Happy 62nd birthday to Joe Montana. In honor of Joe Cool — one of the best to ever play the game – we bring you the Darling Dozen: the 12 greatest quarterbacks in pro football history.
Discussions of the best-ever quarterbacks are always contentious. Changes in rules and technology make it impossible to compare statistics from different eras. A quarterback’s first job is to win. In compiling this list, we took championships into account, while also considering leadership qualities, toughness, sustained excellence, and impact on the game. These quarterbacks [listed in no particular order] were the best of their eras. Collectively, they represent the greatest of all time.
Joe Montana played in the perfect offense to match his skill set. Nimble, smart and accurate, Montana had Jerry Rice — the greatest receiver in history — to throw to. He played for Bill Walsh, whose West Coast Offense revolutionized football. Always poised, Joe Cool threw for 300 or more yards 39 times. He won four Super Bowls and was named MVP in three of them. An eight-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL MVP and 1990 Sportsman of the Year, Montana was at his best in big games. In four Super Bowls, he threw 122 passes for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions.
Sammy Baugh is the best all-around player on this list. In 16 seasons with the Washington Redskins, Slingin’ Sammy led his team to two league titles. The first great quarterback in pro football history, Baugh led the NFL in passing six times. In 1943, he led the league in passing, punting and interceptions. Playing in an era when the ball more resembled a watermelon than a football, Baugh established himself as one of the all-time leaders in completion percentage and lowest interception rate. His single-season punting average [51.4 yards per punt, in 1940] remains an NFL record nearly 80 years later.
If Baugh invented the quarterback position, Johnny Unitas perfected it. Tough and determined, Johnny U stood in the pocket until the last instant and took a beating. A three-time NFL MVP, Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to four league titles. The Golden Arm held the record for most consecutive games  with a touchdown pass for 52 years and was a ten-time Pro-Bowler. Unitas invented the two-minute offense, was the most prolific passer of his era, and retired holding nearly NFL passing record. In 2004, The Sporting News ranked John Unitas the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterback.
Tom Brady is our GOAT – the greatest of all time. A 13-time Pro Bowler, Brady has guided the New England Patriots to eight Super Bowls while winning five. The only four-time Super Bowl MVP in history, TB12 has won more games than any quarterback ever to play the game. The seemingly-ageless Brady is the oldest QB to lead the league in passing yards and oldest to be named NFL MVP . TB12 enters his 19th NFL season this fall.
Otto Graham may have been the best field general ever to strap on a football helmet. Remember when we said championships were an important factor in making this list? Graham took the Cleveland Browns to the title game every year between 1946 and 1955, winning seven of them. His career record was 114-20-4, and he was 9-3 in the playoffs. More than six decades after his retirement, Graham still holds the NFL record for average yards gained per pass attempt [8.98] and career winning percentage [.814]. As a rookie in the fall of 1946, Graham guided the Browns to the AAFC championship. His passer rating of 112.1 stood as a pro football record until Joe Montana broke it in 1989. That winter, he led the Rochester Royals to the NBL [later NBA] title. He remains one of two men [Gene Conley] to win championships in two of the four major North American sports, and the only to do so in the same season.
In 16 seasons in Denver, John Elway led the Broncos to six AFC Championship Games and five Super Bowls. The first pick of the 1983 draft – the class that produced three hall-of-fame quarterbacks – Elway retired in 1999 as the winningest signal-caller in history. Strong-armed and accurate, there was not a throw Elway couldn’t make and a defense he could not beat. The 1987 NFL MVP won two Super Bowls, and was MVP of the final game he ever played in – Super Bowl XXXIII. One of only two players [Thurman Thomas] to score a rushing touchdown in four different Super Bowls, Elway retired as the second-most prolific passer in NFL history.
Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy, served four years in the Navy, then joined the NFL as a 27-year-old rookie. Roger the Dodger led the Dallas Cowboys to the Super Bowl five times, winning two. He was named MVP of Super Bowl VI, joining Jim Plunkett as the only quarterbacks to be named Heisman and Super Bowl MVP winners. A six-time Pro Bowler, Staubach led the league in passer rating four times. Captain Comeback coined the term “Hail Mary” after his last-second 50-yard bomb found Drew Pearson in the end zone to beat the Minnesota Vikings in a 1975 playoff game. The greatest quarterback in Cowboys history was named to the 1970s All-Decade Team and is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame.
Peyton Manning is the only starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different franchises. Manning holds NFL career records for most passing yards [71,940], touchdown passes , MVP awards , Pro Bowl appearances  and 4,000-yard passing seasons. The first overall pick of the 1998 draft, Manning led his teams to six AFC title games, winning four. The cerebral signal-caller missed the entire 2011 season due to neck surgery, then returned to lead Denver to four straight AFC West crowns and two Super Bowls. Like Elway, he led the Broncos to a Lombardi Trophy in his final game while earning Super Bowl MVP honors.
No quarterback in history threw a more beautiful ball than Dan Marino. Joe Namath and Sonny Jurgenson are close, but Marino’s passes were poetry. The knock on Marino is that he never won a Super Bowl. The fact is, he led the Dolphins to the post-season ten times in his 17 seasons, and he did it without much of a supporting cast. The greatest Dolphin ever, Marino was 1983 NFL Rookie of the Year, 1984 NFL MVP and 1994 Comeback Player of the Year. Possessing a quick release and strong arm, Dante played in nine Pro Bowls and set nearly 50 NFL passing records, 11 of which remain active.
Bart Starr is the only quarterback in NFL history to lead a team to three consecutive league championships. He and Tom Brady are tied for total NFL championships, at five each [Otto Graham won four of his seven titles in the AAFC]. The MVP of the first two Super Bowls — both won by his Green Bay Packers – Starr was 9-1 in the post-season. After losing the 1960 NFL championship game to Philadelphia, Starr reeled off nine playoff wins in a row. The 1966 NFL MVP was the consummate game manager for Vince Lombardi’s teams. What was considered tight coverage in Starr’s day is blatant pass interference today. A humble and classy gentleman, Starr always made big plays when it mattered most. A member of the 1960s All-Decade Team, Mr. Starr led the NFL in passer rating five times, and played in four Pro Bowls.
Drew Brees may be the most accurate passer in pro football history. In 2012, he broke one of the most hallowed records in football when he threw for a touchdown pass in his 48th consecutive game, surpassing Unitas’ mark. Brees would eventually extend the record to 54 games. An 11-time Pro Bowler and 2010 Sportsman of the Year, Brees graduated from Purdue as the most prolific passer in Big Ten history. Archie Manning was right: the Chargers’ organization is woeful. After drafting Brees in 2001, the Chargers gave up on him after five seasons, despite posting spectacular numbers and leading San Diego to their first AFC West title in a decade. Brees landed in New Orleans, leading the Saints to their only Super Bowl victory in franchise history. Brees has passed for over 5,000 yards in a season five times – no other NFL quarterback has done so more than once. The fastest QB to 60,000 career yards, Brees is the NFL’s all-time leader in completion percentage. And he is only getting better.
Football players respect a teammate’s toughness, and no quarterback has ever been tougher than Brett Favre. The three-time MVP played in 11 Pro Bowls and his 297 consecutive NFL starts [321 including the playoffs] is a record that will likely never be broken. Favre led his teams to eight division titles, five NFC Championship Games, and two Super Bowls. After directing the Packers to a victory in Super Bowl XXXI, Favre was named MVP of the game. He played 20 NFL seasons, retiring in 2010 as the league’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns [since broken by Manning].
Honorable mention: Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers, Jim Kelly.
Let us know if you agree or disagree with our Darling Dozen.