In the incredible 100 years of the National Football League, there are only a handful of quarterbacks whose stories of their greatness is assured with each passing generation. Still, the number of special signal-callers is lengthy enough to make deciding the ten greatest QBs in history a process that is far from easy.

Comparing quarterbacks from the same era is already not the simplest of tasks, as not all quarterbacks have the same level of talent and coaching. Comparing quarterbacks of vastly different eras requires a real knowledge of the differences between players from each period. 

Narrowing things down to the top 10 quarterbacks of a century will inevitably lead to some legendary players missing the cut. The likes of Otto Graham, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman and Brett Favre are all deserving of being on this list. But the gaps between these remarkable football figures and those in my top 10 are as small as a measurement on the goal line.

It also needs to be stated that this ranking is based on all of these quarterbacks having everything (teammates' talent and coaching) equal. Although many have Tom Brady as the unanimous greatest quarterback (and even greatest football player) of all time, it is important to note that having the greatest head coach of all time in Bill Belichick is something none of these other quarterbacks had.

With that said, here are my top 10 quarterbacks of all-time.

10. Fran Tarkenton

It is very important for younger fans of the game to acknowledge the greats of the past, and without a doubt, the Richmond native will always be among the legendary passers in NFL history.

Tarkenton followed up a great college career at the University of Georgia by being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings with the 29th pick of the 1961 NFL Draft.

Tarkenton’s incredible ability to scramble and still make great throws on the run are top highlights to this day. After an up and down start to his career, Tarkenton’s fourth year would begin his stardom by securing his first Pro Bowl selection in 1964 with a 22 touchdown, 11 interception season. Two more successful seasons with the Purple People Eaters led to Tarkenton being traded to the New York Giants in 1967.

His first year in the Big Apple would lead to a career-high 29 TDs thrown and a third Pro Bowl selection. More success with the Giants would lead to additional Pro Bowl berths in 1968, 1969 and 1970 for Tarkenton. But 1971 arguably produced his most disappointing season of his career, throwing only 11 TDs to 21 INTs. That down season would be his last with the Giants, as they traded him back to the Vikings in a blockbuster deal in 1972.

The return to the Twin Cities would only motivate Tarkenton to reach new heights in his play. Tarkenton would win the MVP Award in 1975 and earn the first-team All-Pro selection the same year, as well as lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl in three year straight years of 1974-76 (although the Vikings would lose all three). Tarkenton’s incredible scramble ability wasn’t just for buying time in the pocket, but also for being a true dual threat quarterback. He currently ranks sixth all-time in QB rushing yards.

Tarkenton would retire in 1978 and is currently 81 years old.

9. Johnny Unitas

With no offense to the quarterbacks before him, the legendary Unitas has to be considered the original G.O.A.T at his position.

An incredible career that saw him become a champion before the Super Bowl era and during it, Unitas was that figure that many nowadays talk in reverence about Tom Brady or Joe Montana the era before. Making Unitas' story more remarkable is the fact that he was on the verge of not playing in the NFL at all.

A frustrating college career at Louisville, where he dealt with his school deemphasizing sports and injuries, Unitas was selected as the 102nd pick in the 9th Round of the 1955 Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, only to not play a game in his lone year there.

He would be signed by the Baltimore Colts before the 1956 season, when doubt from his uncle surrounded him. But after a few inauspicious starts, the legend of Unitas would grow from there. His initial first team All-Pro selection would lead the Colts to the 1958 championship over the New York Giants in what many considered for years as “The Greatest Game Ever.” Unitas' first Most Valuable Player Award would come the following year as the Colts repeated as NFL title holders, with his other two MVP trophies being earned in 1964 and 1967.

Including his 1958 season, Unitas earned five first team All-Pro selections, three second team All-Pro selections and ten Pro Bowl selections in his storied career. He would lead the NFL in both passing yards and passing touchdowns four times, and spearheaded the Colts to another title, winning Super Bowl V in 1970 over the Dallas Cowboys.

Even Unitas’ most notable loss turned out to be a significant positive to his legacy in the long run. Mr. Golden Arm was on the wrong side of the biggest game in NFL history, as the Joe Namath-led New York Jets pulled the upset to defeat the Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III, a game that would lead to the AFL-NFL merger.

Unitas was so great that his streak for most consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass (47) would last for 52 years until Drew Brees broke it. Unitas would end his exemplary Colts career in 1972, as he was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973. He would retire before the 1974 season.

He was the first quarterback in league history to throw for over 40,000 passing yards despite playing in the pre-passer friendly era of the post-1978 NFL season, as well as the regular season being comprised of either 12 or 14 games. Unitas also was the first to throw for at least 30 touchdowns in a season.

He would pass away at the age of 69 in 2002.

8. Drew Brees

The man fortunate enough to break Unitas’ remarkable record is the recently retired New Orleans Saints legend.

Brees had a great college career at Purdue University and was then selected as the 32nd overall pick (the first pick of the second round) of the 2001 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers. 

It would be an up and down, shaky start to Brees’ time with the Lightning Bolts, as those inconsistent first three years in San Diego led to the team drafting Philip Rivers in the top 10 of the 2004 NFL Draft. Brees was motivated by that, though, and began to display the pinpoint incredible accuracy that would be synonymous with the rest of his career. Great 2004 and 2005 seasons unfortunately culminated in a torn labrum muscle, leading to the Chargers to offer him less than what he wanted as a free agent.

The New Orleans Saints would give Brees the contract that would satisfy him in the end, a six-year, $60m deal. It was a signature that would begin one of the greatest quarterback tenures in NFL history, as Brees became the NFL’s all-time most accurate passer among a multitude of accomplishments.

Despite never winning a regular season MVP award in an era of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers to deal with, Brees would be first team All-Pro in 2006 and finish second team All-Pro four different times. His combination with head coach Sean Payton is among the greatest coach-QB duo ever, as Payton’s creative system and Brees' uncanny precision were perfectly suited for the confines of the New Orleans Superdome.

Brees led the NFL in passing yards seven times, completion percentage six times, passing touchdowns four times and passer rating two times. More importantly was the QB becoming a key symbol of inspiration in the city of New Orleans as it recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (and Hurricane Rita).

Brees would win the franchises’ lone Super Bowl - after a history of less-than-stellar play earned them the nickname “The Aints” - in Super Bowl XLIV over the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts in 2009.

Brees would try his hardest to earn more than one Super Bowl, but his career would end never reaching the game’s ultimate stage again with many devastating NFC playoff defeats, including this past January to eventual champions, the Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

7. Warren Moon

The only quarterback on this top 10 list who arguably was discriminated against as the sole black signal caller, Moon and his supporters can go around asking to this day: “How many records would he have smashed if it weren’t for the clear racial biases of past times?”

A standout at the University of Washington, Moon feared and was prescient in his doubts that no NFL team would draft him in 1978. Undeterred, Moon would excel in the Canadian Football League for six seasons, earning an MVP Award and five straight titles with the Edmonton Eskimos.

NFL teams had enough evidence of Moon’s undeniable talent by 1984, with the Houston Oilers winning his signature. The Los Angeles native would end up playing 17 seasons in the NFL, becoming one of its greatest passers ever. His 1990 season in Houston would be special, earning Moon three big individual awards: the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, the defunct NEA Most Valuable Player and AFC Player of the Year, as he lead the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns that season (somehow he only received a second-team All-Pro selection).

Moon would earn nine Pro Bowl selections, become the sixth quarterback in NFL history to have a 500-yard passing game on December 16, 1990 and set, at the time, NFL records in completion and attempts in the 1991 season.

After nine great years with the Oilers, Moon was traded to the Minnesota Vikings in 1994 and 1995 and had two standout seasons in the Twin Cities. But his third Vikings season would be derailed with a broken collarbone, leading to Moon being released for salary cap reasons. It would prompt Moon to return to the land of his collegiate success and sign with the Seattle Seahawks in 1997.

Two seasons back in the Northwest were the precursor to Moon’s final season in 1999, as he would play for the Kansas City Chiefs in just three appearances. Moon’s trailblazing career would result in him being the first black quarterback to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall Fame in 2006. He also has the distinction of being the only player in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

6. Dan Marino

From a pure passing standpoint, the Miami Dolphins legend is towards the very top of this list. 

Marino represented what many in the football world considered the prototypical pocket QB: being tall, having a great arm and being tough enough to deliver a pass while enduring pressure and big hits from defensive linemen simultaneously. Marino would be one of the rare long-term great quarterbacks to play his entire career with one team, spending all of his 16 seasons in the Magic City.

A very good college career at home in Pittsburgh for the University of Pitt resulted in a first-team All-American selection for Marino in his 1982 senior season. He would famously be the last of the six quarterbacks selected in the epic 1983 NFL Draft first round, synonymously known as the “quarterback class of 1983.” In a class that featured future Hall of Famers John Elway and Jim Kelly, Marino would be shocked that the New York Jets would select Ken O’Brien with the 16th pick instead of him. He did not expect to be available when the Dolphins drafted him with the 27th pick, as he never chatted with storied head coach Don Shula before.

Motivated with his fall in the draft and excited by being part of a great franchise in an exciting city, Marino would excel right away in his NFL career. He became a phenom his debut season, setting then rookie records in passer rating, passing yards and lowest percentage of intercepted passes. Despite  being given his first start in Week 6, Marino would lead the AFC in passing yards - the first time a rookie accomplished that feat - and would be selected to the Pro Bowl.

It would begin a run of five straight selections to the NFL’s All-Star game for Marino, and place him in the discussion for greatest beginning to an NFL career ever. In a historic second season in 1984, Marino would become one of the youngest MVPs in league history, breaking six NFL records including passing touchdowns (48) and passing yards in a season (5,084) to also win the Offensive Player of the Year Award. It resulted in Marino leading the Dolphins to the Super Bowl with AFC Championship Game records of 421 passing yards and four touchdowns against his once beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.

As Jets fans and their organization would regret passing on the QB that would haunt them for years to come in the AFC East division, many thought Marino was destined for multiple Big Game appearances. But after the Dolphins were defeated by Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XIX would be turn out to be Marino’s only appearance in the championship game.

Despite that bitter disappointment, Marino would still be revered for his generational throwing ability and finish his career with nine Pro-Bowl selections, three first-team All-Pro honors and five second team All-Pro nods. Marino would lead the league in passing yards five times and passing touchdowns three times.

He would retire in 1999, owning 40 NFL single-season and career passing records at his career’s end. Among those stats Marino would hold at his retirement would be career passing yards, pass attempts, pass completions and passing touchdowns. Marino would also become the first quarterback in NFL history to reach the 50,000 and 60,000 passing yards totals, and 400 passing touchdowns.

5. John Elway

One of the many outstanding dual threat quarterbacks to play the game, Elway arguably ranks at the top of the list.

In that aforementioned 1983 QB draft class that included Marino, Elway would be selected first overall by the Denver Broncos after a storied career in Stanford. Although he was greatly tempted to become a baseball player with the New York Yankees due to famous owner George Steinbrenner’s aggressive adulation for his abilities, Elway’s first love was still football. But Elway did not want to play for the team having the first pick in the draft that year, the Baltimore Colts, due mainly to his opposition of playing under strict coach Frank Kush.

Elway, his father Jack and his agent Marvin Demoff were adamant in his refusal to play for Baltimore, and it would result in the Colts trading the first overall pick to the Broncos. But unlike Marino, Elway did not have a great start to his NFL career. He struggled with inconsistent play his first three seasons and had backup quarterback Steve DeBerg replace him during games.

But Elway would begin to live up to his billing in 1986, leading the Broncos to Super Bowl XXI by producing one of the great memorable moments in NFL history. “The Drive”, a last possession, 98 yards in 37 seconds touchdown drive against the Cleveland Browns to send the AFC Championship into overtime served as the foundation for Elway’s timeless career.

Although the Broncos would lose to the Giants in the title 39-20, Elway would build off that breakthrough season to win his only MVP Award in 1987 and secure a second straight AFC title. But defeat to another NFC East power would happen again for the Broncos as the Washington Redskins dominated Super Bowl XXII to win 42-10. Despite an 8-8 season in 1988, Elway and the Broncos would win a third straight AFC title. Championship heartbreak would fall yet again, however, for Elway’s Broncos as they were crushed by Montana’s Niners 55–10 in Super Bowl XXIV.

But Elway would remain one of the league’s career quarterbacks as the 90s arrived, and would give himself a chance to win that elusive Super Bowl in the latter stages of his career. With head coach Mike Shanahan’s run-friendly offense and rising young running back Terrell Davis, Elway would get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy not once, but twice in back-to-back years, in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII of 1997 and 1998 before he retired.

A nine-time Pro Bowler, Elway would be selected to the all-Pro second team three times and earned the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year Award twice in 1987 and 1993.

4. Tom Brady 

No one could dispute that Brady is the most accomplished, winningest quarterback in NFL history. And off the back of his seventh Super Bowl title and first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s hard for anyone to argue against the California native being the G.O.A.T.

The staggering longevity of the now 44-year-old is marvellous to behold. And though he won’t ever again be a prime regular season MVP candidate, Brady still is capable of putting up impressive numbers with the right talent around him. The Super Bowl LV victory made him the oldest quarterback to start, play, and win the Big Game and its MVP award. He also would be part of the first team to win a Super Bowl on their own home field.

It’s a career no one, not even Brady, saw coming. After a modest career at the University of Michigan, in which he served as backup to national championship QB Brian Griese and then had to split time in his two seasons of starting in Ann Arbor with highly touted passer Drew Henson, Brady famously went 199th in the 2000 NFL Draft’s sixth round.

Yes, Brady was expected to be a good backup at best in the NFL. And yes, Brady needed a Drew Bledsoe injury and a great defensive mind in Bill Belichick to overcome Peyton Manning to win his first three championships. But like Manning, Brady has become one of the all-time field savants in league history. His intense, addicted preparation for game plans, opponents strategies and usage of all players around him has led to him becoming one of pure greatness.

Brady's first MVP season in 2007, where he benefitted from the additions of future Hall of Famer Randy Moss and talented pass catchers Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth, set NFL records for passing touchdowns in a season (50) and touchdown to interception ratio at 50:8. It was the season that the Patriots were on the verge of ultimate perfection, 19-0 and the greatest team ever, only to be denied by the underdog New York Giants in one of the greatest Super Bowls ever, Super Bowl XLII.

But that bitter disappointment, which Brady admitted on 2021 NFL Draft first night still haunts him, would only serve to motivate Brady to the endless greatness he has displayed. Two more regular season MVP awards in 2010 and 2017 would give Brady three in his career, tied for second all-time behind Manning’s five.

And with his incredible enthusiasm and love for the game, no one should be surprised if Brady plays for a few more seasons well into his 40s.

3. Aaron Rodgers 

As the saga over whether he will finish his career with the Green Bay Packers continues to unfold, the Californian native has placed himself in the discussion of greatest quarterback of all-time.

Thanks to his combination of uncanny accuracy, wonderful arm strength and good mobility to scramble out of pressure, Rodgers has become the storied cheesehead franchise’s greatest passer ever in a history that includes Bart Starr and Brett Favre. Upset over falling to the 24th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Rodgers would utilize his years as Favre’s backup to become an elite quarterback once he became a starter in 2008.

Rodgers is currently tied for the second most NFL MVP awards with three, adding his last one just this past season with his 2011 and 2014 trophies. First-team All-Pro honors were earned those same years to go along with nine Pro Bowl selections.

Rodgers also owns the greatest passer rating season ever with that 2011 campaign and has the best touchdown to interception ratio in league history. Despite the possibility of becoming the new host of Jeopardy, Rodgers is desperate to add to his lone Super Bowl title - he was the MVP of SB XLV as the Packers beat the Steelers 31-25 in 2010.

Along with more than 50,000 passing yards and 400-plus passing TDs, Rodgers has also produced over 3,200 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground. Whether his career continues with the Packers or not, you can expect Rodgers to continue adding to his sensational totals.

2. Peyton Manning 

It takes an extraordinary level of brilliance to overtake Johnny Unitas as a franchise’s greatest quarterback ever. But the second of Archie Manning’s sons accomplished that feat in becoming not only the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts greatest signal caller ever, but one of the greatest to ever play the sport of football.

Without a doubt, the legendary No. 18 is second to none when it comes to being the greatest quarterback ever in the regular season, unless Aaron Rodgers continues to elevate his case. His remarkable college career at Tennessee lead to the Colts drafting him first overall in the 1998 NFL Draft over Ryan Leaf. That hotly contested debate would prove prudent for Indianapolis, as Leaf would go on to become an all-time bust.

From his rookie year on, Manning would etch his mark on the game. He would set five rookie records in the 1998 season, including most touchdown passes and the dubious record for most interceptions. Still, on a rebuilding Colts team that finished 3-13, Manning was destined for NFL greatness. The following year Manning became one of the best QBs in the league, as the Colts finished 13-3 and AFC East Division winners. He would earn his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, the latter being on the second team.

It would be the first of 14 Pro Bowl selections for Manning, an NFL record. And he would win the first of his five MVP Awards, another record he still holds, in 2003. His incredible cerebral mind and preparation was unlike anything seen at the QB spot, mystifying opposing defenses with his ability to predict what they would do. Manning still owns the most passing yards in a single season (5,477) and touchdowns in a single season (55), doing that in his first year with the Denver Broncos in 2013 after a bitter split with the Colts.

Manning also is tied with Sammy Baugh for most first-team All-Pro selections with seven to go along with three second-team All-Pro selections. Unlike Tom Brady, Manning never consistently had a defense capable of carrying a team and dominating in the playoffs, resulting in the Patriots getting the best of him the first two times he got to the Super Bowl.

But Manning would reach the ultimate goal he long deserved in 2006, overcoming the Patriots in one of the greatest playoff comebacks ever (down 21-3 to win 38-34) to take the AFC Championship and then win Super Bowl XLI.

Despite being past his prime, Manning was competent and good enough to win his second Super Bowl with the Broncos, earning the victory over the Carolina Panthers in the 50th instalment of the Big Game in 2015.

1. Joe Montana

With his perfect Super Bowl record, Joe Montana will always have himself firmly in the debate for greatest quarterback ever.

He may not have the regular season numbers of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or contemporary Dan Marino, nor the longevity of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But all of them won’t have the distinction of going 4-0 in the Big Game like Joe Cool.

Montana had a good but not spectacular college career at Notre Dame, leading to being selected 82nd overall in the 1979 NFL Draft’s third round by the San Francisco Niners. After an uneventful rookie season, Montana’s career would take off in 1980, with his first NFL category season title by leading the league in completion percentage at 64.5 per cent.

The 1981 season would produce Montana’s first Super Bowl title and All-Pro selection (second team) in a 13-3 regular season. That was a preview of what was to come in a memorable playoff run, resulting in the famous “The Catch” game where Montana connected with tight end Dwight Clark with 51 seconds left to give the Niners the dramatic NFC Championship comeback win at home against the Dallas Cowboys. Those heroics would lead to the Super Bowl XVI win over the Cincinnati Bengals where Montana would also win his first Super Bowl MVP.

“The Comeback Kid” would go on to win Super Bowl XIX in 1984, Super Bowl XXIII in 1988 and Super Bowl XXIV in 1989, while earning two further SB MVP honors. Montana would also win two regular season MVP Awards in 1989 and 1990, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1989 and the 1986 Comeback Player of the Year Award after coming back from a painful back injury.

Three first-team All-Pro selections in 1987, 1989 and 1990 and those two second-team selections of 1981 and 1984 were well deserved for Montana, as well as eight Pro Bowl selections.

And he would further prove his greatness after deciding to leave the 49ers in the midst of the quarterback controversy with Steve Young. He would request a trade and was moved with the Kansas City Chiefs on April 20, 1993, going on to produce two very good winning seasons in 1993 and 1994 to close out his iconic career.