Updated: Aug 21, 2021
The NFL in 2020 is a quarterback’s league. While the quarterback has always been vital to a team’s success, rule changes favoring the offense have made this even more evident today. As a result of these changes, scoring has increased and passing records are being broken on a yearly basis. While this list obviously takes statistics into account, it also looks at players in relation to other players of their era. As a result, this list includes players who span seven decades of NFL football, proving that true greatness is timeless.
1) Tom Brady, 2000-present
He may not have the strongest arm or possess dazzling athleticism, but the sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan has become the most accomplished passer in NFL history. The regular season numbers are impressive: 74,571 yards, 541 touchdowns, 219 wins and a 97.0 QB rating. But it’s the postseason numbers that set Brady apart: a 30-11 record, 11,388 yards and 73 touchdowns - all NFL records. It gets even better in the biggest game of them of all. In nine Super Bowls, Brady has 2,838 yards, 18 touchdowns and only six interceptions. More importantly, he has a record six wins and four MVPs. An ageless wonder at 43 entering the 2020 season, the 14-time Pro Bowler and 3-time league MVP will look to add to his resume as the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
2) Peyton Manning, 1998-2015
The expectations were high from the start for the number one overall pick from Tennessee and son of former New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Archie Manning. Fourteen Pro Bowls and five MVPs later, Peyton Manning exceeded those expectations. His 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns rank third all-time, while his 186 wins rank second. In 2013, Manning set single-season records with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. The 5-time All-Pro also had an NFL record 14 seasons of 4,000 yards, and is the only starting quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams.
3) Johnny Unitas, 1956-73
An unheralded ninth-round draft pick from Louisville, the man with the crew cut and black high-tops would become the greatest passer in the NFL’s first 50 years. Unitas threw for 40,239 yards, 290 touchdowns, and compiled a 118-63-4 record as a starter in 18 NFL seasons. The Hall of Famer and Baltimore Colts great was a 10-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All Pro and 3-time MVP. Along with Bart Starr, Unitas is one of only two quarterbacks to win NFL championships both before and during the Super Bowl-era.
4) Joe Montana, 1979-94
Montana is commonly regarded as the greatest clutch player in NFL history. In four Super Bowl wins, “Joe Cool” completed 83 of 122 passes for 1,142 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His 127.8 QB rating in the big game is the highest in league history. The Hall of Famer was more than just a great postseason player, though. The 8-time Pro Bowler and 2-time MVP had 40,551 yards, 273 touchdowns and a 92.3 rating in the regular season.
5) Drew Brees, 2001-present
Considered undersized by many scouts when he came into the league, the Purdue alum has done nothing but produce oversized numbers in the NFL. Brees is the all-time leader with 77,416 yards, 547 touchdowns, 6,867 completions and a 67.6 completion percentage. The 12-time Pro Bowler is also third all-time with a 98.4 QB rating. In the postseason, Brees is sixth all-time with a rating of 99.6, and was named the 2009 Super Bowl MVP for the world champion New Orleans Saints.
6) Aaron Rodgers, 2005-present
Rodgers is arguably the most complete quarterback the game has ever seen. The Green Bay Packers All-Pro has taken arm strength, accuracy and athleticism and combined them with intelligence and instinct to become the highest-rated QB in NFL history at 102.4. In 15 seasons, 12 as a starter, Rodgers has 46,946 yards, 364 touchdowns and only 84 interceptions. His career interception percentage of 1.4 and streak of 402 passes without an INT are the best in league history. Rodgers also has eight Pro Bowl selections, two NFL MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP to his credit.
7) Brett Favre, 1991-2010
Favre is the game’s all-time iron man. His streak of 299 consecutive games played, 323 if you include the postseason, is an NFL record that will likely never be broken. The Packers gunslinger was as productive as he was durable, retiring as the all-time leader in yards, touchdowns, completions and attempts. His streak of 18 consecutive 3,000 yard seasons is still an NFL record. From 1995-97, the 11-time Pro Bowler won an unprecedented three straight MVP awards, leading Green Bay to two Super Bowls and a world championship in 1996.
8) Steve Young, 1985-99
Young had to wait his turn behind another 49ers Hall of Fame quarterback, but when he got his opportunity, the BYU alum proved he deserved to take a backseat to no one. From 1991-98, Young was a 7-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro and 2-time MVP. His accuracy won him an NFL-record six passer rating titles, and his athleticism resulted in 4,239 career rushing yards. Young’s finest moment came in Super Bowl 29 when he completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards and a record six touchdowns in the 49ers 49-26 win over the Chargers.
9) Dan Marino, 1983-99
When Marino came into the league in 1983, he was the best pure passer the league had seen. Release, accuracy, arm strength. The Dolphins great had it all. When Marino retired at the end of the 1999 season, the Hall of Famer was the all-time leader in most major passing categories, and it wasn’t even close. His 61,361 yards were nearly 10,000 more than second place John Elway, and his 420 touchdowns were 78 more than Fran Tarkenton’s 342. Marino was a 9-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro and the 1984 NFL MVP with a then-single season record 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns.
10) Fran Tarkenton, 1961-78
For defensive coordinators used to the traditional drop-back passer, Tarkenton was their worst nightmare. His ability to extend plays by scrambling and then making accurate throws on the run was new to the NFL of the 60s and 70s. Just as he did to defenses for 18 years, the Hall of Famer ended up obliterating the record books, retiring as the NFL’s all-time leader with 47,003 passing yards and 342 touchdowns. The 9-time Pro Bowler was also the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback with 3,674.