Unitas, in his crewcut and high-topped cleats, defined the quarterback position as the most important position in sports. Unitas, cast off by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers and playing semi-pro football when called by the Colts, embodied the role of field general. While most quarterbacks of his time called the plays, few matched Unitas’ penchant for the unexpected gamble. Unitas helped usher in the television age for the NFL when he led the Colts to a 23-17 overtime victory against the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game in what was dubbed The Greatest Game in NFL History. His record for throwing at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games stood for 52 years. Unitas was 118-64-4 as a starter, engineered 37 come-from-behind wins and was a two-time NFL championship game MVP.
2. Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers, 1979-92; Chiefs, 1993-94):
Montana was known as Joe Cool for his unflappable countenance on the field where nothing seemed to faze him. Like Unitas, Montana was a product of west Pennsylvania steel area, and he was the perfect choice by San Francisco’s brilliant Bill Walsh for an offensive dependent on accurate passer. Montana, a two-time league MVP, led the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles, earning Super Bowl MVP three times. He led the NFL in completion percentage five times; and his trademark was the fourth-quarter comeback. Montana’s two most famous passes were The Catch thrown to Dwight Clark that won the 1981 NFC championship game and his game-winning, 10-yard TD flip to John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII, capping a 92-yard drive that began with Montana’s noticing actor John Candy in the stands and finished with eight completions in nine attempts for 87 yards. Chiefs fans will remember his game-winning pass to Willie Davis in a Monday-night comeback win at Denver in 1994.
3. John Elway (Denver Broncos, 1983-98):
Elway was the best pure athlete to play the position. He could beat you with his bazooka arm, his mobility that bought time to throw or pick up yards with his legs, and his competitive spirit that produced 148 career wins — second of all time — and 42 fourth-quarter regular-season comebacks, highlighted by The Drive, a 98-yard march in final minutes of regulation that sent the 1986 AFC championship game at Cleveland into overtime, a game won by Denver. It was the first of five Super Bowl appearances for Elway and the Broncos. Though he never had any Hall of Fame-caliber receivers, Elway still threw for 51,475 yards and 300 TDs and ran for another 3,407 yards and 33 TDs. Elway capped his career by winning Super Bowls in his final two seasons. He clinched Denver’s win over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII by rushing for a first down when he touched ground like a helicopter landing. In his final game, Elway was MVP of Denver’s 34-19 victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII by throwing for 336 yards, highlighted by an 80-yard touchdown strike to Rod Smith at the end of the first half.
4. Otto Graham (Cleveland Browns, 1946-55):
If quarterbacks are measured by winning, few could match Graham, who was known as Automatic Otto because of his accuracy. Graham led the Browns to 10 title games in 10 years, winning seven championships. He went four-for-four in All-America Conference championship games and was three for six in the NFL. Graham was the first quarterback to win 100 games and his combined winning percentage of .847 includes a 57-13-1 mark (.810) in six NFL seasons. Graham wasted little time showing the Browns belonged in the NFL. In the 1950 title game in Cleveland’s first year in the NFL, Graham drove the Browns 68 yards in the final 1:48, setting up Lou Groza’s game-winning field goal. Graham completed 22 of 33 passes for 298 yards and four TDs and rushed 12 times for 99 yards. Most impressively, Graham averaged 8.63 yards per gain, still the best in NFL history, with 174 TDs and 135 INTs.
5. Tom Brady (New England Patriots, 2000-present):
Brady was a scrawny, sixth-round draft pick who never forgot that he was the 199th player taken in the 2000 draft. Brady took advantage of an injury to Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season and carved a remarkable run, leading the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships in his first four seasons as a starter, beginning with the game-winning field goal drive in the final 1:21 of regulation that beat heavily favored St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. A two-time Super Bowl MVP, Brady is 136-39 as a starter, the best record by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) and is 17-7 in the postseason, the most playoff wins by any quarterback. He’s one of four passers in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season, yet his 334 TDs to 123 INTs ratio of 2.72 ranks second in NFL history, and he holds the record with 358 consecutive passes without an INT (2010-11). Brady threw an NFL-record 50 TD passes in leading the Patriots to a 16-0 regular season, only to lose a shot at a fourth championship when the Giants’ David Tyree made a miracle catch that led to New York’s victory in Super Bowl XLII.
6. Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts, 1998-2011, Denver Broncos 2012-present):
The only four-time MVP in NFL history, Manning’s career appeared over in 2011 at Indianapolis when he missed the entire season after undergoing neck surgery. The Colts took Andrew Luck with the first pick of the 2012 draft, letting Manning walk in free agency, and he responded with a brilliant 2012 season with Denver, directing the Broncos to a 13-3 record and ranking second in the NFL in passer rating, throwing for 4,659 yards and 37 TDs, the second-highest totals of his 15-year career. A cerebral quarterback known for his gyrations at the line of scrimmage, Manning led Indianapolis to 11 postseason appearances during 1999-2010, including two Super Bowls, and he was MVP in the Colts’ victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI. Manning ranks second all-time in career completions (5,082) and TDs (436), and wins (154), including a league-record 12 double-digit victory seasons. He owns the most 4,000-yard passing seasons (12) in NFL history and is the only player to throw for more than 3,000 yards in his first 13 seasons. Voted to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s, Manning’s 12 Pro Bowl selections are the most by a quarterback.
7. Brett Favre (Atlanta Falcons, 1991, Green Bay Packers, 1992-07, N.Y. Jets (2008), Minnesota Vikings (2009-10):
Favre stands alone in almost every statistical category for a quarterback, but beyond that, he played with the same boyish flair in the NFL as he did on the sandlots of his beloved southern Mississippi. Favre made 299 consecutive starts — most by any position player in NFL history — and no one won more games (186), threw more passes (10,169) for more completions (6,300), yards (71,838) and TDs (508) than Favre, an indestructible gunslinger, who also threw the most INTs (336) and took the most sacks (525) in NFL history. The first three-time league MVP and an 11-time Pro Bowler, Favre led the Packers to 11 postseason appearances, including seven division crowns, three NFC championship games, two Super Bowls and a victory New England in Super Bowl XXXI, returning the Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay for the first time in 29 years. Favre’s exit from Green Bay in 2008 was messy, but after a year with the Jets, he led Minnesota to an NFC North title and to the 2009 NFC championship game.
8. Sammy Baugh (Washington, 1937-52):
Slinging Sammy Baugh received his nickname as a third-base prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he was an NFL original in ushering in the modern passing game. Playing in the era of two-way players, Baugh was a three-way player and won an unofficial Triple Crown in 1943 when he led the league in passing, punting and interceptions. When Baugh retired following the 1952 season, he was the NFL’s career leader in passes (2,995), completions (1,693), percentage (54.9), yards (21,886), TDs (187) and punting average (51.40 yards), an NFL record that still stands. Baugh, a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, led Washington to five championship games, winning titles in his rookie year of 1937 and in 1942.
9. Roger Staubach (Dallas Cowboys, 1969-79):
The Cowboys had to wait five years for Staubach, the 1963 Heisman Trophy at Navy winner to fulfill his military commitment, but it was worth the wait. Roger “The Dodger,” as a 27-yar-old rookie, brought a scrambling element to Tom Landry’s Flex offense. During 1970-79, Staubach helped the Cowboys to seven division titles, five NFC championships, and five Super Bowls, including wins in Super Bowl VI and XII. Staubach, the MVP of Super Bowl VI, was also known as Captain Comeback for his 23 fourth-quarter, come-from-behind wins in regular-season and playoff games, including 14 in the final two minutes or overtime. The most memorable was a 1975 playoff game at Minnesota when he connected with Drew Pearson on a desperation, 50-yard Hail Mary that propelled the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. A four-time NFL passing champion, Staubach’s 22,700 yards career passing and 3,586 yards in 1979 still rank second in Cowboys history, and his 2,264 rushing yards rank eighth. Staubach retired at 37, fearing the after-effects of recurring concussions.
10. Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970-83):
Coming off a 1-13 season in his first year as Pittsburgh’s head coach, Chuck Noll gambled and selected Bradshaw of Louisiana Tech with the first overall pick of the 1970 draft. It was a struggle for a while as Bradshaw, who had a cannon for an arm and deceptive mobility, endured some tough times, throwing 46 INTs in his first two seasons. Bradshaw didn’t secure the starting job for good until 1974, and that’s when he blossomed with the rest of the Steelers, and he became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lead a team to four championships — in 1974-75 and in 1978-79 — and was a two-time Super Bowl MVP. Some, including Dallas linebacker Thomas Henderson, questioned Bradshaw’s intelligence, but Bradshaw called his own plays, a dying art by the 1980s. Bradshaw’s stats weren’t eye-popping, but when not handing off to Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, he hooked up with a pair of Hall of Fame receivers in Lynn Swann, who caught 49 TD passes from Bradshaw, and John Stallworth, who caught 44.
11. Bart Starr (Green Bay Packers, 1956-71):
Vince Lombardi saw something in Starr, a lowly 17th-round draft choice in 1956 Lombardi inherited upon taking over in Green Bay in 1959. Starr had the intangibles of leadership as well as intelligence, and he became the most victorious quarterback of his era — directing the Packers to six Western Division titles, five NFL championships, and two Super Bowls titles, earning MVP honors in both Super Bowl I and II. Though the NFL didn’t have the round of playoffs it does now, Starr was an NFL-best 9-1 in the postseason, losing only in his first appearance, the 1960 NFL championship game at Philadelphia. Starr’s most famous moment was not a pass, but a quarterback sneak in the 1967 NFL championship game, known as the Ice Bowl, at Lambeau Field. The Packers, trailed Dallas 17-14 with 4:50 to play, and Starr completed five of five passes for 57 yards in minus-46 degrees wind chill and scored the game-winning TD on a quarterback sneak with 16 seconds to play, sending the Green Bay to Super Bowl II.
12. Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins, 1983-99): The only thing lacking on Marino’s resume compared to the others on this list is an NFL championship. He came close, leading the Dolphins to Super Bowl XIX in just his second season, but Miami lost to San Francisco. That doesn’t diminish the fact Marino, who was 18-18 in postseason play, was one of the most brilliant passers of all time. During that Super Bowl season of 1984, Marino became the first passer to throw for more than 5,000 yards. His record 5,084 yards stood until 2010, and his record 48 TDs that season stood until 2004. Marino’s 147 wins still rank fourth all-time; and his 61,361 yards rank second and his 420 career TDs are third. Though Marino was not mobile, his release was so quick, and his pocket awareness was so keen, he was sacked at the lowest rate of any quarterback who threw at least 1,500 passes. Marino led the NFL in passing attempts five times and in completions six times, both league records.