With 50 Super Bowls in the books, Dave Dameshek -- with the help of Elliot Harrison and Gil Brandt -- has taken a look at how our perception of superior quarterback play has evolved in the Super Bowl era, using every 10th Super Bowl as a check-in point. Watch NFL Network every Monday night for "Monday Night Quarterback," which answers all the burning questions surrounding football's leading men.
You know how at the end of the first Star Wars movie, as Luke flies through that Death Star trench, he turns off his radar thing after Obi-Wan Kenobi instructs him to just use the Force? Well, the voice in my head (Kenobi?) is instructing me to dispense with the stats to make my case and just go with my prodigious gut. If it was good enough for Skywalker, it's good enough for Dameshek.
Now that we've reached the here and now, it's about time I fully ride with what I've seen rather than referring to the stats almanacs for proof. (To be frank, it just isn't me to lean on numbers -- math and I have been at odds since long division was introduced in the second grade.)
Before we get to my order through Super Bowl 50 (that is, as of February 2016), let's take a look at how two of my NFL Media colleagues -- Elliot Harrison, who has a special affinity for NFL history, and Gil Brandt, who didn't just see these guys play, but actually scouted most of them -- ranked their quarterbacks, along with how the numbers say they stack up (according to passer rating from 1966 through the 2015 season):
1) Tom Brady
It may take a backseat to Malcolm Butler's pick when you think about Super Bowl XLIX, but the top line of Brady's Hall of Fame résumé includes this fact: Down 10 in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks and the era's best defense, he rallied his Patriots and became the third guy ever with four rings. And if you're looking at the glass half-full, he's just a couple of fluky plays by the pesky Giants away from having six rings. Keep this in mind, too: Gronk, Moss and the Belichick mystique notwithstanding, Mr. Bündchen has carried a lot of mediocre teams deep into the playoffs.
2) Joe Montana
3) John Elway
Don't obsess over the numbers. Instead, focus on all the clutch moments late in playoff games: in the muck and mire of Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the 1986 AFC title game; scrambling away from those Oilers pass rushers in the 1991 Mile High Divisional Round game; rallying against the Steelers in '89 and '97. You can even forget the two rings he got at the end of his career (which had more to do with Terrell Davis and that Denver D), as Elway's three prior Super Bowllosses were more impressive. Why? Because those Broncos teams had no business getting that far, but Elway took 'em there anyway. Argue for whomever you want at No. 3, but this spot belongs to John.
4) Aaron Rodgers
As talented a QB as I've ever watched. Yep, better than his immediate predecessor in Green Bay and better than Peyton. If Rodgers can catch a couple of breaks (and/or his receivers don't fail to catch his passes like they did vs. the Giantsin the '11 Divisional Round, and/or special teamers don't fail to catch onside kicks in conference title games) over the next half-decade, the sky -- or, at least, the No. 1 spot here -- is the limit. If you have any further questions, I refer you to his most recent playoff performance in Arizona, where, after about the first five minutes of the game, Rodgers was throwing to Jeff Janis, Jeff Janis and Jeff Janis ... and the Packersstill almost won.
5) Brett Favre
Maybe the best combo of swaggering style and statistical substance the game's seen, Favre's outsized place in history was secure before the new millennium. But the actual wins in January vanished into the arms of defenders -- more on that later -- a little too often in the second half of his exhilarating career. Still, we can't forget his incredible 2009 campaign with the Vikings, in which he won over countless purple hearts and almost captured the NFC title -- at age 40.
6) Dan Marino
It oughta be clear that when we're ranking all-time QBs, the ring count matters to me (and it should matter to you, too). Yeah, metrics are important, but there's a reason they continue to wrap up each year with a postseason. Of course I don't think Eli Manning is better than Tom Brady just 'cause Manning beat Brady twice in the big game, but those wins do matter to both guys' legacies, whether curmudgeons and vapid cynics like it or not. Maybe it's not fair to Marino, who rarely -- if ever -- stepped on a field in January with more talented teammates than opponents. But facts are facts: One Super Bowl appearance just doesn't stack up.
7) Peyton Manning
Manning owns just about every meaningful passing record and, as of February 2016, he's got two rings. For all those pelts No. 18's got on the wall, though, he drops ever so slightly here because he had more to work with than any other QB (save for Montana) ranked above him -- and that wasn't by sheer luck. Former Colts general manager Bill Polian willfully built teams around Peyton. And it's a little overstated how bad his Indy defenses were: Four or five of those Ds in the 2000s ranked in the NFL's top half dozen or so. (I'm gonna stay committed to not looking up numbers here, but please feel free to confirm that.) So by definition, Manning needed to maintain his lofty regular-season standards in order for his teams to win in January. But he didn't, so they didn't.
8) Ben Roethlisberger
In a dozen NFL seasons, he's played in one quarter of the Super Bowls available to him (and he won two of 'em). As I've advised previously, don't get sucked into the nonsense about how he was carried to (at least) his first Lombardi. Go back and watch that 2005 playoff run, especially the Steelers' trips to 14-2 Indy in the Divisional Round and 13-3 Denver in the AFC title game. With the possible exception of Troy Polamalu, Roethlisberger was the best player on the field. And by the way, if you're one of those who doesn't think he's an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame, you're one of those who is wrong.
9) Terry Bradshaw
There was some legit serendipity at play, the way Bradshaw's prime lined up so neatly with the primes of all the Steel Curtain D, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth ... but they likewise benefitted from the good fortune of having an immensely talented QB who played his best in the most important games (e.g., the Super Bowl). Bradshaw had one of the five or so best arms of the last half-century, a lightning-fast release and the ability to run, and he called his own plays in the huddle. (It's not like he became 1970's first overall draft pick because the Rooneys thought he was funny.) Had Bradshaw been drafted by, say, the Lions, might his career look more like the nice-but-not-Hall-worthy one his contemporary Archie Manning put together in New Orleans? We'll never know. What we do know is the Pittsburgh Steelers took Bradshaw, and they went four for four in Super Bowls with him under center.
10) Drew Brees
Brees doesn't get the same benefit of the doubt given to Rodgers because the Saints quarterback is already in the twilight of his career and hasn't suffered the same kind of bad luck his Green Bay counterpart has. In fact, if Favre hadn't thrown the ball to the guy wearing the wrong color jersey in the final moments of regulation in the 2009 NFC title game, No. 9 wouldn't have ever gotten to a Super Bowl. Still, we'll file Brees as one of the true greats who'll forever serve as an inspirational feel-good story for Russell Wilson and diminutive QBs everywhere.