A year ago in this space, I argued that Patrick Mahomes had a strong case for having completed the best first two seasons as a starter in NFL history. Make it three. Despite injuries around him, Mahomes was either the best or second-best quarterback in the NFL during the regular season. Once again, he's looked the best in the playoffs. Mahomes' patience, pocket movement and intelligence have gone next level in his fourth season, which reminds me of Tom Brady entering Super Bowl XXXIX in his fourth year as the Patriots' starter. Although Brady wasn't nearly as productive as Mahomes early in his career, the 14-time Pro Bowler took his play to another level in the 2004 season on the way to his third title. Now 43 years old, Brady is about to play in his 10th Super Bowl, having just capped a season in which he had more wow throws downfield than even Mahomes.
Brady's place atop the all-time greats in accomplishments is secure, at least for a while. Mahomes' place as the greatest quarterback I've ever covered -- based on his array of skills -- also seems safe, especially as his numbers and postseason accomplishments continue to pile up. It's hard to place Mahomes among the all-time greats when he's just 25 years old, but I believe he's already done more than some Hall of Famers.
For the purpose of this exercise, I combed through the résumés of all 63 Super Bowl starting quarterbacks. It's important to note that for players like Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, who started Super Bowls but whose peak years came before the Super Bowl era, I considered their entire careers, not just what they did from 1966 onward. I ranked all quarterbacks based on career achievements, with regular-season excellence, All-Pro/Pro Bowl appearances and seasons as top-five and top-10 players at the position carrying more weight than just Super Bowl success. (Spoiler: Jim Plunkett did not have a better career than Dan Marino. Sorry.)
With an MVP, three seasons as a top-three quarterback and seven incredible playoff starts already under his belt, Mahomes can now be mentioned among the legends of the postseason. It's fun to imagine where he might land on this list a decade from now.
To the rankings!
NOTE: Arrows reflect movement from last year's rankings.
These are the six men who could conceivably have an argument as being the greatest ever, although the breadth of Brady's career now makes it difficult for the rest of the group. The first nine seasons of Brady's career -- which included three titles and an undefeated regular season -- now look like an appetizer to Brady's dominant Gronk-era peak, with the Bucs-season dessert now thrown in. After a down 2019 campaign that still qualified as the best season by a 42-year-old quarterback ever by far, Brady's arm somehow looks stronger while performing like a top-10 quarterback again in Tampa, albeit on a boom-or-bust offense. Brady's ability to close -- in the regular season and fourth quarters -- shows he's not done yet.
It's impossible to truly compare across eras because the game has changed so much, but Unitas (who played from 1956 to 1973) edges out Montana (1979-1994) and Manning (1998-2015) for the No. 2 spot because Johnny U was so clearly the best of his era and a transformative figure for the sport. Unitas collected three MVPs and five first-team All-Pro nods, and he displayed a sneaky statistical dominance compared to his competition.
Manning ultimately overwhelms Marino and Favre with individual honors and consistency. He was so rarely outside the league's top-three quarterbacks during a career that included five MVPs. Marino is probably the best pure passer of this group. He was never supported with a top-10 running game, and he rarely played with a good defense. He shouldn't suffer too much, historically speaking, just because of Don Shula's personnel decisions. Favre has perhaps the strangest résumé. He combines a brilliant peak with three consecutive MVPs and a career famous for its durability with some lesser efficiency stats than the rest of the tier. Still, there's not that much separating any of these guys.
The best second tier ever
The résumés of Young and Rodgers were so similar heading into this season that Rodgers' expected third MVP gives him the slight edge. Both players had to wait before taking over for all-time greats who just happen to be in the tier above. Like Young, Rodgers is as athletic as any top quarterback who has ever played. Young's teams went 94-49 in his starts, from 1985 to 1999. Rodgers' teams have gone 126-63-1. Rodgers coming up a few plays short of his second Super Bowl appearance was devastating, especially for those who want to argue he's the G.O.A.T.
Elway was a physical marvel, won an MVP and earned three second-team All-Pro nods in his career (1983-1998), but his passing numbers (3,217 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 picks per year), even when adjusted for his era, don't stack up with the rest of the top 10. Staubach is a great "What if?" because he didn't become a full-time starter until he was 29 years old. He's still the consensus best quarterback of the 1970s and led the league in passer rating four times. He probably gets downgraded too much for the era in which he played. Starr, who has a reputation for being a "winner" of the '60s and early Super Bowl era without generating great stats actually has ... pretty great stats. So does Brees, who is expected to retire after a rough final postseason start. That shouldn't overshadow how well Brees aged relative to anyone not named Brady, playing productive, efficient football while leading one of the NFL's best teams for his last four seasons.
In (or should be in) the Hall of Fame
Like Brees, Tarkenton was an undersized, undervalued but consistent star with an incredibly long run of statistical dominance. Roethlisberger has been a top-five quarterback for the better part of his career, especially after his second Super Bowl triumph (following the 2008 season). I'm not going to ding him for not being Brady after he turned 35. Aikman's peak (1991-96) was impressive, but unfortunately too short. Bradshaw wasn't great in the seasons preceding his first two Super Bowl triumphs (1975 and '76), but he wound up being a league MVP and finishing in the top five in yards per attempt five times. Namath gets extra credit for his impact on the game, although it's worth noting Griese had three more Pro Bowl appearances (eight to Namath's five), one more All-Pro nod (two to one) and far more seasons in the top five in yards per attempt. The offensive line and running game help, but Griese deserves some legacy love!
If this looks high for Mahomes, consider that he's been the best overall player on balance over the last three years. Most of the guys ahead of him could never claim that, so I'm only giving so much credit for longevity. The other Chief on this list had it, too. Dawson was the best passer in a pass-happy league, leading the AFL in passer rating for five straight years (1964-68). Kelly, like Aikman, had a brilliant peak that wasn't quite as long as that of some others listed here. Warner had a singular career, starting late before winning two MVPs and leading two different teams to the Super Bowl. Anderson still should be considered for the Hall of Fame, as he was the rare player to win MVP, Comeback Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. He led the league in passer rating four times and earned a first-team All-Pro selection and two second-team nods, which is more than plenty of the names above him. Stabler finally got into the Hall in 2016, unfortunately after his passing. Wilson's 2020 season didn't end well -- or with an MVP vote -- but he's also never fallen out of the top-10 quarterbacks in any given season.
Fun to watch
McNabb was a top-10 quarterback for nearly all of his career, very often in the top five. I'm surprised he doesn't get more Hall of Fame consideration. Esiason won an MVP (1988) and led the league in yards per attempt in that season (as well as in 1986). Lamonica was someone I didn't fully appreciate until this exercise. While he was fattening up on a soft AFL, he made five Pro Bowls and nabbed two AFL Player of the Year awards. He finished his career 66-16-6 as a starter! Ryan has a number of seasons as a top-10 quarterback, although his MVP campaign of 2016 stands out as an anomaly. Perhaps new Falcons coach Arthur Smith can revive his career.
Morrall was football's Forrest Gump, according to Chris Wesseling, spending most of his career as a backup, with a Pro Bowl appearance and an All-Pro nod coming 15 years apart, and an MVP as Johnny Unitas' replacement sandwiched in the middle. In one way, he's similar to McNair. When they were good, they were very, very good. Eli's durability and longevity boost him in a career that ended at .500, with only two to three seasons in which he could arguably be considered a top-10 quarterback. Gannon did a lot of damage late in his career, with an MVP and four Pro Bowls coming after he turned 34.
Crazy talent for a tier this low
Cam and Theismann have MVP seasons and a few Pro Bowls, but they both had some erratic play to go with their big arms. Simms and Jaworski have somehow become underrated over time after becoming better known as broadcasters. Both had plenty of seasons as top-10 quarterbacks. Morton, a Super Bowl starter for two different organizations, somehow never made a Pro Bowl despite leading the league in yards per attempt three times. Collins was a season-long starter for four different organizations, making his two Pro Bowl appearances 12 years apart. Plunkett started 144 games, yet never made a Pro Bowl and probably only had one or two seasons in which he could have been considered a top-10 starter.
Middle of the pack
Foles produced one of the best performances in Super Bowl history, then backed it up with another strong close to the season in 2018 as Carson Wentz's backup. His peaks, including his 2013 Pro Bowl year, have been awfully high. His valleys, like his brief run as the Jaguars' starter and his time in St. Louis or Chicago, have been rather low. Chandler and Flacco both get credit for grinding through over 150 starts, although Flacco has never made a Pro Bowl or been solidly among the top-10 quarterbacks. (Chandler had a fancier peak than expected.) Johnson and Hostetler both had better careers than I remembered with teams that they didn't win Super Bowls with. (Hostetler made a Pro Bowl with the Raiders, Johnson with the Redskins.)
Jimmy G is ranked this low largely because he's started just 35 games, including the playoffs. That's less than half of Goff's total, for context. Kapp had only one great year and 48 starts, his career ending too soon because of contractual issues. Kaepernick has only made 58 starts. At 33 years old and now four years removed from his last season, he still deserves an opportunity to play, though that looks increasingly unlikely to come. He has 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions for his career, excelling in the type of quick-game offense that is more popular in the NFL now than it was then. The abrupt end to his career will be a stain on the NFL in the history books. Goff has started 74 games including the playoffs, but his time in Los Angeles could be coming to an end. His drab Super Bowl performance against the Patriots was a sign of two mediocre seasons to follow.
End of the line
Eason had a few solid seasons, but he only started for one more full season after his Super Bowl appearance capping the 1985 campaign. Grossman only had three seasons where he started more than three games (2006, '07, 2011), but at least "Sexy Rexy" has a nickname that will live forever.