Joe Montana is often cited as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, but the criteria used to distinguish the best players at the position remains a mystery.
League observers, coaches and fans all use a varying set of standards to determine greatness at football's most important position.
Whereas some view a gaudy statistical resume as an indicator of a quarterback's excellence, others believe that a signal caller's legacy is ultimately determined by his ability to win the big game. Though both principles have merit, the conflicting ideologies make evaluating the position problematic.
Judging a quarterback based solely on their statistical success overlooks critical intangibles such as leadership and decision making. While an elite quarterback routinely demonstrates his ability to put up big numbers, the great ones deliver those performances while leading their teams to victories. Although Hall of Famers Dan Fouts and Dan Marino are more known for their prolific passing totals, they also won at a high level during their respective careers. Each led their team to multiple division titles, and Marino captured an AFC title in 1984.
However, Fouts and Marino seemingly serve as exceptions to the rule, as quarterbacks ascend to rarified air after winning Super Bowls. Trent Dilfer, Mark Rypien and Jim McMahon left the game with heightened profiles based on their ability to deliver a championship to their respective teams.
Furthermore, quarterbacks who repeatedly win titles become legends. Of the ten quarterbacks who have two or more Super Bowl wins, seven have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and two others are current stars -- Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
With that as a backdrop, it appears that a combination of team success and individual performance should be the determining factors when evaluating the position.
Let's take a look at the top five quarterbacks in the league today:
1. Tom Brady, Patriots
The league MVP in 2007 is unquestionably the top player at the position based on his three Super Bowl rings and unrivaled status as the ultimate winner. Brady has compiled the top winning percentage (.784) of any starting quarterback in the Super Bowl era while amassing 87 victories in his first 111 regular season starts. In addition, he has a 14-3 playoff record and engineered 28 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his nine-year career. While the four-time Pro Bowler missed virtually all of last year with a knee injury, his game was seemingly flawless as he rewrote the record book with 50 touchdown passes in 2007. With few quarterbacks in the history of the game capable of matching individual and team success, Brady belongs at the top of this list.
2. Peyton Manning, Colts
The nine-time Pro Bowler has enjoyed one of the most decorated careers of any quarterback in league history. Manning has passed for more than 3,000 yards in each of his 11 seasons and has surpassed the 4,000-yard mark a league-record nine times. In addition, the three-time league MVP has led the Colts to seven straight seasons with 10 or more wins and a Super Bowl XLI title. Although those accomplishments solidified his place among the greats of the game, Manning's ability to single-handedly carry the Colts to nine straight wins and into the playoffs after a 3-4 start last season reaffirmed his status as one of the top competitors to play the position.
3. Donovan McNabb, Eagles
The inclusion of McNabb on this list is sure to draw the ire of some in the City of Brotherly Love, but the five-time Pro Bowler is praiseworthy based on his tremendous accomplishments. The 10-year veteran has amassed a lofty .645 winning percentage as a starter and has guided the Eagles to five NFC Championship Game appearances in the past eight seasons. Although those accomplishments speak to his ability to lead the team, McNabb remains one of the league's top passers. As one of only six quarterbacks in league history with over 25,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, McNabb is one of the top dual threats to ever play the game. Coming off a season where he posted career-highs in completions (345) and passing yards (3,916), McNabb's game is still on the rise.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
The 27-year old signal caller has quickly joined the ranks of the elite after winning two Super Bowls in his first five seasons. Though Roethlisberger acted as a game manager early in his career, he has become one of the top playmakers at the position. Blessed with outstanding athleticism, toughness and improvisational skills, he repeatedly delivers game-changing results off broken plays. Additionally, he has developed into a dangerous pocket passer capable of leading his team to victories in the clutch, none more impressive than his game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLIII.
5. Drew Brees, Saints
The prolific gunslinger has produced three straight seasons with over 4,000 passing yards while ranking among the league leaders in virtually every passing category. Brees' spectacular 2008 season included a run at Dan Marino's single-season passing mark (5,084). Although the three-time Pro Bowler fell 16 yards short of the record, his 10 games with over 300-yards passing ranks as the highest single-season total in league history (tied with Rich Gannon's total in 2002). Brees is also one of the most accurate passers in the game. His 63.9 completion percentage ranks fifth all-time and is a major reason why he's tied for the ninth-best passer rating (89.4) in league history. Although Brees' spectacular output has only netted one playoff win for the Saints, it has pushed him into the ranks of the elite at the position.