Elite Quarterbacking in the Super Bowl Era: The Top 21, Who’s the Future of Elite QBs?

Posted: September 12, 2011 in football, nfl, professional sports, sports
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

By Evan Ream

In the Super Bowl era (1966-present) of the National Football League, the quarterback position has easily been the most important position. The best quarterbacks win the most games and usually win the Super Bowl. Quarterback is probably more important than any other position in any other game, and yet there have been so few elite quarterbacks. Elite quarterbacks are so rare that teams are willing to spend millions of dollars drafting a position that has a high washout rate just for the chance to get one.

In the Super Bowl era, there have been either 19 or 21 elite quarterbacks (depending on how you feel about Namath and Roethlisberger) who have combined to win 32 of the 45 Super Bowls. Super Bowls have thus been won 71% of the time by a team containing an elite quarterback. The position is only becoming more important as seven of the eight last Super Bowls have been won by a team lead by one of these players (Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLII is the exception). Getting an elite quarterback should be priority number one for every NFL team; only four of these 21 players (Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly) have failed to win a title for their team.

An elite quarterback can be defined as a quarterback who directly accounts for wins. In order to be elite though, they need to throw accurately, limit mistakes, know when to throw the ball away and be either mobile enough or quick enough at throwing the ball to avoid a pass rush. You will find that all 21 quarterbacks I have listed have these qualities and more.

With the game trending towards passing over running, the obvious way to win would be to try to find an elite quarterback. No team has been better at doing this than the Green Bay Packers who are the only team to have had three of such players. Aaron Rodgers inclusion on this list may be a bit premature as he has only been a starter for three seasons, but looking at his career stats (1,065 of 1,646 [64.7%] for 13,035 yards and 90 TDs vs. 32 INTS, 99.1 QB Rating) and winning stats (28-20, 4-1 playoffs, 1 SB) Rodgers is an elite quarterback who needs longevity to legitimize his career.

Here is a breakdown, by division, of Super Bowl victories per team and how many were by an elite quarterback.


NFC West

49ers 5 (Joe Montana 4, Steve Young 1)

Rams 1 (Kurt Warner 1)

Seahawks 0

Cardinals 0

NFC South

Saints 1 (Drew Brees 1)

Buccaneers 1

Falcons 0

Panthers 0

NFC East

Cowboys 5 (Troy Aikman 3, Roger Staubach 2)

Giants 3

Redskins 3

Eagles 0

NFC North

Packers 4 (Bart Starr 2, Brett Favre 1, Aaron Rodgers 1)

Bears 1

Vikings 0 (Fran Tarkenton 0)

Lions 0


AFC West

Raiders 3

Broncos 2 (John Elway 2)

Chiefs 1

Chargers 0 (Dan Fouts 0)

AFC South

Colts 2 (Johnny Unitas 1, Peyton Manning 1)

Titans 0

Texans 0

Jaguars 0

AFC East

Patriots 3 (Tom Brady 3)

Dolphins 2 (Bob Griese 2, Dan Marino 0)

Jets 1 (Joe Namath 1*)

Bills 0 (Jim Kelly 0)

AFC North

Steelers 6 (Bradshaw 4, Roethlisberger 2*)

Ravens 1

Bengals 0

Browns 0


*I considered not including either of these players in the elite section. Namath was overrated and mostly famous for predicting an upset and winning the MVP in a game where he didn’t even account for a touchdown. Roethlisberger has won 2 Super Bowls already and played in 3, but has been an above average quarterback and has generally played poorly in the Super Bowl. Other than his last series against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, he has been fairly mediocre completing 55 of 91 passes (60.4%) for 642 yards and 3 touchdowns against 5 interceptions: a QB Rating of 69.9.

Ranking the 21

Not all of the 21 are equal. Some of these players are better than others, and I will attempt to rank them all to the best of my ability.


21. Joe Namath

20. Ben Roethlisberger

19. Dan Fouts

18. Kurt Warner

17. Jim Kelly

16. Fran Tarkenton

15. Aaron Rodgers

14. Drew Brees

13. Bob Griese

12. Johnny Unitas

11. Dan Marino

10. Brett Favre

9. Steve Young

8. Troy Aikman

7. Roger Staubach

6. Peyton Manning

5. Bart Starr

4. Terry Bradshaw

3. John Elway

2. Tom Brady

1. Joe Montana


These rankings are highly subjective and value post-season play over regular season as well as this era (where it is harder to win because of the salary cap, free agency and more teams) than previous eras. The cutoff from great to very great is probably between the 13th and 12th spot where Unitas – who many consider to be the greatest of all time – gets the nod over Bob Griese. Unitas was very good but is hurt because he played poorly in his Super Bowl win (two picks before being knocked out of the game) and his era; it is much harder now to be a quarterback than it was 40 years ago. You’ll notice that I have Rodgers pretty high. Rodgers is a great player and could ultimately end up number one on this list, but doesn’t have the longevity to move up higher.

I have Favre ahead of Marino simply because he won a ring and Marino didn’t. No one can be in the top ten without a ring; most in there have at least two. Steve Young would be higher but he never won more than one ring despite having plenty of talent around him. That’s why Aikman, who didn’t put up big numbers, gets the nod. Aikman beat Young and won three Super Bowls while both were in their primes. Roger Staubach won two Super Bowls and had excellent longevity. After him, Peyton Manning is the highest player on this list with just one Super Bowl. Manning was so dominant in the regular season and was an onside kick away from two Super Bowls that he gets the nod in my number six spot.

The top five weren’t necessarily the best five regular season QB’s ever, but the best that did it when it mattered. Bart Starr won the first two Super Bowls; it would have been more but they coincided with the end of his dominance. Terry Bradshaw wasn’t very accurate but he gets hugely bumped up for being one of just two starting quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls. John Elway made five Super Bowls, three of which he made with mostly crap supporting casts. Elway was a major factor in the two Super Bowls that he won despite being 37 and 38 respectively. Brady gets the number two spot on virtue of winning three Super Bowls and being a busted play way from a 4th and a 19-0 season. He is the most clutch quarterback of our generation. There really can’t be any arguing with the number one spot as Montana was accurate, mobile, clutch and won four Super Bowls and three Super Bowl MVPs. An elite quarterback plays the best when it matters most and Montana personified this better than anyone else in the history of the National Football League.

Future Elites

In the next five years, at least one quarterback will emerge from the pack as an elite quarterback. It could be a young quarterback already in the league or it could be a top college quarterback. Whatever happens, these are the quarterbacks playing right now (in no particular order) that I give the best shot of emerging as the next elite quarterback.


Sam Bradford (Rams)

Josh Freeman (Buccaneers)

Cam Newton (Panthers)

Matthew Stafford (Lions)

Phillip Rivers (Chargers)

Mark Sanchez (Jets)

Joe Flacco (Ravens)

Andrew Luck (Stanford)


Of these, I like Rivers to join the elite echelon the most (he needs to either win a Super Bowl or sustain greatness for about a decade) followed by Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman.

  1. Bo says:

    Eli manning is nowhere on here how can he not be elite and you can’t tell me Aikman should be ahead of Peyton Manning neither should Bart starr. And Sanchez will never be even close to elite.

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