Tom Brady and Brett Favre each get another chance to solidify their reputations in Sunday’s conference championship games, but my vote for the top quarterback of the last 30 years still goes to Joe Montana.
In the late ’70s, the NFL drastically changed the rules on defensive contact so that linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Jack Lambert could no longer clothesline receivers coming across the middle, and defensive backs such as Jack Tatum and George Atkinson could no longer commit mayhem on receivers well past the line of scrimmage.
Those changes made it possible to use the crossing patterns that were the trademark plays in Bill Walsh’s offense, and for smaller receivers to thrive, most notably the “smurfs” on Miami’s 1984 AFC championship team.
They also make it impossible to compare current quarterbacks with great ones from the past, such as Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham and even Sammy Baugh.
So, I’m confining my judgments to the last 30 years and my choices are: 1) Montana, 2) John Elway, 3) Brady, 4) Roger Staubach, 5) Favre. All but Staubach played their entire careers after the rules changes. Staubach spanned two eras and was great in both.
There are several others who merit consideration: Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys; Peyton Manning, probably the best pure passer in the game today and whose Indianapolis Colts won the last year’s Super Bowl; record-setting passer Dan Marino of the quick release and strong arm; Terry Bradshaw, whose Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls, though he was a significant factor only in the last two; Steve Young, a personal favorite, who broke out of Montana’s shadow to set game records as the 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl. I’m sure you have other candidates.
Elway was the best athlete of these five, an excellent runner in his youth as well as a superlative passer. I was watching a Stanford practice in 1979 when Elway made his debut. He was so impressive that two sophomore quarterbacks (one of them, Babe Laufenberg, who later played in the NFL), immediately transferred to other schools. They knew they had no chance to play at Stanford with Elway there.
Elway was also known for his comebacks, as is every other quarterback on this list. To me, that’s probably the most reliable measure of a quarterback, that ability to stay poised under pressure.
Nobody was better at that than Montana. I admit to bias here because I saw Montana throughout his career, and he was a marvel. He didn’t have the strongest arm, but he was unbelievably accurate, getting the ball to receivers in absolutely the right spot, so receivers such as Jerry Rice and John Taylor could turn short passes into long gainers. In big games, like the 1982 NFC Championship game against Dallas or the 1989 Super Bowl against Cincinnati, he engineered late game drives to win.
Quarterbacks are inevitably judged by their postseason success, sometimes unfairly; who knows how many Super Bowls Elway might have won if he’d had the supporting casts Montana and Brady have had?
But the fact is that Montana has those four Super Bowl rings. Brady should tie him this year, if the Patriots continue undefeated through the Super Bowl, which may make some admirers decide he’s the best of the last 30 years. But my vote will still go to Montana.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.