Tom Brady's charge up the list of all-time great NFL quarterbacks will only accelerate if his New England Patriots prevail in Super Bowl XLII.
Already a three-time Super Bowl champion, Brady is coming off the finest regular season an NFL quarterback has ever enjoyed, whether measured by won-lost record or overall statistics.
The debate about which quarterback ranks No. 1 in NFL history might one day begin and end with Brady, but we're not to that point -- yet.
While seven seasoned evaluators placed Brady solidly in the top 10, Johnny Unitas consistently ranked higher than any other quarterback. Joe Montana was second, followed by Brady, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Brett Favre, Otto Graham and Dan Fouts.
"To try to say who was the greatest would be an injustice to so many others," said Marv Levy, the former Buffalo Bills coach who recently retired from his position as the team's general manager.
Levy, Art Rooney Jr., Ken Meyer, Zeke Bratkowski, Dick Haley, Larry Kennan and James Harris have been watching, coaching or playing quarterback at the college and pro levels for a combined 321 years heading into 2008. (See credentials here.)
Their insights helped ESPN.com produce a top 10 list for the ages, even as panelists struggled to single out just 10 from a long list of strong candidates.
"My top 10 might be turning into a top 20," said Haley, a New York Jets personnel consultant and former NFL defensive back with more than 40 years of scouting experience, including a 20-year stretch with the Pittsburgh Steelers that began in 1971.
Troy Aikman, Sammy Baugh, Norm Van Brocklin, Bart Starr and Bobby Layne received top-five votes from individual panelists without gaining enough traction to finish among the top 10. Joe Namath, Steve Young and Sid Luckman each drew more than one top-10 vote.
Leaving off Aikman seemed particularly difficult given his overall skills and championship success. But some panelists felt Graham needed to be on the list because he was so far ahead of his time (in addition to his seven championships in 10 seasons from 1946 to 1955). Fouts also commanded considerable respect, not only for production but for the all-out manner in which he attacked the game.
"It's unfair to name the best because some other guys were just as good in their own situations," said Bratkowski, a former All-American quarterback at Georgia who played under George Halas and Vince Lombardi in the NFL.
Brady's accuracy, nearly flawless mechanics and ability to win championships without a supporting cast of offensive all-stars separated him from other current players, although not significantly from Manning.
"Brady may be the most accurate thrower I've ever seen," said Kennan, a longtime quarterbacks coach who collected a Super Bowl ring with the Los Angeles Raiders following the 1983 season.
"I'm not sure Manning isn't the re-creation of Unitas," Levy said.
Favre was the only other active player to earn a spot in the top 10. His unmatched durability and production mostly offset concerns about unfortunate decision-making. "Quarterbacks all have a mind of their own," said Kennan, who ranked Favre among the 10 best, "but he has taken it to new levels."