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.