The Super Bowl was due for some fresh blood at quarterback. Patrick Mahomes vs. Jimmy Garoppolo is the first matchup of first-time Super Bowl starters since Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco dueled after the 2012 season. If Super Bowl LIV produces quarterback performances anything like what happened that fateful night in New Orleans, we are in for a treat.
The lack of experience for both starters -- Mahomes, just 24 years old, has started more games (35, including the playoffs) than Jimmy G -- makes it difficult to know where to place them on the mountain of all other Super Bowl starters. The reality that Mahomes is the most talented quarterback I've ever seen, and has a strong argument for the best first two seasons as a starter the NFL has ever seen, makes him especially tricky.
To figure that out, I combed through the resumes of all 63 Super Bowl starting quarterbacks, including Goff. It's important to note that for players like Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, who started Super Bowls but whose peak years came before the Super Bowl era, I considered their entire careers, not just what they did from 1966 onward. I ranked all quarterbacks based on career achievements, with regular-season excellence, All-Pro/Pro Bowl appearances and seasons as top-five and top-10 players at the position carrying more weight than just Super Bowl success. (Spoiler: Jim Plunkett did not have a better career than Dan Marino. Sorry.)
With an MVP and four incredible playoff starts already under his belt, Mahomes can already be mentioned ahead of some legends of the postseason. It's fun to imagine where he might land on this list a decade from now.
To the rankings!
2) Johnny Unitas (1-0 with Colts)
3) Joe Montana (4-0 with 49ers)
4) Peyton Manning (1-1 with Colts; 1-1 with Broncos)
5) Dan Marino (0-1 with Dolphins)
6) Brett Favre (1-1 with Packers)
These are the six men who could conceivably have an argument as being the greatest ever, although the breadth of Brady's career now makes it difficult for the rest of the group. The first nine seasons of Brady's career -- which included three titles and an undefeated regular season -- now look like an appetizer to Brady's dominant Gronk-era peak. Even his down 2019 campaign still ranks as the best season by a 42-year-old quarterback ever by far. There's never even been a quarterback his age who started a full season, much less one who threw for 4,000 yards.
It's impossible to truly compare across eras because the game has changed so much, but Unitas (who played from 1956 to 1973) edges out Montana (1979-1994) and Manning (1998-2015) for the No. 2 spot because Johnny U was so clearly the best of his era and a transformative figure for the sport. Unitas collected three MVPs and five first-team All-Pro nods, and he displayed a sneaky statistical dominance compared to his competition.
Manning ultimately overwhelms Marino and Favre with individual honors and consistency. He was so rarely outside the league's top-three quarterbacks during a career that included five MVPs. Marino is probably the best pure passer of this group. He was never supported with a top-10 running game, and he rarely played with a good defense. He shouldn't suffer too much, historically speaking, just because of Don Shula's personnel decisions. Favre has perhaps the strangest resume. He combines a brilliant peak with three consecutive MVPs and a career famous for its durability with some lesser efficiency stats than the rest of the tier. Still, there's not that much separating any of these guys.
The best second tier ever
7) Steve Young (1-0 with 49ers)
8) Aaron Rodgers (1-0 with Packers)
9) John Elway (2-3 with Broncos)
10) Roger Staubach (2-2 with Cowboys)
11) Drew Brees (1-0 with Saints)
12) Bart Starr (2-0 with Packers)
The resumes of Young and Rodgers are rather similar, at least for now. They both had to wait before taking over for all-time greats who just happen to be in the tier above. They each have two MVPs. They were both as athletic as any top quarterback who has ever played. Young's teams went 94-49 in his starts, from 1985 to 1999. Rodgers' teams have gone 113-60-1. Young gets the slight edge for now because his seven-year peak ranks with that of any quarterback who has ever played, but it's only a matter of time before Rodgers moves up.
Elway was a physical marvel, won an MVP and earned three second-team All-Pro nods in his career (1983-1998), but his passing numbers (3,217 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 picks per year), when adjusted for his era, don't stack up with the rest of the top 10. Staubach is a great "What if?" because he didn't become a full-time starter until he was 29 years old. He's still the consensus best quarterback of the 1970s and led the league in passer rating four times. He probably gets downgraded too much for the era he played in. Starr, who has a reputation for being a "winner" of the '60s and early Super Bowl era without generating great stats actually has ... pretty great stats. So does Brees, who just turned 41 -- and played outstanding to finish out the 2019 regular season.
In (or should be in) the Hall of Fame
13) Fran Tarkenton (0-3 with Vikings)
14) Ben Roethlisberger (2-1 with Steelers)
15) Troy Aikman (3-0 with Cowboys)
16) Terry Bradshaw (4-0 with Steelers)
17) Joe Namath (1-0 with Jets)
18) Bob Griese (2-1 with Dolphins)
19) Len Dawson (1-1 with Chiefs)
20) Jim Kelly (0-4 with Bills)
21) Kurt Warner (1-1 with Rams; 0-1 with Cardinals)
22) Ken Anderson (0-1 with Bengals)
23) Ken Stabler (1-0 with Raiders)
Like Brees, Tarkenton was an undersized, undervalued but consistent star with an incredibly long run of statistical dominance. Roethlisberger has been a top-five quarterback for the better part of his career, especially after his second Super Bowl triumph (following the 2008 season). Aikman's peak (1991-96) was impressive, but unfortunately too short. Bradshaw wasn't great in the seasons preceding his first two Super Bowl triumphs (1975 and '76), but he wound up being a league MVP and finishing in the top five in yards per attempt five times. Namath gets extra credit for his impact on the game, although it's worth noting Griese had three more Pro Bowl appearances (eight to Namath's five), one more All-Pro nod (two to one) and far more seasons in the top five in yards per attempt. The offensive line and running game help, but Griese deserves some legacy love!
Dawson was the best passer in a pass-happy league, leading the AFL in passer rating for five straight years (1964-68). Kelly, like Aikman, had a brilliant peak that wasn't quite as long as that of some others listed here. Warner had a singular career, starting late before winning two MVPs and leading two different teams to the Super Bowl. Anderson still should be considered for the Hall of Fame, as he was the rare player to win MVP, Comeback Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. He led the league in passer rating four times and earned a first-team All-Pro selection and two second-team nods, which is more than plenty of the names above him. Stabler finally got into the Hall in 2016, unfortunately after his passing.
Fun to watch
24) Donovan McNabb (0-1 with Eagles)
25) Russell Wilson (1-1 with Seahawks)
26) Boomer Esiason (0-1 with Bengals)
27) Daryle Lamonica (0-1 with Raiders)
28) Matt Ryan (0-1 with Falcons)
29) Earl Morrall (0-1 with Colts)
30) Patrick Mahomes (TBD with Chiefs)
31) Eli Manning (2-0 with Giants)
32) Steve McNair (0-1 with Titans)
33) Rich Gannon (0-1 with Raiders)
McNabb was a top-10 quarterback for nearly all of his career, very often in the top five. I'm surprised he doesn't get more Hall of Fame consideration. Russell Wilson moved up a handful of spots this season after his first All-Pro (second team) nod of his career. It's only a matter of time before he's in that Hall of Fame tier. Esiason won an MVP (1988) and led the league in yards per attempt in that season and 1986. Lamonica was someone I didn't fully appreciate until this exercise. While he was fattening up on a soft AFL, he made five Pro Bowls and nabbed two AFL Player of the Year awards. He finished his career 66-16-6 as a starter! Ryan has a number of seasons as a top-10 quarterback, although his MVP campaign of 2016 stands out as an anomaly.
Morrall was football's Forrest Gump, according to Chris Wesseling, spending most of his career as a backup, with a Pro Bowl appearance and an All-Pro nod coming 15 years apart, and an MVP as Johnny Unitas' replacement sandwiched in the middle. In one way, he's similar to McNair. When they were good, they were very, very good. Eli's durability and longevity boost him in a career that ended at .500, with only two to three seasons in which he could arguably be considered a top-10 quarterback. Gannon did a lot of damage late in his career, with an MVP and four Pro Bowls coming after he turned 34. Mahomes, while just a quarterback baby, has already achieved highs that most on this list could only dream of.
Crazy talent for a tier this low
34) Cam Newton (0-1 with Panthers)
35) Joe Theismann (1-1 with Redskins)
36) Phil Simms (1-0 with Giants)
37) Ron Jaworski (0-1 with Eagles)
38) Drew Bledsoe (0-1 with Patriots)
39) Matt Hasselbeck (0-1 with Seahawks)
40) Craig Morton (0-1 with Cowboys; 0-1 with Broncos)
41) Kerry Collins (0-1 with Giants)
42) Jim Plunkett (2-0 with Raiders)
Cam and Theismann have MVP seasons and a few Pro Bowls, but they both had some erratic play to go with their big arms. Jaworski and Simms have somehow become underrated over time after becoming better known as broadcasters. Both had plenty of seasons as top-10 quarterbacks. Morton, a Super Bowl starter for two different organizations, somehow never made a Pro Bowl despite leading the league in yards per attempt three times. Collins was a season-long starter for four different organizations, making his two Pro Bowl appearances 12 years apart. Plunkett started 144 games, yet never made a Pro Bowl and probably only had one or two seasons in which he could have been considered a top-10 starter.
Middle of the pack
43) Chris Chandler (0-1 with Falcons)
44) Billy Kilmer (0-1 with Redskins)
45) Brad Johnson (1-0 with Buccaneers)
46) Mark Rypien (1-0 with Redskins)
47) Joe Flacco (1-0 with Ravens)
48) Jeff Hostetler (1-0 with Giants)
49) Nick Foles (1-0 with Eagles)
50) Neil O'Donnell (0-1 with Steelers)
51) Colin Kaepernick (0-1 with 49ers)
52) Jake Delhomme (0-1 with Panthers)
53) Doug Williams (1-0 with Redskins)
54) Jim McMahon (1-0 with Bears)
55) Joe Kapp (0-1 with Vikings)
56) Jared Goff (0-1 with Rams)
57) Jimmy Garoppolo (TBD with 49ers)
58) Stan Humphries (0-1 with Chargers)
59) Trent Dilfer (1-0 with Ravens)
60) Vince Ferragamo (0-1 with Rams)
Foles produced one of the best performances in Super Bowl history, then backed it up with another strong close to the season in 2018 as Carson Wentz's backup. His peaks, including his 2013 Pro Bowl year, have been awfully high. His valleys, like his brief run as the Jaguars' starter last year, have been rather low. Chandler and Flacco both get credit for grinding through over 150 starts, although Flacco has never made a Pro Bowl or been solidly among the top 10 quarterbacks. (Chandler had a fancier peak than expected.) Johnson and Hostetler both had better careers than I remembered with teams that they didn't win Super Bowls with. (Hostetler made a Pro Bowl with the Raiders, Johnson with the Redskins.)
Jimmy G is ranked this low largely because he's started just 28 games, including the playoffs. That's less than half of Jared Goff's total, for context. The positive for Garoppolo: His teams have won 23 of those 28 games, and he's in a system that provides all sorts of easy answers for quarterbacks. Kap had only one great year and 48 starts, his career ending too soon because of contractual issues. Kaepernick has only made 58 starts. At 32 years old and now three years removed from his last season, he still deserves an opportunity to play though that looks increasingly unlikely to come. He has 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions for his career, excelling in the type of quick-game offense that was popular throughout the league in 2018. Goff has started 58 games including the playoffs, and seven of those came under Jeff Fisher. His drab Super Bowl performance last season was a sign of a frustrating 2019 season to come.
End of the line
61) Tony Eason (0-1 with Patriots)
62) David Woodley (0-1 with Dolphins)
63) Rex Grossman (0-1 with Bears)
Eason had a few solid seasons, but he only started for one more full season after his Super Bowl appearance capping the 1985 campaign. Grossman only had three seasons where he started more than three games (2006, '07, 2011), but at least Sexy Rexy has a nickname that will live forever.