The question is eternal, although the answer might be right in front of us.
Who is the greatest quarterback of all time?
The first sentence of a 1952 wire story on his retirement called Sammy Baugh “professional football’s greatest passer” and compared him to Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. Three years later, Cleveland’s legendary coach, Paul Brown, called Otto Graham “the greatest who ever played quarterback” after winning a third NFL Championship in his final game.
Another decade had passed when a 1969 Hall of Fame panel, in celebration of the NFL’s 50th anniversary, named Johnny Unitas as history’s No. 1 quarterback. Since then, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Peyton Manning have all been mentioned in similarly exalted ways.
And now, today, Tom Brady has shown up in Tampa Bay wearing a Buccaneers uniform with the all-time greatest brand.
So is it true? Is Brady really the best of the best?
The answer is subjective but not necessarily without a road map. There are certain factors we all fall back on when trying to come up with a defensible answer. How many championships did he win? How many yards or touchdowns did he accumulate? What was his winning percentage? How lethal was he in the game’s final minutes? Did he change the way the position was played?
Are you willing to start the argument?
“Oh, it’s not fair for me to compare. That’s a fun thing for fans to do over a cup of coffee but not for me,” said Buccaneers assistant coach Tom Moore, who has spent 41 years on NFL sidelines and worked with MVP or Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks such as Manning, Terry Bradshaw, Rich Gannon and now Brady.
“I will tell you, the one thing you look for is their commitment. Okay, you want to be great, but are you committed to being great? That’s why you see guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Dan Marino excel because they’re completely and totally committed to that idea of doing whatever it takes. There’s no mystery why those guys are great.”
Thankfully, the NFL has already provided us a starting point with a list of 10 quarterbacks (Baugh, Brady, Elway, Brett Favre, Graham, Manning, Marino, Montana, Roger Staubach and Unitas) named to its 100th anniversary team last year. For the purposes of this conversation, you might want to include Bradshaw, Drew Brees, Warren Moon, Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young and a few others.
Here, then, is a breakdown of various factors to consider in assigning legendary status.
The ring is the thing
Almost any argument in support of Tom Brady begins here:
The man has won six Super Bowls and played in three others in the past 20 years. In the modern era, no one else has come close to that many title games. Case closed.
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Except for this:
Otto Graham won seven championships and lost three title games in his 10-year career. He literally played for a championship every single season he was on the field.
Granted, there are extenuating circumstances. Four of his titles were in the All American Football Conference, which was a legitimate rival to the NFL but did not have the same history or prestige. And once the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, it was still only a 13-team league which means it wasn’t nearly as difficult to reach the title game as it is today.
“My father was a sportswriter who covered that league so I grew up thinking that Otto Graham could walk on water,” said retired Pro Football Hall of Fame executive director Joe Horrigan. “The reality of that league is that it was already a veteran league when it started. These guys were coming from the NFL ranks, the best of the college ranks and returning from World War II. There was a glut of talent.
“Otto Graham not only proved how good he was in the (AAFC) but the very first game he played when the two leagues merged in 1950 was against the Philadelphia Eagles, the reigning two-time champions of the NFL. And they beat the Eagles soundly (35-10). And then the Browns went on to win the NFL Championship against the Rams, so I don’t discount any of Otto’s career records.”
Bart Starr won five NFL championships and Terry Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, but neither measures up as well in other categories. Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton never won Super Bowls, which probably says more about their supporting casts, although history seems to hold it against them.
Romano’s ranking: 1. Brady. 2: Graham. 3: Unitas. 4: Montana.
At the time he retired in 1952, Sammy Baugh was the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards. He is now 98th on the all-time list, just ahead of Jeff Blake. The point is the game has changed. Rules have been loosened to make passing a bigger part of the offense, and seasons are now 25 percent longer so quarterbacks have more games to pad their resumes.
Y.A. Tittle became the all-time passing leader for a short time in the 1960s, before he was passed by Unitas, who was passed by Fran Tarkenton who was passed by Dan Marino. Drew Brees now sits on the top of the chart with Brady about 3,000 yards behind.
“When you look at footage from the 30s and 40 and into the 50s you can tell the guys who were good,” said Chris Willis, head of the research library at NFL Films and one of the selectors for the 100th anniversary team. “It’s like watching Randy Moss or Patrick Mahomes today, you can just look at them and see the difference. So watching Sammy and Otto it’s like, ‘Wow, look at the way he throws,’ or ‘Look at the timing on that pass,’ or ‘Look at him throw on the run.’ It’s a different level to other guys in their era.”
In order to accurately judge a quarterback’s passing yards, it must be compared to league averages during his career. In other words, how much more proficient was he than the average quarterback during his time.
But it’s not just an accumulation number, it’s also a question of efficiency. Shorter passing games have led to higher completion rates, but also far fewer interceptions. Baugh, Graham and Tittle combined to lead the NFL in interceptions in six different seasons.
You cannot discount what was done in other generations but you also cannot ignore the advances made by today’s passers.
Romano’s ranking: 1: Brees. 2. Unitas. 3: Manning. 4: Brady.
This is the attribute every fan is seeking in a quarterback:
The guy you can depend on to get the job done in the fourth quarter or in a big postseason game.
Manning is the all-time leader in game-winning drives (54) and fourth-quarter comebacks (43), but his postseason history is spotty. A fivethirtyeight.com analysis of actual playoff performance vs. expected performance was not kind to Manning.
Unitas had 34 fourth-quarter comebacks compared to Manning’s 43, but he also started 80 fewer games in his career. Don Shula once said Unitas was the quarterback who invented the two-minute drill. And if Unitas invented it, Montana may have perfected it.
“When you talk about comebacks, I think you have to start with Unitas,” said Horrigan. “He mastered that skill.”
Romano’s ranking: 1: Unitas. 2. Montana. 3: John Elway. 4: Roger Staubach.
Because a quarterback’s performance is so dependent on the players around him — the offensive line, receivers, even the defense — it’s a little unfair to grade an individual player by his won-loss percentage.
Still, a quarterback who can put up double-digit victories year after year is clearly someone who can avoid mistakes and make enough plays to win close games. And no one has done that better than Brady, who has run up an NFL record 219 victories. Think of it this way: Aaron Rodgers is one of the most successful quarterbacks of the last 25 years and he would need to go 106-4 to match Brady’s 219-64 (.774) mark.
There is, however, one quarterback who has Brady beat when it comes to winning percentage.
Graham went 23-1-2 in his last two seasons in the AAFC, and we’re not even counting that. Once the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, Graham ran off a record of 57-13-1 in six seasons for an .810 winning percentage along with his three NFL titles.
Romano’s ranking: 1. Brady. 2: Graham. 3. Manning. 4. Montana.
One of the greatest quotes in sports history was delivered by Bobby Jones after watching Jack Nicklaus in the 1965 Masters:
“He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
Some quarterbacks have been like that. They have not just been great players, but they have advanced the position in ways never before seen or imagined. Sometimes, it’s in conjunction with a coach. Like George Halas putting Sid Luckman in charge of the T-formation in 1940, or Joe Montana perfecting the West Coast offense with Bill Walsh in the 1980s or Jim Kelly running Marv Levy’s hurry-up offense. Some mastered a particular skill such as Dan Marino’s quick release or Fran Tarkenton’s scrambling ability.
But, really, only one quarterback defined the position for decades to follow.
Unitas was a skinny kid who was snubbed by Notre Dame coming out of high school and later cut by the Steelers without getting into a preseason game in his first NFL training camp. But after a year of playing semipro ball for $6 a game, he joined the Colts and became the model for the NFL’s pocket passer for the next few decades.
While quarterbacks had typically been great athletes in previous eras, Unitas seemed to win as much with his heart and mind as his arm. It was his ability to steer his teammates, read a defense, call the right play, and loft the perfect pass.
“It’s like being in a huddle with God,” Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey once said.
Romano’s ranking: 1: Unitas, 2: Baugh. 3: Montana. 4: Manning.
The final word
So who is the best?
“To me, the best quarterback is the guy who can recognize what he sees and recall what he’s learned, then process that information and apply it all and execute. And he has to do that in 1 to 1.5 seconds,” Moore said. “When a guy can do that, when he can match the speed of the game, then you have a great quarterback.”
Fifty years ago, that quarterback was Unitas.
Has anyone surpassed him? Perhaps in numbers and championships, but not in overall impact. Montana came close. Manning and Elway, too. Brady is probably closest of all but there is still the question of how much his success was due to his supporting cast in New England.
Perhaps if Brady had one last hurrah to make his point. Like winning a Super Bowl at age 43 with a new team …
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.