So let me tell you my thinking with the Five Greatest Quarterbacks Ever survey — I was kind of interested in seeing if Peyton Manning’s ridiculous, amazing, spectacular season would have an obvious effect on the numbers. It seems that, many of us, even if we consciously TRY to avoid it, cannot help but allow the latest bits of news to disproportionately sway our opinions. Think how often one announcer will say, “He broke out of a 2-for-23 slump with a game-winning double,” and the other will say, “It’s great to see him hitting again.” The game-winning double STILL meant that the batter was still three for his last 24. By that measure, he’s still hitting lousy. But because that LAST hit was a double, there’s a sense that something has changed.
The last thing — it just sticks in our minds. Peyton Manning certainly was viewed as an all-time-great quarterback before this amazing season. And he should be — I mean, he’s pretty much first, second or third in just about every meaningful passing category. He’s second in completions, second in yards, second in touchdowns — all to Brett Favre — but he’s still 19th in interceptions with 126 fewer than Favre. He’s third in passer rating, just a tenth of a point behind Steve Young (and well behind Aaron Rodgers, who has only been a starting quarterback for five-plus seasons). Manning is amazing and everyone knew that before this season began.
BUT … I’m not sure where people would have put him on the all-time list before this year. Because there are knocks. We all know that. He has won just one Super Bowl, and while I’m very much against conflating individual excellence with team excellence, other people strongly believe a quarterback’s greatness is reflected in the championships won. Most of the other greats — Montana, Unitas, Graham, Star and, of recent vintage, Brady — have won more than Manning.
Also, there was always the thing about him playing most of his games in domes. Here are a few numbers for you: Manning has played 128 of his 229 regular season games in domes (before Sunday’s game against Jacksonville). His quarterback rating in domes is 104.3. His quarterback rating outside is 93.6. Now, this is not necessarily direct cause and effect — obviously the vast majority of the dome games were home games in Indianapolis and quarterbacks obviously play better at home. Still, that’s a sizable difference and part of the story.
My sense is that before the season began, people generally had Brady ahead of Manning. It was an argument, of course, and many people are staunch Manningites. But I think more had Brady. But this year has obviously been striking. Brady has been beat up and his receivers have been pretty terrible and the numbers have been what announcers like to call “very un-Bradly-like.” He even had a game without a touchdown pass. Meanwhile, as discussed, Manning is putting up absurd, ridiculous, video game numbers — 74 percent completions, 22 touchdowns in his first six games, 2 interceptions, crazy. He’s on pace to top 5,800 yards, 58 touchdowns, five interceptions, I mean, seriously, SHUT THE GAME DOWN. It would be like a Gretzky season or a Bonds season.
So I was curious if five games would alter people’s all-time quarterback rankings.
I’ll let you decide if it did. Here are the ten quarterbacks with the highest point totals in our survey:
10. Sammy Baugh (547 points)
Yeah, I was kind of surprised too. Baugh finished ahead of Terry Bradshaw (11th), Bart Starr (12th) and Roger Staubach (13th) not to mention a personal favorite, Dan Fouts (19th). That’s not to say he wasn’t an excellent choice. Slingin’ Sammy Baugh was a pioneer — he was really the first NFL quarterback as we now know it. Baugh didn’t run much, he dropped back, scanned the field, controlled defenses through the air. Understand that in his first NFL season, 1937, Baugh completed 47.4 percent of his passes and had a 50.5 passer rating and LED THE NFL IN BOTH (this was obviously before the passer rating was invented — we’re measuring retroactively). After that, he developed the quarterback position into something new. He led the NFL in completion percentage NINE times, my favorite being 1945 (admittedly, a war year) when he completed more than 70 percent of his passes, and only two other quarterbacks compete even half their passes. He was ahead of his time. In fact, he helped create the future.
9. Steve Young (1,042 points)
I’ve long thought that, other than the brevity of his career, Steve Young has his own argument as the best quarterback in NFL history. That brevity matters — Young only played 16 games three times in his career. But I think Steve Young is like Sandy Koufax in that his peak is as great as anyone’s ever. From 1991-98, he posted a 102.4 quarterback rating because he completed 66.7 percent of his passes, threw 195 touchdown passes against 76 interceptions and averaged a fairly remarkable 8.7 yards per pass attempt. And that does not even incorporate his brilliance as a runner. His teams went 82-29 over that stretch, won one Super Bowl, reached three other conference championships, I’m not sure any other quarterback ever has combined the athleticism, accuracy and awareness of Steve Young.
8. Brett Favre (1,475 points)
I’m a little surprised he’s this low, or, more to the point, surprised he finished behind Dan Marino. He now holds every major passing record at this point — most completions, most attempts, most yards, most touchdowns, most interceptions, most starts, most sacked, most jeans commercials, most “he’s like a kid out there” references -- just most everything. Favre’s seeming indestructibility was always his most awe-inspiring aptitude. He started all 16 games for 17 consecutive years. When you think of the violence of the NFL, this is mind-boggling. He really was a force of nature the way he would force balls into coverage year after year — many of his records will get broken, but I’ll bet that his interception record of 336 will last pretty much forever. Favre began to annoy a lot of people the last few years of his career — the Deadspin stuff, the retire-or-not-retire Hamlet stuff, the disastrous final season — and I can’t help but wonder if this is why he’s only eighth on the list.
7. Otto Graham (1,559 points)
People have an easier time, it seems, imagining old-time baseball players in the modern day than they do for football players. I supposed that makes sense when you consider the two games. Still, any baseball poll you ever see will have Babe Ruth listed as the best player ever (or certainly in the top two or three) even though he started his career almost 100 years ago.
And then there’s Otto Graham, who did not play in Ruth’s time but much more recently — his career overlapped with Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, etc. Heck, he even overlapped with Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax. But football is a much younger sport than baseball, and football has changed much more than baseball, and so Graham is tougher for many to place in a modern context. You probably know that he led the Cleveland Browns to the championship game of their league every single year of his career, from 1946-55. The Browns won seven titles (four of them in the old All-American Football Conference) and Graham was the clear leader and star, leading the league in passing yards five times, in touchdown passes three and his teams went a mind-boggling 104-17-3.
6. Dan Marino (3,293 points)
More people chose Otto Graham (116) as the greatest ever quarterback than Marino (99) but Marino appeared on almost 800 more ballots which is why there is such a huge points difference between No. 7 and No. 6. Many people will insist that Dan Marino was the best passer of footballs who ever lived. I go along with that. His release was lightning, his arm impossibly strong. Remember: He came to the Miami Dolphins who were led by the famously conservative Don Shula. That team never had a quarterback who thrown the ball even 375 times in a season. The team’s iconic quarterback before Marino was Bob Griese — he had topped out at 355 passes in a season, and that was BEFORE Shula took over. Under Shula, he only twice threw the ball even 300 times in a season.
But Marino was so ridiculously good at throwing footballs that Shula IMMEDIATELY changed the entire offense and his lifelong philosophy for Marino’s arm. Marino only made nine starts his rookie season, but threw the ball 296 times. The next year, he threw the football FIVE-HUNDRED-SIXTY-FOUR times. That, of course, was Marino’s Wayne Gretzky season, the one where he smashed every record imaginable. He threw for more than 5,000 yards — never been done. He threw 48 touchdown passes — the record had been 36. His top receivers — Mark Clayton and Mark Duper — were young and tiny and entirely unproven until Marino came along. And the Dolphins went to the Super Bowl. It was, all-in-all, a season unlike any in pro football history.
Two years later, by the way, Marino threw the ball 623 times.
Everybody knows Marino never went back to the Super Bowl after 1984. He put up amazing offensive seasons — he led the league in passing yards four more times and he would retire with pretty much all the career passing records Brett Favre would break — but being blunt, he was never quite as good as he was in ’84. His passer rating in that extraordinary 1984 season was 108.9. He never again came close to breaking 100, and for the rest of his career his passer rating was a blandly disappointing 84.3. He threw for a lot of yards, he threw a lot of touchdown passes, he threw a lot of interceptions, and Shula never really was able to build a great team around him. People will always argue if that was a Marino shortcoming or simply a failure of imagination by Shula’s Dolphins.
5. John Elway (4,405 points)
Bill James once, rather famously, filed a one-word entry on Jeff Bagwell in the Historical Abstract. That word: “Pass.” Some have guessed that Bill was making a coded statement about Bagwell and PEDs, but Bill says that was absolutely not the reason — this was the late 1990s, when nobody was talking about PEDs. Why did he do it? He won’t say.
I will: John Elway destroyed my Cleveland Browns and, in many ways, my youth.
4. Johnny Unitas (4,411 points)
Very, very close voting between Elway and Unitas, which is kind of fascinating. Eighty more people included Elway on their ballot. But 33 more people voted Unitas as the best ever which is why he’s ranked ahead.
You certainly know Unitas’ basic story. He was a ninth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers — of the top four all-time quarterbacks, only one was a first round pick.* Dan Rooney, in his fun book “My 75 Years With The Pittsburgh Steelers,” writes that Steelers head coach Walt Kiesling never liked Unitas because — get this — he wasn’t SMART ENOUGH to be an NFL quarterback. Rooney, perhaps exaggerating and perhaps not, would write that he PLEADED with Kiesling to give Unitas a chance. But Kiesling did not. The Steelers released Unitas in 1955 and he ended up playing semi-pro football for a team called the Bloomfield Rams.
*Not to ruin the ending but of the Top 4, only Peyton Manning was picked in the first round. Joe Montana was a third rounder, Tom Brady a sixth-rounder and Unitas, as mentioned, a ninth-round pick.
Unitas signed with the Colts the next year and started seven games. The year after that he led the NFL in passes, yards, touchdowns and yards per attempt. The next year, Unitas led to the Colts to the NFL Championship game against the New York Giants and engineered what is probably the most famous final two-minute drive in NFL history. That ended the greatest game ever played. One year later, the Colts played that the Giants in the championship game again. This time, Unitas threw two touchdown passes and ran for another and the Colts blitzed New York 31-16.
He was the essence of 1950s cool — crewcut (the one Grandpa Simpson would say was “a haircut you can set your watch to!”), high-tops, perfect over the top throwing motion, tough as sandpaper. He led his team on 29 game-winning drives, a record when he retired in 1973. He liked to take the big risk when you least expected it figuring that in that moment of nervous fury, he would hold up better than his opponent.
When Unitas retired, he was pretty widely viewed as the greatest quarterback ever, much in the same way that Wilt Chamberlain (or his nemesis Bill Russell) was widely viewed as the greatest basketball player ever when he retired. Eight percent of our voting block still voted Unitas as the best.
3. Tom Brady (5,025 points)
2. Peyton Manning (8,971 points)
Well, that sort of gets to the heart of the experiment, doesn’t it? Of course, I wish I had this vote before the season began to compare the numbers. But I’m willing to bet that it would have been A LOT closer before the season began — and Brady might have been ahead.
I just think we just cannot help but be swayed by what we just saw. For instance, I just watched a game where Tom Brady was pretty terrible against the New Orleans Saints. Admittedly his receivers are beat up, and the Saints sacked him five times and all that. Still, he looked very much out of sync. In the fourth quarter, on what appeared to be his last chance, he launched a prayer of a pass that was easily intercepted — it was just not the sort of thing you ever saw Tom Brady do. And I thought: “Man, Brady’s kind of losing it.”
And then the Patriots got the ball back with more than a minute left because the Saints did not even TRY to get a first down. Then Brady hit Julian Edelman for 23, hit Austin Collie for 15, whipped a quick pass to Aaron Dobson for six, just barely missed Edelman on a deep pass down the middle, hit Edelman in the chest with a deep pass down the middle that he dropped when crunched from behind, hit Collie for nine yards on fourth down, spiked the ball and threw over-the-top 17 yards to Kenbrell Thompkins for the winning touchdown. The whole series seemed to happen as fast as you just read that paragraph. And, like that, I remember: “Oh yeah, Tom Brady’s a celestial being.”
One thing I always forget is that, pound-for-pound, Manning’s numbers are really not that much better than Brady’s. I think the narrative is always something along the lines of: “Manning has the numbers, Brady has the rings.” But neither theme is entirely right. Manning has played many more games than Brady and he has completed a slightly higher percentage of passes (65.5 to 63.5). But Manning’s impressive 456-to-210 touchdowns-to-interceptions (2.2 to 1) is not quite as good as Brady’s (341 touchdowns, 126 interceptions, 2.7-to-1). Manning’s astonishing 2005 is more or less matched by Brady’s 2007. Manning’s 96.7 quarterback rating is only a touch better than Brady’s 96.1 … and Brady obviously didn’t play nearly as many indoor games.
On the other hand, Manning gets a bad rap because he’s “only” won one Super Bowl while Brady has won three. Manning’s record after his rookie season is a fantastic 157-57, not so different from Brady’s 141-40. He has won one Super Bowl, yes, but he led the Colts to another and a championship game and the Broncos are Super Bowl contenders again this year. Those Colts teams often had mediocre defenses along with various other deficiencies. The year before he got hurt, the Colts made the playoffs. After he got hurt, they were the worst team in pro football. He went to Denver and led the Broncos to a 13-win season after six seasons of utter mediocrity. And now, with him playing otherworldly football, the Broncos look all-but-unbeatable.
It’s a classic argument, Brady vs. Manning, that goes beyond the cliches. I think Manning right now has a huge lead because he’s been so great this season. But once that settles down, I’ll be interested to see where this ends up.
1. Joe Montana (10,004 points).
In the end, the top spot was not particularly close. More people voted Joe Montana the greatest quarterback in NFL history than Manning and Brady COMBINED. His genius was in his precision (five times he led the league in completion percentage), his sense of the big moment and the effect he would have on opposing teams. Howie Long once said that the 49ers could just prop Montana up like “El Cid” in the movies and defenses would cower. Long also offered a great quote about Montana’s ability to beat teams with soft, seemingly harmless passes: “He would knock you out in a pillow fight.”
Of course, his most famous moment came in the game-winning drive against Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII. The drive itself was legendary — 90 yards, 10 plays, completions to Roger Craig (8 yards), John Frank (7 yards), Jerry Rice (7 yards), Rice again (17 yards), Craig again (13 yards), Rice again (27 yards), Craig again (8 yards) and John Taylor, finally, 10 yards and the touchdown. But the famous moment came before it began when everyone gathered around in the huddle and Montana suddenly and oddly pointed to the stands and said, “Hey look, there’s John Candy.”
The players took from this that Montana was so loose and free in that extraordinarily tense moment that he was noticing famous people in the stands. That’s one explanation. Another is that Montana’s mind simply does not work like most minds do, that he simply did not FEEL pressure the same way most of us do. A third is that, hey, it was John Candy.
Montana was nothing at all like his younger self when he finished his career in Kansas City — but they propped up El Cid and, dammit, the Chiefs won 17 of the 25 games he started, he led them to the AFC Championship game (and the Chiefs last playoff victory to this day) and Montana is still beloved in Kansas City. I wouldn’t say Chiefs fans consider him their own — they know he’s San Francisco’s. But I would say they feel like they got their own piece of the greatest quarterback in NFL history.