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Best Quarterback Ever: Round 1

This is a question that has and will continue to plague football fans as long as their are people under center in our uniforms to cheer for. There probably is no consensus choice and there probably isn't an objective "right" answer. What one person considers "greatness" another might consider "just good". Some people consider championships the ultimate testament to greatness, others might consider a career holistically and statistically. Still others, like myself, might use another metric.

To that end the discussion itself is as much a vocabulary debate as it is about quarterbacks, teams, or football. Establishing a meaningful metric for distinguishing the good from the great, the great from the elite, and the elite from the best, is a necessary step towards reaching a satisfactory, reasonable answer. To that end I have identified three measures of greatness. These are not the only three measures, nor are any of them mutually exclusive. But they are the ones I most often encounter in this debate and thus they make for a good starting point in determining what makes someone a "great" quarterback. Presumably the best quarterback in the league will have succeeded in at least one, probably more, of these categories. And here they are:

  1. Quarterback's ability to win a championship.
  2. Quarterback's statistical or productive dominance over other quarterbacks (of his time or all time).
  3. Quarterback's impact on the sport, how much they changed the game, how revolutionary they were.
If possible, please add to this list in the comments section.

I posted the question "Who is the Best QB Ever" to my SportsBlog Nation colleagues and received a good amount of interesting insight. Much of it was snippets of thoughts that furthered a more general/running discussion and thus does not translate well to a structured post. I have tried to compile what I subjectively felt were the most interesting or worthwhile thoughts, though these are by no means exhaustive of the email debate that ensued. I have grouped comments according to which Quarterback they support or denounce, in that order. If an argument was presented against a quarterback to support another, I put that argument with the quarterback supported. When the discussion tilted towards classification or metric issues, I separated them at the bottom. Hogs Haven Presents:

Johnny Unitas:

From Big Blue Shoes at Stampede Blue:

Best ever: Baugh is there, but so is Unitas. He set passing records when people were still afraid to throw the ball. The rules for throwing were more restrictive back then, and he set records that would make modern throwers turn their heads. He was a great QB, a great leader, and did more to influence modern QB play than any other QB in NFL history. All NFL QBs refer to Unitas as one of their greatest influences. It's amazing that modern NFL QBs still look at Unitas.

Washington Post Beat Writer and blogger Jason La Canfora (I read his Redskins Insider constantly, as it is an excellent source of Redskins news) is an actual journalist, so I thought his words would add credibility to the list. He's also a traitor, Sammy Baugh is the correct answer. Anyways:

Johnny U, baby. No questions about it.
Joe Montana:

Kirkendall from Cincy Jungle:

The guy Sports Illustrated called "The Ultimate Winner", completed 82 of 122 passes for 1,142 yards, 11 touchdowns and NO interceptions in four Super Bowls -- a 127.8 passer rating. He's the quarterback on "The Catch" - one of the most famous plays of all-time. He's beaten Dan Marino, Kenny Anderson, Boomer Esiason and John Elway in respective Super Bowls. He's an eight-time pro-bowl quarterback, three-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP and led 31 fourth quarter comebacks.

Joe Montana is the standard of today's Quarterback who everyone else compares to like people do with Michael Jordan in the NBA.

DISCLAIMER: It hurts to promote Montana because he's the jerk that beat the Bengals in their only Super Bowl appearances.

John Elway:

From The Sports Guru at Mile High Report:

This might be a homer call as well, but I go with John Elway.  Montana is awesome as well, no doubt, and like someone said before he still drove the car, but he fit in perfectly with the system that his head coach invented.  Elway on the other hand had several different coaches, different systems, and a bunch of awful talent that he willed to 3 Super Bowls.  Come on, the 3 amigos??  Sammy Winder?  Gerald Wilhite?

He could move in the pocket and run before that was part of a quarterbacks game, especially for a man his size and considering he had all the cartilage removed from his knee in high school.

And perhaps the most impressive fact, he is the only Denver Bronco in the hall of fame.  And this is a team that has been to 6 Super Bowls out of 40.  Not many other teams can say either.

You can't go wrong with anyone on this list, but for my money, with 5 minutes left, from my own 2 yard line, on the road, against the best defense in football, I'll take #7 everytime!

[ED:Later]How about the fact that Elway has more Wins than anyone else.  Not bad in my opinion.

From WCG at Windy City Gridiron:

Elway did not win his two until he got his 2000 yard rusher. Until then he was headed directly for the
Marino category of QB with huge numbers that never produced.

SportsGuru rebuttal:

He was still the MVP of the Super Bowl in the last game he played.  Again,
not many guys can go out on top like that.  I think that argument works to
my favor, however, because take away the greatest WR of all time and
Montana/Young may have struggled to win a bit more.  The fact that Elway got
those Bronco teams to the 3 Super Bowls in 4 years, while Marino did it only
once puts Elway much higher on the list..."

And yours truly:

  1. He did not change the game. He was a very clutch QB in a league with very good quarterbacks around him.
  2. He has the most interceptions in the Superbowl, which makes sense because he started in more Superbowls than any other player. Still, 8 in 5 games is less than stellar.
  3. Prior to Terrell Davis, John Elway was 0-3 in Superbowls and really getting destroyed in them. The Broncos lost 39-20, 42-10 (to Your Washington Redskins), and 55-10.
  4. Over the course of his career he only led the league in passing yards once, in 1993. He never led in touchdowns.
I am not denigrating John Elways. Sometimes I will catch myself buying Coors Original just because John Elway told me so. I love the man and I love what he did for the sport. In fact as recently as last night, I was playing Madden on the Nintendo 64 as John Elway. I was awesome. He was awesome. It was beautiful.

Slingin' Sammy Baugh:

Yours truly:

Slingin' Sammy Baugh is the father of the passing game. That is the criteria I am using to measure him as the best QB of all time, though here's some additional information:

1) He led the NFL in passing his rookie season. He also set the record for most years leading the NFL in passing, with 6. The only other player in NFL history to do this was Steve Young. No one else has led the league even 5 years.
1b) Sammy Baugh led the league in Completion Percentage for 7 years. Only Len Dawson has done it for more, with 8.
1c) Led the league in lowest interception % 5 years. That is an NFL record; no other QB has ever successfully led for 4 years.

  1. In his rookie year he also led the Redskins to a championship over the Chicago Bears 28-21. In that game he threw for 335 yards and 3 touchdowns
  2. In 1945 his 70.3 completion percentage was a record that would survive nearly 40 years, until Ken Anderson broke it in 1982. A 70.3 Completion % would rank him number 1 in the NFL today, an utterly incredibly, and amazing fact given how the game has changed. In 1978 the NFL changed the rules and ushered in the Live Ball Era to combat team's increasing inability to score offensively. This made it much easier to successfully pass the ball down the field. To contrast just how amazing his 70+% completion percentage was in 1945, John Elway -- who played his entire career in the Live Ball Era -- completed over 60% of his passes just 3 times in his entire career, and finished with a 56.9% completion percentage. Other comparable greats fair better but not convincingly enough. Joe Montana, in 1993, was just short of Sammy Baugh's completion percentage. Barring that incredible year he only passed above 65% once, in 1987.
All of this speaks to his ability which carries weight nearly 5 decades later. And although the "Best QB Ever" should be a consideration of that player as a Quarterback, the legend of Sammy Baugh should never forget his incredible Triple Crown achievement: in 1943, in what is possibly one of the greatest single NFL records of all time, Sammy Baugh led the league in Passing Yards, Interceptions, and Punting. In 1940 he would set the all time NFL record for punting average in a season that has yest to be broken. His career punting average was a record that would survive over 50 years, until broken by Shane Lechler in 2005.

These are things he did relative to his peers. They are amazing. They should have already wowed you. But also remember that when Sammy Baugh entered the league was run oriented. When he left, much due to the unprecedented accuracy he brought to the game, the forward pass had become the primary method of attack. His prowess ushered in a new era of passing to supplant the run, and for that he should be correctly recognized as the greatest QB of all time. No other quarterback can make a claim to greatness without first saluting those who came first, and no is more recognizeable as a pioneer for the forward pass as Sammy Baugh.


In his rookie year he also led the Redskins to a championship over the Chicago Bears 28-21. In that game he threw for 335 yards and 3 touchdowns

Sorry, can't vote for him now:)

Steve Young:

From Dave the Falconer at The Falcoholic:

Let me make my argument for Young with stats. First of all, Young could move when he needed to, as is evidenced by his 4239 rushing yards and 43 (!) rushing TDs. That's insane. If you'll remember, his career passer rating was the best in the game when he retired and will likely always remain in the Top 5. He made beautiful reads, elevated the team, and was a winner. Football is a team game, folks. As the 49ers talent level declined, down also went their Super Bowl chances yearly, but Young remained a superb passer, runner, and leader. He doesn't have the mind blowing numbers of a Dan Marino or the multiple rings of a Joe Montana, but Steve Young to me epitomizes a great QB.

Dan Marino:

From BBS:

People shoot Marino down because, typically, he dominated them. Ask Patriots fans. Marino so completely and utterly owned them during his career that they make it their live's mission to bash him today and praise Brady. I HATED Marino when he played. The colts used to play in his division. When Jim Harbaugh and the '95 Colts came back in that game down in Miami, I screamed "Eat it Dan!"

People who "shoot Marino down" simply don't know what they are talking about, or they have some kind of silly agenda against the guy. He's a great QB, and if Montana is getting including in this discussion, then Marino should. Marino, in my mind, did more with less when compared to Montana. For most of his career he had medicore defenses and no running game.

And this is coming from a longtime Marino hater.

Joe Namath:

VanRam at Turf Show Times:

It's hard to make the case statistically for Namath compare to guys like Montana or Marino, but I really think if you put intangibles such as impact on the game (hell, even mass culture with those sideburns) Namath was huge.


Big Blue Shoes on Championships:

QB do not win championships. TEAMS do. If Championships are first on your list, then that means you'd rather have Trent Dilfer or Ben Roethlisberger throwing for you over Carson Palmer, right?  :)

Johnny Unitas would still be one of the best ever even without his championships. I don't include Montana in the best ever category because someone immediately took his place in SF (Steve Young) and won MVPs and rings the same way Montana did. So, if Montana is so great then Young must be equally great. With those two, the system was more the reason, not necessarily their abilities (which were great).

However, take Dan Marino and put him in SF, and put Montana in Miami. Marino would then have the rings (and the stats) and Montana would not get included in this discussion. Simple as that.

Guys like Marino, Tarkenton, Fouts, and Moon were great, great players. They won with a lot less than guys like Aikman, Young, Montana, and Elway. Just because they don't have rings doesn't take anything away from them. If Carson Palmer never wins a ring, but continues to play at his high level, he is still a better QB than guys like Roethlisberger and Trent Dilfer (who both have rings).

Jimmy from Music City Miracles response:

Montana won multiple rings.  Young won one.  That does not make them equally great.  Montana was a winner just like Tom Brady is.  He would have elevated the guys in Miami had he been there.

I don't know why anyone is wasting there time debating this.  Kerry Collins is the best QB ever.  Look at all the money the Titans are giving him just to sit on the bench.  That is how much they need his presence.

But seriously this time, Vince Young is the best QB ever.  He came from 21 behind in the 4th quarter.  Ok, I am kidding again."

And BBS response:

Montana won multiple rings because the team remained good. Immediately after Young won his in 1994, the talent on the team regressed (Watters left, Deoin left, etc.). The talent of the team is everything. The whole "he's a winner" thing is just silly, imho. Montana would not have elevated the talent in Miami. In all the seasons Montana won SBs, he had a great defense backing him up. He also had players like Roger Craig, Jerry Rice, and Brent Jones on his offense. Marino never had guys like that. Marino never had Terrel Davis (Denver) to had the ball to. He never had Emmitt Smith or a defense like the 2003 Patriots to back him up. Fouts never had that. Nor did Tarkenton. Trent Dilfer had one of the greatest defenses EVER backing him up. Is it any wonder he won a ring?

Teams win SBs. Great QBs are great regardless of what their teams win. One player cannot win a SB. This is not the NBA. This takes nothing away from guys like Montana or Elway or Aikman. They are still great players. However, it is silly to judge players primarily on how many championships they won. What they did on the field defines them. Sometimes it's just how they carried themselves, sometimes stats, sometimes how many games they helped their team win.

Gonzo at Daily Norseman:

I also think that a distinction might need to be made between great quarterbacks and guys that are simply great passers.

If you're talking about guys that could just flat out throw the football, then Marino would probably be way up towards the top of the list, along with guys like Dan Fouts (who was just ridiculously great in his day) and Dave Krieg (one of the most criminally underrated QBs of the last 25-30 years).  Right now, this is the category that Peyton Manning falls under, IMO.

But when it comes to being a great quarterback, the best ones just have "it."  Montana, Elway, Bart Starr (ouch. . .that stung a little), Bradshaw, Aikman. . .they all had that something extra.  I hated watching Vikings/Niners games growing up and seeing Montana come out on the field late.  Why?  Because I KNEW that SOB was going to move his team down the field and get the game-winning score, and there wasn't a damn thing that my team's defense could do about it.  Even when he moved on to Kansas City for that last season or two, he was the only quarterback I ever really got that feeling about. . .and that's why he's on the top of my list.

Also, it warms the cockles of my heart that nobody has tried to offer up Brett Favre as the best QB ever.  If a guy isn't even the best QB in the history of his own team (and Favre isn't, IMO), then he can't be part of the greatest ever discussion.

All in all a very robust discussion. I was disappointed by the lack of long arguments in favor of Bart Starr, Sid Luckman, Brett Favre, and others. There are a lot more great quarterbacks to consider than the ones above.

I should note that the most interesting discussion centered around the Championship vs. Production issue. That truly seems to muddy the discussion waters. All things equal a championship is better than none at all, but is the career of Dan Marino (viewed holistically) equal to anyone else? And how are we to evaluate quarterbacks who played in a different era, whose statistics might not compare well with their modern counterparts? Where does impact, or how much a player revolutionized the game fit in?

I apologize if the above is wordy, though the format didn't lend itself to brevity. I would encourage anyone to participate additionally with either justifications along the lines above, introduction of structured arguments in favor of new quarterbacks, or simply introducing new metric or classification concerns that are missed from the above.

It is naive to hope that everyone will agree on the absolute Best Quarterback Ever. But perhaps we can all, at best, agree on some meaningful measurement of greatness by which we can all evaluate future quarterbacks. At the very least, the discussion will better enable us to argue convincingly in favor of our own hometown heroes, whomever they might be.