Since the turn of the century, the NFL has entered a new era. Running backs are catching more passes; kickers are converting field goals from everywhere on the field, and the quarterback is at the center of the game once more.
In the past few decades, football has seen half a dozen quarterbacks who could make a claim as the greatest of all time. However, today we look at the best NFL players in all of football history.
NFL players in the news
Perhaps it’s daily fantasy sports, or the legalization of sports betting in America. Maybe it’s Instagram, Twitter, and the rest of social media. But football is on America’s mind 12 months a year these days, and this wasn’t always the case. Players have a level of celebrity even the greatest players in the mid-20th century couldn’t dream of.
Some of the most-discussed players are controversial, like Ryan Leaf and Greg Hardy, or all-time standouts at their position, like Travis Kelce, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Rob Gronkowski. Or they could be both, like Tyreek Hill, Michael Vick, Josh Gordon. But what football fans love to talk about more than anything else: the GOAT debate. Is Brady the greatest of all time? Is anyone else close? Could it be one of the mostly-forgotten QBs?
Explosive and dynamic QB play is mostly a 21st-century innovation. In 2000, Donovan McNabb led his team in both passing and rushing yards, providing the blueprint for the next generation.
The best NFL players in the modern era
Patrick Mahomes dazzles with the ball, whether he’s throwing an 80-yard laser or taking it to the end zone. In only a few years, the 25-year-old has positioned himself on the outside of the GOAT debate with plenty of time to bolster his case. Having a Lombardi Trophy already doesn’t hurt, either. But yesteryear’s QBs are still hanging on.
Tom Brady has a relentless work ethic and seven rings. Seven! And he’s well-positioned to obtain an eighth. When it comes to the numbers, Brady is the GOAT. But on a talent and skill level, he’s got company. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers has most certainly been the best NFL player at times during his career. He likely has Green Bay’s coaching to blame for at least one of the Packers’ playoff exits during his career. He could also place blame on others for lacking a second Super Bowl win.
Retired QBs and their place in the pantheon
Peyton Manning is another QB closer to Brady and Rodgers than Mahomes. Though the Sheriff was even more wooden in the pocket, he managed to rifle the ball accurately enough to win Super Bowls for two franchises. He was the only starting quarterback to do so until Brady in 2021.
Joe Montana won four Super Bowls in the ’80s and should be mentioned in any best quarterback or GOAT conversation — if it weren’t for the fact that he took himself out of it by recognizing Brady as the all-time greatest. “Everybody always contests over that, but I think if you look at what Tom has been able to accomplish in his time that he’s played, I think it puts him definitely up there at the top of the list,” Montana said.
As it stands, Brady is head and shoulders above the rest in the best NFL players debate. But if Mahomes reaches his potential, it could turn into a tighter race — by the mid-2030s. The next batch of upcoming QBs, like Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields, also have the potential to make the leap. But the story of the past two decades continues into the 2020s: Everyone’s chasing Touchdown Tom.
A Super Bowl is the crowning achievement of any NFL career. Tom Brady’s status as the GOAT is largely bolstered by the fact that he has too many rings to fit on one hand. But that doesn’t mean players have to win the Big Game to be considered elite.
Playing at a high level for years is enough, even if a player’s never lifted the Lombardi Trophy. Some of the most exciting QBs in history never won the Super Bowl. But they had incredible college careers and made a unique impact in the NFL. Who’s the best to never do it, and who else is in the conversation?
The best to never win the Super Bowl
Marino finished his career with over 60,000 passing yards and 400 touchdown passes. Although Philip Rivers passed him in both stats — he also never won the Super Bowl — Marino played in a different era. He also dominated games in a way Rivers never managed to. Marino is one of the greatest Dolphins QBs ever, even without a ring. But he isn’t the only QB held in high esteem who didn’t win the big one.
Tony Romo’s career is inextricably linked with playoff exits. From the mundane events to the inexplicable ones, he managed a record of only 2-4 in the playoffs. But because Dallas is such a storied franchise, the QB who led them for over a decade received plenty of attention. Most fans consider him in the upper tier of all-time QBs without much playoff success. His Cowboys successor has already jumped in to continue the legacy.
Active quarterbacks who haven’t put it all together yet
Former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson is another QB dealing with the stigma that he can’t produce in the playoffs. His TD:INT ratio, 3:5 in the playoffs over a sample size of four games, is far below average. But the athlete is 24 years old.
Jackson is starting his fourth season in the NFL and has already experienced coronavirus twice. The 24-year-old doesn’t have to win it all this season, next season, or even in the 2020s. Jackson’s ability to rush like almost no other QB ever could bring an unpredictable angle to the Ravens’ offense.
A quarterback doesn’t have to be in the GOAT conversation to garner fans. No one would tell you with a straight face that Tim Tebow is an all-time great. But his brief stint with the Broncos saw him pull off wins that were mystifying at times. Because of his standout college career and personality, Tebow brought tons of new fans to the NFL. His time as an NFL quarterback should be over, but his size and raw talent could change things.
The wild card with a 40% win rate
Another QB who’s never been close to a Super Bowl win but still managed to garner plenty of fans is Ryan Fitzpatrick. Though Fitzmagic (“Fitztragic” during some years) seems to be losing the quarterback competition to Tua Tagovailoa in Miami, he’s accomplished a lot in his career.
In addition to his unusual alma mater (Harvard) and his third-best-all-time Wonderlic score, Fitzmagic holds the distinction of having defeated the best team of the 2000s (New England Patriots) with every other team in their division. The massive beard and sense of humor are just a cherry on top of the Fitzpatrick sundae.
Each side in an NFL game plays 11 men at a time. Out of those 22 on the field, only one (or zero, on special teams) is the quarterback. So why do quarterbacks get so much attention? The GOAT, according to most fans, is quarterback Tom Brady. And if you don’t think it’s Brady, it’s probably another quarterback. But plenty of all-time greats have come through the NFL without taking a single snap under center.
Why do quarterbacks get all of the hype?
Quarterbacks are generally taken high in the draft, paid the most money, and given the most off-field attention. And it’s not all unwarranted. They handle the ball nearly every play and make most of the offensive decisions. But a quarterback needs 10 other great players around them to succeed. Some of those players could make a claim at being the best NFL player of all time.
Despite his abbreviated time in the league, Jim Brown put up incredible numbers as one of the best running backs of his time. The three-time NFL MVP participated in the Pro Bowl all nine years of his NFL career. Brown ran for over 1,000 yards seven times and nearly broke the 2,000-yard barrier during a couple of seasons. The running back left the NFL due to an interest in Hollywood and succeeded there as well. Brown acted in over 50 TV shows and movies and appeared as himself in another 150.
Other NFL players with a claim to the title
Defensive end Reggie White won the Defensive Player of the Year twice (1987 and 1998) and made it to the Pro Bowl. He retired in 1998 as the all-time sacks leader (though he played one more year for the Carolina Panthers in 2000). White was known for his faith as a Baptist pastor, giving him the excellent nickname “The Minister of Defense.” White tragically passed away in 2004. The next season, the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, and University of Tennessee retired his jersey.
Throughout NFL history, the only wide receiver with a legitimate challenge for the GOAT title is Jerry Rice. One of only a few players to see 17 games during a regular season (due to a pre-bye week trade), Rice’s records are still too numerous to mention. Three Super Bowl wins with an MVP award in one of them, 13 Pro Bowl selections, Offensive Player of the Year twice, and league MVP in 1987 … If anyone at wide receiver is in the GOAT conversation, it’s Rice.
Outside of quarterback, wide receiver, and running back, it’s tough to select players who may have been a potential GOAT. Ray Guy won three Super Bowls as a punter and made the Pro Bowl seven times. During his tenure, the hang time metric was created to measure his floating kicks. Opposing coaches even ordered an investigation to see if the footballs were inflated using helium. Guy is the best punter ever and perhaps the greatest special teams player ever.
The best team on each side of the ball
It’s worth taking a moment to discuss the best overall teams of all time. Because NFL teams have improved so much in the realm of passing and downfield movement, the best offense of all time probably comes from this century. It’s probably either the 2007 Patriots (18-1!) or one of the recent Kansas City Chiefs teams. Patrick Mahomes might not be the GOAT (yet). But the young QB could keep the high-powered KC offense in the playoffs for the next decade with the weapons surrounding him.
On the defensive end, the best defense ever is likely the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Defense wins championships,” as the saying goes. The 2002 Bucs had a few standout players: Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, Simeon Rice. But their power came from the cohesiveness of the defense. There are plenty of ways to win a football game, but the Bucs were best at slowing it down and preventing unnecessary points.