King of Kings

By Steve Barton | January 29, 2020

Ranking the Top 10 Quarterbacks in NFL History

There is no position like it in all of sports. You can gather up all the baseball pitchers and basketball point guards and hockey goalies. You can combine all soccer strikers and tennis players and golfers and downhill racers and 100-meter sprinters. You can put all of them together and still they do not equal the quarterback. For it is the quarterback who commands the most complex and violent game on earth; it is the quarterback who brings order to the 22-man chaos, and it is he who decides when the action will commence and often when it will stop. It is he who is protected by the rules like no other player. It is he whom we watch, our eyes frozen on his form, our ears attuned to his signals. It is he who gets the money, the power and the girl. The quarterback is king, and the NFL quarterback is the king of kings. _______________________________________________________________________ Sports Illustrated, “NFL QB”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the NFL quarterback is in fact the premier position in all of sports. That begs the question: Who among these “kings” reigns supreme? And which 9 of the remaining potentates are next in the line of succession? In other words, who are the 10 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history?

These and similar questions about major league pitchers, NBA point guards, NHL goalies, and pretty much any other position in sports have long been fodder for sports talk shows and bar room arguments. And of course, the answers are always to some extent subjective, and change over time. However, for this particular moment in time, using the deceptively simple formula set forth below, I have been able to authoritatively answer the question with respect to NFL quarterbacks.

First, we can only consider quarterbacks from what could be called the modern era, which began roughly in 1960. That means that to be eligible, the majority of the quarterback’s career must have occurred during the 1960s or later. That leaves out some legends such as Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman and Bobby Lane, but the game was so different then that meaningful comparisons are impossible.

The criteria are Statistics, Championships and Intangibles

  1. Statistics

The primary statistics considered are career yardage, average yards per game, and career touchdowns. (For an explanation of how these categories were selected, please visit the “Category Analytics” portal on my website.) Players are given points if they rank in the top 25, all time, in each of these categories. They are awarded 3 points for ranking in the top 8 of the statistical category, two points for ranking 9-16, and one point for 17-25. However, because recent rule changes have revolutionized and super-charged the passing game, there is really no fair comparisons between passing statistics in the 1960s through 2010 and the current era. As a result, quarterbacks who played primarily in the 1960s receive a 2 point credit and those between 1970 and 2010 a 1 point credit. (The so called “era adjustment”.) The rankings in the individual categories are combined and a composite score is created giving the ranked players scores of 3 points for the top 8, 2 points for the next 8, and 1 point for the next 9. (Trust me on this. But if you don’t, the raw data is available at the “Statistical Algorithms” portal on my website.) Without factoring in the era adjustments, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady grade out best here, with Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning not far behind.

  1. Championships

Players get 3 points for winning 4 or more championships (these are Tom Brady 6, Bart Starr 5, Terry Bradshaw 4 and Joe Montana 4), 2 points for 2 or 3 championships (10 players qualified), and 1 point for at least 1 championship.

A player’s statistical score is combined with his championship score for a total score. For example, Brady scored 3 points both for statistics and championships for a total of 6 points. Peyton Manning scored a statistical 3 and a championship 2 for a total of 5. That left a total of 12 quarterbacks with scores of between 4 and 6. Which means that 2 had to be winnowed out and ties and close calls resolved among the remaining 10 *. That brings us to criteria number 3.

  1. Intangibles

Of course, this is the subjective element. Factors considered are performance in the clutch, toughness and consistency, i.e., “true grit.” Close calls and ties are decided by a “true grit adjustment” (“TGA”), which can be either positive or negative. For example, it was said that Johnny Unitas held on to the ball in the pocket a split second longer than he had to, knowing the punishment was coming, just to prove that he “feared no man” – just to show that he could take the hit without flinching – almost with a sneer. (That’s a positive TGA). Conversely, for example, Ram quarterback Jim Everett had a penchant for collapsing into a fetal position at the first whiff of pressure, earning him the moniker “Chrissy Everett” (after the female tennis star Chris Evert). That’s a sure fire negative TGA. (Question: Did Everett wear pom-poms on his socks like his namesake? Answer: I can’t rule it out.) Thus, even if Everett had scored out as a potential contender (he didn’t) he would have been penalized.

So here’s how they rank, in inverse order:

  1. Ben Roethlisberger

A surprising, and frankly unwelcomed addition (for his off the field actions, not on). But the numbers don’t lie. He’s been near the top statistically his entire career and has 2 Super Bowl wins. Plus, no one has ever questioned his on the field toughness or leadership.

  1. John Elway

The prototypical quarterback with size, speed and the proverbial cannon for an arm. He always ranked near the top statistically and made 3 trips to the Super Bowl with the Broncos before finally winning 2 straight in the twilight of his career.

  1. Brett Favre

The Lou Gehrig of the NFL, Favre started in a remarkable 321 consecutive games, including playoffs. This is an even more amazing feat for a quarterback who never shied away from contact. A significant positive TGA. The statistics are there as well, along with 1 Super Bowl win.

  1. Terry Bradshaw

Bradshaw tends to play up his “Lil Abner” shtick, which has probably hurt his reputation. But his statistics were rock solid and he won four Super Bowls with the Steelers. His toughness was never in doubt and he always seemed to come up with the big play in the clutch. (Exhibit A, the “Immaculate Reception”)

  1. Bart Starr

Starr’s statistics would be less than pedestrian by today’s standards, so the 2 point era adjustment he got for playing primarily in the 1960s really helped. But he was also the perfect instrument for Lombardi’s methodical run oriented offensive scheme, and he piled up no less than 5 NFL championships as a result. Engineering the final drive on the “frozen tundra” and scoring the last second touchdown to win the Ice Bowl doesn’t hurt either.

  1. Drew Brees

Brees has only one championship, but statistically he is too strong to ignore. He is the all-time leader in passing yards and third all-time in total touchdowns, behind only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. (Manning has retired and Brees will pass him soon.) His relatively diminutive size makes his numbers all the more impressive. He’s arguably the best pure pocket passer in NFL history. By the time he retires he will probably own every important passing record in the book.

  1. Peyton Manning

Manning is among the elite statistically along with 2 Super Bowls. He’s remembered as the consummate student of the game and for his (annoyingly) prolonged check offs and audibles (“Omaha!”) at the line of scrimmage. Manning could beat you with his mind as well as his arm. You felt like he knew more about the other team’s defensive scheme than its defensive coordinator. His congenial demeanor sometimes obscured his fiercely competitive nature.

  1. Joe Montana

Big Sky. Montana’s statistics were strong for his day, but not so much by today’s standards and he benefitted from his 1 point era adjustment. However, it was his ability to remain cool under fire and perform at his best when the stakes were the highest that solidified his reputation as an all-time great. He too had an epic game winning drive in a Super Bowl against the Bengals. Oh yeah, he also picked up three other Super Bowls along the way.

  1. Johnny Unitas

No one on this list was more unprepossessing in appearance than Unitas, with his gangly limbs and clunky black high tops. But no man was more fearless, or feared, when the chips were down, than Johnny U. Whereas others on the list were the prototypical quarterback in terms of size and athletic ability, Unitas was the quintessential quarterback in terms of icy composure and command under pressure. He won 3 NFL championships over his career, but it was his final drive in the 1958 championship game against the Giants, with his surgical sideline strikes to Raymond Berry in the gathering twilight, that launched him into immortality.

  1. Tom Brady

There’s no getting around it (unfortunately), Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Despite arguably negative TGA’s such as “spy gate” and “deflate gate”, and the annoying distractions such as his marriage to the “Glamazon” (Gisele Bundchen), his obnoxious diet which includes avocado ice cream, and his ever-changing hair styles, his greatness on the field can’t be denied. Statistically, he’s right up there with Manning and Brees, but he also has a phenomenal 6 Super Bowls under his belt and may be well be working on a 7th. Being teamed with Belichick all of these years raises the inevitable “chicken or the egg” question (similar to Lombardi and Starr) but Brady has performed so well, for so long (he is still playing at a high level at age 42), with such unprecedented results (the aforementioned championships) that he must be considered the all-time best, the King of the Kings of Kings.


*The 12 quarterbacks and their total scores are: Brady-6, Peyton Manning-5, Roethlisberger-5, Unitas-5, Starr-5, Brees-4, Eli Manning-4, Marino-4, Favre-4, Ellway-4, Montana-4, Bradshaw-4. Of these, Marino was eliminated because of his lack of a championship and Eli because of his inconsistency, especially over the last few years.

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