Comparing the Greatest Quarterbacks of All Time
Leading up to Super Bowl LV nearly all the conversation is centering around Tom Brady and his 10 Super Bowl appearances and by winning six thus far, he is the greatest of all time at quarterback. There are few that will disagree with that assessment however I’m not ready to crown Brady the all-time king.
I’ve seen discussion boards where fans have declared Tom Brady the greatest pro football player ever and that I believe is an extreme exaggeration. But in considering who the greatest player just at quarterback is, Brady has to be in that group. You simply can’t discount appearing in 10 Super Bowls as the starting quarterback and think that doesn’t deserve consideration as the best at that position all-time.
The question is “how do you determine who is the best quarterback in history?” You can base this judgment on stats which most fans and experts do. Many base it on the fact that Brady has won six Super Bowls. I can’t completely agree with using wins and titles as the only basis. After all, a quarterback does not win titles on his own. He has 21 other players on the field at the same time either on offense or defense doing their part to gain victory.
To further break down this discussion, I’ve taken a handful of quarterbacks who are always thrown into the mix when it comes to talking G.O.A.T. and scrutinize some of the most significant statistics. For me, when it comes to debating who is the best at any one position or who the single greatest overall player is in history, it goes further than just stats, it must include that athleticism of a player and the special feats they can perform on the gridiron.
The players I looked at are Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Philip Rivers, Dan Marino+, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, John Elway, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, and Otto Graham.
Instead of looking at career numbers, I think a better analysis of the stats would be to see how each of these men averaged per game and season on passing stats to give a better idea of how they performed game-by-game and season-by-season.
Let’s begin with one of the most looked at quarterback statistics, passing. Drew Brees is the current all-time leader but with his anticipated retirement and Tom Brady’s interest in continuing to play next season, Brady will surpass Brees’s 80,358 total as he currently has 79,204. Peyton Manning retired with 71,940 yards. But how did these three perform on average per game and season? Brees averaged 280 yards per game. Brady? 263. Manning was better with 270.
While he has a long way to go in his career, many believe Patrick Mahomes will one day be the G.O.A.T. His per-game passing yards thus far is a nice 267. Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers are at 260 and Ben Roethlisberger’s average is 259. All the others listed above are not close to the top. As for per season averages, Brett Favre has the best mark with 5,987. Brady is far behind with 3,772. Brees (4,108), and Manning (4,232) are also ahead of Brady in this category.
A very important and critical passing stat is completions. Completed passes are a good sign of consistency. Drew Brees leads the NFL in the highest mark ever achieved with 7,142 completions. Brady may catch him one day as he has hooked up with a receiver on 6,778 passes. Breaking it down, Brees completed 357 passes per season on average while Brady connected on 323. Per game, these two are a bit closer with Brees getting the edge 25-23. But topping the list for average is Brett Favre as he averaged 525 throughout his 12-year career. Only Peyton Manning tops Brees and Brady with 360.
Naturally, the goal of any NFL offense is to score touchdowns. When they don’t come from the ground game, it’s from a quarterback pass that gives a team six points. It is here that Tom Brady is the all-time leader with 581 passing touchdowns and that number will surely keep growing. He left Drew Brees in the dust this season and ignoring how many any quarterback threw on an average per game, the average for a season is quite more revealing.
Over his 20 seasons in the NFL Tom Brady has averaged 29 touchdowns per season. Again, Brett Favre steals the show. His average was a hefty 42. Only Peyton Manning is a stone’s throw from that at 32. Back to the conversation taking place leading up to this season’s Super Bowl. Everyone wants to talk about how great a winner Tom Brady is. Brady is very dangerous when his team is down late in a game. Throughout his career, he has directed 36 4th quarter comebacks. But that mark is not the best.
In 17 seasons, Peyton Manning brought his Colts/Broncos teams from behind in the final quarter to win a game 43 times. Drew Brees comes in third with 36 closely followed by Big Ben Roethlisberger’s 35. Those who did it more than 30 times are Dan Marino (33), John Elway (31), and the great Johnny Unitas who pulled games out late 34 times.
If the basis of declaring Tom Brady is the number of league title games he has played in and won, then we should turn our attention to wins and losses as well. I don't like putting too much weight on quarterback’s won/loss records because without a solid team around a QB, without a great supporting cast it doesn’t matter how great a quarterback you are.
With that said, Brady has won more games at quarterback than any player before him (230). He is well ahead of Peyton Manning and Brett Favre’s 186. However, Brady’s total comes over 20 years whereas Manning played in only 17 and Favre just 12. It’s more interesting to see how these men averaged out per season on wins and losses.
Breaking it down into an average per season, Brady’s teams have averaged 11 victories and a little over three defeats. Just behind him is Manning with a 10.9/4.6 mark. But look at Brett Favre again. His Packers/Vikings/Jets lead teams won on an average of 15.5 wins per season with 9.3 losses which mostly go to when he was in Minnesota and his one year in New York. Patrick Mahomes in his four short seasons is averaging 11. No other quarterback listed above is double digits for wins.
If we are talking wins/losses in regards to who is the G.O.A.T. if you take away all Tom Brady’s Super Bowl appearances, it would seem based on the information provided thus far that Brett Favre is more the winner. Favre was definitely the more courageous quarterback willing to take chances to win a game or keep his team in a game. This is reflected in the fact that Favre has thrown the most interceptions in history with 336 or an average of 28 per season.
Again, with wins and losses, what about winning percentage? Brady’s is the best at .769 unless you consider Otto Graham. His mark of .803 tops all others despite having been under center for only 57 wins. But bear in mind this former Cleveland Browns great played in just 10 seasons. His other numbers won’t bear out a reflection of how truly great he was.
Before we venture further into Otto Graham’s career, one other facet of a quarterback to consider is how good he was running the ball. A solid running quarterback creates a more well-rounded QB. Tom Brady has rushed for 1,043 yards in 21 years. That’s 49.7 per season and 3.5 per game. If it was only running the ball we are talking about then of course Michael Vick and Cam Newton would be in the conversation. So would Fran Tarkenton. But these men don’t have the credentials outside of that to be considered as a G.O.A.T.
Among the players I’ve talked about thus far, John Elway is the best running quarterback with 3,407 yards which equates to 212.9 per season. Not too far behind is Aaron Rodgers with a total of 3,271 (204.4). Brett Favre’s career total of 1,884 is a good amount ahead of Brady but on average per season, there’s a much larger discrepancy. Favre’s season average is 157.0 and Brady 49.7. Ben Roethlisberger has a nice average of 80.5 with a career total of 1,368. Even Unitas tops Brady with 98.7 and a career mark of 1,777.
How many times have these great quarterbacks reached the end zone using their feet? You might be surprised who has the most ever among this group. It’s Otto Graham with 44. Trailing him is Elway with 33 and Rodgers with 31. Tom Brady has 25. On the low end of that scale is Philip Rivers who has tasted the end zone by rushing the ball just three times in 17 seasons.
These other quarterbacks (Rivers, Marino, Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Elway, Rodgers, Montana, Namath, and Unitas) simply did not have the wins or stats to be put in comparison with the others. Joe Montana considered by some to be the G.O.A.T. lags way behind in yards passing, touchdowns, and wins but it is his Super Bowl performances that place him in the conversation.
Again, it seems that Brady is being pushed to the forefront based on his Super Bowl appearances and the number of titles won. If that is the primary argument, then consider what Otto Graham accomplished back in the 1950s. Graham may not have the stats, but he has the titles. All this talk lately about Brady and who might rival him excludes men from the past that were also great players like Unitas, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, and Otto Graham.
Otto Graham played for just one team and played just 10 seasons. Incredibly, for EVERY year he played (1946-1955), his Cleveland team either played in the league championship or won it. 10 seasons, 10 championship appearances, seven league titles. Oh, by the way, Tom Brady has just six. In 1946 the Browns were playing in the All-America Football Conference but it was still pro football. Graham’s rookie season was a championship one and Cleveland went on to win the next four including the 1950 NFL title but lost in the NFL championship game in 1951. They lost again in 1952 and ‘53 but won back-to-back titles in 1954 and 1955 which ended with a championship and Graham’s retirement.
Additionally about Graham, he played in EVERY single game of his career. How many other quarterbacks can say that? He also holds the current record for yards per pass attempt at 8.63. So should we now rethink about Tom Brady as the G.O.A.T. All this information provided certainly makes it a bit more difficult to just hand over that moniker to him whether he wins Super Bowl LV or not.