When I point out to people that Graham's accomplishments surpass every other quarterback in history, they inevitably respond that things were different back then, and you've got to normalize the accomplishments a bit to really have a fair comparison. They're right, but they're wrong. You do have normalize Graham's accomplishments, but they're so far ahead of everyone else, that they only way he loses is if you insist on throwing them out. For example, while Joe Montana had 3 All-League years, Graham 9 in a career shortened by WWII.
Add in also: Pretty much everyone agrees that Jim Brown stacks up favorably to running backs that have come since. But Brown joined the same team Graham had left just a year before, and while he had a positive impact, it was clearly not in the same league as Graham.
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Aside from the off-the-charts career of Graham, I can't put anyone else ahead of Montana. Aside from his stellar regular season career, his playoff performances, and how they clearly improved on his regular play makes him the standard by which I judge modern quarterbacks.
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Unitas is the pre-80s quarterback most often works his way into these type of discussions, and for good reason, he accomplishments clearly surpass his peers, and later quarterbacks including Montana. When you do the era normalization though, and consider just how amazingly good Montana was in the playoffs, he slides in at #3.
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Sigh. It's frustrating watching the end of Favre's career. What can't be denied: His recklessness causes problems that the other great quarterbacks don't have, but the dude is 40 and his been at or near MVP caliber performance his whole career. The way the Vikings came alive when he joined the team says it all.
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It seems inevitable to me that Manning will at least spend some time at #2 on my list. He just won MVP #4, surpassing everyone but Graham (who had 6). If he ends up having longevity like Favre, playing at the level he does, it will be hard to keep him from being #1. Nobody's smarter, and nobody works harder.
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It's chic to leave Young off these lists, essentially dismissing him as a system quarterback. I don't know how you do that and not dismiss Montana as well, and of course if you dismiss Montana, then we devolve into chaos. I go along with the Montana > Young wisdom, but I can't go much further. Bottom line is that the Niners didn't miss a beat when they went from Montana to Young, and it's rather crazy to knock Young's longevity in comparisons with anyone below Montana's level because it was clear to all years before Young finally was handed to the reins that he was a Pro Bowl caliber QB.
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Elway's a tough one. It's pretty common to see him listed as someone's "surprise" pick for GOAT. He was arguably the greatest prospect in history because he had all the tools, and he ended up living up to the hype reaching the ultimate at the end of his career.
Still, I can't overlook that he tended to look pretty bad in Super Bowls, and that when he did break through it was with running support that blows away anything these other quarterbacks ever had the luxury to play with.
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I always feel a bit uncomfortable rating Marino so low. His numbers are stellar, and everyone agrees that there's never been a superior pure passer. But much of what makes a greater QB is his leadership, and I've heard enough negative tidbits about Marino in that realm that I can't disagree with the wisdom of the experts.
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