Whether you're blogging about the NFL on your own or writing for someone else, there is one question that is eventually going to come up, and I hate it with a passion: "Who is the best quarterback ever?"
In my opinion, this is the worst question in all of sports. Not only is it impossible to answer with certainty (I mean you can find six sports writers who list the three most important things to look at and find a dozen different ways to measure the position) – but fans, other writers, and everyone else will immediately judge you on the answer. It's such a bull question in part because it's impossible to answer when it's kept that general.
What makes up a great quarterback? Is it:
The ability to make something out of nothing
The poise to come from behind
Able to run a system into an offensive juggernaut
Turning a good team into a great one
Turning an otherwise terrible team into a play-off one by force of will
The ability to create pure offense on their own
Gun-slinging / willing the team to victory
Being mistake free to let the system work
There's an argument to be made for any one of these points, or combinations of them. My problem with naming a best quarterback and the fight that inevitably follows is that by my standards I might be naming the best choice – just as two other people arguing could be naming the best QB based on their standards. So let's call this an elite club: the best of the best (kudos to anyone who gets the movie reference) and let's introduce the club.
Best Make Something Out of Nothing QB
The Winner: Brett Favre
This isn't just referring to a quarterback who could extend a play and somehow beat the perfect defense, but walk into an offense that shouldn't win 3 games and win 9. Or 12. Or 14. They were never surrounded with Hall of Fame, All Pro, or Pro Bowl talent – but they made an offense click and made a lot of skill position players look better than they were.
Peyton Manning made everyone better, but he has also worked with scores of Pro Bowlers and Hall of Fame players on the offensive side of the ball. Dan Marino? Threw to Clayton and Duper – Keith Jackson and several Pro Bowl WR later in his career. Montana and Young – their offenses were loaded with guys who could be Pro Bowlers on other teams.
Brett Favre? Two years of Sterling Sharpe. A few with Robert Brooks before injury also claimed his career. One and a half with Keith Jackson at TE, half a year with Andre Rison – a hand full of seasons with Don Beebe. Ahman Green eventually added some serious Pro Bowl power – and a lot of fumbles with it.
Favre made players like Bill Schroeder and Derrick Mayes look like Pro Bowlers & Antonio Freeman and Dorsey Levens look like Hall of Fame type players. Then none of the receivers could get past #4 receiver on other teams that had truly terrible receiving corps and Levens was quickly out of the NFL. And if you just said I don't know who most of those people are: exactly.
You wouldn't want him running an efficient complex system, but if you needed a gunslinger to make a mediocre offense very good or a good offense great, no one consistently did more with less – and in an era where the defense could mug your receivers.
Honorable Mentions: Fran Tarkenton, Donovan McNabb
Best System QB
The Winner: Peyton Manning
First of all, I want to stress that this is NOT the insult some people take it as. Aaron Rodgers is a system QB, as is Peyton Manning, as was Kurt Warner during his best years. A truly great QB doesn't just run a system, he takes it to an entirely new level with a football IQ so ridiculous that the much more talented defense doesn't have a chance.
No one does this like Peyton Manning. He can have a play called with four "option" routes by receivers, he can read the defense, and coach the other players on offense to make the right choice and he can analyze all of this with a single glance. No one has shown Peyton's ability to read every single detail of what is going on and exploit every single mismatch a good offensive system creates against any defense on every play.
A Manning-led offense is always going to be top 5, and love him or hate him, no one ran an offensive system the way that he could.
Honorable Mentions: Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Warner
Best One Man Offense QB
The Winner(s) Steve Young, Fran Tarkenton
Some guys could make something out of nothing, some could elevate an offensive system to a dance of the athletic gods, and some were just pure offense by themselves. Here there are two winners: Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton. These are two quarterbacks who created offense with their legs, with incredible downfield throws, and truly elevated their teams in ways that you almost never see.
Young put up ridiculously accurate passing numbers and is third (or fourth depending whose numbers you use) in all-time in career passing rating, which is even more impressive when you realize Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning played the far majority of their careers with much more offensive-friendly passing rules that has resulted in everyone's career QB rating shooting through the roof. His 98.61 destroys other quarterbacks from his era and even crushes the likes of John Elway, Brett Favre, and Dan Marino. Only Joe Montana comes close from the old school group – and he's at 11.
Add in the fact Young could run as well as any QB of the last 30 years and that's just not fair.
Fran Tarkenton showed mobile quarterbacks could play in the NFL, and would scramble for yards, keep a play alive for ten or twenty seconds or more, and by the end of his career he owned most NFL passing records. He was so valuable that after trading him away, the Vikings would give up a ransom of picks and players to get him back just a few years later. Both men were instant offense.
And although it's way too early to tell, just because of a few spectacular seasons we still need to add the need to watch Cam Newton's career. He could easily end up on top of this list.
Honorable Mentions: John Elway, Cam Newton
He's Just a F**king Winner
The Winner(s): Joe Montana, Tom Brady
Here's another category that can get plenty of arguments. While I get career wins, you can't say based on Peyton Manning's post season career or Favre after 2002-ish are really the first names that come to mind. Ditto with Elway's Super Bowl record. Joe Montana and Tom Brady, on the other hand, you can love them or hate them but you didn't bet against them. Not if you wanted to win in Vegas anyway.
Joe Montana is simple. 4-0 in the Super Bowl and plenty of stylish drives to get there including the famous "The Catch" to Dwight Clark (who leaped 15 feet in the air, approximately) in the corner of the end zone. The guy won again and again and again. If he had two minutes left, you just knew you were in trouble.
Tom Brady. If you're a Patriots fan you love him. If you're everyone else you probably hate him. But he has played in an eye-popping six Super Bowls and comes back with a 4-2 record. He quarterbacked the team during their undefeated regular season, and has had many seasons where his top weapon or top several weapons on offense go down with injuries…and somehow the Patriots win 12-14 games anyway, win their division, and often go to the Super Bowl. You just can't beat this guy down.
Honorable Mentions: Terry Bradshaw (I know he could be higher but c'mon – two HOF receivers, one of the all-time great RBs, and so many clips of them pulling down passes in double coverage, no that's a team effort there)
Best 4th Quarter Final Drive Quarterback
The Winner: John Elway
Was there any doubt? While Elway's passing numbers were very rarely eye popping, no quarterback has orchestrated more 4th quarter comebacks in their career. Between scrambling for critical first downs, mastering the bootleg run, and shining when the lights are brightest, Elway was the epitome of a QB you did not give 1-2 minutes to at the end of the game.
While almost every great QB on this list has had their moments in those do or die situations, no one consistently did it like Elway from the beginning of his career all the way up through the end.
Honorable Mentions: Young to mid-career Brett Favre, Joe Montana
Most Underrated Quarterback in History
The Winner: Boomer Esiason
Some of the honorable mentions might be arguably better quarterbacks, but Drew Brees gets plenty of attention (though maybe not as much as he should) and Dan Fouts is undeniably a great quarterback, though he often gets overlooked in classic QB discussions. Boomer Esiason might not have the stats of modern QBs, but he was a tough old-school QB who made the most of bad situations, produced on a major level late into his career, and played at a time when being stuck with the worst team in the NFL was usually a death sentence to statistics and recognition.
Esiason made several Pro Bowls and won an MVP award as QB of the Bengals, who soon after he was traded would be so bad for so long that they would be made fun of by newscasters in other countries. They would become synonymous with failure. Traded to the terrible Jets, he managed one 8-8 season on a team with little on defense, no offensive line, and no weapons. Battered, he would eventually be traded to the then equally futile Cardinals before the Jets would start on their own long streak of futile seasons.
Esiason had streaks with the Cardinals that were beyond phenomenal, bringing a surge of offense to the team. Despite serious nagging injuries he threw over 500 yards and led them to 7 wins while being replaced by a worse replacement – something that would happen in his last year back in Cincinnati where he was phenomenal.
Despite injuries, old school defense, and struggling on terrible teams, when he retired Esiason held major NFL records, especially among left handed quarterbacks and is considered by many professional sports writers to be among the 25 to 30 best quarterbacks of all time. Definitely underrated.
Honorable Mentions: Randall Cunningham, Drew Brees, Dan Fouts
Best QB Who Never Won a Super Bowl
The Winner: Dan Marino
Okay, I'm going to admit it: I think this is a bulls**t category and I'm doing it solely to troll blog owner and good buddy (and life-long Dolphins fan) Chris Spooner. Sorry buddy, I couldn't resist. Clearly the choice here is Dan Marino. Because Marino was awesome (but he never won a Super Bowl).
I mean seriously, Marino set all the all-time passing records back when corners were allowed to cover and receivers weren't allowed free catches on 5 yard crossing routes because of defenseless receiver rules. Those career numbers are amazing, and had him in the discussion for best ever, despite not winning a Super Bowl. He came close in 1984, but then, you know, fell 16 points short to arguably Joe Montana's best team.
While there are other great names on this list, there's no question Marino stands head and shoulders above them all. Even beyond statistics, no one had a quicker release and it took massive rule changes for anyone to come after his single season records in touchdowns and yards, not to mention a massive change in culture for running up scores. Even then, it would be decades before those records would fall.
What Marino accomplished in his career won't be forgotten…including losing his only Super Bowl appearance (sorry Chris – I just had to twist the dagger one more time). Honorable mentions: Fran Tarkenton, Jim Kelly, & Dan Fouts fans, you can cry in your beer, too!
This is why I hate the greatest quarterback question. What would the numbers look like if Favre had started his career 10 years later and feasted on easier passing rules or had better support? How would Manning have shred a defense in 1980's rules? Who knows? Truly great quarterbacks are undeniably great – but there are so many different routes to that status as great.
While it's interesting to see what each person sees as the most important indicators to judge this question, there is no final answer that is ever going to satisfy everyone…and maybe that's what makes this discussion so damned interesting.