Greatest NFL Quarterbacks, Revisited


Because I love sports and numbers, and the intersection of the two, I did a statistical analysis three years ago to determine who was the greatest QB of all time.  This won’t be a long post, but to review, my scoring system relied on two things: passer rating relative to other QBs playing in the era of the QB in question, and championship games played in and won.  This married objective statistics with that highly-overrated category of “did he win a Super Bowl” in determining who was the best of all time.  A brief disclaimer: this system doesn’t–indeed no system can–identify with perfect accuracy who the greatest QB is.  What it can do, and do very well, I think, is let us know who ought to be (Len Dawson and Sammy Baugh, for instance)–and who ought not to be (John Elway and Brett Favre, for instance)–in the conversation, and the relative rankings of each.

The system gave 1 point for finishing in the top half of all eligible passers in a given year, another point for finishing in the top quarter, and a third point for being the NFL’s top-rated passer in a given year.  I gave one more bonus point for that rare, off-the-charts season wherein there was a greater gap between positions 1 and 2 than between positions 2 and 5.  That’s happened 4-5 times in NFL history, if memory serves.  Then, I gave a point for appearing in the league championship game, and another point for winning the thing.  The idea of all of this, of course, is to eliminate the subjective (“Brett Favre plays the game with grit and verve”), and look purely at results.

And thus, without further ado, the up-to-the-minute point totals of the top 20 NFL quarterbacks of all time:

  1. Joe Montana                                     35
  2. Sammy Baugh                                   32
  3. Otto Graham                                     31
  4. Len Dawson                                       30
  5. Bart Starr                                             30
  6. Johnny Unitas                                   28
  7. Fran Tarkenton                                 28
  8. Sid Luckman                                       28
  9. Peyton Manning                              28
  10. Roger Staubach                             24
  11. Bob Griese                                         23
  12. Ken Anderson                                   23
  13. Brett Favre                                         23
  14. Steve Young                                      22
  15. Dan Marino                                        22
  16. Kurt Warner                                       20
  17. Y.A. Tittle                                            19
  18. John Elway                                         18
  19. Charlie Conerly                               18
  20. Tom Brady                                          18

Four more words: first, note where Peyton Manning finds himself currently.  Though he did himself no favors by failing to win the Super Bowl last evening, it’s still true that Peyton will, if he leads the league in passing once more and wins a second Super Bowl, already be tied for second all-time by this analysis.  It is safe to assume, given his age and his playing level, that when it’s all said and done, Peyton Manning is likely to supplant Joe Montana from the top of the list.

Second, as I said, this doesn’t say definitively that “Joe Montana is the greatest QB of all time”, though I think a strong case can be made for that.  My personal, subjective opinion is the Otto Graham holds that distinction, and the best evidence I can give is this: currently, Otto Graham ranks 16th in all-time passer rating.  That may not sound impressive until you realize how grossly slanted that system is toward QBs who are currently playing the game.  Quick, without looking, who would you guess is the current leader?  I’ll tell you that at the end of the column.  Eight of the all-time Top Ten are active today, Steve Young and Joe Montana being the only exceptions.  At any rate, Otto Graham played and retired before I was born (1960).  The greatest testament to Graham’s greatness is the difference between him and the second-highest-rated passer who retired before I was born: Sid Luckman.  Sid Luckman ranks 97th in all-time QB rating.  Incidentally, Graham is tied with Brett Favre for 16th–and that places Favre 14th among current passers.  So much for Favre being the greatest QB of all time…

Third, remember that all this system does is suggest who ought to be in the discussion, and roughly where those folks would rank.  Ken Anderson, for instance, far and away the most underrated QB of all time, had roughly as good a career as Dan Marino (who played in one less Super Bowl than did Anderson; neither won one); Anderson was a significantly better QB than Joe Namath, who roughly grades out as Marc Bulger in panty hose with a big mouth and a girl on each arm.

Finally, if you’re wondering who among active QBs could break onto this list soon, Drew Brees now has 14 points, which ties Ben Roethlisberger; Donovan McNabb has 13.  It seems likely to me that Big Ben will prove to be easily a top 20 all-time QB, and perhaps even a top 10, by the time his still young career is over.  My guess is that Brees will land toward the bottom of that top 20.  Having played as long as he has, though, McNabb isn’t going to make the list–frankly, he’s near the top end of “average NFL quarterbacks”.

Oh, the current all-time NFL passing leader is Aaron Rodgers.  Yep.


  1. Don on February 9, 2010 at 11:25 am

    How bout a point for being the league MVP? Wouldn’t that be an important ingredient in greatness? That fact alone would bump Payton Manning up a few ticks.

    • Byron on February 9, 2010 at 4:47 pm

      I thought about that, and it’s not an invalid consideration, but the problem is that it introduces the subjective element into the whole thing that I wanted to avoid. The MVP is an award voted on, subject to the prejudices of the voters; nothing in my system is subjective at all, and that’s what I’m looking at. Theoretically, the MVP is the best player in a given year, but I know from watching baseball as long as I have that the MVP Award is often a joke in MLB (Kirk Gibson, 1989, comes to mind), and though I haven’t noticed that to be as much the case with the NFL, that possibility still exists.

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