Whether Peyton Manning was the greatest quarterback ever to chuck a pigskin is a question we can and will all argue about for the rest of our lives. But at the report of his intention to retire, Manning is indisputably the best quarterback ever.
No, no, no, don’t try and dispute it.
Yes, I’m sure you have your favorite, and unless you live in Indianapolis, it’s probably not Manning. Maybe you grew up in the era of Joe Montana or John Elway. Maybe you’re old-school, and still carrying a torch for Johnny U. Maybe you stopped watching football in 2005, and you think Tom Brady is an undefeated playoff God-king and Manning is The Picasso of Choke Artists. Whatever.
Here is a quick look at the 10 best quarterbacks in NFL history, and while you can mostly juggle this list in any order you’d like, Manning should be, and is, number one.
10. Roger Staubach
Staubach is often overlooked when quarterback Mount Rushmore is carved. He didn’t have an epically long career—and it occurred almost entirely in the heart of the NFL’s offensive Stone Age, so his totals don’t add up. But Staubach was a ruthlessly efficient passer in an era that didn’t appreciate him: He lead the NFL in passer rating in four of his 10 seasons, including a ridiculous 104.8 mark in 1970. Oh, and he won two Super Bowl rings in five appearances, including four starts.
9. Dan Marino
Anyone who saw Dan Marino play will tell you he was the most gifted thrower-of-the-ball they ever saw. He was named to nine Pro Bowls and three First Team All-Pro rosters despite rarely playing with elite offensive talent. He never won the big one, but he retired as the NFL’s passing-yardage king.
8. Fran Tarkenton
Marino was Tarkenton’s heir as passing king; Tarkenton took the crown in 1978 and held it for 17 years. Tarkenton’s place in the pantheon also suffers from the era he played in: A slightly-built scrambler who bridged the pre-and post-merger eras, he never won a ring in three Super Bowl appearances—but his league-leading 3,468 yards in the league’s first 16-game season gives you an idea of how productive he really was. He still doesn’t quite get his due—just ask him, he’ll tell you.
7. Steve Young
At the beginning of his career, Young played in the USFL, struggled in Tampa Bay, and then languished on the bench in San Francisco behind Joe Montana. At the end, concussions forced him to retire early. In the middle, he was the ultimate NFL quarterback: Smart, tough, strong-armed, athletic, surgically efficient and ridiculously productive. At one point he led the NFL in passer rating in six out of seven straight seasons.
6. John Elway
A lot of people have Elway higher, and I get it: He was the ultimate competitor, and a gifted athlete. He had a rifle arm and relentless drive. He dragged a lot of questionable Broncos teams to great and glorious things…but he’s a bit of a throwback to the grit-and-glory Stone Age days. Elway’s passer rating only cracked 80.0 once in his first ten seasons. Though he matured as he played through the 1990s, his 79.9 career passer rating is the lowest of this group. He was also never named first team All-Pro, and one can only get so high in the best-ever rankings when he was never the best quarterback in any year he played.
5. Tom Brady
Here’s where I kick the bear. Remember, the old narrative wasn’t just “Brady is great in the playoffs, and Manning is a choker,” but “Manning is great in the regular season and Brady is great in the playoffs.” While Brady won three titles in his first four years, he averaged a pedestrian 3,593 yards, 24 touchdowns and 88.4 passer rating over his first six, per Pro Football Reference. It wasn’t until Brady got Randy Moss that he started putting up eye-popping numbers—and he’s still years away from catching Manning’s career totals.
4. Brett Favre
The last six years of Favre’s career were five of his worst (and maybe his best). The foul tastes of his 2005 implosion, perennial retirement dramas and the sexting situation soured what was one of the most brilliant players and careers we’ll ever see. He retired No. 1 in practically everything—and though Manning has surpassed him for the glamour numbers, no one will ever touch Favre’s ironman streak.
3. Joe Montana
Montana was the ultimate champion, winning four Super Bowls with the 49ers dynasty. Yes, Brady’s resume is roughly Montana’s equal at this point, and Montana had Jerry Rice, but Montana also played in a completely different era. Drafted one year after the 1978 rules changes, Montana is the standard to which the last 30 years of quarterbacks have aspired. He gets another boost for making a Pro Bowl and AFC Championship Game with the Kansas City Chiefs.
2. Johnny Unitas
Before Montana, Unitas was the quarterback measuring stick—and he practically whittled the stick himself. Whereas Montana pioneered quick timing routes, Unitas pioneered routes, inventing the passing game as we know it. Playing from 1956 until 1973 and putting up unheard-of numbers, Johnny U was the first great quarterback—and for some history buffs, still the greatest.
1. Peyton Manning
Yes. (Deal with it.)
Manning was a No. 1 overall pick, hit the ground running and made his first Pro Bowl in his second season. He made it again in his third, and fifth, and every other year he played until this past one. That’s 14 Pro Bowl appearances in 17 years—three more than Brady, Favre and every other quarterback.
Manning was named First Team All-Pro a whopping seven times. That’s seven times in 17 years that a huge panel of the nation’s top NFL analysts decided Manning was the best quarterback in football. That ties Otto Graham’s all-time record—but Graham racked up three of those playing in the eight-team AAFL. Manning ends his career two nods clear of the modern-era leaders, Unitas and Sid Luckman.
Manning won the league MVP five times, which is just ridiculous. He’s the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, and didn’t need to be the NFL’s leader in games, attempts or completions to get there. To save time, check out the list SBNation compiled of the 21 major passing records Manning now holds.
What about the QBWINZ?
Including the regular season and playoffs, Manning’s the winningest quarterback in NFL history. He’s the only quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl with two different teams. His .519 playoff win percentage isn’t astounding, but it’s 16th-best out of 79 quarterbacks since 1991, per FootballDB.
The winningest playoff quarterback in that span should come as no surprise: Trent Dilfer, whose clutcher-than-clutch .833 postseason win percentage—What? You were expecting somebody else?
Since Brady won his first ten playoff games, he’s been a thoroughly mortal 13-9 in the postseason, including 1-2 in Super Bowls. Since Manning went one-and-done in his first three playoff seasons, he’s gone a practically-identical 14-10, and 2-2 in Super Bowls.
Head-to-head, Manning’s taken three of five from Brady; Brady hasn’t experienced a win over Manning in the playoffs since 2005. In their two postseason meetings since Manning joined the Broncos, not only have the Patriots lost both games, Manning’s decisively outplayed Brady.
The only way the “Tom’s clutch, Peyton’s a choker” narrative holds any water at all is if you pretend the last decade of football never happened.
Of course, there’s still the next decade of football—and Brady has a little time left to add stats, records and accolades. There’s a host of modern-era players knocking on the doorstep of this list, too, from Manning’s little brother Eli to Big Ben Roethlisberger.
On pace to outstrip them all, though, is Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers’ aggressive downfield passing is outpacing Marino and Favre, but with passing efficiency that shames Staubach and Young. His death grip on the NFC North could lead to a Brady-like run of division titles and playoff appearances, and having just turned 32 he’s still squarely in his prime. By the time he reaches the big 4-0, Rodgers should have all earned all the honors, awards and rings to not only get on this list, but surpass the legend at the top of it.
For now, though—and maybe for some time—the top of any quarterback list has to be Peyton Manning, who is officially retiring on top.