If you want to know more about quarterbacking, why not ask the best? With that in mind, we convened some of the game's greatest to find out their thoughts on the position. Fran Tarkenton joined the NFL in 1961, Troy Aikman left in 2000 and, in between, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly were equally bright stars. Together they represent decades of playing and observing the game, and their opinions about the best and most underrated of their peers might surprise you.
You have the ball on your 20-yard line, two minutes left in the Super Bowl. Who is your choice of quarterbacks all time to go for the win, and who is your choice among active quarterbacks?
Fouts: Johnny Unitas. He was a teammate of mine his last year, and he would be my alltimer. He invented [the game-winning drive]. He did a lot of things before anyone else at the position. The rhythm passing, the timing routes, the five-step drop, the three-step drop: He perfected all of that. I think I'd go with Peyton Manning among the active quarterbacks. I like the weapons he has, but I just think Peyton would be my choice regardless.
Tarkenton: Tough question. When you talk about situations like that, I think of Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach, Y.A. Tittle and Otto Graham. Those are the classics. But when we try to say who is the best, it is impossible. You have so many factors. What kind of team did they play on? What kind of organization? I can't say one guy. I could probably give you 20. Among active guys, the best players of this generation are Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. I'd take either one. There is no way to pick between them. But a third guy who does not get the recognition but has moved way up into their category is Drew Brees. Most people don't talk about him, and they should.
Bradshaw: There are two guys I would hand the ball over to, and if one of the guys were sick, the other guy could do it. One would be Roger Staubach, and the other would be Tom Brady. Those would be my two guys. Now if I had to pick between one of those, then I'd pick Staubach, but they are pretty much even. Roger always made something happen. He always brought his team back. He was amazing under pressure, and he had this incredible athletic ability to get away from sacks and to be able to sprint and run around. He was scary, man. I loved watching him. I just marveled at how cool he was. He could throw that rock, man. He could sling it.
Kelly: All time [and active], I'd say Tom Brady. When you watch him, he is flawless. Everything that you'd want your son to emulate as far as emotion, drop-back, everything, he has it.
Aikman: I would say all time would be Joe Montana, and I'd go with Tom Brady among those active. I didn't see Y.A. Tittle and Otto Graham, but of the guys of the modern era that I got a chance to watch, Joe was the greatest. If it were not Tom, I'd probably say Peyton Manning today.
Who is the greatest of all time at quarterback, in your opinion, and why?
Fouts: Johnny Unitas. For two decades he was considered the best, and there were some great quarterbacks in those years, but hands down all of them would say he was the best at that time. His longevity speaks to that.
Tarkenton: People ask me that question, and it is impossible. Now we want to measure quarterbacks on how many Super Bowls they won, right? You tell me a quarterback that played better than Dan Marino? Or Dan Fouts? Or Y.A. Tittle? There are none. So they take a backseat because they did not have the good fortune or good luck or right organization or right timing to win a Super Bowl? It's a b.s. category. What makes one quarterback better than another is how he performs week-in, week-out over his career. He cannot control the drafting, the coaching, the defense, the special teams or the breaks. So it's a stupid thing to talk about. I crossed over a little with Y.A. Tittle, then I followed him and played against him, and I will tell you that there is no quarterback in the history of the world who played better. He played on a lousy 49ers team in the '50s and comes to the Giants, and they are in three championship games.
Bradshaw: I have never [picked] a greatest of anything in all my life. You want me to pick one from Otto Graham to Sid Luckman to Slingin' Sammy Baugh, who I once met? He was spitting tobacco and cussing like a sailor, and how cool was it to meet Sammy Baugh? There are guys I admire like Bert Jones and Kenny Anderson. Kenny Stabler was awesome. Roman Gabriel I loved. Johnny Unitas. But eras have changed. There were simple coverages back then. We go through progressions as decades move along, so it is hard to say who is the best. You can do best of his time, but the best ever? I don't even know how to categorize that.
Kelly: That is a tough one. I never saw Johnny Unitas play, but I did speak to him many times, and I have heard many people say he was one of the best. There is Joe Montana, of course, with all of his Super Bowls. It's almost unfair because Peyton Manning is a good friend of mine, Tom Brady is a good friend of mine, Joe Montana is a good friend, and so are Dan Marino and John Elway. For me, that would be a tough one. There are different eras of football, it is so tough to pick just one. It's hard not to take Dan Marino even though both of us will be labeled as quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl. So maybe I'd say Marino, Brady, Montana, Manning and Elway. I really can't pick one.
Aikman: Joe Montana. It just seems like people change their opinion on who is the greatest depending on who is playing at that time. Most of the time when people have these discussions, Otto Graham seems to be a guy who is oftentimes overlooked, but Joe, of the guys I have seen, there was nobody better. He was clutch when he had to be, and he did things guys were not doing at that time. He was terrific.
Who is the most underrated quarterback of all time?
Fouts: There are a couple of guys I think who do not get enough credit for being great or among the greatest. One of them is Bart Starr. Nobody has won more NFL championships. Another one, even though he had talent around him, is Roger Staubach. Roger did not play as long as he could have because of his military commitment, but you talk about a great quarterback, my God.
Tarkenton: I think Y.A. Tittle was underrated. I think Dan Fouts was underrated. At the time they were not underrated, but we don't talk about Dan Fouts and Y.A. Tittle. Dan Fouts was just great, phenomenal.
Bradshaw: I have to bring up Philip Rivers. He is one of those guys in the mix. I loved Kenny Stabler. The Snake was smooth, man. Kenny Anderson was smooth too. If Bert Jones had not gotten hurt, there was nobody who could throw the ball like Bert Jones. And how can you not like Fran Tarkenton?
Kelly: Warren Moon had all the talent in the world, but I would say Phil Simms. He did well in the Super Bowl, played in a big city and did a good job. I'd also say Boomer Esiason.
Aikman: I would go with Otto Graham because of the number of championships [seven], which is ridiculous. In my era, I would probably say Phil Simms. I think he was a great player, and if he had not gotten hurt in 1990—when Jeff Hostetler came on to win the Super Bowl—I think he would be in the Hall of Fame.
Most underrated? "Warren Moon had all the talent in the world," Kelly says, "but I would say Phil Simms."
ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY NICOLE ZIGMONT; AL MESSERSCHMIDT (FOUTS); NFL/GETTY IMAGES (KELLY); NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TARKENTON); HEINZ KLUETMEIER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BRADSHAW)
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (AIKMAN)