Top 50 Quarterbacks in NFL History Ranked By Unique Statistical Formula

We Say Greatness, But Some would say this Formula Ranks QBs by Overall Legacy

Drew Brees (Ian Ransley – Flickr: Drew Brees, Jan. 7th, 2010, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18799008)

Top 50 Quarterbacks in NFL History, the Definitive Ranking of All-Time Quarterback Greatness:

Listed are each quarterback’s top decade as a quarterback, as decided by us. As you will notice, this list only includes stats, awards and wins amassed and collected specifically in the NFL.

To see this list with each quarterback’s total professional football points amassed in the NFL as well as the AFL, AAFC, CFL and USFL, see Page 3 (we actually have the top 75 listed there). The list does look quite different on that page, of course. For passers that were listed as tailbacks in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, we’ve included them appropriately as quarterbacks. Some “quarterbacks” from the league’s earliest days were actually runners. NFL history is a little messy, but it just takes a little patience and common sense to contextualize it.

After 100 years of NFL football, here are the top 50 quarterbacks in league history. This will also always serve as the top 50 for the first 100 years, even though the list will change dramatically over the coming years and decades.

Where does your favorite all-time NFL quarterback rank heading into the 2020 season?

50. Phil Simms: 57.5 Points (1980s)
49. Boomer Esiason: 59.5 Points (1980s)
48. Steve McNair: 60.5 Points (2000s)
47. Warren Moon: 61.5 Points (1990s)
46. Frank Ryan: 68 Points (1960s)
45. Cecil Isbell: 68.5 Points (1940s) -GB
43. Charlie Conerly: 69.5 Points (1950s)
43. Rich Gannon: 69.5 Points (2000s)
42. Tobin Rote: 71.5 Points (1950s) -GB
41. Earl Morrall: 73.5 Points (1960s)

40. Matt Ryan: 74 Points (Active, 2010s)
39. Eli Manning: 74.5 Points (2010s)
37. Philip Rivers: 75.5 Points (Active, 2010s)
37. Cam Newton: 75.5 Points (Active, 2010s)
36. Jim Kelly: 76.5 Points (1990s)
35. Russell Wilson: 77.5 Points (Active, 2010s)
34. Patrick Mahomes: 78.5 Points (Active, 2020s)
33. Joe Theismann: 81.5 Points (1980s)
32. Roman Gabriel: 82.5 Points (1960s)
31. Sonny Jurgensen: 83 Points (1960s)

30. John Brodie: 84.5 Points (1960s)
29. Ben Roethlisberger: 88 Points (Active, 2010s)
27. Bob Griese: 91.5 Points (1970s)
27. Dan Fouts: 91.5 Points (1980s)
25. Bob Waterfield: 94.5 Points (1940s)
25. Ken Stabler: 94.5 Points (1970s)
24. Troy Aikman: 95.5 Points (1990s)
23. Ken Anderson: 103 Points (1970s)
22. Arnie Herber: 114 Points (1930s) -GB
21. Norm Van Brocklin: 120.5 Points (1950s)

20. Bobby Layne: 122.5 Points (1950s)
19. Kurt Warner: 127.5 Points (2000s)
18. Roger Staubach: 128.5 Points (1970s)
16. John Elway: 131.5 Points (1980s)
16. Fran Tarkenton: 131.5 Points (1970s)
15. Sid Luckman: 135.5 Points (1940s)
14. Y.A. Tittle: 136.5 Points (1950s)
13. Dan Marino: 138.5 Points (1980s)
12. Sammy Baugh: 140 Points (1940s)
11. Aaron Rodgers: 148.5 Points (Active, 2010s) -GB

10. Terry Bradshaw: 154 Points (1970s)
9. Drew Brees: 181 Points (Active, 2010s)
8. Steve Young: 187.5 Points (1990s)
7. Bart Starr: 190.5 Points (1960s) -GB
6. Brett Favre: 192.5 Points (1990s) -GB
5. Otto Graham: 194 Points (1950s)
4. Joe Montana: 207 Points (1980s)
3. Johnny Unitas: 250.5 Points (1960s)
2. Peyton Manning: 297.5 Points (2000s)
1. Tom Brady: 330 Points (Active, 2000s)

There you have it, the Top 50 quarterbacks in NFL history, in terms of overall greatness. Remember, greatness includes stats relative to peers, individual awards relative to peers and the ability to win relative to peers — all heavily considered. This isn’t a list of the greatest statistical quarterbacks or winningest quarterbacks in NFL history, it’s all of that and more… it’s a ranking by greatness!

You’ll notice active quarterbacks are italicized and Packers quarterbacks have a “-GB” tag.

Here’s a few notable names who just missed the cut from being one of the NFL’s all-time top 50 quarterbacks, but amassed at least 50 points in their NFL careers:

Donovan McNabb: 53 Points (2000s)
Bert Jones: 53 Points (1970s)
Randall Cunningham: 51.5 Points (1990s)
Joe Flacco: 51.5 Points (Active, 2010s)
Daunte Culpepper: 50 Points (2000s)
Jim Plunkett: 50 Points (1970s)

Observations & What Other Experts Say:

The top five quarterbacks of all-time: Brady, Manning, Unitas, Montana, Graham.

Most respected NFL historians, using their own rationale, would (and have) come to the same conclusion for their top five quarterbacks in NFL history — the same top five that this formula arrived at. The top four are only the quarterbacks in history over the 200 point mark (in NFL points). And you should see how many points Graham ends with when his AAFC stats are included (on the next page, wow).

I mean, go read some of the lists by some football writers you respect. This top five has been actually been agreed upon by numerous NFL historians. Just look at NFL.com‘s Elliot Harrison’s 2019 top 25 quarterbacks of all-time list (specifically the top five). He’s far from alone in that top five.

Sports Illustrated put out a top ten quarterbacks of all-time list in 2017, with their seven most respected NFL panelists, including Peter King. It came to the same exact conclusion for the top five.

Thus, if this formula also comes up with that same conclusion, then the rest of the list must be pretty damn accurate as well.

That is just common sense.

So, do not agree with our top five, but then complain and argue about the rest of the list! Yes, this truly is the definitive top 50 quarterbacks in NFL history ranked by greatness, or legacy.

All of this said, some NFL writers have come up with very different tops of their lists. I read one the other day that didn’t have Graham in the top 100 all-time. Yeah.

The positions 6-10 are, somehow, even more hotly debated in terms of NFL quarterbacks all-time. This is where the Packers start to flex their historic muscles at the position.

That’s where the real debate starts with a lot of NFL historians, and it’s interesting because those are the positions where this formula and list differs the most from the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team (more on that is found on Page 4).

For some reason, our formula comes up with a “perfect” top five, that matches many experts, but then the experts seemingly ignore the rationale that brought them their top five to create the rest of their top 10’s. They put quarterbacks in with much lower “scores” than other deserving quarterbacks.

Certain guys get their legend to carry them into the top 10 when the numbers suggest something else.

That said, rankings 12-18 are surely where we are to hear the most arguments. Just look at those legendary names, but really, they are positioned where their career accomplishments places them — you have to trust the formula (if you trust the top five it came up with, that is).

If you don’t trust the top five, well then, argue all you want with the whole damn thing.

Another name people might ask about is Earl “Dutch” Clark. Although listed as a quarterback according to some, Clark was a running back. Common sense leads us to this conclusion. Although, he did amass 57.5 Points, playing in the 1930s while listed as a quarterback. But no, he shouldn’t be included on this list of actual quarterbacks, yet he does deserve mention.

The Top QB Franchises, According to the Formula:

Obviously the Packers were always going to be heavily rewarded on this list with their success at the position, no matter the metrics used. No franchise in NFL history has the top end success that they’ve had at quarterback, no one disputes that. Everyone knew that before looking at the results of this ranking. But still, it is nice to see that common sense reflected in the data.

However it’s interesting that although all, or most, football fans knew that they’d have three quarterbacks in the top 50, not many people would have known that they’d have three other quarterbacks make the list as well! That means 12 percent of the NFL’s top 50 quarterbacks have played, significantly, for the Green Bay Packers.

Joe Montana and Steve Young – Arnie Papp [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) Image Cropped]
The Colts’ franchise (split between Baltimore and Indianapolis) has two quarterbacks in the top three. That’s pretty damn impressive, too. Arguably just as impressive. That’s some top-heavy talent at the game’s most important position.

The 49ers also have two signal callers in the top 10 all-time as well. The Packers are possibly a couple years from having three quarterbacks in the top 10, as Rodgers closes in on Terry Bradshaw’s spot. But until then, only the 49ers join the Colts in that department.

Fret not Bears fans, you have a quarterback in the top 15 all-time — Sid Luckman!

Too bad it’s been a lean 70 years at the position in Chicago since he retired… Speaking of guys that played 70 years ago, it is true that Slingin’ Sammy Baugh really was as good as the old football writers said. Heading into 2020 he is still right about at Aaron Rodgers’ level, all-time. Regardless of how Rodgers climbs, that’s pretty impressive.

OK, this is the crazy part of this formula.

Patrick Mahomes is already the 34th greatest quarterback in NFL history, already the 34th most accomplished passer in just two years as a starter. It’s insane, it’s crazy, but it’s deserved.

You cannot say Super Bowls are weighted too heavily because look at this: John Elway won two and went to three others. Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl and Marino is ranked higher than Elway. You cannot say stats are weighted too heavily because look where Dan Fouts and Philip Rivers are ranked. Stats alone didn’t propel them to the top of the list. Just as Eli Manning’s two rings didn’t put him ahead of more deserving quarterbacks.

We stand 100% behind this formula, dammit.

Based on these results we can look at the most overrated and underrated quarterbacks in NFL history.

Most Overrated: 

John Elway, Roger Staubach, Dan Marino, Sonny Jurgensen, Donovan McNabb and Philip Rivers.

These players (specifically the first three) are routinely included in people’s top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history lists… sometimes even in the top 5. Yet, the facts suggest that their legends are significantly larger than the legacy they actually amassed. For Elway, winning those two Super Bowls propped him up a bit higher than he should be regarded. Statistically, he was average often. Staubach was a winner, but he didn’t have a lengthy career and was helped by having a great team around him. Based on these results, he probably shouldn’t be considered one of the top 10 quarterbacks all-time. However his career was shorter that most because of his noble service in the United States Navy. That’s something thank him for and we tip our caps to him.

Had Staubach played longer, there’s no doubt he’d be ranked much higher.

Marino had a cannon of an arm and he literally changed the NFL — no disputing that. However, after his absolutely dominant first six seasons, his overall production dropped off more than most would like to admit. Had he sustained his success, he’d be top 10 and maybe even top 5. His 1984 season will always be one of the best, but as far as his whole career, he’s given too much credit. We aren’t shortchanging him though, we definitely do understand his profound impact on the game of football. It’s just that people, wrongly, act like he was that good for his entire career.

And it’s not just that Marino “didn’t win a Super Bowl” in his career. Had he won that Super Bowl he lost, and been named MVP of the game, he’d still be ranked 11th all-time just ahead of Aaron Rodgers, likely to be surpassed in the 2020 season.

Jurgensen is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but really, these results suggest he really shouldn’t be regarded as one of the best to ever throw the ball. There are quarterbacks with more points that are probably more deserving.

Also, people talk about Philip Rivers being a lock for The Hall. But look at his point total and ranking… the man has never even been named First Team All-Pro! He’s been bad in the postseason and for all of his stats, his legacy is remains pretty hollow. We’re sure he’ll get in based on amassing stats year after year, but man, it shouldn’t be a “lock” like many suggest. Greatness means being named the best at your position at some point in your career, he’s never been that.

McNabb recently said he strongly believes he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What a joke. Look at his point total; nothing else needs to be said.

Is Tom Terrific overrated?

At some point Tom Brady’s position at No. 1 all-time has to be talked about beyond his accomplishments. Ya know? It’s just a frustrating thing to see him atop this list. But that’s the reality of the situation. I really don’t really have the energy to dive into all of the asterisks, controversies, and luck that has surrounded (and potentially clouded) his career and legacy.

Like I said before, despite all of that crap, his legacy is still absolutely stunning. It is what it is, so lets just move on.

Most Underrated:

No doubt it’s Ken Anderson, Y.A. Tittle, Bob Waterfield, Otto Graham, John Brodie, Bart Starr and Cam Newton.

No one, and I mean no one, talks about Anderson. Based on these results, he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was, statistically, a stud and he was even named the AP MVP. Look at the Hall of Famers that have lower point totals than him. He should be in dammit. Tittle was one of the absolute best quarterbacks of all-time and he’s rewarded on this list. However people talk about guys like Elway, Staubach, Kurt Warner and others before him. It’s just not right.

Waterfield is a man that’s nearly forgotten in NFL history, but his legacy (as determined by this formula) is quite strong compared to his actual, neglected legacy. It’s a shame. Graham, in NFL historian circles, is strongly considered as the best quarterback in football history. However the casual fan just doesn’t grasp how freaking good he really was. He is closer to Babe Ruth than most NFL players all-time. However he’s just some random name to most fans. Look at his point total, he should be remembered as a no brainer in “GOAT” consideration.

Most fans outside of northern California have never even heard of John Brodie. His point total puts him sandwiched between multiple Hall of Fame inductees — yet he has never had a Hall Call. Bart Starr isn’t a forgotten name in NFL history, but his name, and legacy, isn’t nearly as highly regarded as it should. Look at his point total! Seriously, look again. He wasn’t just a “game manager” for a great team, he was one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.

What do we do with Cam Newton? His point total and ranking would shock most people, but he truly has been an historic force at quarterback. No quarterback has ever ran like him, specifically at finding the end zone. Scoring is kind of the point of football after all. Consider that Michael Vick earned 33.5 Points in his career. Now look at Cam’s total again. Clearly it’s not all from running the ball. He’s led his team to a conference championship and was named the best player in the league in 2015. Newton truly has been much better than most people realize or would like to admit.

Looking Forward:

Drew Brees has a chance to move up a couple more spots with Young, Starr and Favre certainly within striking distance if he comes back to play next year. Russell Wilson will absolutely fly up this list in the coming years in our opinion, barring injury. He has a chance to reach the top 10. It’s interesting to see where Aaron Rodgers will end up. Will he be able to pass the two Packers legends ahead of him? Will he end his career firmly in the top 10 all-time?

Like previously stated, lets give Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and the other great young quarterbacks another seven or eight years or so before we start looking at their places on this all-time list. That said, Mahomes already has amassed 78.5 Points in his career based off two incredible seasons. Wow. But that’s the beauty of NFL history, it can change at a moment’s notice if the player is great enough. Mahomes is great enough.

Breakdown by Decade:

1930s: One QB
1940s: Four QBs
1950s: Six QBs
1960s: Seven QBs
1970s: Seven QBs
1980s: Seven QBs
1990s: Five QBs
2000s: Six QBs
2010s: Eight QBs
2020s: Time will tell…

Our guess? Five quarterbacks from the 2020s will eventually enter the Top 50 quarterbacks in NFL history ranking, led by, Patrick Mahomes. Obviously some quarterbacks will be bumped out of the top 50 along the way.

It is so fascinating to us how spread out quarterback success, in terms of all-time greatness, is equally distributed throughout the different eras of the NFL. That is how we know this formula respects the entirety of NFL football and shows how quarterbacks are judged against their peers — the only way we can do it. The meaningfulness of stats change, contexts change, but how you played against your peers does not.

The 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and the 2010s have been the best quarterbacking decades, per this formula. Or at least the decades when some truly dominant quarterbacks played. Because of recording keeping, or lack thereof, no quarterbacks from the 1920s had a chance to make this all-time list.

Check Out This Stat:

When looking at the top 16 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history the decade breakdown goes as such. 1940s: Two. 1950s: Two. 1960s: Two. 1970s: Two. 1980s: Two. 1990s: Two. 2000s: Two. 2010s: Two.

Exactly two quarterbacks from each decade! That’s how you know this formula respects the history of the game — all eras of the game. It was pretty insane to realize that after this formula, and list, was put together. The highest ranking quarterback from the 1930s is Arnie Herber, coming in at No. 22 all-time.

Even as the eras pass, there is only so much success to go around at the quarterback position. Which is what makes these debates so interesting… until we went ahead and tried to end the debate, that is.

The NFL-AFL Merger became official in 1970, 50 years into NFL’s history. So it nicely breaks up the two eras of the NFL’s first 100 years.

Mount Rushmore of the NFL’s Pre-Merger Quarterbacks:

Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Bart Starr and Sammy Baugh.

Mount Rushmore of the NFL’s Post-Merger Quarterbacks:

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Brett Favre.

There’s something quite satisfying about these eight names. In a way they tell almost the entire story of the NFL. The four quarterbacks that just missed the cut on these two mountains are Y.A. Tittle and Sid Luckman for the pre-merger list and Steve Young and Drew Brees for the post-merger list. Although Aaron Rodgers is gunning for Brees’ spot; we’ll have to see what happens in the coming years.

On the next page you’ll see some legendary quarterback names that didn’t make the NFL’s all-time ranking.

Go to Page 3 to see the top 75 quarterbacks in professional football history!

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3 Comments

  1. The requirements of the position are so different over time that the criteria should be qualified by era – basically now all that is looked at is passing, but that was just a small part of the position for the first two decades and more of the NFL.  People have to remember that at one point the rules decreed that a passer had to stand at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, roughing the passer was allowed, a team was penalized for incomplete passes on consecutive plays, and an incomplete pass in the end zone resulted in a turn-over – not to mention the shape of the ball which was more designed for drop kicking.  And the quarterback, along with all the players, also did the duty of special teams today since once you were taken out of a game you could not go back in until the next quarter. If you asked who was the best quarterback when the position required blocking, running, kicking, punt and kick off returns, playing defense, and calling plays with no direction from the coaching staff – that would be a totally different list.

    • Definitely hear where you’re coming from. You’re a true steward of ancient NFL history. Love it. I think there’s something to be said about trying to find a way to rank those players from the 1920s against each other because the game was SO different then, but that would take an incredible amount of work! Thanks for reading.

  2. There are many variables that make choosing the best QBs a very SUBJECTIVE thing. First off, if the QB had a great supporting cast, esp. offensive line &/or receivers, that alone makes a HUGE difference. Brady is probably the most outstanding example who (as even Belichick has stated) was and is not a great athlete (in comparison to other QBs). Brady benefited (massively) from a superior head coach and coaching staff, organization AND a consistently great offensive line. This last fact is the most overlooked and under-talked about variable. If Rodgers had had the consistent offensive line and coaching that Brady had, he would have four superbowl rings at least. Mike McCarthy wasted Rodgers years at GB. But, the whole GB organization suffered from poor ownership most likely as a result of Green Bay being a tiny community. Secondly, football is a team sport. Praising QBs as great makes no sense without considering the whole team effort (all pro players, coaches, etc.). This is totally overlooked in assessing greatness.

    Third, QBs from the last 50 years are better athletes over-all due to competition and training. Intelligence, discipline, fortitude, etc. are important also. Hence, Rodgers makes better decisions and throws far less interceptions. Last comment, QBs from bigger cities and regions always are praised and hyped more by the media, consistently. There is a significantly failure when evaluating QBs to try to eliminate the hype which is, of course, a challenge.

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