Is Tom Brady the Best Quarterback Ever?

ESPN examines every aspect of the QB's game, compares him to the all-time greats

ByABC News
January 30, 2008, 1:06 PM

Jan. 30, 2008 — -- 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 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."

Most panelists ranked accuracy first on the list of traits they most value in a quarterback. Intelligence, work ethic, velocity, toughness, leadership, mechanics and a quick release also were important. Mobility was a plus, not a necessity. But playing the position well also requires a moxie not easily measured or explained.

"I've always had an expression I've carried with me a long way," said Meyer, who coached Namath and Ken Stabler at Alabama before coaching in the NFL for 22 seasons. "Talk about a good quarterback, and I say, 'Well, he can play cards.' There are some guys [who] can play cards, some guys [who] cannot play cards. All the good quarterbacks I've ever been around, they could play cards."

Harris, the Jacksonville Jaguars' vice president of player personnel and an NFL quarterback from 1969 to 1981, ranked toughness high on his list.

"Obviously, you need to have the physical tools," Harris said. "Once you identify those, toughness, making good decisions, work ethic and one's ability to make plays with the game on the line stand out right off the top."

Panelists agreed to submit rankings as long as their choices would remain private. adjusted for bias, taking note when a panelist assigned high rankings to former associates. Levy naturally favored Jim Kelly from their days together in Buffalo.

Meyer, who rates quarterback prospects for the Kansas City Chiefs while in semiretirement, remains partial to Namath and Stabler. Bratkowski backed up Starr with the Green Bay Packers, and he still has Starr's back.

Rooney, whose family owns the Steelers, has a strong affinity for Bradshaw.

A former longtime personnel evaluator, Rooney rated his 10 greatest quarterbacks across 14 categories, sending his hand-written breakdowns by mail. Levy, Rooney, Bratkowski and Kennan provided lists of their top 10 all-time quarterbacks, in preferred order. Haley singled out 10 without as much regard for order, but he spoke at length about all 10 and numerous others, providing insights that proved helpful. Harris, reached between Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., provided his top six. He also evaluated 50 quarterbacks across several key categories.

Meyer, Bratkowski, Kennan, Levy and Haley spoke at length about quarterbacks and what makes them great. Meyer declined to provide a top 10 list, but all panelists placed Brady among the greats, assuming he remains productive.