Few positions in all of sports command the kind of respect and attention that the quarterback does. Every starting quarterback — especially those at the NFL level — faces serious scrutiny and typically gets much of the credit or blame for their team’s performance. Many men have lined up under center over the approximately 150 years the game of football has been played, but few could be considered among the legends of the sport.
We’ve taken a look back through NFL history and come up with a list of the absolute best to ever play quarterback (as of December 2018). The players on the list are ranked in order of greatness, based on a combination of traditional stats, advanced metrics, wins, playoff performances and legacy. A few of the men on the list go back to the early days of pro football, while others are still taking snaps today.
Did your favorite quarterback make the list?
30. Phil Simms
Sports Illustrated once called Phil Simms the most underrated NFL quarterback of all time, and it’s a fair argument. Even with the career of Eli Manning, who has broken nearly all of Simms’ team records, many still consider him the greatest passer in New York Giants history.
Simms led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins but only went to two Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro selection just once. Even if his yearly stats weren’t too astounding — he only topped 4,000 passing yards once and never surpassed 22 touchdowns — his performance in 1987’s Super Bowl XXI is the stuff of legend. He completed 88 percent of his passes (22 of 25) and had a passer rating of 150.9, arguably the best performance by any QB in Super Bowl history.
29. Randall Cunningham
A true revolutionary at the quarterback position, Randall Cunningham could basically do it all.
In terms of passing, his career numbers are right there with some Hall of Famers from the same era in the ’80s and ’90s but it was with his legs that Cunningham separated himself from the pack. He broke virtually every record for rushing at the quarterback position and averaged 30.6 rushing yards per game, which is still second all-time among QBs.
His postseason record is suspect but he also didn’t have the luxury of getting much protection up front, as only two other NFL players were ever sacked more times than Cunningham.
28. Troy Aikman
If winning big games was everything, Troy Aikman would be much higher on this list. He won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, never losing once in the title game. Aikman was also a six-time Pro Bowler, but was an All-Pro only once, which is the higher honor. Aikman was arguably the quarterback of the ’90s, playing from 1989 to 2000 and racking up 90 wins in that decade, which was more than any other QB.
Aikman earned his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of his ability to lead a great team but his individual statistics were never too impressive, as he never topped 3,445 yards and only threw for more than 20 touchdowns one time.
27. Sid Luckman
One of the first great quarterbacks in pro football history, Luckman led the Chicago Bears to four NFL championships from 1939 to 1950.
He also led the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating three times, being named a first team All-Pro five times. Luckman revolutionized the throwing game, passing for seven touchdowns in a game once, a record that still hasn’t been topped even in today’s pass-heavy league — and he was the first guy to ever throw for 400 yards in a game.
Nearly 70 years after he played his final NFL snap, Luckman still ranks second all-time in yards per pass attempt.
26. Ken Anderson
Before legendary coach Bill Walsh went on to make Joe Montana into an icon with his West Coast Offense in San Francisco, Walsh ran it with quarterback Ken Anderson in Cincinnati.
Anderson spent 16 seasons in the NFL, all with the Bengals, and put up some spectacular numbers along the way, including four seasons where he led the league in passer rating. His accuracy was also never questioned, as he posted a career 59.3 completion percentage and retired in 1986 with the records for single-season completion percentage and single-game completion percentage.
Anderson has largely been overlooked in these discussions because he played in a small market and never won a Super Bowl but he was a successful guinea pig for a system that would launch several star QBs.
25. Terry Bradshaw
Pittsburgh Steelers lifer Terry Bradshaw benefited greatly from being surrounded by Hall-of-Fame offensive skill players and one of the greatest defenses in history. He never led the league in passing yards or passer rating — and his career total for both of those stats won’t blow you away — but he never lost in the big games. He guided the Steelers to four Super Bowls and won every one of them.
You can knock Bradshaw for throwing nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns in his career, but with that defense backing him up, who can blame him for taking some risks?
24. Tony Romo
It might shock you to know that, among all retired NFL quarterbacks, Tony Romo has the highest career passer rating. It’s also the highest career passer rating for any QB who never played in a Super Bowl, which is the part of Romo’s legacy that may keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
He never had much luck in the playoffs but his career numbers in statistics like yards per pass attempt and completion percentage — he ties Peyton Manning in the latter category — are among the best ever. In roughly the same number of seasons, Romo’s numbers are better than fellow Cowboys great Troy Aikman, but he had the misfortune of playing without the Hall of Famers his predecessor did.
23. Jim Kelly
For eight out of 11 of his NFL seasons, Jim Kelly passed for at least 3,000 yards and averaged about 3,200 yards per season for his career. He also led the Buffalo Bills to the Super Bowl four times, which means he made it to the big game in more than one-third of all the seasons he played. Of course, the Bills lost all four times and Kelly didn’t play at his best in them, but he clearly had a gift for winning in the regular season and playoffs.
22. Warren Moon
After unequaled success in the Canadian Football League, where he won five championships, Warren Moon went on to have a great career in the NFL despite having virtually no playoff success.
Moon threw for more than 3,000 yards every time he played a 16-game season and topped the 4,000-yard mark four times. Moon’s gun-slinging style led to a fair share of interceptions and an average career passer rating but he was extremely popular, being named to nine Pro Bowls. Moon currently sits at 10th all-time in NFL career passing yards and 10th all-time in game-winning drives led.
If he hadn’t spent six years playing in the CFL, it’s scary to think what his final NFL totals would’ve been.
21. Sonny Jurgensen
Arguably the league’s earliest long-ball passer, Jurgensen was a legend with the Eagles and Redskins who posted a career losing record as a starter but was still a marvel. He led the league in passing yardage five times, topping 3,000 yards in all those seasons, and was a touchdown machine. His 255 career passing touchdowns total still put him at 19th all-time, despite playing during the so-called “dead-ball era,” when running backs ruled the league.
While with the Eagles in 1960, he won his lone NFL championship, handing Vince Lombardi’s Packers their only playoff loss ever.
20. Donovan McNabb
Severely overlooked because he never won the big game, Eagles legend Donovan McNabb is one of only four quarterbacks in NFL history to collect 30,000 passing yards, 200 passing touchdowns, 3,000 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns — and all of them are on this list.
He’s tied with Jim Kelly as the QB with the most playoff wins with no ring and finished his career with more passing yards and a better passer rating than that Hall of Famer. In 2004, McNabb had one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever had, becoming the first ever to throw for more than 30 touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions. For some reason, he’s still not in the Hall.
19. Roger Staubach
“Captain America” got a later start than most in the NFL after serving a tour of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy. He didn’t play as a rookie until he was 27 years old, making his career numbers even more impressive and making you wonder how much higher they’d be if he’d joined the league earlier.
In 11 NFL seasons — all with the Dallas Cowboys — Staubach’s team went to the Super Bowl five times, winning two of them. If he hadn’t run into the “Steel Curtain” defense, he could have won four. He wasn’t a crazy prolific passer, never leading the league in passing yardage, but he led the league in passer rating four times. Staubach’s gift was winning games, as he was victorious in nearly 75 percent of all the regular-season games in which he started.
18. Kurt Warner
Always dangerous, especially in the biggest games, Kurt Warner is 1-2 in Super Bowls but turned in three of the all-time greatest quarterback performances in the big game.
Warner’s career was injury plagued — he only played a full, 16-game season three times — but he led some of the most explosive offenses in recent memory, including the “Greatest Show on Turf” with the St. Louis Rams. He was named NFL MVP twice and his career completion percentage of 65.5 is the highest of any current Hall of Famer and is currently fourth best in league history. He averaged 385 yards passing in his three Super Bowl appearances and his 1,156 career yards gained are second only to Tom Brady in Super Bowl history.
17. Sammy Baugh
“Slingin'” Sammy was one of the NFL’s first true stars and he paved the way for future star quarterbacks who could take over a game.
He played his entire career for the Washington Redskins, winning two NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era. In 16 seasons, he led the league in completion percentage eight times and in passer rating six times, which is still a record. Baugh was also a first team All-Pro six times, showing how impressive his style was compared to other QBs at the time. In the end, Baugh threw more interceptions than touchdowns but his impact on the game is nearly immeasurable, ensuring his place in the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
16. Fran Tarkenton
One of the most reliable passers in NFL history, in 18 NFL seasons, Fran Tarkenton finished in the league’s top-10 leading passers 17 times.
He only led the league in passing yardage once and it was in his final season at the age of 38, when he turned in a career-high 3,468 yards. A legendary Minnesota Viking, Tarkenton led the franchise to the only three Super Bowls it has ever made, unfortunately losing in all of them. When he retired, Tarkenton owned nearly every major record a quarterback can have: pass attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, rushing yards and wins.
15. John Elway
In 16 seasons, John Elway compiled a massive amount of passing statistics and wins, leading to perhaps the greatest finish to a career in NFL history.
The Denver Broncos icon passed for more than 3,000 yards in all but four seasons, somehow only leading the league in that stat once. He still ranks in the top 10 all-time in passing yards, pass attempts and completions but was perhaps most impressive when games were on the line. He is ranked sixth all-time in leading comebacks and seventh all-time in game-winning drives.
After losing three Super Bowls in his career, Elway won back-to-back titles and retired.
14. Johnny Unitas
One of the first star quarterbacks of the NFL’s modern era, “Johnny U” consistently led the Baltimore Colts to victory in his lengthy career, racking up stats in the meantime.
Unitas was selected as a first-team All-Pro five times, which is second in history among quarterbacks, and he was a three-time MVP and four-time NFL champion, including one Super Bowl victory. He led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns four times, with his career marks in both still standing in the top 20 all-time despite him not playing a down in 45 years.
13. Bart Starr
The first quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, Starr led his Packers to victories in the first two Super Bowls, in addition to winning five NFL championships. Starr only lost one playoff game ever as starter and he holds the best career playoff passer rating in NFL history. He never led the league in passing yardage or touchdowns but led it in completion percentage and passer rating four times.
Today, you won’t find Starr around the top of virtually any all-time statistical categories but his 9-1 career playoff record — and 15-3 touchdown-interception ratio in those games — is hard to argue with.
12. Philip Rivers
Playing in the era of Brady, Manning and Brees — and spending his entire career with a team that gets almost no national coverage — has hurt the visibility of Philip Rivers, but his consistently great numbers put him up there with the all-time icons.
As of 2018, Rivers sits at eighth all-time in passing yards but will undoubtedly climb that list as his career continues. Rivers has thrown for at least 3,000 yards every season since 2006, and has passed the 4,000-yard mark in nine of those seasons. His lackluster performances in the playoffs have hurt his overall legacy but the fact that he hasn’t missed a start since 2006 is mind-boggling.
If Rivers finally wins a Super Bowl, he’ll soar even higher on this list.
11. Russell Wilson
Despite all he’s accomplished in the league since entering it in 2012, Russell Wilson remains underrated compared to his peers.
In six seasons so far, he’s never missed a start and has thrown for at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns every year. He’s also never had a passer rating below 92.6 for a season and has averaged 545 rushing yards per season in that span. In league history, the only quarterback with a higher career passer rating is Aaron Rodgers.
Add to those numbers the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl — and was a yard away from winning a second — and you’ve got to count him among the all-time greats.
10. Ben Roethlisberger
When “Big Ben” eventually retires, he will be ranked among the very top of virtually every passing statistic the NFL tracks. He’s won a pair of Super Bowl rings and has managed to stay in step with contemporaries named Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Manning in terms of regular-season passing numbers. He’s only led the league in passing yards once but has topped 3,000 yards in every season since 2006 — and has topped 4,000 yards six times.
Roethlisberger is best known for his play when games are on the line, as he is currently ranked sixth all-time in comebacks and game-winning drives led.
9. Otto Graham
No quarterback in NFL history has won as often as Otto Graham did.
Starting for the Cleveland Browns from 1946 to 1955, Graham won a record 81.4 percent of his starts and led the team to a league championship appearance every season, winning seven of them, including three NFL titles. He averaged 2,358 passing yards per season in his career, leading the league in that category five times and he still holds the all-time quarterback record for yards per pass attempt. Nobody could deny Graham’s dominance at the position, which is why he was selected to a record seven All-Pro first teams.
8. Brett Favre
An absolute monster when it came to racking up offense, Favre threw for at least 3,200 yards in every season from 1992 to 2009, also topping 30 passing touchdowns in nine of those seasons. Of course, he also threw more interceptions and pick sixes than anyone in NFL history, but his career interception rate — compared to the obscene number of passes he was throwing each year — isn’t bad.
Favre sits comfortably in the top five all-time in career passing touchdowns, passing yards, pass attempts and completions. He only won a single Super Bowl, famously bringing the Packers back to relevance in the 1990s, but sits at third all-time in playoff passing yards.
7. Joe Montana
Arguably the greatest big-game quarterback in history, Joe Montana cemented his iconic status by being undefeated in four Super Bowls and never throwing an interception in that hallowed game.
“Joe Cool” never led the NFL in passing yards, despite routinely throwing for more than 3,000 yards. His best feature was accuracy, leading the league in completion percentage five times, ranking 15th in NFL history in that statistic for his career. Montana’s 1989 run in the playoffs is still one of the best for a quarterback ever, as he threw for 800 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions on the way to winning his fourth ring.
6. Aaron Rodgers
No quarterback in NFL history has ever taken better care of the ball than Aaron Rodgers. He holds the league’s all-time best career passer rating and interception percentage.
But just because he almost never throws picks and has never led the league in passing yardage doesn’t mean he is conservative with the ball. Since 2008, Rodgers has thrown for at least 3,800 yards in eight seasons, which is every season in which he’s started at least 15 games. Still in his prime, he currently sits at eighth all-time in completion percentage and 17th all-time in passing yards.
Rodgers hasn’t had the luxury of playing on many great teams — resulting in just one Super Bowl win and a 9-7 playoff record as of 2018 — but he almost never loses a game for his team.
5. Steve Young
Due to following Joe Montana’s legend in San Francisco, Steve Young somehow still gets overlooked in conversations about the G.O.A.T. quarterbacks — but it could easily be argued he was the better of the two 49ers legends.
Young won three Super Bowls, only one as the team’s starter, and finished his career with a better passer rating than Montana or Peyton Manning. His yards per pass attempt are also fifth highest in league history and the best of any player past 1960. On top of all that, Young was one of the most dynamic quarterbacks ever, rushing for the third-most touchdowns from the QB position in history. Like Montana, he never led the league in passing yards but led it in completion percentage five times and in touchdown passes four times.
Young would be right at home in today’s NFL, changing games with his arm and legs.
4. Dan Marino
The greatest quarterback who never won a Super Bowl, Marino was a force for his entire 17-season NFL career.
His incredible 5,084 passing yards in 1984 was the league’s single-season record for 27 years — and the 48 touchdowns he threw that year was a record for 20 years. He led the league in passing yards five times, throwing for at least 3,500 yards every time he started all 16 games in a season, including six seasons of at least 4,000 passing yards. For now, he continues to sit in the NFL’s top five for career passing yards, passing touchdowns, pass attempts and completions. His legacy gets hurt by his 8-10 career playoff record and middling touchdown-interception ratio in those games.
3. Peyton Manning
It could be argued that no player cast as big a shadow or was as respected through his NFL career than Peyton Manning.
His statistics on a yearly basis were mind-boggling, resulting in him being selected as a first-team All-Pro a record seven times. In a career that lasted 17 seasons, Manning threw for at least 3,700 yards in 16 of them, topping 4,000 yards in all but three seasons. In 2013, at the age of 37, Manning had the single best passing season in NFL history, throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both all-time records.
He won two Super Bowls in four tries and stands as the league’s all-time leader in game-winning drives led.
2. Drew Brees
Looking at Drew Brees’ career statistics will take the breath away from any numbers freak. He’s the NFL’s all-time best in terms of career passing yards, passing yards per game and completion percentage.
Despite all the passes he throws, he’s not in the top 15 of all-time interception totals, racking up the third-best career passer rating in league history. So far, in an era where ridiculous quarterback stats are almost commonplace, he’s led the league in passing yards seven times, throwing for at least 4,000 yards in every season since 2006. Brees is also the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in multiple seasons, having done it an unbelievable five times.
He’s only won a single Super Bowl, but in terms of pure quarterback play, it’s very hard to argue with Brees’ career numbers, especially given the fact that he never was surrounded by much top talent on offense.
1. Tom Brady
When you combine statistical greatness, consistency, clutch performances and winning in the regular season and playoffs, there is simply no better quarterback than Tom Brady. The sheer number of playoff games he’s started in equal more than two full regular NFL seasons, making his longevity in the game even more impressive, and his .730 winning percentage in them is also staggering.
He’s not thought of as a stat monster like Manning and Brees, but Brady’s individual statistics are nothing to overlook, including the fact that he’s thrown for at least 3,500 yards in every full season he’s played since 2002. He currently sits atop the all-time list for playoff passing yards, at second all-time in interception percentage and fourth all-time in passing yards, passer rating and game-winning drives led.
But the stats that rule them all are his five touchdown wins, which is unmatched among all quarterbacks. Quite simply, if you want to put your team in a position to win a title, there’s been no one better than Brady.