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Too many of these top QB lists suffer from recency bias. You know, the ones that have Eli Manning on them. Don’t get me wrong, I like Eli Manning, but I’m not buying him as a top 20 QB of all time. Similarly, and spoiler alert: Tom Brady isn’t number one. That’s why this is the “brutally honest” top 20 QBs.
The Top 20 All-Time NFL Quarterback Rankings
20. Troy aikman
Some people will say I shouldn’t have included him on the list, and some people will say he deserves to be higher. I can agree with the latter group. The fact is that Aikman is a three-time Super Bowl champion (once the MVP), and his career playoff record is an impressive 11-4.
19. Jim Kelly
The career numbers don’t lie: 101 wins, 35,467 yards, 237 touchdowns, a 7.4 yards per pass attempt average, an 84.4 rating, and a 60.1 completion percentage. He also led the Buffalo Bills to 4 straight Super Bowls (though he played poorly) and went to 5 Pro Bowls.
18. Roger staubach
Staubach went to four Super Bowls, winning two. He made it to 6 NFC championship games and could also be a mobile threat, rushing for 20 touchdowns during his career. But his lack of time as a starter, coupled with some very ordinary-looking regular season statistics put him here.
17. Drew brees
Machine-like in his passing, with more 5,000-yard seasons than any other QB in NFL history. Add to that a completion percentage of 70%, which he did SEVEN times in his career, and you can see why he goes down as one of the best, albeit in a golden era of quarterback play. His downfall is his post-season record (9-9 over 20 years).
16. Warren Moon
Moon won five Grey Cups in six years in the CFL when he should have been in the NFL. If he had, using his average, he’d be a top 5 QB of all-time, statistically. He certainly proved he belonged when he got the chance, leading the NFL in passing for two years, being selected to nine Pro Bowls, and winning a League MVP.
15. Terry bradshaw
The hardest guy to rank on this list, his regular season numbers are pedestrian, but he was absolutely money in the playoffs, topped off by a perfect 4-0 in the Super Bowl, with a 112.8 passer rating and 2 MVPs in those four wins.
14. Brett favre
The all-time iron man (299 consecutive games) is a three-time MVP and Super Bowl champion who was also selected to 11 Pro Bowls. He had 18 straight seasons of 3,000 yards of passing! By the time he retired, he was the career leader in attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns (but also interceptions).
13. Dan marino
In his iconic second year, he recorded over 5,000 passing yards, 48 touchdowns, a 108.9 passer rating, and a league MVP. By the time he retired, he was the career leader in attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns. But, a lack of post-season success keeps him out of the top 12.
12. Steve Young
Though he has three Super Bowl rings, he only won one as a starter. He finished with a solid won-loss record (94-49), TD to INT record (232-107), and rushed for over 4,000 yards and 43 touchdowns. He led the NFL in six of the eight years he was a full-time starter.
11. Aaron rodgers
A magician on the field, his touchdown to interception ratio is insanely great. His over 100 career passer rating is incredible. He is also a three-time league MVP and a Super Bowl champion. Singular. His lack of championships keeps him below the next 10.
10. Sid luckman
Look him up, as this blurb won’t do him justice. He had one of the greatest seasons of all-time (1943): a 107.5 passer rating, a record for yards per attempt (10.9), and a TD percentage of 13.9, with one seven-touchdown game. He had four league championships, the fourth coming after a 2-year stint with the US Merchant Marines.
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9. Bart Starr
If I’m being brutally honest, then Bart Starr is the best Packers quarterback of all time. Five NFL titles, including the first 2 Super Bowls (MVP both times), and 9-1 in the playoffs with a 104.8 passer rating. A league MVP (1966), he retired as the NFL career leader in completion percentage.
8. Sammy baugh
Baugh played in the 1930s and 1940s and caused a bit of a revolution with his proficiency with the forward pass. He won six NFL passing titles, led the league in completion percentage nine times, and was a seven-time first-team All-NFL selection. Oh yeah: he started 83 games on offense AND defense.
7. Fran tarkenton
The original dual-threat QB, a league MVP, was selected to 9 Pro Bowls and 3 Super Bowls, and when he retired, he led the NFL in career completions, attempts, yards (47,003), TDs (342), rushing yards by a QB and wins.
6. John elway
His regular season success plus starting in five Super Bowls (though only two rings) put him here. A Super Bowl MVP, an NFL MVP, nine-time Pro Bowler, and one of the more clutch QBs to play the game.
5. Joe Montana
Clutch, highly accurate, mobile in a sneaky way, cooler than a cucumber, and a touch on the ball that was poetry in motion. A 4-0 record in the Super Bowl, with 3 MVPs in those games and two regular season MVPs.
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4. Peyton manning
Manning has two Super Bowl rings (1 MVP) in four appearances, five MVP awards, and 14 Pro Bowl selections. He had 14 seasons where he exceeded 4,000 passing yards. His 2013 season was one for the ages – 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards (after having had major neck surgery).
3. Johnny unitas
An innovator (the two-minute offense) who re-wrote the NFL record books, Unitas won three championships, three MVPs, had 5 All-Pro selections, and 10 Pro Bowl selections. He once went 47 straight games with at least one TD pass, a streak that lasted 52 years (Drew Brees, 2012). In 1959, he threw 34 touchdowns, an obscene number in that area. He finished with 290 touchdowns and over 40,000 passing yards.
2. Tom Brady
There is nothing wrong with being #2 on this list (a very close #2). But, he isn’t number one over Otto Graham because his iconic accomplishments came in a quarterback-friendly era and with the benefit of modern medicine and science.
1. Otto Graham
Otto Graham is the “other” QB that has won 7 championships, but above and beyond that, from 1946-1955, “Automatic” Otto took the Cleveland Browns to 10 straight championship games, playing every game during that 10-year run! He was a three-time NFL MVP in an era that was not QB friendly. He still holds the NFL record for career passing yards per attempt at 9.0. Think about that for a second: on average, every time he threw the ball, it almost went for a first down. This record has stood the test of time – 67 years!!
Comparing quarterbacks across multiple eras requires a brutally honest lens to factor in significant changes in the game over time and patience to overcome recency bias.
Nawaz Tahir is a football enthusiast trapped in a lawyer’s body. He coached high school football for fifteen years, including time as a defensive coordinator and head coach. You can find him on Twitter: @natlondon2.