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.
Here, just past the halfway point of our project, it's worth noting what you might've gleaned already: I have an affinity for "the Gunslinger" over "the Surgeon." That is to say, I prefer risk-taking, swaggering QBs like John Elway, Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger to the more precise, "heady" types like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Bob Griese. (Sorry if it sounds like I'm suggesting the former trio isn't collectively bright; I'm just saying they were/are the best when things start breaking down.) Not sure there's a right or wrong here, just pointing out a (non-scientific) influence on how my rankings turned out. Anywho, let's get to it ...
Before we get to my order through Super Bowl XL (that is, as of February 2006), 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 2005 season):
1) Joe Montana
2) John Elway
The two rings Elway won in the twilight of his career (in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII) must've been satiating, but -- as was true of another formerly dominant Super Bowl-winning Broncos QB of a more recent vintage -- the ultimate success of his teams had relatively little to do with the field general. Still, by the time he retired following the 1998 season, Elway's résumé included five appearances in the big game and an inordinate number of huge plays delivered in the clutch.
3) Brett Favre
His three straight MVP awards (following the 1995, '96 and '97 seasons), two straight Super Bowl appearances (in XXXI and XXXII) and one and only Super Bowl win (in XXXI) were getting deeper in the rearview mirror -- and the retirement/unretirement melodrama still lay ahead on the horizon. But Favre could rest easy knowing football immortality was already secure, thanks to a distinct style that had his Packers teammates convinced they were never out of a game, so long as No. 4 was out on the (often-muddy and/or frozen Lambeau) field. By the way, after Sterling Sharpe's forced retirement (a neck injury kept him from playing beyond the 1994 season), who exactly were the high-end offensive teammates Favre leaned on to put up all those lofty stats? In four of the 10 seasons we're focusing on here, Favre didn't even have the benefit of working with a 1,000-yard receiver.
4) Tom Brady
Though he'd won three rings by February '06, it might seem premature to rank Brady this high at this point, seeing as he was just five seasons into his run as the Pats' leading man. But look at the numbers (and ignore the narrative about those first three Lombardis being owed to the New England D): Brady led the league in TD passes in '02 (with 28) and in passing yards in '05 (with 4,110), earned two Super Bowl MVP nods (in XXXVI and XXXVIII) and was always able to keep his interception totals low. As mentioned up top, Brady's never been a gunslinger ... but even in that first decade of his career, he consistently delivered a slow but certain death to all comers, 9 yards at time.
5) Dan Marino
In his first NFL decade, from 1983 to 1992, Marino led the league in passing yards five times. The '93 Achilles blowout slowed him, but he remained a top-tier QB through '98. Nevertheless, the knock here is the same as it is everywhere else: The Dolphins signal caller got to just one Super Bowl. If this list is going to be consistent, we have to ding No. 13 for that shortcoming.
6) Terry Bradshaw
In addition to/instead of going on social media to let me know I'm some combo of crazy, stupid and biased, I suggest you do yourself a favor and watch Super Bowls X (in which he posted a 122.5 passer rating), XIII (in which he had 318 yards, four TDs and a 119.2 passer rating) and XIV (in which he had 309 yards, two TDs and a 101.9 passer rating despite three picks), then get back to me about how Bradshaw was carried by his Steelers defenses.
7) Roger Staubach
The same people who are unhappy about where I've rated Bradshaw are, unsurprisingly, unhappy about Staubach being too low here ... but let's not pretend Captain Comeback was a man on an island in Dallas. Tony Dorsett is one of the best runners ever, Drew Pearson and Tony Hill provided a dynamic pass-catching duo, and the Doomsday Defense was perennially strong. In other words, as great as Staubach was, he'd be ranked even higher if he'd won even one more Lombardi. But he didn't, so he's not.
8) Peyton Manning
Eight years into his career, No. 18 had never thrown fewer than 26 TD passes (including a then-record 49 in '04), and he'd already put up six seasons with at least 4,100 passing yards. The black mark against him was, of course, the growing concern about his postseason play. (As of February '06, Peyton was 3-6 in the playoffs.)
So why is Peyton being held to a higher standard than Marino or Elway here? Because -- as detailed previously -- those guys carried flawed rosters to the playoffs every year. Manning was surrounded by talent from Day 1 throughout, with guys like Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James at his disposal. (And don't believe those who'd try to convince you those guys succeeded because of Manning. Maybe that's true of Dallas Clark, but Harrison, Wayne, Faulk and James all would have played well without him.) As former Colts general manager Bill Polian pointed out a couple years ago, those Colts teams were tailored to suit Manning. It was therefore incumbent upon Manning to carry those teams to Super Bowl glory ... but circa early 2006, he had yet to even get to the big game.
9) Steve Young
Young jumps past archrival Troy Aikman on the strength of his career finish compared to that of his Dallas nemesis. Both guys were ultimately shut down by concussion issues, but Young put up far bigger numbers down the home stretch of his professional life, including the league-best 36 TD passes he tossed in '98, at age 38, enhancing his remarkable 232:107 TD-to-INT ratio. And because we haven't mentioned it yet, with five seasons of at least 400 rushing yards, Young was maybe the best running QB ever, at least 'til Mike Vick made the scene.
10) Troy Aikman
I know the passing numbers are underwhelming compared to those of his contemporaries, but it's still stunning how many people call Aikman "overrated," as though any halfway-decent QB could've been the steadying influence inside that tempestuous Dallas locker room. Having spoken with him a couple times, I can also tell you -- in spite of his claims in that beer ad about not dwelling in the past -- Aikman (along with Michael Irvin ... and probably most Cowboys fans) still ponders how many more titles those teams would've won had Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones not had their falling out.