The 10 Greatest Football Quarterbacks of All Time

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

NFL quarterbacks hold the most highly regarded position in all of sports. When they’re good, they’re stars in the eyes of the media and the world. When they’re great, their exploits become the stuff of legend. Most kids today would rather aspire to be a great NFL quarterback than the president of the United States. The players here are listed in alphabetical order.

Terry Bradshaw

Terry Bradshaw was really something in big games. He and Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers are the only quarterbacks to have led their teams to four Super Bowl championships. Bradshaw was voted the Super Bowl MVP twice with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Although he was the first player taken in the 1970 college draft, the Steelers didn’t immediately turn over the offense and the team to him. When the Steelers were ready to win, Bradshaw led them to an unprecedented four Super Bowl wins in a six-year period (1974 to 1979). In his two championship MVP performances, Bradshaw threw for 627 yards and six touchdowns.

Tom Brady

Nobody thought Tom Brady would amount to much more than a backup quarterback in the NFL. Brady was selected by the New England Patriots as the 199th pick all the way down in the 6th round of the NFL draft in 2000.

At the start of his rookie season with the Patriots, he was their fourth-string quarterback. By the end of the season, he was their backup behind Drew Bledsoe.

In 2001 Brady led the team to a first place finish in the AFC East and a berth in the playoffs. The Patriots eventually won the Super Bowl in dramatic fashion over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams. At that point, Brady was a star, and his career as one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks would continue for more than a decade.

As of the 2014 season, Brady and the Patriots have appeared in seven Super Bowls, winning four.

John Elway

The son of a college football coach, John Elway was known as a great athlete as early as his high school days. Elway played his entire NFL career with the Denver Broncos (though he was initially drafted in 1983 by the Baltimore Colts, who subsequently traded him to Denver).

Elway brought the Broncos to the Super Bowl again in the 1987 and 1989 seasons, but in both games, the Broncos suffered blowout defeats. After eight years of continued greatness, Elway led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl victory after the 1997 season.

The Broncos won the Super Bowl the following season as well, after which Elway retired. The two championships at the end of his great career erased the sting of three earlier Super Bowl losses.

Otto Graham

Otto Graham is the only professional quarterback to lead his team, the Cleveland Browns, to ten consecutive championship games. Graham’s teams won more than 83 percent of their games during his career.

The only knock on Graham and his Browns was that they played in the All-America Football Conference for four years, a league considered inferior to the NFL.

But after Graham and the Browns joined the NFL, their successes continued. In the Browns’ 30–28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950 championship game, Graham passed for four touchdowns. In the 1954 title game against Detroit, Graham passed for three touchdowns and also ran for three touchdowns. In his final season, Graham led the Browns to another title, again beating the Rams.

Peyton Manning

The son of NFL quarterback Archie Manning, Peyton Manning was destined for greatness. He led the University of Tennessee to the SEC championship during his senior season, and he was runner-up to win the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious award in all of college football. He was drafted number one overall in the 1998 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, and he immediately became their starting quarterback.

Even though the Colts had a record of 3–13 during his rookie season, Manning showed that he was a top NFL quarterback, setting several records for passing by a rookie. As Manning’s career progressed with the Colts, the team became one of the best in the NFL. From 1998 to 2010, the Colts with Manning as quarterback won eight division champions and two AFC championships. Manning and the Colts appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one in 2007.

Manning’s career took an abrupt turn in 2011. After a neck injury and multiple surgeries, he was unable to play for the Colts the entire 2011 season. Despite being the premier player of a successful franchise for over a decade, he and the Colts decided to part ways. Manning signed with the Denver Broncos in 2012 and led them to an AFC championship and a Super Bowl appearance in 2014.

Manning’s consistently great play throughout his entire career puts him at or near the top of the list of all-time great quarterbacks. He and Tom Brady, who have played against each other numerous times, are considered the best of their generation.

Dan Marino

Dan Marino was the last quarterback selected in the first round of the great 1983 draft class that included John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Tony Eason.

Marino became the Dolphin’s starting quarterback midway through his rookie season. In just his second season, Marino set records for most yards and touchdowns thrown as he propelled the Dolphins to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the San Francisco 49ers. Marino would never return to the Super Bowl, but his 17-year career with the Dolphins was notable for his consistent excellence.

Joe Montana

Joe Montana was a tremendously accurate passer — his all-time passing accuracy was 63.2 percent, and he once completed 22 consecutive passes.

Although he appeared thin in build, Montana was a tough quarterback. After major back surgery in 1986, he returned to perform some of his greatest feats. His most productive seasons were in 1987 and 1989, the latter of which culminated in a 92-yard scoring drive to win Super Bowl XXIII in the final seconds.

Montana was named the Super Bowl MVP a record three times, and in his last two playoff runs to Super Bowl titles, Montana passed for 19 touchdowns with just one interception.

Fran Tarkenton

Mobile quarterbacks are common in the NFL now, but the first great one was Fran Tarkenton, who played for the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants. Drafted by the Vikings in 1961, Tarkenton play was characterized by his ability to evade pass rushers and extend plays, gaining yardage by both running and throwing.

Tarkenton earned the nickname “Scrambin’ Fran” playing for the Vikings from 1961 to 1967 and again from 1972 to 1978 after a stint with the Giants. In the 1970s, he and the Vikings appeared in three Super Bowls but lost all three. When Tarkenton retired, he held the records for most throwing yards, most rushing yards, most completions, and most touchdowns by a quarterback. Almost 40 years later, his numbers in each of those categories are still in the top ten all time.

Johnny Unitas

Johnny Unitas wasn’t the first great quarterback in the NFL, but he was arguably the first star.

Unitas’ career in the NFL began inauspiciously. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round in 1955, but he was never given a chance to play. He left pro football and worked construction, playing semi-professional football on weekends.

In 1956, the Baltimore Colts gave Unitas a chance. He began as a backup but became a starter due to an injury to George Shaw. His first few games were shaky, but he came into his own by the end of the season. In 1957, Unitas led the NFL in passing yards and helped the Colts to their first-ever winning season.

Unitas and the Colts won NFL championships in 1958 and 1959. Unitas and the Colts lost the Super Bowl after the 1968 season but rebounded to win the Super Bowl after the 1970 season.

Steve Young

Steve Young excelled as quarterback for Brigham Young University. Young first signed with the now defunct USFL (United States Football League) after leaving college in 1984. In 1985, he joined the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won a total of four games in their two seasons with Young on their roster. In 1987, Young was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, which already had a great quarterback playing for them, Joe Montana.

But injuries to Montana allowed Young opportunities to play, and he took advantage. After strong performances by Young in the early 1990s, the 49ers eventually decided to trade Joe Montana, and Young became their starter. Young led the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory after the 1994 season. He holds the record for the highest career quarterback rating (96.8) and has the second most career yards rushing by a quarterback.