Published: Feb 01, 2023 at 02:40 PM
Patrick Mahomes‘ first five seasons as a starter compare favorably with the first five seasons of any quarterback to ever play. No one other than Dan Marino is even close in the modern era, making Mahomes the best player I’ve seen come into the league since I started covering the sport in 2003. His list of career achievements won’t come close to matching Tom Brady‘s for a long time, but Mahomes is ahead of the pace on that front, too. Mahomes, in his fifth season as a starter, is a two-time first-team All-Pro and presumptive two-time MVP. Brady didn’t reach the top of the sport individually until his seventh season as a starter.
Mahomes is not first on the list below of the best quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl, however, because this ranking is all about accomplishments. It’s inherently silly to compare legacies or talk about where a player stands if he retired today because Mahomes and his adversary in Super Bowl LVII are blessedly far from the ends of their careers.
More than any Super Bowl quarterback matchup yet, Mahomes of the Chiefs vs. Jalen Hurts of the Eagles represents the rise of the Black quarterback and the youth movement at the position. Mahomes, just 27, was the oldest quarterback in the AFC playoff field and the second-oldest in either conference to reach the Divisional Round, behind only the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott (29). Hurts has improved from a solid starter in 2021 to a second-team All-Pro in just his third NFL season. He’s more than the engine of one of the best running games in football, improving his deep-ball accuracy and decision-making from the pocket. But to deny his excellence as a runner is also to deny a huge part of his value.
Football is a sport of evolution, and these two quarterbacks are a great example of how the game is changing for the better. Winning from the pocket is great, but winning from the pocket and elsewhere is even better.
Below is my annually updated list of Super Bowl starting quarterbacks, which now numbers 66, taking into account Hurts as the Eagles’ starter in Super Bowl LVII. It’s important to note that with regard to players like Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, who started Super Bowls but whose peak years came before the Super Bowl era, I considered their entire careers, not just what they did from 1966 onward. I ranked all quarterbacks based on career achievements, with regular-season excellence, All-Pro/Pro Bowl appearances and seasons as top-five and top-10 players at the position carrying more weight than just Super Bowl success. (Spoiler: Jim Plunkett, winner of two Super Bowls, did not have a better career than Marino, who won none.)
It’s impossible for Hurts to fare well on a list like this after only 34 career regular-season starts, but this ranking is like a low introductory offer in a negotiation. He will be rising in these ranks annually over the next decade-plus, just like his salary.
To the list!
Super Bowl record: 6-3 (Patriots); 1-0 (Buccaneers)
1-1 (Colts); 1-1 (Broncos)
These are the seven men who could’ve had an argument as being the greatest ever until Brady’s supremacy became undeniable. The first 10 years of Brady’s career — which included three titles and an undefeated regular season — now look like an appetizer to Brady’s dominant Gronk-era peak in New England, with the Bucs seasons thrown in as dessert. Brady’s retirement follows his worst campaign since his first season as a starter, although he set the NFL single-season record for completions and posted four fourth-quarter comebacks, tied for the second-most in his career. Even Brady’s down year, at 45 years old, was better than what half the league could do, and it was unprecedented for someone of his age.
It’s impossible to truly compare across eras because the game has changed so much, but Unitas (who played from 1956 to 1973) edges out Montana (1979-1994) and Manning (1998-2015) for the No. 2 spot because Johnny U was so clearly the best of his era and a transformative figure for the sport. Unitas collected three MVPs and five first-team All-Pro nods, and he displayed a sneaky statistical dominance compared with his competition.
Manning ultimately overwhelms Marino, Rodgers and Favre with individual honors and consistency. He was so rarely outside the league’s top-three quarterbacks during a career that included five MVPs. I won’t hold it against Peyton that Eli outshines him on the ManningCast.
Marino is probably the best pure passer of this group. He was never supported with a top-10 running game, and he rarely played with a good defense. He shouldn’t suffer too much, historically speaking, just because of Don Shula’s personnel decisions. Rodgers jumped to this tier after backing up his 2020 MVP award in such brilliant fashion during the 2021 regular season. His playoff performance was a letdown, and his 2022 was underwhelming, but his Brady-like late-30s peak shouldn’t be overlooked. Favre has perhaps the strangest résumé. He combines a brilliant peak with three consecutive MVPs and a career famous for its durability with some lesser efficiency stats than the rest of the tier. Still, there’s not that much separating any of these guys.
The best second tier ever
The résumés of Young and Rodgers were similar before Rodgers’ two recent back-to-back MVP seasons. Both players had to wait before taking over for all-time greats who just happen to be in the tier above.
Elway was a physical marvel, won an MVP and earned three second-team All-Pro nods in his career (1983-1998), but his passing numbers (3,217 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 picks per year), even when adjusted for his era, don’t stack up with the rest of the top nine. If this looks high for Mahomes, consider that he has been the best overall player in the NFL over the last five seasons in aggregate. He’s already an all-time great and will likely win his second MVP at NFL Honors just days before Super Bowl LVII. Few on this list could ever have claimed that level of dominance. I’m only knocking him so much because of his lack of longevity. Staubach is a great “What if?” player, because he didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 29 years old. He’s still the consensus best quarterback of the 1970s and led the league in passer rating four times. He probably gets downgraded too much for the era in which he played. Starr, who has a reputation for being a “winner” of the ’60s and early Super Bowl era without generating great stats, actually has … pretty great stats. So does Brees. He only earned one first-team All-Pro nod, because he was so often behind Brady, Manning and Rodgers, but his longevity and consistency were remarkable. He was nearly always a top-five quarterback in New Orleans.
In (or should be in) the Hall of Fame
1-1 (Rams); 0-1 (Cardinals)
Like Brees, Tarkenton was an undersized, undervalued but consistent star with an incredibly long run of statistical dominance. Roethlisberger was a top-five quarterback for the better part of his career, especially after his second Super Bowl triumph (following the 2008 season). I’m not going to ding him for not being Brady in his late 30s. Aikman’s peak (1991-96) was impressive, but unfortunately too short. Bradshaw wasn’t great in the seasons preceding his first two Super Bowl triumphs (1975-76), but he wound up being a league MVP (in 1978) and finishing in the top five in yards per attempt five times. Namath gets extra credit for his impact on the game, although it’s worth noting Griese had three more Pro Bowl appearances (eight to Namath’s five), one more first-team All-Pro nod (two to one) and far more seasons in the top five in yards per attempt. The offensive line and running game helped, but Griese deserves some legacy love!
Mahomes isn’t the only Kansas City Chief with an exceptional peak: Dawson was the best passer in a pass-happy league, leading the AFL in passer rating for five straight years (1964-68). Kelly, like Aikman, had a brilliant peak that wasn’t quite as long as that of some others listed here. Warner had a singular career, starting late before winning two MVPs and leading two different teams to the Super Bowl. Anderson still should be considered for the Hall of Fame, as he was the rare player to win MVP, Comeback Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. He led the league in passer rating four times and earned a first-team All-Pro selection and another second-team nod, which is more than plenty of the names above him. Stabler finally got into the Hall in 2016, unfortunately after his passing. Even though Wilson’s last few seasons have been rough, I believe he’s passed that mythical “Hall of Famer if he retired today” benchmark. An improved second season with the Broncos wouldn’t hurt, though.
Fun to watch
Stafford and Matt Ryan have had similar careers, although Ryan was more consistently among the top-10 quarterbacks in the league. Stafford has a chance to pass Ryan if he can get healthy and put up a few more relevant campaigns.
McNabb was a top-10 quarterback for nearly all of his career, very often in the top five. I’m surprised he doesn’t get more Hall of Fame consideration. Esiason won an MVP (1988) and led the league in yards per attempt in that season (as well as in 1986). Lamonica was someone I didn’t fully appreciate until this exercise. While he was fattening up on a soft AFL, he made five Pro Bowls and nabbed two AFL Player of the Year awards. He finished his career 66-16-6 as a starter!
Morrall was football’s Forrest Gump, in the words of Chris Wesseling, spending most of his career as a backup, with a Pro Bowl appearance and an All-Pro nod coming 15 years apart, and an MVP (earned as Johnny Unitas’ replacement) sandwiched in the middle. In one way, he’s similar to McNair. When they were good, they were very, very good. Eli’s durability and longevity boost him in a career that ended at .500 (117-117), with only two to three seasons in which he arguably could’ve been considered a top-10 quarterback. Gannon did a lot of damage late in his career, with an MVP and four Pro Bowls coming after he turned 34.
Crazy talent for a tier this low
0-1 (Cowboys); 0-1 (Broncos)
Cam and Theismann have MVP seasons and a few Pro Bowls to their names, but they both had some erratic play to go with their big arms and big personalities.
Simms and Jaworski have somehow become underrated over time and are now better known as broadcasters. Both had plenty of seasons as top-10 quarterbacks. Morton, a Super Bowl starter for two different organizations, somehow never made a Pro Bowl despite leading the league in yards per attempt three times. Collins was a season-long starter for four different organizations, making his two Pro Bowl appearances 12 years apart. Plunkett started 144 games yet never made a Pro Bowl and probably only had one or two seasons in which he could have been considered a top-10 starter.
Burrow is an example of how this exercise is impossible when it comes to ranking young players. His highs are already higher than those of most QBs in this tier, and I’m all about peak play.
Middle of the pack
Jimmy G has only logged three seasons of 10-plus starts, but his solid play during the 2022 campaign bumps him up slightly on this list. The same goes for Goff, who is showing in Detroit he wasn’t just the product of Sean McVay’s system with the Rams.
Foles produced one of the best performances in Super Bowl history, then supported it with another strong close to the season in 2018 as Carson Wentz‘s backup. His peaks, including his 2013 Pro Bowl year, have been awfully high. His valleys, like his brief run as the Jaguars’ starter and his time in St. Louis and Chicago, have been rather low. Chandler and Flacco both get credit for grinding through over 150 starts, although Flacco has never made a Pro Bowl or been solidly among the top-10 quarterbacks. (Chandler had a fancier peak than expected.) Johnson and Hostetler both had better tenures than I remembered on teams they didn’t win Super Bowls with: Johnson made a Pro Bowl with Washington, Hostetler with the Raiders.
Hurts has only been a starter for two seasons, but he’s likely to finish second in MVP voting. His efficiency on the ground (13 touchdowns and 67 first downs on just 165 attempts) made his 2022 season one of the best ever for a dual-threat quarterback.
Kapp had only one great year and 48 starts, his career ending too soon because of contractual issues. Kaepernick has only made 58 starts. At 35 years old and now six years removed from his last season, he will be remembered for standing up for what’s right more than anything he did with a football. But don’t forget how sweet he was for a stretch on the field. He has 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions for his career, excelling in the type of quick-game offense that is more popular in the NFL now than it was when he was playing. The abrupt end to his career will be a stain on the NFL in the history books.
End of the line
Eason had a few solid seasons, but he only started for one more full season after the Super Bowl appearance that capped the 1985 campaign. Grossman only had three seasons where he started more than three games (2006, ’07, 2011), but at least “Sexy Rexy” has a nickname that will live forever.
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