Montana still all-time greatest quarterback, but Manning close

joe-montana.xxivThe 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:

Johnny Unitas threw touchdowns in 47 straight games.

Johnny Unitas threw touchdowns in 47 straight games.

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.

Tom Brady has held this trophy three times.

Tom Brady has held this trophy three times (and counting).

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.

Super Bowl No. 2 moves Peyton Manning to No. 2 on this list.

Super Bowl No. 2 moves Peyton Manning to No. 2 on this list.

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.”

147 comments Add your comment

Bat Masterson

January 29th, 2010
5:47 pm

ha First, been awhile.

Bat Masterson

January 29th, 2010
5:48 pm

Bat Masterson

January 29th, 2010
5:49 pm

Bat Masterson

January 29th, 2010
5:49 pm

Bat Masterson

January 29th, 2010
5:53 pm

Whoa, this is a football blog, lousy analogy, never mind.

T Barnes

January 29th, 2010
5:53 pm

Edge was not on the SB team.

ben

January 29th, 2010
5:54 pm

I’ll take Troy Aikman over Terry Bradshaw anytime. Trent Dilfer could have won 4 rings with that defense. 212

PK

January 29th, 2010
5:56 pm

Yeah Jeff, Edge left the summer before that season. Indy drafted Joe Addai and used him and Dominic Rhodes that year.

ben

January 29th, 2010
5:58 pm

212 tds 210 ints, can you say average?

ASHEVILLE DAWG

January 29th, 2010
6:10 pm

falcon71

January 29th, 2010
6:16 pm

johnny u hands down

Jeff Schultz

January 29th, 2010
6:17 pm

Alright, Bat Masterson, don’t get cocky.

Cherokee

January 29th, 2010
6:18 pm

nobody cares

Jeff Schultz

January 29th, 2010
6:18 pm

PK — See above. Fixed. Thanks.

Jeff Schultz

January 29th, 2010
6:18 pm

TBarnes — Yeah thanks, I edited that out soon after posting. Forget he had moved on right before Super Bowl year. A story I’m sure he won’t be telling his grandkids about one day.

Tom

January 29th, 2010
6:19 pm

Peyton Manning is by far the greatest quarterback that ever played. He revolutionized the position. Montana had Rice to throw to plus a great coaching staff a great run game and a great defense. Manning has nothing to throw to, he makes his receivers great. Manning is winning with nothing, no running game the worst in the NFL, no receivers, no coach, no offensive line,no defense. This guy is the greatest athlete of our lifetime hands down.You know why Dungy doesn’t coach any more, Peyton fired him.

Jeff Schultz

January 29th, 2010
6:19 pm

Ben — I wouldn’t argue over Aikman as a top 10. But what’s he without Irvin, Emmitt and that OL? It’s a good argument either way?

ASHEVILLE DAWG

January 29th, 2010
6:24 pm

Jeff if you had led the Steelers in those days, you would have been a hof’er? Poor old Terry looks better in hind sight than when he played the game. Look at how many Hall Of Famers were on those Steelers teams. Any one who was lucky enough to be the QB was bound to look good. Swann,Stallworth, Franco Harris, Lambert, Joe Greene, Jack Ham. Whoa. It is like saying Leo Mazzone was the great pitching coach,oh wait , he had Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz as the base. If he was so great what happened to the Baltimore O’s?

Paul in RDU

January 29th, 2010
6:48 pm

Jeff – I can’t argue with the list in general and I certainly won’t argue with Joe Montana at #1.
You probably should have dropped Bradshaw down a few notches just for him saying last Sunday that Favre was the greatest QB to play the game.

Reid Adair

January 29th, 2010
6:53 pm

Solid list, Jeff. With that list, I would agree that Peyton Manning moves to No. 2 when the Colts beat the Saints next weekend.

mr charlie

January 29th, 2010
6:57 pm

What about Kurt Warner? He has a ring, played in 3 superbowls with questionable talent around him, and hold several post season records.

juvenal

January 29th, 2010
6:57 pm

4 rings is 4 rings-what is any QB without 10 other guys? dead meat!don’t care nothin’ bout no nfl team, but can count to 4…

Boise Dawg

January 29th, 2010
6:58 pm

Jeff,

Hard to argue with the list… and I can’t believe I am saying this as I was a huge Montana and 49er fan growing up. Question though after reading the Elway and Bradshaw comments…. didn’t Montana have a LOT of help around him? Those 49er teams (especially 89) were on another planet. Ronnie Lot, Keena Turner, Roger Craig, Brent Jones, John Taylor, Jerry Rice, Tom Rathman, Bill Romanowski (pro bowlers at almost every position)… Heck Steve Young was the freakin backup quaterback. Remember how well Steve Young played as a reserve? Then he ended up winning a title of his own… Montana was great, maybe the greatest, but I think there are a lot of guys on this list that would have been just as successful with the supporting cast he had.

HardTruthSoldier ..

January 29th, 2010
7:04 pm

Did all yalll miss the cover of that SI, you know Joe is jumping into the arm of the Greatest Guard UGA ever had. Guy McIntyre. That is why Joe was good, with Dawgs blocking for you like tha!

ben

January 29th, 2010
7:04 pm

Jeff….Bradshaw stats are just too average to be in the top ten. Though I admit that I never saw him play.

billcanoe

January 29th, 2010
7:19 pm

I have watched professional football for 61 years and have seen all of the above play numerous times. amazingly, I would agree with your rankings for the most part, except that I would place Tom Brady #2. The most impressive thing about Brady is that he hardly ever makes a mistake. He is always out-thinking the other team and he would have 4 rings if not for the fact that he led his team down the field TOO FAST to score in that incredible game with the Giants, leaving Eli and the Giants enough time to score, especially after David Tyree”s miracle catch. That Patriots team, by the way, is the greatest NFL team of all time, in my estimation. (The Lombardi Packers of the 60’s and the Steelers of the 70’s are 2 and 3.)
Peyton is a very very good QB, but he has a long way to go to catch Montana, Brady and Unitas.

Whopper Dawg

January 29th, 2010
7:23 pm

Since his incredible run this year, and the comparisons as above – Manning really has shot up my personal grading of QBs due to not only what he has done, but what he has done it with.

Montana had all-pros and even other hall of famers all over his teams.
Ditto Bradshaw and Aikman and Staubach.

I agree Manning is getting real close. He wins this year and one more – he is on the top. This Colt team and most would go maybe 500 without him.

Dr. Phil

January 29th, 2010
7:24 pm

Unitas called his own plays.

Ken Stallings

January 29th, 2010
7:29 pm

Montana and Bradshaw both had excellent teams around them. Bradshaw’s arm won two of those four Super Bowls. Further, a strong argument can be made that the level of competition those Steeler teams was greater than what San Francisco faced. Remember, most years, the Steelers had to beat an Oakland or Houston team that had the talent to win the Super Bowl themselves. This was an era where the AFC dominated the Super Bowl.

Unitas might be the one I think is ranked a bit too high. I might slide him down to around 7-8. I also don’t think Brady can be ranked above Bradshaw. I agree with ranking Marino as high as you do, and he’s the one noteworthy exception to the mandate to win a title.

If Peyton wins that will only make two titles. I would have a hard time justifying placing him above QB’s such as Montana and Bradshaw.

Tom

January 29th, 2010
7:34 pm

What do you think Manning does? He’s the coach. Also, Brady was wrapped up in the whole spy gate issue. Who know’s how many Super Bowls he stole.

Tom

January 29th, 2010
7:39 pm

Yo Ken how many Super Bowls is a grade school argument. Bart Starr I believe won six Championships, two were Super Bowls. His name was never mentioned. Remember there was football before the Super Bowl.

Ken Stallings

January 29th, 2010
7:51 pm

Personally I think Bart Starr should have been rated in the top ten. My personal list would be:

1. Joe Montana
2. Terry Bradshaw
3. Otto Graham
4. Bart Starr
5. Dan Marino
6. Peyton Manning
7. Brett Favre
8. John Elway
9. Johnny Unitas
10. Tom Brady

I don’t put Staubach in the top ten list. He was excellent, but he doesn’t belong in the top ten list in my view, and I believe all those listed are clearly better than he was. If Manning wins this Super Bowl, then in my view he vaults to the number four slot and the list readjusts accordingly.

"Chef" Tim Dix

January 29th, 2010
8:00 pm

Morino’s teams were bad. Put Payton on them and they win. He’s that good

"Chef" Tim Dix

January 29th, 2010
8:03 pm

It’s easy to say “Big Sky” had talent around him but Montana made players better too. Just like Peyton.

Bravissimo

January 29th, 2010
8:12 pm

Shultz…I pretty much agree with you, but its hard to take you seriously when your photo is up there by the cheetah lounge with an ad for a “Man Brunch”…lol

BugKiller

January 29th, 2010
8:15 pm

@ Ken Stallings:

You give Bradshaw credit over Montana because of the AFC teams Bradshaw had to beat (Miami, Houston, Oakland).

Okay. Here’s who Montana had to beat on a regular basis to GET to the Super Bowl:

Da Bears of Ditka and Ryan. Wow. What a freaking DEFENSE.

The Giants of Taylor (the REAL LT), Harry Carson, Phil Simms, and Bill Parcells.

The Eagles of Cunningham, Cris Carter, and Reggie White.

The high-powered LA Rams.

The no-name Redskins teams under Joe Gibbs (3 SBs with 3 different QBs).

In fact, it was the New York Giants in 1990, with one of the best defenses in NFL history, who would shut down two of the best offenses in NFL history (Montana and the 49ers, and the Bills K-Gun Attack) who pretty much ended Montana’s SanFran career in the NFC Championship Game, denying the best possibly chance for a three-peat Super Bowl Champion… ever.

I’m sorry… but Montana faced, in the NFC, FAR better competition than Bradshaw EVER did in the AFC.

GoVols

January 29th, 2010
8:17 pm

Peyton Manning is the greatest qb since the 70’s without question. The Patriots were 10-6/11-5 without Brady…what would the Colts be without Peyton? It’s not about scheme, or system. It’s Manning. He made Harrison, he made Clark, Collie, Garcon, etc. What quarterback has ever done so much for receivers? You could argue Marino, Montana possibly for their impact on their teams. But Young replaced Montana with good results. Marino didn’t take the Dolphins to the SB.

Tom

January 29th, 2010
9:21 pm

Put Bradshaw,Staubach,Montana,or any of the great QB’s on the colts and they don’t even make the playoffs. That’s how great Peyton Manning is.

Tom

January 29th, 2010
9:24 pm

Peyton Manning is so far above and beyond these other quaterbacks it’s not even funny. He has done so much with so little.

TG

January 29th, 2010
9:30 pm

Schultz your guy for pres is going to change college football. What a leader!

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/football/ncaa/01/29/obama.bcs.ap/index.html?xid=si_ncaaf

jimmy

January 29th, 2010
9:45 pm

when qb was measured by who do you want handling the ball calling the plays; running the huddle and not giving a damn about being second guessed don’t forget bobby layne,sonny j.stabler.y.a. but johnny u is #1

Delbert D.

January 29th, 2010
10:39 pm

Montana is a good choice for #1.

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RLH

January 29th, 2010
11:13 pm

My top 10:

1- Joe Montana
2- Tom Brady
3- Peyton Manning
4- John Elway
5- Brett Farve
6- Dan Marino
7- Johnny Unitas
8- Kurt Warner
9- Troy Aikmen
10- Otto Graham

I really believe it is hard to compare QB’s from different era’s but it is still a good discussion. I really enjoyed watching guys like Dan Fouts and Steve Young who would have been 11th and 12th on my list.

Archie

January 29th, 2010
11:51 pm

I wish I could say that I got to watch this guy play, but he’s before all of our times… but let’s get some love for Sammy Baugh. The man invented the QB position long before QB’s were even passers. He was the first gunslinger, he was Brett Favre minus the interceptions.. even before Brett Favre’s parents were conceived.

Willy

January 30th, 2010
12:07 am

Thats the second time in a week I’ve seen some fool try and rate Aikman in the top 10. Whatever with that. Terry Bradshaw probably doesn’t belong on the list either, for the same reasons Aikman didn’t make Schultz’s list. Unitas aside, I think this list was probably a little too laden with modern and almost modern era players. But who ever saw Sammy Baugh play?

David

January 30th, 2010
12:12 am

I’ll take Steve Young over Joe Montana any day. Just like the 49rs did when they dumped Joe.

Smith

January 30th, 2010
1:33 am

Sports fans tend to have very short memories. Montana took a team that was one of the worst in sports (2-14 for two straight season when he was drafted) and turned it into football’s elite franchise for nearly two decades. He won two super bowls WITHOUT Jerry Rice. His ‘81 and ‘89 Championship teams had two of the top four worst running games statistically of any superbowl winner (the great Ricky Patton was the lead rusher in ‘81 with 530 yards). He dismantled the two other great QB’s of his time in the Super Bowl (Marino and Elway). And has 11 TD passes 0 int in the Super Bowl. Oh, and took a terrible team in KC deep into the playoffs at 37 years of age, a different “system”, and with receivers named JJ Birden and William Davis. There is only one Joe Montana and Manning has a long way to go to eclipse him.

DLENCO

January 30th, 2010
1:53 am

Montana the only 3 time super bowl MVP 4 super bowls: no picks AND TOM Montana won 2 supwr bowls before Rice was even in the league

James Adams

January 30th, 2010
4:11 am

Any top ten list that includes Dan Marino is immediately dismissed in my eyes.