The NFL recently lost an icon with the passing of Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr. Starr wasn’t simply one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but one of the most clutch. Naturally, that got us to thinking. Who else is in that discussion?
While there’s some definite overlap, we’re not ranking the greatest quarterbacks over. At this point, it would be hard to argue that anyone other than Tom Brady holds that honor. But while Brady is in the discussion for the most clutch ever, it’s a much livelier debate.
Of course, some legendary signal callers won’t even be seen. That’s what happens when we’re trying to whittle decades of history down to 10 men. After sorting through an abundance of the game’s most legendary signal callers, these are the 10 most-clutch quarterbacks in NFL history.
10. Roger Staubach
Staubach won two Super Bowls in his career. He also won a playoff game by throwing two touchdown passes in the final minute. In another, his Dallas Cowboys scored the winning touchdown on a late-game bomb from Staubach to Drew Pearson. That brought the phrase Hail Mary into the football lexicon. A combination of his Naval service and quarterbacks not being nearly as well protected as they are today prevented Staubach from a long career. But Staubach under center in a close game late in the fourth quarter was terrifying for any opposing defense.
9. Drew Brees
A cynical argument says that if Brett Favre hadn’t thrown arguably the worst pass of his career, Brees wouldn’t have even one Super Bowl appearance. On the other hand, if his defense was remotely capable of stopping Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, if the Minneapolis Miracle didn’t happen, and if the referees would have called a blatant pass interference, he could have three more. Those games all featured incredibly clutch play from Brees late. Brees may lack a deep championship track record. Still, good luck finding a defender who feels comfortable facing him with the game on the line.
8. Johnny Unitas
Unitas did win a Super Bowl, despite his career largely predating the Super Bowl era. He also led his Baltimore Colts to two NFL Championships in the pre-Super Bowl era. One of those games, the 1958 NFL Championship (one of the two most important games in NFL history), featured a two-minute drill from Unitas to tie the game. Then, in overtime, Unitas led another touchdown drive to win it. While it’s challenging to compare quarterbacks whose careers (or at least primes) largely predated the Super Bowl era to the modern signal callers, Unitas transcends that.
7. Peyton Manning
We’ll start here. Manning has more fourth-quarter comebacks than any quarterback in NFL history. He’s eight clear of second place Tom Brady (the men who are eight behind Brady are out of the top-10). Manning won two Super Bowls, but his crowning clutch moment was likely defeating Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in an AFC Championship Game after being down 21-3. Manning did have some rough postseason moments. That’s kind of what happens when you make the playoffs basically every year. No quarterback can do that without also being clutch.
6. John Elway
Elway’s early career Super Bowl struggles are undeniable. Those keep him from our top-five. We just can’t punish him any more than that. While he struggled in three Super Bowl losses, he wouldn’t have been in at least two of those games were it not for heroics in the playoffs. At that point of his career, Elway wasn’t exactly surrounded by All-Pros on offense, either. Guys like Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis would eventually come in and help Elway win two Super Bowls late. Those solidified his place as one of the most-clutch quarterbacks in NFL history.
5. Troy Aikman
In his postseason career, Aikman came up against Favre and Steve Young a total of six times. He lost only once. That has a lot to do with neither of those Hall of Famers making this list. Aikman finished his career with an 11-4 playoff record and three Super Bowl wins. In those Super Bowl victories, Aikman had five touchdown passes, one interception, and a 111.9 rating. So, Aikman wasn’t simply getting carried by a great team. He was the unquestioned leader of the Team of the 90s and one of the most-clutch quarterbacks ever.
4. Terry Bradshaw
Bradshaw finished his career with a perfect 4-0 mark in Super Bowls. In his Super Bowl career, Bradshaw won two MVPs and finished with nine touchdown passes and a 112.7 passer rating. Mind you, those were against some of the best defenses of the time and in an era where defenses were allowed to get away with a lot more than they were even 10 years later, let alone today. The Steel Curtain defense definitely helped make Bradshaw successful. But if you think he was carried to any of those championships, think again.
3. Bart Starr
Starr’s .900 postseason winning percentage (9-1) remains the best of any NFL quarterback. Starr won three championships in the pre-Super Bowl era and was the starting quarterback when the Packers won the first two Super Bowls. He reached the second of those Super Bowls after an unbelievably clutch fourth quarter comeback in the Ice Bowl. Like Unitas, it’s challenging to compare Starr to quarterbacks of the 70s and 80s, let alone the current ones. Still, if you had to pick any quarterback in history to win one game, it would not take long to get to Starr.
2. Tom Brady
If we just focused on coming back from down 10 in the fourth quarter against the Legion of Boom and winning a Super Bowl despite being down 28-3 late in the third quarter, Brady would probably in our top-five. We just can’t stop there, though. He’s won six Super Bowls. No other QB has more than four. Five of the six were decided by one possession. In four of those, he led late game-winning drives. Three Super Bowl losses keep him from the top spot. But with his overall track record, he can’t fall any further.
1. Joe Montana
Montana finished his career 4-0 in Super Bowls. Two of those wins came before the arrival of Jerry Rice. In the first Super Bowl with Rice, Montana led a 92-yard game winning touchdown drive. As Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick would tell you, scoring a go-ahead touchdown late in a Super Bowl isn’t easy. In his Super Bowl career, Montana completed 68 percent of his passes with 11 touchdown passes (plus two running), no interceptions, and a 127.8 passer rating. Keeping Brady from the top spot was not easy. That said, we can’t argue with Montana’s track record.