The Best NFL Quarterbacks From 1980-2020

By David Arkow, Mike Binkowski, Julia Blank, Shiv Chandra, Elliot Chin, Matt Given, Cyril Leahy, Pierre Lesperance, Aryan Naveen, Sterling Rosado, David Seo, Carter Stewart, Evelyn Tjoa

One of the endless questions in sport is always the GOAT debate. Fans are always looking to crown the best athlete of all-time and rarely is there ever a unanimous answer. Many different criteria shape this debate from individual statistics, team performance, championship history, and other narratives. Often is the case, there is never one single GOAT but rather a list of top players. We set out to create a list of the best players at each of the “primary” positions in football to further the debate over the greatest NFL players of all-time and provide quantifiable metrics to back up our picks.

Methodology

With the availability of many statistics, we tried to create a “catch-all” metric showing how good each quarterback was. Using z-scores, we compared where each player ranks in different widely available and “important” statistics separating by decade. Z-scores show how far a player’s individual stat is from the average of the group and adjusts for the variation in the data. For example, in the 1980’s the league leader in passing yards averaged about 4,300 while in the 2010’s (a much more “pass happy” decade) the average for the league leader was 5,000 yards. The z-score allows us to compare across decades since it adjusts for certain eras being skewed towards certain statistics. As tactics have changed over time (the 2010’s were more pass happy than teams in the 1980’s), using z-scores allows us to compare within decades who were the best players. 

For QBs, we computed a z score in 1) passing yards, 2) touchdowns, 3) completion percentage, 4) interception percentage, and 5) approximate value (an advanced metric that measures the seasonal value of a player)average z-score of the four individual z-scores to create a “catch-all” metric. These five statistics have been the most widely used for the past four decades and are widely reported. In addition, we also adjusted these statistics by year to compute a per year average z score to account for players who didn’t play for an entire decade. For example, Aaron Rodgers only played for half the 2000s so he fifteenth in overall z-score (.93) but ninth in his adjusted per year z-score (1.12). Looking at both the average and per year z-scores we were able to settle ties and bump players up or down based on whether they padded stats over a decade or truly had elite peak performance. 

From our ranked z-scores, we compiled a list of the best quarterbacks in each decade from 1980 to 2020. These are by no means definitive lists but are still backed up by the stats so enjoy making your own Top 10 lists and debating with friends. 

Caveats

While we took a holistic approach to arriving at our Top 10, there are other methods that would result in a different list. The five statistics we chose are both widely understood, recognized, and available metrics. Today, there are more advanced ones that involve player tracking: however, these were not around before the 2000s. Additionally, one might put more weight on certain statistics such as valuing passing yards more than touchdowns or interceptions. Our z-scores don’t focus on quarterbacks running abilities as much since the role of mobile and “dual-threat” QBs have evolved much more recently. Our analysis also only looks at the three “primary” positions (QB, RB, WR) of football with the most stats available and fan attention. It could easily be argued that an offensive lineman or defensive cornerback might be more valuable than a running back but data for their performance is more sparse but could be an area of exploration in the future as metrics become more available. Nevertheless, our framework provides an objective starting point for comparing quarterbacks across decades based on standardized, understood, and available metrics. 

1980s

Joe Montana is the epitome of individual greatness and team dominance during this decade. Arguably the most dynastic football team during one decade, the Niners made the playoffs nine out of ten years winning four Super Bowls. In football and probably all sports, no individual player’s position is more correlated with team success than at quarterback. This bears out as he won two MVPs in this decade, three Super Bowl MVPs, and eight All-Pro selections. Montana was consistently multiple standard deviations above league average in every major category including passing yards (3.35), completion percentage (2.38), and touchdowns (3.55). He and Jerry Rice (who appears in two different decades on our wide receivers list) are considered the best quarterback-wide receiver duo of all-time. While some might critique Montana for being a “system QB” under coach Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense”, his individual and team stats solidify him as one of the GOAT QBs.

Despite only playing for 7 seasons in the 1980’s Dan Marino still managed to be one of the most dominant quarterbacks of the decade. Most notably, Dan Marino’s passing touchdown Z-score was by far the highest among his peers. Marino currently sits seventh all-time which is quite impressive considering all others in the Top 10 played after him in what has become a more “pass-happy” league. Marino is probably the greatest QB to have never won a Super Bowl, only making it to the championship game once losing to Joe Montana’s 49ers in 1985.

John Elway was consistently two standard deviations above the mean in nearly all our metrics, except for completion percentage. The Stanford Cardinal was the first pick in the legendary 1983 NFL draft also featuring fellow Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Marino. Elway forced his way out of playing for the Baltimore Colts to play his entire career in Denver. In his early years, he struggled with a completion percentage of about 54% which was just league average. However, that didn’t stop Elway from still earning the 1987 NFL MVP award for his incredible play. In the first half of his career, Elway led the Broncos to three Super Bowl championships in the 80’s despite losing in all three. Eventually Elway won back-to-back  Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999 cementing his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.

Despite, the social barriers Moon faced to enter the league, he put up elite numbers placing him in the upper-echelon of quarterbacks in the decade. In particular Moon had a Z-score of 1.95 for passing yards and 1.66 for touchdowns. Moon made the playoffs for seven straight years with the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) but failed to ever make it past the divisional round. When you view Moon’s statistics through a social significance lens, they become much more impressive considering he was the first black quarterback inducted into the Hall of Fame. 

1990s

Joe Montana’s replacement as the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Steve Young produced the highest approximate value of the decade (140) as he won two MVP awards. His dominance was in large part due to his completion prowess. His completion percentage Z-score (2.5) was almost a whole standard deviation higher than the next highest in the top 10. Dogged by injury problems, Young and the 49ers managed only a single Super Bowl despite missing the playoffs only once in Young’s career. Recognized as one of the best running quarterbacks of all-time, Young’s stats would likely be boosted even more if included in our analysis. Steve Young was definitely the best quarterback of the 90’s and of the most exciting ever to watch.  

Brett Favre was a passing yards machine. Known for his capacity to extend plays and his incredibly powerful throwing arm, Favre had the only passing yards Z-score above 3, not only in this decade but over the entire 40 year period (1980-2020) in our sample. Favre ranks in the top five all-time of passing yards, completions, and touchdowns showing how prolific a passer he was. Favre was drafted 33rd overall by the Atlanta Falcons in the 1991 NFL Draft before being traded to the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 1991 season. Favre won 3 MVP awards and the Super Bowl in 1996 nearly 30 years after the Packer’s previous since the Vince Lombardi Era. Favre had one of the longest NFL careers retiring in 2010 at 41 years old, paving the way for others 40 plus year old throwers like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. 

Troy Aikman was probably the only first overall pick (UCLA) who had to earn the job from a fellow rookie. After earning the starting spot for the Dallas Cowboys, Aikman went on to win two Super Bowls in a row against the Buffalo Bills (the only back-to-back Super Bowl rematch in history). Aikman’s success was driven by all around statistical excellence and an especially low interception percentage of 2.6%. Known mostly as “the guy Tom Brady backed up before becoming the GOAT”, Drew Bledsoe still had quite an accomplished career. Bledsoe was the Patriots first overall pick in 1993 (Washington State) and led the team to the playoffs six times in the ‘90s. He posted an above average Z-score for approximate value despite a negative Z score for completion percentage (the only QB in the Top 10 to have a negative Z score for any one metric). Bledsoe played the final years of his careers for division rival Buffalo Bills and then the Dallas Cowboys but is consistently mentioned as Brady’s predecessor rather than recognizing the greatness of his own career. 

Vinny Testaverde was quite the journeyman throughout his career playing for six teams (Buccaneers, Browns/Ravens, Jets, Cowboys, Patriots, Panthers) throughout his career. Testaverde struggled with interceptions, posting the only negative Z-score in the top 10. This high number of interceptions led fans and radio commentators to poke fun at his color blindness excessively. Despite turnover problems, Testaverde was extremely productive, especially as his career moved on. He led the Cleveland Browns (who became the Baltimore Ravens) and the New York Jets to the playoffs during the decade. Mark Brunell was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fifth round expecting to be a third string quarterback, but not to fellow young quarterback Brett Favre. He was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the paltry sum of a third and a fifth round pick but went on to lead the expansion team to three playoff appearances in four years. While the Packers definitely didn’t lose out on winning behind Favre, the Jaguars got the better of this trade as Brunell is still their leading passer in many categories today setting a high bar for Trevor Lawrence if he is to develop and stay in Jacksonville. 

2000s

While most think of Tom Brady as one of the GOAT QBs and therefore should be at the top of his decade, Peyton Manning’s stats exceed Brady’s for at least the 2000’s. All but one of Manning’s Z-scores for each statistics are above Brady’s and his approximate value Z-score (3.99) was a full point higher than Brady’s, exemplifying how much he individually contributed to his team winning. The Patriots and Brady might have had a better supporting cast and defense as they consistently ranked as one of the top defenses led by Bill Belichick. The only thing more impressive than Manning’s mind was his incredible arm, which allowed him to be the only quarterback with 300 touchdown passes throughout the decade while maintaining an interception Z-score of 1.06. All-time Manning also ranks third in both passing yards (72,000) and touchdowns (539). The former No. 1 pick out of Tennessee led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears (2007) and later with the Denver Broncos (2015) at the end of his career. Perhaps the one knock on Manning is his only two Super Bowls but his individual career is as decorated as any with five MVPs and 14 Pro Bowl appearances. While Manning’s illustrious career was marred by a gruesome neck injury in 2011, his dominance throughout the 2010’s cannot be understated, winning him the number one spot.

While Brady has dominated the gridiron in the postseason in the 21st century, he was known more as a marksman in the 2000’s than a true game breaker. Brady boasted an impressive 3.02 touchdown Z-score and had only 103 interceptions, the lowest of any top-5 quarterback. However, the Patriots offense was conservative with Brady under center, with his pass yards and touchdowns per season Z-score being one of the lowest for elite rated quarterbacks. Brady’s performance was still impeccable, as he led the Patriots to the Lombardi trophy in 2002, 2004, and 2005, while suffering a brutal loss to the Giants in 2007 breaking up an undefeated season.

While our previous two quarterbacks captured league MVPs for their successes, the scrappy quarterback in the Bayou never got that accolade. Nevertheless, Drew Brees was consistently a top five quarterback throughout the decade. Brees’s accuracy is understated, with the former Saints and Chargers quarterback boasting a 1.67 Z-score in completion rate. Brees struggled to ever dominate the league like Manning or Brady, partially because of his propensity for injuries and a less-than-ideal supporting cast. Brees is also known for his leadership especially after one of the most significant Super Bowl runs in 2009 after Hurricane Katrina for the Saints first and only in franchise history. 

The original problem child in Green Bay, Brett Favre spent much of the 2000’s as a veteran leader for the Packers before being traded in 2008 to the New York Jets, and then signing with the Minnesota Vikings. The data supports Favre’s reign as the ultimate boom or bust quarterback—Favre was one of three quarterbacks with over 250 passing touchdowns and ranked second in yards, but he also led the era in interceptions. This variable play led to his average Z- score (2.5) falling to fourth, despite many of his other stats being superior to Brees and sometimes even Brady. However, no Favre fan would argue that this style of play was not his biggest strength and his greatest weakness: Favre led game winning drives on his arm, while also suffering the Minnesota Meltdown with a game-sealing interception against Brees and the Saints in the 2009 NFC Championship game. Farve was the ultimate gun-slinger, landing him comfortably in the top five of this list.

While McNabb may have left Philadelphia in less than ideal fashion, the quarterback was the driving force behind the Eagles’ first modern Super Bowl birth and their four repeat NFC Championship appearances. McNabb had a higher completion rate and lower interception rate than Favre.. Surprisingly, McNabb’s deep ball accuracy did not reflect in his stats, as his yard and touchdown totals were both underwhelming compared to his peers. However, the Eagles dynamic RB Brian Westbrook, as well as McNabb’s own rushing ability, can explain his loss of goal line passing opportunities. Similar to other QBs on this list like Steve Young, McNabb is also one of the best rushers of all-time. He may have never gotten Philly to the Promised Land, but the city of Brotherly Love should appreciate McNabb as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation.

The Michael Vick Experience landed the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback on this list. The second level stats reveal Vick’s underwhelming passing ability: his completion percentage Z-score was drastically lower than his peers at -1.01 and his yards Z-score was an unimpressive 0.45. However, this makes sense: the former Falcons and Eagles QB was most known for his electric playmaking ability, both with his arm and his legs. Vick may not have been the most polished passer, but he was one of the most electric playmakers of the decade.

2010s

Like some other QBs in this article, Brady appears in two different decades but none appear in both the first and second spot. This is extremely rare considering the wear and tear a quarterback takes. A common narrative surrounding Brady especially in the second half of his career has been that he is more of an accumulator than a player who racks up gaudy numbers on a rate basis. However, Brady actually has the highest combined Z-Score when looking at per year numbers at 1.83. For reference, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers were the only other quarterbacks who scored above 1.7, with 1.79 and 1.80 respectively. Brady hasn’t just been good over a long period, he’s been great. Brady was still playing MVP-caliber football this past season as he finished second in MVP voting. And now with his recent retirement, he has cemented himself as the best quarterback and GOAT of all-time. 

A ridiculous tidbit about a ridiculous player: no quarterback in the top ten had a higher touchdown rate than Rodgers, and no quarterback in the top ten had a lower interception rate. During this decade alone, Rodgers produced two of the top five qualified seasons in touchdown rate since the NFL-AFL merger, with 9% in 2011 and 9.1% in 2020. For reference, the average for qualified quarterbacks across the decade was 4.2%. Rodgers won his fourth MVP this past season and sits only one behind the record held by Peyton Manning. While the Packers have consistently made the playoffs under Rodgers only missing three times in his career, he only has one Super Bowl in 2010 to show for it. Thus that is the one knock on Rodgers is his postseason struggles but don’t count him out as the Packers have been finished in the Top 2 of the NFC the past three seasons. Nevertheless, many questions surround Rodgers’s future with the Packers with whom he has spent his entire career. 

The most durable quarterback to ever play, there is no doubt that Phillip Rivers is a top-10 quarterback of the 2010s. Rivers had a 63.71% completion rate, one of the highest in the league. Further, he was more careful with the ball than expected, carrying an impressive 1.31 interception rate Z-score. However, Rivers never found the same success on a team level as the Chargers only made the AFC Championship once  This leads to his relatively lower approximate value of 84 (Z-score 1.42) since his Charger teams did not win as much . 

Stafford might not be one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of the best quarterbacks of the 2010s, but he blended pedigree and production as well as anyone. He was the number one overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Georgia and certainly lived up to expectations: he kicked off the decade with 5038 passing yards and 41 passing touchdowns in 2011, and no quarterback led more game-winning drives (36) or fourth quarter comebacks (29) than Stafford in the 2010s. Stafford had lost all three playoff appearances with the Detroit Lions before being traded to the Los Angeles Rams and winning this year’s Super Bowl. After his Super Bowl victory, many started speculating over his case for Canton. While he likely isn’t there yet, he still has time to bolster his case on a star-studded team. 

As the leader of one of the most storied franchises in NFL history (tied for most Super Bowls at 6 with the Patriots), Big Ben has led the franchise to two Super Bowl victories.. However, he may be more of a product of an elite support system than the natural talent many prescribe to him: his yards z-score was surprisingly low for a “big arm” QB (1.27) and his touchdown z-score was far from impressive (1.28). However, Big Ben’s success does raise his value, as his approximate z-score is top five of the era (1.74). Ben Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame quarterback, but his production may not match his public perception. Now with his retirement, only time will tell if he can make it into the Hall. 

The three players who just missed the cut were Derek Carr, Andy Dalton, and Patrick Mahomes. It’s safe to say that Dalton falls into the accumulator category, as he was a solid starter throughout most of the decade. Carr falls somewhere in the middle, having played seven years in the decade at a consistently average to above-average level. Mahomes nearly made the top 10 on the merits of his incredible per year production over a three year span from 2017-2020. Mahomes will likely sit atop our 2020-2030 list when we update this article in ten years. 

As the most important and glorified position on the field, teams ride or die by their quarterbacks. This list of the Top Quarterbacks in each decade is filled with legends who changed their teams and changed the game. Top 10 lists are one of the most widely discussed topics in sports. Fans always enjoy making their own “Top 10s” and passionately debating them with others. There is no one “right” list but rather a spectrum and after all sport is an art. HSAC has come up with our own lists for quarterbacks spanning each decade from 1980 to the present. Our analysis is rooted in z-scores, seeing how well each player has performed in different important stats relative to their peers. Thus, we create a catch all metric to quantify how good a player was and for what reasons. We hope our lists sparks further debate among football fans as they appreciate the legacies of these legends. 

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