Analysis

Top QBs through Super Bowl XXX: Joe Montana takes his place

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.

To January 1996 we go! Troy Aikman's Cowboys had just overcome Barry Switzer's coaching to earn their third ring of the era in Super Bowl XXX, while the dawn of free agency was nigh. Just as we saw in the jump from Super Bowl X to Super Bowl XX, this ranking of Super Bowl-era QBs offers huge movement, as difference-making signal callers were asked to shoulder more and more of the offensive load as the end of the century drew near.

But before we get to my order through Super Bowl XXX (that is, as of January '96), 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 1995 season):

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

1) Joe Montana

Joe Cool takes over the top spot after adding a couple of MVP awards (1989, 1990), two more Lombardis (in Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV) and one more Super Bowl MVP award (in XXIV) to his Hall of Fame résumé. Oh, and consider that in his four Super Bowl appearances with the 49ers, he didn't throw one INT. There was also the 1990 elbow injury that cost him two seasons and his hold on the starting gig in San Francisco, but he re-emerged in K.C. to guide the Chiefs to the AFC title game in '93. He was good.

2) John Elway

Dan Marino's lack of January success often gets excused by the overall lack of talent on Miami's rosters, but Elway was in a similar hole-filled boat for most of his career in Denver. Now, that doesn't excuse Elway's crummy showings in the three Super Bowls his Broncos had reached as of January '96, but he gets heaps of credit for carrying some seriously flawed offenses to the top of the AFC mountain in three of the four seasons from '86 to '89. Most of the legends we ranked as of Super Bowls X and XX (and here, too) have been credited at one point or another with making those around them better, but Elway is the most worthy of that compliment. Consider this: During much of the era we're reviewing here, Sammy Winder was Denver's feature back, Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson were the team's top receivers and the defense was mostly middle-of-the-road (although it was No. 1 in scoring D in '89).

3) Dan Marino

It's no myth how bad the teams around Marino were. Don Shula and Co did a downright lousy job of fleshing out the Miami Dolphins' defense, which perennially cursed No. 13's Lombardi Trophy dreams, no matter how otherworldly his numbers were. Speaking of those numbers, between '86 and '92, Marino led the league in passing yards three times despite the lack of a running game (someone named Mark Higgs -- MARK HIGGS?! -- led the Dolphins in rushing from '91 to '93). Then again, compared to Elway, Marino had an embarrassment of pass-catching riches in the persons of the talented Marks Brothers (Mark Clayton and Mark Duper) and, as of '93, Irving Fryar. Throw in the fact he never got back to the Super Bowl after falling in XIX to Montana's Niners (while Elway, again, went to three from '86 to '89) and -- despite all the warts he covered while elevating the NFL passing game to new heights -- it seems obvious Marino has to take a backseat to his Mile High contemporary.

4) Terry Bradshaw

As of '96 (not to mention in the ensuing 19 years), Bradshaw and Montana were the only four-time Super Bowl-winning QBs. If you wanna condemn where I've got Bradshaw, you've got plenty of ammo. There's the touchdown-to-interception ratio (212:210), the career-long battle to complete 50 percent of his passes, his inability to even fully claim the starting gig in Pittsburgh until after the team's first Super Bowl win, and so on. Still, Bradshaw did a remarkable job elevating his performance when the Mel Blount Rule opened up the passing game, becoming the leading man as the Steelers -- and the NFL -- shifted from the ground to the air. Yeah, Bradshaw wasn't exactly surgical, but he replaced proficiency with gunslinger bravado, playing his best in the biggest games. Just about every other guy on this list had a better career completion percentage, but if you can set aside the rhetoric about how the Steelers' D "carried" him, you'll note the following: his fourth-quarter, 64-yard TD bomb to Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X, the four touchdowns he tossed to overcome the 31 points Dallas put up in Super Bowl XIII and the fourth-quarter, 73-yard go-ahead heave to John Stallworth in Super Bowl XIV. Cynics might say that pointing to two or three plays misses the point of doing career evaluations, but until they cancel the postseason, coming through in the big games is the point.

5) Roger Staubach

Like Bradshaw, Staubach slides here because of the emergence of QBs who flat-out carried otherwise mediocre-to-bad teams to regular January appearances. That's not to say the Cowboys great wasn't terrific, but when it comes to the best QBs three decades into the Super Bowl era, Staubach drops in part because of his window (which was limited by his Naval service and injuries) and because he lost all four of his head-to-head duels (two in the regular season, two in Super Bowls) with his chief rival, Bradshaw.

6) Troy Aikman

As is true of each guy on this list, Aikman's beauty is in the eye of this beholder. While Aikman's detractors will point to the fact that the Cowboys QB (who, as if January '96, had three Lombardis on his résumé) had the benefit of playing behind perhaps history's greatest offensive line while handing off to history's all-time rushing leader (Emmitt Smith) and throwing to a Hall of Fame playmaker (Michael Irvin), I focus on what a lethally accurate passer he was. I still haven't seen another QB put as many mid-to-deep passes on the money as Aikman consistently did. He also took care of Steve Young's Niners in the first two installments of the epic three-season NFC title-game war between Dallas and San Francisco from '92 to '94. Oh, and going three for three in the Super Bowl over a four-season span is no fluke.

7) Steve Young

Mr. Furley was one of the all-time great characters, but he wasn't as good as his predecessor, Mr. Roper (a.k.a. the G.O.A.T.?). So it is with Montana's successor in San Francisco. Young's run from '92 to '98 -- only the first four seasons of which had taken place by this point in history, remember -- was marvelous, but his USFL excursion, the two wasted seasons in Tampa and four more seasons as Montana's caddy kept him from climbing somewhere higher here. Young also had Jerry Rice and (from '92 to '94) Ricky Watters to work with, so it's not like he carried his teams the way contemporaries Elway and Marino did theirs. Young has lots of fancy numbers to his name (mostly between the months of September and December). Problem is, save for that one magical postseason (the one in which the Football Gods first delivered an all-time awful missed PI call in the NFC title game vs. Dallas, then handed Young a Super Bowl opponent/pushover in a Chargers team that featured Stan Humphries), Young's playoff stats through this time frame went in the same direction as the Times Square ball every January.

8) Johnny Unitas

Spoiler alert: This'll be Johnny U's last hurrah on our list. He's a victim of his own success, to some degree. Because of him, offenses opened up, the sport grew in popularity and a generation of kids decided they wanted to be the next Johnny U. It's basically the "Lion King" Circle of Life thing. And while baseball's most hallowed power-hitting stats were corrupted by the Juiced Ball era, pro football's passing numbers have continued exploding with each rules modification that makes it easier to throw, thereby rendering the game Johnny U popularized almost unrecognizable. As Peyton Manning's Unitas reference in his retirement press conference made clear, the modern-day big-timers still know No. 19's influence.

9) Jim Kelly

If Scott Norwood had made that kick, Kelly, the Bills and those early-'90s Cowboys (whose back-to-back SB wins over Buffalo would have looked more lustrous) would all reside in a different stratosphere. But he didn't, so they don't. Nevertheless, Kelly took his team to four straight Super Bowls, which, at the very least, means he gets the nod over Warren Moon and Moon's still-splendid career. By the way, Kelly's two years lighting up the USFL and Moon's six years in the CFL (after no NFL general manager drafted the University of Washington star as a QB) aren't exactly empty calories, but they do make it harder to quantify both quarterbacks' standing in relation to their NFL peers.

10) Brett Favre

It's Brett over Dan Fouts by a beard whisker. At this point, Favre hadn't even been the Packers' starter for four full seasons, but when he took over for Don Majkowski in 1992, he hit the ground running throwing, peaking in '95 with an MVP season (4,413 passing yards and 38 passing touchdowns against just 13 interceptions) and Green Bay's first appearance in the NFC title game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

Follow Dave Dameshek on Twitter @Dameshek.

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