Football For Dummies (2015)
The Part of Tens
The Ten Greatest Quarterbacks of All Time
In This Chapter
Team leaders who became champions
Stars who excelled when the spotlight was on them
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 in this chapter are listed in alphabetical order. I made no attempt to rank these ten great quarterbacks.
I had to pick Terry Bradshaw or working at FOX Sports would be unbearable; he’s like the older brother I never wanted. But kidding aside, Terry was really something in big games. The bigger the game, the better he played. 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.
Bradshaw is a great example of a player who refused to quit when his career didn’t flourish immediately. 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. But Bradshaw overcame his struggles and his benchings to become one of the all-time greats.
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 Pittsburgh’s first title run, his touchdown pass to Lynn Swann in the fourth quarter beat the Oakland Raiders in the AFC championship game, and in the Super Bowl that followed, his fourth quarter touchdown pass to Larry Brown clinched the victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
When the NFL liberalized its pass-blocking rules and prevented defensive backs from touching receivers after they ran 5 yards, Bradshaw’s throwing talents really blossomed. He had a great arm, and during the 1979 season, the Steelers rode it to the team’s fourth championship. In his two championship MVP performances, Bradshaw threw for 627 yards and six touchdowns. Believe me, I know all his stats; I’ve heard about them enough. If he tells me about the “Immaculate Reception” that robbed my Raiders of a fourth championship one more time, I’ll flip!
Nobody thought Tom Brady would amount to much more than a backup quarterback in the NFL. After a moderately successful stint as the starting quarterback at the University of Michigan, 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 the year 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.
A serious injury to Bledsoe early in the 2001 season meant that Brady would fill in as the Patriot’s starter, and the rest, as they say, is history. 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. Season after season, he is consistently one of the top passers in the NFL. Most followers of the NFL consider either Brady or Peyton Manning to be the greatest quarterback of their generation. Brady is certainly one of the all-time greats, and he’s bound for the Hall of Fame at the end of his career.
The son of a college football coach, John Elway was known as a great athlete as early as his high school days. In college at Stanford University, he excelled at both football and baseball, and a professional career in either sport was an option for him.
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). His reputation as a great quarterback who could perform at clutch time was cemented in the 1986 playoffs. Down seven in the AFC championship game against the Cleveland Browns, Elway orchestrated a masterful 98-yard, game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. His Broncos went on to win the game in overtime and go the Super Bowl, only to lose to the New York Giants.
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.
Any debate over Otto Graham’s selection should cease when you consider that he’s the only professional quarterback to lead his team, the Cleveland Browns, to ten consecutive championship games. The Browns won seven of those games, and Graham’s teams won more than 83 percent of their games during his career. What’s also astounding about Graham is that he played tailback, not quarterback, at Northwestern University. And many people in his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, believed that his best sport was basketball.
Browns coach Paul Brown chose Graham in 1946 for his poise, leadership, and ball-handling skills and believed that he would be a great T-formation quarterback, even though Graham had never played the position. (In the T-formation, the quarterback moved behind the center to take a direct snap, and three players — mostly running backs — were aligned behind him, three across.)
In the late 1940s, Graham, who finished his NFL career with a 55.7 completion percentage, excelled at throwing the deep sideline and crossing routes that are prevalent in pro football today. Brown also used receivers in the backfield and put these players in motion, knowing that Graham was smart enough to deal with an evolving offensive strategy. 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. In this game, he passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more.
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 was the last quarterback selected in the first round of the great 1983 draft class that included John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Tony Eason. According to his Miami Dolphins coach, Don Shula, this perceived slight of being passed over in the draft helped motivate Marino to prove all the other teams wrong.
Marino became the Dolphin’s starting quarterback midway through his rookie season. He became was known for his strong arm and quick release. Though he wasn’t mobile, he was rarely sacked because he was able to get rid of the ball so quickly.
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.
With the game on the line or a championship to be won, Joe Montana is the quarterback I want running my team. When I played against Joe Montana, I was always impressed with his ability to remain calm and focused (after all, many manic things happen on the field during a close game). His composure was merely one characteristic that set him apart. He was also a tremendously accurate passer — his all-time passing accuracy was 63.2 percent, and he once completed 22 consecutive passes.
Montana is one of those great quarterbacks who was raised in and played high school ball in a relatively small corner of western Pennsylvania. Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Montana all come from that part of the state (and all are Hall of Famers). 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. The beauty of Montana is that he won at every level — high school, college at Notre Dame, and the NFL — despite some coaches and NFL scouts doubting his abilities. San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh designed an exquisite pass-control offense, and Montana directed it with the passing precision of a surgeon. If he wasn’t the best quarterback of all time, he surely was the most instinctive player ever to play this position.
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 wasn’t the first great quarterback in the NFL, but he was arguably the first star. That’s not to say he wasn’t an amazing quarterback, because he was, but his play made him a popular figure in the media, paving the way for future stars of the NFL.
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. The attention his performances garnered in the championship games brought the NFL to a new era of popularity. Throughout the 1960s, the Colts with Unitas at the helm were consistently one of the top teams in NFL. Unitas and the Colts lost the Super Bowl after the 1968 season but rebounded to win the Super Bowl after the 1970 season. Unitas played with an injured arm during the later years of his career, which hampered his production. Nonetheless, he was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1979.
Steve Young excelled as quarterback for Brigham Young University. He was an accurate passer and an elusive runner, but his professional career stumbled out of the gate. 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, discussed earlier in this chapter. For a few years, Young was a backup while Montana flourished.
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 showed great athletic prowess, throwing the ball with precision in the 49ers' West Coast offense, and he often stymied defenses with his evasiveness in the pocket and ability to run the ball. 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.