It’s the hardest and most scrutinized position in all of sports and also one of the most lucrative. Right now we focus on one number-- the one on the back of the jersey, in an effort to figure out who is the best NFL quarterback to wear every number from 1 through 19. Some numbers left us wanting a bit more, others proved a total embarrassment of riches. The criteria was holistic, considering players' bodies of work, their eras, competition, standout seasons, comebacks, awards and honors, offensive systems and so on. Let’s start with numero uno.
Moon didn’t even enter the NFL until age 28 after ripping up the CFL. At one time the highest-paid player in the league, the Hall of Famer aired it out in Houston (Oilers at the time) and led the league in passing yards in 1990 and 1991 before moving on to the Vikings and the Seahawks in the latter part of his career.
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It’s funny how much perception shifts in a matter of a few games. Now that center Alex Mack has fortified Atlanta’s line and the offense is more familiar with Kyle Shanahan’s system (among other factors), Ryan is looking like his old self -- one of the league’s top passers. The three-time Pro Bowler has been durable over nine seasons and led two 13-win campaigns and is in the midst of his best season yet, averaging almost 10 yards per attempt through six games. Ryan’s only real competition for #2 was Aaron Brooks, who had some bright spots but was fantastically inconsistent.
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This may soon change if Russell Wilson’s dominance continues but today, #3 belongs to the “Mad Bomber.” Originally drafted by the Bills and Vince Lombardi’s Packers (before the AFL-NFL merger), Lamonica backed up Jack Kemp in Buffalo before airing it out as Oakland’s starter from 1967-1973. As a starter, he won 66 games and lost only 16, twice he led the league in passing TDs and yards per game and took the Raiders to Super Bowl II -- a loss to Green Bay.
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The Packers retired his jersey and recently the organization added his name to Lambeau Field’s Ring of Honor. There’s little I can say that hasn’t been said about Favre (inserts obligatory usage of “gunslinger”), so I’ll direct you to this completely unnecessary but nostalgic look at some artifacts from the famous Favre 1991 Draft Day photo.
Despite Philadelphia’s love-hate relationship with McNabb and his turn to Washington, he’s the best they ever had, holds most Eagles career passing records (yards, touchdowns, QB rating), gave opponents a very difficult time with his legs and led the Eagles to four consecutive NFC Championship games, but ultimately fell short three times and lost in Super Bowl XXXIX. It didn’t take long to decide on McNabb for this jersey number but he does have an interesting collection of fellow 5’s: Joe Flacco, Kerry Collins and one-time Eagle Jeff Garcia.
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What a contrast to Matt Ryan’s story. The Bears almost immediately regretted their decision to sign Cutler for megabucks in 2014 (7 years, $126 million with $54M guaranteed) and will almost certainly be released before the start of the 2017 season. Nevertheless, with apologies to Bubby Brister fans, there just haven’t been any greats at #6 and Cutler did have some productive years despite his perpetual mopy face and has led 21 fourth-quarter comebacks, which puts him in the company of Jim Kelly. It will become comical that Cutler gets the #6 placard when you see the list of #12s that get sidelined by the top dog.
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There have been some excellent 7’s (Joe Theismann, Boomer Esiason, Ben Roethlisberger) but this number is clearly Elway’s -- a fearless leader (“The Drive” and the “Helicopter” dive) who excelled in the clutch (fourth all-time with 35 fourth-quarter comebacks) and led five Broncos teams to the Super Bowl, famously winning his last two and then retiring on top.
This was a somewhat close call between Young and Troy Aikman (also, shoutout to Matt Hasselbeck and Mark Brunell) but Young was simply too awesome for too long to deny him. Once he supplanted Joe Montana, Young led the NFL in passer rating a record six times (tied with Sammy Baugh), among other categories, and also burned teams on the ground with 4,239 career rushing yard which is good for third all-time among quarterbacks behind only Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick. Young won the Super Bowl XXIX MVP in the 49ers’ 49-26 thrashing of the Chargers in which he threw for a record six touchdown passes, completing 24 of 36 attempts for 325 yards.
This pick might attract some boos from Redskins fans (Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen wore 9) but just look at Brees’ body of work, which is even more impressive considering he overcame a torn labrum and got ousted in San Diego in favor of a guy who will appear later on this list. The pass-happy Saints have aired it out with Brees who has led the league in passing yards six times and led in touchdown passes four times; he’s a great leader, very infrequently takes sacks even behind some not-so-great offensive lines, won a Super Bowl and has a career passing rating near 100 (96.0). Eventually he’ll join Jurgensen in Canton.
Fran “The Scrambler” Tarkenton is right behind Steve Young in rushing yards with 3,674 over his 18-year Hall of Fame career. Though he played in an era with a greater emphasis on rushing, the nine-time Pro Bowl QB still ranks eighth on the all-time passing yards list with 47,003, which another #10, Eli Manning, is fast approaching. Eli did get consideration here as a two-time Super Bowl MVP but spells of inconsistency and bunches of interceptions doesn’t stand up to Tarkenton.
Courtesy: Fran Tarkenton via TwitterCourtesy: Fran Tarkenton via Twitter
This one boiled down to Drew Bledsoe and the New York Giant who remains in your ear on CBS broadcasts. The twice-supplanted (Brady, Romo) Bledsoe is the more prototypical pocket passer who had a really strong arm but Simms was very effective in more run-oriented offenses and had scrambling ability. The big feather that tips the balance to Simms is his performance in Super Bowl XXI in which he completed 22 of 25 passes (a record 88%) for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns, winning the Super Bowl MVP award in the 39-20 victory.
Before we even get to Brady, just look at this list of QBs to wear 12: Terry Bradshaw (Hall of Fame), Roger Staubach (Hall of Fame), Bob Griese (Hall of Fame), Jim Kelly (Hall of Fame), Joe Namath (Hall of Fame), Kenny Stabler (Hall of Fame), Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cunningham, Rich Gannon. There’s more good ones but we’ll stop there. Going with Brady over any of the others is perhaps rooted in some recency bias but he’s been in a league of his and Peyton for over a decade with a record of 174-51 and four Super Bowl titles to match Bradshaw’s. He's also led 37 fourth-quarter comebacks, trailing only Manning. Brady is a master of reading defenses and exploiting weaknesses and may still add a Lombardi trophy to the case, and so #12 has to be his.
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Speaking of fourth-quarter comebacks, Marino is smack between Elway (35) and Brady. Marino demolished opposing defenses with his rocket arm and quick release even before more offense-friendly officiating made life easier for QBs. Marino led the the league in passing yards five times, eluded sacks and still holds the record for most games of 400+ yards passing (17), among others. No, he didn’t get that Super Bowl but the 1983 Rookie of the Year, 1984 MVP and 1994 Comeback Player of the Year stands among the all-time greats. Also, this must be noted, the Dolphins legend was phenomenal in “Ace Ventura.”
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Y. A. Tittle
It’s a very tough call here between Tittle and fellow Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. The longtime Charger, Fouts, put up some ridiculous passing figures in the game-changing vertical “Air Coryell” offense and won the 1982 MVP Award, but Tittle earned NFL MVP honors four times (1957, 1961-1963), broke passing records before the longball was common, and managed to resurrect his career with the New York Giants from 1961-1963, leading the league in passing touchdowns and into the NFL Championship three straight years, unfortunately falling each time. But it was such a fine and appreciated ride that the Giants retired his number. Those Packers teams (1961, 1962) the Giants faced twice were good. Speaking of...
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Starr was under center for those iconic Packers teams of the Vince Lombardi era. The Hall of Famer was accurate and a consummate leader and won the MVP Award in the NFL’s first two Super Bowls as well as the NFL MVP Award in 1966. He also authored one of the most famous plays in history with his successful QB sneak to win the “Ice Bowl” in 1967.
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“Joe Cool” is one the greatest quarterbacks ever, simply an assassin late in games. We’re going to use the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer and 3-time Super Bowl MVP winner’s own words here, because they’re great and tell the story best. "What I have is recognition, the ability to see everything on the field. Position the other team to death. Keep the ball alive and keep it moving forward. Then, at the right moment, knock them on their ass. Own the field.”
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Former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson said of Rivers recently that possibly the best thing the rebuilding Chargers could do for the QB is to trade him to a contender. Rivers’ best opportunity to add a Super Bowl to his resume may have passed in 2007-2008 and 2013 when he won the Comeback Player of the Year. On the list of consecutive games played (active), the durable passer is right behind the guy he trades places with in 2004, Eli Manning, with 166 to Eli’s 189. Three times Rivers has led the league in average yards gained per attempt (2008-2010) and he’s on the verge of 300 passing touchdowns with 293 against 138 interceptions. Other great 17’s considered? Don Meredith and Doug Williams.
The best ever or at least inarguably in the top three. He didn’t have great arm strength but he was the ultimate competitor, an “Omaha”-shouting technician, holds records for single season passing yards (5,477), career passing touchdowns (539), career passing yards (71,940) and more. And he got to go out on top when the defense carried his offense for a change.
The Baltimore Colts legend’s first pass was picked off and returned touchdown and that did nothing to deter “Johnny U,” one of the greatest and most poised quarterbacks the league NFL has ever seen. Unitas claimed three NFL MVP Awards and became a household name in the nationally-televised "greatest game ever played” in 1958 when he led a fourth-quarter comeback over the Giants (one of 27 such efforts), and then 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to win it. Manning then Unitas is certainly a nice way to round out the numerical rundown.