Skip to main content

Football's Greatest: Ranking the Top 10 Quarterbacks in NFL History

  • Author:
  • Publish date:

Need the perfect holiday gift? This is the book to end all NFL arguments—and to start many others. Who's the greatest quarterback of all time? Are the Packers of Steelers the greatest franchise ever? Sports Illustrated's team of experts debate everything that makes football, football—whether it's the best players, the best on the defensive line, or the stadiums. Available now on

If Joe Montana had been drafted by Chicago, as nearly happened, would he have achieved as much? "Who knows if he came here, that he would have had the career that he's had in San Francisco?" Bears player personnel director Bill Tobin reflected in a 1990 profile by Paul Zimmerman in SI. Montana's high school coach, Chuck Abramski, asked "what if he had been in a system where he had to drop back seven steps and throw 50 yards downfield?" But Montana, our No. 2 pick at QB, did play in the offense of Bill Walsh, ranked our No. 4 coach. And he also had as a target our No. 1 receiver, Jerry Rice. Montana was fortunate, as were many of our top 10 quarterbacks: six played for top 10 coaches and five of them threw to top 10 receivers or tight ends. Out top QB, Tom Brady, played for our No. 2 coach. But as a sixth-round pick he could have landed anywhere, leaving questions as to whether he would have been historically successful without the guidance of Bill Belichick. Montana recognized that playing for Walsh was the best of all possible worlds: "There's no coach I could have played for who would have been better for my career," he says. "Absolutely none." Amid a sea of hypotheticals, we know this: The pieces came together, and the results made history. -- Bill Syken

How We Ranked Them

SI writers and editors were polled during the 2016 season and asked to submit Top 10 lists for 14 main categories. Votes were tallied with 10 points awarded for a first-place vote, nine points for a second-place vote and so on. Voters were also asked to justify their choices, and those comments appear with each Top 10 selection. In most cases, if one panelist had a player ranked higher than his colleagues did, he was asked to speak on that player's behalf. 

Panelists were not directed toward any set of nominees or limited by any preset criteria for what constituted all-time excellence. They were simply given categories and asked to select 10 names from the vast history of professional football.

Don Banks
Greg A. Bedard
Greg Bishop
Chris Burke
Mark Godich
Tim Layden
Peter King

No. 1. Tom Brady


Teams: New England Patriots, 2000-present.

Accolades: Most wins, best winning percentage of any QB in super bowl era, most Super Bowl wins (five) and appearances (seven) of any quarterback.

“The biggest steal in NFL draft history, Brady, the sixth-round pick out of Michigan, single-handedly changed the fortunes of the New England franchise.” — Don Banks

From The Vault: 

June 1, 2009: Tom Brady Is Back

With his voice rising as he leaned forward in his chair, Brady said that playing 10 more seasons "is a big goal of mine, a very big goal. I want to play until I'm 41. And if I get to that point and still feel good, I'll keep playing. I mean, what the hell else am I going to do? I don't like anything else. People say, 'What will you do if you don't play football?' Why would I even think of doing anything else? What would I do instead of run out in front of 80,000 people and command 52 guys and be around guys I consider brothers and be one of the real gladiators? Why would I ever want to do anything else? It's so hard to think of anything that would match what I do: Fly to the moon? Jump out of planes? Bungee-jump off cliffs? None of that s--- matters to me. I want to play this game I love, be with my wife and son, and enjoy life." 

– By Peter King

No. 2. Joe Montana


Teams: 49ers 1979-92, Chiefs 1993-94.

Accolades: Three-time Super Bowl MVP, 39 300-yard games.

“His measurable qualities have always been underrated: footwork, timing and accuracy. His immeasurable qualities are the best in history: leadership, calmness under pressure and instinctive football intelligence.” — Tim Layden

From The Vault:

Dec. 24, 1990: An American Dream. What kid doesn't to grow up to me Joe Montana?

He somehow seems to breathe slower when everyone else breathes fast, seems to have a different metabolism. Remember that final drive in the 1989 Super Bowl? You fell off the chair. Was there ever any doubt that he simply was going to move those Niners 92 yards down the field in the final 3:20 to beat the Cincinnati Bengals? Of course not. Didn't you read what he said at the start of the drive?"Hey, check it out," he said to tackle Harris Barton. "Check out what?" Barton asked. "There, in the stands, standing near the exit ramp," Joe said. "There's John Candy." Wasn't that the greatest? Your father remembers reading about someone named Chip Hilton who did the same things Joe does. Your grandfather mentions someone named Frank Merriwell. You don't know any of that. Weren't those characters from fiction? Joe is real. A real Joe.

  — By Leigh Montville.

No. 3: Peyton Manning


Teams: Indianapolis Colts 1998-2011, Denver Broncos 2012-15.

Accolades: NFL career leader in passing yards and touchdowns.

“Manning was known as The Sheriff, but a more applicable nickname would have been The Computer. He was ferocious in both his preparation and his deciphering of defenses.” — Greg A. Bedard

​From The Vault:

Nov. 16, 2009: Manning At His Best

In September the only thing Manning seemed sure to lead the league in this year was obstacles. Wideout fixture Marvin Harrison was allowed to leave after 11 seasons with Manning, and into his starting spot had stepped a 2008 sixth-round pick from tiny Mount Union (Ohio) College, Pierre Garcon, the only player in the NFL with a cédille in his name. Starting wideout Anthony Gonzalez went down with a right-knee injury in the first game, forcing Collie to play much more than planned. Rock-solid coach Tony Dungy had retired, ceding the job to an unknown, Jim Caldwell. Compounding the problems over the first half of the season has been a feeble running game. But Manning has made Indianapolis slump-proof. The Colts have gone 112 games—seven full seasons—without losing three straight. Indy isn't the winningest regular-season team this decade by accident. Anytime Manning steps behind center and starts gyrating and pointing, history tells us, good things are about to occur. 

– By Peter King

No. 4. Johnny Unitas


Teams: Indianapolis Colts 1956-72, San Diego Chargers 1973.

Accolades: Three-time NFL MVP, 40,239 career yards, 290 touchdowns.

“He was the smartest play-caller of his day (and likely any day), the definition of an on-field commander. He led the Colts down the field to tie the 1958 NFL title game in the final minute and again to win it in overtime.” — Peter King

From The Vault:

Sept. 23, 2002: The Best There Ever Was

In those halcyon days, they didn't have coaches telling quarterbacks what plays to call. Quarterbacks were field generals, not field lieutenants. I never saw war, so that is still my vision of manhood: Unitas standing courageously in the pocket, his left arm flung out in a diagonal to the upper deck, his right cocked for the business of passing, down amidst the mortals. Lock and load.

– By Frank Deford

No. 5. Otto Graham


Teams: Cleveland Browns 1946-55.

Accolades: Nine-time all-pro, six touchdowns in 1954 NFL title game.

“He’s the greatest winner among quarterbacks ever, and that cannot be disputed: seven championships in 10 professional seasons—and he lost in the championship game the other three years.” — Peter King

From The Vault:

Dec. 29, 2003: Pass Perfect

Until John Unitas and Joe Montana arrived no one was as accurate as Graham. One story was about how one of his teammates bent a wire coat hanger into a diamond shape one day and challenged Graham to throw a football through it from 15 feet away. He went 10 for 10.

– By Paul Zimmerman

No. 6. John Elway


Teams: Denver Broncos 1983-98.

Accolades: Retired second all-time in passing yards and completions, five Super Bowl appearances.

“It’s fitting that a player who directed so many clutch drives saved his best for last, guiding the Broncos to victory in the Super Bowl at the end of the 1997 and ’98 seasons.” — Mark Godich

From The Vault: 

Dec. 30, 1996: John Elway, An Appreciation

When you order up the statue of the greatest quarterback of the last 20 years, make sure you get the sock right. It has to be pulled all the way down, preferably with a defensive end's fingernail still in it. Give the right shoe a flat tire, and show the jersey yanked off one shoulder pad, the work of a blitzing linebacker who thought he had himself an appearance on the next NFL's Greatest Hits video but instead got only a fleeting handful of orange-and-blue Denver Broncos nylon. It's true, you know. John Elway has spent more time on the job having his padding adjusted than Pamela Anderson Lee.While you're at it, see if the sculptor can put in a hint of the bulges of tape and a knee brace underneath the legs of the pants, and of the limp that made Elway walk like John Wayne in high heels yet vanished when he took off sprinting, needing six yards and somehow always getting six yards and an inch.Try to show the jaw-dropping power of that right arm, the one that shredded receivers' gloves and knocked the wind out of strong men.

– By Rick Reilly

No. 7. Dan Marino


Teams: Miami Dolphins 1983-99.

Accolades: Set career passing marks in yards, completions and TDs, set single-season marks in yards and TDs.

“The most prolific passer in league history, only the lack of a Super Bowl title mars Marino’s record-setting 17-year career in Miami.” — Don Banks

From The Vault:

Sept. 5, 1984: Miami's Set Of Sparkling Studs

When Don Shula drafted Marino in May 1983, he was advised by Pittsburgh sportswriter Pat Livingston that in "Danny," as Marino is called by those admiring men and adoring ladies who get to know him, he would have a quarterback with "the touch of a Sammy Baugh, the release of a Norm Van Brocklin, the arm of a Terry Bradshaw, the..." etc., etc. No reluctant dragon, Pat. Reckless praise doesn't pour so freely from Shula. He got through the 1983 season without conceding much more than how "amazing" it was that "Danny" (ahem) got sacked only 10 times and threw just six interceptions in 306 pass plays, and despite his inexperience was "never indecisive," even in the face of man-eating red-dogs and the best secondary schemes and ploys money could buy. But when Shula was asked what Marino would have to do to improve in 1984, he practically bristled. "Maintain, you mean," he said. It was the Shula equivalent of a standing ovation.

– By John Underwood

No. 8. Brett Favre


Teams: Atlanta Falcons 1991, Green Bay Packers 1992-2007, New York Jets 2008, Minnesota Vikings 2009-10.

Accolades: NFL's all-time leader in passing attempts and completions, 297 consecutive starts.

“Favre started every game for almost two decades, broke nearly every meaningful NFL passing mark and retired as one of the game’s great characters.” — Greg Bishop

From The Vault:

Dec. 4, 2006: Huck Finn's Last Ride

In this age of corporate quarterbacking, wherein all directives come down from the head office, and the position is really no sexier or more autonomous than that of a regional operations manager, Favre remains a "gunslinger." No Green Bay offensive series of more than four or five plays can be broadcast on television without the use of that word. In fact, the nature and number of clichés Favre attracts would make for a potent drinking game. And since he himself has long since sworn off, hoist a few in his honor. Drink a shot of redeye when you hear gunslinger. A dram of rum for swashbuckler. A glass of wine whenever an announcer uses the phrase vintage Favre. Drink a mug of Ovaltine when you hear He looks like a kid out there. Chug whenever you hear He's just trying to make something happen or He threw that one off his back foot. And if you're a Packers fan, drink a double shot and turn off the television when you hear He tried to force that one in there.

– By Jeff MacGregor

No. 9. Sammy Baugh


Teams: Washington Redskins 1937-52.

Accolades: Six-time NFL passing leader, seven-time all-pro.

“The best all-around player ever. In 1943 Baugh led the league in punting (45.9-yard average) and completion percentage (55.6 percent) and was second with 23 touchdown passes in 10 games. Plus, as a safety he led the league with 11 interceptions.” — Peter King

From The Vault:

Aug. 31, 1981: When The Frogs Were Princes

The pros were already astute in the art of offensive holding, but they were pushovers for a Sam Baugh, fresh out of TCU. He led the College All-Stars to victory over the Green Bay Packers, and then he became the All-Pro quarterback in his rookie year while taking the Washington Redskins to the NFL championship. Until Sam Baugh, pro football in Texas was a one-paragraph story on the third page of the Monday sports section.

– By Dan Jenkins

No. 10. Bart Starr


Teams: Green Bay Packers 1956-71.

Accolades: Five-time NFL champion, 9-1 postseason record.

“Starr is a two-time Super Bowl MVP and an icon for an historic franchise. Not too shabby for a 17th-round draft pick.” — Chris Burke

From The Vault:

Oct. 31, 1966: Heated Pursuit Of The Packers

When Starr came to the Packers in 1956—the same year Unitas joined the Colts—he was not imbued with the kind of cocky self-confidence that is part of the makeup of most pro quarterbacks. He had come to Green Bay from Alabama, where he had just finished a shattering senior year sitting on the bench. J. B. (Ears) Whitworth had taken over the Alabama team and decided that he would live or die with his sophomores. This meant that Starr, a starter in his sophomore and junior years, had to spend his senior year out of the action. "I guess if I hadn't got married my junior year, I wouldn't have been able to stand it. My wife was a wonderful help. For a young person, she had a lot of maturity." Despite his relative obscurity, Starr was drafted 17th by Green Bay. "Johnny Dee, the basketball coach at Alabama, was responsible for that," Starr said. "He was a good friend of the late Jack Vainisi, the Green Bay scout, and he talked him into taking a chance." In early summer before he reported to the Green Bay camp in his rookie year, Starr worked hard and long to improve himself. He and Cherry, his wife, spent the summer at her parents' home. "I built an A-frame in their front yard," Starr recalls. "Then I hung a tire on it and practiced throwing the ball through the tire from different angles for hours every day. Cherry fielded the ball for me."

– By Tex Maule