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Top QBs through Super Bowl XL: Brett Favre, Tom Brady rise

We move to early February 2006. The Steelers have just survived the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL -- and a shoddy Super Bowl showing by sophomore Ben Roethlisberger -- to finally deliver the "one for the thumb" Mean Joe Greene promised Pittsburgh fans back in 1980.

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):

Top 10 Quarterbacks Between Super Bowls I and XL (Feb. 2006):

Elliot Harrison's list:
1) Joe Montana
2) Johnny Unitas
3) Dan Marino
4) Roger Staubach
5) John Elway
6) Bart Starr
7) Terry Bradshaw
8) Steve Young
9) Troy Aikman
10) Brett Favre

Gil Brandt's list:
1) Joe Montana
2) Roger Staubach
3) Steve Young
4) Dan Marino
5) Peyton Manning
6) John Elway
7) Tom Brady
8) Troy Aikman
9) Brett Favre
10) Terry Bradshaw

By the numbers (according to passer rating):
1) Steve Young (96.8)
2) Kurt Warner (94.1)
3) Peyton Manning (93.5)
4) Joe Montana (92.3)
5) Chad Pennington (92.1)
6) Daunte Culpepper (91.5)
7) Marc Bulger (90.6)
8) Tom Brady (88.5)
9) Trent Green (88.3)
10) Matt Hasselbeck (86.6)

Now, without further ado, my top 10 quarterbacks through Super Bowl XL:

1) Joe Montana

The gathering Nor'easter named Brady notwithstanding, Montana's claim to the throne only grows stronger in retirement, as his challengers' collective failures through this point in history remind us just how difficult Joe Cool's four-for-four, interception-less Super Bowl run with the 49ers was.

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 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.

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 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 QB 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.

Follow Dave Dameshek on Twitter @Dameshek.

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