Spoiler alert: it’s probably–finally–Tom Brady. I hate saying that, and I’m still not completely convinced it’s true, because (as I explain below) I think people use the wrong measuring stick to determine such things, but the cumulative evidence, as determined by a system I developed a few years ago, points to Old Tom finally this year ascending to the top spot.

For the uninitiated, one of my sports interests is the question of greatness. I love discussions about who belongs in the Hall of Fame and who doesn’t (well, only for two sports, really, baseball and football; I couldn’t care less about the NBA and don’t know much about hockey). Further for those uninitiated, I have a system I’ve been using for the better part of a decade to try to answer the question, “who is the greatest QB of all time?” By the way, when I say Tom Brady is the GOAT, I restrict that to QB; I maintain my belief that the greatest football player of all time is Jerry Rice…but I digress.

My system is explained thusly: I’m going to give one point for every QB that finished the season ranked in the top half of passer rating for that given season. In other words, if there are 32 teams in the NFL, QBs ranked in the top 16 get a point. QBs ranked in the top quarter (8 in this scenario) get another point. The passing champion gets a third point. Then, if the passing champion leads the second-place finisher by more than the second-place finisher leads the fifth-place finisher, I’m going to give a bonus point for an off-the-charts exceptional season. I’m going to give the championship winning QB two points, and the championship losing QB one point. Thus, the most a QB can get in a given season is 6 points.

Now, a few explanatory thoughts: one, I grant that the QB rating system used by the NFL (not the newer “QBR”) is complicated, impossible to understand, and rewards QB “perfection” with the statistically-weird total of 158.3. It’s weird, I get it…but that doesn’t change the fact that it does rank quarterbacks by the right sorts of things, such that it’s fair to say that, generally-speaking, the best passer in a given year is the guy with the best rating. Since we have no other real way to rate QBs since the beginning of the league, it’s what we have to go with. Two, though Brady now has the most points using my system, I don’t believe that we can look at the point totals and say that the point total rankings determines definitively the positions in order of each QB. I would not dare be so arrogant. What I will say, though, is that we get via this system a decent rank order in the sense of we can say roughly who the “Top Ten” are, who belongs on the second or third tier, etc. Via my system, for instance, we learn that there’s no way we can consider John Elway or Brett Favre as the greatest QBs of all time; neither really belongs in the discussion (in fact, by my system, it’s clear that Favre may only be the third-best PACKER QB of all time). Three, there is no perfect way to compare players across eras. “Babe Ruth wouldn’t hit 60 home runs against today’s pitching”. Well, first, you don’t KNOW that, but you’re just speculating; second, it’s irrelevant. The only fair way to rank players is to compare them to their contemporaries and to ask, “how much better was Sammy Baugh than other QBs of his era, and was he “more better” than Joe Namath (answer: by leaps and bounds)?” My system operates on this basis, because there’s no other way to be objective about it. Four (and mercifully, finally), it really does no good to look at the all-time NFL passer ratings and use that to tell us much of anything, because it reflects the significant ways the game has changed. For fun, try to select the right five out of the following passers who are in the all-time top 20 in passer rating: Matt Schaub, Chad Pennington, Kirk Cousins, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, Dan Marino, Roger Staubach, Jim Kelly, Len Dawson, Troy Aikman. You are correct if you said the first five rather than the Hall-of-Famers. Point taken?

Now, before the current rankings and my subjective takes on those rankings, I offer this brief discursus on why I utterly disagree with, yea despise, what I see as the simplistic reasoning which dominates the talk of who the GOAT is (even though I make SOME concession to this reasoning, as the above explanation of my system makes clear). I find it preposterous to count the number of titles won by a QB and on that basis declare said QB the “GOAT”. Yes, I give that stat a place in my system, but I’m still not convinced I haven’t given too much consideration to it. Take away championships appeared in and won, and Peyton Manning actually comes out a little ahead of Brady. While I do think that, all things being equal, winning a championship matters a bit, it’s value is overstated, and for this reason: football is the ULTIMATE team sport. If we were talking golf or bowling, then yes, winning a championship matters more than most anything else, but we aren’t; we are talking about a sport in which a QB is only on the field for, at most, 50% of the plays. Practical examples abound: Aaron Rodgers would have another point (and possibly two) if a backup TE had recovered an onside kick. Aaron watched that play from the sidelines, and yet he is “blamed” by the “how many championships has he won” crowd because he still only has one ring. Peyton Manning would have one (and possibly two) more points if a combination of at least TWO things–neither of which he had any control over–hadn’t materialized: one, on third-and-seven and nursing a 7-point lead against the Ravens, needing only a first down to go to the Super Bowl, the brilliant Broncos coaching staff dialed up a run by a rookie RB rather than putting the success of a seven-yard-gain in the hands of ARGUABLY THE GOAT AT THE TIME. Then, after the Ravens get the ball back, a Broncos safety misplays a ball in a way coached against in MIDDLE SCHOOL to allow a WR to get behind him and tie the game. Manning “loses” one, and maybe two points, because of things out of his control. The greatest examples, though, involve three of Tom Brady’s Super Bowl victories; we can argue about whether or not he is the GOAT, but there’s no argument: Tom Brady is the luckiest QB of all time hands-down. Dear Tom is standing on the sidelines as the offensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks makes the dumbest play-call in Super Bowl history, handing the game to the Patriots. Not to be outdone, three years ago, Kyle Shanahan calls for a pass when three runs and a medium-range field goal (by the Falcons’ Pro Bowl kicker) would have won the game for the Falcons. This year, Tom doesn’t even MAKE the Super Bowl if Dee Ford doesn’t line up offsides late in the AFC Championship Game. And NONE of these things have anything whatever to do with either Tom’s strengths or deficiencies as a quarterback. Absent those three strokes of good luck on Tom’s part, and absent Peyton Manning’s stroke of bad luck, and Peyton has more points in my system (and possibly a third ring, which would under these circumstances MATCH Brady’s). The point of this entire paragraph is that there are so many things completely out of the control of a QB that “Super Bowls won” is a relatively poor way to rank QBs.

OK, all of that said, here are the top 28 QBs as rated by my system:

1. Tom Brady 42

2. Peyton Manning 38

3. Joe Montana 35

4. Sammy Baugh 32
5. Drew Brees 32

6. Otto Graham 31

7. Len Dawson 30
8. Bart Starr 30

9. Johnny Unitas 28
10. Fran Tarkenton 28
11. Sid Luckman 28

12. Ben Roethlisberger 27

13. Roger Staubach 24
14. Aaron Rodgers 24

15. Bob Griese 23
16. Ken Anderson 23
17. Brett Favre 23

18. Steve Young 22
19. Dan Marino 22

20. Kurt Warner 20

21. Y.A. Tittle 19
22. Jim Kelly 19

23. John Elway 18
24. Charlie Conerly 18
25. Philip Rivers 18

26. Terry Bradshaw 17
27. Norm Van Brocklin 17
28. Dan Fouts 17

Several observations and opinions: one, everyone on this list is either still playing or in the Hall-of-Fame save one–and he thus is, IMHO without question, the most underrated QB of all time: Ken Anderson. Anderson was an elite passer for a long time, but suffered by losing both of his Super Bowls and playing at the same time as Joe Montana. For the record, the far-and-away most OVER-rated QB of all time is Joe Namath, who gets 7 points in my system. Two, note that there are several QBs on the list currently playing, and the two toward the very top, Brady and Brees, have played longer than probably any of the old-timers. Since my system is cumulative rather than an average, today’s superior training techniques, etc., do mitigate a bit in favor of contemporary players. I see no way to compensate for this, though I suppose I could divide their total points by seasons-played and arrive at an average, but that’s too much work, and I do think there’s something to be said for longevity being SOME part of greatness. Had Otto Graham played five more years at a level at least near the one he established, there would be little discussion to be had: Otto would be the GOAT, hands-down. The fact that some of my readers might have never even heard of him ’tis indeed a pity. Of the top 40 in all-time passer rating, other than Graham, the oldest player retired in 1994 (Joe Montana). Otto (29th) retired almost FORTY YEARS EARLIER (1955). This is astonishing, and makes a good argument that Graham is the real GOAT. Note as well how highly Ben Roethlisberger ranks, 12th in my system and likely to jump into the top ten if he plays another year or two. He seems a certain Hall-of-Famer, but I doubt most people think of him as being this accomplished. But the fact is that he has played at a very high level for a good while and deserves his place among the elite. Most people don’t think of him as being better than Aaron Rodgers, and he may not be, but he’s certainly in his league (and has an extra ring, part of the reason he ranks a tad higher). Next, for the record, two active QBs who do not make this list are Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson. Each has 15 points and each would seem likely to finish in the 20s before they hang it up. That would seem to put each of them in line for the Hall, I would think, though particularly Ryan just doesn’t FEEL to me like a Hall-of-Famer. His ticket to Canton may come down to what he does from here on out. Finally, I was surprised to see Philip Rivers make this list. I do not see him as a Hall-of-Famer, but he is at least borderline. His lack of playoff success hurts him–but as I said above, I think that’s overrated.

Finally, taking my system into account, but also remembering that it’s not perfect, and allowing for some subjectivity to creep in, here are my top-ten QBs of all time:

1. Tom Brady
2. Otto Graham
3. Peyton Manning
4. Joe Montana
5. Johnny Unitas
6. Sammy Baugh
7. Drew Brees
8. Bart Starr
9. Len Dawson
10. I didn’t see Sid Luckman play, and I didn’t ever like Fran Tarkenton, so who knows. MAYBE I’d stretch a good bit for Brett Favre?

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