Jesse is a lifelong sports fan with a passion for finding the facts. His writing has been recognized and published by Sports Illustrated.
Who Is the Greatest Quarterback of All Time?
Brady, Montana, Manning, Marino, Brees, or Elway?
The NFL has been driven by the success and skill of quarterbacks for decades. In fact, since I was born in 1992, the Super Bowl has included a Hall of Fame QB, or a future Hall of Fame QB, in 24 of 26 Super Bowls. There is no position in any sport that is more important to its team than the leader of the offense in football.
With that in mind, the question often arises as to which QB is the greatest to ever step foot on the turf and represent the team on their jersey. While the NFL's history is filled with extremely talented passers, including Bart Starr, Sammy Baugh, Brett Favre, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, and others, there are a select few who have regularly entered the conversation of the best.
This article will cover many accolades for different QBs who I believe have a right to be in the conversation as the number one QB: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, John Elway, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, or Joe Montana. Statistics, winning, championships, supporting cast, among other things will be evaluated and compared in the hopes of finding the truth of who is truly the best.
Career Regular Season Statistics
|Name||Games||Record||Win Percentage||Completions||Attempts||Completion %||Career Yards||Career Touchdowns||QB Rating||Career Interceptions||Times Sacked||Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Rushing Touchdowns|
Career Playoff Statistics
|Name||Games||Record||Win Percentage||Completions||Attempts||Completion %||Yards||Touchdowns||QB Rating||Interceptions||Times Sacked||Rushing Yards||Rushing Touchdowns|
How to Read NFL Stats
If you look at any reference forms for NFL statistics, you may become overwhelmed quickly. Even my charts above include twelve statistical categories, and that's barely scratching the surface. People have broken down yards per throw, interception percentages, longest pass thrown, and many more.
The statistics I chose to show focus on a few things: winning, accuracy, yardage, scoring, turnovers, and how many times they were hit. While there are many other statistics that can be used, I believe that these twelve stats incorporate what would make a QB the greatest ever without having to dig into the depths of nitpicking.
Before I break down the stats in terms of how they affect the outcome of the debate, we first must understand what each statistic stands for:
- Games: This is the number of games the player played in.
- Record: This determines the QB's record in the format of 0-0-0, where the first number represents the QB's wins, the second number represents his losses, and the third number represents tie games.
- Completions: This represents the number of throws the QB threw that resulted in a catch. If the QB missed his receiver or the receiver dropped the ball, that would be considered an incompletion.
- Attempts: This represents the number of times a QB threw the ball in total. If the QB were to be sacked or tackled after he ran the ball, an attempt would not be counted. This is only when the QB throws the ball forward past the line of scrimmage.
- Completion Percentage: This percentage shows how often a QB completed his attempted pass.
- Yards: This accounts for the total amount of yardage gained by a QB's throws. This is calculated from the original line of scrimmage to the end of the play. For instance, if a QB threw a pass 3 yards to a wide receiver, but the receiver ran another 80 yards, the QB would be accredited 83 yards to their statistics.
- Touchdowns: This represents the number of times a forward pass from the QB resulted in a touchdown. Similar to the yards, this is calculated whether the pass is caught in the end zone or if the receiver catches the ball and runs into the end zone himself.
- Rating: Rating represents a QB's passer rating. This is a formula that takes into account a QB's attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions and based on their success on the field, gives them a number ranging from 0-158.3. The algorithm is:
a= (completions/attempts -.3) x 5
b= (yards/attempts -3) x .25
c= (touchdowns/attempts) x 20
d= 2.375 - (interceptions/attempts x 25)
If the result of any calculation above is greater than 2.375, then it is changed to 2.375. If it results in a negative number, then it is changed to 0. Then the following equation gives you Passer Rating:
Passer Rating= ((a+b+c+b)/6) x 100
- Interceptions: This stat represents the number of times a QB threw a forward pass that was caught by the opposing team. This action results in a turnover, which allows the other team's offense to come onto the field.
- Times Sacked: This represents the number of times a QB was behind the line of scrimmage and was tackled. This statistic is specific to QBs only. If a QB crosses the line of scrimmage and is tackled, it is considered a tackle, not a sack.
- Rushing Yards: This represents the number of yards a QB runs for after he crosses the line of scrimmage.
- Rushing Touchdowns: This represents the number of times a QB crosses the line of scrimmage and runs into the end zone for a touchdown.
What Makes a GOAT?
How to Determine the Greatest Quarterback of All Time
Simply comparing statistics can't possibly determine who is the greatest QB to step onto a field. There are plenty of statistical categories listed above, and almost every QB named leads in a statistical category. In order to determine statistically who is the best overall prospect, I will break down the rankings of each statistic.
While some may dominate a statistical area, others will be close or on pace to break the leader's grip on the top spot. Each QB is different and will have strengths and weaknesses that need to be addressed. Other factors will need to be addressed as well, such as Super Bowl appearances and victories, draft position vs. expectations, per-game statistics, and situational stats or "clutch genes".
Who Is the Most Accurate Quarterback Ever?
Why Drew Brees Is the Best QB Ever
A quarterback who isn't accurate is going to lose football games. It's one of the most important aspects of the position because if you can't place the ball where you want, it's going to lead to turnovers. While all of the QBs listed are fairly accurate, one stands out above the rest.
Drew Brees has thrown the ball more than anyone on the list. Despite the fact that he throws so much, he still leads the pack in accuracy by at least 2%, and leads the least accurate QB, John Elway, by a whopping 10.7%.
The second most accurate QB on the list is Peyton Manning. Manning leads the pack in attempts with 9,380 and still boasts an impressive 65.3% completion percentage. Nearly two out of every three passes he threw in his career landing in the hands of a receiver. This probably has a lot to do with him leading the league in touchdown passes on two separate occasions.
The third most accurate QB is Tom Brady. It seems to be a trend that the later the QBs played, the more accurate they became. Tom Brady threw the ball 9,375 times so far in his career and has a 63.8% completion percentage to show for it.
The fourth most accurate QB is Joe Montana with 63.2% accuracy. While Joe only threw the ball 5,391 times in his career, the least of all our QBs, it's still very impressive that he completed so many throws.
The fifth most accurate QB is Dan Marino. Dan completed 59.4% of his career passes on 8,358 attempts. While he is the only QB on our list without a Super Bowl ring, it's hard to argue it was his accuracy's fault that he never got the job done.
Finally, our least accurate QB was John Elway. The gunslinger completed only 56.9% of his passes in his career. While he made up for this partially with his running ability, it also led to many interceptions.
Which QB Has the Most Career Yards?
Why Drew Brees Is the Best QB Ever
Yardage is what gets a QB up and down the field. Passing the ball, on average, advances you down the field at a much faster rate than running the ball. While running backs typically average 3–5 yards per carry, a quarterback typically averages 7–9 yards per attempt.
Drew Brees currently holds the record for most career yards thrown with 77,416, at 282 per game. Drew Brees is on pace to continue to shatter that record and is also the leading per-game yardage QB out of the six listed in this article. It's hard to say who will end up with the most yards between Brady and Brees, depending on how long each can continue to play, but both of these QBs have put up incredibly large numbers in their careers.
Who Has the Most Passing Touchdowns Ever?
Why Peyton Manning Is the GOAT
The two most important things for a QB are scoring touchdowns and ball safety. Touchdowns score points, and interceptions give the other team the ball. The leaders in touchdowns are as follows:
- Drew Brees: 547
- Tom Brady: 541
- Peyton Manning: 539
- Dan Marino: 420
- John Elway: 300
- Joe Montana: 273
Both Brees and Brady surpassed Peyton, the former leader in career touchdowns, during the 2019 season. All three of them had stellar careers throwing the ball. However, if we look at Joe Montana he seems to be much farther down the line than he should be. This is because of the longevity of his career. With touchdowns, I believe we must also take into account the number of touchdowns thrown per game by a QB. That list breaks down as follows:
- Manning: 2.02
- Brees: 1.98
- Brady: 1.89
- Marino: 1.73
- Montana: 1.42
- Elway: 1.28
In conclusion, Peyton Manning seems to be the highest-scoring QB period due to how often you could rely on him any given game. Brees and Brady have a chance to catch him, but Peyton solely holds this record and is at least a season away from being caught.
Why Tom Brady is the GOAT
Scoring points is great, but if you turn the ball over, then your efforts on offense could be for nothing. In the picture above, the Patriots won a Super Bowl because of an interception in the 4th quarter of the game that destroyed the Seahawks hopes of a comeback. The fewer interceptions a QB throws, the better a team's chances are of winning. The following is a breakdown of QB career interceptions:
- Montana: 139
- Brady: 179
- Elway: 226
- Brees: 237
- Manning: 251
- Marino: 252
While Montana boasts the fewest career interceptions, the same argument for interceptions per game has to be addressed. Logically if a player plays fewer games they would have fewer interceptions. Therefore the following is each QB's interceptions per game:
- Brady: .628
- Montana: .723
- Brees: .861
- Manning: .943
- Marino: 1.041
- Elway: 1.284
In conclusion, Tom Brady is the least likely QB to throw an interception by far. John Elway is most likely, throwing more than one interception a game on average. Despite Brady throwing the ball 3rd most out of all the QBs listed, he holds a large lead on his competition in terms of turnovers.
How to Find Passer Rating
Who Has the Best Passer Rating Ever?
Passer rating incorporates all of the previously mentioned statistics and puts them into an equation that spits out a number between 0-158.3, with 158.3 being considered a Perfect Passer Rating. When the factors for each QB are plugged in they break down in this order:
- Brees: 98.4
- Brady: 97.0
- Manning: 96.5
- Montana: 92.3
- Marino: 86.4
- Elway: 79.9
Despite the many factors that go into Passer Rating, it certainly has its flaws. Passer Rating gives an edge to the league more now than it did in the past. The NFL is a more passing oriented league, which wasn't the case a few decades ago. While Brees has the highest passer rating of the bunch, it's also important to recognize Montana being above 92 in an era where passing wasn't the number one offensive priority.
Who Is the Greatest Rushing QB Ever?
Why John Elway Is the Greatest QB Ever
Typically we think of quarterbacks throwing the ball and running backs running the ball. Heck, running back even has the word "running" in the name. Despite this, various QBs have the ability to add their legs to their list of weapons on the field. Players like Michael Vick, Steve Young, and Randall Cunningham have changed the game for QBs.
A more mobile QB can extend plays like Ben Roethlisberger, power through defenders like Cam Newton, and gain yardage or touchdowns on the ground like Mike Vick and Lamar Jackson. Though running shouldn't be a quarterback's primary weapon, it's still important to the game of football. The following list is our QB's career rushing yards.
- Elway: 3,407 yards, 33 touchdowns
- Montana: 1,676 yards, 20 touchdowns
- Brady: 1,037 yards, 22 touchdowns
- Brees: 754 yards, 23 touchdowns
- Manning: 667 yards, 18 touchdowns
- Marino: 87 yards, 9 touchdowns
The reason I didn't split this stat up into a per game category is that there's simply no argument, John Elway is the best rusher on our list. He is the only true dual-threat QB listed. At any point in his career, he was a threat to move the ball with his legs. In my opinion, the more amazing statistic is how much of a statue Dan Marino was. 87 yards for his entire career is insane.
Which QB Wins the Most?
In the NFL it's hard to say that one player influences a team more than any other. It's easy to argue who's the GOAT in basketball for instance, because one player can completely change a team. In football, you have 53 men, and nine times out of ten the quarterback has the most influence on whether a team wins or loses.
The average NFL roster has a major turnover in its players every three to four years. This can be due to injuries, new young talent, or available cap space that forces teams to let players leave in free agency. Because of these factors, a team's window to win a Super Bowl is typically very short. This is one of the reasons that QBs who win are often praised more than those who have fewer rings, simply because they've been able to do it with good or bad teams that surround them.
The following are the leaders in regular season win percentage for their careers:
- Brady: 219-64, 77.3% wins
- Montana: 117-47, 71.3% wins
- Manning: 186-79, 70.1% wins
- Elway: 148-82-1, 64.2% wins
- Marino: 147-93, 61.2% wins
- Brees: 163-111, 59.4% wins
All of the QBs listed above won more than they lost, but Brady has a tremendous winning percentage advantage over the rest. He's 6% higher than second place and nearly 18% higher than last. He has averaged over 12 wins per season for his career. Although regular-season wins are important, playoff and Super Bowl victories are most important. Below are the winning percentages for the playoffs:
- Brady: 30-11, 73.1%
- Montana: 16-7, 69.5%
- Elway: 14-7, 66.6%
- Brees: 8-8, 50%
- Manning: 14-13, 51.8%
- Dan Marino 8-10, 44.4%
Despite the various records that Manning holds, and that Brees may break, they both have one large knock against their legacy; both players failed to win when it mattered most. Both QBs won about half of their games in the playoffs, while Brady dominated with 73% of his playoff games ending in victories. Montana won nearly 70%. Unfortunately for Marino, he is the only QB on our list to lose more than he won in the playoffs. Finally, in order to be considered the best you have to have been the best in the league at least once. The best way to determine who's best is to see who's the last team standing as a Super Bowl Champion. Below are the number of Super Bowl rings each QB has:
- Brady: 6
- Montana: 4
- Elway/Manning: 2
- Brees: 1
- Marino: 0
Tom Brady has a record 6 Super Bowl rings, more than any other NFL player, and equal to any franchise as a whole. Brady has been to the Super Bowl 9 times in his career and won it 6 times. Montana has been to the Super Bowl 4 times and won 4 times, a perfect record. Peyton Manning has been to the Super Bowl 4 times, winning twice. John Elway went to the Super Bowl 5 times and won twice. Drew Brees has only made it to the Super Bowl once, winning over Peyton Manning with the help of a great surprise onside kick. Dan Marino only went to the Super Bowl once, losing to Joe Montana after throwing only one touchdown and two interceptions.
In conclusion, when it comes to winning there is no argument. Tom Brady is the best winner when it comes to the game of football, at any position. The man wins in the regular season, playoffs, and Super Bowls. Joe Montana, despite his short career, also carries a respectful win percentage, but Brady doubled his Super Bowl appearances and has one more ring than him as well.
Top 5 Football Teams All Time
My final argument will break down the help these players received. Because football is a team sport, and a team is composed of 53 players, it could be easy for a good QB to have great players around them, or great coaches, that could help in their winning. Below I will list each QB's hall of fame teammates and coaches. If one of our QBs didn't play a year, I won't include players from that season:
- Bill Belichick (01-Present): Coach, arguably the greatest coach ever. Also the GM of the dynasty Patriots.
- Ty Law (01-04): CB, One of the best corners of his era. Helped New England win 3 Super Bowls.
- Randy Moss (07-09): WR, Top 5 WR ever. Record-setting 23 receiving TDs in 2007.
- Rob Gronkowski (10-17): TE, 5x Pro Bowl, 4x First-Team All-Pro, 3x Super Bowl Champ,
- Richard Seymour (01-08) DL, 3x First-Team All-Pro, All 2000's First Team, 3x Super Bowl Champ
- Darren Sharper (09-10): While Sharper didn't play with Brees long, he aided with 9 INTs and 3 TDs in his 09 season.
- Sean Payton (06-Present): Coach, Payton has had one of the top offenses every year since he took over as coach. He's already won one Super Bowl and may get another before it's all said and done.
- Jimmy Graham (10-14): TE, Two words...Touchdown. Machine. When he played with Brees he was the most athletic, tall, and bullying TE in the league.
- Ladanian Tomlinson (01-05): RB, Most touchdowns in a season. Need I say more?
- Gary Zimmerman (93-97): OT, 7x Pro Bowler, Named to 2 All-Decade Teams
- Shannon Sharpe (90-98): TE, An all-time great at TE. Retired leading TEs with receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
- Tony Dungy (02-08): Coach, Hall of Fame Coach who built the Buccaneers team into contention before becoming the Colts coach.
- Marvin Harrison (98-08): WR, Most receptions in a season, led the league in receptions twice.
- Jeff Saturday (99-08): OL, 5x Pro Bowler, 2x All-Pro, Super Bowl Champion
- Von Miller (12-15): LB, One of the top edge-rushers in the NFL.
- Aquib Talib (14-15): CB, #4 all-time in pick sixes.
- Don Shula (83-95): Coach, Most wins of any coach in NFL history.
- Dwight Stephenson (83-87): OL, All-Pro, 5x All-AFC, 5 consecutive Pro Bowls
- Jason Taylor (97-99): DL, 139.5 career sacks, DPOY, League-tying record 29 recovered fumbles.
- Bill Walsh(79-88): Coach, the innovator of the West Coast Offense. 2x Coach of the Year
- Ronnie Lott (81-90): CB/S, 5th all-time in interceptions, 1st in postseason INTs. 10x Pro Bowler
- Fred Dean (81-85): DE, 93 sacks in 141 games. NFC player of the year. 4x Pro Bowler
- Jerry Rice (86-90): WR, considered the GOAT at WR. Owns nearly ever WR record there is.
- Charles Haley (86-90): LB/DE, Tied with Tom Brady for most Super Bowl rings in NFL history. 2x DPOY 5x Pro Bowler
Is Tom Brady the Greatest of All Time?
Why Tom Brady Is the GOAT
In conclusion, each QB at the top of the consideration list has had plenty of help from their teams. Montana had the greatest WR ever to play the game along with three incredible defensive players. Tom Brady arguably has the greatest coach ever, a top 3 TE in NFL history, and a great defense early in his career when he got his first rings. Peyton Manning had a top WR and lineman early in his career, and a great defense to help him end his career. Drew Brees, John Elway, and Dan Marino all had little help to begin with, and when they did get it it wasn't with them for long. Perhaps this is why they won so little out of the QBs on the list.
Statistically, our QBs range in various areas. Drew Brees is the most accurate and throws for the most yardage. Peyton Manning holds a lot of records, but could soon be broken by Brees and Brady. Elway had the legs to rush and be a dual-threat QB. Brady creeps close to the top of all categories but walks away hands down when it comes to winning. He has the most wins in the regular season, playoffs, and Super Bowls. Dan Marino, unfortunately, doesn't stand out in any category as the top dog.
In my own personal opinion, winning is what matters most in football. Tom Brady doesn't turn the ball over, wins games, and still sticks close to the top of each QB category. He'll finish his career top three in yardage and touchdowns, and will have a crack at finishing first. He has the most Super Bowl rings ever, he has the most Super Bowl appearances, and if he wins one more ring he will have as many Super Bowl wins as any other franchise, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers with six. No one can compare to the elite status of Brady.
Who is the greatest QB of all time?
Want more info?
© 2018 Jesse Unk
Jesse Unk (author) from Ohio on February 11, 2020:
Not with a 500 record regular season and only 7 postseason appearances.
Ben D. Looney on February 11, 2020:
The great Warren Moon was the best quarterback ---- ever...
Joe on January 13, 2020:
During last 20 years (salary cap/free agency era) Brady has won more super bowls than Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Phillip Rivers,
No other qb has won more than 2 during that period.
Jesse Unk (author) from Ohio on August 21, 2019:
Brees also wouldnt have his only ring without a headhunting defense either.
Kevin on August 21, 2019:
Brady’s had the luxury of playing with great defenses, coaches, wr’s and Tight ends. Bree’s made everything happen with scrubs and decently players with historically bad defenses. If it wasn’t for some of those saints defenses drew would have 3+ rings
Dan on June 30, 2019:
Brees and Manning had the benefit of playing in a dome most of their careers and Montana played in a favorable climate. This definitely helps passing statistics. Brady plays in New England where the weather can be nasty.
Sahil on September 26, 2018:
Baker is also going to be good one day!
Jesse Unk (author) from Ohio on September 25, 2018:
Sahil I'm a born and bred Browns fan. Hopefully I can erase this article and write about Baker Mayfield one day instead!
Sahil on September 25, 2018:
What is your favorite team
Jesse Unk (author) from Ohio on May 05, 2018:
I think it'll be a long time until people break his records. Manning and Bree's records as well. I'm glad I could help with your learning of the game! I'd love to help more if you have any questions! Football is one of my greatest passions.
Leah Kennedy-Jangraw from Massachusetts on May 05, 2018:
Wow great article. You really did your research and followed through in answering the question posed. I really have gotten in watching football over the past few years but I appreciate your clear definitions of everything as I am still learning.
The question always makes me think about the career length of the player because I think that definitely factors in. With Brady still going strong, as you mentioned, he (and Brees) will most likely continue to outdo retired players stats.
I wondered how many years will it be before the next greatest QB can beat the records Brady is setting now.