NFL Quarterbacks Ranked All-Time By Their Primes (Greatest Five-Year Stretches)

Every Prime Has Been Ranked By Unique Statistical Formula

Brett Favre and Steve Young following the 1997 NFC Conference Championship Game (Youtube/NFL Throwback)

Whose best was best?

Which NFL quarterbacks have had the most dominant primes in NFL history? How would quarterbacks be ranked all-time if their absolute best stretch of play was compared to everyone else’s?

Maybe you’ve pondered these questions before.

Stat books in an ever-evolving league can only tell you so much. You have to dig a hell of a lot deeper to really see which passer truly deserves this crown.

We’ve already used our unique formula to rank quarterbacks all-time by greatness for their total careers. That list raised some eyebrows; people’s perceptions often do not match the reality of the situation. Legacies get inflated or overlooked when it comes to the greats of NFL history.

Our ranking of the top individual quarterbacking single-seasons of all-time yielded some shocking results, too. Although having top level success in one season is good, sustaining that success is a whole other challenge. A challenge which led us to create this list.

Here we ranked quarterbacks strictly by their prime — by their peak years.

The term “prime” is subjective and some quarterbacks have longer impressive stretches than others. However, we feel that the top five-year stretch for every quarterback would serve as a good indicator of how dominant that player was at their peak. We limited every signal caller’s prime to their best five-year span of play (according to points accrued in our formula).

How much success did the all-time greats pack into their prime? That’s what we sought to answer with this piece in our quest to adequately put into context, and rank, quarterbacks from throughout the entirety of NFL history.

A good five year stretch is all it takes to be remembered as an impressive quarterback in the NFL. A great five-year stretch may even land a player in the Hall of Fame, but a truly dominant five-year stretch can land a quarterback in the GOAT discussion. Just four to five elite seasons surrounded by above-average play on either side (early career and late career) is enough to transform a quarterback into an all-time legend.

But which legends did the most in their prime? We’re here to show you that today.

On this page you’ll find each quarterback ranked by their prime. On Page 2 you’ll find each quarterback ranked by their prime with no team success factored in.

Since we already know how the all-time great quarterbacks shake out in terms of their careers and in terms of their best ever single-season, it’s time we should also know which ones sustained their greatness for the best five-year run.

It’s one thing to have a great season, it’s a whole other thing staying on top of the league. Many quarterbacks over the years have “taken over the league” only to fall back toward mediocrity. Some however have managed to dominate the league for a prolonged period of time. We were curious as to how impressive each one of these quarterbacks actually were when they had their multi-year, “atop the league” moment compared to other greats.

As Dr. Dre said, “Anyone can get it, the hard part is keepin’ it motherf***er.”

Here we show you not only which quarterbacks got to the peak of the NFL mountain, but found a way to stay there. Every all-time great quarterback (and then some) has had their prime, or best five year stretch, analyzed and ranked using our formula.

It’s close to the exact formula we used to rank quarterbacks for their entire careers, but with just a couple of slight modifications (to better reflect greatness for a five-year stretch, as opposed to 10-20 year careers).

Why Five Years?

For one, it’s just a nice clean number. Also, it represents half a decade which is usually how long a quarterback’s true prime lasts. Sure, many quarterbacks have been great for well over a decade, but their peak play, their absolute best years with the most accomplishments usually come clustered in a definable window — usually around five years.

If you disagree with us, that’s fine. But just know we put a hell of a lot more thought and research into coming up with this idea than you put into not trusting us.

And yes, we know that seeing an article like this on PackersHistory.com opens us up to the claim that we’re biased. But please read a few of our works, we’re sure you’ll find that we’re fair and respectful to the whole that is NFL history.

Below is how each quarterback got their unique score.

Legend For How Each Quarterback’s Score Was Calculated:

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: 1/4 Point for every career Rush TD*
Durability: 1 Point for each season in which played 90% of games*
Led League in Interceptions: -4 Points*

*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 chance 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. But for just a five-year stretch, we felt a running score should be worth just 1/4 point per score. Over the course of an entire career, we value them more, like in our career quarterback ranking.

*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.

*For Leading the League in Interceptions. Since this formula focuses on quarterback’s literal prime, their five best consecutive seasons, we figured the punishment for leading the NFL in interceptions should be severe.

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 (playoff touchdowns minus playoff interceptions; we simplified this for a five-year stretch. Again, we value this stat differently over an entire career and calculate it differently for our career quarterback ranking)

*Plus World Championship Game Victories from 1933-1965.

*For the purposes of this list, and our career quarterback ranking, 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 are missing when it comes to league MVP being handed out. It’s just the way it is.

Note: Since these rankings are just about a five-year stretch, we didn’t offer different point totals for quarterbacks that played in the NFL’s more ancient era. However, there are far more points available points for modern quarterbacks and we did also make a separate list for Super Bowl Era quarterback accomplishments if you’re not a fan of the game’s early days.

Obviously we can only go back to 1932 for these rankings (the NFL’s first season was 1920) because official stats weren’t kept until that season. But that’s okay because the World Championship Game didn’t come to be until 1933 and quarterback play wasn’t nearly the same in the 1920s anyway. It was in the ’30s that football finally started to resemble the game we love today.

For “Individual Prime” Rankings (On Page 2):

For ranking quarterbacks by their individual prime, no points are awarded to quarterbacks for: Super Bowl Wins, Runner-Ups, Playoff Trips, Playoff Win Percentage or League-Wide Finish in Wins.

Using this adjustment, each quarterback gets ranked purely on their true statistical and individual accomplishments, no matter how their team performed. Because of this, there are guys not on the first list of total “primes” but are on the lists for individual “primes.”

Therefore, if you strongly disagree with a quarterback’s placement on the lists on Page 1, head to Page 2 to see how they rank there before getting too upset.

Any tie in these rankings goes to the quarterback with more career NFL touchdown passes.

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 prohibited. We own this formula, its usage and likeness.

Ultimately what this formula measure’s is how great a quarterback’s peak was, relative to their literal peers, and then translate that to how great they were against quarterbacks of all eras. This way, all quarterbacks, regardless of when they played, at least have a chance for a high finish in the rankings.

Remember, these are the greatest quarterbacking primes in NFL history relative to their peers.

NFL history isn’t really history if it ignores decades of play, right?

If you don’t put much merit in the NFL’s earliest days then just jump ahead to the “…of the Super Bowl Era” list on each page. There you won’t be bothered with ancient names that you’re too stubborn to give credit to.

Did we run every quarterback in NFL history through the formula? No, but we did run through over 70 of the most notable passers in NFL history. If you think we’re missing someone that would make these all-time lists, comment or shoot us an email and I’ll run their numbers and let you know!

Alright, now we’re ready to see which quarterbacks have had the best all-time primes when including team success, wins and championships. ‘Cause I mean, winning does matter right? If that statement makes you roll your eyes just head to Page 2 already.

And here… we… go…

The Top 45 Quarterback Primes in NFL History:

The best of the best all-time:

45. Sonny Jurgensen, WAS (1966-70): 41.25 Points
44. Jim Plunkett, OAK (1980-84): 42 Points
43. Bert Jones, BAL (1973-77): 44.25 Points
42. Phil Simms, NYG (1986-90): 45.75 Points
41. John Brodie, SF (1966-71): 46.5 Points

40. Boomer Esiason, CIN(1985-89): 49.5 Points
39. Norm Van Brocklin, LAR/PHI (1956-60): 50.5 Points
38. Cam Newton, CAR (2013-17): 51 Points
37. Jim Kelly, BUF (1990-94): 52.75 Points
36. Roman Gabriel, LAR (1966-70): 53.75 Points

35. Earl Morrall, BAL/MIA (1968-72): 54 Points
34. Eli Manning, NYG (2007-11): 54.25 Points
33. Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (2005-09): 54.25 Points
32. Ken Anderson, CIN (1979-83): 56 Points
31. John Elway, DEN (1994-98): 56.25 Points

30. Russell Wilson, SEA (2013-17): 57 Points
29. Matt Ryan, ATL (2012-16): 61.25 Points
28. Frank Ryan, CLE (1963-67): 63.25 Points
27. Bob Griese, MIA (1970-74): 65.5 Points
26. Bobby Layne, DET (1950-54): 65.5 Points

25. Y.A. Tittle, SF/NYG (1959-63): 66.25 Points
24. Bob Waterfield, LAR (1945-49): 67 Points
23. Fran Tarkenton, MIN (1973-77): 68.5 Points
22. Joe Theismann, WAS (1979-83): 73.5 Points
21. Dan Fouts, SD (1978-82): 73.75 Points

20. Roger Staubach, DAL (1975-79): 74.25 Points
19. Sammy Baugh, WAS (1939-43): 75.75 Points
18. Cecil Isbell, GB (1938-42): 82.5 Points
17. Arnie Herber, GB (1932-36): 84 Points
16. Drew Brees, NO (2006-10): 85.25 Points

15. Troy Aikman, DAL (1991-95): 89.5 Points
14. Ken Stabler, OAK (1973-77): 89.75 Points
13. Sid Luckman, CHI (1941-45): 101.25 Points
12. Dan Marino, MIA (1984-88): 101.25 Points
11. Aaron Rodgers, GB (2010-14): 107.25 Points

10. Kurt Warner, STL (1999-03): 111.5 Points
9. Bart Starr, GBP (1965-69): 112.50 Points
8. Terry Bradshaw, PIT (1975-79): 113 Points
7. Johnny Unitas, BAL (1957-62): 124 Points
6. Joe Montana, SF (1986-90): 128.50 Points

5. Peyton Manning, IND (2003-07): 130.25 Points
4. Tom Brady, NE (2014-18): 137.75 Points
3. Steve Young, SF (1992-96): 140.50 Points
2. Brett Favre, GB (1994-98): 141.75 Points
1. Otto Graham, CLE (1951-55): 153.25 Points

There they are, the greatest primes or quarterback play that professional football has ever seen when factoring in team success.

Graham really was as dominant as the old legends say. Just behind him is the old Gunslinger, Brett Favre. He truly did own the ’90s.

But to put the focus back on Graham, this “prime” came after he won four consecutive championships and two MVP Awards in the AAFC before the Browns were brought into the NFL in 1950. His “prime” in that league was equally as legendary.

Just look again at the Top 10. Those truly are the names of all-time NFL quarterback royalty. And it’s interesting to look at the placement of Graham and Johnny Unitas. “Johnny U” gets all of the attention when it comes to the NFL’s pre-Super Bowl Era quarterbacks, but Graham was actually the guy that should get that Pre-Super Bowl praise.

Just missed the cut:

Daunte Culpepper, MIN (2000-04): 39 Points
Philip Rivers, SD (2008-12): 38.5 Points
Warren Moon, HOU (1988-92): 38.5 Points
Donovan McNabb, PHI (2002-06): 34.5 Points

What about guys that had multiple great five-year stretches?

Yes, you could make the argument that Tom Brady has had multiple “primes” and the same goes for Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and others. But the “primes” we used were their highest-grossing point total five-year stretches. This seemed like the best way to do it.

What Hitting the 100 Point Plateau Means:

It appears that hitting the 100 point mark for a quarterback’s prime is the level where “GOAT” candidates reside. If a quarterback’s prime didn’t hit that level, they probably aren’t in the running for “best ever” at their position.

AFL Honorable Mentions:

Len Dawson, KC (1965-69): 92 Points

That point total would place Dawson 14th all-time on the all-time list of quarterback primes.

The all-time great Kansas City Chiefs quarterback isn’t included because his prime came in the AFL and this list is about NFL history. However he was so great that he deserves special mention in this piece.

John Hadl, SD (1964-68): 41.25 Points

He had notable success in both leagues, the AFL and the NFL. Although his career score wouldn’t make this all-time list his individual prime came out more favorably (see on Page 2).

Other Honorable Mentions include Jack Kemp (AFL), Joe Namath (AFL), George Blanda (AFL) and Frankie Albert (AAFC). These guys didn’t have definable success while in the NFL like Dawson and Hadl, thus I didn’t run their career accomplishments through the formula. But still, their names deserve inclusion in this piece.

Alright, onto specifically the Super Bowl Era.

The Top 30 Quarterback Primes of the Super Bowl Era:

The best of the best since the NFL became America’s favorite sport:

30. John Brodie, SF (1966-71): 46.5 Points
29. Boomer Esiason, CIN (1985-89): 49.5 Points
28. Cam Newton, CAR (2013-17): 51 Points
27. Jim Kelly, BUF, (1990-94): 52.75 Points
26. Roman Gabriel, LAR (1966-70): 53.75 Points

25. Earl Morrall, BAL/MIA (1968-72): 54 Points
24. Eli Manning, NYG (2007-11): 54.25 Points
23. Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (2005-09): 54.25 Points
22. Ken Anderson, CIN (1979-83): 56 Points
21. John Elway, DEN (1994-98): 56.25 Points

20. Russell Wilson, SEA (2013-17): 57 Points
19. Matt Ryan, ATL (2012-16): 61.25 Points
18. Bob Griese, MIA (1970-74): 65.5 Points
17. Fran Tarkenton, MIN (1973-77): 68.5 Points
16. Joe Theismann, WAS (1979-83): 73.5 Points

15. Dan Fouts, SD (1978-82): 73.75 Points
14. Roger Staubach, DAL (1975-79): 74.25 Points
13. Drew Brees, NO (2006-10): 85.25 Points
12. Troy Aikman, DAL (1991-95): 89.5 Points
11. Ken Stabler, OAK (1973-77): 89.75 Points

10. Dan Marino, MIA (1984-88): 101.25 Points
9. Aaron Rodgers, GB (2010-14): 107.25 Points
8. Kurt Warner, STL (1999-03): 111.5 Points
7. Bart Starr, GB (1965-69): 112.50 Points*
6. Terry Bradshaw, PIT (1975-79): 113 Points

5. Joe Montana, SF (1986-90): 128.50 Points
4. Peyton Manning, IND (2003-07): 130.25 Points
3. Tom Brady, NE (2014-18): 137.75 Points
2. Steve Young, SF (1992-96): 140.50 Points
1. Brett Favre, GB (1994-98): 141.75 Points

For a time, it really was Favre’s World.

As you can see, Favre has had the most dominant prime of any quarterback in the Super Bowl Era so far. His play in the mid-1990s, as you probably know, was absolutely transcendent and the data backs that up.

Other quarterbacks have won more rings than Favre, other quarterbacks have put up better career numbers or better single-seasons, Manning even won more AP MVP Awards, but no quarterback has had a stronger prime than #4… in the days that televisions have broadcast football in color that is.

What an honor for the Packer legend.

And because of Favre, the center of the football universe was Lambeau Field in the mid-1990s. Who knows where the Packers franchise would be without these five historic years of play? We shudder to think.

*Note: Starr’s prime included 1965, which was the season before the first Super Bowl, but four of his five seasons were in the Super Bowl Era so we figured we’d leave it in there, but mention it for the sake of proper context. If you must, for the sake of continuity, demand that we instead look at his 1966-1970 score (all in the Super Bowl Era), then he has a score of 95 Points, just behind Marino for 11th all-time.

Just Missed the Cut:

Phil Simms, NYG (1986-90): 45.75 Points
Bert Jones, BAL (1973-77): 44.25 Points
Jim Plunkett, OAK/LA (1980-84): 42 Points
Sonny Jurgensen, WAS (1966-70): 41.25 Points
Daunte Culpepper, MIN (2000-04): 39 Points
Philip Rivers, SD (2008-12): 38.5 Points
Warren Moon, HOU (1988-92): 38.5 Points

Without doubt, the top two franchises of the Super Bowl Era when it comes to quarterback play (in terms of prime quarterback play) are the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners have two quarterbacks in the top five and the Packers have three quarterbacks in the top 10. Both are the only franchises to boast those respective claims.

You may say, “But I want to know what each quarterback’s prime looks like with just their stats and accomplishments without their team’s success!”

Well, you’re in luck.

As we hinted at earlier, on the next page we show what happens if you strip away all team accomplishments, wins and championships. It definitely changes things. We wouldn’t disagree if you called the following lists the “Pure” Prime Quarterback Rankings. Not all quarterbacks on these lists make the following individual lists.

See the eye-opening results on Page 2!

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