Boy, this was a tough one. There have been so many great, dominant quarterbacks throughout the history of the NFL. The most important man on the team, and under the greatest scrutiny by coaches, fans and media alike, the quarterback ultimately determines the success or failure of an NFL franchise in any given game or season. Many athletes fold under the weight of this intense pressure, but the best QBs seem to thrive under the pressure and the intense media spotlight, somehow managing to elevate their performance when its needed. The bigger the game the better these incredible athletes play. With mere seconds to react, and with hundreds of pounds of raging flesh charging at them, these gunslingers manage to deliver game-breaking plays time and again. In the long history of the sport there have been many such men, but only the very best deserve a spot in the top 10 of all time. Here are my picks of the quarterbacks that deserve that accolade.
10 – Dan Marino
Unlike Peyton Manning, Dan Marino never got his Superbowl ring. There are those who would argue that simple fact should be enough to keep him off this top 10 list, but his other career accomplishments were so astonishing he simply must be considered one of the greatest of all time. When he retired he had more than 20 NFL records to his name, and with more than 61,000 yards in career passing, and an astonishing 420 touchdown passes can there be any doubt this guy is one of the game’s greatest?
9 – John Elway
One of Marino’s contemporaries makes the number 9 spot. Big John Elway was the ultimate Denver Bronco, spending his entire career with the team. He started in an incredible five Superbowls, and after going 0-3 in the big game early in his career, managed to finally win a pair of Superbowl rings in the late 90s, quashing comparisons to other great quarterbacks who never managed to quite get it down. Despite all his Superbowl success perhaps his most famous achievement came in the 1986-1987 AFC championship game. He was the architect of perhaps the greatest drive in NFL history. Known simply as “The Drive” he led his team 98 yards against the Cleveland Browns, culminating in the game winning touchdown with just 37 seconds left. Truly a clutch performance for the ages.
8 – Johnny Unitas
The name of this Baltimore Colts’ great is one of the most recognized in all of sport. Sports Illustrated once named him the greatest quarterback of all time, and while I personally don’t rank him that high there can be no doubt that Johnny U’s career accomplishments make him an easy choice as one of the top 10 NFL quarterbacks of all time. His golden arm led his team to an NFL championship in 1958 in what is considered by many as the greatest game ever played.
7 – Roger Staubach
This Dallas Cowboy superstar didn’t truly become a front man until the ripe old age of 29. After five years of service in Vietnam, and a couple years serving as a back-up, Roger Staubach finally got his chance in 1971. He certainly made up for lost time that year, showing little rust after playing almost no football since his Heisman trophy winning season in 1963. He was deadly that season, tearing apart team defenses with 104.8 passer rating, and a Superbowl ring, and MVP title. Staubach won another Superbowl in 1977, and was a dropped pass away from a third ring. It’s too bad this guy didn’t enjoy a full career right out of college. He could have put up some truly astonishing numbers for his era.
6 – Brett Favre
Arguably the most durable, consistent player the game has ever seen, Favre has done nothing but win in his incredible career. Though his single Superbowl ring might pale in comparison to the championship accomplishments of Bart Starr and Joe Montana, Favre did everything his team has asked of him and so much more. His 3 consecutive MVP awards are unmatched by anyone in the history of the sport. His 253 consecutive starts is as untouchable a record as exists in professional sports. He is the NFL record holder in almost every career offensive category including yards with a jaw-dropping 71,838, and touchdowns with 508. Yes, his exit from the NFL was less than graceful, but that doesn’t diminish what he accomplished in his amazing career.
5 – Peyton Manning
When he finally got his Superbowl ring in 2007, Peyton Manning cemented his spot as one of the top 10 NFL quarterbacks of all time. As MVP of that championship game, Manning finally proved wrong all those who said he wasn’t clutch performer. He holds a bevy of NFL records, and with over 64,000 yards passing, and 491 touchdown passes he is poised to become the all-time leader in both of those categories in the next couple of years. Though he made his name with the Indianapolis Colts he has enjoyed an amazing renaissance with the Denver Broncos, coming back from a career-threatening neck injury and putting up the numbers he has is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
4 – Tom Brady
There is a good chance that by the time his career is done that Tom Brady will occupy the number one spot on this list. His numbers, along with his clutch performances, truly speak for themselves. In his first 7 full seasons, Brady already had better stats and more hardware that many greats who played twice as long, and though he hasn’t been quite as dominant in his second act he still routinely ranks among the best in the game in any given season. With three Superbowl rings, a 16-0 regular season, and a bevy of NFL records his list of achievements goes on and on. The top 3 should be looking over their shoulders because it is inevitable that Tom Brady will eclipse them.
3 – Fran Tarkenton
Another great quarterback who never managed to win the big game, Tarkenton is none-the-less highly deserving of a spot in the top 10. Though he never won a Superbowl ring, he did lead the Vikings to 3 championship games in the 1970s, and when he retired he was at or near the top all-time in nearly every passing category. During his career he racked up more than 47,000 yards rushing, and 342 touchdowns. However, his passing game was just part of the story. One of the game’s all-time great scrambling quarterbacks, Tarkenton managed to rush for 3,674 yards on his way to 32 touchdowns. Not too shabby.
2 – Bart Starr
The Packers have sure been blessed with a great legacy at the quarterback position, and many who follow both the team and the game in general might have put Bart Starr one spot higher on this list. With an incredible 5 championships and 2 Superbowl MVP titles, Starr, under the guidance of the great Vince Lombardi, was the arm that led the greatest dynasty in NFL history to dominance in the 1960s.
1 – Joe Montana
The throwing half of the greatest quarterback/receiver tandem in NFL history, Joe Montana should be nicknamed Superbowl Joe, because that was when he was at his absolute greatest. With 4 Superbowl rings (in 4 Superbowl appearances), 3 Superbowl MVP awards, and an astonishing 127.8 passer rating in Superbowl games, Joe Montana is as clutch a performer as has ever been seen in any sport. Sure, he had great regular season stats as well, but in the end he was all about winning championships, and that is the most telling mark of the NFL’s true greats.
Featured image by Keith Allison