Forget the three MVP awards. Forget that he engineered the biggest end-game drive in the first 50 years of the NFL. Forget the high-top shoes, or that he played until he was 40 ... OK, we'll allow you to remember that he threw a touchdown pass in an incredible 47 straight games. Unitas was simply THE MAN. You'll also note that he won NFL.com's Greatest Quarterback of All Time bracket.
And that's what got us here ... trying to rank the best signal-callers to ever play the pro game. Of course, with apologies to the CFL, we're going to limit ourselves to the NFL -- although if we had considered rival leagues, Doug Flutie might have snuck onto this list.
Speaking of sneaking, some QBs slipped under the radar in that NFL.com bracket -- like Drew Bledsoe, who took down Troy Aikman in the first round. Between that and the fact that Peyton Manning also flamed out early, my editor asked that I rank the 20 best quarterbacks over the 94-year history of the NFL.
Now, let's get to it ...
Note: Click on each quarterback's name to see career stats.
The rise and fall and rise of Kurt Warner was bookended by three incredibly prolific seasons with the Rams (from 1999 to 2001) and an almost glorious end with the Arizona Cardinals. He was the Indiana Jones of pro football, with Raiders of the Lost Ark and the The Last Crusade sandwiching a dud in Temple of Doom. Sure, he had a mid-career slump, yet much of that could be attributed to injuries and the dwindling talent (after all, who could win with the '04 Giants?) around him. Warner's 41-touchdown MVP campaign of 1999 -- and the fact that he won a ring that year -- will never be forgotten.
How unreal would this guy have been if he hadn't trekked north of the border to compete for six years? Moon did it for the chance to play quarterback, something the NFL didn't offer him in the 1970s. Still, what Moon was able to accomplish in the NFL from his late 20s on -- he threw for nearly 50,000 yards and almost 300 touchdowns -- earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame ... and on this list.
The field general who made "Air Coryell" go, Fouts was the most productive passer of his day. Joe Namath introduced the 4,000-yard campaign to pro football -- but Fouts gave us the second, third and fourth instances of it. He was a big-time distributor, like a football mashup of Mark Jackson and John Stockton, with a dash of his childhood hero Y.A. Tittle -- who could never win it all in San Francisco decades prior -- thrown in. Fouts was the forebear of the modern-day passer.
Tough call here, as Rodgers currently has the NFL's all-time best passer rating -- and by a wide margin. He's the only qualifying quarterback in NFL history who can claim a passer rating north of 100. Rodgers has five stellar seasons as a starter under his belt, with last year counting for a partial grade after he missed much of the season. His incredible 45-touchdown, six-interception 2011 campaign is one of the top single-season performances of all time; that plus his Super Bowl win is enough to vault him over Fouts and Moon.
Yes, pro football was played before 1970. The sport, in fact, thrived prior to Archie Manning and the birth of his boys. Shocking. What's not shocking is Baugh's inclusion here. When he retired, the former TCU star owned nearly every major passing record there was. He also was the first quarterback to play 16 seasons. Baugh led the Redskins to wins in the 1937 and 1942 NFL Championship Games. In that first title win, Baugh capped off a brilliant rookie campaign with a 300-yard performance.
Everybody is rooting for Jim Kelly right now, and it has little to do with football, much less Super Bowls. The remarkable nature of Kelly's four straight Super Bowl appearances goes without saying. He ranks ahead of Rodgers for now, thanks to his longer tenure as a starter; as for Kelly's placement over Baugh, the Redskins signal-caller might have been a better overall player, but it would be hard to argue he was the better QB. Either way, had Kelly won just one of those Super Bowls, this would be a different discussion. And we should not forget his work in the no-huddle offense, a facet of the game that is still making its frantic presence felt today.
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The man who beat Kelly's Bills in two of those four Super Bowls also won more games than any quarterback in the 1990s. Aikman went 90-53 in the decade while notching an 11-5 postseason mark. Deemed the most accurate passer in the league when he played, Aikman was simply fantastic in his three Super Bowl appearances. Three wins, zero losses and a 111.9 passer rating ranks somewhere between "stellar" and "phenomenal."
If nothing else, Young was the prototype of today's quarterback. He had what was possibly the most elite combination of mobility and accuracy in NFL history. Considering that at the time of his retirement, he had the all-time best passer rating and completion percentage, and considering that he currently ranks fifth all time in yards per rush, let's just say Young was the best wheeler and dealer the game has ever seen, period.
The way some fans and writers describe Bradshaw's career, you'd think he was Kordell Stewart or Tommy Maddox. There seems to be a perception that the blonde bomber won rings only because of his defense, i.e., "the Steel Curtain." Hmm. Bradshaw won Super Bowl X with the greatest heave in postseason history. And frankly, Pittsburgh doesn't win it all in 1978 in 1979 without their quarterback, who earned MVP honors -- and threw for more than 300 yards -- in both those Super Bowl games. He's also one of two quarterbacks on the planet with four Super Bowl rings.
We detailed Starr's Hall of Fame legacy back when we took a look at the second round of NFL.com's QB bracket as well as when picking the all-time Packer roster, but let's think about it again. So often, Starr is overlooked -- much like Bradshaw or Aikman -- because of the talent level around him. Yet, at the end of the day, winning five titles -- including two Super Bowls, mind you -- requires leadership from the man under center, not just from the man on the sideline ... even if the sideline stalker in question is Vince Lombardi.
Like so many on this list, Brees got off to a slow start. But former Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer stuck with him, and the former Purdue standout eventually, well, stood out. Brees turned it on in 2004, posting his first career 100 passer rating while leading the Chargers to the playoffs. In his first year with the Saints, he took them to the NFC Championship Game. Then came the big win for the Big Easy in 2009. Brees has as many 5,000-yard seasons as everyone else in NFL history combined.
There are so many ways to look at Favre's career that, frankly, he presents the most difficult case on this list. The end of his career was disappointing on several levels, and there is a feeling he should've won more than one Super Bowl. Yet, while I was standing in line with my colleague Chris Wesseling at a taco truck, he pointed out perhaps the most important facet of Favre's career: Favre was considered the best player in the NFL for three straight years in the mid-1990s. Throw in the fact he retired as the all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and consecutive starts, and it's clear he deserves to be at least this high. While I still have Starr as the greatest Packer quarterback ever, Favre's incredible 2009 campaign in Minnesota places him here.
Eighth? Eighth!? It's tough placing Elway this far down the line. He authored the third-most comebacks in league history and started for five Super Bowl teams. But then there's this: I watched thousands of games in the 1980s and '90s, and at no time did I feel Elway was better than Joe Montana. As for how he compares with Dan Marino, well, Elway became more successful, but only after Terrell Davis started churning out 150-yard games. 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.
Oh, if only Staubach had not lost his first four years to the Naval Academy, he'd be higher than seventh for sure. He didn't become a starting quarterback until he was 29, but Staubach made up for it by leading the NFC in passer rating six times, winning two Super Bowls and retiring with the best career passer rating at the time. Like Young, Staubach would be a prototypical quarterback today: He was a competitive, mature player who could scramble, throw the deep ball and be a leader for his organization. Sound familiar? Hello, Russell Wilson.
I'm not going to apologize for putting an old-timer on this list. After all, does baseball act like Ted Williams and Willie Mays never played? Of course not, and we shouldn't do that to guys like Graham. If you've read nothing else about the man, consider this: Graham had the Browns in 10 title games in 10 years. They won seven of them. And like Jim Brown, the greatest Cleveland Brown of them all, Graham went out on top; the quarterback retired after being named first-team All-Pro in his final three seasons.
It seems like any time a quarterback is asked about his influences or questioned about the "older" generation, the name "Dan Marino" pops out. Marino was the player all the grade-school and high-school kids wanted to be: quick and possessing an effortless delivery, able to handle having so many Dolphins games ride on his right arm. Marino broke every passing record in the book, and while he never won a Super Bowl, well, we don't care. Being elite is being elite. Had Marino played with even half the supporting cast that Montana and late-career Elway enjoyed, who knows how things would have played out? Marino's 1984 season might be the top offensive campaign by anyone, at any position, ever: He had 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in a tough era to throw the ball.
Manning was bounced early in NFL.com's QB bracket, but don't blame us ... there were some seriousSeahawks fans laying it all on the line for Wilson. That said, Manning's numbers speak for themselves. Of course, he has the obligatory Super Bowl ring, care of the Rex GrossmanBears. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Manning's career -- or that of anyone on this list -- is the fact that he has won five MVP awards. The only thing keeping Manning from the top spot is his failure in the postseason, where he is a pedestrian 11-12 with an 89.2 passer rating and some rather significant turnovers.
The fans' favorite, at least according to our bracket, comes in ... third?! Hey, this was certainly not a poor choice for Top Gun by the voters. Many old-time sportswriters swear by Unitas. My colleague Eric Davis does. He was tough. He won back to back NFL championships in 1958 and 1959. He was the starting quarterback for Super Bowl V ... which the Colts won, as well. Oh, and he essentially perfected the two-minute offense. His window as an elite quarterback lasted about 11 seasons (1957-1967), a slightly shorter run than Tom Brady or Joe Montana. Still, this is a three-time MVP we're talking about here.
Just a few years ago, it seemed Brady was a lock to become the most accomplished quarterback ever. Yet, as the memory of the Patriots winning three Super Bowls in a span of four years fades, people have begun to waver when it comes to Brady's legacy. Even if you put aside his three rings, however, remember he's never had a losing season as a starter. Brady threw 50 touchdown passes in 2007. He had nine touchdown tosses for every interception in 2010. In fact, he was so good, he made happy kids cry. He was a Wes Welker drop away from another ring in Super Bowl XLVI. If nothing else, underline his 148-43 record in the regular season.
Montana is the greatest quarterback in Super Bowl history. He's the greatest quarterback in 49ers history. And had he played in Kansas City longer, he might have given Len Dawson a run for his money there, too. Montana has all the numbers, throwing for more than 40,000 yards and being named to eight Pro Bowls. He set a record for passer rating in 1989 (112.4) en route to winning an MVP award -- which he won again in 1990. He also secured three Super Bowl MVP nods -- and in the one Super Bowl in which he didn't take the award, he threw the game-winning touchdown pass. His postseason record was 16-7, including 4-0 in Super Bowls. Only Bradshaw has equaled that run. Putting all his career milestones aside, know that Montana was mobile and accurate while being the coolest cucumber the quarterback position has ever known. The game seemed to slow down for him; the moment was never too big. And his touch is still something passers today aspire to emulate. Simply put, he is the elite of the elite.