The Top Five Series: NFL quarterbacks

Part Three of the Top Five Series covers the all-time great quarterbacks. Check out my lists for the best running backs and wide receivers.

Honorable Mention: Roger Staubach
Team: Dallas Cowboys

22,700 pass yards, 153 TDs; 1971 All-Pro, six Pro Bowls, two-time Super Bowl champion

Roger Staubach could have worn red and white instead of blue and silver.

On draft day 1964, Staubach was years away from beginning his pro football career due to his commitments to the Naval Academy. He was faced with an important decision that day, however: Sign with the Dallas Cowboys, who used a 10th-round future selection on him in the NFL draft, or sign with the Kansas City Chiefs, who did the same in the 14th round of the AFL draft.

Dallas won out and Staubach became the catalyst that launched Tom Landry’s Cowboys into the history books. After 10 highly successful seasons, Staubach retired with gaudy win-loss records: An 85–29 career regular-season record with an 11–6 postseason mark and four Super Bowl appearances. Staubach’s career win percentage (.746) puts him between Tom Brady and Joe Montana on the all-time list. And to top it all off, Staubach retired with the best career QB rating in NFL history.

5. Drew Brees
Teams: San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints
77,416 pass yards, 547 TDs; two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, five-time All-Pro, 13 Pro Bowls, Super Bowl XLIV champion

Drew Brees is much closer to the end of his Hall-of-Fame career than the beginning. And when he calls it quits — 2020 could very well be his final season — Brees will own almost every major NFL passing record.

Brees already holds the NFL record for career passing touchdowns, career passing yards, career completions, career completion percentage, touchdown passes in a single game, consecutive games with a touchdown pass, pass completions in a season, highest completion percentage in one game, highest completion percentage in one season, and most career 5,000-yard passing seasons. He will break Brett Favre’s NFL record for pass attempts before halftime in Week 1 against the Buccaneers, assuming the season begins on time. His career passer rating of 98.4 is third all-time among quarterbacks with at least 50 starts.

Regardless of what happens in 2020 (and possibly beyond) Brees will go down as the most prolific passer in NFL history.

4. Johnny Unitas
Teams: Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers
40,239 pass yards, 290 TDs; three-time NFL MVP, eight-time All-Pro, 10 Pro Bowls, three championships

Johnny U’s passing numbers were completely unprecedented when Unitas quarterbacked the Baltimore Colts. But blazing a trail means the road is sometimes rough.

Unitas threw 20 or more interceptions five times during his career and never completed more than 58.5 percent of his passes in a season. The game was different then — most quarterbacks weren’t attempting more than 300 passes or throwing more than 20 touchdown passes, something Unitas did regularly.

Another thing Unitas did regularly: Win. Unitas started 10 or more games in a season 12 times and never finished with a sub-.500 record. From 1963–1969, Unitas played under legendary head coach Don Shula, helping to launch Shula’s Hall-of-Fame career. And although the duo never won a title together, Unitas led the Colts to three championships before retiring in 1973.

3. Peyton Manning
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos
71,940 pass yards, 539 TDs; five-time NFL MVP, two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 10-time All-Pro, 14 Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl championships

No quarterback in NFL history had a better command of the game than Peyton Manning. He was almost always the smartest person on the field and oftentimes the best football mind in the entire stadium.

Manning’s rookie season was a rough ride but the Colts were quickly rewarded for their patience. Indianapolis would win 10 or more games in 11 of the next 12 seasons, including a stretch from 2003–2009 in which Manning led the team to at least 12 victories each season, a victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI and a second Super Bowl trip three years later.

After a 10–6 campaign in 2010, Manning would undergo surgery for a serious neck injury and was released in March 2011. Most legendary quarterbacks would go quietly into the night.

Not Manning. In his first season with the Denver Broncos, Manning would win NFL Comeback Player of the Year and lead the team to home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. One year later, Manning would win his fifth league MVP award while breaking the NFL single-season record for passing yards and passing touchdowns. Two years later, in his final NFL game, Manning would lead the Broncos to an upset victory over the 15–1 Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

2. Joe Montana
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs
40,551 yards, 273 TDs, two-time NFL MVP, 1989 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, six-time All-Pro, eight Pro Bowls, four Super Bowl championships

San Francisco’s legendary quarterback truly was Joe Cool.

Joe Montana could not be rattled in the postseason. The Niners were 14–5 in the playoffs with Montana under center, winning four Super Bowls as Montana was named Super Bowl MVP three times. He was the only player to win the honor on three occasions before Tom Brady matched the feat after the 2014 season.

Legendary coach Bill Walsh, creator of the West Coast offense, trusted Montana with the reigns of the NFL’s most historically significant offensive scheme. Naturally, Montana ran it without issue. Walsh, Montana and the 49ers won 10 or more games on six occasions and never finished with a losing record.

Following his trade to Kansas City, Montana continued his unparalleled success, leading the Chiefs to their first-ever AFC title game. At age 37.

Joe Montana really could do it all.

  1. Tom Brady
    Teams: New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    74,571 yards, 541 TDs; three-time NFL MVP, two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, five-time All-Pro, 14 Pro Bowls, six Super Bowl championships

“Talk to coaches around the league and they’ll tell you that however much command you think Brady has over that offense, triple it, and that’s about the actual amount.”

This quote, from Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated, dates back to 2015. If you’ve followed my writing over the years, you’ve seen it before. You’re seeing it again because nothing has changed.

We’ve lived Brady’s career in real time over the last 20 years, making a comprehensive look back seem trite. Alongside Bill Belichick, Brady and the Patriots dominated the NFL landscape since winning their first Super Bowl title following the 2001 season. It seemed fitting that, not five months after the September 11 attacks, a team named the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Little did we know the NFL’s greatest dynasty was taking shape before our eyes.

Love him or hate him, Tom Brady is the best to ever play quarterback in the NFL. Seeing him in pewter and red will be a shock to the system, but don’t make the mistake of doubting Brady. For 20 years, Brady has proven his doubters foolish and 2020 will be no exception.

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