No position in sports has changed more over the years than quarterback. A century ago, quarterbacks made their living by running and kicking, essentially doing anything other than throwing the ball. Today’s quarterbacks have made 4,000 passing yards — a total that was basically unfathomable during the league’s first 50 years — a routine feat.
We’re living in the most prolific era when it comes to passing quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t great quarterbacks in previous eras. In fact, many of today’s advancements in the passing game were inspired by quarterbacks who helped revolutionize the position. Along with advancing the position, those quarterbacks also served as inspiration for some of today’s elite passers. Just ask Tom Brady, who was in the stands when Joe Montana jumpstarted the 49ers’ dynasty with one of the greatest plays in NFL history (more on that later).
Before the 2022 season kicks off, we decided to take a look at the best quarterbacks from each decade. We kick things off by taking a look at the current decade, one that already has had some great performances from the quarterback position.
Here’s a quick rundown of the criteria used when coming up with the rankings.
- Individual stats and awards
- Impact on the position and pro football
- Team success
- Inclusion on respective all-decade team
Best QB: Tom Brady
Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers
Honorable mention: Patrick Mahomes
We’re just two years into this decade, so this ranking may change several times over the next few years. As it currently stands, two of the NFL’s old-guard quarterbacks remain at the top of the food chain. Brady edges out Rodgers by virtue of his head-to-head win in the 2020 NFC title game as well as Brady’s overall play in the past two postseasons. Brady leading the NFL in passing at age 43 didn’t hurt his case, either.
While he didn’t take the top spot, Rodgers sews up the runner-up position after winning the past two league MVP trophies. Mahomes, who could possibly take the mantle as the decade’s best quarterback when it’s all said and done, is currently looking up at his older peers.
The 2010s was a passing of the torch between outgoing legends and rising stars. But two constants was the continued excellence of Brady and Rodgers. While defying Father Time, Brady foiled NFL defenses while winning three Super Bowls, two Super Bowl MVPs and two league MVP awards during the 2010s. In the process, Brady broke numerous career passing records during the 2010s while becoming the most accomplished QB in league annals.
Rodgers, who started the 2020s with consecutive league MVP trophies, took home that hardware in 2011 and in 2014. He started the 2010s by winning MVP honors following the Packers’ Super Bowl win over the Steelers. A seven-time Pro Bowler during the decade, Rodgers hit the 40-touchdown barrier twice while throwing more than eight picks just once in a season.
The 2010s ended with the emergence of Mahomes, who won league MVP in 2018 after throwing a league-high 50 touchdown passes. Mahomes and his teammates fell short that season, but they finished the job in 2019, as Mahomes became the first player in league history to win Super Bowl and league MVP honors before age 25. Mahomes, 26, is on his way toward going down as one of the all-time great quarterbacks.
Mahomes’ quick start is similar to the start Wilson enjoyed in Seattle. The former third-round pick helped the Seahawks pull off a shocking blowout win over Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, his second NFL season. A year later, he came up 1 yard short of winning back-to-back titles. A seven-time Pro Bowler during the decade, Wilson won 107 games as Seattle’s quarterback during the 2010s.
Wilson’s lone Super Bowl win came at the expense of Peyton Manning, who won his fifth league MVP award that season (2013) while putting up one of the most prolific passing seasons in league history. Manning retired two seasons later after helping the Broncos defeat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
Best QB: Peyton Manning
Honorable mention: Drew Brees
In any other decade, Brady would have come away as the decade’s best quarterback. During the 2000s, Brady won three Super Bowls, was a two-time Super Bowl MVP, league MVP in 2007 and was the NFL’s passing leader twice and the NFL’s leader in touchdown passes twice. He also quarterbacked the NFL’s only undefeated team during the 16-game regular season era. To boot, Brady was 2-1 against Manning in postseason competition.
Brady’s argument is convincing, but Manning gets the nod largely due to how he raised the bar for how quarterbacks can dominate a game, not just with his brawn but with his brains. Along with being blessed with elite physical skills, the 6-foot-5 Manning beat teams with his intelligence, making successful audibles at the line of scrimmage a routine occurrence. While the Pats were responsible for two painful playoff losses, Manning led one of the biggest wins anyone had over the Patriots during the Brady/Belichick era. Trailing 21-3 in the 2006 AFC Championship, Manning led five second-half scoring drives en route to a 38-34 win over the Patriots. Two weeks later, Manning won MVP honors as the Colts won their long-awaited Super Bowl.
Manning and Brady were the headliners, but the 2000s had other great quarterbacks. Like Manning did for Indianapolis, Brees helped deliver the first Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans after winning MVP honors in Super Bowl XLIV. Kurt Warner did the same for St. Louis while helping the Rams get back to the Super Bowl in 2001. Seven years later, Warner led the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl, where the fell in heartbreaking fashion to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Big Ben is one of three quarterbacks from an iconic 2004 draft class that also includes Philip Rivers and Eli Manning.
Best QB: Brett Favre
Runner-up: Steve Young
Honorable mention: Troy Aikman
You could argue, with great conviction, that the ’90s was the golden era for the quarterback position. Leading the way was Favre, who won three consecutive league MVP awards from 1995-97. Favre and the Packers put it all together in 1996, with Favre throwing a league-high 39 touchdowns during the regular season. He threw five more touchdowns in the playoffs while helping the Packers win their first Super Bowl in 29 years. Favre led the Packers back to the Super Bowl in 1997, but they fell short in Super Bowl XXXII against John Elway and the Broncos, who snapped the NFC’s 13-year winning streak in the big game.
Prior to being Favre’s coach in Green Bay, Mike Holmgren worked with Young and Joe Montana as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator. During his final season in San Francisco, Holmgren watched Young begin to step out of Montana’s shadow during his first season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback. The following season, Young won the first of two MVP awards while leading the 49ers to an NFC title game appearance. Two years later, Young threw a record six touchdown passes in San Francisco’s Super Bowl win over the Chargers. Young retired after the 1999 season with the NFL’s highest career passer rating.
Young and Favre probably would have won more rings if it wasn’t for Aikman and the Dallas Cowboys. Aikman’s teams defeated Young’s 49ers in the ’92 and ’93 NFC title games. The Cowboys also got the better of Favre’s Packers in the ’95 NFC Championship. While often overshadowed by Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys’ powerful rushing attack, Aikman played an integral role in the Cowboys’ success in winning three Super Bowls over a four-year span. He took center stage in Super Bowl XXVII, winning MVP honors after going 22 of 30 for 273 yards and four touchdowns. Aikman completed 70% of his throws in Super Bowl competition.
Best QB: Montana
Runner-up: Dan Marino
Honorable mention: Elway
Often lost in the story of “Joe Cool” was his ability to overcome adversity. He won just three games during his first two seasons before leading the 49ers to the franchise’s first title in 1981. That championship run included Montana’s iconic touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in San Francisco’s NFC title game win over the Cowboys.
Questionable officiating cost the 49ers a chance at getting back to the Super Bowl in 1983. The 49ers responded by going 15-1 in 1984 before dismantling the Giants and Bears in the playoffs. In Super Bowl XIX, Montana outplayed his counterpart, Marino, the NFL’s MVP that season after throwing for then-league records 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns. In what could be considered his magnum opus, Montana riddled the Dolphins to the tune of 331 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 59 yards in San Francisco’s 38-16 win.
In 1986, Montana’s career was in serious jeopardy after he suffered a severe back injury in Week 1. Montana would not only play again, he would return to the field that season while going 6-2 as a starter and winning Comeback Player of the Year. But Montana would face another hurdle a year later, when he was benched during the 49ers’ upset playoff loss to the Vikings. He would spend most of the ’88 season in a position battle with Steve Young. The situation threatened to derail the 49ers, who were 6-5 following an embarrassing loss to the Raiders.
It was at that point when Bill Walsh finally gave the keys the offense back to Montana on a full-time basis. Montana responded by leading the 49ers to another Super Bowl, where he threw the game-winning touchdown pass in the game’s final minute against the Bengals. Montana capped off the ’80s by throwing a then-Super Bowl record five touchdowns in the 49ers’ blowout win over Elway’s Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.
Marino, Elway and Montana started a combined six times in Super Bowls during the ’80s. While he never made it to a Super Bowl, Dan Fouts, another trailblazing 1980s quarterback, put up prolific numbers with the Chargers while mastering Don Coryell’s revolutionary offense.
Best QB: Terry Bradshaw
Runner-up: Roger Staubach
Honorable mention: Ken Stabler
Cowboys fans will certainly disagree with this pick. Staubach, after all, was an All-Decade performer who in 2019 was part of the NFL 100 All-Time Team. He also made two more Pro Bowls than Bradshaw, who threw nearly as many interceptions as touchdown passes during his career.
So why was Bradshaw picked over Staubach? Bradshaw’s four Super Bowl wins to Staubach’s two doesn’t hurt, as well as the fact that Bradshaw was 2-0 over Staubach’s teams in Super Bowls. Bradshaw was named MVP following Pittsburgh’s second win over Staubach’s Cowboys, a 35-31 win in Super Bowl XIII. That year, Bradshaw was also named league MVP, an honor that eluded Staubach during his decorated career.
Staubach was a clutch performer (he’s responsible for the first Hail Mary play in league history), but Bradshaw was better on the game’s biggest stage. During their first Super Bowl matchup, a mistake by Staubach and a brilliant throw by Bradshaw was the difference in the Steelers‘ 21-17 win. With his team trailing 12-10 in the fourth quarter, Staubach threw a costly interception that set up a field goal. Moments later, Bradshaw, with the Cowboys’ pass rush bearing down on him, stood tall before firing a perfect pass to Lynn Swann that covered 61 yards while giving Pittsburgh an 11-point lead.
Further adding to Bradshaw’s argument is that fact that he called his own plays and was the play-caller in each of the Steelers’ four Super Bowl wins. Stabler, who should be in any conversation of the best quarterbacks of the 1970s, also called his own plays while leading the Raiders to the franchise’s first Super Bowl win, a 32-14 thumping of the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Fran Tarkenton, the QB the Raiders defeated that day, retired after the 1978 season as the NFL’s all-time leading passer, a record he held until Marino passed him in 1995. Scrambling Fran led the Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances during the ’70s.
Best QB: Johnny Unitas
Runner-up: Bart Starr
Honorable mention: Joe Namath
The ’60s is unique in that there were two competing leagues in the NFL and the AFL, which began play in 1960. The AFL quickly established itself as a pass-happy, wide-open league that featured some of the era’s best quarterbacks. Among the AFL’s star quarterbacks were Namath, Kansas City’s Len Dawson, Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica and Buffalo’s Jack Kemp. The AFL’s top-two quarterbacks, Namath and Dawson, led their AFL teams to historic Super Bowl upset wins prior to the league merger in 1970. Namath also helped revolutionize the position as pro football’s first 4,000-yard passer.
While Namath and his AFL peers drew most of the headlines, the NFL had some great quarterbacks, too. Sonny Jurgensen won five passing titles during the decade while throwing for over 400 yards five times while having two five-touchdown performances. Don Meredith brought professionalism to the position during the first decade of Cowboys football. Y.A. Tittle, one of the league’s top passers during the 1950s, enjoyed a late-career resurgence with the Giants in the early ’60s that included a league MVP season in 1963. The Rams enjoyed stellar QB play from Roman Gabriel, who won 32 games as L.A.’s starter from 1967-69.
Despite competition from the AFL, the two best quarterbacks from this era hailed from the NFL. Considered the greatest quarterback during the season’s first half-century, Unitas earned 11 consecutive Pro Bowl nods. A two-time league MVP during the ’60s, Unitas’ record of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass stood for 52 years. In a changing-of-the-guard moment, Unitas and Namath embraced on the field after Unitas’ comeback efforts fell short in Super Bowl III.
If Unitas was that era’s Peyton Manning, Starr was the Tom Brady of the 1960s. Never flashy but incredibly efficient, Starr led the NFL in completion percentage three times. He won five championships in Green Bay, was the MVP of the first two Super Bowls and remains the most recent quarterback to win three consecutive championships. Starr also authored one of the most famous drives in NFL history. Facing frigid temperatures and the Cowboys’ defense, Starr led a game-winning drive in the 1967 NFL Championship that was capped off by his touchdown run in the final seconds.
Best QB: Otto Graham
Runner-up: Bobby Layne
Honorable mention: Norm Van Brocklin
Graham’s career is truly one of a kind. During his decade as the Browns‘ starting quarterback, Graham played for a championship each season. He won seven championships that included NFL titles in 1950, ’54 and ’55. In his final game, Graham threw two touchdowns and ran for two more in the Browns’ 38-14 win over the Rams in the ’55 title game. A three-time NFL MVP, Graham led his respective league in passing and completion percentage five times and touchdown passes on three occasions.
The hard-charging Layne led the Lions to back-to-back NFL titles in 1952-53. He threw the game-winning score in Detroit’s 17-16 win over the Browns in the ’53 NFL title game. The following season, when the Lions’ dreams of a three-peat came crashing down against the Browns in the ’54 title game, Layne famously declared that he “slept too much” on the eve of the game. Layne was later traded to Pittsburgh, where he enjoyed considerable success that included Pro Bowl nods in 1958 and ’59.
Van Brocklin won championships with both the Rams and Eagles, winning a title with Philadelphia during his final season. His final touchdown pass, a 35-yard strike to Hall of Fame receiver Tommy McDonald, helped the Eagles edge Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the 1960 NFL title game. Van Brocklin’s 554 passing yards against the New York Yanks in 1951 is still the single-game NFL record.
Best QB: Sammy Baugh
Runner-up: Sid Luckman
Honorable mention: Bob Waterfield
A passing pioneer, Baugh is regarded as the first quarterback to pile up significant yards through the air. Baugh led the NFL in completion percentage eight times that included a 70.3% completion rate in 1945. Baugh led Washington to NFL titles in 1937 and in 1940. His 335 yards in Washington’s win over Chicago in the ’37 title game served as the rookie postseason single game record for 75 years until it was broken by Russell Wilson.
Luckman won three titles with the Bears that included Chicago’s 73-0 blowout win over Baugh’s Washington team in the 1940 NFL title game. The league’s MVP in 1943, Luckman led the NFL in passing yards while also throwing 28 touchdowns, a seemingly unfathomable total for that time. Waterfield helped the Rams win NFL titles in 1945 and in 1951. His two touchdown passes in the ’45 title game lifted Los Angeles to a 15-14 win over Washington.
Best QB: Dutch Clark
Runner-up: Arnie Herber
Honorable mention: Cecil Isbell
The last great quarterback who did nearly all of his damage with his legs, Clark led the Lions to an NFL title in 1935. A six-time All-Pro, Clark led the NFL in scoring on three occasions. He was the main cog in an offense that churned out 2,885 rushing yards in 1936, a record that stood for nearly 40 years.
A two-time NFL champion as the Packers’ starting quarterback, Herber led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes on three occasions. After serving in World War II, Herbert led the Giants to an NFL title game appearance. Herbert was known for his penchant for deep passes, an aspect of the game that was mostly foreign at the time.
Isbell packed a lot into a short career. In five seasons, he earned four Pro Bowl selections while leading the Packers to an NFL title in 1939. Known more for his versatility during his first three seasons, Isbell blossomed into a prolific passer during his final two seasons, leading the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns in consecutive years. Isbell is the first NFL quarterback to throw for over 2,000 yards in a season.
Best QB: Jimmy Conzelman
Runner-up: John “Paddy” Driscoll
A Hall of Fame coach, Conzelman began his coaching career when he was still playing. A two-time All-Pro, Conzelman played and coached the Providence Steam Roller to a league title in 1928. While an injury ended his playing career in 1929, Conzelman continued to coach through the 1948 season, winning an NFL title as the Cardinals coach in 1947.
A fellow player/coach, Driscoll was also a Hall of Fame player who earned six All-Pro nods as a member of the Cardinals. He led the NFL in scoring in 1925 while leading the Cardinals to an NFL title. Driscoll famously punted the ball away from Red Grange during Grange’s NFL debut in front of a near sellout Wrigley Field crowd on Thanksgiving Day in 1925.