Whenever a list of the greatest NFL quarterbacks in history comes out, the debate always becomes contentious. Such is life when it comes to subjective topics, but there is a way to put together a list of the greatest quarterbacks without creating such angst. Heck, even when Aqib Talib jokingly says Manning is better than Brady, it creates a storm of controversy.
The biggest point of contention is how someone determines what the most important factor is to rankings, which can range from wins to stats to Super Bowl victories. Here is my Top 5, but really its five Top 1's for each area that these great quarterbacks truly excelled in.
1. The Tactician, Peyton Manning
Why does Peyton Manning get the number one spot all-time? Because no other quarterback in NFL history has dominated the position mentally and physically like he has. Sure, he has lacked great success in the playoffs, but even with that stigma he has taken two different franchise to the Super Bowl in his career. Not only that, he has averaged 13 wins per season throughout his career - no other quarterback even comes close to that.
By the time he retires, he will own nearly every statistical record worth having as a quarterback. In summation, Peyton Manning dominates every single stat people use to determine these all-time lists, except for Super Bowl wins. However, he isn't done just yet and has a chance to change that in 2014.
2. The Game Manager, Joe Montana
Before you take the term "game manager" as an insult, read my reasoning. If you asked me to choose one quarterback to surround with the greatest talent ever assembled on a team, I would pick Joe Montana. The guy was masterful in utilizing that talent to exploit the other team, much the way Peyton Manning does. The difference between Manning being the all-time greatest "game manager" was how Joe Montana played with the game on the line in the playoffs and Super Bowl.
As a fan, I would obviously want John Elway every day, but this list is meant to be as unbiased as possible. Joe Montana in the 1980's was simply magnificent and much of that was due to the talent level around him. He had some success with the Kansas City Chiefs, but without the talent, he was unable to achieve consistent success there. I will still never forget that Monday Night Football showdown with John Elway. The last guy with the ball was going to win that game and Joe Montana got the ball last. It sucked, but at the same time we all knew history was being made that night.
3. The Hero, John Elway
If Joe Montana was the perfect quarterback for a talent-laden team like the San Francisco 49ers, then John Elway was the perfect quarterback for a talent-deficient team like the Denver Broncos of the 1980's. Elway had a heroes mentality and reveled in doing the impossible. It led to three Super Bowl berths in the 1980's and three Super Bowl blowouts.
Despite that, Elway would make the Denver Broncos consistent winners throughout his career, owning just two losing seasons. Out of his 146 wins as quarterback, he needed fourth quarter heroics to win between 38-48 of them depending on the interpretation of heriocs (looking at you Miami Dolphins fans).
What made Elway a hero over all other quarterbacks, was what he did in the playoffs. From "The Drive" to "The Drive II" and the "Helicopter", Elway did things that became NFL lore in the playoffs. There may be other players with more fourth quarter heroics, but it was how and when he performed those heroics that set him apart.
4. The Competitor, Tom Brady
Aside from the aforementioned John Elway, the only other quarterback to lead his team to five Super Bowls is Tom Brady. His detractors love to point out that Brady was carried to his first three Super Bowl wins by his defense, but all of those Super Bowls were close games that required Tom Brady to bring his team into position to win it.
His fiery desire led to the leagues first undefeated regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. A season that should have culminated in a perfect season, but a final heroic drive by Eli Manning on the worlds biggest stage snatched perfection from Brady's legacy while he sat on the bench and watched his defense falter.
If the Denver Broncos didn't have Peyton Manning, there would be no other quarterback in the NFL I'd rather see come to Denver to finish out his career. Tom Brady is that good. Love him or hate him, he will always be in this conversation of greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
5. The Pure Passer, Dan Marino
I wish I could put Dan Marino higher on this list, but his complete lack of playoff success made it hard to do. However, there is no denying he was the NFL's greatest pure passer in NFL history. If the Dolphins had found a way to surround him with talent, he could have been the greatest quarterback of all-time without debate. It didn't happen though, but he still cracks my top five.
His 48 touchdown passes in 1984 is a record that stood for twenty years and required several NFL rules changes to provide offenses a competitive advantage in the passing game to do it. Even at the end of his career in 1999, he would lead the Dolphins over the Indianapolis Colts, led by Peyton Manning, to his final fourth quarter comeback win.
Brett Favre - He was a great quarterback, but I could not put him ahead in any one category of the guys on this list. Plus he lost a lot of games he could have won had he made better in-game decisions.
Drew Brees - Another pure passer, but I could not consider him to be above Marino.
Johnny Unitas - A great quarterback, but he was too far ahead of his time and we'll never know what he could have done in today's NFL, so it is hard to put him ahead of anyone on this list.
Steve Young - Would definitely make my top 10 list, but falls just short of overcoming anyone in the top 5 here.
Roger Staubach - John Elway's childhood hero was a guy who also reveled in the late game heroics and would definitely deserve consideration in the top 10 lists.
Warren Moon - Thank you to the commenters for pointing out this omission. Moon would rank among the top pure passes of all-time. His playoff records leave something to be desired, however.
There you have it. My personal 5 Top 1's and Top 5 lists. The best tactician, the best game manager, the best hero, the best competitor and the best pure passer of all-time. Is there any quarterback that you would put ahead of any on this list based on the "type" I've labeled each?