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Who Is the Greatest NFL Quarterback of All-Time?

Updated on August 16, 2020
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I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.

My Pick: John Elway

I admit it, as a lifelong Broncos' fan, I'm biased, but for my money, John Elway was the greatest QB of all-time. John Elway was as close to a Michael Jordan of football as there has every been. More than any other quarterback I've ever seen, he put his team on his back and dragged them places. He did this despite mediocre talent around him most of his career. This is what makes Elway, in my opinion, the greatest quarterback to ever play professionally. He did more with less.

John Elway
John Elway

Who do you think was/is the best QB of all-time?

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What About Brady? Manning? Montana?

Usually when commentators discuss the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, John Elway is not mentioned. He's put in that second tier of great quarterbacks. In a recent list of the NFL's greatest players by (linked below), these quarterbacks are ranked ahead of Elway: Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, Otto Graham, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady. Having never watched Unitas or Graham play, I can't really argue that Elway was a superior player. However, I do think that players of different eras are difficult to compare, so I wouldn't attempt to explain why I think Elway was a better player than either Unitas or Graham. However, I am going to argue that Elway was superior to Montana, Manning, Favre, and Brady. And it's not that I don't think each one of those guys was or is great. It's that I think Elway achieved more given what he had and had any of those guys been in Elway's situation, they wouldn't have done as much.

Before I do so, I'll issue a few caveats. First of all, I'm not arguing that Elway was a superior tactician or understood the game better than any of those other quarterbacks. In fact, of the modern day quarterbacks, I think that Montana, Manning, and Brady are high up on the list due to a combination of football acumen and physical skill. Favre is included for guts and his will to win and never-say-die attitude. I think of those four quarterbacks, Favre is #4. While he was a great quarterback, he made a lot of mistakes, he threw a lot of interceptions, and he was kind of a pill his last few years in the league. He's my least favorite of those four and I don't think he should be ranked ahead of Elway for any reason other than longevity.

Sure, Montana is a Legit #1

Of the other three, there is no question that Montana was more successful collecting championships. However, Montana was also surrounded by immense talent. He did amazing things, but he shared the field with other amazing players: Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, and Jerry Rice. I mean, Montana basically had the best receiver of all-time on his team. Who did Elway have? While Elway's receivers, particularly the "Three Amigos", were decent, they were nothing compared to Rice. This is why I make the argument that Elway was the greater quarterback. Elway carried teams to the Super Bowl on his back.

Between Montana, Brady, and Manning, it's hard to separate one from the other in terms of tactical skills. However, if I really had to, I'd say that Manning is the best tactician. What has swayed me most about Manning's abilities is just how bad the Indianapolis Colts are without him this season (2011). It's clear that Manning carried that team into the playoffs. In this way, Manning is most like Elway. But Manning is a pocket passer and had he been in Elway's position, having to run for his life, he'd be crippled.

Now, one could argue that both Manning and Brady are players who elevate those around them and their teams as a whole. The thing that elevates Elway in my mind over all three of these other quarterbacks is who coached them. Montana had Bill Walsh. Brady has Bill Belichick. And although I wouldn't put Tony Dungy in the same category as Walsh and Belichick, he was a coach who allowed Manning to be at his best. While I have nothing against Dan Reeves, his relationship with Elway was always strained, yet Elway still managed to rise above it. Sure, it was only when Mike Shanahan and Terrell Davis came along that Elway was finally able to win a Super Bowl, but what he had done prior to that was already amazing.

What Makes Elway Unique

Name any player on offense with Elway prior to Terrell Davis. If you are not a Broncos' fan, I suspect you cannot name more than two. I'm a Broncos' fan and I can't name that many: Gerald Wilhite, Sammy Winder, Vance Johnson, Ricky Nattiel, Steve Watson. I guess there's Shannon Sharpe, of course, but he didn't come around until 1994. Then there was Elway's offensive line. The first of Elway's lineman to make a Pro Bowl was, I believe, Gary Zimmerman in 1993. So Elway got Denver to three Super Bowls before he had a Pro Bowl offensive lineman. Trust me, he ran for his life a lot and got hit a lot. As a comparison, during Elway's career, his receivers and offensive lineman made the Pro Bowl a total of 7 times. During Dan Marino's career during the same amount of time, his offensive lineman and receivers made the Pro Bowl 30 times.

Montana, Manning, and Brady have always had great offensive lines. None of them had Elway's athleticism, but none had to run for their lives either. When Elway retired, he had the most fourth quarter comebacks in history. That was his legacy. Certainly, this is an argument with no definitive answer and I have profound respect for all these quarterbacks. I've just never seen a quarterback like John Elway. His combination of athleticism and will to win were unmatched. There are lots of definitions for a "best quarterback of all-time". Elway defines what I think makes one quarterback the best.

“If you take everything in consideration, he's the best to play the position … He has done a lot for the game and is a great example, a role-model type guy. That's why I always admired him. His comebacks, durability, competitiveness, arm strength … you put all that package together with longevity, I think you can build a strong case that he's the best to play.” --Jim Fassel, Giants coach and former Broncos assistant quoted from

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Allen Donald


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