was a six-time Pro Bowler. The fact that he put up over 22,000 passing yards and 2,2200 rushing yards in what really amounted to only 9 full seasons, it isn’t hard to see that if Staubach had a more traditional-length career, he would easily be a top ten guy.
11) Tom Brady
Here’s where this is going to get ugly. I’m positive I’m going to get a lot of comments about how Brady should rate much higher than #11. No offense, but anybody who thinks that right now Tom Brady is a top ten quarterback now is blind to some crucial facts. But first, let’s look at the things that got Brady on to the list in the first place.
Brady’s NFL record of 358 consecutive passing attempts without an interception would be astounding in any era. So would the fact that he has three NFL Championships and two Super Bowl MVP awards. So would his .700+ winning percentage as a starting quarterback. Oddly enough, Brady’s accomplishments are somewhat over-valued by the era he played in.
First of all, he shares a major problem with Peyton Manning. Their lack of mobility coupled with rule changes made in the last twenty years mean neither would have been able to play before the 1970′s when quarterbacks really were “fair game.”
Second of all, Brady is great, but he simply isn’t that much better than many of his current colleagues…his 50 touchdowns or 5,000 passing yards aren’t such shocking numbers as they were in 1984 when Dan Marino was the first to approach them. The league values the forward pass, and has made rule changes to facilitate the passing game.
Lastly, I understand that Brady’s 5 Super Bowl appearances and 3 Super Bowl wins is a major accomplishment, but it’s also fair to look at Brady’s playoff performances in the years since the last of the those Super Bowl wins at the end of the 2004 season. In 12 play-off games since the last Super Bowl win, Tom Brady and the Patriots are only 7-5. More astounding are the stats for an average Tom Brady performance in those games: 23/36, 64% completion percentage, 256 yards, 2.17 touchdowns, and 1.42 interceptions.
Most of those numbers are acceptable, the touchdown to interception ration is the killer. For a guy who is supposed to be a great pure passer, and for a guy who holds that record of 358 consecutive passing attempts without an interception, having more three INT games than 0 INT games in your last 12 playoff performances kills ratings in categories like “Skill as a Passer” and “Performance in the Clutch”
10) Peyton Manning
Obviously, as of this writing, we have no idea if Manning’s career is over or not. As it stands right now, I believe Manning has earned the accolades which make him top ten all-time quarterback. Given the criteria we’ve established for making this list, the only way he moves up is to win another Super Bowl or league MVP award, neither of which seem very likely. Conversely, the only way he moves down is if another quarterback passes him.
Having said that, let’s look at what has made Peyton Manning a top ten quarterback. Nobody as of this date has won four NFL MVP awards. Peyton is the fastest quarterback in history to reach 4,000 completions and 50,000 passing yards. He is also an 11-time Pro Bowler and has been selected All-Pro eight times. Given all that, why is he only at #10 on this list?
For starters, Manning suffers greatly in two categories, Performance in the “clutch” and athleticism. Manning’s play-off record is dismal and Manning, like Brady, is an immobile pocket passer who would have only flourished in this league in the last twenty years. Put him and Brady in the 1960′s when defenders were allowed to literally beat the stuffing out of quarterbacks and neither of them would have survived.
9) Sid Luckman
To understand why Sid Luckman is in the top ten, you really have to consider the power of the difference in eras, and the length of season and individual careers. Considering Luckman played in an era when the forward pass was treated as a “trick” play, it’s difficult to look at sheer numbers and appreciate his greatness without considering the difference in eras. While Sammy Baugh (see #6) was inventing the modern passing game in the 1930′s and 1940′s, Luckman’s 2,194 passing yards and 28 touchdowns in 1943 seemed like an impossiblilty in those days; it would be roughly equal to a quarterback tossing for more than 6,800 yards and 57 touchdowns today. Luckman won four Championships and still holds the NFL record for touchdown pass percentage (7.9), and his 8.4 yards per pass attempt is second only to Otto Graham.
8 ) Sonny Jurgensen
Jurgensen is perhaps the #2 or #3 pure passer of all-time. Vince Lombardi once said that Jurgensen was the best he’d ever seen. Jurgensen was the dominant quarterback of the 1960′s. He led the NFL in passing yards five times (good for second-place all-time which he shares with Dan Marino) and led the league in passing touchdowns twice. Even though he spent time as a back-up early in his career, if he played today, an average Jurgensen season would be ~ 4,800 passing yards, yards and 37 touchdowns against 11 interceptions per season.
7) Steve Young
In terms of athleticism, Young ranked second behind John Elway. Young had a run of dominance emjoyed by only a select few in league history, but it was only long enough to rate him at #7 on this list. Young easily could have rated as high as Elway in the overall rankings had he not wasted two seasons in the USFL, two seasons in Tampa Bay, and played back-up to Joe Montana for four more. By the time he became the starter in San Francisco, half his career was over, but in the seasons he started, Young was a seven-time Pro Bowler, first team All-Pro three times, two-time NFL MVP and won a Super Bowl in which he was also the MVP. By the way, in that Super Bowl, he threw a record six touchdown passes. That’s just for openers on Young’s impressive stats. He retired with the highest career passer rating (98.6), he had a passer rating of 100 or greater in seven seasons, while racking up 4,239 career rushing yards and 43 rushing touchdowns.
6) Sammy Baugh
Without a doubt, Sammy Baugh is the greatest all-around football player on this list. At one time, Baugh held 13 NFL records at three different positions (quarterback, punter, and defensive back). As a quarterback, spot number six may be too low. Even though he retired 60 years ago, Baugh is still the record-holder for most years leading the league in passing yards. Baugh is still the record-holder for most years with the lowest interception percentage. Baugh was a 6-time Pro Bowler, a 4-time first team All-Pro, and he won two NFL Championships. The most amazing performance was Baugh’s 335 passing yards when he led the Washington Redskins over the Chicago Bears in the 1937 NFL Championship game. Remember, the league average for passing yards that season was 102.2 yards per game, so Baugh’s performance would be like somebody throwing for about 750 yards today. Oh, and he was a rookie when he did it. It’s still the best performance for a rookie quarterback in a playoff game.
5) Dan Marino
Marino is the highest ranked guy on this list that never won a Championship, and it really doesn’t matter. No matter what your criteria, if Marino doesn’t grade out as a top five quarterback, your list is wrong. His 48 touchdown, 5,000-yard campaign in 1984 is one of the great single-season performances in all of sport, not just football. Marino retired holding many NFL passing records, including total yards, touchdowns, and career completions.
4) John Elway
Not only is Elway perhaps the best pure athlete on this list, he also made so many mediocre players around him better. Tremendous athleticism. He was Vince Young, except he could throw it accurately to any place on the field. Elway made legitimate receiving threats out of no-names like Ricky Nattiel, Mark Jackson, and Vance Johnson, and the threat of Elway’s passing game meant defenders played back in coverage, which allowed bench-jockeys like Gaston Green, Bobby Humphrey, and Sammy Winder to become Pro Bowlers at running back. all earned Pro Bowl berths taking handoffs from Elway.
Elway’s five 5 Super Bowl appearances ties him (as of this writing) with Tom Brady, and while he lost three of them, Elway’s dominating performances were the sole reason the Broncos mattered for a decade and a half. Along the way, Elway won two championships, was selected to nine Pro Bowls, was a Super Bowl MVP, and 1987 NFL MVP. Not to mention, he was nicknamed “Captain Comeback” because pulling a fourth-quarter comeback might as well be called an “Elway.”
3) Joe Montana
Montana wasn’t big and athletic. Montana wasn’t lightning quick. Montana didn’t have the quickest release. But he was the definition of “cool under pressure;” the ice water which flowed through his veins allowed him to dissect defenses with surgical precision. This is why in a 10-year span in San Francisco, Montana won four Super Bowls, was named Super Bowl MVP three times, and was NFL MVP twice.
2) Johnny Unitas
Unitas was a three-time NFL MVP and was first-team All-Pro five times. Unitas has 3 championships, 10 Pro Bowls, was voted All-Pro 6 times., and still holds the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (47) ; a record which has been on the books for 52 years.
More importantly, he was the inventor of the modern passing game. Unitas revolutionized the game, without him there would be none of the guys the under-40 crowd will try to claim are greater than he was.
1) Otto Graham
Anything you say about Otto Graham starts with this sentence: Graham was the greatest winner in the history to date of pro football. Given the listed criteria this list with which this list was built, “Automatic Otto” was a lead-pipe cinch for the top spot. Graham was the living, breathing definition of what being a pro quarterback is. Stack him up against the criteria:
Toughness/Durability: Graham played in an era when there were few rules to prevent defenders from turning quarterback into potted plants. Graham never missed a game, even after having his face split open in a game in 1953. Graham returned to that game with 15 stitches in his mouth to lead his team to a comeback win.
Leadership: Before his career in football, Graham served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. After his pro football days, he served as the head football coach and athletic director at the U.S. Coast guard Academy
Winning as a Team: In his entire 10-year professional football career, Graham never finished a season without playing in a championship game. That means in 10 years, he played in 10 championship games and won 7 of them. That’s more than twice as many championship appearances as Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw, with nearly twice as many victories. Not to mention, his regular season winning percentage of 80% is still the all-time record as well.
Athleticism: With 44 career rushing touchdowns, there’ really no question that Graham was top-flight athlete. Not to mention, he spent a year playing professional basketball with the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings).
Skill as a Passer: Just look at the numbers. 9.0 yards per pass attempt still ranks #1 on the all-time list, his career passer rating is the highest on this list and his interception percentage is the lowest.
Performance in the “clutch:” .700 winning percentage in championship games, and an .800 winning percentage overall. That ought to cover it.
Ability as Compared to Others in his Era: Because Graham spent the first four years of his career with the Cleveland Browns while they were still part of the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), and because the NFL doesn’t recognize AAFC championships or statistics, Graham rarely gets a high ranking in most discussions. That’s just ridiculous for a host of reasons, not the least of which was the fact Graham and the Browns dominated the NFL after the leagues merged in 1950. In many respects, the AAFC was a better league than the NFL, and the NFL recognizes AFL records.
Administrative decisions aside, there’s really no debating Otto Graham is the greatest quarterback of all-time.
Now for the fun part: I’m hoping you will comment on this list, but before you do, consider the following. When you are going to tell me about how wrong I am, be sure to include what you would have done differently. Otherwise, go make your own list
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