Five Super Bowls ago, the dominant pregame storyline centered around whether Peyton Manning was poised to become the greatest quarterback of all time.
Tom Brady’s preposterous stretch since then, including four more Super Bowl bids, two huge fourth-quarter comebacks and one MVP award all but settled that particular debate. Returning to the big game with this particular Patriots team almost feels like running up the score.
Brady’s place atop the quarterback mountain stands in stark contrast to the stature of his Super Bowl LIII counterpart, Jared Goff, who will be a few months younger than Brady was back in February of 2002, when the Patriots dynasty was born against the Rams. But where does Goff stack up against other Super Bowl starters overall?
To figure that out, I combed through the resumes of all 61 Super Bowl starting quarterbacks, including Goff. It’s important to note that for players like Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, who started Super Bowls but whose peak years came before the Super Bowl era, I considered their entire careers, not just what they did from 1966 onward. I ranked all quarterbacks based on career achievements, with regular-season excellence, All-Pro/Pro Bowl appearances and seasons as top-five and top-10 players at the position carrying more weight than just Super Bowl success. (Spoiler: Jim Plunkett did not have a better career than Dan Marino. Sorry.)
The good news for Goff: He’s already ahead of a few Super Bowl starters. At 24 years old with the biggest game of his life ahead, he has a long runway to improve his resume.
To the rankings!
1) Tom Brady (Super Bowl record: 5-3 with Patriots)
2) Johnny Unitas (1-0 with Colts)
3) Joe Montana (4-0 with 49ers)
4) Peyton Manning (1-1 with Colts; 1-1 with Broncos)
5) Dan Marino (0-1 with Dolphins)
6) Brett Favre (1-1 with Packers)
These are the six men who could conceivably have an argument as being the greatest ever, although the breadth of Brady’s career now makes it difficult for the rest of the group. The first nine seasons of Brady’s career — which included three titles and an undefeated regular season — now look like an appetizer to Brady’s dominant Gronk-era peak.
It’s impossible to truly compare across eras because the game has changed so much, but Unitas (who played from 1956 to 1973) edges out Montana (1979-1994) and Manning (1998-2015) for the No. 2 spot because Johnny U was so clearly the best of his era and a transformative figure for the sport. Unitas collected three MVPs and five first-team All-Pro nods, and he displayed a sneaky statistical dominance compared to his competition.
Manning ultimately overwhelms Marino and Favre with individual honors and consistency. He was so rarely outside the league’s top-three quarterbacks during a career that included five MVPs. Marino is probably the best pure passer of this group. He was never supported with a top-10 running game, and he rarely played with a good defense. He shouldn’t suffer too much, historically speaking, just because of Don Shula’s personnel decisions. Favre has perhaps the strangest resume. He combines a brilliant peak with three consecutive MVPs and a career famous for its durability with some lesser efficiency stats than the rest of the tier. Still, there’s not that much separating any of these guys.
The best second tier ever
7) Steve Young (1-0 with 49ers)
8) Aaron Rodgers (1-0 with Packers)
9) John Elway (2-3 with Broncos)
10) Roger Staubach (2-2 with Cowboys)
11) Drew Brees (1-0 with Saints)
12) Bart Starr (2-0 with Packers)
It’s wild how similar the resumes of Young and Rodgers look. They both had to wait before taking over for all-time greats who just happen to be in the tier above. They each have two MVPs. They were both as athletic as any top quarterback who has ever played. Young’s teams went 94-49 in his starts, from 1985 to 1999. Rodgers’ teams have gone 100-57-1. Young gets the slight edge for now because his seven-year peak ranks with that of any quarterback who has ever played, but it’s only a matter of time before Rodgers moves up.
Elway was a physical marvel, won an MVP and earned three second-team All-Pro nods in his career (1983-1998), but his passing numbers (3,217 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 picks per year), when adjusted for his era, don’t stack up with the rest of the top 10. Staubach is a great “What if?” because he didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 29 years old. He’s still the consensus best quarterback of the 1970s and led the league in passer rating four times. He probably gets downgraded too much for the era he played in. Starr, who has a reputation for being a “winner” of the ’60s and early Super Bowl era without generating great stats actually has … pretty great stats. So does Brees, who just turned 40 — and just completed one of his best NFL seasons.
In (or should be in) the Hall of Fame
13) Fran Tarkenton (0-3 with Vikings)
14) Ben Roethlisberger (2-1 with Steelers)
15) Troy Aikman (3-0 with Cowboys)
16) Terry Bradshaw (4-0 with Steelers)
17) Joe Namath (1-0 with Jets)
18) Bob Griese (2-1 with Dolphins)
19) Len Dawson (1-1 with Chiefs)
20) Jim Kelly (0-4 with Bills)
21) Kurt Warner (1-1 with Rams; 0-1 with Cardinals)
22) Ken Anderson (0-1 with Bengals)
23) Ken Stabler (1-0 with Raiders)
Like Brees, Tarkenton was an undersized, undervalued but consistent star with an incredibly long run of statistical dominance. Roethlisberger has been a top-five quarterback for the better part of his career, especially after his second Super Bowl triumph (following the 2008 season). Aikman’s peak (1991-96) was impressive, but unfortunately too short. Bradshaw wasn’t great in the seasons preceding his first two Super Bowl triumphs (1975 and ’76), but he wound up being a league MVP and finishing in the top five in yards per attempt five times. Namath gets extra credit for his impact on the game, although it’s worth noting Griese had three more Pro Bowl appearances (eight to Namath’s five), one more All-Pro nod (two to one) and far more seasons in the top five in yards per attempt. The offensive line and running game help, but Griese deserves some legacy love!
Dawson was the best passer in a pass-happy league, leading the AFL in passer rating for five straight years (1964-68). Kelly, like Aikman, had a brilliant peak that wasn’t quite as long as that of some others listed here. Warner had a singular career, starting late before winning two MVPs and leading two different teams to the Super Bowl. Anderson still should be considered for the Hall of Fame, as he was the rare player to win MVP, Comeback Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. He led the league in passer rating four times and earned a first-team All-Pro selection and two second-team nods, which is more than plenty of the names above him. Stabler finally got into the Hall in 2016, unfortunately after his passing.
Fun to watch
24) Donovan McNabb (0-1 with Eagles)
25) Boomer Esiason (0-1 with Bengals)
26) Daryle Lamonica (0-1 with Raiders)
27) Matt Ryan (0-1 with Falcons)
28) Earl Morrall (0-1 with Colts)
29) Eli Manning (2-0 with Giants)
30) Steve McNair (0-1 with Titans)
31) Russell Wilson (1-1 with Seahawks)
32) Rich Gannon (0-1 with Raiders)
McNabb was a top-10 quarterback for nearly all of his career, very often in the top five. I’m surprised he doesn’t get more Hall of Fame consideration. Esiason won an MVP (1988) and led the league in yards per attempt in that season and 1986. Lamonica was someone I didn’t fully appreciate until this exercise. While he was fattening up on a soft AFL, he made five Pro Bowls and nabbed two AFL Player of the Year awards. He finished his career 66-16-6 as a starter! Ryan has a number of seasons as a top-10 quarterback, although his MVP campaign of 2016 stands out as an anomaly.
By: Gregg Rosenthal