Over the years we’ve seen many greats play the quarterback position. It’s the most important on the field and gets the most attention from fans and media alike. The way the game is played has changed over the years, but we can still compare players from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to more recent players. We can do that by comparing how great those players were in their time and compare their greatness to more recent players in their own respective times. This will be done in a five-part series starting with numbers one to five.
- Tom Brady, 6’4” 225: (2000- Current) Patriots, Buccaneers
Accolades: 7x Super Bowl champ with a 7-3 record, 5x Super Bowl MVP, 3x NFL MVP, 14x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, 2x AP Offensive Player of the Year (2007, 2010)
Career Numbers: 79,204 yards (2nd), 581 TD passes (1st), 97.3 Passer Rating (T-7th), Average Ovr. PFF rank: 4.6, Average DVOA rank: 6, EPA/Play (from 2001-2020): 0.216 (3rd)
Whether you like it or not Tom fucking Brady is the best quarterback to ever play the game. He’s accurate, gets the ball out lightning fast, and makes great decisions. His leadership is unrivaled and has resulted in seven Super Bowl wins in ten trips. While in New England, Belichick didn’t prioritize weaponry and instead starting in 2007 they had one great target and then surrounded them with short, quick players while relying on Brady to make things run as well as they did.
In one season with the Buccaneers where they didn’t have a full offseason together, they still won the Super Bowl which shows just how great an impact Brady has on an organization. It’s also recently come out that Brady played the whole season with a torn MCL. Brady’s longevity is unmatched as he is entering his age 44 season and still contending for Super Bowls. His career numbers would very likely be higher with an offensive-minded coach like Sean Payton, Andy Reid, or Bruce Arians for most of his career.
As far as major weapons in his career he only had two and a half seasons with Randy Moss and even as great as Gronk is he missed a good amount of time with injuries. Brady had a lot of guys like Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan among others to surround the top target with. In the early 2000s, Brady had guys like Deion Branch, Troy Brown, David Patten, David Givens, Daniel Graham, and Christian Fauria but none of them were stars at their positions. With the Patriots a lot of their games were over at halftime which led to them running more in the second half to drain the clock so he wasn’t in situations to keep racking up the pass yards in the way guys with lesser defenses like Peyton and Brees could.
Brady was also a sixth-round pick and had 89 attempts go to a different QB while he was healthy his senior year of college, so the fact that by his second season he was able to lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl is that much more impressive. Guys don’t win like Brady because of a system or because of luck and he did more with less around him than anyone from his era. The saying “defenses win championships” should be ditched for “quarterbacks win championships,” and this quarterback has proven that seven times.
In the playoffs, Brady’s best trait perhaps was his ability to avoid not just sacks but most importantly his ability to avoid turnovers. Brady had a 2.2% INT% compared to Peyton’s 2.4%, Marino’s 3.5%, Montana’s 2.9%, and Elway’s 3.2%. You might be thinking “well Peyton and Tom are super close” that’s true until you also factor in TD%. Brady had a 4.7% TD% compared to Peyton’s 3.9% TD% in the playoffs. From 2007 to 2020 Brady has the highest EPA/play at 0.247and from 2004 to 2020 he ranks only second to Peyton at 0.243. In terms of quarterbacks with a minimum of 1500 plays from 2001-2004 Brady is still a top ten QB ranking tenth.
Again from his era he did more with less than anyone and compared to all his playoff performance resume is unmatched, all while not having the scheme advantage Montana did. Performance and longevity are what matter most and there isn’t anyone who has Brady beat in either.
2. Peyton Manning, 6’5” 230: (1998- 2015) Colts, Broncos
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x Super Bowl champ with a 2-2 record, 1x Super Bowl MVP, 5x NFL MVP, 14x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro, 2x AP Offensive Player of the Year (2004, 2013)
Career Numbers: 71,940 yards (3rd), 539 TD passes (3rd), 96.5 Passer Rating (11th), Average Ovr. PFF rank: 5.6, Average DVOA rank: 5.4, EPA/Play (from 1999- 2015): 0.246 (1st)
Peyton Manning had one of the best careers any player regardless of position could. Drafted number one overall out of Tennessee in 1998 the Indianapolis Colts got the answer to their prayers. It didn’t take him long to make his mark on the league as he finished third in the league in touchdown passes in just his second season. In 2004 he broke a 20-year-old record set by Dan Marino back in 1984 of 48 touchdown passes as Manning threw for 49.
He led the Colts to a Super Bowl in 2006 to finally get his ring after seeing rival Brady already have three. Manning missed the 2011 season with neck surgery and found himself in unfamiliar territory as a free agent. He signed with the Denver Broncos and was back to being himself in 2012. His 2013 season still remains the best statistical year by a quarterback ever as he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 TD passes against 10 interceptions. His final season in 2015 was complete shit, but the Broncos had a historic defense carry them to a Super Bowl allowing Peyton to go out on top.
Manning didn’t have very good defenses for most of his career but he almost always had great weaponry. He had Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Demaryius Thomas, and Wes Welker to go with other players who cycled in over the years. Manning didn’t perform in the playoffs as well as Brady which contributed to winning less than Brady in addition to having worse defenses. Brady had slightly better offensive lines than Peyton, but Peyton just about always had the edge in weaponry.
Peyton, like Brady, got the ball out lightning fast which allowed him to neutralize not having quite the offensive lines Brady had, although neither had incredible pass blocking in their career. In terms of average PFF grade of their pass blocking, which goes back to 2006, Peyton’s protection on average graded 15th and 19th with only his Colts years viewed compared to Brady’s average of rank of 15.4. Weaponry is key to attacking a defense and because of that edge he had and other points made in this section and the Brady section above Peyton is second and not first.
3. Dan Marino, 6’4” 224: (1983- 1999) Dolphins
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 9x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, 1x NFL MVP, AP Offensive Player of the Year (1984)
Career Numbers: 61,361 yards (6th), 420 TD passes (6th), 86.4 Passer Rating (38th), Average DVOA rank: 5.6
Dan the Man was a player who was ahead of his time as the league had never seen a passer like him before. Marino didn’t take long either to show people he was special. With his rocket arm, lightning-quick release, and decision making, he in just his second season threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. Headed into the 1984 season there had only been nine 4,000 yard seasons all-time and zero 40 plus touchdown seasons all-time. Those passing yard and pass touchdown totals stood as a single-season record until 2004.
He led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl where they would be defeated by Joe Montana’s 49ers. Marino had six 4,000 plus yard seasons in his career and four seasons of 30 plus touchdown passes. It’s absolutely worth wondering what Marino could do in a modern offense, especially if he had someone like Andy Reid or Sean Payton. Marino was ahead of his time and still ranks as a top-three quarterback all-time despite all of the good ones who have come after him.
While he was insanely good he ranks third because of his playoff performances. His team was 8-10 during his career in the playoffs and Marino himself didn’t have numbers you want to see. Marino’s career touchdown % to interception % ratio is 4.7% to 3.5%. That’s compared to the regular season where it was 5.0% to 3.0%. He also averaged a pedestrian 6.6 yards per attempt in the postseason compared to 7.3 yards in the regular season.
4. Joe Montana, 6’2” 200: (1979- 1994) 49ers, Chiefs
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 4x Super Bowl champ with a 4-0 record, 3x Super Bowl MVP, 2x NFL MVP, 8x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, AP Offensive Player of the Year (1989)
Career Numbers: 40,551 yards (21st), 273 TD passes (18th), 92.3 Passer Rating (16th), Average DVOA rank: 5
Montana dominated the 1980s as the 49ers starting quarterback and with Bill Walsh as his head coach. He could dominate from the pocket and scramble to make things happen with his feet if needed. At the time of his retirement, he ranked fourth all-time in passing yards and passing touchdowns. A perfect Super Bowl record is pretty damn nice too.
Montana and Walsh unleashed the west coast offense on the NFL and in their third season together they won a Super Bowl in 1981. They won again in 1984 over Dan Marino’s Dolphins then repeated in the 1988 and 1989 seasons, however in ’89 George Seifert, a long-time defensive coordinator under Bill Walsh, was the head coach. Because of Montana being the guy at the helm of the offense the 49ers were able to be the team of the ‘80s. Montana had great playoff numbers and was a very talented player but schematically had advantages offensively the three guys higher on this list didn’t. He also had the GOAT at receiver Jerry Rice for most of his time in San Francisco.
5.Otto Graham, 6’1” 196: (1946- 1955) Browns
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 4x AAFC champ, 3x NFL champ, 5x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro
Career Numbers: 23,584 yards (89th), 174 TD passes (65th), 86.6 Passer Rating (37th), 882 career rush yards, 44 career rush TD’s
Otto Graham was absolutely dominant in his time. At the time of his retirement, he was 1st all-time in passing yards and second all-time in touchdown passes and passer rating. Not only that but he won seven league titles in ten seasons of play. Otto Graham was essentially Brady before Brady in the way he was such a dominant winner. Graham had five seasons of 2,700 plus yards passing and at the end of his career he had five of the seven seasons all-time in which 2,700 pass yards or more was had. Graham also managed 44 rushing touchdowns in his career.