Few positions in any sport are more vital to a team’s success than the quarterback is in football. A center midfielder in soccer and a goalie in hockey are two positions that might equal the quarterback’s importance. Aside from a few notable exceptions over the years, a team’s success starts and stops with the quarterback. A good quarterback does not make mistakes that undermine a team’s success. A great quarterback manages the offense, maintains poise under pressure, makes lucid reads, and throws the ball accurately and effectively. Indeed, every dynasty in pro football has a great quarterback at the helm.
Given the media’s tendency to bloviate and over-analyze every down of every game, there has been a good deal of talk over the years about what makes a great quarterback. However, there is no specific DNA involved in becoming a great quarterback, as every QB has their own strategy and style of play. Brett Favre was great because of his fearlessness, but Peyton Manning is great because of his studious approach. Joe Montana managed games, and Steve Young had a singular ability to make something out of nothing. The only thing that unites the motley group of great quarterbacks is on-field success, and as the league becomes increasingly pass-happy, the spotlight will continue to shine brighter upon them.
This list looks at the top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history. It considers statistical dominance and team success, giving more weight to the latter. Like any list of this nature, the players included and their respective seeding within this list are subject to debate. Some armchair jocks might read this list and bemoan the rankings. Others might tilt their heads to the firmament and shout invectives, unable to let what they feel is the unjustness of the rankings pass in silence. Such is life, such is life.
10 Troy Aikman - Net Worth: $25 million
Currently a colour commentator, Troy Aikman led one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. As the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys during the team’s dominant period in the 90s, Aikman played in many big games and completed many big passes. A three-time Super Bowl winner and a six-time Pro Bowler, Aikman never put up incredible numbers, especially by modern standards. His ability to manage games and minimize his mistakes enabled his success, and those qualities cannot be overlooked. He threw for 32,942 yards and 165 touchdowns over his twelve-year career, but he will always be remembered for his teams’ success.
9 Johnny Unitas - Deceased
Over the course of his illustrious career, Johnny Unitas won three NFL MVP Awards, and claimed the league's championship four times. Playing from the late fifties to the early seventies, Unitas was ahead of his time, in that he excelled at throwing the ball down field in a run-first league. His mammoth success and attendant fame paved the way for later generations of quarterbacks. With 290 career touchdown passes, he ranks ninth all-time, and he had held the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass for several decades, until Drew Brees broke the record in 2012.
8 Terry Bradshaw - Net Worth: $10 million
Terry Bradshaw has become one of the league's most recognizable media personalities since he retired, and he is well-known for his verbosity on a variety of subjects. He is most notable, however, for his on-field success with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as he led the team to four Super Bowl victories over his tenure. Like Aikman's, Bradshaw's stats will not leap out at anyone, but his ability to minimize his mistakes enabled his team's success. His calming influence also led to him being named Super Bowl MVP twice.
7 Dan Marino - Net Worth: $35 million
Had Dan Marino been able to win a Super Bowl, he would be much higher on this list. In terms of stats, few compare to the 1984 MVP, who is third all time in both career passing yards with 61,361 and career passing touchdowns with 420. Marino was one of the first quarterbacks to play in a pass-happy style of offense, and he would fit right in with the league’s current style of play, which has become increasingly more spread out and pass-oriented.
6 Steve Young - Net Worth: $40 million
Fortuitously for Steve Young, an injury knocked Joe Montana out of San Francsico’s lineup in 1991. Young took over the offense and never relinquished control, leading the team to a Super Bowl win and winning two MVP Awards over the course of his tenure in San Fran. Young was the first truly successful dual-threat quarterback, paving the way for scrambling quarterbacks in future generations. His 96.8 career passer rating ranks third all time, a stat made more impressive by his style of play. Today, Young serves as a football analyst for ESPN.
5 John Elway - Net Worth: $145 million
A Stanford Cardinal during his collegiate career, John Elway is one of the winningest quarterbacks in NFL history. He led his teams to six AFC Championship games and five Super Bowls. He struggled to win a Super Bowl, which proved elusive until Elway’s fourth try. The 1987 MVP ranks fourth all-time in career passing yards with 51,475 and seventh all-time in career touchdowns with 300. He currently serves as the vice-president of football operations for the Denver Broncos.
4 Brett Favre - Net Worth: $100 million
Love him or hate him, Brett Favre was a quarterback that NFL fans watched with bated breath. He electrified his fans with rocket touchdown passes and satisfied his enemies with curious interceptions. When Favre had the ball in his hands, every play promised something, whether that something was a flash of unequalled brilliance or a game-changing blunder. The three-time MVP ranks first all-time in both career passing yards and touchdowns, but also first all-time in career interceptions. Indeed, if Favre’s back was up against the wall, he was going down guns blazing, and he liked it that way.
3 Peyton Manning - Net Worth: $165 million
Peyton Manning’s recent loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl will plague him at least until next season, especially given the manner in which his team lost. Uncharacteristically, Manning looked perturbed and shaky that night, and the Seahawks exposed his diminishing arm strength. However, Manning is a consummate professional, and he is unquestionably one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the league. Before this past season’s Super Bowl, the former standout at Tennessee looked indomitable, throwing a record-setting 55 touchdown passes. He ranks second both all time in passing yards with 64,964 and career passing touchdowns with 491. Nothing suggests that he will not break Favre’s records in the next couple of seasons, but the prospect of winning a second Super Bowl looks questionable.
2 Tom Brady - Net Worth: $120 million
Some readers will argue that it is ludicrous and unfair to have Tom Brady ranked ahead of Peyton Manning on this list. However, Brady is a three-time Super Bowl champion and has taken his teams to an additional two Super Bowls. Like Manning’s, Brady’s chances of winning another Super Bowl before retirement look slim, especially as his future receiving corps looks uncertain. Brady ranks seventh in all-time career passing yards with 49,149 and fifth in all-time career passing touchdowns with 359. He will be remembered for his memorable playoff victories though, not the least of which being his victory over the high-powered and heavily favoured St. Louis Rams in 2001.
1 Joe Montana - Net Worth: $80 million
As mentioned in the opening, this list gives more weight to team success, and that is why Joe Montana find himself at the top. A standout at Notre Dame during his collegiate career, Montana led four of his San Francisco teams to Super Bowl victories. Though he ranks outside the top 10 in career passing yards and touchdowns, Montana played with unmatched poise, which enabled his success. He and Jerry Rice remain the best quarterback and wide receiver tandem in league history.