Ranking the best NFL quarterbacks of the 1970s

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The 1970s represented a much different era of football. It was about defense and the running game. Rules did not necessarily benefit quarterbacks. Hence, some of the decade’s best signal callers threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Though, there were a ton of winners at this position. We know about Bob Griese, Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw. But others had success, too. Here, we look at the top 10 quarterbacks of the 1970s.

Jim Hart, St. Louis Cardinals (1970-79)

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A sign of the times. Hart threw more interceptions (247) than touchdowns (209) during his 19-year NFL career. He was not a full-time starter for eight of those seasons and posted a losing record. Despite this, Hart is among the top quarterbacks of the decade. He led the Cardinals to their only real success in St. Louis before a move to Arizona. That included playoff appearances in 1974 and 1975 as well as a 10-win ’76 campaign. This represented the first two times the Cardinals earned spots in the postseason since they were in Chicago shortly after World War II. Let that sink in.

Len Dawson, Kansas City Chiefs (1970-75)

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Dawson’s 19-year NFL career spanned three decades. It included him and the Chiefs playing an important part in the initiation of the Super Bowl era. A first-round pick of the Steelers back in 1957, Dawson played in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Dallas before finally making his way to the Chiefs after they relocated and rebranded from Texas. Ultimately, Dawson would earned seven Pro Bowl appearances, three AFL Championships and a Super Bowl title. While most of this work was done in the 1960s, we’d be ignorant to not include Dawson in this list. He was a game changer in every sense of the term.

Billy Kilmer, Washington Redskins (1971-78) 

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Kilmer was brought to the nation’s capital in 1971 to back up Sonny Jurgensen after pedestrian stints with the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints. No one expected Kilmer to earn the starting job in Washington and bring this team the relevance it had missed for years. Kilmer’s eight-year stint in D.C. included seven winning seasons, five playoff appearances and one Super Bowl. Washington had not earned a playoff appearance prior to Kilmer’s arrival since 1945.

Bert Jones, Baltimore Colts (1973-79) 

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The Ruston Rifle played only 10 seasons in the NFL. He was a full-time starter for only five of those seasons. Despite this, Jones’ success can’t be ignored. He was the first notable Baltimore quarterback since the end of Johnny Unitas’ heralded career. Those were large footsteps to follow. Jones responded by leading the Colts to three consecutive playoff appearances and double-digit win seasons. He was one of the rare 1970s quarterbacks to throw more touchdowns (124) than interceptions (101). Following Jones’ retirement, the Colts would not earn another playoff appearance until they relocated to Indianapolis. He was the last face of this franchise in Maryland.

Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings (1972-78) 

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Perhaps best known for his Super Bowl futility (three losses in as many appearances), this Hall of Famer was also ahead of his time. An era that saw teams focus more on running the ball and stout defense, Tarkenton led the league in completions and attempts three times. Originally a member of the Vikings from 1961-66, he returned to the team in 1972 after several seasons with the New York Giants. He would go on to post a 64-27-2 record in his second stint under Bud Grant. He finished his career with 342 passing touchdowns, a record that stood until Dan Marino broke it.

Bob Griese, Miami Dolphins (1970-79)

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Griese was underrated. History shows he wasn’t the most important part of Miami’s success under the legendary Don Shula. But let’s be real here for a second. The two-time Super Bowl champion brought this then expansion team to the forefront. He took over as the Fins’ starter in their second year of existence, ultimately leading them to five consecutive playoff appearances from 1970-1974. That included two Super Bowl titles and the only perfect season in NFL history. Griese would finish his Dolphins career having thrown nearly 200 touchdown passes while accumulating a 92-56-3 record as a starter. He’s right behind Dan Marino as the greatest quarterback in franchise history.

Ken Stabler, Oakland Raiders (1970-79) 

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Yet another quarterback whose career spanned the entire 1970s, Stabler was an absolute treasure for what would ultimately be a hated Raiders squad that decade. He was adored by fans in Northern California and known to throw down a few with them at local bars. On the field, the Snake was among the best of his generation. The late-great Stabler posted a 69-26-1 record as the Raiders’ starter and led the team to a win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. A sign of a different era, Stabler ended his career having thrown more interceptions (222) than touchdowns (194). That doesn’t take away from his brilliant career, one that ended in an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame following his death.

Archie Manning, New Orleans Saints (1971-79)

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Did Archie have as much on-field success as his sons decades later? No. Albeit playing for a horrible Saints squad, Manning did lay the groundwork for his sons. He led the NFL in completions and attempts back in 1972 and threw for over 3,000 yards three consecutive seasons. Manning’s career record of 35-101-3 was more indicative of the Saints being a horribly-run franchise during the 70s. This doesn’t take anything away from how significant of a figure he was in the Bayou.

Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers (1970-79)

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Some will say that Bradshaw relied too much on an elite running back from all-time great back Franco Harris and the Steel Curtain defense. I don’t buy that logic. Sure he put up some bad stats throughout his career, but the dude was an absolute winner. Bradshaw led Pittsburgh to wins in all four of its Super Bowl appearances and earned two MVPs for his performances in said games. He also won the NFL regular season MVP in 1978 and posted an 82-36 record as a starter in the 1970s. 

Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys (1970-79) 

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Staubach and his Cowboys joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as two teams who dominated the decade. The former Heisman winner from Navy led Dallas to two Super Bowls, earned six Pro Bowl appearances and led the league in quarterback rating four different times. Not only was Roger the Dodger an elite statistical quarterback, he proved to be a big time winner. Staubach posted an 85-29 record in 11 seasons with Dallas.