It’s easy to become puzzled when examining the value of NFL quarterbacks. On the one hand, top QBs are seen as the CEOs of the offenses of their clubs, and the best signal callers in the league are paid the big bucks. Because of multiple teams finding franchise quarterbacks outside of the first round (Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson to name only a few), there is a growing belief around the league that reaching for a QB with the first overall pick of any draft is no longer necessary.
When teams have hit on a QB with the top pick of a draft, it has meant good things for player and for club. For the busts like Tim Couch and JaMarcus Russell, Super Bowl champions and Hall of Fame quarterbacks have been selected first overall. It’s possible that the likes of Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and perhaps a QB selected in May 2014 (Johnny Manziel, anyone?) could find themselves on this list sooner than later.
10. Michael Vick: Atlanta Falcons, 2001
Vick is maybe the biggest “what if?” player of his era. What if Vick would have learned to trust his arm, which he never got enough credit for from armchair analysts, instead of relying too heavily on his legs? What if Vick would have kept better company around him and thus stayed out of legal trouble?
It’s easy to remember Vick being injured throughout his career, and for his losing several years of his life due to his stupidity. Go back and watch Vick in his prime while with the Falcons, and then review his 2010 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. The talent was there, and that Vick was his own worst enemy is a shame.
9. Carson Palmer: Cincinnati Bengals, 2003
After learning the NFL from the sidelines at the start of his career, Palmer seemed destined for stardom and for greatness in 2005. He had more passing touchdowns that season (32) than did any other QB, and he led the Bengals to a 11-5 record. Palmer would go on to survive serious knee and arm injuries while in Cincy, but he was never able to take that next step into the elite tier of quarterbacks.
Palmer, currently with the Arizona Cardinals, is in the twilight of his career. It’s possible that he could be replaced by a rookie as soon as this fall. Were that to happen, Palmer will likely retire having never won a conference championship.
8. Vinny Testaverde: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1987
Despite the fact that his win-loss record as a starting NFL quarterback is lousy, Testaverde was an ageless wonder. The two-time Pro Bowl QB appeared in at least one regular season game every season from 1987 to 2007, and his longevity led to Testaverde being in the top-ten in the following statistics: Passes completed, pass attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns and career game-winning drives.
The football gods were not always kind to Testaverde. He played on some terrible Tampa Bay teams. He was with the Cleveland Browns when owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore. 1999 was supposed to be a banner year for Testaverde and the New York Jets, but he tore his Achilles tendon in the first game of that regular season.
He never won a title, but Testaverde was an NFL mainstay for two decades.
7. Drew Bledsoe: New England Patriots, 1993
Bledsoe will forever go down as the guy who was replaced by Tom Brady. Brady, of course, has gone on to have a Hall-of-Fame career that has included several Super Bowl runs, while Bledsoe last played in 2006, a largely forgettable second season with the Dallas Cowboys.
People easily forget that Bledsoe was, in his day, one of the better QBs in the league. He twice led the NFL in total completions. He was named to four Pro Bowl squads. Bledsoe made decent teams good and good teams contenders, and that he wasn’t Brady isn’t a reason to keep him off of this list.
6. Jim Plunkett: New England Patriots, 1971
Plunkett never lived up to the lofty expectations had for him when he was drafted in ’71, and his New England career was, for the most part, forgettable. It appeared as if he was set to end his playing days as an afterthought when fortune smiled upon Plunkett in 1980, as he was given the Oakland Raiders starting role after Dan Pastorini broke his leg.
Plunkett didn’t waste the opportunity. The Raiders won nine of 11 games with Plunkett in the starting lineup, and Oakland would go on to win the Super Bowl, with Plunkett taking MVP honors for that contest. History repeated itself three years later when Plunkett, again called in from reserve duty, helped guide the Raiders to Super Bowl XVIII glory.
5. Eli Manning: San Diego Chargers, 2004
Manning and the Chargers was a partnership that was never meant to be. San Diego was well aware of that before the first night of the ’04 draft, as the team had already struck a deal with the New York Giants for Manning’s services.
The professional career of the younger Manning has, to steal a phrase from Jon Gruden, been about peaks and valleys. Manning’s lows (see his 2013 season) have been downright awful. His highs, most notably those two Super Bowl-winning drives and two Super Bowl MVP Awards, have Manning in the record books.
Manning has his haters, but every one of them are in denial if they don’t realize that he is the greatest quarterback in the history of the Giants. One final tidbit: Manning could be one more championship run away from guaranteeing himself a spot in Canton.
4. John Elway: Baltimore Colts, 1983
I have, in the past, found myself debating Elway‘s rightful spot in lists such as this one. His greatness as a player is undeniable. More than a few smart football people I know and trust believe Elway to be the best quarterback of his era and maybe the best QB to ever play in the NFL.
This list is not, however, merely about the best all-time quarterbacks and what they personally achieved. Elway never played a down for the Colts, and Baltimore did not receive equal value for the player when they traded him to the Denver Broncos.
3. Troy Aikman: Dallas Cowboys, 1989
Much of my adolescence was spent watching Aikman and the Cowboys tear it up against the NFC. He had plenty of help along the way. Running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin are both all-time greats, and those Dallas defenses are grossly underrated by far too many observers.
None of that is mentioned to discredit what Aikman meant to the three teams that won Super Bowls with him under center. Aikman was the best QB in the league in 1992, but concussion problems that likely began earlier than any of us knew at the time kept him from being the quarterback that he could have been. That’s a noteworthy statement to make considering all that Aikman achieved during his playing career.
2. Terry Bradshaw: Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970
While I was raised to root for the Cleveland Browns, I always found Bradshaw to be a fascinating case. His NFL career got off to a rather rocky start, as he tossed a league-high 24 interceptions in his rookie campaign. Bradshaw was erratic, and his football and overall intelligence was questioned by analysts and by fans.
That ridicule all seems silly now knowing what Bradshaw became. He helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl titles, and Bradshaw twice won Super Bowl MVP honors. Even with all of his success, you rarely hear Bradshaw’s name mentioned during discussions about the best QBs in NFL history, due in part to the talent that was on those Pittsburgh teams.
That’s awfully unfair, as you could do a lot worse for a one-off than having Bradshaw lead your offense onto the field.
1. Peyton Manning: Indianapolis Colts, 1998
There will, even long after he calls time on his playing career, be plenty of discussions on Manning‘s place in history, especially if he never again hoists the Vince Lombardi trophy. It’s entirely possible that I, a football fan of nearly three decades, am showing my age here, but I view Manning as the greatest regular season quarterback to ever play in the NFL. That, along with the fact that he excelled for that club that drafted him for as long as he did, propels Manning to the top of this list.
What’s odd about fans being quick to downgrade Manning because of his playoff record is that those same critics won’t and don’t bring up the championships won – more specifically the titles not won – by Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. The record books and his trophy case tell all you need to know about Manning, who is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.