Greatest QB of All-Time: Conventional Wisdom

There are countless iterations of the quarterback GOAT ranking scattered all over the internet. As far as I’m aware, every one of these lists has been compiled from the perspective of the person creating it; in other words, it’s just their opinion. In today’s post, I’m going to tackle this from a different angle. Instead of telling you who I believe the greatest quarterbacks of all-time are, I wanted to find a consensus on the beliefs of the entirety of football fandom. Of course this is impossible in a literal sense; there’s no way to aggregate the opinion of every gridiron junkie on the planet. But that won’t stop me from trying to establish a solid estimate.

At this juncture, you might be asking yourself why this even matters. For one, I find the prevailing opinions of our society interesting, even if I disagree with many of them. Think of it as a macro level peek into the human psyche. But more importantly, I want a baseline of conventional wisdom that can be compared against objective, statistical measures of QB greatness. If we rank quarterbacks using Bryan’s TAY/P VALUE metric, for example, how does the list diverge from what the general public believes?


I began the process by creating a roughshod formula that weights the importance of criterion that the populace uses to evaluate quarterbacks. These criteria include yards, touchdowns, passing titles, Pro Bowls, 1st Team All-Pro selections, MVP awards, regular season wins, playoff wins and losses, Super Bowl appearances, Super Bowl Ringz, pre-merger championships, and Hall of Fame induction. I put heavy emphasis on playoff record and Ringz, because let’s face it, that’s what the majority of football fans value above all else.

My original plan was to present the ranking based solely on the scores that my made-up formula spit out. I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work, because certain aspects of public perception are simply not quantifiable. Ultimately, I ended up using the scores as a baseline and subjectively adjusting the rankings until they looked right (as right as one can be with this exercise, at least).

Without further ado, here is the ranking:

1Tom Brady
2Joe Montana
3Peyton Manning
4Johnny Unitas
5John Elway
6Otto Graham
7Dan Marino
8Brett Favre
9Roger Staubach
10Steve Young
11Bart Starr
12Terry Bradshaw
13Fran Tarkenton
14Kurt Warner
15Drew Brees
16Troy Aikman
17Aaron Rodgers
18Dan Fouts
19Sid Luckman
20Ken Stabler
21Ben Roethlisberger
22Len Dawson
23Jim Kelly
24Sammy Baugh
25Norm Van Brocklin
26Bobby Layne
27Y.A. Tittle
28Ken Anderson
29Bob Griese
30Sonny Jurgensen
31Warren Moon
32Phil Simms
33Joe Namath
34Randall Cunningham
35Boomer Esiason
36Eli Manning
37Donovan McNabb
38Rich Gannon
39Steve McNair
40Philip Rivers
41Tony Romo
42Drew Bledsoe
43Bob Waterfield
44Joe Theismann
45Daryle Lamonica
46Mark Brunell
47John Brodie
48Matt Hasselbeck
49George Blanda
50Russell Wilson
51Tobin Rote
52Roman Gabriel
53Michael Vick
54Jim Plunkett
55Bert Jones
56Vinny Testaverde
57Jim McMahon
58Ron Jaworski
59Dave Krieg
60Archie Manning
61Carson Palmer
62Don Meredith
63Trent Green
64Craig Morton
65Jeff Garcia
66Mark Rypien
67Jack Kemp
68Joe Flacco
69John Hadl
70Doug Williams
71Matt Ryan
72Doug Flutie
73Jeff Hostetler
74Cam Newton
75Chris Chandler
76Charlie Conerly
77Jim Hart
78Earl Morrall
79Andrew Luck
80Daunte Culpepper
81Bernie Kosar
82Brad Johnson
83Jim Everett
84Jake Delhomme
85Steve Grogan
86Brian Sipe
87Babe Parilli
88Norm Snead
89Matthew Stafford
90Kerry Collins
91Danny White
92Jim Harbaugh
93Jake Plummer
94Billy Wade
95Tommy Kramer
96Joe Ferguson
97Jay Schroeder
98Billy Kilmer
99Steve Bartkowski
100Charley Johnson

I believe Tom Brady has a plurality among the populace in the race for GOAT-ship. There are, of course, plenty of fans who place Joe Montana #1, and in the analytics community Peyton Manning is the overwhelming favorite. But I think Brady is the public’s favorite, and will likely continue to be for many years into the future.

Instead of summarizing a table that you can read with your own eyes, I’ll put the ball in your hands. Do you think my list is an accurate depiction of gridiron consensus? If not, which quarterbacks would you move up or down, and why? Thanks in advance for sharing your critiques!

  • eag97a

    Without knowing a lot more info about your methodology I find myself agreeing with your list. I always tend to favor modern qbs since it took them more games both in the regular season and playoffs to earn those championship appearances regardless of era adjustments about rule changes, free agancy, salary cap, level of competition etc. Shout out to Niners fans who has 2 in the top 10 and Packers fans who has 3 in the top 20, talk about luck in getting HOF qbs.

    • Adam

      Here’s the formula I used to set a baseline:

      PassYd *.002 + RushYd *.004 + PassTD *.5 + RushTD *.5 + RegSeaWin *2 + ProBowl *10 + TDLeader *10 + RatingLeader *10 + AP1*20 + MVP*40 + PlayoffWin *25 – PlayoffLoss *15 + SBAppearance * 25 + SBRingz *50 + SBMVP *30 + NFLTitle *40+ AFLTitle*25 + AAFCTitle *25 + HoF *100

      After that I did some subjective tweaking to account for aspects of fandom that are not quantifiable.

      • I’d probably add in something like black and gray ink for yards, TDs, and rating. I see you have black, but I’d add gray for top 3-5 years. Maybe another penalty for leading the league in interceptions.

        • Adam

          Are you suggesting I put extra weight on each QB’s 3-5 best seasons, or give a bonus for the top 3-5 in the major stat categories in each season? I’ve heard gray ink described both ways.

          Interceptions are weird. It seems like people rail on QB’s for picks during a given season, but don’t care as much at the career level. For example Eli gets flak for leading the league in INTs three times, but you never hear about his career INT total. I’m thinking a 15 point penalty is fair?

          • The latter.

          • Adam

            It’d be really nice if PFR would identify gray ink seasons on their player pages. As is, sorting them out would be quite cumbersome.

  • I think you may be giving the average fan under the age of 60 too much credit if you think they’re putting Otto Graham that high.

    • Adam

      Unfortunately you’re probably right. I’ll bet a significant percentage of fans our age have never even heard of Otto. The reason I put him #6 is because of the championship-game-in-every-season feather in his cap, which I figure the Ringz crowd would drool over. But those Ringz don’t matter if the majority of fans don’t even know he won them.

      I’ll be revising this after the season to account for active QB’s, which will provide a nice excuse to move the older QB’s down a few pegs. Do you think Luckman and Baugh are too high, as well?

      • I don’t know of any casual fan who rates Luckman higher than Baugh.

        • Adam

          I don’t know any casual fan who rates Luckman or Baugh period, so I’ll take your word for it. The old time QB’s seem to throw a wrench into any rating system we come up with.

          • Statistically, Luckman outstrips Baugh. But he also played for a much, much better team with a more innovative offense and better coaching. Baugh was more of the Marino/Manning type you think of carrying a team.

            Baugh also held the career TD and yards records, the former for nearly 20 years.

          • Adam

            I’ve always thought of Luckman being more dominant, so I’m surprised Baugh tops him in cascaded value. When you add in the gap in supporting cast, it only makes sense to place Sammy over Sid.

        • Tom

          I don’t know any casual fans who know who those guys are.

          • My wife is a casual fan and has a Baugh jersey and Jurgensen hat. She is vaguely familiar with the name Sid Luckman, but she also has to listen to me talk about football more than most casual fans have to hear from their spouses.

          • Adam

            Did she buy the hat and jersey before she met you? Otherwise I think she’s been enveloped by your circle of influence.

          • Jurgensen before, Baugh after.

          • Adam

            OK she’s legit.

          • She prefers to go with legends because they aren’t leaving for the Cowboys or disgracing themselves. Her dad bought her an RG3 jersey that she had to stop wearing after about 15 months. He also bought her a Cooley jersey, which only lasted a little longer than that. I’m trying to convince her to go with Green/Monk/Grimm/Jacoby next. Gotta represent their golden age.

          • Adam

            I agree. If you’re going to rock team apparel, wear classics from the franchise’s best years. At least she never bought a DeAngelo Hall jersey.

    • I agree. The absolute biggest bias in any poll of casual fans is toward recent and active players. You might incorporate birth date or year of retirement into the formula.

  • Steve

    Meh. Super Bowl winners get far too much credit. Terry Bradshaw is without a doubt the most overrated football player in history, but people will immediately shout, “HE LED THE STEELERS TO ALL THOSE SUPER BOWL VICTORIES!” Well yeah, he handed the ball off to Franco Harris and stood forever behind a HOF offensive line, and on that rare occasion he completed a pass, he had HOF receivers breaking short passes for long gains. And the HOF Steeler defense typically won games for them. Anyway, it all adds up to a QB rating for his career of something like 71. Get the average fan to take a guess and see their reaction when you tell them. Likewise Troy Aikman, who was good, not great, but he sure had a HOF career turning and handing the ball to Emmit Smith 30 times a game. As for your list, no complaints on the first four, but then you get to the first SB enhanced QB, Elway, who was a typical good but not great QB. Likewise Favre. Whereas Steve Young walked into SF and immediately put up better numbers than Montana!. How does he only rate 10th? As a what if, what if Ken Anderson had been QB for all those uber-talented 49er teams? Would we be talking about him as the GOAT? As it is, he’s not even in the HOF! So, compiling the general opinion of the public is interesting but essentially meaningless.

    • Adam

      I agree with most of what you’ve said; QB’s on dynasty teams like Bradshaw and Aikman are vastly overrated by public perception. I don’t know how that makes this exercise meaningless, though. In fact, your incredulous reaction to some of the rankings (like Young) illustrates exactly why I did this; it shows how distorted conventional wisdom really is regarding many of these quarterbacks. This is NOT my personal ranking, or even close to it.

  • Tim Truemper

    First of all, Jack Kemp is way too high and Charlie Conerly is too low. But generally a good list. To the comments below, Terry Bradshaw led the last two SB teams to their championships and as the passing rules changed and as his skills matured, he became a top flight QB. Troy Aikman is somewhat of a different story. I am a big fan and I think it is hard to measure his value. He benefitted from being surrounded by great talent and faired less well when it dissipated. But he also had injuries to deal with. Still, if he had played on a mediocre team for years, he would have been a top 50 QB.

  • Four Touchdowns

    Are playoff appearances counted? I think a lot of people ding the QB if his team doesn’t make the playoffs.