10. Dan Marino—He is possibly the best pure passer of the football the game has ever known. Joe Namath would be Marino’s competition in that regard. When Marino’s coach at Pitt, Jackie Sherrill, first saw Marino throw, he said: “Son, don’t ever let anyone change your throwing motion.” His stance in the pocket was picturesque. His eyes never left downfield. His release was a thing of beauty, as the shoulder rolled and the ball came off his ear as though it was shot from a gun. If quarterbacks are judged solely for how they pass the football, then Marino might, in fact, be the greatest of all-time. There are, however, other considerations, one of which is championships won and Marino doesn’t have one. What a shame.
9. Peyton Manning—No quarterback has ever moved the ball with the ease Manning has for as long as Manning has. He remains the most feared quarterback in the league. He doesn’t have a Marino-like arm, but Manning has an aptitude for the position and technique and precision that nullifies whatever he lacks in the way of mobility or ability to throw on the run. Make him move his feet, and he’s a rather ordinary quarterback, but few have been able to make him move his feet. Manning has a ring, which puts him a cut above Marino, but Manning’s postseason record and stats are a great disappointment when compared to the ease with which he has compiled regular-season wins and stats. Postseason failures push him down the rankings.
8. Roger Staubach—What if he hadn’t lost four years of his career to military service? What if he had gone to the Cowboys as a rookie out of the Naval Academy in 1965? Do you really want me to answer that question? Staubach is the most underrated quarterback in the history of the game, and much of that is the result of lost years of his career. First, the military got him, and then Tom Landry’s two-quarterback system got him. It wasn’t until Landry committed to Staubach that the Cowboys won a Super Bowl and Staubach led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins and it might’ve been four, had it not been for running into the Steelers twice in the 1970s. He was 85-29 as a starter. He was the best blend of mobility and accuracy the game had ever seen. His penchant for late-game comebacks was legendary. The only knock on Staubach is that his career as a full-time starter was only seven years long. Tack on another five and we might be talking about the greatest quarterback of all-time.
7. John Elway—What Staubach did, Elway did better. Elway redefined mobility and accuracy. He took Staubach’s run-and-pass combination to a higher level. What legs! What an arm! The ridiculous knock on Elway for most of his career was that he couldn’t win the big one; that he didn’t get it done. Are you kidding me? What did they call that thing in Cleveland? Oh, yeah, “The Drive.” Elway’s problem was that he played in the AFC, which was grossly inferior to the NFC through most of Elway’s career. If he had played for the Giants, Redskins, Cowboys or 49ers, he’d be sitting on a pile of Super Bowl wins and maybe he’d be the greatest quarterback of all-time. He got two at the end of his career. They were deserved and so is his place in the top 10.
6. Terry Bradshaw—All you need to know about Bradshaw is that if you assemble his postseason games – there are 19 of them – into one season and compare that season to all of the regular seasons of his career, Bradshaw’s postseason would represent the greatest season of his life. What does it mean? It means that when the light went on, Brad went off. It means that when the weather got coldest and the pressure got thickest and the competition got toughest, Bradshaw went to a higher level. That’s how you win four Super Bowls. In two of those Super Bowl wins, he was the show. The “Steel Curtain” was hard in decline at that point and Bradshaw lit up the Cowboys and Rams and claimed the Super Bowl MVP in consecutive seasons. He’d have a third Super Bowl MVP if it wasn’t for the dramatic, acrobatic catches Lynn Swann made in Super Bowl X. Bradshaw’s final pitch in that game was a bomb to Swann, which Bradshaw never saw completed because as he was releasing the pass he was knocked cold by a helmet-to-helmet blow from Larry Cole. It was a tough game in those days and Bradshaw was the toughest of the tough-guy quarterbacks.
5. Bart Starr—Few get it: Playing quarterback isn’t only about throwing passes. Playing the position is about leadership and management and rising to the occasion when the game is on the line. Starr is the greatest leader, manager and seize-the-moment quarterback in the history of the game. He played for a domineering coach, a man whose personality was so intimidating that it would’ve caused most quarterbacks to wither, but Vince Lombardi didn’t intimidate Starr. Ask yourself this: What man would’ve had the courage, with the NFL title on the line in a one-play-for-all-the-marbles situation, to take the play-call away from Lombardi? Starr did. He said I can do it, coach, and then he did. Lombardi deferred to Starr. Think about that. What does it say about Starr? It says it all.
4. Tom Brady—The scouts missed on this so badly that they’re still not willing to admit it. Bad arm? Are you kidding me? The guy is still throwing darts and nobody, including Troy Aikman, who is possibly the most accurate passer of all-time, can fit the ball into the tiny windows Brady has in his career. A little scrawny? Are you kidding me? Until he sustained a catastrophic knee injury a few years ago, Brady was a monster in the pocket. You didn’t get to him and you didn’t shake him. The Patriots were 3-15 under Bill Belichick when Brady was installed as the team’s starting quarterback. He then led them to three Super Bowl wins over the next four years and at one point in his career he was 14-2 in postseason games. He’s currently on a three-game postseason losing streak, and that’s causing some to think he’s on the downside of his career. If he is, he’s done enough already to be a top-five all-time quarterback, and should he get a second wind and win another couple of titles, he would likely go down in history as No. 1.
3. Otto Graham—Graham played in an era that preceded the television boom, and that means much of what Graham did was seen only by local audiences and all of that leaves younger fans to ask, “Otto who?” OK, this Otto: the one that led the Cleveland Browns to four All-America Football Conference and three NFL titles in a 10-year period. Graham played in the lob-ball era; it was a different game, but it was a brutally physical game that demanded of its quarterback courage, stamina and leadership. Graham possessed all of those skills in addition to an athletic ability that also allowed him to play for the Rochester Royals of the NBL. His passing stats are modern-day like. The Browns’ record, 105-17-4, during his career is mind-boggling and his NFL record as a starter, 57-13-1, represents the highest winning percentage of any quarterback in history. Graham’s legacy is that as the winningest quarterback ever.
2. Joe Montana—Maybe he’s No. 1. I’ve considered that possibility. Everybody loves Montana. They love the way he played, they love the way he won, they love his rather demure-for-a-football-player appearance. Don’t be fooled. This was not some kid with a magic wand. Montana was not an over-achiever who somehow found a way to win. He was a marvelously talented and dominant athlete that was recruited to Notre Dame to play football at the same time he was being recruited by North Carolina State, which would go on to win the NCAA title, to play basketball. He was also a Major League Baseball prospect. Montana was a premier athlete who Dan Devine somehow found a way to hide at Notre Dame, but he couldn’t hide Montana from Bill Walsh, who spent a third-round pick on Montana and then made the quarterback the centerpiece of Walsh’s “West Coast offense.” In just the coach’s and quarterback’s third season with the 49ers, the two led the team to the Super Bowl title. Montana would win three more Super Bowls and would claim the MVP award three times total. He was also one of the toughest quarterbacks to have played the game, having battled through the heart of Lawrence Taylor’s career and major back surgery to play on.
1. Johnny Unitas—He invented the game as it’s played today. He invented and perfected the down-and-out, two-minute drill. He invented the proper technique for dropping back into the pocket and holding the ball high and tight to the body, and then flicking it in such a manner as to finish with his right index finger pointing at the receiver, usually Raymond Berry, as the ball nestled into Berry’s hands. Here’s the best part: He sharpened his skills on a rocky sandlot under a bridge. He was 118-64-4 as a starter and he won league titles in 1958 and ’59 and the Super Bowl V title, but his win in ’58 in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” trumps anything else he did in his career. He quarterbacked the Colts to an overtime win at Yankee Stadium against the Giants that brought pro football out of the shadows and into the headlines. In driving the Colts down the field in one of his patented ball-control drives, Unitas changed the game forever. He is considered to be the first master of the position in the modern era, and his leadership in the huddle was sacrosanct. When Don Shula became coach of the Colts and once sent a play into the game, Unitas called time out, went to the sideline and asked Shula if he wanted to play quarterback. Nobody called Unitas’ plays but Unitas.