The difficulty in trying to compare athletes from different eras is circumstances change. Integration. Training methods. Rules. The game itself (how many three-receiver sets did Otto Graham use?)
So yes, trying to rank the all-time top 10 quarterbacks is a set up for debate. But with the Super Bowl next week, there is little question that Peyton Manning has a chance to leap to the top, or at least near it. He has led Indianapolis into the title game for the second time. His team – hardly the NFL’s most talented – might be 18-0 if it didn’t use the final two weeks of the regular season for nap time.
Quarterbacks can’t be measured just on statistics, or for that matter just on titles. It comes down to this: Who would you want to have the ball with the game on the line?
For me, the answer is simple: Joe Montana. But if the Colts beat the Saints next week, Manning will jump to No. 2 on my list.
What made Montana so special? Former teammate Randy Cross said, “Some people lead vocally. Others lead with their presence and by example. That was Joe. At times it seemed like we had an unfair advantage, and we weren’t the only ones who felt that way. You looked across the line and saw it in the other teams’ eyes. We knew we were going to score, and they knew we were going to score.”
With that, here’s the top 10:
1. Joe Montana: As athletic specimens go, he looked more like a tall kicker than a legendary quarterback. But his leadership abilities and his cool under fire were unparalleled. Former Cincinnati wide receiver Cris Collinsworth put it best: “He’s not God but he’s definitely not human. He’s somewhere in between.” The big numbers: 4 Super Bowls, two MVPs.
2. Johnny Unitas: His first career pass as a rookie was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. The following year he led the league in yards and touchdowns and won the MVP award. The year after that, he won his first of three league titles, beating the New York Giants, 23-17, in what has been called the “greatest game ever played.” He also holds a record that may never be broken: 47 straight games with a touchdown pass.
3. Otto Graham: He led Cleveland to 10 straight league championship games, winning seven (four AAFC, three NFL). In the final game of his career, he threw for two TDs, ran for two more and led Cleveland past Los Angeles for the 1955 championship. So nobody could accuse him of hanging on too long. As a side note: Graham had to delay his career to serve in the military. His coach at the Coast Guard/Naval Academy: Bear Bryant.
4. Tom Brady: He replaced Drew Bledsoe (internal bleeding) in 2001, and four months later was leading New England to the first of three Super Bowls. Several obvious parallels with Montana, including skill set, demeanor, modest draft status and unlikely first championships. Not a ton of glossy numbers, but here’s two: most touchdowns in a regular season (50) and highest-ever completion percentage in a game (92.9 on 26-of-28 passing).
5. Dan Marino: No championships. So should we put Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson ahead of Marino? His numbers are just sick. He threw for over 61,000 yards and 420 touchdowns in 17 seasons. He owned almost every passing record when he retired. He went 147-93 (.612) as a starter, despite the fact his team never had a running game or a great defense. Key stat here: Holds the all-time record with 36 comeback wins. He made it to one Super Bowl – and lost to quarterback No. 1 on this list.
6. Peyton Manning: He always had talent. Now he’s also smarter than everybody else. He won his first Super Bowl three years ago, but those Colts had Marvin Harrison and were stronger on both sides of the ball. This Colts team? Average in so many ways, and they can’t run the ball. This season has been all about Manning’s intelligence and leadership.
7. John Elway: Elway excelled under pressure, particularly in the final minutes of games. Ask the Cleveland Browns. He led 47 game-winning or game-tying scoring drives at Denver. His 34 comeback wins – second to Marino and tied with Unitas and Manning. Unlike Marino, he won two Super Bowls but only after running back Terrell Davis got there. Elway gets the nod over Brett Favre for upsetting Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII.
8. Brett Favre: Prima donna tendencies aside, he just had the greatest season of his career: 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions. He’s won one Super Bowl but might’ve won more if not for moments like last week (late-game bad decision and interception at New Orleans). But to debate his greatness is just stupid. He’s won a title and three MVPs. He owns every major passing record, and this one: 285 consecutive starts (plus 20 playoffs). No quarterback ever has been tougher.
9. Terry Bradshaw: Only Montana matches Bradshaw’s four Super Bowls. It helped that Bradshaw had a great defense. His career numbers aren’t great: 212 TDs, 210 interceptions. But he wasn’t exactly devoid of skills, and he could lead. Someboydy had to throw those TD passes to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
10. Roger Staubach: Because of his military commitment, he didn’t begin his career until the age of 27. Then he won two Super Bowls (playing in four) and an MVP. Most memorable game: After missing most of the 1972 season with a separated shoulder, he replaced Craig Morton in a playoff game against San Francisco and threw two TD passes in the last 90 seconds to win the game, 30-28. Tom Landry called him, “possibly the best combination of a passer, an athlete and a leader to ever play in the NFL.”