The Greatest Quarterback of All Time: The Impossible Debate

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INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 15: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts greets Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots after the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 15, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts won the game 35-34. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

When it comes to professional sports, only about half of the fun takes place on the field or court. While the athletes do all the heavy lifting, the fans are the ones that really get to sit back and enjoy the show. However, like any show, there’s a bit of friendly, and often not-so-friendly competition between the fans. Fans will argue everything from who the greatest of all time was to which team has the best cheerleaders. And among these debates, the mystery of the greatest quarterback of all time reigns supreme. Here’s an article that attempts to end the debate, once and for all.

The Greatest Quarterback of All Time: The Impossible Debate

When you opened this article, there was already someone in mind. With the exception of a few radical outliers, the same five names come up pretty consistently. Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, and John Elway. Depending on which quarterback you prefer, there’s a different to be made. Statistics vs. adversity vs. championships vs. performance in clutch situations? It’s a debate that could rage on forever. So instead of cherry-picking, why not look at the whole picture? Why not measure the success of the best quarterbacks in every category, and then see who was consistently elite?

Championships

Before anyone throws a fit, this is a very important category. It’s easy to bring up Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, and Jim Plunkett as quarterbacks that weren’t Hall of Fame worthy that won championships. Football is a team game, and it takes more than one man to win a championship. However, if you check the history books, you’ll find that more often than not, there’s an elite quarterback playing in the Super Bowl. Don’t fret, again, this is only one of the categories that determine the greatest of all time.

Since the turn of the millennia, either Manning, Brady, or Ben Roethlisberger have appeared in all but four of the Super Bowls. Four out of seventeen. That’s a bit of a stretch for a coincidence, right? Name a great quarterback that didn’t even appear in a Super Bowl. You can’t, because at some point, even if they didn’t win, they dragged their team there. The best quarterback to never play in a Super Bowl was Dan Fouts, and he’s hardly top five all-time.

So which quarterback won the most Super Bowls? That one is a bit obvious. Tom Brady’s five are more than any other quarterback in NFL history, just barely edging out Joe Montana’s four. And before anyone says anything, the fact that Montana was undefeated in this game is irrelevant since Brady has one more than he does. Losing before the Super Bowl isn’t any more glamorous.

These two are easily tops when it comes to championship Terry Bradshaw had four, but he also played with a historically brilliant defense, and Otto Graham‘s contributions at the position are very different from what is expected of modern quarterbacks.

Super Bowl Victories

Tom Brady- Five
Joe Montana- Four
Peyton Manning- Two
John Elway- Two
Dan Marino- None

Statistics

When it comes to the book of statistics, the name on the front cover is Manning. If there’s a [positive] passing record out there, it’s almost a guarantee that Peyton Manning holds it. Despite throwing the ball nearly 200 times less than Brett Favre did when he originally broke the records, Manning has just about every important statistical record. Now, there’s a good chance that a man named Drew Brees is only a year or two away from shattering these records, but for now, Manning is still king.

However, while Manning has a stranglehold on statistics, there are some variables to be considered. After all, Dan Marino retired with all of the passing records, and he didn’t play in Manning’s pass-friendly NFL. In Marino’s time, corners could mug receivers at the line and all the way down the field. Marino’s 1984 season is still arguably the best in NFL history when you consider what the league was like.

Peyton Manning- 65.3%, 71,940 yards, 539 touchdowns, 251 interceptions.
Tom Brady*- 63.8%, 61,582 yards, 456 touchdowns, 152 interceptions.
Dan Marino- 59.4%, 61,361 yards, 420 touchdowns, 252 interceptions.
John Elway- 56.9%, 51,475 yards, 300 touchdowns, 226 interceptions.
Joe Montana- 63.2%, 40,551 yards, 273 touchdowns, 139 interceptions. 

*-Still playing.

Clutch

What does clutch mean? When the game was on the line, which quarterbacks were the best? With the game on the line, who do you want under center?

Before anyone starts complaining about how this stat is irrelevant, there’s another number you need to hear. We’ve determined that either Manning, Brady, Marino, Elway, or Montana is the greatest of all time, right? Well, if you look at the list of quarterbacks with the most fourth quarter comebacks, these men hold five of the top six spots. Manning has the most, then Brady, then Marino, Johnny Unitas makes an appearance, and then Elway and Montana round out the list.

But fourth quarterback comebacks don’t tell the whole story. After all, if a quarterback is truly great, they should be dominating the entire game, right? Well, in my meaningless opinion, it’s the nature of the comeback that tells the real story. Coming back from down three to a bad team isn’t as impressive as that Super Bowl winning drive we all dreamt about in the backyard.

When you look at the NFL’s history, Joe Montana’s comebacks are some of the most memorable. “The Catch” was one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, and the comeback against the Cincinnati Bengals in XXIII is iconic. But who could forget John Elway and “the drive” against the Cleveland Browns? What about Peyton Manning against the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship?

Let’s be real. There’s only one man that can honestly claim to be the most clutch quarterback in NFL history, and that’s Tom Brady. His entire career has been defined by cheating scandals and inconceivable comebacks. Against the Raiders in the infamous Tuck Rule game, the Super Bowls against the St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, and Atlanta Falcons, Brady’s Patriots were down, and he found a way to win. This year, his Patriots were down 28-3 against an offense featuring the offensive player of the year and MVP, Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones, and he still won. No contest here.

Adversity

This one is a little flimsy. How can you possibly determine the adversity a quarterback faced in his career? And why should it be held against other players because they had better teams or a weaker division? It’s tough. But without this key variable, Emmitt Smith would be the greatest running back of all time. Smith had the championships, the big plays, and the statistics, but he also had one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. If you ask 100 NFL experts to name the greatest back of all time, 90 are saying Barry Sanders, and the other 10 are saying either Walter Payton or Jim Brown.

So while it’s a bit unfair, we have to look at what each quarterback was gifted with, and fought against, and when you look at the players pick, Dan Marino is the easy choice. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady spent most of their careers in pathetically weak divisions in a pass-happy era. Joe Montana’s 49ers were littered with Hall of Fame players, and while people whine about how bad Elway’s teams were, Terrell Davis still carried him to two Super Bowls.

Here are some fun facts about the teams that Dan Marino played with. During his career, he had exactly one 1,000 yard rusher, and only four top ten defenses. And while Manning had Marvin Harrison, Brady had Rob Gronkowski, and Montana had Jerry Rice, Marino had basically nobody. He put up those numbers in an era where passing was very difficult, without help from the run or an elite receiver. The focus with Marino shouldn’t be that he never won a Super Bowl, it should be that he was able to be successful at all with those teams. Andrew Luck, this is your future, I’m sorry.

In order to roughly explain which quarterbacks had the most help, I’m going to list all of the pro bowl skill position players they played with. Now, I’m only going to list the players that earned a pro bowl berth while playing with said quarterback, and before anyone complains about how the quarterback could elevate a mediocre player to pro bowl status, there’s a reason they’re on here. Some names will jump out at you, and some, you’ll have to google. Use your own discretion to determine which players were elevated by the quarterback, and which players needed the quarterback.

Pro Bowl Skill Position Players

Peyton Manning- Ten (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Dallas Clark, Marshall Faulk, Joseph Addai, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson.)
John Elway- Eight (Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis, Sammy Winder, Anthony Miller, Ed McCaffrey, Glyn Milburn, Gaston Green, Bobby Humphrey.)
Joe Montana- Six(Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark, John Taylor, Wendell Tyler, Marcus Allen.)
Tom Brady- Five (Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Troy Brown, Corey Dillon.)
Dan Marino- Four (Mark Clayton, Mark Duper, Ferrell Edmunds, Irving Fryar.)

Years with a Top Ten Defense

Tom Brady- Twelve.
Joe Montana- Nine.
John Elway- Nine.
Peyton Manning- Seven.
Dan Marino- Four.

1,000 Yard Rushers

Peyton Manning- Ten.
John Elway- Eight.
Tom Brady- Five.
Joe Montana- Four.
Dan Marino- One. 

The Last Word

So now that all the arguments have had their say, who is the greatest quarterback of all time? Which resumee is the most complete. Of these five men, who has the greatest legacy? Before revealing the answer, keep in mind that this is just an opinion. An opinion reinforced by statistics and logic, but an opinion nonetheless. All comments and opinions, even the nasty ones, are welcome in the comment section below.

This One’s… Not For John

John Elway has the rings, and his career numbers are solid, but that’s just it. They’re solid. His touchdown to interception ratio is the worst of the five, and if it weren’t for Terrell Davis, he would’ve retired ringless.

Magnificent Marino

Dan Marino’s road was harder, and he didn’t have the weapons, but his resumee is incomplete without that elusive trophy. It’s so unfair, because it really wasn’t his fault, but at the end of the day, the championships are a huge part of the argument and he doesn’t have one.

Perfect Peyton

Peyton Manning had the easiest road of the best quarterbacks. He had a ton of weapons, played in a mediocre division, and yet he couldn’t have the success of the next two men. His numbers are the greatest of all time for now, but what happens when Drew Brees passes him?

Cool Joe

Joe Montana is the easy pick for the greatest of all time, but when you consider that another quarterback, Steve Young, came along and experienced similar success with the same team. His numbers were the least impressive of the group, but his greatness in the big game can’t be understated, especially as the only man up here that’s undefeated in the Super Bowl.

Tom Terrific

When you look at the evidence here, there’s really no argument. He may have had more top ten defenses, but across the board, he shows up closer to the top than anyone else. He’s the most efficient, he’s won the most, and when it’s all said and done, he may have better numbers than Manning. It’s easy to dismiss his claim based on the cheating scandals and having the best head coach in NFL history, but when it comes to comparing legacies, who has done more on the field than Tom Brady?

2 COMMENTS

  1. Its crazy to think that Julian Edelman, as good as he is, has no pro-bowl appearances. Also funny that while he’s played with some solid defenses, in 2011 Brady led the Patriots to a bowl appearance with one of the worst-ranked defenses in the league… #GoFigure

    • I think Edelman’s performance has been overshadowed by Brady’s play, and at a time where there are so many elite receivers, he just gets lost in the shuffle, unfortunately.

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