How Can the Greatest NFL QB be Found?

by Jonathan Hobratsch

I write this blog not too long after the retirement of Peyton Manning. His retirement has reopened the debate regarding who might the greatest quarterback be, especially considering Manning left the game after winning a second Super Bowl.

Recently, sports pundits at were asked to give the names of who they thought were the greatest QBs in history. Overwhelmingly, they chose Tom Brady and Joe Montana over Manning. Others in the discussion included Brett Favre, John Elway, Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas. Not a single pundit declared Peyton Manning the best quarterback.

The first question in finding an answer is determining the weight between a quarterbacks on-field statistics and his winning record. If a quarterback’s individual output mean less than his winning record (which is more of a team effort, than statistics),  then we must determine how much weight we should give to quarterbacks that make it to the Super Bowl.

I must confess my own bias here. I think individual output is undervalued in the discussion, while a single game at the end of the season is given too much weight. Peyton Manning’s final season is a good argument for this. In the regular season, he threw 9 TDs and 17 INTs in only 10 regular season games. In the Super Bowl, he threw for only 141 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. Despite Manning, his team has made him a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Pundits and fans will wash away the poor individual performance for the shiny rings brought by a team effort.

For comparison, lets look at another Broncos QB, John Elway. He also has two rings as a quarterback. He has one more appearance to the Super Bowl (5) than Manning (4). Because of this, some will rank Elway above Manning. What isn’t often discussed is that Elway’s individual output in the Super Bowls was not always that great. In five Super Bowls, Elway threw only 3 TDs and 8 Ints.  In two of his Super Bowl losses, Elway completed less than 40% of his passes. His first Super Bowl win mirrored Manning’s recent performance: 123 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. Lastly, Manning was a great and efficient quarterback before he was 25 years of age, Elway wasn’t statistically efficient or reliable until he was about 32 years old. While Elway is definitely a great quarterback, I can’t find a strong argument to put him as the greatest QB of all time.

I will now include some statistics in three tiers: regular season performance, overall winning, and playoff success. From this I’ll try to determine the best QB, which I think, would have to some success in all of these areas. [note: I will include the old AFL and AAFC leagues since these were about equivalent in talent to the NFL and were merged into the league.]

Regular Season Individual Output (top 5 for each category)

  1. MVP Awards: Peyton Manning (5), Otto Graham (5), Johnny Unitas (3), Brett Favre (3), and many tied with two, including Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers.
  2. Seasons with QB rating index 120% of the NFL average or higher: Manning (9), Young (8), Graham (7), Sammy Baugh (7), Unitas (6), Montana (6).
  3. Yardage leader: Drew Brees (6), Graham (5), Dan Marino (5), Sonny Jurgenson (5), and with Baugh, Unitas and Dan Fouts tied at four.
  4. Seasons with TD% index 120% of the NFL average or higher: Manning (8), Arnie Herber (7), Favre (7), Young (50, Len Dawson (5).
  5. Seasons with INT% index 120% lower than the NFL average: Graham (6), Ken Anderson (6), Rodgers (5), Montana (5), Baugh (5).
  6. Season with completion% index 120% of the NFL average or higher: Baugh (10), Montana (8), Young (8), Dawson (8), Brees (8).
  7. Seasons with yards per pass average index 120% of the NFL average or higher: Manning (9), Young (7), Graham (7), Ben Roethlisberger (7), and with Unitas, Fouts and Rodgers ties with six.
  8. Rushing accomplishments (1pt for passing 300 rushing yards and/or 5 TDs):  Michael Vick (17), Cam Newton (15), Randall Cunningham (14), Tobin Rote (11), Dutch Clark (11) and Daunte Culpepper and Steve McNair tied with ten.
  9. 1st Team All-Pros: Manning (7), Graham (7), Clark (6), Unitas (5), Sid Luckman (5)

Using a holistic grading system based off the information below, I’d give the following grades to these QBs for individual regular season output: Manning, Graham, Unitas and Young receive an A as the best quarterback statistically speaking. Baugh, Clark and Montana received a grade of B. While, Favre, Rodgers, Brees, Marino, Jurgenson, Fouts, Herber, Roethlisberger, Luckman, Dawson, Anderson, Vick, Newton, Cunningham, Rote, Culpepper and McNair receive a C. Any of the historically great QBs not on his list received a D, including Staubach, Aikman, Elway, Bradshaw, etc.

Overall Regular Season Winning

  1. Seasons with a winning record while starting most of the games in a season: Manning (15), Favre (15), Brady (14), John Elway (12) and Unitas and Luckman tied with eleven.
  2. Regular season winning percentage: Graham (88%), Luckman (84%), Daryle Lamonica (80%), Brady (77%), Bob Waterfield (76%)
  3. Total regular season wins: Manning (186), Favre (186), Brady (172), Elway (148), Marino (147).
  4. Seasons lead the league in game winning drives and/or 4th quarter comebacks: Unitas (11), Manning (7), Namath (7), Fran Tarkenton (6), and Elway, Brady, Warren Moon, Ken Stabler, and Babe Parilli are tied with five.

For this section, I give the following grades: Brady, Manning and Elway get an A. Favre, Unitas and Luckman get a B. While Graham, Lamonica, Waterfield, Marino, Namath, Tarkenton, Moon, Stabler and Parilli get a C. Any great QB not on this list gets a D, including Young, Montana and Baugh, who did so well in the previous category.

Overall Playoff Performance

  1. Super Bowl wins: Brady (4), Bradshaw (4), Montana (4), Troy Aikman (3) and too many tied with two to count towards this category.
  2. Super Bowl appearances: Brady (6), Elway (5), Roger Staubach (5),  with Bradshaw, Montana, Jim Kelly, and Manning tied with four.
  3. Pre-Super Bowl Championship victories, plus SB win if they have both: Graham (7), Starr (5), Luckman (4), Herber (4) and Bobby Layne, Unitas and Dawson tied at three.
  4. Playoff winning% with a minimum of 8 games: Starr (90%), Jim Plunkett (80%), Graham (75%), Unitas (75%), Theismann (75%).
  5. Total playoff victories: Brady (22), Montana (16), and Bradshaw, Elway and Manning tied with 14.
  6. Super Bowl MVPs: Montana (3), Brady (3), Starr (2), Bradshaw (2) and Eli Manning (2).

For this section, I give the following grades: Brady, Bradshaw, Montana and Graham receive an A. Elway, Unitas, Starr, Peyton Manning, Luckman, Herber and Layne receive a B. Aikman, Staubach, Kelly, Dawson, Plunkett, Theismann and Eli Manning receive a C. Any QB not on this list that has made it to the Super Bowl or pre-SB championship will receive a D. Anyone that has not made it into any of these game will receive an F.

The Great QB Report Card and the Top 10 All-Time Quarterbacks:

First Place: Peyton Manning (A/A/B)

Second Place: Otto Graham (A/C/A) and Johnny Unitas (A/B/B)

Fourth Place: Tom Brady (D/A/A)

Fifth Place: Joe Montana (B/D/A)  and John Elway (D/A/B)

Seventh Place: Sid Luckman (D/B/B)

Eighth Place: Steve Young (A/D/D),  Brett Favre (C/B/D), Terry Bradshaw (D/D/A)

Other readers may want to adjust grades. I’ve decided to weight equally the accomplishments of individual performance, winning in the regular season and playoff success.

In hindsight, it’s not too difficult to see why Manning could be the greatest QB of all-time. For a decade and a half, he’s routinely put out a top individual performance, made it to the playoffs, where he’s had some success. Look to see Aaron Rodgers make this list fairly soon.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Where’s Robert E. Lee? 🙂 –Paul


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