Say what you will, but the quarterback position is probably the toughest in football—and maybe all of sports.
A signal caller dictates the game, leads the offense, and is the only player on the field who gets singularly credited with wins and losses. The position is always in the spotlight—so if a QB can’t handle the pressure, someone else is going to come in and take his job.
Throughout the history of the NFL there have been all types of quarterbacks with amazing physical abilities—cannon-armed statues, super-accurate throwers, elusive scramblers, and rapid-fire gunslingers. In their own ways, these players created the archetypes of the quarterback position—and, in doing so, put themselves in the top echelons of their profession.
Here's a look at the best quarterbacks of all time in the NFL.
Staubach became a legend while wearing the Cowboys uniform, leading the team to a huge run of success. After missing four seasons of his career to the Navy, he led Dallas to nine straight winning seasons and two Super Bowl championships. He became the first player to win the Heisman Trophy and a Super Bowl MVP—plus, he's the man who coined the phrase “Hail Mary” with one legendary bomb in a 1975 playoff game against the Vikings. The Hall of Fame thrower made it to the Pro Bowl six times and was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team.
This gunslinging quarterback was one of the toughest to ever play the position, lasting in the NFL until his 40s with the Minnesota Vikings after putting up a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers. The three-time MVP and 11-time Pro Bowler was beloved by teammates and obsessed over by the media. Thanks in part to starting an NFL-record 321 straight games, Favre became the only QB in history to top 70,000 passing yards and 500 touchdowns. Favre won Super Bowl Super Bowl XXXI with the Packers and finished his career with 186 victories, tied with Peyton Manning for the most all-time.
Even though Marino never won the Super Bowl and had a mediocre 8-10 career record in the postseason, as a quarterback he put up some very impressive numbers that were simply unheard of in the 1980s. The Pittsburgh native threw for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns in his NFL career, including a then-incredible statline in just his second year in the league, when he threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns. Marino led the league in passing yards five times, was named MVP in 1984, and was a Pro Bowl player nine times in his career. And, of course, we all remember the great job he did while playing a kidnapping victim in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Younger football fans probably think of Terry Bradshaw only as the loudest talking head on Fox NFL Sunday, but he was also a damn fine quarterback in his day. With an arm that was always powerful and occasionally erratic, Bradshaw stepped it up when it counted: He bumped up his 70.9 regular season QB rating to 83.0 in the playoffs, and he did even better in the Super Bowl, pushing it up to 111.2 in title games. Bradshaw led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl titles—becoming the first QB to win three (and then four) in his career—and was named MVP of the game twice. Definitely more than just a talking head.
Steve Young had a winding road to NFL success, but when he got there, he sure made the most of it. This southpaw dealt with two seasons on the USFL’s Los Angeles Express—something that continues to be a plus for Young; his contract, paid in an annuity, runs until 2027—then suffered a 3-16 record with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
Once he got there he sat behind Joe Montana and learned a few things about the NFL. Young took over for the veteran and went on to make the Pro Bowl in all seven years he was a starter, taking home two MVP awards and winning three Super Bowls. Young formed a highly productive partnership with wideout Jerry Rice, connecting for 85 touchdowns and over 10,000 yards during the time they played together. Young's performance in Super Bowl XXIX was one of the best ever: The BYU alum completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards and six touchdowns before being named MVP of the game.
Manning finished his career on top by winning Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos, but before that he already was one of the best quarterbacks of all time. During his time with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning brought home four MVP awards, forming one of the most prolific duos in history with wideout Marvin Harrison. The two connected for 112 touchdowns in a decade of work together and won Super Bowl XLI.
Manning continued to break records after coming back from an almost career-ending neck injury to play for the Broncos, setting the single-season passing touchdown record with 51 and winning his fifth MVP award. The former Tennessee Volunteers star now holds the all-time records for passing yards (71,940) and passing touchdowns in NFL history. He also is the only player in NFL history to have 200 combined postseason and regular season wins. Not a bad career.
Even though things got off to a bumpy start for Elway in the NFL—he threatened to play baseball for the Yankees unless the Colts traded him—he proved to be worth the headache. The Denver Broncos stepped up and grabbed Elway, who showed off dynamic agility, pinpoint accuracy, and a cannon of a throwing arm during his career.
Elway threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns, adding 3,407 rushing yards for good measure. After bouncing back from his "can’t win the big game" label following three Super Bowl losses, he won his final two appearances, finishing his career on top. Elway has since taken over as the Broncos top executive, leading the team to victory in Super Bowl 50 behind veteran quarterback Peyton Manning.
Unitas was way ahead of his time when he was under center for the Baltimore Colts. In fact, he might be the one quarterback from the pre-modern NFL era who could thrive in the game today. Unitas put up numbers that no one else did while he was playing, including throwing 34 touchdowns in 1959, which is more than some QBs put up now. Unitas won the MVP award four times in his career and led his team to three championships, including back-to-back NFL titles in 1958-59.
Unitas wasn't all about the numbers, either—he basically helped create the modern style of playing quarterback. He introduced the two-minute offense, and became the first player to have a 30-touchdown season and surpass 40,000 passing yards in his career. “The Golden Arm” put the NFL on the map with his performance in the 1958 championship game, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," so it’s amazing to think that he was cut by his hometown Steelers in his rookie season and was playing on a semipro team for $6 a game before Weeb Ewbank plucked him from obscurity. Now he’s known as a legend.
Montana was always cool when the pressure mounted and his postseason play proved it. He was prolific in the regular season while passing for 40,551 yards and 273 touchdowns in his storied career, making the Pro Bowl eight times and winning back-to-back MVPs in 1989 and 1990. But it was his play in the playoffs that set the Notre Dame legend apart. He proved his big-game reputation with his 92-yard drive in Super Bowl XXIII, and finished his career 4-for-4 in championship games, taking home three Super Bowl MVP awards.
You may hate him for his hairstyle or his supermodel wife, but Brady’s an all-time great and there’s no doubt about it. As a sixth round pick with the 199th selection in the 2000 NFL Draft, Brady has played with a chip on his shoulder for his entire career. After a wicked rib shot dropped Drew Bledsoe and sent Brady into the starting lineup, all he’s done is win and set records.
As of the 2016 season, Brady’s won five Super Bowl titles, two MVP awards, and the Comeback Player of the Year award after returning from a potential career-ending injury. His 2007 season was one of the best ever, with 4,806 yards and a then-record 50 touchdowns, and he has been to the Pro Bowl 11 times. Brady’s been involved in some of the most exciting Super Bowl games of all time, on the winning side—against the Rams in 2002 and the Panthers in 2004—and the losing side—against the Giants in 2007 and the Giants again in 2012.
Brady cemented his legacy and put together an argument that he’s the best of all time following his performance in Super Bowl LI: Brady went 43-of-62 for 466 yards and two touchdowns, orchestrating the greatest comeback in NFL championship history. Down 28-3, the Patriots scored 31 straight unanswered points to win the Super Bowl. The ring was the fifth for Brady and he added another Super Bowl MVP trophy as well. After “deflategate” and his four-game suspension, Brady couldn't write a better championship ending than that.