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

Arnie Herber (Image Copyright of Gary Thomas; Pro Football Hall of Fame Art Series Six 1994, Card No. 160, Card 617 of 5,000; Goal Line Art, Inc. Uniform design copyright of Green Bay Packers. Card purchased by PackersHistory.com in 2020; this is a photograph of that card.)

How The Best Quarterbacks of All-Time Were Ranked… Over The Years:

Now we are only going to pull quarterbacks from the Top 50 NFL quarterbacks of all-time list. Obviously in 1940 there would be a few quarterbacks from the past that would also have been in the top five all-time. But since they’ve been so heavily surpassed, we’re sticking with just listing the best of the best (quarterbacks still listed in the top 50 all-time) for these specific countdowns of quarterbacks.

A player was included in the “as of X decade” if their career bled over by less than four years into the following decade. If they played more than four years more they were included in the following decade… no matter how many career points they had. It just made the timeline cleaner and easier to understand.

Below you can see where certain notable quarterbacks peaked all-time (at the specific time they left the game). Some people rightly placed a quarterback in the top 10 all-time when they retired, but then wrongly kept that player in the top 10 as years went by and that player was surpassed.

What you get to see is how people living in those decades were able to see NFL history at that moment. What you’re seeing are their “GOATS” and you can see how it slowly changes over time.

It’s interesting to see where some guys were definitely top five all-time, but then fell out of the top 10 all-time. It’s also interesting to see men that got into the top 10 and then stayed there in perpetuity. They’re the real all-timers.

Here is a timeline of the “greatest quarterback in NFL history” over the years.

As of 1940:

1. Arnie Herber

The Cheese stands alone.

As of 1950:

5. Cecil Isbell
4. Bob Waterfield
3. Arnier Herber
2. Sid Luckman
1. Sammy Baugh

Slingin’ Sammy Baugh took over the game of football.

As of 1960:

8. Bob Waterfield
7. Y.A. Tittle
6. Arnie Herber
5. Norm Van Brocklin
4. Bobby Layne
3. Sid Luckman
2. Sammy Baugh
1. Otto Graham

Otto Graham took what Baugh did and dwarfed it.

As of 1970:

10. Bob Waterfield
9. Arnie Herber
8. Norm Van Brocklin
7. Bobby Layne
6. Sid Luckman
5. Y.A. Tittle
4. Sammy Baugh
3. Bart Starr
2. Otto Graham
1. Johnny Unitas

The 1960s were the original golden age for quarterbacks, Unitas shined the brightest.

As of 1980:

10. Bobby Layne
9. Roger Staubach
8. Fran Tarkenton
7. Sid Luckman
6. Y.A. Tittle
5. Sammy Baugh
4. Terry Bradshaw
3. Bart Starr
2. Otto Graham
1. Johnny Unitas

The top three remained unchanged. Legends. Bradshaw tried to crash the party.

As of 1990:

10. Roger Staubach
9. Fran Tarkenton
8. Sid Luckman
7. Y.A. Tittle
6. Sammy Baugh
5. Terry Bradshaw
4. Bart Starr
3. Otto Graham
2. Joe Montana
1. Johnny Unitas

Joe Cool came out of nowhere, passing Graham and Starr along the way.

As of 2000:

10. Sid Luckman
9. Y.A. Tittle
8. Dan Marino
7. Sammy Baugh
6. Terry Bradshaw
5. Steve Young
4. Bart Starr
3. Otto Graham
2. Joe Montana
1. Johnny Unitas

Enter: The Lefty (Young) and Marino; the rest remained unchanged.

As of 2010:

10. Y.A. Tittle
9. Dan Marino
8. Sammy Baugh
7. Terry Bradshaw
6. Steve Young
5. Bart Starr
4. Brett Favre
3. Otto Graham
2. Joe Montana
1. Johnny Unitas

The Gunslinger jumps up, appropriately, to No. 4 all-time before retiring.

As of 2020:

This is also the current Top 10 all-time, obviously.

10. Terry Bradshaw
9. Drew Brees
8. Steve Young
7. Bart Starr
6. Brett Favre
5. Otto Graham
4. Joe Montana
3. Johnny Unitas
2. Peyton Manning
1. Tom Brady

Upheaval. Unprecedented upheaval as Brady and Manning take over the top two spots. Brees says, don’t forget about me!

What do the next ten years have in store for us? Will Rodgers crack the top 10? What about Wilson or Mahomes? Maybe Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson will have something to say about all of this.

Sorry Bears fans, I don’t think Mitch Trubisky will have much of a say one way or the other.

Below are a few quarterbacks that many people have in their top 10’s all-time, but are not according to our formula. Many people will certainly be angry to see that these passers didn’t make the top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history, but here’s where they peaked on the all-time list, within the Super Bowl Era specifically:

Roger Staubach: Peaked at No. 9 all-time in 1980.

Dan Marino: Peaked at No. 8 all-time in 2000.

Fran Tarkenton: Peaked at No. 8 all-time in 1980.

Sid Luckman: Peaked at No. 6 all-time in 1970.

Y.A. Tittle: Peaked at No. No. 5 all-time in 1970.

Sammy Baugh: Peaked at No. 4 all-time in 1970.

There are certain people who’d make passionate arguments for every one of these guys for inclusion in the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks of all-time (Marino and Staubach the two most common).

And then we get into some interesting territory here:

John Elway: Never made it into the Top 10 all-time, not even at the time of his retirement.

But still, people to this day include him in their top 10 quarterbacks of all-time. Many people. Like, most people. Even the NFL did in their 100th Season All-Time Team. Yet, he was never even one of the top 10 quarterbacks of all-time even at the time of his retirement. He’s the only quarterback that people routinely argue for being top 10 all-time, despite never, ever, being a top 10 great.

He was a great talent, had a huge arm and was in the middle of the NFL’s biggest moments, yes. But the sum of his career wasn’t what most people collectively agree it to be.

Some guys live off of an inflated legend; Elway’s was born from that ‘helicopter hit,’ those back-to-back Super Bowls and then riding off into the sunset. But that shouldn’t trump guys with greater overall careers. Talk about recency bias.

We will never understand this phenomenon.

Paddy Driscoll is another quarterback we’d at least like to mention. He stared in the 1920s in Chicago and he’d probably be the man ranked second behind Arnie Herber (if they would have recorded statistics in those days).

What about the 2020s?

Active NFL Quarterbacks Ranked By Their All-Time Greatness:

10. Joe Flacco
9. Matt Ryan
8. Philip Rivers
7. Cam Newton
6. Russell Wilson
5. Patrick Mahomes
4. Ben Roethlisbger
3. Aaron Rodgers
2. Drew Brees
1. Tom Brady

Obviously this list is subject to change as players amass more points and players retire.

Lamar Jackson already has 41 points in his career, so he’s closing in on Flacco.

Packers fans will be pleased and maybe surprised that even as recent as 1980, Bart Starr was the No. 3 ranked quarterback of all-time. Brett Favre peaked at No. 4 in 2010. Arnie Herber was a top 10 quarterback all-time all the way into the 1970s, into the Super Bowl era.

Who would have thought that?

Yes, in 1970 the Packers had two quarterbacks in the NFL’s all-time top 10 quarterback list (long before Favre and Rodgers came to Green Bay). Herber doesn’t get the credit he deserves, even in Wisconsin.

If you’re not a Packers fan, you may want to end your reading here. The next page probably won’t bring you much enjoyment. If that’s the case, thanks for having as much interest in this topic as we do. Your readership is not taken for granted. ‘Til next time, NFL fans!

Packers fans, check out Page 6 for some more detailed information about your favorite Green Bay quarterbacks!

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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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