Commentary

Arms of Greatness: Ranking the best QBs by each decade

Jeffri Chadiha ranks the best pro quarterbacks in each decade.

Originally Published: January 30, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

It's not hard to make a list of the best quarterbacks ever. The difficulty lies in deciding how they rank within a particular decade. Not only must you determine exactly when players were at their best, you also have to weigh what means more: How they performed during an entire decade … or how well they played during a certain number of years within that time period?

In the list below of the best quarterbacks in each decade, the only thing that can't be questioned is the overall merit of the players who made this list. When they were at their best, they established standards that defined their respective eras.


Pre-1950s


Quarterbacks really weren't allowed to showcase their arms in the early existence of pro football. Most teams saw the pass as a risky proposition and they believed firmly in controlling the ball with a relentless running attack. However, more talented quarterbacks started to enter the league in the late 1930s and into the 1940s. As they developed, so did the idea of what a quarterback could be.

[+] EnlargeSammy Baugh
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesSammy Baugh
Quarterback of the Pre-1950s

SAMMY BAUGH, Washington Redskins (1937-52): Baugh was the most versatile quarterback ever and the pioneer of the modern passing game. He started his career as a halfback before transforming into a strong-armed passer who made people believe that throwing the football wasn't such a reckless act after all.

On top of producing amazing numbers for his time -- he finished his career with 21,886 yards and 187 touchdown passes -- Baugh punted and played defensive back during the first seven years of his career. In fact, Baugh led the NFL in passing, punting and interceptions in 1943 and he still holds the league record for single-season punting (he averaged 51.4 yards per kick in 1940).

Honorable Mention

• Bob Waterfield, Cleveland Rams/Los Angeles Rams (1945-52)
• Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns (AAFC) (1946-55)


1950s


This was the decade when quarterbacks often were measured by their toughness. Many of the top signal-callers had an ample amount of guts, determination, poise and natural leadership ability. A few benefited from playing in more progressive offensives. But most earned their keep by operating as quintessential field generals.

[+] EnlargeOtto Graham
Pro Football Hall Of Fame/NFL/Getty ImagesOtto Graham
Quarterback of the Decade

OTTO GRAHAM, Cleveland Browns (1946-55): Graham was great at the start of his career -- he led the Browns to a 47-4-3 record and four championships in the All-America Football Conference from 1946 through 1949 -- and then he got better.

When the Browns moved into the NFL in 1950, Graham was the leader who never let them think they couldn't thrive against tougher competition. He helped the Browns win three NFL titles and they also played in three other championship games. Add 'em up and that's 10 straight championship berths, a feat that is as impressive as Graham's career record of 105-17-10.

Honorable Mention:

• Norm Van Brocklin, Los Angeles Rams/Philadelphia Eagles (1949-60)
• Y.A. Tittle, San Francisco 49ers (1951-60)
• Bobby Layne, Detroit Lions(1950-58)
• Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts (1956-72)


1960s


Because there were two different leagues during these years -- the American Football League started in 1960 and merged with the NFL in 1969 -- there were basically two types of passers.

Most AFL quarterbacks loved throwing the ball all over the field and one, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, became pro football's first 4,000-yard single-season passer (he threw for 4,007 yards in 1967).

NFL teams, on the other hand, was far more conservative with their signal-callers. They liked quarterbacks who managed the game and limited their mistakes. Still, the best signal-caller of this decade played in the more established league.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Unitas
Robert Riger/Getty ImagesJohnny Unitas
Quarterback of the Decade

JOHNNY UNITAS, Baltimore Colts (1956-72): Unitas made his name in the classic overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL title game, but he made his mark in the 1960s.

Unitas actually compiled the bulk of his NFL records -- he finished his career with 2,830 completions, 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns -- during this decade. He also started the 1960s by extending his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 47. That record still stands and it's just one example of why Unitas was one of the most celebrated quarterbacks ever.

Honorable Mention

• Joe Namath, New York Jets (AFL) (1965-76)
• Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers (1956-71)
• Len Dawson, Kansas City Chiefs (AFL) (1963-75)
• Sonny Jurgensen, Philadelphia Eagles/Washington Redskins (1957-74)
• George Blanda, Houston Oilers (AFL) (1960-66)


1970s


These were the years when the NFL decided that offensive football needed a boost. Thanks to new rules, offensive lineman could use their hands more liberally while blocking, and receivers could run downfield with the knowledge that defenders had to limit their contact after five yards. Those two changes opened up a whole new world for pro quarterbacks. They haven't looked back.

[+] EnlargeRoger Staubach
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesRoger Staubach
Quarterback of the Decade

ROGER STAUBACH, Dallas Cowboys (1969-79): Sure, some of you -- particularly those who live in Pittsburgh -- will think Terry Bradshaw should be the no-brainer pick here because of his four Super Bowl victories as the Steelers QB. Sorry to disappoint you, but Staubach was the better player.

A four-year commitment to the Navy prevented Staubach from beginning his NFL career until he was 27, yet he still produced extraordinary numbers (22,700 yards, 153 touchdowns and 2,264 rushing yards). He also didn't do too shabbily in the hardware department. With Staubach as the starter, the Cowboys won two Super Bowls while losing two more (yes, we know, to the Steelers).

Honorable Mention

• Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers (1970-83)
• Bob Griese, Miami Dolphins (1967-80)
• Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings (1972-78)
•  Ken Stabler, Oakland Raiders (1970-79)


1980s


One year really made all the difference in this decade: 1983. That's when the greatest draft class of quarterbacks entered the NFL, a group that included future Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly among the six signal-callers selected in that year's first round. Nearly every team still wanted a classic, strong-armed quarterback to lead its offense, and that trio fit that description.

However, there was an ambitious, introspective head coach in San Francisco who had a different idea about where the passing game was going and what kind of quarterback could get him there. His name was Bill Walsh and his vision for the position involved a player with intelligence, accuracy and a feel for the game that couldn't be taught.

[+] EnlargeJoe Montana
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesJoe Montana
Quarterback of the Decade

JOE MONTANA, San Francisco 49ers (1979-92): Montana was the perfect fit for the intricate, short-passing attack of Walsh's West Coast offense. He won the championships (the 49ers won four Super Bowls during the 1980s with Montana claiming three MVP awards in those games) and produced the numbers (his career passer rating of 92.3 is second only to Steve Young's).

Of course, there were plenty of memorable highlights as well, including that 92-yard drive in the final minutes to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. In fact, Montana isn't just the best quarterback of this decade. He is, without question, the best ever.

Honorable Mention

• Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins (1983-99)
• John Elway, Denver Broncos (1983-98)
• Dan Fouts, San Diego Chargers (1973-87)


1990s


This was the decade when Bill Walsh's influence really changed the NFL landscape. As more members of his coaching tree moved into head coaching jobs -- men like Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and Dennis Green -- more teams started running different versions of Walsh's West Coast system. By the mid-'90s, nearly half the league used some principles of that system. And most of them ran it so well that passing numbers skyrocketed during this 10-year period.

[+] EnlargeSteve Young
John G. Mabalango/AFP/Getty ImagesSteve Young
Quarterback of the Decade

STEVE YOUNG, San Francisco 49ers (1987-99): It still seems unfair that the 49ers had two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history on the same roster. Young replaced Montana as a starter in 1991, and he picked up where his predecessor had left off.

Young won two NFL Most Valuable Player Awards during the 1990s, led the league in passing six times (a record he shares with Sammy Baugh) and retired with a league passer rating record (96.8 for his career) that might never be broken. He also won over Montana loyalists when he led the 49ers to a win over San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX.

Honorable Mention:

• Brett Favre, Green Bay (1991-present)
• Troy Aikman, Dallas (1989-2000)
• Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins (1983-99)
• John Elway, Denver Broncos (1983-98)
• Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills (1986-96)
• Warren Moon, Houston Oilers/ Minnesota Vikings/Seattle Seahawks/Kansas City Chiefs (1984-2000)


2000-present


This has been the decade when football coaches have taken a more open-minded approach to what a quarterback should be. More teams now covet mobility in their signal-callers, with Pro Bowlers such as Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia and former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick serving as primary beneficiaries of this change in thinking.

Of course, there's still a place for the classic pocket passer in today's world. Just ask the fans in Indianapolis and New England.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning
Quarterback of the Decade

PEYTON MANNING, Indianapolis Colts (1998-present): Manning cemented his status as the best quarterback of his era when Indianapolis beat Chicago in last year's Super Bowl.

True, New England Patriots star Tom Brady has two more Super Bowl wins on his résumé . But he certainly doesn't have Manning's numbers. Manning already has thrown for 41,626 yards and 306 touchdowns in his 10-year career. At the pace he's on, he's likely to hold every major career passing record by the time he's done playing.

Honorable Mention

• Tom Brady, New England Patriots (2000-present)
• Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers (1991-present)
• Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles (1999-present)
• Steve McNair, Houston Oilers-Tennessee Titans/Baltimore Ravens (1995-present)

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.