We Crunched the Numbers: John Elway (Not Tom Brady) is the Greatest NFL QB of All Time

Where does Tom Brady rank among the greatest NFL QBs of all time?

Use the phrase “Greatest of All-Time” in any argument and it’s bound to escalate quickly.

 

But other than Jerry Rice or Michael Jordan, there are no clear answers to the eternal G.O.A.T question in sports. But after Tom Brady led his Patriots to a fourth Super Bowl championship on Sunday, the debate immediately became who is the greatest NFL quarterback of all-time?

 

In an effort to answer this unanswerable question, I’ve taken what many consider to be the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and compared them using the criteria we believe makes up “G.O.A.T.”

 

The criteria are as follows: 1) team success, winning and championships 2) statistical production and records 3) overall athletic ability 4) throwing talent 5) supporting cast and 6) longevity. The five names in discussion are Peyton Manning, John Elway, Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Tom Brady.

 

The winner will be decided based on a points system.

 

Disclaimer: There are many other deserving candidates like Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas, but we had to draw the line somewhere. No disrespect intended.

 

1. Winning and Championships

 

Winning is really all that matters in sports at the end of the day. Championships or bust is how we measure most elite-level athletes and quarterbacks. That considered, this category will get twice as many points as the other criteria. Montana and Brady stand above the rest with four championships, Elway checks in with two wins and five total trips with just one title each for Manning and Favre — who are a combined 2-4 in Super Bowls. But Manning leads NFL history with 52 game-winning drives (GWD) and 41 fourth-quarter comebacks (4QC) and Favre is the winningest QB in history (186). Here are the numbers below.

 

Note: All-time NFL rank in parentheses

Name SB Record Win/Loss (%) Playoff W/L GWD 4QC
Tom Brady 4-2 160-47 (77.3) 21-8 (1st) 46 (3rd) 35 (3rd)
Joe Montana 4-0 117-47 (71.3) 16-7 (2nd) 33 (10th) 31 (5th)
John Elway 2-3 148-82-1 (64.1) 14-7 (3rd) 46 (3rd) 35 (3rd)
Brett Favre 1-1 186-112 (62.4) 13-11 (5th) 45 (5th) 30 (6th)
Peyton Manning 1-2 179-77 (69.9) 11-13 (8th) 52 (1st) 41 (1st)

Points Awarded: Montana 10, Brady 8, Elway 6, Manning 4, Favre 2

 

2. Statistical Production

 

Comparing statistics from different eras is extremely difficult and it really only hurts Montana here. That said, Favre and Elway overlapped in a big way and both Manning and Brady played during the same era. And, technically, Montana was playing in an innovative system that changed the game forever (with the GOAT at wide receiver). All of these guys were insanely productive — among the best 10 passers in NFL history in nearly every major category.

 

Note: All-time NFL rank in parenthesis

Name Yds TDs Comp. Rush TDs
Peyton Manning 69,691 (2nd) 530 (1st) 5,927 (2nd) 673 18
Brett Favre 71,838 (1st) 508 (2nd) 6,300 (1st) 1,844 14
John Elway 51,475 (6th) 300 (7th) 4,123 (6th) 3,407 33
Tom Brady 53,258 (5th) 392 (5th) 4,551 (5th) 823 14
Joe Montana 40,551 (13th) 273 (11th) 3,409 (12th) 1,676 20

 

Points Awarded: Manning 5, Brady 4, Favre 3, Elway 2, Montana 1

 

3. Athletic Ability

 

Recruiting and NFL Draft scouts would call this talent. It normally reigns supreme. The team with the most talent generally wins (although, not always). And from a talent perspective, Elway reigns supreme. From a size, speed, strength and power standpoint, few prospects have ever been as talented as Elway (the rushing comparison above proves that). Favre is a close second as he was also as strong and athletic as any quarterback has even been. And no one can question Favre’s toughness. Montana clearly is third for this exercise with Manning and Brady rounding things out.

 

Points Awarded: Elway 5, Favre 4, Montana 3, Manning 2, Brady 1

 

4. Throwing Talent

 

From an arm strength standpoint, Montana is likely the odd man out here, but his accuracy and ability to protect the football were excellent. Manning has the most accurate completion percentage and highest QB rating of the group. However, Favre had the strongest arm of the group with Elway close behind yet both had the lowest QB rating and completion percentage. Brady and Manning likely had the best release while Elway and Favre excelled at improvising. I’ve broken this into two categories (strength and accuracy) and awarded points for both.

 

Note: All-time rank in parenthesis

Name TD:INT Comp. % QB Rat INT %
Peyton Manning 2.26 65.5% (4th) 97.5 (3rd) 2.6 (18th)
Tom Brady 2.74 63.5% (12th) 95.9 (5th) 2.0 (2nd)
Joe Montana 1.96 63.2 (13th) 92.3 (10th) 2.6 (18th)
Brett Favre 1.51 62.0 (18th) 86.0 (20th) 3.3 (59th)
John Elway 1.33 56.9 (86th) 79.9 (65th) 3.1 (45th)

Strength Points: Favre 5, Elway 4, Brady 3, Manning 2, Montana 1

Accuracy Points: Manning 5, Brady 4, Montana 3, Favre 2, Elway 1

 

5. Supporting Cast

 

This aspect is much more subjective and much more difficult to analyze. But everyone agrees that Brady and Montana played for two of the greatest coaches in NFL history for two of the best organizations in NFL history. And it’s safe to say that Elway, while he did get support from Terrell Davis in his final two seasons, mostly played for the worst teams and with the least amount of support of this bunch. Manning had some nice weapons on offense but largely did it with average coaches and defenses. Favre had solid coaches, mediocre skill talent around him and better than average defenses.

 

Points Awarded: Elway 5, Manning 4, Favre 3, Brady 2, Montana 1

 

6. Longevity

 

This one is a much smaller aspect to evaluating true greatness but being able to show up to work for a long period of time has plenty of value and should be considered. Favre’s consecutive start streak (297) over 20 seasons may be the most impressive record in sports. But all five of these guys played 15 seasons. However, Montana (some not of his doing) had five seasons where he started fewer than 10 games and two others with just 11 starts. Brady missed one full year with an injury and didn’t start as a rookie. Manning missed one full season with an injury as well while and Elway never started fewer than 10 games in 16 seasons.

 

Points Awarded: Favre 5, Elway 4, Manning 3, Brady 2, Montana 1

 

Bonus Info: Awards

 

This one means less and points are reduced. All five guys have earned an MVP trophy and all but Favre have won a Super Bowl MVP trophy as well. Manning leads the group with five MVPs, 14 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro selections. Both Brady and Montana have two NFL MVPs and three Super Bowl MVPs each. Elway has one of each while Favre has three consecutive NFL MVPs but no big game honor (that went to Desmond Howard). Pro Bowls aren’t always a great gauge and All-Pro is sort of in the same boat but the numbers are interesting.

 

Name MVPs SB MVP Pro Bowl All-Pro
Peyton Manning 5 1 14 7
Joe Montana 2 3 8 3
Tom Brady 2 3 10 2
Brett Favre 3 0 10 2
John Elway 1 1 9 0

Points Awarded: Montana 3, Manning 2, Brady 2, Elway 1, Favre 1

 

So who is the best QB of all-time?

 

  Wins Stats Athlete Arm* Support Longevity Awards Total
1. John Elway 6 2 5 5 5 4 1 28
2. Peyton Manning 4 5 2 7 4 3 2 27
3. Tom Brady 8 4 1 7 2 2 2 26
4. Brett Favre 2 3 4 7 3 5 1 25
5. Joe Montana 10 1 3 4 1 1 3 23

*Combination of strength and accuracy rankings above

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