Tom Brady, Joe Montana head top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history


With "Top 10 Quarterbacks" -- which will run through the 10 best quarterbacks in NFL history -- premiering Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network, Elliot Harrison assembled his own list of the 10 best signal callers ever, listed in reverse order below. To see how his estimation of the top 10 has changed over the years, take a look at his top-20 list from 2014.

10) Drew Brees

San Diego Chargers, 2001-'05; New Orleans Saints, 2006-present

Brees narrowly edges out Aaron Rodgers on this list while barely sitting behind Brett Favre. Brees (in his 16th year) is over Rodgers (in his ninth year as a starter) because of longevity, as well as the recent (slight) decline in Rodgers' play. While the Packers' franchise quarterback owns two MVP awards and a better winning percentage (.670) than Brees (.570), the latter was already a Pro Bowl quarterback when Rodgers was drafted. Brees has also been every bit the player that Rodgers has in the postseason (Brees has 24 touchdowns and six picks in 11 games; Rodgers has 27 touchdowns and eight picks in 14 games). Stats aren't everything, but owning half of the 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history ain't bad, either.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: When Brees led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game in 2006 (his first year in New Orleans), it also marked the franchise's first-ever trip that far in the postseason ... in 40 years of existence.

9) Brett Favre

Atlanta Falcons, 1991; Green Bay Packers, 1992-2007; New York Jets, 2008; Minnesota Vikings, 2009-2010

Favre trumps Brees in the area where Brees bests Rodgers: being productive for a long, long time. And while, statistically speaking, Brees has been far superior to Favre, we're not talking about fantasy football. Favre was a one-man wrecking crew with a decent defense in the mid-'90s (a defense that was never as good as Rodgers' 2010 unit), winning three MVPs in a row from 1995 to '97. Favre's late-career run was both awesome and lightning rod-ish; he took the Packers to the NFC Championship Game at age 38, led the Jets to a 7-3 start in 2008 before a biceps-tendon injury waylaid his season, then came back to take the Vikes to the doorstep of the Super Bowl in 2009 -- when he was 40. The only thing knocking Favre this far down are: 1) turnovers, and 2) a mid-career lull. Oh, and by the way, his string of 297 consecutive regular-season starts at quarterback will never be broken.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: No one else has ever won three MVPs in a row.

8) John Elway

Denver Broncos, 1983-1998

One of the top money players of all-time. There are many who feel John Elway should be higher on this list. It's understandable ... he played at a high level for 16 years, walked away from the game with two Super Bowl titles, won an NFL MVP award (in 1987) and started three other Super Bowls along the way. So what gives? Well, as a child of the '80s, I can tell you that at no time did I ever think Elway was the best quarterback in the game. That honor belonged to Joe Montana. Although Elway won it all (twice) and Dan Marino did not, the latter never had Elway's supporting cast. Elway didn't work with great offensive weapons early in this career, but he played with a lot of borderline Hall of Fame defensive players. And his first Lombardi Trophy didn't come until shortly after Terrell Davis arrived (in 1995). That said, if Elway's body had not started to wear down as he developed into an experienced, cerebral quarterback, he would be No. 1.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: Elway never led the league in completion percentage, TDs or passer rating. But only Favre (186), Peyton Manning (186) and Tom Brady (174) have more career regular-season wins than Elway (148).

7) Roger Staubach

Dallas Cowboys, 1969-79

If there were two quarterbacks you wanted in the history of the NFL with the game on the line, Elway and Roger Staubach were the guys. Despite playing only 11 seasons due to his four-year commitment to the Navy (which, as with Ted Williams in baseball, I would never downgrade him for) and despite having to sit on the bench early, à la Rodgers and Brees, Staubach authored 15 fourth-quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives. Moreover, he was one of the most athletic quarterbacks the game has ever seen. Bill Belichick, whose dad was an assistant at the Naval Academy when Staubach won the Heisman Trophy, marveled at the highlight runs Staubach made. He was like the time-traveling love child of Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Staubach started four Super Bowls and won two before retiring as the top-rated passer of all time. His best statistical season was also his last, when, at 37, he threw for 3,586 yards and 27 touchdowns while posting a passer rating of 92.3. His record as a starting quarterback was 85-29 ... 85-29! The Cowboys missed the playoffs once in his career.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: In only eight years as a starter, Staubach led the NFL in passer rating four times. That's with 26, then 28, teams in the league. No one in the modern era can match that kind of proficiency.

6) Dan Marino

Miami Dolphins, 1983-1999

Because of the lame "Super Bowl rings" argument, Marino (who has zero) will be ranked too highly here for some people. Eli Manning (two rings) and Joe Flacco (one) will merit more respect in the eyes of some than a legend like Marino. Ugh. Every quarterback wanted to be like Marino. There were times he was unstoppable. He owned the best release in football -- it allowed him to make all the throws. Marino was also the best quarterback out of the gate in NFL history, posting the best passer rating in the AFC as a rookie before breaking the 5,000-yard barrier as a sophomore in 1984 -- almost three decades before anyone else reached that plateau. Like Elway, Marino often tried to do too much, which led to interceptions. Problem is, he rarely had a playoff-caliber defense on his side. What could he have accomplished with, say, the Seahawks defense Russell Wilson is blessed with?

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: Marino's '84 season is the best offensive campaign in history. Besides throwing for 5,084 yards, he threw 48 touchdown passes, breaking the previous record by 12 touchdowns! Only one other player has amassed 5,000-plus passing yards and 48 or more touchdown passes in the same season (Peyton Manning, who had 5,477 and 55 in 2013). Marino accomplished that despite playing in an era when it was much more difficult to throw than it is today.

5) Otto Graham

Cleveland Browns, 1946-1955

I don't give two squirrel's farts if some league observers don't mention players before the Super Bowl era. In the past, we have all underrated Otto Graham and his impact a bit too much. While Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh might have been the greatest player of the first 50 years of pro football (he played both ways brilliantly), Graham was the top passer. What Paul Brown's first quarterback was able to accomplish in 10 years was remarkable: Graham posted the best passing totals and passer rating in his league five times each while going 57-13-1 as a starter. During his 10 seasons, Cleveland made it to 10 championship games. The first four were in the now defunct AAFC, but Graham showed his success was no fluke by leading the Browns to the title game in all six of his years in the NFL.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: Graham's first game in the NFL, in 1950, was against the two-time defending champion Eagles. He was so intimidated that he threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the 35-10 Browns romp.

4) Johnny Unitas

Baltimore Colts, 1956-1972; San Diego Chargers, 1973

Although Unitas has finally been leapfrogged by Peyton Manning, his impact on the game can never be understated. He took late-game heroics to the next level, getting the two-minute drill down to a science. Along with receiver Raymond Berry, Unitas commandeered a passing attack with precise route-running that became the envy of the NFL in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like Manning, Unitas won multiple MVPs with the Colts. Unitas' first came in 1959, when he led Baltimore to the second of two pre-Super Bowl era NFL championship wins. Unitas won the award again in 1964 and 1967, producing a dominant decade-long stretch as the league's top quarterback. Like Favre, he played until he was in his 40s. Like Montana, he brought his team down the field late to win one of the most iconic games in history (in Unitas' case, it was the 1958 NFL Championship, dubbed the "Greatest Game Ever Played"). Like Marino, Unitas was the role model for every kid growing up in his era who wanted to be a quarterback.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: Thrust into his first game due to an injury to George Shaw, Unitas completed his first throw for a touchdown ... to the other team. How many young quarterbacks would have recovered from that?

3) Peyton Manning

Indianapolis Colts, 1998-2011; Denver Broncos, 2012-15

He's the all-time leader in too many categories to count, but most notably passing yards (71,940), touchdowns (539) and MVP awards (five). What can be said about Manning here that hasn't filled broadcasts for the last decade? Not much. Manning passes Unitas on this list because he played at a higher level for longer. Similar to Unitas, Manning reengineered the game from the quarterback position, calling an offense from the line of scrimmage. It was a "new-school" approach straight out of the old-school textbook, as signal-callers literally called their own signals until the 1980s, when they stopped running the offense on the field. Manning's twist: Instead of calling plays exclusively from the huddle, he could do it all by audibling 8 seconds before the play clock said sayonara. Manning was a game-changer in terms of the strategy and evolution of pro football.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: In 2013, at age 37, Peyton Manning delivered one of the greatest offensive seasons in history: 5,477 passing yards (the most all-time in a single season), 55 touchdown passes (ditto), and a 115.1 passer rating (fifth highest).

1b) Joe Montana

San Francisco 49ers, 1979-1992; Kansas City Chiefs, 1993-94

To say it is difficult to put Joe Montana behind anyone is a gross understatement. Put another way: It sucks. At the height of his career, Montana was the best quarterback I've ever seen. His accuracy on slants made a zillion plays for Jerry Rice and allowed John Taylor to go 90 yards (twice!) in Anaheim in a 1989 "Monday Night Football" barnburner. For a better view of Montana's accuracy, watch the NFL Films program on Super Bowl XXIV, which was the worst Super Bowl ever -- thanks to Montana's torching of the Broncos' defense. Only four times in the 1980s did a quarterback post a passer rating of 100 or better, and Montana did it three of those times.

Montana was more mobile and smoother out of the pocket than anyone else in this top five. He's far and away the top player in Super Bowl history. He pulled down two NFL MVPs and started four Super Bowls while in San Francisco before missing almost two full seasons to injury. His second act in Kansas City resulted in the Chiefs making their first conference championship game since the AFL-NFL merger. Ultimately, the only knock on Montana is that he missed approximately 3.5 seasons over the course of his career to injury.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: Montana blows everyone away, including our quarterback below, in terms of Super Bowl legacy. In his four Super starts, the Hall of Fame quarterback went 4-0 with 11 touchdown passes, no interceptions, a 127.8 passer rating and three game MVP awards.

1a) Tom Brady

New England Patriots, 2000-2016

Tom Brady edges Montana -- for now. Much to sort through here, but I feel Brady has earned the right, even as an active player, to be called the greatest quarterback in NFL history. What pushes him past the legendary passer is his durability in the latter stages of his career. Brady has performed at a superior level past the 12-year mark, something Montana was not able to do consistently. In fact, the only starts Brady's missed recently have been the four games he lost to his Deflategate suspension.

Now, there are those who might feel that debacle -- along with Spygate -- should put him behind Montana (who never had any controversy surrounding his career). While I understand the point, there is too much conjecture and not enough evidence that Brady needed any help being Tom Brady ... which is to say, the most dominant quarterback of the modern era. He owns all the hardware: two NFL MVPs, three Super Bowl MVPs and a pair of passing titles (2005 and 2007). He guided New England to a perfect regular-season record in 2007 while setting a passing-touchdown record with 50 (which has since been broken) along the way. Since becoming the starter in 2001, he's missed the postseason just once, in 2002. Speaking of, Brady's regular-season record as a starter is 174-51, giving him an even better winning percentage (.773) than Staubach (.746). Perhaps most importantly, Brady shows no signs of slowing down, throwing 42 touchdowns against seven interceptions over his last 18 regular-season games.

One Fact You Might Not Know, But Must: This was pointed out to me by my colleague Jamie Dukes, and it bears repeating: Tom Brady has taken his team to 10 AFC Championship Games -- 10! That total surpasses the number of years Megatron played in the league (nine). Think about that.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.



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