Top QBs Not Cut in Stone


Ron Pollack, editor in chief of Pro Football Weekly, congratulates the state of South Dakota for honoring four U.S. presidents in massive stone carvings on Mt. Rushmore.

But it’s not enough, Pollack says. He recommends a similar monument for football’s all-time four best quarterbacks--at Mt. Passmore.

The greatest of NFL passers richly deserve that, of course, for all the hits they’ve taken. Though American presidents take more hits, it’s close. Still, there’s one major problem. Football’s big four can’t be authoritatively identified because the quarterback position has changed so drastically.

For half a century, NFL quarterbacks called their own plays. They were in charge during the many decades when, in my view, the four best were Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Sammy Baugh and Terry Bradshaw.


For the last quarter-century, the coaches have been in charge, making all the calls. When quarterbacks are graded as passers primarily--serving autocratic coaches--the four best, I’d say, have been John Elway, Steve Young, Otto Graham and Joe Montana.

And because play selection is the decisive thing in offensive football, strategically, the quarterbacks in the two groups cannot be compared.


The play callers: During the era when championships were typically won by thoughtful quarterbacks looked up to by teammates as take-charge leaders, the essential quarterback quality was productive play calling, everybody said. On any team, they said, the second most important requirement was passing ability.

Of the great quarterbacks who played at that time, four stand out:

Joe Namath (1965-76 New York Jets) has to this day had only one rival, Dan Marino, for first place in passing accuracy and quickness of release, the two great technical requirements. Even so, the attributes that made Namath a champion--the winner of turning-point Super Bowl III as an 18-point underdog--were leadership skills and play-calling excellence.

Johnny Unitas (1956-72 Baltimore Colts), a self-made passer, might not have made a 1990s pro club. But he was the toughest quarterback ever and the NFL’s all-time best play caller except for a 1980s coach, Bill Walsh.

Sammy Baugh (1937-52 Washington Redskins) once said that the difference between good and great quarterbacks is “the ability to call the right play at the right time.” Passing he took for granted. And he led the league in passing six times--an unapproachable record until Steve Young tied it.


Terry Bradshaw (1970-83 Pittsburgh Steelers) played for coaches who sometimes called the plays. But when Bradshaw took charge, the Steelers were different and immensely better--as was Buffalo in 1986-96 when Jim Kelly took charge. Kelly played in four Super Bowls. Bradshaw won four.


The technocrats: Now that the NFL’s coaches are firmly in control on the mental level of football--sending in every play--quarterbacks can only be compared as technicians, chiefly as passers. The four best of these:

John Elway (1983-98 Denver Broncos) is both a powerful passer and an instinctive runner who could by now have won four or five Super Bowls if he had played all the way for passing coaches.


Steve Young (1987-98 San Francisco 49ers), the six-time champion passer and all-time highest-rated passer, runs the ball like an NFL halfback.

Otto Graham (1947-56 Cleveland Browns), a converted halfback, won league or conference titles every year for Paul Brown, who in 1950 became the first NFL coach to call the plays. For many years, he was the only coach who did.

Joe Montana (1979-92 San Francisco 49ers) won four Super Bowls as the first quarterback to play in the then-new pass-oriented West Coast offense.

What these four quarterbacks have had in common is top-of-the-line coaching--Elway only since 1995, the year that a passing coach, Mike Shanahan, moved to Denver.


The San Francisco passing coach, Bill Walsh, developed both Montana and Young. It’s hard for good quarterbacks to win without good coaches and vice versa--as Brown and Graham so convincingly proved long ago.

Of the 1990s quarterbacks still in mid-career, both Brett Favre of Green Bay and Troy Aikman of Dallas have shown the ability to eventually displace somebody before the carvers sculptors arrive at Mt. Passmore.