Greatest QB of All Time: 10,000 Careers

Imagine if every QB throughout history could play his career out 10,000 times. Each signal caller would be subjected to the full spectrum of circumstances, ranging from the good fortune of being drafted onto a ready-made dynasty, to the rotten luck of being stuck with a talent starved, mismanaged franchise. In some careers he would manage to play 15+ years without a significant injury, in others he’d spend half of his days on IR or watch his career end suddenly with one unlucky hit.

The actual careers we’ve witnessed from NFL quarterbacks merely represent one of these 10,000 outcomes (in reality there are an infinite number of outcomes, but that makes my brain hurt). We critique these players through a frighteningly narrow lens, equivalent to following a person around for one random day and declaring their entire life a success or failure based upon that day alone. Wouldn’t you feel cheated if everyone judged your life that way? Yet that’s precisely how we treat our quarterbacks.

Methodology

In this post, I’m going to rank the 100 greatest quarterbacks of all time from the perspective of the 10,000 careers thought experiment. This list is entirely subjective, and is undoubtedly colored by my personal biases and blind spots. I looked at the skill set, temperament, and durability of each QB, and used those qualities to infer how much success he might have across a wide variety of circumstances. Notably absent in my evaluations are the gruesome details of these player’s careers, as I don’t believe a single game or play has any predictive value in determining how good the QB really is. I also ignore things that I don’t believe are innate abilities, such as winning playoff games or raising one’s game in the clutch.

Note – The list has been revised after receiving feedback and giving it some more thought.

The List

I am the greatest.

Tier 1

Aaron Rodgers

 

Tier 2

Peyton Manning

Dan Marino

 

Tier 3

Fran Tarkenton

Steve Young

Sammy Baugh

 

Tier 4

Sonny Jurgensen

Joe Montana

Norm Van Brocklin

Johnny Unitas

Otto Graham

John Elway

Roger Staubach

L-U-C-K-Y

Brett Favre

Drew Brees

Tom Brady

Warren Moon

Bobby Layne

 

Tier 5

Donovan McNabb

Steve McNair

Ben Roethlisberger

Philip Rivers

Ken Stabler

John Brodie

Dan Fouts

Joe Namath

 

Tier 6

Greg Cook

Andrew Luck

Tony Romo

Jim Kelly

I could’ve been a contender.

Bert Jones

Y.A. Tittle

Vinny Testaverde

Boomer Esiason

Len Dawson

Troy Aikman

 

Tier 7

Randall Cunningham

Daunte Culpepper

Daryle Lamonica

Russell Wilson

Phil Simms

Kurt Warner

Cam Newton

John Hadl

Bart Starr

Roman Gabriel

Bob Griese

Charlie Conerly

Terry Bradshaw

Ken Anderson

Bob Waterfield

 

Tier 8

Jim Everett

Doug Flutie

Steve Grogan

Matt Ryan

Mark Brunell

Don Meredith

Earl Morrall

Ed Brown

Carson Palmer

Jeff Garcia

Rich Gannon

Archie Manning

Dave Krieg

Jim Hart

Craig Morton

Norm Snead

Joe Theismann

Milt Plum

 

Tier 9

Mark Rypien

Matt Hasselbeck

Bernie Kosar

Michael Vick

Chad Pennington

Brian Sipe

Tommy Thompson

Neil Lomax

Danny White

Ron Jaworski

Lynn Dickey

Doug Williams

Tobin Rote

Billy Kilmer

Jim Plunkett

Matt Schaub

Frank Ryan

Eli Manning

Trent Green

Bobby Hebert

Steve DeBerg

Jake Delhomme

David Garrard

Jim Zorn

Jay Schroeder

Matthew Stafford

Chris Chandler

Drew Bledsoe

Wade Wilson

Ken O’Brien

Tommy Kramer

 

Questions? Complaints? Agreement? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

  • Only one I’d really question is Steve Young. Not that he wasn’t physically talented and productive. Hell, he was more efficient than Montana. But I dock him for playing in that offensive scheme with that talent. I still think he’d be better than the Montana/Brady tier on most teams. Just maybe not quite that high.

    Speaking of the right scheme and talent, how insane would the already top tier great careers of Rodgers and Marino have been with better talent and coaching?

    • Adam

      The reason I rank Young so highly is because he’s probably the second best dual-threat QB we’ve ever seen, and only microscopically behind Rodgers at that. While the 49ers’ WCO undoubtedly helped him, I think he had the tools and IQ to be productive in just about any scheme, save for a talent starved dumpster fire like the mid-80’s Buccaneers. Imagine if Young was drafted into a good situation and started throughout his physical prime…he might be considered the GOAT.

      • garymrosen

        “Imagine if Young was drafted into a good situation and started throughout his physical prime…he might be considered the GOAT.”

        They why was he able to supersede the 14th best QB only through injuries and age? I am a longtime 49er fan and have no desire to tear down Young who is at least a top-10 all-time QB. Not to mention we went already went through the Montana-Young agonies many years ago. But the reason it was agonizing was that despite Young’s youth and good health it was clear Montana was the superior quarterback even though he had back surgery that many thought would end his career. By 1989 Young was in his third year with the 49ers so you can’t say he was “still learning the system”. If he was really better than Montana he would have been starting by then.

        • Adam

          I don’t agree with that at all. Montana was entrenched in the starting role by the time Young arrived, and had already won two Super Bowls, so there was almost no chance that Young would be given a legitimate opportunity to win the starting job. Just as Aaron Rodgers had no shot of taking Favre’s job for a while, even though Rodgers turned out to be the better QB. It’s short sighted to believe that the starter on any team is always assigned by merit.

          • garymrosen

            “so there was almost no chance that Young would be given a legitimate opportunity to win the starting job.”

            This is laughable. Walsh replaced Montana with Young in the Viking playoff game and they traded starting for the first half of the 1988 season. Walsh was obviously still concerned about Montana’s back surgery and Young would have taken the job then if he were the better quarterback.

      • Joseph

        Not sure why you would say Young is microscopically behind Rodgers as a “dual-threat.” The highlight reels are filled with numerous spectacular runs by Young, and I don’t recall all that many by Rodgers. For their careers, Young averaged 25 yds per game, 6 yds per attempt, whereas Rodgers is 18 yds per game and 5 yds per attempt. Young also had 722 runs and 43 tds, Rodgers has 515 runs and 25 tds. The gap will surely widen on the averages if Rodgers plays a few more years.

  • garymrosen

    Just want to point out that Joe Montana was drafted by a “talent starved, mismanaged franchise” that turned into a “ready-made dynasty” almost as soon as he took over as starting QB. Yes there were other factors, coaches and players involved but it may have been more than “good fortune”.

    • Adam

      I think Montana was innately great AND was drafted into a situation that allowed him to grow into the revered player we know today. So yes, his success was certainly more than just good fortune, but I don’t think he was the type of QB who could carry a team on his back. You can’t deny the genius of Bill Walsh (who already took Ken Anderson to stardom), a coach whose scheme and team building strategy were far ahead of the rest of the league. If Montana and Marino switched places, do you think Joe would have reached even close to the same level of success? I don’t.

      • garymrosen

        “I don’t think he was the type of QB who could carry a team on his back.”

        1) Montana had a string of miracle comebacks at Notre Dame before he ever met Bill Walsh.
        2) In his late 30s and with his physical skills deteriorating he led the Chiefs to what is still their best season since they won SB !V. He easily held his own at QB in a conference with four other HoF QBs, three of them (Elway, Kelly, Marino) much closer to their prime (the fourth was 41-yo Warren Moon).
        3) He was the biggest difference-maker on a great team, the 49ers of the ’80s. Yes much more than Rice who made no difference to the first two SB wins since he wasn’t in the league yet. And the first SB winner especially had nowhere near the offensive talent of the late ’80s teams. There was a reason after the Dallas game Tom Landry said, “It’s got to be the quarterback, there is nothing else there”.

        • Adam

          Montana’s two years in KC were pretty damn impressive. After thinking about this a bit more, I ranked him too low and need to edit my list. Thanks for reading!

          • garymrosen

            Adam, while of course I would like to see Montana ranked higher I would feel a little embarrassed if it were based strictly on my comments here. I believe I have made an honest case on his behalf but I cannot deny I am fiercely partisan. Presumably other QBs ahead of him could also have similar cases made. Allow me to make two hopefully constructive criticisms of what you have written here:

            1) I really think the “CEO” idea does not wash. Nearly all the QBs in the top tiers, not just the top 2 or 3 but down to at least tier 6 were fierce on-field leaders and that was an important component of their success. And most well-run teams have good management/coaching at the top, I don’t think any player even a future HoF quarterback has that much influence.

            2) I understand that one of the reasons for undertaking this kind of exercise is to try to uncover players who may have been underrated due to circumstance. But it is one thing to look at say Testaverde and Aikman and think “well Vinny could have had a better career with better teams and Troy’s might have been not so good on worse teams”. It is another, a bridge too far I think, to put Testaverde so far ahead of Aikman on the list.

          • Adam

            My biggest blind spot in quarterback evaluation is that I tend to penalize dynasty QB’s too much. Frankly it’s an overreaction to the Ringz crowd, and a misguided attempt to balance them out by putting a few bars on the other extreme end of the scale. Of course two wrongs don’t make a right, which is why I’ve decided to move the dynasty QB’s up a tier. Now Aikman and Testaverde are in the same tier, which seems more appropriate than where I had them previously (you weren’t the only person to question me on this, I also received a few tweets telling me I was crazy).

      • Andy Trimble

        Yes, he would have. He would have gotten close under Shula.

        • garymrosen

          Plus Dolphins receivers were as good or better than the 49ers’ before Rice. Though I don’t want to take anything away from Dwight Clark who was underrated and had a lot more going for him than one legendary play.

  • WR

    I don’t understand how Montana and Brady can be so low, when by era-adjusted ANYPA+, Brady has outperformed Rodgers over the last 10 seasons, Brady has outperformed Manning over the last 12 seasons, and Montana has a better career ANYPA+ figure than Peyton, Brady, Rodgers, and Marino. Marino has an ANYPA+ of 119 in 8628 drop backs. Brady is at 118 ANYPA+ in 8641 drop backs. Yet he has Marino 11 spots ahead of Brady, and 12 ahead of Montana.

    Whatever the reason is for rating Marino so much higher than those guys, it’s not based on the numbers.

  • Adam

    I wrote up an explanation for my placement of Brady and Montana:

    Both QB’s obviously have some elite skills: accuracy, reading defenses, decision making, football IQ, work ethic, calmness under pressure, and a knack for rallying their teammates. But they’re also lacking in some areas compared to the quarterbacks above them on this list. Both are saddled with mediocre-at-best arm talent, subpar athleticism, a relative inability to extend plays, and most controversially, neither has the personality of a true field general.

    Tom and Joe are guys you want in the foxhole with you, and that goes along way in professional sports. However, I don’t sense the CEO mentality from these guys that shines so clearly from Manning, Marino, and Unitas. From an outsider’s perspective, Montana and Brady don’t strike me as guys who command the entire franchise, from the locker room to the practice field to the game on Sunday. Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick were/are the clear CEO’s of their respective franchises, while their quarterbacks say, “Yes, sir” and carry out their bosses’ orders dutifully and skillfully.

    Given their temperaments, Brady and Montana were extremely fortunate to be drafted onto teams with a commander already in place. If either were paired with a weak willed, figurehead coach, would they have had the chutzpah to grab the franchise by the balls and own it from top to bottom? Could either man hop aboard a wayward ship with no identity and rebuild it in their image? In my opinion, the answer is no.

    • garymrosen

      If you’re going to derate Montana and Brady because they played for great coaches then why not Otto Graham? Paul Brown in his time was by far the greatest football innovator ever; I’m sure both Walsh and Belichick would agree with that. By the way have you ever heard of Weeb Ewbank?

      “most controversially, neither has the personality of a true field general.” I’d say it’s controversial. I don’t think all those comebacks in big games happened by accident. And while as a 49er fan I’m writing here mostly about Montana this applies to Brady as well.

      • WR

        I don’t think Adam’s case against Montana and Brady is consistent. As I explained in my other post, by the numbers, Montana and Brady are just as good, if not better, than the guys he has at the top of the list. I don’t agree with his take on Montana, because after he left San Francisco, he nearly took the Chiefs to the Super Bowl, and put up big numbers when he was on the field in Kansas City. Montana also had an all-pro season before Rice showed up, so you can’t say his numbers were all because of Rice. Walsh was a great coach, but how successful would he have been without Montana?

        As for Brady, it’s a similar situation. Everyone reveres Belichick now, but when Brady showed up, he was fighting for his job, and had a losing record as a coach. And if Belichick is a QB genius who made Brady, then how come guys like Testaverde and Bledsoe weren’t more successful in his system? It’s also not fair to Brady to credit his receivers, when he had already earned a pass TD title, a passing yardage title, and been named 2nd team all-pro before Moss even showed up. And oh yeah, won 3 Super Bowls, with some outstanding playoff performances, before Moss, too. And won another Super Bowl without Gronk last year. Again, Belichick is a great coach. But does he win 5 super bowls, based on what he did pre-2001, if he doesn’t have Brady? I can’t see how.

        My problem with the takes by people like Adam on this stuff is that by the very same standards they use to talk up Rodgers, Manning, and Marino, you can use the same standards to establish that Montana and Brady are better. He talks about the situations for Montana and Brady, but never brings up the fact that Marino played for Shula, who has more wins, and a higher win pct than Belichick. (And who took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl with David Woodley at QB the year before Marino even showed up.) He never mentions the amazing talent Peyton has had around him on offense, like in 2004, when he got to play on an All-Star team featuring Harrison, Wayne, Stokley, Clark, and Edge James. Or the fact that when Jordy Nelson got hurt, Rodgers’ numbers immediately went down, which doesn’t suggest that he’s immune to roster turnover at all.

        Again, Brady has numbers that are almost identical to Marino in the regular season, and Brady and Montana both crush Marino in the postseason. So how does that suggest Marino is “better”? When Adam says that Brady doesn’t command the franchise, or that Marino has a “CEO mentality” that the other guys lack, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Numerous players and coaches have said that Brady is the leader of the team, both on the field and in the locker room, and his outstanding leadership skills have been talked about since Brady was in high school. I also agree with Gary that Brady and Montana are both great field generals, and that it’s controversial to say otherwise.

        It’s also weird how Adam bills himself as a stat guy, but when push comes to shove, his case against Montana and Brady isn’t based on stats at all. It’s all subjective takes, of dubious veracity, How does he know that Unitas had the CEO mentality, for example? How many of Unitas’ games has he watched in full? I doubt it’s very many.

        Ok, I’m done. Now if I could just figure out how to get Adam or Bryan to acknowledge what I’m talking about…

        • garymrosen

          “when Brady showed up, he [Belichick] was fighting for his job, and had a losing record as a coach.”

          From WR’s comments here and elsewhere I know he is a Patriot/Brady fan the way I am a 49er/Montana fan. While this leaves us open to accusations of bias it also means we have some knowledge of the situations that led to our admiration for Tom and Joe. When Montana took over for good as 49er starting QB with five games left in the 1980 season, genius innovator HoF coach Bill Walsh had an NFL record of 5-22. And the franchise record stretching back to 1977 was 12-45. The 49ers then went on to win 19 of their next 24 games including the Super Bowl. Of course I’m not trying to demean Walsh whose reputation is well-deserved, or deny the contributions of others, but Montana was a *huge* difference-maker.

    • I was sort of with you till you said Joe Montana had sub par athleticism. That may be true of post-injury Montana, which is when you were likely to see him play more, but young Montana is among the most athletic quarterbacks in league history. Saying otherwise is like watching Michael Jordan playing for the Wizards and wondering why people think he’s so great, or watching Tiger Woods post-incident and wondering why he’s so popular. You’re talking about a guy who cleared a 6’9″ high jump, could two-handed dunk from a flat-footed stance in high school, set a discus record in his only attempt in the event, played every position in baseball, and was offered a basketball scholarship to NC State. In the Super Bowl against Miami, he had rushes of 6 (TD), 7, 12, 15, and 19 yards. He also didn’t have mediocre arm talent (unless you only compare him with Marino and no one else), but that isn’t as egregious a claim as calling him a bad athlete.

      • Adam

        You’re right that I didn’t get to watch Montana until he was past his physical peak, and my perception of him has been unfairly colored by that. I didn’t realize he was a track and field superstar before joining the NFL; sounds like I need to do more research! Among the QB’s of his era, in what percentile would you place Montana’s arm talent?

        • It depends on what you mean by “arm talent.” Like Matt Stafford and Joe Flacco can probably throw harder than Aaron Rodgers, but Rodgers can do so with more accuracy and from the same angles Stafford uses. Stafford and Rodgers both have enough velocity to be able to play without perfect technique, and I’m sure no QB coach would point to either as an example of how to play the position — guys like Brady and Manning would be the go-to guys for that.

          Montana didn’t have Elway’s velocity, but he was much more accurate, even on deep throws. Neither was the natural passer that Marino was. Marino was pretty much in a class of his own when it comes to throwing a beautiful football. His throw is like Griffey’s swing; it’s efficient, graceful, powerful, and beautiful. Montana didn’t have that, nor did he have the arm power of a McMahon or Esiason, but he had perfect technique by the time he got to the NFL, largely on account of his father making him practice so much since childhood. To me, arm talent has to have some element of brain talent in it, and that’s where guys like Montana then (and Brady today) have such brilliant synergy. They’re not threading needles and making impossible throws, but they throw with such great anticipation that it makes having a rocket arm unnecessary. Neither had a weak arm, and I’d say both had roughly average arm strength for their eras.

          • garymrosen

            Thanks Bryan for bringing some reality here regarding Montana. Montana did not have the cannon of Elway or Marino but he did have the arm strength and accuracy to exploit Jerry Rice’s ability to outrun defenses, as shown by the 2 TD passes to Rice in the memorable game at Philadelphia in 1989. Actually the most notorious “YAC” receptions in Montana highlight film are by Taylor, not Rice. The last throw to Rice in that game was a real doozy, Montana audibled a deep throw in a situation (3d and 4) that called for a short dump-off when he saw the Eagles had single coverage on Rice. Unfortunately this game has been taken off YouTube but the announcer who nearly had an orgasm over Montana’s throw on the replay was Terry Bradshaw.

          • Joe was great before Rice arrived (I mean, who can watch the chicken soup game and not think there was something special about him), but his connection with Rice was a thing of beauty. They were so in tune with each other on the field that it seemed like they were two parts of the same person. Montana is best known for his accuracy on those shorter passes that are a staple of the WCO, but his intermediate and deep accuracy were astonishing. I lost track of how many times he hit Rice perfectly in stride, or how many times I saw Rice just held his hands out on a go route against single coverage, without even obviously looking, just knowing the ball would end up right where it was supposed to. Rice had more statistical success with Young, but his play with Montana was on another level. It’s still my favorite QB-WR combo of all time.

          • garymrosen

            Well you are preaching to the choir here Bryan :^). I consider Montana/Rice in 1988-89 to be the football equivalent of Ruth/Gehrig on the 1927 Yankees.

          • Andy Trimble

            Jim Burt to Joe Montana is still the best connection ever.

            😉

          • Andy Trimble

            Elway never played in a west coast offense. Accuracy is inadequately gauged by completion %. Elway never had a Jerry Rice, or Dwight Clark, or heck, even Freddie Solomon and John Taylor, to throw to.

            Take Joe and put him on Denver, and John and give him to the Niners, there would be no question that Elway was the best. I’m not dissin Joe, he was awesome. But it’s a legit debate over who was better.

          • garymrosen

            Elway was a tremendous athlete and with his Stanford pedigree it is indeed intriguing to think about what Walsh could have done with him. However I don’t think he had the on-field savvy and instincts of Montana (to be fair no one did). I think at least early in his career he may have over-relied on his athleticism, not unlike Steve Young. Ever hear of “the Elway cross”?

  • Adam

    Why do I have Rodgers alone at the top?

    Quite simply, I believe that Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback to ever play. He will likely retire minus the accomplishments and esteem of Tom Brady and Joe Montana, but Rodgers is the superior player. He’s the only QB in history who has no discernable weaknesses, and his skill set reaches the level of extraordinary across the spectrum of quarterbacking traits. Rodgers possesses elite accuracy, arm strength, mobility, pocket movement, improvisational ability, intelligence, work ethic, and competitive fire. I feel quite confident that he would succeed in any system, under any coach, and with any collection of teammates. Rodgers’ 2015 and 2016 seasons were herculean efforts in dragging deeply flawed rosters to the playoffs; how many other QB’s could win 10 games behind a line that can’t block, receivers who can’t get separation, and a defense that can’t stop a nosebleed? Aaron Rodgers stands alone.

    • Rodgers is probably the most gifted QB I have seen play, but I think he had some benefits too. At this point, McCarthy isn’t doing him any favors by designing and calling plays that require separation by receivers who can’t get any, but it isn’t as though he’s a bad offensive coach. He just may be past his creative prime, much like Shula was by the time Marino was a star, or like the Rolling Stones are now. It’s pretty well reported that Favre wasn’t interested in training his replacement, but sitting behind Favre did help Rodgers in one underrated way. Instead of an Alex Smith situation where he has to learn something different every year, Rodgers had the luxury of learning one offense after his rookie season. He had three offseasons and two full seasons to absorb McCarthy’s system, and he is still in that system a decade later. He is a master of the McCarthy offense, and it has allowed him to play at an elite level since 2009 (that includes the last two seasons, in which he very clearly outperformed his numbers, similar to how Brady did in 2013).

  • garymrosen

    Now we all know football is a team game and just because quarterback X has more “ringz” than quarterback Y it doesn’t automatically mean he’s a better player. But when you’ve got Vinny Testaverde ranked dozens of places ahead of Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw you may want to re-examine your methodology.

    • Adam

      Testaverde was stuck on the 80’s Bucs and 90’s Browns for the majority of his career. Those Bucs teams were awful, the Browns weren’t exactly loaded with weapons, and he was old by the time he teamed up with Parcells in New York, so of course Vinny’s numbers and accomplishments will pale in comparison to Aikman and Bradshaw. The latter played with talent rich rosters and exceptional coaches.

      I think you’re missing the point of this article. Just because QB A did more than QB B doesn’t mean QB A was actually better.

      • WR

        But didn’t Testaverde have genius Belichick coaching him? How come he didn’t become Tom Brady?

      • garymrosen

        “Just because QB A did more than QB B doesn’t mean QB A was actually better.”

        I said exactly that but it certainly doesn’t mean he is worse. Brady and Montana get GOAT consideration (like Graham and Unitas) not only because they won multiple championships but were considered the most important player on their teams. This contrasts with Aikman and Bradshaw who might take a back seat to say Emmit Smith and Mean Joe Green (or the entire Steel Curtain).

        But Aikman and Bradshaw were still outstanding quarterbacks. They were not innocent bystanders but significant contributors to dynastic teams. That should be to their credit, not their detriment. It should get them rated at least as high as Testaverde.

      • Andy Trimble

        Yeah, Testaverde was an above average QB. He is the most glaring addition to this list.

        He belongs no where close to Aikman and Bradshaw on this list. Ask any Cowboy who the leader of those teams was… they all say Troy.

        Go back and watch Bradshaw in those SB games. Putting up 35 against THAT Cowboys defense? Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, Harvey Martin, Too Tall, Randy White? They were the defending SB champs who had embarrassed Denver. They were called Doomsday for a reason.

        Bradshaw puttin up 35 against them? That’s HOF stuff.

        • garymrosen

          “They were called Doomsday for a reason.”

          … because they doomed the Cowboys when they couldn’t stop Montana in the NFCCG. Just funnin’ ya LOL

          • Andy Trimble

            LOL… good one.

            Joe took a beatin that day, and I don’t think any other QB besides Staubach coulda made that play. Montana is the only QB I won’t argue against being the GOAT. I’ll take Roger the Dodger, but if I had to settle for Joe, I wouldn’t be sad. He and Staubach were cut from the same athletic burlap sack. Just a joy to watch play. Even opponents held them in high esteem as they tried to beat them.

            Doomsday went to 5 SBs in 9 years, winning two of them, and they’re STILL the only team that has not allowed a TD in a game (’71 against the ‘Phins), and 3 of their players were MVPs of the SB – Chuck Howley (the only MVP from a losing team, ever), Randy White and Harvey Martin.

            If anyone’s interested, here’s my reasons for naming Roger as the GOAT:

            1) He’s the only Heisman winning QB ever elected to the HOF. Had he not had to fulfill his military service, he would have been the #1 pick overall in the next draft. The Cowboys got him in the 5th round.
            2) He went to the Naval Academy in order to serve his country. He served in Vietnam and earned the rank of Captain. This cut his pro career short by at least 4 years, so I give him mad props for it.

            3) He only started for Dallas for 8 seasons. Meredith, then Morton, were veterans entrenched in Landry’s system. Both of them were good QBs, and Tom saw no reason to put the young buck into the saddle.
            4) In his first full season as Dallas’ starter, the Boys went 10-0, including 2 playoff wins and a dominant performance in the SB. (the score was 24-3, but Duane Thomas fumbled at the 2 yard line, keeping it from being a 31-3 final) “Tomorrow’s Champions” became actual champions that year. People say things like, “yes, but that was a great team, anyone could have led them to a SB title… except Meredith and Morton couldn’t. Two very good QBs tried for 6 straight years, coming close each time, but Roger accomplished it.
            5) When he retired, his 84.3 passer rating was the best of all time. It may seem pathetic by today’s standards, but by his own era’s, he was the very best, statistically. I wish I was Bill James, I’d do an analysis of his numbers and calculate what he would do in the modern era of bend-over-and-take-it-like-a-man defenses:
            https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/S/StauRo00.htm
            6) He was 85-29 .(74.6%) as a starter, and 11-6 in the playoffs, when there was one less round each year, and a 14 game schedule until Roger’s last two years. Pretty impressive, no matter who you are.
            Brady (185-53, 77.7%, 25-9 in 16 years)
            Montana (117-47, 71.3%, 16-7 in the playoffs in 13 years as a full time starter)
            7)In 8 years as a starter:
            1971 NFL Bert Bell Award (Player of the Year)

            1971 NFL Super Bowl MVP

            1978 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year

            Pro Football Hall of Fame 1st team All-1970s Team

            Pro Football Reference 1st team All-1970s Team
            6 Pro Bowls

          • garymrosen

            As 49er fan of course you’re not going to get me off Montana as GOAT :^). But when I tried to think of another QB with Montana’s intangibles – leadership, composure under pressure, almost never making a stupid mistake the first name that came to mind was Staubach, even before Unitas. Pro Football Reference has a stat “Rate+” , which I think is QBR adjusted for era, in its Advanced Passing tables. This supports your assertions about Staubach as well as Montana. QBR really skyrocketed after the mid-90s. In the 80s only four QBs had a season rating over 100 and three of them were named Joe Montana (the other was Marino in his great 1984 year). Now there are sometimes 4-5 every season over 100.

          • Andy Trimble

            And mobility… Joe and Roger could both extend plays, and go get a first down with their legs.

            Staubach had one season at 104.8 QBR, and 2 others in the 90’s, which of course led the league.

            I believe Joe and Roger are the most similar great players who ever played in the NFL. Their college heroics are similar, as well.

          • garymrosen

            I believe that mobility is directly related to Montana’s and Staubach’s reputations for “clutch” performance. Some QBs may be able to throw deep when they get a chance to set up and throw but don’t do as well when they are not afforded such protection. Which is what happens when you face the best defenses deep in the playoffs.

          • Andy Trimble

            Indeed. They both won an incredible amount of big games for their teams, and they were obviously the deciding factor.

  • It’s interesting seeing the placement of Unitas and Graham, who are two poster boys for entanglement. Unitas was terrific, but he definitely got help looking more terrific. He played with a top 60 and top 20 RB, a top 10 WR, a top 5 TE, and a top 2 OG on offense. He got support from an elite, multiple HOFer defense, and he played for two HOF coaches.

    Graham is one of the great athletes ever to play the position, but he also played for possibly the most loaded roster in history and for the greatest coach in history. Watching the games, he didn’t look demonstrably better than Layne or Van Brocklin, and he didn’t look as good as Baugh. Otto was the star, but he was throwing his era’s version of dink and dunk passes and getting huge YAC from every receiver. And Motley was the best player on that offense; he looked like a man playing pee wee football.

    • Adam

      Thanks for your input – I struggle to properly evaluate the careers of older players. The reason I put Graham in the top 10 is because he was a dominant athlete, and I think his talents would translate into any system or era. That said, I’ve never done film study as you have, so I’ll take your word that Layne, Van Brocklin, and Baugh were just as good if not better. Like, I had no idea that Graham’s offense was YAC heavy for his era (and you know how I feel about QB’s who rely on lots of YAC).

      As far as Unitas, perhaps I’m buying into his legend too heavily. He did play with stacked rosters, of course, but I think of him as the first franchise CEO quarterback, the Peyton Manning of the pre-merger NFL. But I could very well be wrong about that.

      I’ll probably revise this list after soliciting feedback. I purposely placed Jurgensen in the same tier as Unitas and Graham because he was an all time talent stuck in less than optimal circumstances, but I probably didn’t adjust far enough with some of the other old timers.

      • Unitas had the mentality of a field general, but there’s only so much control a QB can exercise over Weeb Ewbank and Don Freaking Shula. Same can be said for Marino; he ran the field, but he wasn’t telling Shula to piss off. Bobby Layne and Norm Van Brocklin were field general types before Unitas, but they weren’t as good at playing the position. If we want to go way back, Curly Lambeau and Jimmy Conzelman were among the best passers of the early 1920s, and they really did exercise significant control over their teams.

        One guy who gets left out of the field general conversations is Dan Fouts. Maybe it’s because he played in sunny San Diego, didn’t win a lot of playoff games, or played for a legendary offensive innovator. The sometimes awful and always obnoxious Kerry Byrne refers to him as Sunshine Superman, because Byrne treats W-L as the most meaningful QB stat. But Fouts wasn’t just some guy along for a ride on the Coryell Train. There was no question who the man was on the Chargers.

        • Andy Trimble

          I put Fouts in the 2nd tier, just below the very best guys. His failure to win big games hurts him, but only as much as to keep him out of the first tier.

          He was a great QB.

      • Joseph

        Very interesting thought-experiment of placing QBs in alternative career scenarios! Since you mention Sonny, here’s an anecdote quite relevant to your project. Pat Peppler was Vince Lombardi’s director of player personnel during the Pack glory days. Just before Lombardi passed away, he had lunch with the legendary coach, and this is what he later reported in an interview. Lombardi: ‘I’ll tell you something” (and he said “don’t tell anybody or I’ll get you.” ). He said, “If we would have had Sonny Jurgensen in Green Bay, we’d never have lost a game.’” I vaguely recall Paul Hornung saying something similar, and that Vince was in awe of Sonny’s talents. We also have Lombardi’s own testimony, which was read out at Sonny’s HOF ceremony: “Sonny Jurgensen is a great quarterback, he may be the greatest this league has ever seen. He is certainly the greatest I’ve ever seen.” Many thanks for this most interesting post!

        • garymrosen

          I was too young to appreciate the nuances at the time but I remember Jurgensen being talked about as an excellent QB hampered by being on a so-so (at best) team, the Redskins. But they had been even worse before he came there, a bottom-feeder team so he apparently made a difference. Bryan, have you looked at film of Sonny, how does he look compared to other NFL QBs of the era (Unitas, Starr, early-60s Tittle)? His era-adjusted QBR numbers are very good.

          • Jurgensen rivals Marino as the prettiest passer in history. He’s one of the most natural throwers I’ve ever seen, and he looked better than Starr and Tittle on film and at least as good as Unitas. He had uncanny accuracy to every level of the field and certainly raised the level of play from his offensive teammates.

            I have been doing pretty extensive film and stats study on historical seasons for a large project I’m working on (it’s dominated so much of my time that I’ve barely written a thing this offseason), and I named Jurgensen the NFL’s top QB in 1961, 66, and 67; and I named him MVP in 1961 and shortlisted him in 66 and 67.

            Statistically, he ranked 15th all time by the methodology from this post http://www.thegridfe.com/2016/05/26/regular-season-qbgoat-ix-career-soft-inflation-adjustment/, but his stats didn’t do his play justice.

        • Adam

          Appreciate the kind words, Joseph! Glad you enjoyed it.

        • Andy Trimble

          George Allen hated Sonny because he was a beer-drinkin fat guy. Allen liked clean-livin, athletic types. His decision to start Kilmer over Jurgeson is inexplicable.

          Cowboys fans will forever thank him for this idiotic decision.

          • Joseph

            Actually, Sonny preferred Scotch Whisky to beer (though his beer commercials paid better!). And Billy was no “clean-living” saint himself. I used to harbor more hostility for Allen in the Billy vs. Sonny controversy, but for the most part I think Allen started Sonny whenever he was healthy enough to play. The main problem was that he was regularly injured: badly broken shoulder, ruptured Achilles, deep muscle tear in his thigh, loose cartilage in the knee. You will recall in the 72 season Sonny had the team on a roll and then the torn Achilles happened. There used to float around on the internet some taped conversations between Tricky Dick Nixon and Allen talking about the Redskins — very revealing. In one of them Allen talks about Sonny’s determination to come back, his great attitude (including cutting back on the alcohol), and he agrees with Nixon that Sonny is the man with the HOF talent. The one big mistake is Allen’s decision to start Kilmer against the Rams in the 74 playoff, and then only go with Sonny in the 4th quarter. Merlin Olsen smashes Sonny in the face just as he releases the ball for an open Larry Brown, and Isiah Robertson runs the floater back for a clinching TD. In the locker room afterwards there was grumbling by players like Roy Jefferson that Allen should have started old number 9, which later led to Kilmer demanding a trade and Allen deciding to force Sonny into retirement.

          • garymrosen

            Interesting story! Jurgensen/Kilmer has some parallels to Montana/Young, though Kilmer himself was no spring chicken by the ’74 playoffs and had nowhere near the HoF talent of Young. To bring it back full circle Kilmer was originally drafted by the 49ers.

          • Joseph

            Another interesting aspect to the Sonny and Billy relationship is that Kilmer credited Sonny with improving his throwing style (his passer rating jumps notably during his Redskin heyday). If you look at videos of Kilmer with the Saints, you’ll see he typically just tosses the ball with his arm; Sonny told him he needed to use more of his legs and hips, to throw with the body rather than just the arm. Do you know if Montana and Young had something similar going on? From what I recall, they didn’t get along too well.

    • Andy Trimble

      Graham was the Ken Anderson of his era, the kind of QB Paul Brown loved. He won so many championships and passing titles, he has to be the best of that generation.

      As far as the criticism of Unitas having great players? So did the other teams. There was no Free Agency. Players stayed on the same team for 10-15 years. Unitas played against hellacious defenses almost every week. The Bears, the Lions, the Packers, the Giants… all of them stacked with HOF defensive players who were allowed to maim receivers, o-linemen, and QBs.

      • garymrosen

        “Graham was the Ken Anderson of his era”

        Is that meant as a compliment LOL? Despite the well-deserved regard for Graham I have thought there is an anti-Graham argument that goes something like this:

        1) His AAFC stats are overinflated. While some people claim the AAFC was as good as the NFL at the time, only three teams survived the merger. One, the old Baltimore Colts, quickly folded, the 49ers struggled to reach .500 and only the Browns were strong contenders.

        2) Paul Brown. No coach was ever as far ahead of the rest of the league, especially offensively, as Brown was in the early 50s – for example he was the first coach (I think) to send in plays from the bench, using “messenger guards”. Even Bill Walsh doesn’t come close.

        But having said this I don’t think it begins to outweigh Graham’s accomplishments, the championships and the statistics. He definitely belongs in any GOAT conversation.

        • Andy Trimble

          Yes. Ken Anderson was a great QB, and doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

          The Browns went from the AAFC to the NFL and destroyed them.

  • WR

    It’s pretty clear that if you’re going to move Montana up, Brady should at least be at the same level.

    • Andy Trimble

      Why? Brady has never had to win a SB against the kinds of teams that Montana did. That Cowboys team the 49ers beat in ’81? Woulda mopped the floor with the Patriots last year. The Bengals of that year would, too.

      Brady has played two stout defenses in the SB, and both times the Giants shut his ass down.

  • A thing about Montana and Brady, as they relate to the concept of a field general. Perhaps they weren’t the ones running the offense for their teams, but I don’t think anyone who ever played with either of those guys would question who was in charge once they stepped on the field. It’s not like Brady wouldn’t get in a guy’s face and let him know about a mistake, and no one would ever question his passion or intensity, or his love of winning/hatred of losing. Montana wasn’t a get in your face kinda guy, but the same calm aspect of his demeanor was what became known as his most defining characteristic: the ability not to cave under pressure. He was laid back to the point where many people actually thought he was aloof or didn’t care about football at all.

    The two legends took different approaches to leading their teams, but one thing they share is that their presence in a huddle made their teammates believe they could accomplish anything. It’s not quantifiable, so stat guys like to ignore it, but confidence is a real part of human psychology and can significantly impact performance.

    • garymrosen

      “Montana wasn’t a get in your face kinda guy, but the same calm aspect of his demeanor was what became known as his most defining characteristic: the ability not to cave under pressure. He was laid back to the point where many people actually thought he was aloof or didn’t care about football at all”

      This may have been true off the field but not on it. Or at least not always, yes I know the (in)famous “John Candy” story. I remember several times seeing him dress down linemen when the protection broke down. Not that it happened often, but I’d bet good money that when Montana criticized someone on field for blowing an assignment he was right and they knew it. If “field generalship” means having football savvy and instincts and almost never making a stupid mistake then Montana was number 1 all-time, period. You can see it even when he was still at Notre Dame, he was more on top of what was going on than a lot of 5-10 year NFL vets. He may have known how to calm down his teammates in tough situations but that did not mask his off-the-charts competitive fire. I believe a lot of people are misled by his off-field demeanor; Montana is not a great speaker and comes across as boyish, almost dorky, light-years away from leaders like Unitas and Staubach. But Clark Kent to Superman had nothing on the transformation Montana underwent when he took the center snap.

      Here is a story about Montana not from a 49er source but from a Philadelphia sportscaster, I believe it was Ray Didinger, regarding the 1989 Eagles game I mentioned elsewhere. Montana was getting pounded the first three quarters by the Eagle DL, led by Reggie White, who sacked him 8 times into the unforgiving Vet Stadium artificial turf. Didinger says that an Eagle fan told him after one sack he heard Montana say to the 49er O-line (must have been on the bench after a 3d down), “Keep them the f**k off me and I’ll bring us back”. And he did, throwing 4 TD passes in the 4th quarter for a dramatic victory.

      • garymrosen

        OK, one more non-calm non-aloof story about Montana. In 1981 the 49ers pounded the Cowboys 45-14 in the regular season, a landmark victory for the heretofore woebegone franchise that had been tormented for years by Dallas. Many Dallas players said things like “the real Cowboys didn’t show up” and they didn’t “respect” the 49ers. After Dwight Clark’s catch in the NFCCG, instead of celebrating with his teammates, Montana confronted Ed “Too Tall” Jones (who he had just pump-faked to throw the winning pass before Jones pounded him into the ground) and said, “RESPECT THAT M*****F***ER!” There is a YouTube video of Randy Cross telling this story.

        • Andy Trimble

          The year before, the Cowboys beat them 59-14, and no, they didn’t respect the Niners, for good reason. The Niners quit on them the year before. Walsh challenged their manhood after that game, and brought in some tougher guys in ’81.

          The Cowboys were once again in the NFC title game, as they were almost every year for 15 years. Would you respect this new upstart team that was 6-10 the previous year? In Candlestick, the 49ers won by a point. Without Joe, Dallas would have killed them.

          Montana was awesome.

          • garymrosen

            “Without Joe, Dallas would have killed them”

            Dallas probably would have won but I don’t think they would have “killed” them. Clearly one team was on the upswing and the other on the down as the 80s would prove. The 49ers outgained Dallas by 393 – 250 and the only reason the game was close was because of 6 49er turnovers, 4 uncharacteristically contributed by Montana himself (3 INTs and a fumble) though one of his great overall career strengths was ball protection. As usual he came through when it counted, not just on “The Catch” but many other critical plays where he kept drives alive with pinpoint passes made under great pressure.

          • Andy Trimble

            Imagine what they would have done to Steve Deberg…

      • Here’s a shorter video of that Eagles game. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bh04cc2uTmU

        • garymrosen

          Yes I’ve seen that. But you don’t really get the full effect of the last touchdown pass to Rice (here called by Mike Silver the “I’m-Joe-Montana-and-you’re-not” play) without seeing the game film, Montana walking up to the line and getting the snap, taking a short drop and throwing (I timed it under 2 seconds from the snap) a 40 yard laser beam right into Rice’s hands at the goal line. Rice for his part had to outrun the Eagle defense faster than most athletes could run the distance on a straight track, stunning brilliance of execution by both the QB and WR.

          There is another YouTube video, an interview with Montana where they ask about the favorite moment in his career and he describes this play, even ahead of “The Catch” or the game-winner in SBXXIII.

          • I’ve watched the game a few times (and the play dozens of times), and I think it’s about as perfect as a throw can be. It’s also not that exciting to me because of how many other times I have seen him make tremendous plays. It almost becomes a little ho hum because he was so automatic (except in the 85-87 playoffs).

      • Andy Trimble

        Great story, but all the great ones had that. Staubach didn’t scream and yell at his guys, but they knew, deep down, that if it was close in the 4th quarter, Roger would find a way to win the game. Same goes for all the first ballot HOFers who have that rep, Montana, Elway, Unitas, Brady.

        • garymrosen

          As a 49er fan I’m “supposed” to hate the Cowboys but my respect for Staubach is enormous. He is close to Montana on my list of QBs you want to start if you *have* to win a critical game. Also statistically he has outstanding era-adjusted QBR.

  • Andy Trimble

    Worst list ever.

    Rodgers isn’t among the top 20 QBs to ever play.

    • Adam

      Thanks for the compliment, my man!

      What’s your reasoning for Rodgers being outside the top 20?

      • Andy Trimble

        LOL… just razzin you, mostly. I love historical conversation/debate about things like this.

        He’s a great QB, no doubt. Let’s see what the back half of his career looks like, then figure out where he belongs, If he wins another championship, he definitely moves into the top ten.

        Here’s where old farts like me weigh in on QBs… if they don’t win titles, all their stats are just window dressing. Especially in the modern age of inflated passing stats. Guys like Bradshaw and Staubach and Unitas played in the era when DBs could grab and hold receivers all over the field, and D-lineman could headslap O-linemen, then tee off on the QB and body slam them. It truly was a different game back then.

        Stats for QBs have to be measured in comparison to their contemporaries. Comparing Brady’s stats to Stabler’s isn’t real unless you adjust for certain things. So I do this: I rank them according their era, then factor in things like championships, comeback victories, intangibles, and commentaries from people who saw them play.

        So you get a list of the top QB of each era like this:
        Sammy Baugh
        Otto Graham
        Unitas
        Staubach
        Montana (or Elway)
        Favre (or Aikman)
        Brady (or Peyton)
        Rodgers (or Newton… we’ll see. This comparison is very much like the Montana-Elway debate. One guy is the surgeon, the other a physical specimen with intangibles.)

        Each of these guys was legitimately considered the best QB of his era.
        So, how do we compare them with stats? You really can’t without doing some Bill James type sabermetrics. Too me, each of them has a legitimate argument to be called the GOAT, and I don’t have a problem with anyone saying any of them deserve that moniker.

        What they each had was that “IT” factor, that clutch ability to make the big play when the deck was stacked against them. That’s what separated them from their peers – Cool under pressure, leadership, combined with natural ability, and the heart of a champion.

        • Adam

          “if they don’t win titles, all their stats are just window dressing.”

          That’s fine if you use titles as criteria for a traditional all-time ranking, but this list is about hypotheticals. If a certain QB won x number of rings during his actual career, does that mean he has an inherent special ability to win rings that would carry over into any situation? Does a QB like Marino have specific flaws that would render him unable to win a ring under different circumstances? For this thought experiment, I’m asking you to set aside the fine points of what actually happened, and imagine what might happen if each QB were subjected to an array of circumstances, both good and bad.

          • Andy Trimble

            I understand. If they don’t win titles in their actual careers, I can’t surmise that they will in their hypothetical careers. That’s what’s logical to me.

            Marino didn’t play particularly well in his playoff appearances.

            His comp % was lower
            His TD/INT rate was worse
            His QBR was lower.

            His greatness in the regular season does not transfer to the playoffs.

  • Andy Trimble

    Tier One
    Montana (Arguably the best ever)
    Staubach (the only QB to win the Heisman and be enshrined in Canton, AND serve in Vietnam, and won an MVP, and took his team to 4 SBs in 8 years, and retired with the highest QB rating in history, and played when defenders could literally assault recievers and QBs)
    Elway (Watch “the drive” sometime, and look at his offensive teammates, not one of them in the HOF)
    Unitas (He basically invented the 2 minute drill)
    Baugh (he was completing 70% of his passes when the rest of the league was under 50%)
    Brady (I grudgingly put him on this list, despite winning in the age of parity. He’s never played a great team, and when he’s faced a great D, they kicked his ass. He’s the best QB of his era, so he gets some props.)
    (great QBs with “IT” the intangible thing that propelled their teams beyond their abilities)

    Tier Two
    Bradshaw
    Peyton
    Marino
    Tarkenton
    Otto
    Fouts
    Aikman
    Young
    Stabler
    Len Dawson
    Starr
    Favre
    (They’re in the HOF for a reason)

    Tier Three
    Erin Rodgers (if he’s the greatest ever, why doesn’t he win every year like Brady? Because he’s not the GOAT, that’s why)

    Warner
    Bob Griese
    Jurgensen
    Layne
    Kenny Anderson
    Bert Jones
    Moon
    McNabb

    Anything below tier 3 isn’t worth taking about in the conversation about who’s the GOAT.