Say what you will, but the quarterback position is probably the toughest in football—and maybe all of sports. And putting together a list of the best quarterbacks of all time is no easy task, either. A QB dictates the game, leads the offense, and is the only player on the field who gets singularly credited with wins and losses. The position is always in the spotlight—so if a signal caller can’t handle the pressure, someone else is going to come in and take his job.
What It Takes to Be One of the Best Quarterbacks of All Time
Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been all types of quarterbacks with amazing physical abilities—super-accurate throwers, elusive scramblers, and rapid-fire gunslingers. In their own ways, these players created the archetypes of the quarterback position, and in doing so, put themselves in the top echelons of their profession.
What makes an NFL quarterback “best ever” material? Ask five people, and you’ll get five different answers. But in general terms, it comes down to the mix of individual brilliance and the heights that a QB helped his team reach. There are no set rules for earning a place in QB history: Some of the greatest quarterbacks never won a Super Bowl, and some of them lacked the absurd throwing talent and running ability of the most athletic players of their time. But every great quarterback stands out for a reason, and there’s more than one way to be great.
Here’s our ranking of the 13 best quarterbacks of all time. Did your favorite passer make the cut?
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The Best NFL Quarterbacks of All Time
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Roethlisberger the third QB taken in the 2004 draft. As the No. 11 overall selection, Roethlisberger came after No. 1 pick Eli Manning and No. 4 pick Philip Rivers. Manning and Rivers had excellent careers, but Roethlisberger topped both of them. His two Super Bowl wins matched Manning’s, and his big passing numbers rivaled those of Rivers, who never got to a Super Bowl.
Roethlisberger had a distinct playing style that the league had never quite seen before. He measured 6’4” and weighed around 250 pounds for much of his career, but he moved around nimbly and was exceedingly difficult for defenders to tackle. His Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in 2009 ranks as one of football’s greatest throws ever, and Roethlisberger’s highlight reel is among the game’s most fun to watch.
Staubach became a legend while wearing the Cowboys uniform, and he led the team to a huge run of success. After missing four seasons while serving in the Navy, he led Dallas to nine straight winning seasons and two Super Bowl championships. He became the first player to win the Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl MVP—plus, he’s the man who coined the phrase “Hail Mary” with one legendary bomb in a 1975 playoff game against the Vikings. The Hall of Fame thrower made it to the Pro Bowl six times and was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team.
This gunslinging quarterback was one of the toughest to ever play the position. He played into his 40s (with the Minnesota Vikings) after putting up a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers. The three-time MVP and 11-time Pro Bowler was beloved by teammates and obsessed over by the media. Thanks in part to starting in an NFL-record 321 straight games, Favre notched over 71,000 passing yards and over 500 touchdowns. He won Super Bowl XXXI with the Packers and finished his career with 186 victories, tied with Peyton Manning for the second most wins all-time.
Brees, who retired after the 2020 season, is No. 2 in NFL history in career passing yards (80,358) and was the record-holder at various points during his 20-year career. (Brees wound up with a number of NFL records, though Tom Brady later surpassed him in many.) Brees started his career with the San Diego Chargers, who made a significant mistake when they let him leave in free agency to join the New Orleans Saints in 2006.
In New Orleans, Brees became a franchise icon. His first season with the Saints was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, and the Saints became a rallying point for a community that was dealing with the traumatic aftermath of a natural disaster. Brees was in his prime for a decade and a half in NOLA, and by the time he was done, he’d brought the city a Super Bowl win and years of brilliant offense.
Even though Marino never won the Super Bowl and had a mediocre 8–10 career record in the postseason, he put up some very impressive numbers that were simply unheard of in the 1980s. The Pittsburgh native threw for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns in his NFL career, including a then-incredible statline in just his second year in the league, when he threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns.
Marino led the league in passing yards five times, was named MVP in 1984, and was a Pro Bowl player nine times in his career. And, of course, we all remember the great job he did while playing a kidnapping victim in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Few QBs can match Marino’s blend of on-field and on-screen achievements.
Younger football fans probably think of Terry Bradshaw as the loudest talking head on Fox NFL Sunday, but he was also a damn fine quarterback in his day, and he was a crucial complement to the Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense of the 1970s. Bradshaw did everything he needed to do with an arm that was always powerful and occasionally erratic, and he stepped it up when it counted: He bumped up his 70.9 regular season QB rating to 83.0 in the playoffs, and he did even better in the Super Bowl, pushing it up to 111.2 in title games.
Bradshaw led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl titles—becoming the first QB to win three (and then four) in his career—and was named MVP of the game twice. He’s definitely more than just a talking head.
Steve Young had a winding road to NFL success, but when he got there, he made the most of it. This southpaw spent two seasons on the USFL’s Los Angeles Express (and he’s still reaping the benefits—his contract, paid in an annuity, runs until 2027). Then he posted a 3–16 record with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
Once he got to SF, he sat behind Joe Montana and learned a few things about the NFL. Young eventually took over for the veteran and went on to make the Pro Bowl in all seven years he was a starter, taking home two MVP awards and winning three Super Bowls. Young formed a highly productive partnership with wideout Jerry Rice, connecting for 85 touchdowns and over 10,000 yards during the time they played together. Young’s MVP-winning performance in Super Bowl XXIX was one of the best ever: The BYU alum completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards and six touchdowns to lead the 49ers to victory. Following Montana (who you’ll read about later in this list) was an unenviable task, but Young somehow made it look easy as he led the Niners to success.
Even though things got off to a bumpy start for Elway in the NFL—he threatened to play baseball for the Yankees unless the Colts traded him—he proved to be worth the headache. The Denver Broncos stepped up and grabbed Elway, who showed off dynamic agility, pinpoint accuracy, and a cannon of a throwing arm during his career there.
Elway threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns, and he added 3,407 rushing yards for good measure. He picked up a “can’t win the big game” label following three Super Bowl losses, but he won his final two appearances and finished his career on top. Elway later took over as the Broncos top executive, leading the team to victory in Super Bowl 50 behind veteran quarterback Peyton Manning. Elway’s front-office career got rockier after that, but winning as both an NFL quarterback and a general manager will always make him stand out.
Mahomes is still playing, and we’ll need to see where he lands in the record books after retirement to get a truly definitive take on his career. But we’re calling it now: He’s already put together a Hall of Fame-caliber career and left a historic mark on football. Whether it was winning two Super Bowls in his first five years as a starter, signing the richest contract in football history, or making all manner of cartoonish throws to star receivers like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, it became clear over just a few years that the NFL had never seen a passer quite like Mahomes.
It’s another way of saying this: Mahomes hasn’t yet had the time to match the career accomplishments of the QBs ahead of him on this list. But no quarterback has played the position at a higher level than the Kansas City Chiefs’ franchise QB, and when Mahomes is firing on all cylinders, no other player is as mesmerizing to watch.
Manning finished his career by winning Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos, but that was just the capstone to a long list of achievements. During his time with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning brought home four MVP awards and formed one of the most prolific duos in history with wideout Marvin Harrison. The two connected for 112 touchdowns in a decade of work together and helped their team win Super Bowl XLI.
Manning continued to break records after coming back from an almost career-ending neck injury. Playing for the Broncos, he set the single-season passing touchdown record (55 TDs) and won his fifth MVP award. The former Tennessee Volunteers star at one point held the NFL all-time records for passing yards (71,940) and passing touchdowns before falling slightly down those lists after he retired.
Not a bad legacy, nor has Manning’s post-playing career been anything to sneeze at. Maybe future generations will know him better as the guy who does a Monday Night Football alternate broadcast with his brother, two-time Super Bowl-winning New York Giants QB Eli Manning.
Unitas was way ahead of his time when he was under center for the Baltimore Colts. In fact, he might be the one quarterback from the pre-modern NFL era who could thrive in the game today. Unitas put up numbers that no one else did while he was playing, including throwing 34 touchdowns in 1959, which is more than some QBs put up now. Unitas won the MVP award four times in his career and led his team to three championships, including back-to-back NFL titles in 1958 and 1959.
Unitas wasn’t all about the numbers, either—he helped create the modern NFL quarterback. He introduced the two-minute offense, and he became the first player to have a 30-touchdown season and surpass 40,000 passing yards in his career. “The Golden Arm” put the NFL on the map with his performance in the 1958 championship game, also known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The craziest part of his story? He was cut by his hometown Steelers in his rookie season and was playing on a semi-pro team for $6 a game before Colts coach Weeb Ewbank plucked him from obscurity. Now he’s a legend, right up there with the best modern passers.
Montana was prolific: He passed for 40,551 yards and collected 293 total touchdowns (including rushing) in his storied career. He made the Pro Bowl eight times and won back-to-back MVP awards in 1989 and 1990. But it was his performance in the playoffs that set the Notre Dame legend apart. He proved his big-game reputation with his astounding 92-yard drive in Super Bowl XXIII, and he finished his career 4-for-4 in championship games, taking home three Super Bowl MVP awards.
Amazingly, despite all the Super Bowl success, Montana’s most memorable play wasn’t even in a Super Bowl. His touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship is arguably the most iconic touchdown connection in football history. Among football buffs, it’s known simply as “The Catch.”
Brady will forever be an immensely polarizing figure. New England Patriots (and later Tampa Bay Buccaneers) fans adored him. Everyone else, at one point or another, hated him, as Brady made a career out of snatching glory from nearly every other team in the NFL. But in winning seven Super Bowls and setting a laundry list of individual records during a career that ran from 2000 (when he was 23) to 2022 (when he was 45), Brady made himself an undeniable football legend.
He’s the holder of just about every QB record that’s worth anything. He holds all of the big ones: passing yards (89,214), touchdown passes (649), games started (333), and wins (251), to name a few. It’s possible that no one will ever match his six Super Bowl victories with one team or his seven victories overall. There may have been a time when one could reasonably argue against Brady’s status as the best ever, but that time has passed. He sailed off into retirement after 2022, but he’ll loom over professional football forever. He’s the measuring stick for every other great QB.