Ranking the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. The Holy Grail of sports classification and debate.
We bet you have a top 5 or 10 already queued up in your head. We’re pretty sure you’ve even scanned a piece that tries to rank NFL quarterbacks all-time at some point in time. Oh, you haven’t — then why are you here?
Kidding, we welcome all gradations of football fans here.
Please read this entire piece to truly get what we were going for with this multi-year project. If you’re not feeling like you have the attention span today, come back another day when you can really dive in. I get it. I’d dedicate a good 25 minutes. We know there is a growing appetite among NFL fans for deeper thinking articles, this is one of those
There are quite literally hundreds of failed attempts to quantify the supposedly unquantifiable; most simply use little more than their feelings to create their rankings. And most, let’s be honest, do a very poor job. We stripped all feelings from this debate with the formula we, at Packers History, created to rank the top 50 quarterbacks in NFL history.
We despise clickbait and decided football fans, finally, deserve an honest glimpse into this age-old topic.
Over the years, writers have gone for shock value with their all-time quarterback lists. Some have obvious grudges, while others are pushing an agenda. We, knowing we’re human, didn’t allow such biases to creep by virtue of using a formula, our formula. Just as we didn’t go for an eye-grabbing headline. To be frank, we were just sick of bad lists and worse opinions.
In an echo-chamber world where facts seemingly don’t matter, when objective thought and analysis are scarce and people routinely cling to their biases, tighter by the day, we sought to give clarity to at least one oft-debated facet of American culture. As people seem to be hunkering down inside their preconceived notions more and more, we thought it would be nice to bring some facts and civility to this topic as people celebrate the 100th year of NFL football.
Is the all-time ranking of NFL quarterbacks objectively important to our shared existence? Well, no. Of course not. The world needs answers to much bigger questions right now. But we do think it is important to be objective in anything that we take the time to wonder, ponder or debate.
But ranking quarterbacks has to be subjective right? Isn’t that the nature of the undertaking? We say hell no, despite the fact that it’s been left up to little more than subjectivity for decades — even by the “experts”.
There’s one metric that’s paramount and often overlooked: how you performed against your literal peers.
You can only play the teams on your schedule; you can only perform against the men you’re playing against. You can only play in the era you were born into, dammit.
Being judged in your specific era, against the best of your era in the league with its specific and ever-changing rules, temperament, philosophies and technologies is the only way to judge quarterbacks — or any athletes in any sport.
As years pass, stats inevitably get dwarfed, records get broken, the game changes and names get forgotten.
But how you perform against those you actually played against — that’s the good stuff. That’s what we can work with. That’s how we crack this decades-old conundrum of hyperbole, homerism and revisionist history.
How did a QB, using statistics as a metric, stack up against their peers?
How did a QB, using individual awards as a metric, stack up against their peers?
How did a QB, using winning as a metric, stack up against their peers?
How does their success against their peers compare to other quarterbacks’ success against their peers?
The culmination of those four questions is the answer delivered by our formula in the form of a tangible list.
Surely nothing else matters to a quarterback’s legacy in the context of ranking careers by order of greatness. What else could? God-given talent doesn’t guarantee an historic career, it’s the results out on that field year after year that do that.
People often say, “winning isn’t a quarterback stat.” And sure, we agree. But it is a massive factor in that players’ individual legacy, in determining how “great” they were. It’s a team game, but not all positions are created equal (or blamed or celebrated, for that matter). Interesting isn’t it, that the best quarterbacks always seem to make the playoffs more often than the bad ones — maybe there is more to that metric than some would like to admit. But that’s for another time. We dive into this a bit more below.
Back to the point, what this formula and ranking is… is anything but simple.
So no, it’s not technically ranking quarterbacks in order of the “best statistical quarterbacks” of all-time. You only need to go to a record book for that. Well, kind of. I mean, a record book won’t understand context. A record book will have Ryan Fitzpatrick listed with more career touchdown passes than Troy freaking Aikman. But we know that’s a meaningless thing. We know Aikman was greater. However, this formula isn’t ranking quarterbacks by championships won either — as again, we can all simply look that up.
To bring up Aikman again, everyone knows he has more championships than Steve Young. But we understand that Young was the better overall quarterback, the man won two AP MVP awards! Plus, the eye test made it obvious.
But this formula isn’t ranking quarterbacks only by their individual awards either. And not just how they performed year after year against their peers (although that does take a bit more research to figure out). It’s not ranking them by their winningest seasons or through a narrow, numerical scope of trans-generational stats that can’t comprehend how the game has changed.
This formula is using literally all of these things to create one cohesive and objective number for every legendary quarterback of all-time.
I’ll admit, this is not even necessarily a “best” quarterback ranking — however that was never the intention. This formula is ranking quarterbacks by order of “greatness” or perhaps by “legacy” if you will. When it comes to the “best” quarterbacks ever, my mind goes to Petyon Manning, Dan Marino and Aaron Rodgers. No one has had more skill than them. But obviously this formula aggregates total “greatness” rather than just pure skill.
You know what, we might as well just say that this ranks quarterbacks by their overall legacy, yeah. Actually, let’s go with exactly that.
In honor of the NFL’s 100th season we are releasing this multi-year effort of research and refinement of our formula, which concretely ranks the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
In this piece you’ll find that we have ranked the top 50 QBs that have ever played in the NFL (and many others for that matter) for your enjoyment and understanding of their respective places in league history.
You can argue the formula all you want, but you cannot argue the results!
Now, we understand the potential awkwardness of having a broad “NFL History” piece like this one included on a site called PackersHistory.com. We understand the impulse to claim bias or homerism while analyzing our research pieces, formulas and subsequent rankings.
Trust me, we get it. We’d probably roll our eyes if asked to read a “Greatest Quarterbacks in NFL History” piece written by PatriotsFootballHistory.com if we didn’t know the context of their research.
But, all we can do here is promise with the utmost sincerity that our objective is to offer our honest findings as true, unbiased NFL historians. We aren’t fans when it comes to these types of pieces; we simply let the facts speak for themselves.
If we owned a site called NFLHistoryAndMore.com then, sure, we wouldn’t feel the need for this disclaimer. But we don’t. We are PackersHistory.com, but with this fandom for the Packers comes a deep respect for the entire history of this league. With that said, thank you for being here.
I, Daniel, have written for numerous outlets in recent years, covering the entire NFL, not just the Packers. It’s important to me that the readers know this. The both of us, Daniel and David, wouldn’t find enjoyment in a biased piece that flippantly misrepresents the truth of NFL history.
Thank you for understanding where we are coming from. Now, onto the meat of this piece…
To help us all bridge the gap from what we feel to what actually is, we created this formula to take the decision making process out of our arguably biased minds and let the numbers speak for themselves. This weighted formula is comprehensive and it’s a lot to take in, but we promise it’s worth understanding why we did things the way that we did.
One thing we want to say is that you can know with certainty that this formula isn’t rigged or biased because you won’t find anyone less of a fan of Tom Brady and his legacy than us.
And Brady is ranked very high on this list.
We think Brady has been an incredibly lucky athlete placed into the perfect situation, with the perfect coach in an absolutely terrible division, with an organization not afraid to bend the rules. Year after year he’s afforded complete consistency of management that spare no expense, familiar coordinators, and often a top-10 defense.
With that said, he’s still built an unfathomable legacy. He just has, as annoying as that is to admit.
There is just no other way to judge Brady or any quarterback. One facet of greatness should not overshadow another; all three facets are vital to establishing a quarterback’s place in history. He happens to check all of the boxes like few have.
Again, equally weighted are each player’s individual statistics (as judged against their peers), individual awards and honors (which transcend era), regular season team performance (as judged against their peers), playoff success and championships won (which transcend era).
Quarterbacks from all eras and career types have a chance at success with this ranking system — only the best from each era hover around the top of this list.
This is unlike all-time record books that are almost primarily filled with quarterbacks that have played in the last 25 years. This is unlike lazy journalists who use championships as the most important metric to a players’ legacy. This is unlike those who just randomly choose quarterbacks based on popularity or who they grew up watching.
This is a big piece covering a big topic. So thank you to all NFL fans who are on this historical journey with us.
And to you Packers fans, as you can imagine, your team is well represented on this all-time quarterback list.
Legend For How Each Quarterback’s Score Was Calculated:
For the “Modern Era” which we define as from 1950-Present:
Finish in League-Wide Quarterback Rating Per Season:*
1st = 5 Points
2nd = 4 Points
3rd = 3 Points
4th = 2 Points
5th = 1 Point
*Minimum 8 Starts in a season to be eligible
Finish in League-Wide Wins Per Season:
1st = 5 Points
2nd = 4 Points
3rd = 3 Points
4th = 2 Points
5th = 1 Point
Led League in TD Passes: 5 Points
Led League in Completions: 2 Points
Led League in Passing Yards: 2 Points
Led League in Yards Per Attempt: 2 Points
Led League in Completion %: 1 Point
Led League in TD %: 1 Point
Led League in INT %: 1 Point
Rush TDs: 1/2 Point for every career Rush TD*
Durability: 1 Point for each season in which played 90% of games**
+Rushing TDs are the one accumulative stat in this formula, because interestingly, this stat transcends eras from the 1930s to the 2010s, it has equal value and representation on the stat sheet, impact on wins, etc. Plus, increased running equals a higher change of getting injured, which means the potential for a shorter career. Even with increases in games in a season throughout the years it evens out because of the potential for injuries. The risk involved is reflected in the points awarded.
**For Durability (or reliability). Example: QB played at least 11 of 12, 13-14 or 15-16 of games — depending on the era of course. And in the future, 16-17.
Pro Bowl Nod: 1 Point
First-Team All-Pro: 5 Points
AP Offensive Player of the Year: 3 Points
AP MVP: 10 Points
Super Bowl Championship: 10 Points*
Super Bowl Runner-Up: 3 Points
Super Bowl MVP: 5 Points
Trips To Postseason As Starter: 1/2 Point per trip
Playoff win percentage: TBD via formula (take the number of playoff wins minus playoff losses)
Playoff TD/INT Ratio: TDB via formula (Career Playoff TDs divided by Playoff INTs then multiplied by 3 and rounded to nearest 0.5)
*Plus World Championships from 1950-1965.
For the “Pre-Modern Era” which we define as 1921-1949:
Finish in League-Wide Quarterback Rating Per Season:
1st = 3 Points
2nd = 2 Points
3rd = 1 Point
Finish in League-Wide Wins Per Season:
1st = 3 Points
2nd = 2 Points
3rd = 1 Point
Led League in Touchdown Passes: 3 Points
First-Team All-Pro: 3 Points
Recognized as League MVP: 8 Points*
World Championship: 8 Points
The Rest of the Categories: Worth Same Amount of Points as Previously Listed in “Modern QB” Era Section.
However just playing in a game counted toward “start 90% season points” because QB starts were recorded differently then; minimum 80 attempts in a season to qualify.
*For the purposes of this list, we included the United Press International Most Valuable Player award-winners from 1950-1956. In 1957 the AP MVP award began to be awarded and has been ever since, and obviously, all of the Modern Era. We also included the Joe F. Carr Trophy winners (a universally recognized MVP award) for winners between the years 1938-1946.
Yes, a few years have slipped through the cracks when it comes to season MVP, but that’s history — it’s messy.
Please Note: Duplication of, or the referencing of, this formula and subsequent rankings without citing PackersHistory.com, or at least hyperlinking back to this article, is not prohibited. We own this formula, its usage and likeness.
Now lets move onto some explanations and the answers to some expected criticisms. Please read the following points before angrily emailing me!
Succinct Objective for this Ranking System:
This quarterback ranking system rewards longevity, but only if that longevity is paired with success (it doesn’t just reward raw totals that can be amassed over two decades). Meaning an average quarterback that plays for a long time won’t be rewarded, but an absolute star quarterback that only plays a few seasons likely won’t be ranked particularly high either. This system, ultimately, rewards definable dominance over peers for a respectable period of time and success when it matters the most. Nothing else made sense for us to use to create this formula.
You can argue the formula all you want, but what you cannot argue are the results of the formula. They are simply statistical fact.
Why the Change in the Scale?
The change in scale for the “Pre-Modern Era” is to adequately reflect that there were less teams in the league up until that point. This resulted in it being easier to be atop the league in different statistical categories and led to, arguably, easier rides to championships and league-wide honors. Plus, the style of football prior to the 1950s is almost unrecognizable from the football we’ve seen since the advent of television. Not to mention the severe lack of black players in the NFL before the 1950s. Thus, the formula changes to account for all of that.
This change in scale is also in place to account for the poor (or unreliable) record keeping in many statistical areas as well. As you can see, quarterbacks from both eras compete against one another quite fairly because of this shift in the point system. If a quarterback played in both eras, his points are adjusted accordingly.
What About when a Quarterback was a Backup?
Championships, Runner-up and Playoff Record are only counted for games where the quarterback was the starter, if the quarterback was a back-up those games are not factored in.
Why No AFL/AAFC Stats Included?
Because this is a list chronicling NFL history. We can’t include stats from the other leagues throughout the years, even though the AFL was the closest to the NFL and eventually forced a merger. The simple truth is for the first handful of years the AFL just wasn’t on par with the NFL in terms of talent, thus those statistics and awards cannot adequately accounted for. The same can be said for the AAFC to a lesser extent. I think everyone understands why we don’t include CFL, USFL, or any other league’s stats. However there are a few quarterbacks who simply shined in those leagues that at least deserve mention.
So, we did include a ranking of quarterbacks that played in the NFL as well as those other leagues (a top 75 list). You can find that later in this piece, on Page 3.
Instead of doing one master list that includes AFL/AAFC stats, but at a 70% or 80% rate (like we’ve done at some other positions) we figured the quarterback position is just too unique. The quarterback position in professional football is like no other position in sport. Thus, we decided to create two separate lists: one strictly NFL and one with 100% of stats from other major leagues included. This was an intentional decision that came after much contemplation.
What Reaching Certain Point Plateaus Represents to Us:
In our opinion, getting to the 100 point mark puts you firmly in Hall of Fame consideration. In fact, if you cross that threshold, we think you should be in The Hall.
Realistically, it seems as though hitting the 90 point mark gets you just about into the Hall of Fame. Getting to 120 points makes you an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame. Crossing the 180 Point mark puts you in the all-time greatest conversation (“GOAT” status). Just about every QB that could possibly be in someone’s “Top 10 All-Time” has at least 125 Points.
The 80 Point mark stands out as a threshold of “this quarterback should really be remembered as an important quarterback in NFL history.”
If your favorite quarterback isn’t above that mark, then they’re not going to remembered for the long haul. Sorry to tell ya.
Once you take in the all-time list come back to this and see where certain quarterback’s point totals hit. Your thoughts on where some quarterbacks are actually ranked, against other all-time greats, may profoundly change. Some quarterbacks you’d just swear would have a higher total, but the numbers don’t lie.
Best Stat & Other Observations:
The best stat from this list is the fact that there are only four active quarterbacks in the Top 30 all-time, despite the league being at an all-time passing, and rules protecting the quarterback, high. This shows the true trans-generational effectiveness of this comprehensive all-time quarterback rating. There are currently nine active quarterbacks in the Top 50 all-time. Which seems just about right to us.
There are 28 “Modern Day” QBs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The highest ranked quarterback not in The Hall in this ranking is Ken Anderson. The lowest ranked quarterback in our formula that is in The Hall is Jim Kelly.
The Packers have six quarterbacks in the Top 50, the most of any franchise (although not all spent their entire careers with the Packers). They also have three in the top 15, which is also the most of all NFL franchises.
Quarterbacks we didn’t bother running through the formula, but we’re doubtful they’d accumulate much more than 20 Points include Doug Williams, Bernie Kosar, Joe Ferguson, Ken O’Brien, Steve Bartkowski, Jake Plummer, Trent Dilfer, Jim Harbaugh, Norm Snead and on and on you could go.
Yeah, we decided not to.
If you really (for some reason) want to know how any of these guys would shake out, email us and I’ll run them through the formula.
We should obviously wait a few years before running Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, Nick Foles and other young QBs through the career greatness formula. Patrick Mahomes is an exception to this rule.
“…But The Eras Were So Different” They Say:
There are those who would say that you simply cannot compare or rank quarterbacks, for example, from the 1940s to quarterbacks from the 2010s. We simply say you’re wrong. Of course, this formula helps with that. Some would say that was easier to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league in the NFL’s early years. Others would say it’s easier now to play the quarterback position because they don’t get hit as much.
Some of the advantages that quarterbacks have today over quarterbacks of the past are that they have better equipment and better balls that are easier to throw. There are more rules to protect quarterbacks today. They train all year around and don’t need a second job to sustain themselves. Their receivers are bigger and stronger and are, presumably, better at catching the ball. There are more teams now, thus, more opportunities to be a starting quarterback. The weight rooms, physical therapy and knowledge of health today is quite disparate from the league’s early days.
However there were advantages to be had by quarterbacks that played in the 1920s-50s, too, obviously. There were no specialized defenses for them to throw against. There were fewer teams so each team got a “top” quarterback and those men also had less competition to be regarded as the best in the league. Defenses couldn’t watch film on those quarterbacks, but also, they couldn’t watch film on their opponents either, it should be mentioned.
Quarterbacks from the early days had less heroes to look up and less role models leading teams and throwing passes. They didn’t have the luxury of see how decades of other quarterbacks had succeeded and failed. However, defenses today are of course also better than they were in the 1930s.
The truth is, it’s always been hard as hell to be a great, truly great, quarterback in the NFL. Every era was the modern era when it was played. Every era had its individual advantages and disadvantages.
It’s always been hard to be one of the best quarterbacks in this league. And it always will be. That’s why judging quarterbacks against their peers specifically is the only real way to compare these all-time greats.
“…But You Can Make Numbers Say Anything!” They Yell:
Well, yeah, I suppose. But these numbers encapsulate every facet of how a quarterback could possibly be judged. These aren’t just arbitrary numbers plucked from stat sheets or skewed numbers that inflate some quarterbacks unfairly. Look at the formula and weighted points, does anything look crazy or unfair? Every quarterback had the same opportunity to amass points. Some amassed a ton, some didn’t. That, simply, is the difference in their overall legacies.
People, especially writers, do use numbers to tell–what some would consider–lies for clicks and attention. I think you’d agree that is not the case here. There is no agenda, there is no attempt to raise the legacies of any quarterbacks, or Packers quarterbacks.
“…Wins Aren’t A Quarterback Stat!” They Mutter:
Again, we know that many people, understandably, believe “wins aren’t a quarterback stat” but in the context of how “great” a quarterback is, how impressive of a leader he is — wins do matter.
In the context of a single game, no wins aren’t a quarterback stat. A quarterback can lead a team down the field to sure victory and a kicker can miss a field goal, a running back can fumble or his defense can let up 45 points and that quarterback gets credit for the loss.
However, over the context of an entire season, and much more over the course of a career, wins do tend to matter to a quarterback. An elite quarterback brings stability and direction to a franchise and allows a team’s management to focus on building other parts of the team. As the team is built, with the quarterback already there, the team ideally puts itself in a better position to win. Just as elite quarterbacks save head coaches from being fired; stability over the weeks and years it what helps some teams win and lack thereof makes teams lose.
Over the course of many seasons, wins are a quarterback stat after all, when it comes to the best that have ever played the game. We know that kickers can miss kicks and other things can happen, but over time, the better quarterbacks put their team in position to win with much more regularity — which leads to more wins.
It’s just the way it is.
So keep that in mind when looking at how wins are used as just one part of this formula. For those that just vehemently hate it when quarterbacks are measured by wins, this formula gives a heck of a lot more points to individual awards and statistics than it does to wins.
Have we come to a happy medium?
Where Did Quarterbacks Rank All-Time, In This Formula, When They Retired?
One fun thing to look at was where different quarterbacks ranked all-time in the quarterback hierarchy, according to this formula, at the beginning of every decade. That gives you an idea how dominant different quarterbacks were versus the entirety of NFL history up until the day they hung up their cleats (or the new decade that was closest to their retirement).
That said, this formula is all about ranking quarterbacks from all eras against each other, so that is more of an afterthought. See this on Page 5.
If nothing else, it gets you inside the mind of football fans from the past and why they hold “quarterback X” so highly in their all-time rankings. Because at one point in time, they were one of the most elite quarterbacks in NFL history, even if they’ve been passed by a few younger all-time greats. Basically, what we mean is when a man in his nineties screams that Otto Graham is the best quarterback in professional football history, it’s not because he’s delusional, it’s because he did see him retire as the best the game had ever seen.
And the same may go for your in fifty years with a different name atop your list.
Man, I love NFL history.
For You Packer Backers:
For all of you fervent Cheeseheads that came here, seeing as this is PackersHistory.com after all, we have some Packers-specific thoughts on this ranking and other Green Bay quarterbacks throughout the franchise’s history on Page 6.
We’re sure it will be a majority of Packers fans that read this piece, at least at first, based on the readership of our site (duh). However we want to reiterate that this piece has nothing to do with the Packers organization individually. They just happen to be well represented, of course.
It truly was a joy to come up with this unique formula, research all notable quarterbacks throughout the 100 year history of NFL football and discover the indisputable results. We are just as joyous to share what we found with you. We were repeatedly shocked at the findings, but were pleased to–finally–find some concrete answers on this topic.
Around 100 quarterbacks from the last 100 years are mentioned in the coming pages. Trust us, we had an amazing, grueling time creating this. Seemingly endless hours of contemplation and research went into this ranking for you, the fans.
OK, that’s more than enough prologue for this piece.
Without further adieu, we present to you the NFL’s definitive, and current, all-time quarterback rankings — based on overall greatness.
You’ll just need to head to Page 2 to see the list, because this introduction and point breakdown, as you know, went quite long!