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Super Bowl Quarterbacks

Rating the overall careers of every qb who started the game.

by James Leroy Wilson
February 1, 2012

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Super Bowl Quarterbacks

Super Bowl 46 will be a rematch of Super Bowl 42, pairing the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. If the Giants win, many will begin to speculate that their quarterback, Eli Manning, is better than his older brother Peyton because he's "better in big games."

In one way, Eli's advocates would have a point. Through eight years, Eli would have made two Super Bowl trips, whereas after his first eight seasons (1998-2005) Peyton had made none.

But there's more to the story. Comparing their first eight years...

  • Peyton had made six Pro Bowls; Eli made two
  • Peyton won two MVP's; Eli won none
  • Peyton was named first-team All-Pro three times; Eli none
  • Peyton's team made the playoffs six times, Eli four; to say Peyton was a worse "big game" quarterback discounts the importance of winning games to even make the playoffs.

And I'm not even comparing statistics such as "passer rating," where Manning tends to blow Eli out of the water.

The thought, however, led me to speculate on the best way to measure the careers of all the quarterbacks to have played in the Super Bowl. My standard is NOT based on the players' statistics, but how they were viewed by their peers and media at the time they played.

Here are the criteria I used. If you are a quarterback who played in the Super Bowl:

  • 1 point is awarded for each year in which you won at least one award called "Most Valuable Player" or "Player of the Year" according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
  • 1 point for each year you were named First Team All-Pro
  • 1 point for every year you were named to the Pro Bowl
  • 1 point for winning 55% of starts in career; this suggest that your play had more than a marginal impact on the teams you played for
  • 1 point for winning 60 games and an additional point for each additional 30 games; this suggests a long, stable career

These criteria are rules-neutral. In other words, Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler, and Terry Bradshaw competed for most of their careers in a league where defensive backs could get away with more than 80's db's, who could get away with more than 90's db's, who could get away with more than 00's dbs, who could get away with more than today's db's. Quarterbacks should be judged relative to their era, which is why media (MVP and All Pro awards) plus peer perception (Pro Bowl) are better measures of one's achievements than raw passing numbers.

Note that I'm not judging qbs by how well they played in the Super Bowl, but rather I'm ranking the qbs in the context of their accomplishments overall in their careers. I am not judging who's the "best" or the "greatest" but I believe this could be another guide, another point of view, that can be used in assessing all-time greatness. It helps us remember how they played Sunday to Sunday, how they got to the playoffs in the first place.


+ means still playing, which is why several current players score low; they haven't played long enough to collect the wins and Pro Bowls
F means Hall of Fame
(?) means status yet to be officially determined - whether it's still playing or going to the Hall of Fame
I have added explanations in parentheses regarding qb's who had significant years and made "Pro Bowl" or "All Pro" teams pre-merger, which might inflate their ranking.

So here's the ranking.

1. +? Peyton Manning: 24; 2SB; 1W The Pro Bowls, MVP's, and All Pros piled up at an unprecedented rate.
2. ?F Brett Favre: 23; 2SB; 1W; longevilty only partially contributes to this; if he had retired after the 2004 season, his score would be 18.
3. F Johnny Unitas: 22; 1SB; 1W (2 NFL Championships pre-Super Bowl Era, most awards and honors came in NFL before AFL/NFL merger/)
4. F Dan Marino: 18: 1SB; 0W Best qb to have played in it but didn't win it.
5. F Joe Montana: 16: 4SB; 4W
6. + Tom Brady: 15: 5SB; 3W (1 possibly pending)
7. F John Elway: 15: 5SB; 2W
8. F Bob Griese: 15; 3SB; 2W (substantial amount of Pro Bowls came from AFC days before merger)
9. F Steve Young: 15; 1SB; 1W
10. F Fran Tarkenton: 14; 3SB; 0W
11. F Len Dawson: 12: 2SB; 1W (Most awards/honors came in AFL before AFL/NFL merger)
12. F Roger Staubach: 11: 4SB; 2W
13. + Drew Brees: 11: 1SB; 1W
14. Daryle Lamonica: 11: 1SB; 0W (Most awards/honors came in AFL before AFL/NFL merger, perhaps explaining why he's not in the Hall of Fame)
15. (?)F Kurt Warner: 10: 3SB; 1W I believe going to Super Bowl with three different non-Hall of Fame coaches should put Warner in the Hall.
16. Ken Stabler: 10: 1SB; 1W
17. Rich Gannon: 10: 1SB; 0W He didn't get his chance to shine until late in his career, otherwise he might be higher.
18. F Troy Aikman: 9: 3SB; 3W
19. F Bart Starr: 9: 2SB; 2W (3 NFL Championships pre-Super Bowl Era, and most awards and honors came in NFL before AFL/NFL merger)
20. F Jim Kelly: 9: 4SB; 0W
21. +? Donovan McNabb: 9: 1SB; 0W
22. F Joe Namath: 9: 1SB; 1W (Most awards/honors came in AFL before AFL/NFL merger)
23. F Terry Bradshaw: 8: 4SB; 4W
24. Ken Anderson: 8: 1SB; 0W
25. Joe Theismann: 7: 2SB; 1W
26. Steve McNair: 7: 1SB; 0W
27. Boomer Esiason: 7: 1SB; 0W
28. Earl Morrall: 7: 1SB; 0W (includes long career in NFL pre-merger)
29. Drew Bledsoe: 6:1SB; 0W
30. Phil Simms: 6: 1SB; 1W
31. + Ben Roethlisberger: 4: 3SB; 2W
32. + Eli Manning: 4: 2 SB; 1W (1 possibly pending)
33. + Aaron Rogers: 4: 1 SB; 1W It is anticipated that Ben, Eli, and Aaron will rise considerably in the rankings in the next 5-10 years.
34. Brad Johnson: 4: 1SB; 1W
35. + Matt Hasselbeck: 4: 1SB; 0W
36. Jim McMahon: 3: 1SB; 1W
37. Ron Jaworski: 3: 1SB; 0W
38. Mark Rypien: 3: 1SB; 1W
39. Chris Chandler: 3: 1SB; 0W
40. Kerry Collins: 3: 1SB; 0W
41. John Hostetler: 2: 1SB; 1W
42. Craig Morton: 2: 2SB; 0W
43. Jake Delhomme: 2: 1SB; 0W
44. Joe Kapp: 2: 1SB; 0W
45. Billy Kilmer: 2: 1SB; 0W
46. Neil O'Donnell: 2: 1SB; 0W
47. Jim Plunkett: 1: 2SB; 2W
48. Trent Dilfer: 1: 1SB; 1W
49. Stan Humphries: 1: 1SB; 0W
50. David Woodley: 1: 1SB; 0W
51. Tony Eason: 1: 1SB; 0W
52. Doug Williams: 0: 1SB; 1W
53. +Rex Grossman: 0: 1SB; 0W
54. Vince Ferragamo: 1SB: 0W

Some observations:.

1. I didn't think Bob Griese would make ANY list of "Top Ten quarterbacks" no matter what method they were rated. But, he won a lot and made a lot of Pro Bowls. I was too young to watch him in his prime with the run-based Dolphins of the early 70's that won three consecutive AFC championships, but I thought he was merely a good quarterback on a great team. I was wrong. He earned his Hall of Fame spot.

2. Terry Bradshaw, on the other hand, could have been considered a merely good quarterback on great teams. The numbers bear this out, as he is the lowest-ranked of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks on this list.

3. If Daryle Lamonica and Ken Stabler each won or even played in one more Super Bowl, they might have gone to the Hall of Fame.

4. Rich Gannon may be the biggest surprise of all. He played only four seasons with 16 starts, and only four others in which he played the majority of games. But, just like injuries, the bad luck of poor coaching or management decisions DO play a role in these types of evaluations. You can't evaluate a guy's career when he's not playing.

5. If I were truly rating the quarterbacks by quality, I would likely substantially re-order players who scored two or below. Morton started two Super Bowls for two different teams. Plunkett WON two Super Bowls. Ferragamo once had a 30-touchdown season. Williams started 5 years at Tampa Bay, which before he arrived was by far the worst franchise in the NFL, and had a .500 record with three winning seasons. That was before he won the Super Bowl with the Redskins, but he started only two games in the regular season for them and lost them both.

At the same time, I'm reluctant to "rank" the list in terms of quality. Each one of these guys did something worthwhile in their careers. Often, they led an overmatched team into the Super Bowl, often when a more talented team from their own conference "should" have gone.

That alone is an accomplishment. There are lots of guys with no Pro Bowls and with short careers who never started a Super Bowl. To even get into that position is an accomplishment

6. While noticing the Hall of Famers in the class, I decided to do a comparison with four other quarterbacks with long careers who never made it to the Super Bowl. They came off the top of my head. Two are in the Hall of Fame. Here are their scores:

(F) Warren Moon: 12
(F) Dan Fouts: 10
Vinny Testaverde: 4
Archie Manning: 2

Bradshaw excepted, the Hall of Fame line is probably somewhere between 9 and 12. It depends on how many Super Bowls you make.

7. The median score was seven, shared by four players: Morrall, Esiason, McNair, Theismann. This is perfect: each was an MVP, and they each had a few other great years, but not a LOT of other great years. Good quarterbacks, good careers, but not elite for long enough to be Hall of Famers.

8. 11 qbs have gone to the Super Bowl three times or more. All are in the Hall of Fame except for Warner, who's not yet eligible, and Roethlisberger and Brady. Barring scandal, Brady's a certainty. Warner and the rest of Roethlisberger's career will determine whether winning three winning conference championships is sufficient.


The list doesn't indicate that, say, Peyton Manning is the greatest qb ever or that Favre is second-greatest. It's just another guidepost; don't discount regular-season accomplishments, and don't discount longevity.

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