Best Big-Game Quarterbacks
Baseball experts have debated for years, without coming to a consensus, what constitutes clutch performance or whether it even exists. In football, the argument is much simpler, at least for quarterbacks: A great passer wins the big game, or he doesn’t. It’s that simple.
The most clutch quarterbacks have benefitted from coaching, with enormous support from their offensive lines, running backs, receivers, kickers and defenses (putting them in the best possible position to win). But all of these parts only can serve as setups for the quarterback to deliver the big punch.
While the most clutch quarterbacks played in different times under different rules and different conditions, all of them had one thing in common. They excelled at giving the big performance on the big stage.
These are the best big-game quarterbacks of all time.
20. Eli Manning
Career: 2004-18 (15 seasons)
Teams: New York Giants
Regular-season record: 116-114 (.504)
Postseason record: 8-4 (.667)
Super Bowl titles: 2 (2007, 2011)
Bottom line: There’s been a lot of speculation — and there’s going to be a lot more — about whether Eli Manning has had a Hall of Fame career. There’s some solid evidence against: His regular-season career quarterback record is just 116-114.
Of course, two Super Bowl rings argue the other direction. And it should be considered that Eli has lifted quite a few otherwise mediocre-to-bad teams to heights no one thought they would reach.
Both of Manning’s Super Bowl wins came against heavily favored New England Patriots teams and are among the most celebrated upsets in NFL history. In the playoffs for the 2007 and 2011 seasons, the Giants started off in the wild-card slot and won four games to earn the ring.
In 2015, celebrated statistician Nate Silver named Eli "The Most Clutch Quarterback of All Time."
One addendum: Another quarterback has two Super Bowl rings and a .500 career record, Jim Plunkett (72-72), and no one is making a serious argument for Plunkett in the Hall of Fame. We’ll leave the HOF debate for later, but there should be no doubt that Eli Manning has been a big-game quarterback.
19. Terry Bradshaw
Career: 1970-83 (14 seasons)
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers
Regular-season record: 107-51-0 (.677)
Postseason record: 14-5 (.737)
Super Bowl titles: 4 (1974,1975,1978,1979)
Bottom line: Some argue that Terry Bradshaw wasn’t a great quarterback but merely a good one who benefited from playing on a team whose legendary defense — the Steel Curtain of "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, et al. — anchored the team.
Perhaps, but you don’t win four Super Bowls without a great passing quarterback, and Bradshaw was great in the postseason with 57.2 percentage completion and 8.4 yard per attempt.
And he threw the famous "Immaculate Reception" pass to beat the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC divisional playoffs for the Steelers’ first playoff win in the franchise's 40 years.
18. Bobby Layne
Career: 1948-62 (15 seasons)
Teams: Chicago Bears (1948), New York Bulldogs (1949), Detroit Lions (1950-58), Pittsburgh Steelers (1958-62)
Regular-season record: 80-48-4 (.621)
Postseason record: 3-1-0 (.750)
NFL championship titles: 3 (1952, 1953, 1957)
Bottom line: Bobby Layne broke a 17-year drought for the Lions in 1952 when he took the Lions to an NFL championship title.
They repeated the next year but failed to get a third in 1954, after which Layne apologized that he had slept too much the night before the game.
Traded to the Steelers in 1958, Bobby allegedly put a "curse" on Detroit that they would not win for 50 years. Whether you believe in curses or not, in the 50th year after the trade, the Lions did not win a game.
17. Joe Namath
Career: 1965-77 (13 seasons)
Teams: New York Jets (1965-76), Los Angeles Rams (1977)
Regular-season record: 62-63-4 (.496)
Postseason record: 2-1 (.667)
Super Bowl titles: 1 (1968)
Bottom line: "Broadway Joe" was a superb passing quarterback, leading the league twice in yards per attempt and closing out his career with a very good 7.4 YPA.
He was only in the big game once, but he delivered on a promise to beat the heavily favored (18 points) Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III: "We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it" And they did, 16-7.
Namath didn’t pass for a touchdown, but was solid, 17 for 28 (60.7 completion percentage) with zero interceptions. He led his team to what is still considered the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
16. Sid Luckman
Career: 1939-50 (12 seasons)
Teams: Chicago Bears
Regular-season record: Record incomplete
Postseason record: 5-1 (.833)
NFL championship titles: 4 (1940, 1941, 1943, 1946)
Bottom line: Sid Luckman was one of the first forward passers in the pro game, and he perfected it.
He still leads the NFL in career touchdown passing percentage (7.9 percent), and his postseason yards per attempt is an astounding 8.48.
Ira Berkow called him "the first great T-formation quarterback" in The New York Times, and several pundits consider him the greatest long range passer ever.
15. Drew Brees
Career: 2001-present (18 seasons)
Teams: San Diego Chargers (2000-05), New Orleans Saints (2006-present)
Regular-season record: 155-108-0 (.493)
Postseason record: 8-7 (.533)
Super Bowl titles: 1 (2009)
Bottom line: Every year, people root for the Saints in the playoffs only to see them lose through quirks of fate, like the infamous pass interference no-call in the 2018 NFC championship game that put the Rams into the Super Bowl.
As one CBS sportswriter put it, "The Saints got hosed."
Drew Brees has only won one Super Bowl but has deserved more. He is tied in third place on the NFL comebacks list — with Johnny Unitas, and he’s led the league six times in completion percentage.
14. Dan Marino
Career: 1983-99 (17 seasons)
Teams: Miami Dolphins
Regular-season record: 147-93 (.613)
Postseason record: 8-10 (.444)
Super Bowl titles: None
Bottom line: Dan Marino always makes lists of "Best Quarterbacks Never to Win a Super Bowl," and he’s usually number one.
Known for his strong arm and quick release, he was never backed up by a top-notch running game or a stellar defense, and certainly never in the same year. But he led his team to the playoffs 10 of his 17 seasons and to the big one once, in 1985, where they lost to the 49ers.
When he retired, he held more than 40 NFL single-season and career passing records, and he’s number five in the NFL for fourth-quarter comebacks.
13. Sammy Baugh
Career: 1937-52 (16 seasons)
Teams: Washington Redskins
Regular-season record: Record incomplete
Postseason record: 3-3 (.500)
NFL championship titles: 2 (1937, 1942)
Bottom line: "Slinging Sammy" threw the ball at a time when passing was considered the last resort when a team’s running game had shut down. He led the league in completion rate nine times, and his 56.5 completion rate percentage and 7.3 yards per attempt are amazing.
His versatility even during the era of playing both sides of the ball made him invaluable as he played tailback, cornerback, defensive tackle, punted and made punt and kickoff returns.
Fun fact: Sammy is the oldest NFL quarterback to make a mark in hip-hop: In the 2002 video for "Girls, Girls, Girls," Jay-Z wore Sammy’s 1947 redesigns jersey.
12. Troy Aikman
Career: 1989-2000 (12 seasons)
Teams: Dallas Cowboys
Regular-season record: 94-71 (.570)
Postseason record: 11-5 (.688)
Super Bowl titles: 3 (1992, 1993, 1995)
Bottom line: Troy Aikman may not have put up a lot of flashy stats, but in the 1990s, he posted 90 of his 94 career wins, the most by any quarterback in any decade until Peyton Manning.
Aikman took the Cowboys to three Super Bowls and three wins. In his first Super Bowl win against the Bills, he completed 22 of 30 passes (73.3 percent) for four touchdowns.
He finished his career with a 63.7 completion percentage (320 for 502) for 3,849 yards and 23 touchdowns in 16 playoff games.
11. Aaron Rodgers
Career: 2005-present (14 seasons)
Teams: Green Bay Packers
Regular-season record: 100-57-1 (63.8 percent)
Postseason record: 10-7 (58.8 percent)
Super Bowl titles: 1 (2010)
Bottom line: It seems a shame that Aaron Rodgers has been to the big game only once.
Among his many records, he is number one in NFL history in passer rating (103.1), over five points ahead of Tom Brady (97.7), and Rodgers' 1.5 percent career interception percentage is lowest in the NFL (that’s career, not single season). In his Super Bowl win after the 2010 season, he was unstoppable, completing 24 of 39 passes and three touchdowns.
With the Packers letting stars like Clay Matthews go and thought to be rebounding after a big draft, 2019 looks tough. But Aaron should have his spot in the Hall of Fame.
10. Peyton Manning
Career: 1998-2015 (17 seasons)
Teams: Indianapolis Colts (2005-10), Denver Broncos (2012-15)
Regular-season record: 186-79 (.702)
Postseason record: 14-13 (.519)
Super Bowl titles: 2 (2006, 2015)
Bottom line: Peyton Manning's postseason record always comes up in evaluations of him, but he took the Colts to nine straight playoffs and then took the Broncos to four straight after missing a year with a neck injury.
He also often played behind mediocre pass defense, and with 43 fourth-quarter comebacks, he is first in the NFL. When Manning retired in 2016 after following his second Super Bowl win, Bill Belichick summed up his career: "I can honestly say that I never 'enjoyed' our meetings, but the respect I have for Peyton Manning as a competitor was, and will likely remain, second to none."
9. Steve Young
Career: 1985-99 (15 seasons)
Teams: Tampa Buccaneers (1985-86), San Francisco 49ers (1987-99)
Regular-season record: 94-49 (65.7 percent)
Postseason record: 14-8 (63.6 percent)
Super Bowl titles: 3 (1988, 1989, 1994)
Bottom line: Following Joe Montana would have been tough for any quarterback, but Steve Young made it look easy.
Young is one of the most efficient passers ever, leading the league in passer rating six times and yards per attempt five times, plus he could run, chalking up 43 rushing touchdowns and 4,239 rushing yards over his career.
8. Roger Staubach
Career: 1969-79 (11 Seasons)
Teams: Dallas Cowboys
Regular-season record: 85-29 (.746)
Postseason record: 13-7 (.650)
Super Bowl titles: 2 (1971, 1977)
Bottom line: Roger Staubach, like Kurt Warner, lost several of his prime years, in Staubach's case to the U.S. Navy. Still, it’s hard to argue with an 11-year career that saw him take the Cowboys to four Super Bowls, two of them victories and the other two close losses to great Pittsburgh Steelers teams.
Playing in an era dominated by defense, he averaged 6.87 yard per attempt in the postseason, and in 131 regular-season games was 7.7 yards a throw, leading the league twice.
Fun fact: Staubach and Jim Plunkett are the only Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks to win Super Bowls, and both won two. (Plunkett was 2-0). Staubach is the only Heisman quarteback to play in four Super Bowls.
7. Kurt Warner
Career: 1998-2009 (12 seasons)
Teams: St. Louis Rams (1998-2003), New York Giants (2004), Arizona Cardinals (2005-09)
Regular-season record: 67-49 (.578)
Postseason record: 9-4 (.692)
Super Bowl titles: 1 (1999)
Bottom line: Flat out, Kurt Warner is the most underrated quarterback in pro football history.
Warner did not start a game until he was 28 years old, and in the next 11 seasons, he compiled a 9-4 postseason record and took three teams to the Super Bowl that otherwise wouldn’t have been allowed in unless they bought tickets.
During the regular season, he led the league in completion percentage three times, and more important, in yards per throw three times. His playoff numbers for 13 games are staggering: 31 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, 3,952 yards, 66.4 completion percentage, and 8.5 yards per attempt.
If someone had made Warner an NFL passer when he was 22-23, he might be the best passer ever to play the game.
6. John Elway
Career: 1983-98 (16 seasons)
Teams: Denver Broncos
Regular-season record: 148-82-1 (.642)
Postseason record: 14-8 (.636)
Super Bowl titles: 2 (1997, 1998)
Bottom line: There were two John Elways. The first played in three Super Bowls (1987, 1988, 1990) and got slaughtered in all three. But in 1995, under a new coach, Mike Shanahan with a new offensive scheme and a much better defense, Elway blossomed, leading the Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl wins in 1998 and 1999.
Overall in the postseason, he was 14-8. That breaks down to 7-8 before Shanahan and 7-0 under Shanahan.
It also should be mentioned that in the 1986 AFC title game against Cleveland, Elway made one of the great drives in modern pro football history, 98 yards, to tie the game at 20-20 with 37 seconds left to play. In overtime, Elway led the Broncos on a 60-yard drive to set a field goal and secure a 23-20 win.
Even the subsequent butt-whipping by the Giants in the Super Bowl doesn’t dim the glow of The Drive.
The 1999 Super Bowl win was Elway’s last game. When he retired, he held the record for the most victories by a starting quarterback and was second in pass completion rate. He led the Broncos to 35 come-from-behind in the fourth quarter-overtime wins, and there is no better commentary on his success than this: He prevailed despite being sacked 516 times, second only to Bret Favre.
5. Otto Graham
Career: 1946-55 (10 seasons)
Teams: Cleveland Browns
Regular-season record: 57-13-1 (.808)
Postseason record: 9-3-0 (.750)
Championship titles: 4 AAFC titles (1946, 1947, 1948, 1949), 3 NFL titles (1950,1954,1955)
Bottom line: Paul Brown invented the job of pro football coach as we now know it, and his representative on the field was Otto Graham.
It’s hard to argue with Graham’s credentials as a big-game player. He played pro football for 10 years and had his team in the championship game every season he played.
From 1946 to 1949, the Browns won four consecutive titles in the All-America Football Conference. After the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, Graham took the Browns to six consecutive championship games, winning the title three times for an astounding seven titles in 10 years.
It was a different game back then, so it’s difficult to compare statistics between then and now, but Otto’s 55.8 completion percentage was excellent for his time, and his 9.0 yards per throw was great in any era.
4. Johnny Unitas
Career: 1956-73 (18 seasons)
Teams: Baltimore Colts (1956-72), San Diego Chargers (1973)
Regular-season record: 118-63-4 (.649)
Postseason record: 6-3 (.667)
Championship titles: 2 NFL championships (1958, 1959), 1 Super Bowl (1970)
Bottom Line: Johnny Unitas was to pro football what Babe Ruth was to baseball, the player who excited the masses and boosted his sport into the limelight. Abe brought the fans out to ballparks; Johnny U put them in front of their television sets. Unitas was the first great quarterback of the passing era, the man who demonstrated convincingly that putting the ball in the air was the game of the future. His final drive in regulation time against the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship game and his subsequent drive to win the game in sudden death overtime – the first time an NFL game had ever gone into OT-- are pro football landmark’s, the first time millions of fans watched and talked about pro football.
For all practical purposes, you can date the start of the modern pro football era with Johnny’s victories in the league’s championship games against Giants in 1958 and 1959. He won just one more ring when the Colts beat Dallas 16-13 in the 1971 Super Bowl. (In some record books he’s also credited with wining the NFL championship for the1969 season, but that was before the two leagues merged.)
But he would no doubt have won more if he hadn’t had the misfortune of reaching his peak just as Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers arrived to dominate the NFL in the 1960s.
3. Tom Brady
Career: 2000-Present (19 seasons)
Teams: New England Patriots
Regular-season record: 207-60-0 (.775)
Postseason record: 30-10 (.750)
Super Bowl titles: 6 (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, 2018)
Bottom line: Is Tom Brady the greatest big-game quarterback in NFL history? It's debatable, but he’s a very, very good quarterback who has had the good fortune to play 19 seasons for a great team.
Brady, of course, has played and won more postseason games than any other quarterback, 30 of 40, and he’s also, of course, been the winning quarterback in six of nine Super Bowls. He was truly great in one of those Super Bowls, the incredible win over the Atlanta Falcons after the 2016 season. The Patriots were down 21-3 at the half, scored 19 points in the fourth to tie it and won in overtime, 34-28. On the minus side, when up against a team with a really good pass rush, as the New York Giants were in 2008 and 2012 Super Bowls, he was effectively stopped, producing just 31 points in the two games.
And in the 2015 Super Bowl, he was the beneficiary of a colossal brain fart by Seattle coach Pete Carroll who, with the ball one yard away from the winning touchdown and time for two plays, didn’t call for a plunge by Marshawn Lynch or a run-pass option from the best run-pass quarterback in the NFL, Russell Wilson. Instead, the Seattle no-brain trust called for a pass over the middle and into a crowd. If they had called just about anything else, it’s likely that Brady’s Super bowl record would be five wins and four losses.
Brady’s cumulative postseason stats are good, but not great: 73 touchdowns in 40 games against 34 interceptions and a solid-though-unspectacular 7.04 yards per attempt. Anyway, if you want to call him the best big game quarterback of all time, we'll just shrug and say, "Why not?"
2. Joe Montana
Career: 1979-94 (15 seasons)
Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1979-92), Kansas City Chiefs (1993-94)
Regular-season record: 117-47 (.713)
Postseason record: 16-7 (.696)
Super Bowl titles: 4 (1981,1984,1986,1989)
Bottom line: Joe Montana, of course, needs no hyperbole to bolster his case as either the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History or the Greatest Big-Game Quarterback.
We wouldn’t argue with anyone who granted him the number one spot on both lists. Stated simply, he was 4-0 in Super Bowls and 16-7 overall in the postseason.
He took his team to come from behind and win twice in a championship game: the 1981 NFL championship against Dallas, won with the famous "The Catch" with 58 seconds on the clock, and the 1989 Super Bowl, beating the Bengals in a 92-yard drive for the winning score with 36 seconds left.
1. Bart Starr
Career: 1956-71 (16 seasons)
Teams: Green Bay Packers
Regular-season record: 94-57-6 (.610)
Postseason record: 9-1 (.900)
Championship titles: 2 Super Bowls (1966,1967), 5 NFL titles (1961,1962, 1965, 1966, 1967)
Bottom line: Bart Starr, who died on May 26, is the premier big-game quarterback in pro football history. That this wasn’t immediately perceived by pro football analysts and historians in the tributes and obits is a failure to understand Starr’s greatness that goes back nearly six decades.
Starr was the losing quarterback in the Green Bay Packers' first NFL championship game under Vince Lombardi in 1960, 13-10 to the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the only postseason game he ever lost. From 1961 to 1967, he was the winning quarterback in five NFL title games and, after the 1966 and 1967 seasons, in the first two Super Bowls.
After that initial loss to the Eagles, his postseason record was 9-0. In those 10 postseason games, check out his quality statistics: 15 touchdown passes against just three interceptions and an eye-popping 8.23 yards per attempt. No quarterback in pro football history can approach these numbers.
After the 1966 season, the NFL champion met the AFL winner in the Super Bowl, and in 1970, the two leagues merged and the Super Bowl became the NFL championship game, so Starr played in just 10 postseason games. But as he told me once, "The games you had to play within your own division to get to the championship game were treated like playoff games. In most of our seasons, we had to play the [Baltimore] Colts, Bears, and Lions twice a year. Those were fierce rivalries and as hard fought as any postseason games."
Back when the season was just 14 games, nearly half the Packers’ schedule could be said to be playoff games. In the eight seasons from 1960 to 1967, the Packers' record against the Colts, Bears and Lions, with Starr at the helm, was 32-12-2. (Starr was injured and unavailable for the showdown with the Bears in 1963, giving Chicago the western division title.)
Starr was the greatest quarterback of an earlier and much tougher game when quarterbacks had to call their own plays without the aid of a brain trust on the sidelines. In one of the NFL’s most famous drives against the Dallas Cowboys in the famous 1967 Ice Bowl, with the ball on the 1-yard line of the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and less than a minute to play, Starr walked over to tell Vince Lombardi why he thought a quarterback wedge could work for a touchdown.
Lombardi’s faith in his field general was absolute. His decision on the signature play of his coaching career was, "Then run it, and let’s go home." Starr ran the ball in, and everyone went home.
If you ever find yourself in football heaven and have to choose up sides for one big game, pick Bart Starr as your quarterback. If you don’t, you’ll probably lose.