Armchair QB ranks 'em

The Baltimore Sun

Dallas -- Let's start this column with an apology. It goes out, alphabetically, to Troy Aikman, Len Dawson, Jim Kelly, Bart Starr and Steve Young because this is a column about the top 10 NFL quarterbacks of the past 50 years, and they just missed the cut.

The question was raised after Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers lost the NFC championship game to New York. It came up again when the Giants stunned Tom Brady's New England Patriots.

(Note: I cannot rank Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh against the modern player, so we are limiting this to the "Modern Era" - the past 50 years).

Let's examine the top 10 in reverse order:

10. Fran Tarkenton: The only blemish is the failure to win a Super Bowl, although his Vikings teams got beat by better talent from Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland. His scrambles in the day of the slower linemen accounted for more than 3,600 yards and some of NFL Films' greatest moments. Tarkenton also threw for more than 47,000 yards.

9. Roger Staubach: Statistically, he doesn't belong on this list, but anyone who watched him knows that statistics fail to measure what he accomplished for the Cowboys in the 1970s.

For good or bad, this franchise never would have been dubbed "America's Team" without Captain Comeback rallying the Cowboys to all those victories.

8. Terry Bradshaw: One of the hardest quarterbacks to rank, Bradshaw had a great arm, was a first overall pick and led the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in six years. That said, I never felt he was better than a lot of the quarterbacks he was facing but was surrounded by superior talent.

7. Dan Marino: Some of you rank this guy higher because of the 61,000 passing yards and 420 touchdowns. I don't because after leading the NFL in touchdown passes in his second, third and fourth seasons, Marino never did it again. He led the league in passing yards five times, but he led the league in pass attempts, too.

The ultimate statistics quarterback, Marino couldn't get the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his final 15 seasons.

6. John Elway: He spent most of his years in Denver with good, not great wide receivers. And despite his ability to scramble and the 50,000-plus passing yards, Elway never would have won a Super Bowl without Terrell Davis' arrival.

But he was a great quarterback for a long period of time and gets credit for still being at the top of his game when he went out.

5. Tom Brady: It's hard to figure out where to place him when he has so much of a career left. But he won three Super Bowls with (like Elway) good, not great receivers and, of course, enjoyed a record-setting season with Randy Moss.

4. Peyton Manning: I have to keep him ahead of Brady. For now. He has too many excellent seasons in the book and probably will end up owning most of the NFL's all-time passing records.

But Manning doesn't have as much career left as Brady, nor is he surrounded by quite as much talent. So his hold on this spot is slipping.

3. Brett Favre: The guy who now owns all the league marks for passing yards and touchdowns and the NFL's only three-time Most Valuable Player has to be near the top of the list.

I wouldn't argue with anyone who put Favre first, even if he has but one Super Bowl victory. He played in some awful weather, his best receivers were Antonio Freeman and Donald Driver, and he gets major credit for making 253 consecutive starts.

2. John Unitas: If you are pretty much responsible for elevating the NFL to a higher plane than major league baseball, you get serious credit. The streak of touchdown passes in 47 straight games was amazing in an era in which the rules had not been changed to open up the passing game.

Unitas threw for more than 40,000 yards during an era in which 2,500 yards in a season was a big, big deal.

1. Joe Montana: I don't want to hear anything about him being a system quarterback. And who cares if he was? The 49ers' system forever changed the NFL.

Montana led the NFC in passer rating five times and won all four of his Super Bowl appearances. Yes, he had Jerry Rice for much of his career, but Montana already had two rings before the 49ers drafted Rice.

He was as good as Staubach at engineering comebacks, and in big games, no one ever was better.

Tim Cowlishaw writes for The Dallas Morning News.

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