Where does Drew Brees fit historically among NFL quarterbacks?

Drew Brees photo courtesy of USA Today
Rick Gosselin

At some point in 2019 Drew Brees will have completed more passes for more yards and more touchdowns than any quarterback in NFL history.

Brees certainly is an elite passer. But how elite? Does he belong among the Top 5 quarterbacks of all time? Does he belong in the Top 10? Just where does he belong?

His passing credentials are impeccable. His 6,586 completions are 286 more than runnerup Brett Favre. His 74,437 passing yards are 2,497 more than runnerup Peyton Manning. And he needs 20 TD passes this season to overtake Manning as the all-time leader in that category. Manning has 539 TD passes, Brees 520. Brees has been to 12 Pro Bowls and won two passing titles plus a Super Bowl.

As impressive as Brees has been with his right arm, he doesn’t crack my Top 5 all-time quarterbacks. He doesn’t even crack my Top 10. In fact, his name doesn’t come into play on my list until the 13th spot – and he has some stiff competition for that rung.

That’s because you can’t judge quarterbacks strictly by their statistics. You must judge them based on dominance of their era. The NFL was a different game in the 1940s than in the 1980s. It was a different game in the 1960s than in the 2000s.

The rules have changed over the years to handcuff the defense. They can no longer hit quarterbacks and receivers. It’s become a game of pitch-and-catch. So all these gaudy passing statistics we’ve seen in the last three decades are inflated.

There have been 11 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. Nine have come since 2011. Does that mean Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford (all members of the 5,000-yard club) have been better quarterbacks in the 2010s than Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Joe Namath were in the 1960s?

There’s also more to quarterbacking than throwing the football. As Steve Young once told me, “like it or not, quarterbacks are judged by their championships.”

My top five were all first-team all-decade quarterbacks. In order, my list starts with Unitas, Tom Brady, Otto Graham, Joe Montana and John Elway.

Unitas, who called his own plays and single-handedly made quarterback the most important position in football in the 1950s, was selected to the NFL’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams. All these quarterbacks signing $100 million contracts in today's NFL owe Unitas a debt of gratitude for making that position the most glamorous in the sport.

Unitas was joined on the 75th team by Graham and Montana. Graham took the Cleveland Browns to 10 consecutive championship games in his 10-year career and won seven of them. He won an NFL-record 83.4 percent of his starts. Brady ranks second all-time with a 77.5 winning percentage and Montana fourth at 71.3 percent.

Unitas, Brady and Graham were all three-time NFL MVPs. Montana won the award twice and Elway once. Brady has won six titles, Montana four and Unitas and Elway two apiece. Unitas, Brady, Graham and Montana all won two passing titles. And when the athletic gods were drawing up a quarterback, they drew up Elway.

My 6 through 10 are Roger Staubach, Peyton Manning, Bart Starr, Sammy Baugh and Dan Marino.

Staubach, you say? He’s the most underrated quarterback in NFL history. In eight seasons as a starter he took the Cowboys to four Super Bowls, winning two, and won 74.5 percent of his career starts. That shoehorns him between Brady and Montana, third on the all-time list. Staubach also won four NFL passing titles, including the last two in his final two seasons at the ages of 36 and 37.

Manning shares the NFL record for Pro Bowl selections with Brady at 14. He was a five-time NFL MVP, a three-time passing champion and wears two Super Bowl rings. He also holds the NFL single-season record for yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) in 2015.

Starr quarterbacked the Lombardi Packers to five NFL titles in a span of seven seasons and was the MVP of the first two Super Bowls. He won five passing titles and was the NFL MVP in 1966. He was a sterling 9-1 as a starter in the post-season.

Baugh was a two-time NFL MVP, a three-time passing champ and the first-team all-decade quarterback of the 1940s. He joined Unitas on the 50th and 75th anniversary team. Baugh took the Washington Redskins to two championships and may have been the greatest athlete ever to play the position. He led the NFL in punting four times and also led the league in interceptions as a defensive back with 11 in 1943.

Marino is the greatest pure passer I’ve seen in my 47 years of NFL reporting. He became the first quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards in a single season in 1984 – and it took 24 years for the next NFL quarterback to do it. He’s the only quarterback in my Top 12 who didn’t make an all-decade team. But Marino aced the eye test.

I’ve got Terry Bradshaw 11th on my list and Brett Favre 12th. Bradshaw quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to four NFL championships in the 1970s. He was the first-team all-decade quarterback of the 1970s and the league MVP in 1978. Favre was a three-time NFL MVP and started a league record 297 consecutive games. He was the second-team all-decade quarterback of the 1990s and won a Super Bowl.

Which brings us to 13th on my list, which is where Drew Brees enters the discussion. But Norm Van Brocklin, Sid Luckman, Bobby Layne, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers also are in the discussion here.

Van Brocklin also was a member of the 50th anniversary team and the second-team all-decade quarterback for the 1950s. He won two NFL titles and was the 1960 MVP. He passed for an NFL-record 554 yards in a single game in 1951 – a record that still stands 68 years later. Luckman was a second-team all-decade quarterback of the 1940s who won four NFL championships and three passing titles. He was the NFL MVP in 1943.

Young is a two-time NFL MVP and a six-time passing champion. He wears a Super Bowl ring. So does Rodgers. He was a two-time MVP and ranks as the most efficient passer in NFL history with a 103.1 rating. Aikman and Layne both won three NFL titles. Layne was a second-team all-decade quarterback in the 1950s who has been credited with inventing the two-minute drill.

Brees has never been a league MVP and neither he nor Rodgers has ever been all-decade. When the Hall of Fame’s selection committee votes on the all-decade team for the 2010s, either Brees or Rodgers won’t make it. Brady will again be the first-team quarterback with Brees and Rodgers vying for second team.

So where does Brees fit? Not in my Top 12. But he's in good company. There are 23 other Hall of Fame quarterbcks who didn't make my top 12, either.

Comments (8)
No. 1-4
brian wolf
brian wolf

Great article as usual Rick...

That's right, Death, Taxes and Brian Wolf comments, haha...

Brees is definitely a great modern QB, who has benefitted from staying healthy and rule changes geared to help offences. Sadly though, he needs another championship to join the elites of all-time. The Saints defence, just like the defence of the Green Bay Packers for Aaron Rodgers, has let him down way too many times. As for now, he joins the list of great one time champions, including Charlie Conerly, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers, and possibly Russell Wilson. Many believe Brees, Young and Rodgers are the best REGULAR SEASON QBs ever, which could be considered a pot shot, without more championships.

I can agree with Unitas being your number #1, being the greatest QB at calling his own plays, being unpredictable and winning three world championships. I have Johnny at #3.

Looking at this past SB that Brady won, he is the greatest all-time winner, but he also benefits from great offensive line play, that stonewalled the Rams and many teams over the years. Yes, Brady has a great release like Joe Montana did, but his offensive line could run and pass block as equally effective, which is why I put Brady at #2.

To me, Montana is still the best, because his offensive lines were not as good or consistent as the NE lines that blocked for Brady. Throughout his SF career, his offensive line was undersized, which is why Joe moved around so much. Joe faced alot of great pass rushers in his time as well and other than the Giants and Ravens, and sometimes the Steelers, Brady hardly ever faces a great pash rush. Because Joe never lost a SB, I put him as #1...

Four through Ten for me would be...

  1. Bradshaw...5) Staubach...6) Elway...
  2. Favre...8) Layne...9) Graham...10) Starr/Luckman tie...
brian wolf
brian wolf

Bradshaw at #4 and Favre at #7...typing errors...

brian wolf
brian wolf

I understand Rick...

That's what's so great about this site. NFL History fans discussing the game and it's great players and coaches, with open debate and opinions. I miss the days when more fans were writing into this site, stirring the pot. C' Mon, Talk Of Fame Fans, keep the comments and discussions going. I am allergic to Twitter anyway...

I always believed Starr was the most underrated QB, but Bradshaw doesn't get enough due either. Today's fans forget that he was a strong armed winner before Favre and Elway...Yes, he made mistakes and threw interceptions, but he was 8-2 in championship games and called his own plays ! He deserves more credit.

JonPrz
JonPrz

Wow, okay, I actually decided to sign up just to reply to this utter garbage. How you could not possibly be ashamed to have your name associated with such idiocy is beyond me. Half way through this I was doing everything in my power not to pull my hair out. To make matters worse I must not be seeing very good because does your bio say you're on the selection committee? YOU are on the selection committee? This goes beyond just having horrible opinions on the internet, this news has permanently impacted how I feel about the Hall of Fame.

I expect the average older fans of the game to fall for rosy retrospection when discussion the olden days, but I am quite disgusted to see a member of the once prestigious Hall of Fame selection committee to fall for this type of fallacious thinking. "People of the past must be better because they were in the past". While you may not explicitly say those words, that is preciously the line of thinking that leads to opinions as horrendous as these. My favorite example would be the 20-year retired Dan Marino "passing the eye test" over Drew Brees. Do please elaborate on this when you get the chance. Now I will waste quite a bit of my time to address this, because it is very important to me. You are more than a regular dimwitted NFL blogger. You are a dimwitted NFL blogger on the Hall of Fame selection committee.

I'll do this with the typical quote and response style to be more efficient.

“That’s because you can’t judge quarterbacks strictly by their statistics. You must judge them based on dominance of their era.” Right off the bat you've contradicted yourself. There are only two ways to accurately judge a quarterback's dominance (the eye test isn't one of them) and the best way to do that is by looking at their stats and comparing them to their era. Of course the other is their games won, specifically playoffs and championships. Common sense alone should tell you why this method is inferior and should only be used after the first method has been considered. Yet I've noticed you seem to lack that so I will explain: American football is the most team dependent sport in existence. The QB is in control of exactly 33% of his teams on field performance. The special teams and the defense is outside of his control, the most he can do is motivate them.

“The NFL was a different game in the 1940s than in the 1980s. It was a different game in the 1960s than in the 2000s…. The rules have changed over the years to handcuff the defense. They can no longer hit quarterbacks and receivers. It’s become a game of pitch-and-catch.” Again, fallacious thinking. You are not consistent in this argument, no one ever is. No one is breaking down every single rule change throughout history, doing a detailed analysis on its impact, and then adjusting their priors based on their findings. Literally everyone that has ever made this argument has done so, inconsistently and with heavy bias towards the last two decades. Have rule changes contributed to changes in statistically performance? Probably. How much of an impact have they actually had? Who knows? No one. Why? Mostly because there's nothing else to compare to. Is there evidence to suggest a minor tweaking of the rules once per decade is solely responsible for a 100% increase in offensive output? Not in the least. There's actually no evidence that it's the leading contributor to the increase in offensive output. You completely ignored the possibility of just as, if not more, likely contributors such as the increase in size and speed of players or the rapid evolution of offensive stratagem that far exceed its defensive counterpart. See; Sean McVay.

You seem to not fathom the idea that maybe, as the position grows older, quarterbacks learn more. An increased understanding what to do and when combined with the increasing physical condition seems to be the more likely culprit for our current stage of the NFL. To give you a better way of looking at this take Otto Graham, your third best. Otto was sub 200 pounds, slows and graceless runner that finished his career with more interceptions than touchdown passes. He played in a league that had virtually no black players, severely limiting his competition level. Most of the his opponents sold car insurance when they weren't playing football or drinking alcohol. Oh and of course Paul Brown was his coach. If you think that Otto Graham only performed so poorly on paper because of era, then you must also think Otto Graham could be competitive today. In league that features Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers. Simply because his receivers could be roughed up a little more. Right? Can you take a minute to do some introspection and really think that over. Please.

“There have been 11 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. Nine have come since 2011. Does that mean Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford (all members of the 5,000-yard club) have been better quarterbacks in the 2010s than Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Joe Namath were in the 1960s?” Funny that you didn't mention 5 of those belong to Drew. I'm really starting to dislike you now. You're being intentionally dishonest. But to answer your question; yes. A thousand times yes. It's actually insulting to anyone with an IQ above 80 that you would ask if Drew Brees is better than Starr or Namath was. No disrespect to these legends but give me a break. In this Decade alone Brees has 8 Pro Bowls, he's lead the league in completion% 4 times including breaking it twice, he's held the passing title 5 times including 3 5k seasons, in two of those seasons he also lead the NFL in passing touchdowns. If you took just this decade from Brees he's had a better career, even when adjusting for his era, than Starr and Namath and there's still a whole damn season left.

“There’s also more to quarterbacking than throwing the football. As Steve Young once told me, “like it or not, quarterbacks are judged by their championships.” A tip of the hat to all those quarterbacks that win championships without throwing. Anyway this is really bad point to make and you should have avoided it. Brees has a ring.

“My top five were all first-team all-decade quarterbacks. In order, my list starts with Unitas, Tom Brady, Otto Graham, Joe Montana and John Elway.” I really need to read why you have Unitas above Brady. I'm beyond disliking you at this point. What did Tom Brady do to you to make hate him too? Honestly what do these guys have to do for you to appreciate what they put out on that field? Brady not only has the Championships you just mentioned, but he'll finish being either 2nd or 1st in both of touchdowns and yards, he'll be the only person to win first-team all-decade twice, he has the pro-bowl selections, the MVPs, all of that garbage that depends on someones' vote and is therefore irrelevant to their on the field talent. What the absolute fuck does this guy have to do? Actually I know the answer. It's nothing. There's nothing he can do and there's nothing Brees can do. You're an old asshole living in the good ole days. I know I've been a bit rude but in all honesty I feel you deserve it. It's not because of your opinions. It's because of the reasons you hold those opinions. Anyway, moving on…

“Unitas, who called his own plays and single-handedly made quarterback the most important position in football in the 1950s, was selected to the NFL’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams.” Once again another dishonest tactic. Why are you using this as an argument against Brees? What you're doing here, whether intentional or not, is quite literally saying “Unitas was on these anniversary teams and Brees was not, therefore Unitas > Brees”. That's not to mention the fact that anniversary teams should never be used as a metric. Nothing that requires the votes of other people should be used to compare the on field output of players.

“Graham took the Cleveland Browns to 10 consecutive championship games in his 10-year career and won seven of them.” Not trying to beat a dead horse, see; Paul Brown and conditions of 1940s NFL.

“Brady has won six titles, Montana four and Unitas and Elway two apiece. Unitas, Brady, Graham and Montana all won two passing titles. And when the athletic gods were drawing up a quarterback, they drew up Elway.” You go all over the place bouncing back and forth between players and that's quite annoying, so I'm doing the best I can to keep in efficient. Brady has won 6 titles, but 9 AFC championships, it seems that he is quite ahead of Graham. I don't see how you could possibly say otherwise (personally the fact that you would even have them in the same sentence is quite annoying as prime Graham actually wouldn't make the cut on a single D1 NCAA team today). Yet the gap between Graham and Unitas is not so clear. Their respective periods aren't too far apart, so I must wonder once again how Unitas found himself in front of Tom here. Most NFL quarterbacks are more athletic than prime Elway was. If the “athletic gods” were to draw up quarterback it would most certainly have to be Cam Newton. Oh by the way you should reverse that thought experiment from earlier. Instead on Graham today, imagine Cam Newton on the 1946 Browns. Then consider the fact that Cam is hardly a top 15 quarterback right now.

“My 6 through 10 are Roger Staubach, Peyton Manning, Bart Starr, Sammy Baugh and Dan Marino.' If I didn't see the first 5 this would almost be respectable. You're such a dishonest ass that you just had to put Marino above Brees so you pull this “eye test” horse crap. You can't seriously be this slimy. Using every single metric you've presented earlier there is nothing that makes Marino better than Brees. And you'd have to have some superhuman vision if your eyes are good enough to notice a serious difference between a pass from Drew and Dan, but why is that even relevant? If we're judging this on how good their passing mechanics are then half this list needs to be replaced. Have you ever actually watched Unitas drop back and throw a pass? It's not the most graceful thing.

“Staubach, you say? He’s the most underrated quarterback in NFL history.” Holy irony batman!

“I've got Terry Bradshaw 11th on my list and Brett Favre 12th.” Do the other committee members laugh at you when you tell them this stuff? BRADSHAW? Holy… BRADSHAW? WHAT? 43% of his passes landed on the ground. He had the greatest defensive dynasty in the history of sports and multiple HoF weapons. BRADSHAW? All I can do is laugh at this point. I'm trying to figure out who would even employ you, much less let you on the Hall of Fame committee. Also FAVRE? He pretty much played in the same era as Brees? Do you have him above Brees solely based on MVPs? Because Brees is pretty much a lock for 2nd team 2010s. This is asinine to the nth power.

“Which brings us to 13th on my list, which is where Drew Brees enters the discussion. But Norm Van Brocklin, Sid Luckman, Bobby Layne, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers also are in the discussion here.” Bobby Layne and Aikman in the same sentence as Young and Rodgers. DO WE WATCH THE SAME SPORT? Young, a Super Bowl champion is by almost every metric the most dominant QB over his era than any QB over any era. He's top in all time passer rating when adjusting for era. Rodgers is second by the way. It's way passed dislike at this point.

“Van Brocklin also was a member of the 50th anniversary team and the second-team all-decade quarterback for the 1950s. He won two NFL titles and was the 1960 MVP. He passed for an NFL-record 554 yards in a single game in 1951 – a record that still stands 68 years later.” Cool, he set a single game record against a 1 win team that doesn't even exist anymore. Yeah he's definitely better than the all time passing leader.

“Aikman and Layne both won three NFL titles. Layne was a second-team all-decade quarterback in the 1950s who has been credited with inventing the two-minute drill.” Aikman was an average QB on a great team. Also no, they didn't both win “3 NFL titles”. I should've addressed this sooner but winning a pre-merger title is not comparable to winning a Super Bowl. In fact, pre-merger titles are absolutely irrelevant. Winning a Super Bowl involved winning two championships, not one.

“Brees has never been a league MVP and neither he nor Rodgers has ever been all-decade.” Okay? Brees has clearly had MVP worthy seasons and has been snubbed a couple of times. Rodgers didn't start until like '08. Why are you valuing the subjective votes of people? Consider this; the people that vote for MVP and All-Decade are just as dense as you are.

In conclusion, your opinions are bad and you should feel bad.


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