This was set to be a Super Bowl blessedly light on quarterback legacy talk until Tom Brady retired. But the nice thing about memorializing Brady's career is that we only have to discuss how he did it, not where it leaves him among all-time greats. I'd argue that Brady was the best quarterback in football at age 44 and would be a worthy MVP pick. Brady's two-year run in Tampa was like a Gronk spike on any reasonable debate over the greatest quarterbacks ever.
Perhaps Patrick Mahomes will get in the conversation someday because his first four seasons as a starter top any quarterback since Dan Marino, including Brady. But this is not a Super Bowl run-up about goats and baby goats, just two quarterbacks remaining at very different stages of their respective careers.
Joe Burrow was recovering from a torn ACL at this time a year ago. His 2021 season exceeded all expectations, partly because his physical gifts caught up with his feel for the game. He survived the AFC Championship Game because of his legs. Burrow doesn't need to win the Super Bowl to be a top-five NFL quarterback; he just needs to continue playing at this level season after season.
Matthew Stafford's journey to this game is rockier, with higher peaks and more boulders to dodge. His best three-game stretch of the entire season has come in the playoffs, just as the Rams would've hoped. He makes throws few can attempt and has cut down on the bad decisions over the last month. That doesn't make him close to a Hall of Famer yet, despite his career counting stats -- can we have some top-five seasons first? -- but another superlative performance would give Stafford a fighting chance for Canton. Turning 34 years old this month, he should have more great seasons in Sean McVay's offense in front of him.
Legacy talk is unavoidable in a column like this, an annually updated list of the now-65 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.)
It's impossible for Burrow to fare well on a list like this after just 29 career starts, but this ranking is like a low introductory offer in a negotiation. He will be rising annually over the next decade-plus and he'll probably be back on this stage, his sunglasses and IG captions evolving -- like his ranking -- with the times.
To the list!
These are the seven men who conceivably could've had an argument as being the greatest ever until Brady became undeniable. The first 10 years 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 seasons now thrown in as dessert. He finished first in our end-of-season QB Index this year, after being the runner-up last year (including playoffs), when he won his seventh Super Bowl title. His comeback against Stafford's Rams fell short in the Divisional Round, but he still went out on top more than any other all-time great at the position.
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, Rodgers 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. I won't hold it against Peyton that Eli outshines him on the ManningCast.
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. Rodgers jumped to this tier after backing up his 2020 MVP award in such brilliant fashion during the 2021 regular season. His playoff performance was a letdown, but he's in the midst of a late-30s Brady-like peak that shouldn't be taken for granted. 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 similar before the last two seasons. Both players had to wait before taking over for all-time greats who just happen to be in the tier above.
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 nine. 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 now as stuck in place on this list as his hair on NBC's Football Night in America. The end of Brees' career is a reminder that you don't have to be Tom Brady to age well because Brees also played some of his best ball into his late 30s.
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 was 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 in his late 30s. 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, 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 in the NFL over the last four seasons in aggregate. He's already an all-time great. Most of the guys ahead of him could never claim that level of dominance, so I'm only knocking him so much because of his lack of longevity. The other Chief on this list had a high peak, 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. Even though Wilson is coming off relative down years, I believe he's passed that mythical "Hall of Famer if he retired today" benchmark. A renaissance in another uniform wouldn't hurt, however.
Fun to watch
Here's where Stafford landed. Despite his physical gifts, he hasn't matched the All-Pros, Pro Bowls or MVP seasons of many in this tier. Then again, he spent more than a decade in Detroit. His career numbers closely match Ryan's and now they have the same number of trips to the Super Bowl, though Ryan's appearance was during an MVP season. Ryan has more seasons overall as a top-10 quarterback and a slightly higher overall baseline, although it sure looks like Stafford's skill set will age better.
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!
Morrall was football's Forrest Gump, in the words of 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 (117-117), with only two to three seasons in which he arguably could've been 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, now 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. Burrow's 2021 season ranks with any season completed by a player in this tier, but it's his only full campaign as a starter. He is destined to fulfill the promise that Greg Cook never could in Cincinnati. 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
Jimmy G almost made it back to the Super Bowl in his second full season as a starter, but this was the most discouraging stretch of play in his career. He's unlikely to be back with the 49ers in 2022. Garoppolo has still only started 53 career games including the playoffs, much less than players like Goff and Williams, for example.
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 and 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 they didn't win Super Bowls with: Johnson made a Pro Bowl with Washington, Hostetler with the Raiders.
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 34 years old and now five 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's play bounced back in his first season with the Lions, although lower expectations were a big part of that. He's settling in as a bridge quarterback, just below the magical dividing line between franchise starter and someone that is not a long-term solution.
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.