The 50 Greatest Quarterbacks in NFL History (Revised and Updated, 2015 edition)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I've used the most advanced metrics, looked to combine regular season and post season, looked to incorporate peak and adjusted for era.  They're better than any previous football list I've done, aside from the all time 47 man rosters, which I think are pretty good (the basketball and baseball lists are better) This is current through the 2015 postseason. I'll only list the teams with whom the players had significant careers, not every team for which they played.

I'm using two threshold metrics.  To make the list you (1) needed to have an Approximate Value score of at least 100 (that gave us 64 QB in NFL history, meaning I'll probably do some type of bracket thing at some point in 2016) and (2) a passer rating index of at least 100 (knocked us down to 56 quarterbacks - Plunkett was an unfortunate casualty there, given his 2 SB rings and an all time SB performance, he would benefit once we start considering postseason play).

Career passer rating index numbers aren't computed for active guys, but the individual seasons are, and it's clear that 2 of the active guys won't make that 100 threshold (Vick, Hasselbeck) so we're at 54.

I then added another requirement for this group - a minimum of 100 career starts.  And that bounced Danny White.  So we're at 54.

I recognize that there's not really a reason why an approximate value of 97 (Culpepper, the closest to 100) or an index rating of really any of the guys who got kicked out of the list for being in the 90s should be eliminated, save that you need to find a way to make it manageable.

54 is a really useful number.  Because the next step was the pre 1960 quarterbacks for whom there isn't an approximate value score.  The threshold here was Hall of Fame.  That gave us 13 more names.  From which I cut the guys from the 20s for whom there just aren't really good stats, and I cut the one guy with fewer than 50 career starts (Ace Parker).

Leaving us with a total of 60 guys for 50 spots.

Manageable, right?

I'm not going to rank to 60 as I don't think the guys from 51-60 are necessarily better than the guys who got cut at previous intervals, so let's drop 10 guys absent order.

The one pre-60s QB who gets cut here is Waterfield.  He only had 57 career starts; that's just not enough to be one of the 50 greatest quarterbacks who ever lived.

Next to go is Harbaugh; he only had 5 seasons at 100+ indexed passer rating, meaning, for most of his career, he was a subpar quarterback.

Next is Jaws for the same reason, half of his career had seasons below average passer rating.

Then DeBerg, he had one more season over 100 than below, 8 seasons of subpar football.

Then Everett, he's in the same spot as Jaws.

Now, Blanda.  Blanda's got a ton of approximate value, 126 and it doesn't include the first decade of his career - but he's dead at league average with an indexed passer rating of 100 and 3 more bad seasons than good.

Now, Brodie - same deal as Blanda and a tough elimination, lots of value but as many bad years as good and an approximate value just a tick over 100.

Boomer goes down the same way and had more bad years than good.

2 left - Cutler is both just above 100 approximate value and, in looking at his season numbers, not too far ahead of 100 indexed either.  Could be upon retirement I reassess, but right now, he's out.

And now that we're here, time to bring Plunkett back and lose Billy Kilmer.

Kilmer only makes the AV requirement because of his time at running back, and given the singular importance of the QB position, really in all of sports, on team success, 2 SB wins should be a way in.

And now we're down to 50.  Lets rank.

50. Trent Green Chiefs 1997-08
-111 AV, 108 Rate+  Green's barely here, hits the total on both metrics, had more good years than bad.  Has no postseason record to speak of nor rushing ability (in fact, had some seasons where he fumbled a bunch).  We'll look hard at Palmer, especially, upon his retirement for this spot.  Flacco is the next active QB, incidentally, who might get a look.  He's a soft 50.   

49. Matt Ryan Falcons 2008-
-114 AV, 6 of 8 years are above 100, topping out at 117. I've got him in and Cutler out, but swapping them or leaving them both in or both out all make about the same amount of sense.  I'll re-evaluate after the 2016 season.

48. Bobby Layne Lions/Steelers 1948-62
-103 Rate+ 9 good seasons but none above 117 rate+, like Green/Ryan his spot is tenuous.

47. Jeff Garcia 49ers 1999-2011
-104AV, 111 Rate+ An interesting profile, didn't play a down before was 29, his rate+ in 2000 was 127, making him 27% above average, the best number we've seen so far.  Garcia also adds a strong rushing profile and a gets a tick of a playoff boost.  I'm uneasy about Green and making the list, but I like Garcia here, he looks to me like about the 50th best ever to play.

46. Carson Palmer Bengals 2004-
-125 AV, couple of big years amidst a career of largely good seasons, a subpar playoff record.

45. Tony Romo Cowboys 2006-
-116 AV, Romo's separate from the Ryan/Cutler group in that he's had a couple of really good years, in 2014 his rate plus was 134, that's really strong - and he's separate, say from Carson Palmer who also had a couple of those years but has thrown in multiple subpar years that Romo just doesn't have.  

44. Joe Namath Jets 1965-77
-115 AV, 102 Rate+  Here's the thing, Namath never had a Rate+ above 110 and despite the SB win, his quarterback rating in the playoffs was sub 55.  First SB champ on the list.

43. Joe Theismann Redskins 1974-85
-105 AV, 107 Rate+ He's Green but won that Super Bowl, his career playoff quarterback rating was over 90, that's a pretty solid plus and you like him here.

42. Jim Plunkett Raiders 1971-86
-109 AV, 98 Rate+ Plunkett was never particularly good in the regular season, his Rate+ when playing a full season was 109 as a 36 year old Raider, but he was 8-2 in the playoffs with two SB wins, and he ate the beating hearts out of a really strong Eagle defense in SB 15, 3 scores, no picks, a passer rating at 145.  Every quarterback with multiple SB wins is on the list.

41. Sid Luckman Bears 1939-50
-121 Rate+ Okay, hard to compare the leather helmet quarterbacks with modern era players, Luckman was the man, an entire career that approximated Garcia's best season in comparison to the rest of the league.  Challenge to Luckman, beyond his playing in the 4 0s, is he only started 62 games in the NFL.  Most of them were terrific for the era, but 62 games 70 years ago is tough to rank higher.

40. Mark Brunell Jaguars 1994-2011
-120 AV, 107 Rate+ Really a model of consistency; only one bad season his entire career and no seasons above a 117 rate+; Brunell was basically 151 starting games of good.

39. Rich Gannon Raiders/Vikings 1987-04 
-120 AV, 110 Rate+ Gannon had four seasons at 120 Rate+ or above and added value with his legs.  

38. Sammy Baugh Redskins 1937-52
-122 Rate+ Same deal as Luckman but he started 21 more games. 

37. Dave Krieg Seahawks 1980-98
-138 AV, 107 Rate+, 175 starts and never had a season with a Rate+ below 92 (and that came when he was 37).  He's Brunell but moreso.  Not a great playoff performer.  

36. John Hadl Chargers 1962-77
-143 AV, 104 Rate+  Very similar to Krieg, lot of starts, mostly good to really good - it's a long, solid if unspectacular career.  

35. Roman Gabriel Rams 1962-77
-131 AV, 108 Rate+ Fits that Krieg/Hadl profile of a ton of good, consistent seasons and he hadded value with his legs.  

34. Norm Van Brocklin Rams 1949-60
-114 Rate+ Loaded up on good years at the start of his career, not great in the playoffs.

33. Steve McNair Titans 1995-07
-126 AV, 105 Rate+ 5.4 yards per rush for his career and 37 touchdowns on the ground help make up for that Rate+, years of being good, not a good playoff performer. 

32. Ken Stabler Raiders 1970-84 
-119 AV, 107 Rate+ Snake was old, didn't hit the league until he was 27, tore it up for half a dozen years including a SB title and then was just a guy the rest of his career.  

31. YA Tittle 1948-64 49ers/Giants
-112 Rate+, so many good seasons, 13 with a rate+ over 100, was playing great football at 37 years old.  Bad playoff performer, never won a game, rating under 35. 

30. Sonny Jurgensen Redskins/Eagles 1957-74
-139 AV, 114 Rate+ Bunch of good seasons, even as a part timer late in his career

29. Phil Simms Giants 1979-93
-118 AV, 105 Rate+ From his third season forward Simms was good every year, only a couple of seasons above 120 but when you add in a top 5 all time SB performance he gets this slot.

28. Philip Rivers Chargers
-151 AV thats a ton of AV and through 2015 hes never had a bad season.

27. Donovan McNabb Eagles 1999-2011
-138 AV, 106 Rate+almost all good seasons, one really excellent one with a 131 rate plus, a lot of value with his legs, 29 touchdowns and a 5.6 yards/carry average. Good enough in the playoffs with 9 wins and a rating at 80.

26. Randall Cunningham Eagles 1985-01
-134 AV, 107 Rate+  Only year over 120 and then the big year with the Vikings where he went for a 134 rate+. The rushing is a big plus, 6.4 yards a carry and 35 scores.

(The 25 Greatest Quarterbacks in NFL History)

25. Eli Manning Giants 2004-
-134 AV, through 2015, his best year was only a Rate+ of 112, but he's 8-3 in the playoffs with 5 game winning drives and 2 SB wins.  

24. Kurt Warner Rams/Cardinals 1998-09 
-113 AV, 117 Rate+, three super elite seasons to start his career and then solid years in his 30s; picks up points for his postseason record, 9-4, quarterback rating over 100, and as of the end of 2015, 2 of the 15 top quarterbacked games in SB history.

23. Warren Moon Oilers 1984-00
-166 AV, 106 Rate+ Most AV of anyone on the list so far, the rate is only okay, Moon rarely had a bad year but only one above 120 rate+. 3-7 playoff record doesn't do him a ton of favors. 

22. Jim Kelly Bills 1986-96
-132 AV, 111 Rate+ Nothing but good seasons until his final campaign, one over 120 and one over 130. The postseason doesn't help him a lot with a quarterback rating just over 70, the four SB losses were all bad performances.

21. Dan Fouts Chargers 1973-87
-162 AV, 112 Rate+ 3 seasons over 120, his and Anderson's careers are pretty similar. Not great in the playoffs, a passer rating of 70.

20. Ken Anderson Bengals 1971-86
-161 AV, 112 Rate+ 2 seasons over 120, two over 130 and a 90+ quarterback rating in the playoffs. 

19. Aaron Rodgers QB Packers 2007-
-132 AV, 3 seasons of rate+ over 120, one over 130, one at 149, every season of his career a good one, a playoff quarterback rating of nearly 100 and as of the end of the 2015 season, one of the ten best quarterbacked games in SB history.  

18. Troy Aikman Cowboys 1989-00
-122 AV, 106 Rate+ Only two seasons above 120, it's a solid not a spectacular profile. Then the playoffs, 11 wins, an 88 passer rating, the 3 SBs, which is the first time we've seen that number on the list.  One of those games was great, a top 10 all time SB quarterbacked game.  

17. Terry Bradshaw Steelers 1970-83
-137 AV 105 rate+ Not a ton here in the regular season, only two years above 120. 14 playoff wins and a passer rating of 83.  Bradshaw's really a better Aikman.  One of his SB games a top ten quarterbacked game, another a top 25.  

16. Len Dawson Chiefs 1957-75
-144 AV, 120 Rate+ Nothing but good seasons his whole career including 4 that topped 130. And the top 25 all time super bowl quarterbacked game.

15. Bob Griese Dolphins 1967-80
-139 AV, 113 Rate+ Only 2 seasons below 100, 4 of his full time seasons above 120, wasnt a great playoff quarterback, just a little under 70 passer rating.  Got those two rings though.

14. Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 2004-
-145 AV, really strong, 4 seasons at 120 rate+ or above and a 5th at 130 with only two subpar years through 2015. He's been a solid playoff quarterback, 11 wins and a rating above 80, his SB performances haven't been good, but he does have 2 rings.  

13. Roger Staubach Cowboys 1969-79
-128 AV, 122 Rate+ over 120 twice, 130 twice and 140 once, an elite quarterback up until the final snap but only started 114 games, not beginning his career until 28. 11 playoff wins and two titles but only a passer rating in the 70s for the postseason. Staubach had 2 of the 20 best quarterbacked games in SB history through 2015. 

12. Johnny Unitas Colts 1956-73
-145 AV, 112 Rate+ A dozen good seasons, 5 in the 120s, one in the 130s, 3 titles but a sub 70 playoff rating. 

11. Otto Graham Browns 1946-55
-127 Rate+ never had a bad year, 2 over 120, 2 over 130, 2 over 140. 7 titles, but a playoff quarterback rating under 70.  

(The Top 10 Quarterbacks in NFL History)

10. Bart Starr Packers 1956-71
-114 AV, 113 rate+, 11 good seasons, 3 over 120, 1 over 140, 9-1 in the playoffs with a quarterback rating over 100 and five titles. That's a big game quarterback.

9. Dan Marino Dolphins 1983-99
-216 AV, 113 Rate+ Did you know his middle name is Constantine? And Unitas too?  Creepy.  One subpar year, his last, at the age of 38, 3 in the 120s and 1 in the 140s, his regular season profile looks a lot like Brady's, say a tick below.  Not much help in the playoffs, rating in the high 70s, below .500 record.

8. John Elway Broncos 1983-98
-203 AV, 105 Rate+ If you think its a low Rate+ it is, a half dozen subpar years, only one year above 120.  Added 33 with his legs.  14 playoff wins, which is a bunch, rating was a tick below 80. One SB performance in the top 30 ever through 2015.  

7. Drew Brees Saints 2001-
-207 AV, 3 seasons of 130+ rate+ as of 2015, only 1 season below 110 since he turned 25. His playoff quarterback rating is over 100. 

6. Fran Tarkenton Vikings 1961-78
-236 AV, 114 Rate+ And the legs, 32 scores and 5.4 yards a carry. A little better than Marino, one subpar season, 4 seasons in the 120s, 1 in the 130s. The playoffs were not good, rating under 60. A ton of bad SB losses.

5. Steve Young 49ers 1985-99
-171 AV, 126 Rate+ In his full seasons as a starter, crossed 120 twice, 130 twice, 140 twice, added a bunch of rushing value 43 touchdowns, playoff rating in the mid 80s, his SB game was crazy, the second best of all time.  

4. Brett Favre Packers 1991-10
--255 AV, 109 Rate+ was still great even at 40, with a 129 rate+, only had a couple other seasons in the 120s and 1 in the 130s. Good in the playoffs, mid 80s rating, a top 20 all time quarterbacked SB game.

3. Joe Montana 49ers 1979-94
-164 AV, 123 Rate+ Not quite as good as Young as a regular season quarterback, never had a bad season, 4 in the 120s, 2 in the 130s, 1 in the 140s -- and then came the playoffs, 16 wins, a quarterback rating in the mid 90s, 5 game winning playoff drives, the 4 titles and the best Super Bowl career in NFL history, through 2015, Montana had the best SB, the 5th best, and the 11 best for a quarterback.   

2. Tom Brady Patriots 2000-
-223 AV, 223 games started through 2015, never had a bad season, one above 120, one above 130, one above 140.  22 playoff wins, a playoff quarterback rating of 88, 9 game winning playoff drives and the 4 titles.  He doesn't have a super elite SB performance, but 3 of his games are in the top 30 all time.  Lot to like.

1. Peyton Manning Colts 1998-2015
-271 AV, 2 subpar seasons, the first and last,  7 over 120, 1 over 130, and in 2004 a 151 Rate+. the best season on the board.  Good in the playoffs, a rating in the high 80s, and he won the two titles, despite never having a good SB performance. No question he's the best regular season quarterback ever.  No question Montana is the best SB quarterback ever.  Brady combines both.  Through 2015, I think it's Manning, but Brady has more games still to play.


Anonymous said...

I still say that it's a travesty that George Blanda is not on this list. One of the all-time greats at two completely different positions!

Given that you rank pitchers among the all-time baseball greats, I do not understand your bias against place kickers. Matt Prater is every bit as important to his team's success as Mariano Rivera was to his.

Jim said...

1. Prater is not as important as Rivera.
2. I don't have many closers on my baseball list and for the reason you suggest. Rivera's an outlier.
3. This list is just for quarterback performance, I'm also not counting Baugh's punting, for example. Groza won't make the offensive line list even given the kicking.
4. Blanda was not a particularly good quarterback.
5. I may still have a George Blanda football card.

DennisVee said...

Ah, but you DID put Groza on the OL list, even though Mike McCormack was the more accomplished blocker who made the HOF solely on his OL play....

DennisVee said...

I agree with not having Blanda on this list. He had the devil-may-care gunslinger attitude that typified the early AFL -- fling the ball downfield and hope that Cannon, Hennigan or Groman grab it, and if it's intercepted, we'll try it again next series.... He does belong in the HOF for his lengthy all-purpose career and his scoring records, but he was not an exceptional QB by any means....

april said...

I never had seen such an exhaustive list of best quarterback of all time. I love to read about history of NFL as well as of players. Thanks to you guys for compiling this list.

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