It is a given that there will always be a spirited debate over which NFL Quarterbacks make the cut for the Top 10 Greatest Quarterbacks list.
The criteria for this list varies somewhat as some hold to the view that Super Bowl championships matter the most, while others insist on looking at individual statistics. The waters become a bit muddy when discussing quarterbacks that were never able to hoist a championship trophy.
There are a handful of quarterbacks that would easily be on most people’s top 10 list had they won a ring. Here are my top five.
#5 Y.A. Tittle
Y.A. Tittle is largely forgotten as it is now been just over 50 years since he played his last game.
He was one of the first big superstars at quarterback in the NFL’s history.
Tittle teamed with Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, and John Henry Johnson, to form the famed “Million Dollar Backfield” with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s.
He had two really good shots at a title, one in 1957 with the 49ers that saw the Lions finish one of the best comebacks in playoff history, and the other with the Giants in 1963 versus the Bears.
While his teams weren’t able to capture a championship, Tittle accomplished much. He was the NFL MVP in 1957 and in 1963. He was a three-time All Pro. It may have appeared unimpressive that twice he led the NFL in touchdowns, but it should be noted that throwing 33 and 36 touchdowns in 1962 and 1963, respectively, was a monumental feat considering it was done in an era where passing was very difficult.
#4 Dan Fouts
Dan Fouts was another stat machine. He led the Chargers to the AFC Championship game back-to-back in 1980 and 1981, but saw their championship dreams come to an end to the Raiders and Bengals respectively.
While Fouts had some good playoff games, it was his bad ones that stuck out the most.
Fouts racked up some great regular season numbers and for four seasons, he was dominant. From 1979-1982, the Chargers had the most prolific offense and twice saw the two primary receivers and the tight end each rack up 1,000 yards in the same season. That was largely due to Fouts’ accuracy and strong arm.
Fouts was the NFL MVP in 1982, was a six-time pro-bowler and two-time All Pro. He led the NFL in yards four straight seasons (1979-1982) and touchdowns twice. (1981 and 1982)
#3 Ken Anderson
While Ken Anderson is not a household name, it should be.
Anderson played largely in the 1970’s, an era that is far different from today. Good quarterbacks would typically have completion rates a little above fifty percent for around 3,000 yards and twenty touchdowns.
Passing in that era was focused on deeper passing routes and was limited due to an emphasis on running the ball. Anderson consistently completed around 65 percent of his passes. That was rare in the 1970’s.
He led the league in passing four times, was the NFL MVP in 1981 (as well as Offensive Player of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year in the same season), he even set the record for single-season completion percentage in 1982. At 70.6%, it was a record which stood for over two decades)
His Bengals came very close to a Super Bowl championship, but were denied by the 49ers in a close 26-21 game in 1981.
Anderson’s individual playoff performances were largely exemplary. Three of his six games saw him throw zero interceptions and finish with a passer rating over 100. His career playoff passer rating was 93.5, the best on this list.
Anderson was a smart, accurate, and mobile quarterback, and deserves to be recognized in the NFL Hall of Fame.
#2 Jim Kelly
The quarterback that got the closest to obtaining that coveted championship ring was Jim Kelly.
The Bills of the early 1990’s were able to make it to the Super Bowl an astounding four consecutive seasons.
They had one of the flashiest offenses and some of the best players in the league on both sides of the ball, but the man that made it work was the quarterback, Jim Kelly.
In order to gain an advantage, especially in harsh road environments, coach Marv Levy had the Bills go to a no-huddle offense. This put the burden on Kelly to call his own plays, something that most quarterbacks hadn’t been asked to do in over a decade.
Kelly got so good at it, that he was able to tear up defenses by getting their best players out of position. The no-huddle made it very hard for defenses to make substitutions, which opened things up for Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton.
While Kelly never had a great game in the Super Bowl, it was his will, determination, and heart that saw Buffalo appear in the big game all four of those seasons.
Kelly’s primary claim to fame was how he won games, but he was able to put up good numbers. He was a five-time Pro-bowler and was All-Pro in 1991. He was able to get a passing title in 1990 as well.
Injuries kept him from racking up the eye-popping statistics, but Jim Kelly was an excellent quarterback who was so deserving of his 2002 Hall of Fame enshrinement.
#1 Dan Marino.
Dan Marino may have been the best pure passer the league has ever seen. Who could forget that amazing quick release of his?
When Dan Marino retired, he had captured every meaningful passing record. His amazing 1984 season saw him set single season records for yardage (5,084) and touchdowns (48). He was named League MVP and won the passing title.
During Marino’s tenure, he was statistically superior to virtually all his peers. The lack of a credible running game for most of his career caused Marino to make things happen with the passing game, largely on his own ability. While he had Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, they saw so much defensive attention that Marino had to find other receivers to get the job done.
Marino’s contemporaries included Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Warren Moon, Bernie Kosar and Dave Krieg. When one combs through the stat-book, Marino’s numbers just dwarf those of his peers. Every year he averaged about 400 more yards and 10 more touchdowns than the best the NFL had to offer from 1983-1994.
What made Marino so good was not just being able to pile up stats, which he certainly did. It was also his ability to bring his team back from some very deep holes.
Who could forget his fake-spike game against the Jets in 1994, or the classic shootout with Drew Bledsoe on opening day, also in 1994? In all, Marino had 36 4th quarter comebacks and 51 game-winning drives.
While he didn’t win the Super Bowl in his only appearance, Marino actually did have decent playoff numbers. He posted 32 touchdowns to 24 interceptions, a much better rate than most on this list.
His combination of ability, comebacks, statistics and solid playoff play put him at number one on this list.