Ranking every Super Bowl quarterback pairing

Brady and Eli: Quite Super.
Brady and Eli: Quite Super.

Earlier today, when it looked like the upcoming Super Bowl might pit Blake Bortles against either Nick Foles or Case Keenum, I thought, “Jesus—this may well be the worst two starting quarterbacks in the history of the game.”

Then, later, I decided to rank all the pairings. It’s obviously a pretty unscientific project, so here’s what I was thinking:

• Two excellent QBs in a game ranks higher than one all-time great and one potato.

• It’s hard not to give more credit to modern QBs, whose statistics are (almost without fail) far superior to the predecessors.

• It doesn’t matter whether the game was played at the height of a career. For example, Johnny Unitas was a shell of his old self in Super Bowl V. But, for this list, he’s still THE Johnny Unitas.

• Miami’s David Woodley is, easily, the worst starter in Super Bowl history. But he played against Washington’s Joe Theismann, who was a helluva player for more than a decade. Therefore, Woodley doesn’t find himself at the bottom.

Anyhow, let the debate begin …

[Best to Worst]

• 1. Super Bowl XIX: Dan Marino-Joe Montana: Two all-time legends in the mix for Greatest of All-Time. Game was a 49er blowout, but Marino’s legacy is secure.

• 2. Super Bowl X and XIII: Terry Bradshaw-Roger Staubach: Because he sort of vanished once his career ended, people forget about Staubach’s greatness. But he was smart, elusive, slick. And Bradshaw was, well, Bradshaw.

• 3. Super Bowl XXIV: Joe Montana-John Elway: People disagree, but I always thought Marino was a nudge better than Elway. Hence, why these guys sit here at No. 3.

• 4. Super Bowl XXXII: Brett Favre-John Elway: I wrote Favre’s biography, but that doesn’t mean I consider him at a Marino-Montana level. I don’t.

• 5. Super Bowl XLIV: Drew Brees-Peyton Manning: One could argue this should be a tad higher. Brees will go down as Warner’s superior, and Manning is the closest we have to Brady.

• 6. Super Bowl XXXVI: Kurt Warner-Tom Brady: It’s weird—for all his Super Bowl appearances, Brady hasn’t faced many all-time dazzling quarterbacks. Warner was the best.

• 7. Super Bowl IX: Terry Bradshaw-Fran Tarkenton: Like Staubach, Tarkenton gets overlooked. Big mistake.

• 8. Super Bowl VI: Roger Staubach-Bob Griese: Griese, the Dolphin great, is in the Hall, but it’s sort of a stretch.

• 9. Super Bowl XXVII and XXVIII: Jim Kelly-Troy Aikman: Aikman was terrific, and he belongs in the Hall. But he and Kelly are merely all-time terrific, not legends of the Brady-Manning-Bradshaw-Staubach ilk.

• 10. Super Bowl I: Bart Starr-Len Dawson: I admit this I probably generational bias. But while both guys are tremendous, I’ve never been entirely sold on either man.

• 11. Super Bowl XVI: Joe Montana-Ken Anderson: The Bengals’ Anderson has been overlooked for years, and it’s unfair. Guy was insanely talented, and played on some awful clubs.

Bradshaw and Ferragamo: So-so.
Bradshaw and Ferragamo: So-so.

• 12. Super Bowl XLV: Ben Roethlisberger-Aaron Rodgers: Rodgers is a Hall lock, Big Ben is a Hall likely. That’s pretty darn good.

• 13. Super Bowl XI: Ken Stabler-Fran Tarkenton: Two freakishly fun players.

• 14. Super Bowl XLII and XLVI: Eli Manning-Tom Brady: Eli has had a fine career, certainly worthy of the draft’s top pick. But he’s not a Hall of Famer. Or even close.

• 15. Super Bowl VIII: Bob Griese-Fran Tarkenton: Again, I just don’t really love Griese as an all-time great. Sorry.

• 16. Super Bowl XXXIX: Tom Brady-Donovan McNabb: I always thought Eagles fans gave McNabb far too much shit. No, he wasn’t Brady or Peyton or even Roger Staubach. But he was very good.

• 17. Super Bowl XLIII: Ben Roethlisberger-Kurt Warner: To me, Warner and McNabb are about the same level.

• 18. Super Bowl XXI: John Elway-Phil Simms: I’m from New York, and for a long time there was debate over which Big Apple quarterback was better, Simms or Ken O’Brien. Digest that.

• 19. Super Bowl XXIII: Boomer Esiason-Joe Montana: Boomer had a McNabb-like career. Excellent, but not unforgettable.

• 20. Super Bowl XXXI: Drew Bledsoe-Brett Favre: Bledsoe was the first-overall pick in the NFL Draft, and—like Eli—he was worth it. Legend? No. Terrific? Sure.

• 21. Super Bowl XLIX: Tom Brady-Russell Wilson: Jury is still out on Wilson’s spot among the all-timers.

• 22. Super Bowl XXXIV: Kurt Warner-Steve McNair: Both fantastic players. Could be much higher or a tad lower.

• 23. Super Bowl V: Johnny Unitas-Craig Morton: I mean, Unitas is Unitas. But Morton is Morton—meaning he was good as a Cowboy, so-so as a Bronco.

• 24. Super Bowl XII: Roger Staubach-Craig Morton: I mean, Staubach is Staubach. But Morton is Morton—meaning he was good as a Cowboy, so-so as a Bronco.

Montana and Marino: Top of the charts
Montana and Marino: Top of the charts

• 25. Super Bowl XXII: Doug Williams-John Elway: Williams was the first African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl, which was huge. But his career was very up and down.

• 26. Super Bowl II: Bart Starr-Daryle Lamonica: Starr’s in the Hall, ol’ Daryle had a tremendous arm and very little touch.

• 27. Super Bowl XLVIII: Russell Wilson-Peyton Manning: Wilson’s young career makes him tough on this list.

• 28. Super Bowl VII: Bob Griese-Billy Kilmer: Kilmer was preposterously fun, so I’d love to put him higher. But this duo belongs right here.

• 29. Super Bowl LI: Matt Ryan-Tom Brady: Like Wilson, Ryan’s career is still defining itself.

• 30. Super Bowl III: Joe Namath-Earl Morrall: God, Namath was so overrated. And Morrall is a lifetime backup.

• 31. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Jake Delhomme-Tom Brady: The GOAT vs. a guy most of us wouldn’t recognize on the street.

• 32. Super Bowl LII: Tom Brady-Nick Foles: Foles is a backup. Little more.

• 33. Super Bowl XL: Matt Hasselbeck-Ben Roethlisberger: Hasselbeck had the type of career you’d be thrilled to produce. Longevity, dependability, fully exceeded expectations. But he was never truly great.

• 34. Super Bowl XIV: Vince Ferragamo-Terry Bradshaw: First jersey I ever owned was a Ferragamo Rams’ No. 15. But he was Pat Haden’s injury replacement; just a good QB.

McNair-Warner: Very, very good.
McNair-Warner: Very, very good.

• 35. Super Bowl 50: Cam Newton-Peyton Manning: I’m starting to think Cam will never be as great as I anticipated.

• 36. Super Bowl XVIII: Joe Theismann-Jim Plunkett: Two very solid NFL quarterbacks.

• 37. Super Bowl XXVI: Mark Rypien-Jim Kelly: Rypien never moved me. Kelly is a USFL refugee, and can do little wrong.

• 38. Super Bowl XXX: Troy Aikman-Neil O’Donnell: The Steeler was a system quarterback by every definition. Don’t believe me? Ask Rich Kotite.

 39. Super Bowl XXIX: Stan Humphries-Steve Young: Humphries was O’Donnell lite.

• 40. Super Bowl XXXIII: John Elway-Chris Chandler: It’s getting a little repetitive, but Chandler is O’Donnell is Humphries.

• 41. Super Bowl IV: Len Dawson-Joe Kapp: Kapp rhymes with nap. Zzzzzzz.

• 42. Super Bowl XXV: Jim Kelly-Jeff Hostetler: The Hoss had a terrific game, but he was strictly a backup called into action for the Giants.

• 43. Super Bowl XV: Jim Plunkett-Ron Jaworski: Were he not on TV, would anyone remember Jaws?

• 44. Super Bowl XLI: Peyton Manning-Rex Grossman: Gross, man.

• 45. Super Bowl XXXVII: Rich Gannon-Brad Johnson: Both Gannon and Johnson are superior to Grossman. But neither man touched Peyton. And so it is.

• 46. Super Bowl XVII: David Woodley-Joe Theismann: Woodley platooned at LSU. He was just not very good. Theismann, though, was excellent.

• 47. Super Bowl XLVII: Joe Flacco-Colin Kaepernick: Flacco is a Blue Hen, so I hate having him so low. But he’s truly just a so-so NFL quarterback. And the Kaepernick train didn’t last.

• 48. Super Bowl XX: Jim McMahon-Tony Eason: Interesting little fact—Ron Meyer, coach of the Pats, did not want the team to draft Eason in 1983. Thought he was too small and underwhelming. Well, um, yup.

• 49. Super Bowl XXXV: Trent Dilfer-Kerry Collins: Awful

Dilfer and Collins: Nope.
Dilfer and Collins: Nope.