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The Five Greatest NFL Quarterbacks of All Time

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Last updated at 12:45 p.m. on 2/14/12

Writing an opinion about the five greatest quarterbacks of all time is not an easy one and I’m sure to offend some fans who believe their favorite QB should be on the list.

One of the things that I had to consider is what might be relevant to me might not be to someone of another generation with a different perspective. I’ve been watching the NFL for over 30 years, so I do have some perspective.

So here’s my list from #5 to #1:

#5 John Elway

John Elway went to five Super Bowls, winning two of them. Elway made the playoffs in 10 out of his 16 years in the NFL, winning his championship rings in his last two years.

John Elway won both NFL and Super Bowl MVP honors and he was also known for his comebacks. He led his team to victory on a number of late 4th quarter drives (Including the playoffs).

If that wasn’t enough, Elway ranks second on the career wins list for an NFL QB and is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.

#4 Dan Marino

Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl, losing his only appearance to the San Francisco 49ers.

That being said, Marino is one of the greatest QBs I’ve ever seen play and if he had played with an all-around team like the 49ers, who knows how many Super Bowls he would have won.

Watching him play was a joy, as he was my favorite player growing up. I only wish he could have won the big game. I might have ranked him higher if he had.

Marino seemed to be a sure bet to make the playoffs every season, leading his team to the postseason in 10 out of his 17 years as a pro. Marino’s records are too numerous to list but here are a few facts about his career:

A) He led his team to the most 4th quarter comeback wins in NFL history.
B) Most 400-yard games.
C) Most seasons with 40 or more touchdown passes.
D) Most seasons leading the league in completions.

He’s also in third place with the most passing yards in a season—he had the record (5,084) until it was broken this past season by Drew Brees and Tom Brady—and is second to Brett Favre for most touchdown passes in a career (420).

If that weren’t enough, Marino retired #1 with the most touchdown passes in an NFL season (48). That record has since been broken by Peyton Manning (49) and Brady (50).

Marino is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.

#3 Peyton Manning

Now we start getting into the meat of the list, and this is where some fans might start to disagree with my ranking. Manning has been to two Super Bowls, winning one of them as a Super Bowl MVP.

If he is healthy, Manning will likely resume his career next season (as an Indianapolis Colt or somewhere else). He has about three years left in him and if he can win another Super Bowl, there’s a good chance he can move up in my rankings.

In the 13 seasons he’s played in—he was out with a neck injury for the whole 2011 season—he’s led his team to the playoffs 11 times. That’s an incredible statistic. In fact, the Indianapolis Colts were 10-6 in 2010 and were only 2-14 in 2011 without him. That’s with the roster being almost the same as the year before.

Manning’s accomplishments are also too numerous to list here but I attempted to list a few, so you could get a good understanding of what a great QB he is:

A) Most seasons with at least 25 touchdowns.
B) Most seasons with a perfect QB rating.
C) Only starter with nine straight seasons with 10+ wins.

Manning also holds the NFL record for most touchdowns by a rookie (26). Manning is sure bet to be a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee. What’s amazing about Manning is that his career isn’t over yet.

#2 Tom Brady

Like Manning, Brady’s career is not over, but he’s won three Super Bowls in five appearances. Brady’s teams have made it to the postseason in nine out of his 12 seasons—he did not play his rookie year in 2000 and suffered a season-ending injury in week one of the 2008 season. Brady probably has about four to five years left and if he wins another Super Bowl, he will then be the top ranked QB in my mind.

Brady is a winner and he’s an incredibly accurate passer. The guy must have ice in his veins, because nothing seems to rattle the guy.

Tom Brady holds NFL records for the most TDs in a season (50), most touchdowns in a quarter (5), most consecutive pass attempts without an interception and many more.

Brady has won the Super Bowl MVP award two times and has also been the AP NFL MVP two times.

Brady is sure to be a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee, and if I had a choice of taking an active QB for my team today, I would choose him.

Joe Montana

#1 Joe Montana

I loved watching Montana play, except when he defeated Dan Marino and my Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. If you want to talk about a winner, Montana fits that bill. Of all the great QBs to play the game, I would take Joe Montana in his prime any day.

The SF QB won four Super Bowls, which is incredible! Montana is the only player to win three Super Bowl MVP awards, was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times, and is a Hall of Fame inductee.

Montana was named the AP NFL MVP twice in his career and has won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. In his 16-year NFL career, Montana led his team to the playoffs 11 times.

What’s most memorable in my mind is how he played in the Super Bowl and NFL playoffs. Once Montana made it to the big game, he was unbeatable. His four Super Bowl rings speak for themselves and the fact that he played great games in the Super Bowl speaks to his greatness.

So there are my top five greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. No, Eli Manning didn’t make the cut. Eli has won two Super Bowl titles but his play throughout his career has been up and down. That was true at times this season as well. If Eli continues on the path he showed this season and wins one more Super Bowl, he might be ranked in the top five.  We will have to see.

Statistics from ESPN.com and Wikipedia.org.
Image source: askville.amazon.com

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About Sportmentary

  • stu orvik

    I was there to watch Joe throughout all those years. Looking back I think there were , at least, two Super Bowls he should have lost, but he didn’t. He’d have won another but was not allowed to compete, even though he’d recovered from the back injury. How abut this, the niners once won 17 away games in a row. Thanks Joe, for the memories…

    • Phootball

      Something that all should consider: a great quarterback creates a great team around him by being a leader and by being predictable – Montana was the greatest at those things. #1.

  • Hey Stu, thanks for the comment. That’s quite a stat about winning 17 away games.

  • Top 5 QBs of the last 20 years, plus I’d like to cast a vote for Steve Young.

  • Hi Brian, I knew someone would say something like the past 20 years 🙂 Steve Young was a great QB, there’s no doubt about that. His pass completion percentage ranks among the highest. I just don’t think he’s as good as the 5 I listed but that’s the beauty of something like this, many of us have different opinions about a this type of listing.

  • There always can be different choices. If you had top ten I think I’d include Tarkenton, Griese, and Namath.

  • Victor, I probably would have also included Unitas and Brian’s choice of Young. Namath is the only questionable one in your list as he didn’t do much besides the one title and how well did he play in that game? did I open up a can of worms for myself after that statement?

  • Freddie

    Tom Brady is ranked but Eli Manning isn’t? Eli Manning beat Tom Brady twice in the Superbowls.

  • Freddie, Thanks for your comment but Eli can’t be considered even a top 10 QB yet. Look at his resume (except for two great games) and you’ll see he has a long way to go. His career completion percentage needs major improvement and he needs to become consistent year in year out. Mr. Brady still has one more SB victory and 3 more appearances than Eli. Who would take me seriously if I put Eli on the list and left off Steve Young and Unitas.

    Compare the resume of the other QBs on the list to ELi and you’ll see Eli falls short. We’ll see at the end of Eli’s career if will make the list.

  • sb81848889

    This list is at best uninformed,

    Any to 5 / 10 QB list that does not include Bart Starr, Roger Staubach and Otto Graham is flat wrong.

    If were just talking about the last 30 years then Elway should be ahead of Brady and Marino is not on this list at all.

    Leave Montana at # 1, then # 2 is just the first loser.

  • TodayIsNoLongerFootball

    Only idiots write like this with their facts wrong. Elway did not go to 4 Superbowl. He went to FIVE Superbowl……. He is and will always be the greatest. And don’t give me stats. The Broncos in the 80’s were a joke. Elway was the only man that got his team there. Had he had a team full with talents like the 49s, he would of dominated the game just like Montana, maybe even more so. And today’s quarterbacks are a joke with all them stupid rules. No wonder guys like Brees, Brady, and Rodgers are so great.

  • As for comment #9, Marino is on the list.

    As for comment #10, there’s no need to name call and tht probably violates the terms.

  • sb81848889

    I meant Marino should not be on a top 5 QB list, maybe top 10, but only in the last 30 years.

    Elway at least played real football unlike today it is more like flag football.

    Just to inform comment # 10 the 80’s broncos had a terrific defense while Elway did perform well in the early rounds of the playoffs with last minute drives he stunk up the stadiums in his 1st 4 super bowl appearances. The 3 losses were his fault just like Tom Brady’s 2 losses are his.

    If you want the top 5 list since 1980 then here it is.

    #5 Steve Young
    #4 Kurt Warner
    #3 Peyton Manning
    #2 John Elway
    #1 Joe Montana ( undisputed )

    The real top 5 QB list however is this

    #5 Johnny Unitas
    #4 Bart Starr
    #3 Otto Graham
    #2 Roger Staubach
    #1 Joe Montana

    Montana is the only modern QB that can compare to the Quarterbacks prior to 1979.

    And with the Flag football NFL we have today there could never be another top 25 QB to ever play in the future.

  • I guess we can agree to disagree. it’s a matter of opinion. In my opinion, my list is more representative of the greatest QBs ever. Staubach might make my top 15 but definitely not top 5. C’mon Man!

  • Sully

    For the record, Elway was in 5 super bowls, not four. Graham and Unitas also arguably make the top 5, for sure top 10

  • Sully, thanks for the correction! When put this together, Unitas was so close to making it. I knew some people would have an issue with his not being on the list. He definitely would have made the top 10.

  • sb81848889

    Staubach had the highest career pass rating of 83.4 among pre 1980 QB’s. That says volumes.

    He went to 4 super bowls in 8 years and won 2 of them. The cowboys lost twice to the Steelers but Staubach posted high QB ratings of 77.8 and 100.4 against the greatest steel curtain defense that held no punches.

    He won 4 passing titles in his career and performed great in the regular and post season. Something you cannot say about Starr or Unitas.

    He also rushed for 20 TD’s and 2264 yards in his career, all of which were played in the toughest defense era in NFL history. All this while only playing in the league for 10 years, not too shabby

    Your list does not represent all of NFL history at all. In fact its not even reasonable.

  • Since writing this opinion, I’ve done some research. I wanted to see what the experts and the public had to say. I wanted to see what journalists from previous generations had to say. Every list is different but i believe that my list encompasses much more of the totality of all the other lists when comparing them. No one can agree, which is why this is an opinion. I think watching football for nearly 35 years provides some perspective. As mentioned earlier, I stand by my list. It’s tough comparing the generations and saying which era was better. It’s impossible to compare today’s game to the game 35 to 40- to 50 years ago. Some argue that today’s athlete is faster, bigger and stronger. Do I take that to the bank? Of course not. Would today’s professional football player have killed an opposing QB because they’re bigger, faster and stronger? Who knows. You might think you’re right and I’m wrong. That’s your opinion but I do have mine and stand by it!

  • Sully,
    The error regarding Elway’s Super bowl appearances has been fixed. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Thanks to Charlie who is an editor, for helping me with the correction!

  • sb81848889

    If you believe you cannot compare QB’s from different era’s then change your title from the 5 greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time to the 5 greatest NFL quarterbacks of this era, I can at least respect that.

  • Sully

    Hey sb81848889, before you get after him, get your facts straight. Otto Graham actually has the highest passer rating of a pre-1980s quarterback with an 86.6 rating.

  • sb81848889, as I said before, I will agree to disagree. Put 20 people in a room and you will have 20 different listings, each person pushing their points. That’s why you call it an opinion. I argue that my list is better than yours. That’s my opinion.

  • Just did more research and while we may once again disagree with the validity of the experts:
    1)Bleacher Report – Top 3 matched my top 3 but Unitas made the top ).
    2)Ranker.com – Top 2 matched my top 2, Unitas listed #3 but 4 of their top 5 match mine. Brady not listed in top 5.
    3) NBC Sports fan poll – 4 of my top 5 are in their top 5 Unitas at #3 and Marino at #6.
    4) Unassisted Sports – 4 of my top 5 are in their top 5 with Favre making their list and Elway being #6.
    5) Men’s Fitness – 4 of my top 5 are in their top 5 with Unitas making in their list.

    I can go on and on but it seems as if i’m onto something. So I will take my list and say that it’s more similar to most but everyone has a different take. Again, it’s called an opinion!

  • sb81848889


    You are including Graham’s 4 years with the defunct AAFC league. He was only in the NFL from 1950 to 1955. Many records combine these 2 leagues together, but just for Otto Graham. However they are not true.


    I could just as easily gather several top 10 lists that show any number of variations, certainly you cannot use that as your only argument.

    How can you hold to a list that does not even have one QB that played in the first 60 years of the NFL.

    I have no problem with you having your opinion. I would like to hear why the QB’s on my list are not on yours. Can you at least tell me what Elway, Marino, Brady and Manning did that Starr, Unitas, Graham and Staubach did not do ?

  • First off, the intent of my article wasn’t to include a QB form every decade. It was to pick the greatest in my mind. I’m not saying this but if a decade included terrible QBs, does this mean I should include a QB from that decade? I’m not saying that but my analysis looked at records, championships, top performances, single season records, etc, etc. The problem is that when you compare the position today and who holds the majority of NFL records, it’s hard to compare to a generation where the position was different. It’s late now and if I have time going forward, I will try and look at my notes and research to tell you why I left off particular players. There’s one player on your list, Unitas where your argument is strongest. I went back and forth on this and if I had to redo the list, he might make the 4th or 5th spot. I don’t think he’s a top 3 all time.

  • Sully

    Maybe they combine them only for him because he won 3 MVPs and was easily the most dominant player in the league. Sure, it’s a defunct league, but you didn’t specify NFL-only. You only said pre-1980s QBs, which Graham is.

  • sb81848889


    Well I totally agree that Graham is one of the greatest QB’s of all time, I have him 3rd on my list. I dont even really have a problem with them combining his stats, but they may have been lower if he would have been in the NFL playing against tougher teams, who knows.


    Well, I hope you dont mind debating back and forth, I am not trying to be antagonistic. I look forward to further discussions.

  • sb81848889, I enjoy our back and forth and I beleive debates are learning experiences. What I love about passionate sporting fans is that we all have strong opinions. I also look forward to further discussions with you, Sully and others.

    On my blog and as you will see with my other Blogcritics articles, I like to push buttons and hopefully foster discussions with other members. I hope that the Sports section of Blogcritics is enhanced with discussions like these. I also hope that you’re enjoying this discussion!

  • Jarrodisme50

    Nice list

  • Thanks Jarrodisme50

  • Jarrodisme50

    I think it is 1a John Elway 1b Cool Joe

  • dddd


  • sciguybm

    #5 Bart Starr
    #4 Terry Bradshaw
    #3 Otto Graham
    #2 Johnny Unitas
    #1 Joe Montana
    Even though I hated Bradshaw, (Vikes) and didn’t exactly like Starr you have to admit these guys were pretty dang great.

  • louis s brown

    Bradshaw has 4 rings.Granted the steelers with Terry had the greatest defense of all times; Mean Joe Green, Jack Ham , Jack Lambert, Mel Blount,and the rest of the greats. But before you take Terry off the list remember that the Steelers had to beat The Dallas Cowboys; Roger Stauback , Vikings, Cowboys, and the Rams. Also Terry threw the greatest super bowl pass in history -70 yards n the air to beat Dallas in the rematch. Bradshaw is number 2 on my list.

  • shawn

    facts are facts.
    Favre holds all the records. They didn’t call him Iron Man for no reason.

  • Sportmentary

    Shawn, he doesn’t hold all the records. He holds some but he also holds the interceptions record.

  • Ok someone said that Tom Brady loosing those 2 SBs were his fault, I am a Brady fan but regardless that person is really a complete retard 4 making that statement, unlike Eli Brady has had the worst defense his whole career yet he has only missed the playoffs twice 1 bc he wasnt a starter and 2 he was injured as for the list and since im not biased until TB gets his 4th JM should stay #1 and I would put TB and PM both at #2 since they both got stats that the other dont

  • I forgot to mention if it wasnt 4 Welkers butterfingers and Gronk not being 100% Brady would have won last year hands down I mean a little over 2 minutes left if Welker caught that ball it would have been game over it touched BOTH of his hands!!! if any qb is overrated its def Eli his defense is half the reason he wins the games that he does including those 2 SBs putting those aside if u compare Elis stats too any of the well known qbs he falls short too all of them including Brady unless u think u can argue those FACTS bc thats what they are then case closed

  • CaptainComeback

    The comment about certain decades having awful QBs is a rough one….what is the comment based on, stats? If the rules were different in different eras, wouldn’t that effect stats?

    Just adjust statistics for era, and you’ve solved you problem….

    Based upon a variety of things, my top 5 reads:

    1 Staubach – taking everything into account: efficiency, era, tools, record, clutch play, the best ever….
    2 Montana
    3 Graham
    4 Starr
    5 Unitas

  • CaptainComeback

    Brady is my modern day honorable mention….

  • CaptainComeback

    I also had a tough time leaving Baugh and Luckman off the list, but….

  • CaptainComeback

    Just re-read Sportmentary’s comment, and noticed he was merely setting forth a hypothetical where a given era’s QBs were all terrible, and not stating it as fact. I stand corrected.

  • Tony g

    Where is Farve on this list u guys are funny..

  • Tony g

    And no Moon either?! Come on!!

  • Tony g

    Brett Farve, Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, Boomer Essen, Steve Young.

  • Dudley

    I love this debate because all it does is remind me how many great quarterbacks there have been through the years. That being said, here’s my version. Bring on the debate.

    1. Joe Montana 2. Tom Brady.
    3. Johnny Unitas 4. Peyton Manning
    5. Dan Marino 6. John Elway
    7. Brett Favre 8. Steve Young
    9. Otto Graham 10. Terry Bradshaw

  • Amanda Rules

    1) Elway, 2) Manning, 3) Brady, 4) Favre, 5) Marino. Montana is top 10 but doesn’t deserve to be on that list at all. If the list was best QB on the best team(s) then yah, but the question is best QB implying solo to be moved to any team anywhere and succeed.

  • Taylor Hodges

    No Unitas on here, this is a joke.

  • Rich

    If Peyton would of stayed with Indy he would have been nothing!! He’d have no stacked team just to give him wins!! He is a bandwagoner! Brady has three rings!