21 Jun 2004
by Michael David Smith
Any list of the greatest players or teams or coaches is bound to be biased toward the author's own, personal favorite era. But this is not such a list. I present instead a timeline, showing the best quarterbacks of each five-year increment in pro football history, and I'll gladly admit that this wouldn't work as a list of the best quarterbacks ever, although many of the names here would qualify. Some great players don't make this list because their top years were spread among different five-year periods; others don't make the list because they had the misfortune of playing at the same time as another quarterback who was just a bit better. But if you want to know which players were the best at the time they played, this is the place to look.
One note: I decided to start in the post-World War II era because the quarterback position was so different in the early days of pro football. Consider, for instance, that Frank Filchock of the Redskins led the league in completions with 84 in 1944. So apologies to Benny Friedman, Dutch Clark, Sid Luckman and the other great players who were born too soon to make this discussion.
1945-49: Sammy Baugh, Washington Redskins
Study a picture of Sammy Baugh in action. The leather helmet has no facemask, the long-sleeved No. 33 jersey looks like a generic knock-off, and the shoulder pads are so thin you can hardly be sure they're there. But Sammy Baugh, more than half a century later, still has the look of a pure football player. He was the best punter and one of the best defensive backs of his era, but here we'll discuss only his exploits as a quarterback. In 1945 Baugh completed 128 of his 182 passes, for a rate of 70.3 percent. Joe Montana's highest single-season completion rate was 70.2 percent.
But Baugh was anything but a dink-and-dunk quarterback who tossed only safe balls. On Halloween in 1948, Baugh set a new NFL record with 446 yards passing against the Boston Yanks at Griffith Stadium in Washington. Incredibly, he did it throwing only 24 passes, for an average of 18.6 yards per pass.
At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Baugh was rail thin, and it's amazing that he lasted 16 seasons (the longest tenure ever at the time) when we consider that in those days defensive players could hit a quarterback after long after he had thrown the ball. Pure passing, poise and toughness are the legacy of Slingin' Sammy Baugh.
1950-54: Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns
Otto Graham won seven championships and played in the championship game in each of his 10 seasons. But football is a team game, and Graham probably gets too much credit for the incredible success of the Cleveland Browns in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
But just as a discussion of the Browns wouldn't be complete without adding the names of Marion Motley and Bill Willis, a discussion of the great quarterbacks has to include Graham, who was so successful as a passer that his record of 8.63 yards per attempt has been surpassed only by Kurt Warner.
His greatest game came on Christmas Eve of 1950 before 29,751 fans at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium when the Browns (in their first NFL seasons after four years in the All-America Football Conference) took on the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL championship. The Browns needed a victory to prove what they had said all along, that the AAFC played a type of football that was equal if not superior in quality to the NFL. Graham delivered touchdown passes of 27, 37, 39 and 14 yards as the Browns won 30-28.
1955-59: Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts (1956-59)
Every football fan knows about the 1958 championship game, when the Colts beat the Giants in overtime on national television to establish football as an integral part of the American sports landscape. But consider how Johnny Unitas followed that game. In 1959 Unitas led the league with 2,899 yards and 32 touchdowns (no one else had more than 16 TD passes) as the Colts won a second consecutive title.
The closest thing football has to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is Unitas's record of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass, a streak that started in 1956 and included every game in 1957, 1958 and 1959 before ending in 1960. No other quarterback has ever thrown touchdowns in more than 30 straight games.
Unitas hung around long past his prime, until he was a 40-year-old backup in 1973 with the San Diego Chargers. No one thought much of him by the end, and it was as if his career had come full circle. John Constantine Unitas wasn't particularly impressive as a 6-foot-1, 194-pounder coming out of Louisville. His home-town team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, didn't think he'd amount to anything, and the Colts thought they were taking a chance by giving him a shot as a rookie in 1956. But he quickly established himself as the best player on the team, and by 1957 he wasn't only the best on his team; he was the best quarterback in football.
1960-64: Y.A. Tittle, San Francisco 49ers (1960), New York Giants (1961-64)
Tittle was traded to the Giants after an ineffective 1960 season with San Francisco and was the NFL's All-Pro quarterback in each of his first three seasons in New York. And then he was out of football after the 1964 season, which was the worst of his career, with only 10 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. So is it fair to give Tittle the half-decade honor for only three good seasons?
It is when we examine just how good those seasons were. The 34-year-old Tittle was considered a washed-up former star when he New York acquired him to serve as a backup to Chuck Conerly. But after Conerly played badly in an opening-day loss to the Cardinals and in the first half of the second game against the Steelers, coach Allie Sherman pulled Conerly at halftime of Game 2 and gave the job to Tittle. The Giants beat the Steelers that day and went on to win the Eastern Conference.
In 1962 Tittle set an NFL record with 33 touchdown passes, including seven in one game, and he led the Giants to a 12-2 record and another Eastern Conference title. In 1963 Tittle won the league MVP as he led the Giants to their third straight conference championship.
1965-69: Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers
Vince Lombardi is the unquestionable star of the Packers' championship teams of the 1960s, and Lombardi had Hall of Fame players all over the field: running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, offensive linemen Forrest Gregg and Jim Ringo, defensive linemen Willie Davis and Henry Jordan, linebacker Ray Nitschke, defensive backs Herb Adderley and Willie Wood.
But the best of them all was Starr, whose superb passing has in large part been forgotten through the years. Perhaps that's partly because he never had a great receiver as a target; the Packers' duo of Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler was mediocre. But consider Starr's performance in 1966: He completed 156 of 251 passes (62.2 percent) for 2257 yards (an impressive average of 9.0 per pass) with 14 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. And in the postseason he led the Packers to victory in the first Super Bowl, winning the first of his two Super Bowl MVP awards.
Fans tend to overstate the importance of clutch performance in big games when evaluating quarterbacks, but it's hard to ignore that Starr threw only three interceptions in 213 career playoff pass attempts, the lowest ratio of passes intercepted in postseason history.
1970-74: Fran Tarkenton, New York Giants (1970-71), Minnesota Vikings (1972-74)
By the end of the 1971 season it wasn't clear that Fran Tarkenton should even play a 12th season, let alone that he was about to embark on the best stretch of his Hall of Fame career. Tarkenton made the Pro Bowl with the Giants in 1970, but he threw 21 interceptions in 1971, and the Giants shipped him back to his original team, the Vikings.
And that's where his career went through a wonderful rebirth. He finished third in the league in both yards and touchdowns in 1972, and he led the Vikings to the Super Bowl in 1973 and 1974.
By the time he retired after the 1978 season, his 47,003 yards and 342 touchdowns easily surpassed any other passer in pro football history. So it's a bit odd that Tarkenton is best known not for his arm, but for his feet. He was the original scrambling quarterback - not a runner who would frequently run for a first down, but a nimble passer who evaded the rush with his mobility before completing a pass.
1975-79: Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys
Roger Staubach was the Cowboys' starting quarterback for only eight seasons, and yet it's unlikely that anyone on the Hall of Fame selection committee had to hesitate before voting him in on the first ballot in 1985. His 83.4 career passer rating was the best ever at the time he retired. From 1975 to 1979, he had a ratio of 101 touchdown passes to 63 interceptions, and he made the Pro Bowl all five of those years.
Staubach started his career as a 27-year-old rookie in 1969 after devoting five years to service in the Navy, and his greatest success was as a runner. In his first two seasons he had only three touchdown passes to go with his 10 interceptions, but he did gain 281 yards on 42 carries.
As his career wound down, however, he relied less on his running and more on his passing.
1980-84: Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins
Before I started researching, I was sure I would award the whole decade of the '80s to Joe Montana, almost by default. But as good as Montana was from 1980 to 1984, a thorough examination of the half-decade results in Theismann having the slight edge. Their numbers were fairly similar; in this five-year stretch Theismann had 15,668 yards passing and Montana had 15,513. Both men had the good fortune of playing for offensive geniuses (Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh), but Theismann was a more cerebral quarterback than the young Montana.
Their only playoff meeting was a classic, with Theismann's Redskins opening up a 21-0 third-quarter lead after he hit Charlie Brown with a 70-yard touchdown pass. Montana threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to even the score, before Theismann drove Washington into field-goal range for a Mark Moseley game-winner.
Many people seem to forget what a great couple of years Theismann had in 1982 and 1983. In the strike-shortened 1982 season the Redskins won the Super Bowl as Theismann directed Joe Gibbs' offense, and Theismann won the league's MVP award in 1983 before he led the Redskins back to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Raiders. In 1985 Theismann was in the midst of his worst season when a Lawrence Taylor sack on Monday Night Football snapped his leg and abruptly ended his career.
1985-89: Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
Montana won the regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards after the 1989 season to cap the best decade any quarterback has ever had. Rookie receiver Jerry Rice showed up in 1985 and immediately gave Montana a long-ball threat to go with reliable targets Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and Russ Francis.
In 1986 a serious back injury in the opener threatened Montana's career, but he defied doctors' orders and came back to lead the team in the 10th game. The Niners were a mediocre 5-3-1 when Montana returned, but they won their division with three wins against three playoff teams in the final three weeks of the regular season. By 1988 Walsh was publicly declaring the quarterback job open for competition, but Montana kept Steve Young on the bench with another great season, capped by a come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl XXIII.
Montana's career included more than 200 games, but he'll always be best known for four: The Super Bowls in which he threw 122 passes for Super Bowl career records of 83 completions, 1,142 yards, 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions, a rating of 127.8, three MVP awards and a 4-0 record.
1990-94: Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers
After Joe Montana won his second consecutive league MVP award in 1990 while Steve Young only occasionally left the bench, San Francisco fans could be forgiven for doubting that Young could live up to the high standard Montana had set. But Young (although his career was shorter and ended with three fewer Super Bowl rings) actually played even better than Montana had when he finally got the chance to run the show. Young was the league's MVP in both 1992 and 1994, and he capped off the 1994 season with a Super Bowl MVP award.
In 1991, with Montana out for the season after elbow surgery, it was finally Young's team. He played well, leading the league in passer rating and rushing for 415 yards, but the 49ers only went 5-5 with Young as the starter, and when he left with a sprained knee, Steve Bono went 5-1. It was beginning to look, many fans and commentators said, as though Young simply couldn't win.
But in 1992 an extraordinary thing happened: For the first time since 1980, a healthy Joe Montana sat on the bench. Young responded with one of the best seasons in NFL history, and yet when the 49ers lost in the playoffs to the Cowboys, some San Francisco fans still thought it should have been Montana out there.
Only in 1994, when Young led the league in passing for the fourth consecutive time, did mainstream fans finally begin to appreciate his greatness. He picked apart the Chargers' defense in Super Bowl XXIX and was finally acknowledged as the best player in the game.
1995-99: Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers
The only player to win the Associated Press MVP award three times, Favre did it in 1995, 1996 and 1997 while leading the Packers.
Everyone knows, of course, that it's been ages since Favre has missed a game, and that he's been the unquestioned heart of a consistently good team for more than a decade. But Favre's greatness is actually a lot more simple than intangibles like toughness or leadership. He's great because he's a great passer.
Consider the list of quarterbacks with the strongest arms in the history of the game: Vinny Testaverde. John Elway. Jay Schroeder. Rudy Bukich. (If you don't know who Bukich is, you simply must buy Peter King's book, Greatest Quarterbacks.) All those quarterbacks can rival Favre in terms of velocity and distance, but none of them can come close to him in terms of accuracy. And the few quarterbacks who beat Favre in terms of accuracy (Montana and Young instantly come to mind) could never dream of throwing the ball as far or as hard as Favre does. Half a century from now, fans will probably remember Favre for his iron man streak, but it will be a shame if they don't also remember him as the man with the greatest arm ever.
2000-03: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
The 2003 co-MVP, Manning went to a franchise that was going nowhere in 1998 and made an immediate impact. He still hasn't missed a game, and in the past four seasons he has 2,275 attempts, 1,471 completions, 17,011 yards, 115 touchdowns and 67 interceptions.
At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Manning is the biggest quarterback in this timeline. In fact, he's about the size of a typical offensive lineman in Sammy Baugh's era. He's also one of the best field generals ever to put on the uniform, in constant control of his offense in a way no quarterback has been since they called their own plays decades ago.
As long as Manning hasn't won a Super Bowl, of course, he'll have to answer questions about whether he's capable of winning. But those questions are foolish. Manning is the early favorite for the title of best player of the 21st Century.
This is one man's list, and there's not a single player on here who's a no-brainer. I hope to hear from many readers who think Bobby Layne or Joe Namath or Terry Bradshaw or John Elway belongs. Ladies and gentlemen, start your arguments.