Playing quarterback in the NFL is often considered one of the toughest positions in all professional sports. The best quarterbacks of all time must understand complex plays, read a defense, dodge oncoming tacklers, rush, and throw with precision, all within a few seconds.
Luckily, the NFL has been blessed with some outstanding quarterbacks, but who is the greatest? In this article, we break down the best NFL quarterbacks based on their skills, stats, and achievements. Ready? Set hut!
20. Kurt Warner (1998 – 2009)
The first name on our list, Kurt Warner, is a true NFL underdog story. After a solid but unspectacular college career, he went undrafted in the 1994 NFL draft before playing in the Indoor Football League (IFL) and NFL Europe.
Warner was signed by the St. Louis Rams as cover for Trent Green who had suffered a torn ACL. In each of Warner’s first three NFL starts, he threw three touchdown passes and went on to have one of the best seasons by a quarterback in NFL history.
He threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdown passes with a completion rate of 65.1%. He was named NFL MVP and won the Super Bowl. In total, he played 12 seasons for the Rams, Cardinals, and Giants, throwing 32,344 yards and 208 touchdowns.
Warner was a four-time Pro Bowler, two-time MVP, Super Bowl MVP, Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. Warner is certainly worth of being named one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
19. Jim Kelly (1986 – 1996)
Image credit: Richard Bartlaga/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jim Kelly was selected as the 14th overall pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1983 NFL Draft. This turned out to be a great move for both the franchise and the player. Kelly led the Bills to a record four consecutive Super Bowls, though was unable to convert these appearances into wins.
He may not be the best quarterback ever, having never won the Super Bowl, but Kelly was an outstanding performer for the Bills, who employed a no-huddle offense and thrilled fans with their attacking play. He played 11 NFL seasons and threw for a total of 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns, both of which are Buffalo records. Kelly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
18. Terry Bradshaw (1970 – 1983)
Image credit: The ASI Show/Wikipedia Commons
Terry Bradshaw was the leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty that dominated the NFL in the mid to late 1970s. During this time they won four Super Bowl championships in six years. Bradshaw was selected as the number one pick in the 1970 draft by the Steelers, but things could have been very different.
At the end of the 1969 season, both the Steelers and the Chicago Bears had identical 1-13 records. So, to decide which team would get the first pick in the draft, they settled it with a coin flip. Pittsburgh won, and the rest is history.
Terry Bradshaw went on to play 14 seasons for the Steelers and threw for 27,989 yards and 212 touchdowns. He was a three-time Pro Bowler, one-time MVP, two-time Super Bowl MVP, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
17. Warren Moon (1984 – 2000)
Warren Moon had a long and successful football career where he played in both the CFL and NFL. Another player who went undrafted out of college, Moon honed his skill by playing for the Edmonton Eskimos. Here he led the team to five consecutive Grey Cup victories.
The same level of team success did not follow when Moon joined the Houston Oilers in the NFL in 1984, but he still made outstanding individual contributions. He lead the Oilers to seven consecutive playoff appearances between 1987 and 1993.
In his 22-year NFL career, he threw for 49,325 yards and 291 touchdowns. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, one-time Offensive Player of the Year, and Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, becoming the first African-American and the first undrafted quarterback to do so. Moon is also the only player who has been inducted into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
He is well-deserving of a place on our list of the best quarterbacks of all time.
16. Otto Graham (1946 – 1955)
Otto Graham is a legend in Cleveland. He led the Browns to an unprecedented seven championship wins in just 10 seasons from 1946 to 1955. Despite playing a lot of his career before the Super Bowl era began, Graham’s impact can not be underestimated.
He still holds NFL records for career average yards gained per pass attempt (8.63) and the highest career winning percentage for an NFL starting quarterback (81.0%). This has helped him be remembered as one of the best NFL quarterbacks.
In total, Graham played 6 NFL seasons for the Browns, throwing 13,499 yards and 88 touchdowns. He was selected to play in 5 Pro Bowls and won 3 championships. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965.
15. Troy Aikman (1989 – 2000)
Troy Aikman was always destined for greatness. A standout in both football and baseball in high school, the New York Mets offered Aikman a contract to join them when he graduated. Aikman turned the offer to play pro baseball down and instead chose to play football for the University of Oklahoma Sooners.
After a stellar college career, Aikman was selected as the first overall pick in the 1989 draft by the Dallas Cowboys. Cowboys fans are still thanking their lucky stars that Aikman didn’t choose baseball.
In 12 seasons for the Cowboys, Aikman threw for 32,942 yards and 165 touchdowns. He was selected to play in 6 Pro Bowls, won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, 1 Super Bowl MVP award, and 3 championships. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.
14. Bart Starr (1956 – 1971)
Image credit: Tullio Saba/Flickr, PDM 1.0
Bart Starr is another legend of 50s and 60s football that makes our list. He played for the Green Bay Packers and was a five-time NFL champion, including Super Bowl I and II, where he also collected MVP awards. Starr was outstanding in big games and clutch moments and held a postseason record of 9-1.
In total, he threw for 24,718 yards and 152 touchdowns, was selected to play in four Pro Bowls, and won 1 MVP award, 2 Super Bowl MVP awards, and 5 championships. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
13. Ben Roethlisberger (2004 – 2021)
Image credit: Brook Ward/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Ben Roethlisberger delivered outstanding performances individually and at a team level during his 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After being selected as the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft, he shone in his early NFL career.
He won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2004, and in 2005 became the youngest Super Bowl–winning quarterback in NFL history, aged just 23. Big Ben and the Steelers followed this Super Bowl victory up with another one three years later, claiming the franchises’ second title in four seasons.
In his career, Roethlisberger threw for 64,088 yards and 418 touchdowns and was selected to play in the Pro Bowl six times.
12. Roger Staubach (1969 – 1979)
Roger Staubach is the only Heisman Trophy winner to appear on our list of the greatest NFL quarterbacks ever. He followed up his domination of the college game with an outstanding pro career.
Like many of the great quarterbacks on this list, Staubach spent his entire career with one franchise. This stability helped him become one of the most memorable players of the 1970s.
Staubach played 11 seasons for the Cowboys where he threw for a total of 22,700 yards and 153 touchdowns. He was a two-time Super Bowl champion, one-time Super Bowl MVP, six-time Pro Bowler, and recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985.
Staubach is even one of the richest NFL players in history, having sold a real estate business for $613 million.
11. Fran Tarkenton (1961 – 1978)
Fran Tarkenton aged like a fine wine. Although he was an exceptional college player and had remarkable success in his early NFL career, it was his 15th season in the league that cemented him as one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
In 1975, he was named both the NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. He was just the fourth player in league history to do so at the time. He led the league in both completions and touchdowns and took the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons.
Despite never winning a Super Bowl, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of his era. He threw for 47,003 yards and 342 touchdowns.
10. Dan Marino (1983 – 1999)
Image credit: Casey Florig/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Dan Marino is arguably the greatest quarterback (and the highest-ranked on our list) to never win a Super Bowl. He reached the Super Bowl just once. Yet another one-team man, Marino was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1983. He went on to become one of the most iconic and effective players of the 1980s and 90s.
Marino was an outstanding passer, and led the Dolphins to the playoffs in 10 of his 17 seasons. When he retired he held more than 40 NFL single-season and career passing records, and was the first quarterback to throw 400 career touchdowns.
In total, he threw for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns, was selected to play in nine Pro Bowls, and won one Offensive Player of the Year award, one MVP award, and the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
Marino doesn’t need a Super Bowl win to be remembered as one of the best NFL quarterbacks of all time!
9. Steve Young (1985 – 1999)
Steve Young is known as one of the most efficient and effective passers in NFL history. After starting his pro career in the USFL, he eventually joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1985. After a shocking two years with the Bucs, where Young went 3–16 as a starter, he moved to the San Francisco 49ers to act as a backup to superstar quarterback, Joe Montana (more on him later).
Thanks to a long-term injury to Montana in 1990, Young finally got his chance to start for the 49ers. In the subsequent seasons, he was named Offensive Player of the Year and league MVP twice. He led the league in most passing stats for several years, and eventually led the 49ers to victory at Super Bowl XXIX.
In his career, he threw for 33,124 yards and 232 touchdowns. He was selected to play in seven Pro Bowls, won one Super Bowl MVP award and three championships in total. Young was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
8. Aaron Rodgers (2005 – present)
Image credit: All-Pro Reels/Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
Aaron Rodgers is one of the most individually decorated quarterbacks in history. He has held more records than most players have made appearances in the NFL. It therefore comes as no surprise that he is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
Rodgers is the first quarterback in history who has had a career passer rating over 100. He also has the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history at 4.52. During his 18-year career with the Green Bay Packers, the biggest surprise is that he only won one Super Bowl.
So far in his career, he has thrown for 59,055 yards and 475 touchdowns. He has been selected to play in 10 Pro Bowls, won four MVP awards and one Super Bowl MVP award.
7. Johnny Unitas (1956 – 1973)
Image credit: Joe Haupt/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Like many of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, Johnny Unitas is proof that you don’t have to be drafted as the first pick or have a glittering college career to go on to greatness in the NFL.
Unitas was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round of the 1955 draft but never made the team. A year later, he joined the Baltimore Colts where he would enjoy an unbelievable period of success.
In the next 17 seasons with the Colts, he was selected to play in 10 Pro Bowls (a record for a quarterback at the time), won three MVP awards, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, and four NFL championships. In his career, he threw for 40,239 yards, 290 touchdowns and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.
6. Brett Favre (1991 – 2010)
Image credit: Elvis Kennedy/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Brett Favre is undoubtedly one of the best quarterbacks of all time and a legend of the modern era. But, he didn’t always have universal approval. His first head coach in the NFL, Jerry Glanville, even said it would take a plane crash for him to put Favre into the game.
Clearly, it was never meant to be for Glanville and Farve at the Atlanta Falcons. That all changed when Farve was traded to the Green Bay Packers in 1992. Across 16 seasons in Green Bay, Farve became the only player in NFL history to win the league MVP award three seasons in a row. He also led the team to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances at XXXI and XXXII, winning the first.
Favre eventually moved on from the Packers, giving way to Aaron Rodgers. In 20 seasons for four teams he threw for a total of 71,838 yards and 508 touchdowns. He was also selected to play in 11 Pro Bowls, won one Offensive Player of the Year award, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
5. John Elway (1983 – 1998)
John Elway is synonymous with the Denver Broncos as he is the only person in the franchise’s history to be associated with each of their three Super Bowl wins. Two came as a player in 1997 and 1998, and one as the general manager when they won Super Bowl 50.
As a player, Elway was a dual threat. He could easily escape trouble with his running ability while also being an accurate passer. It’s this that helped him become one of the best quarterbacks of all time. In 16 seasons for the Broncos, he threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns. He played in nine Pro Bowls, won one MVP award, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, and one Super Bowl MVP award. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
4. Drew Brees (2001 – 2020)
Image credit: Football Schedule/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Despite a successful college career, where he finished in fourth and third positions in Heisman Trophy voting, NFL teams were unsure whether Drew Brees could be effective in the pro ranks. He was perceived as having a small stature and lack of arm strength. Brees was therefore only selected as the 32nd overall pick in the 2001 draft.
He established himself as a starter in his second season with the San Diego Chargers, but would truly find his home when he signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2006. During his time with the Saints, he became a passing powerhouse. He still holds the record for most seasons as passing yards leader in NFL history (seven).
In 20 total seasons in the NFL, he threw for 80,358 yards and 571 touchdowns. He was selected for 13 Pro Bowls, won one Comeback Player of the Year award, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, one Super Bowl MVP award, and Super Bowl XLIV.
3. Joe Montana (1979 – 1994)
Image credit: Richard Bartlaga/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
As we reach the top three best quarterbacks of all time, it goes without saying that these guys could perform under pressure.
Joe Montana is arguably the best clutch quarterback in history, known for producing his best at crucial moments. This includes a game-winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship Game vs. Dallas (known as “The Catch”) and a championship-winning 92-yard drive against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
“Joe Cool” held several NFL records when he retired in 1994. He was victorious in four out of four Super Bowl appearances, was named MVP in three, and holds Super Bowl career records for most passes without an interception (122) and the highest passer rating (127.8).
Montana threw for a career total of 40,551 yards and 273 touchdowns. He was selected to play in eight Pro Bowls, won one Offensive Player of the Year award, and two league MVP awards. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.
2. Peyton Manning (1998 – 2015)
Image credit: Mike Morbeck, Wikipedia Commons
While some may have hoped to see two Mannings on this list (we see you Giants fans), there is no doubt that Peyton deserves his place amongst the very best NFL quarterbacks of all time. He entered the league after the Indianapolis Colts selected him with the first pick of the 1998 draft.
In his glittering career, Manning amassed a huge number of individual records, including the most MVP awards (five), most touchdown passes in a season (55), and most First-Team All-Pro selections (seven).
Despite winning two Super Bowls (one with the Colts and one with the Broncos), his outstanding regular season stats did not translate to the playoffs, and his career postseason record is just 14–13. Although there have been questions asked of Manning in this regard, he is a hugely gifted player.
In total, he threw for 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns. He was selected for 14 Pro Bowls, won one Comeback Player of the Year award, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, and the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021.
1. Tom Brady (2000 – 2022)
Image credit: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
It couldn’t have been anyone else, could it? Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all time.
What Tom Brady lacked in talent (he was the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft) he made up for with sheer hard work, grit, and determination.
He won the most games in NFL regular season history (251), has the most career passing yards (89,214), most touchdown passes (649), most NFL championships of any player (seven), and most Super Bowl MVPs (five). So, no, it couldn’t have been anyone else.
Brady’s efficiency and longevity are testament to his ability as a competitor. But his relationship with Bill Belichick formed the most formidable head coach-quarterback combination in NFL history. With Belichick and Brady at the helm, the Patriots became the most dominant dynasty in the modern NFL. Brady’s accomplishments will probably remain unmatched for as long as the NFL exists.
In his career, Brady threw for 89,214 yards and 649 touchdowns, was selected to play in 15 Pro Bowls, won one Comeback Player of the Year award, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, and three MVP awards.
All hail the GOAT!
Lead Image: Brook Ward/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0