Ranking the best NFL quarterbacks of the 1980s

Ranking the best NFL quarterbacks of the 1980s
Ranking the best NFL quarterbacks of the 1980s. Various/Getty Images

The 1980s represented the first truly great era of quarterback play around the NFL. All-time greats Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino emerged as the league’s bright stars. Meanwhile, less-heralded players such as Phil Simms and Joe Theismann led winning teams in the NFC East. We also saw Randall Cunningham transcend the quarterback position and create opportunities for future generations and the modern NFL. Here’s a look at the top-10 quarterback from the golden decade of play at that position around the NFL.

29. Eric Hipple, Detroit Lions (1980-89)

Detroit Lions v Los Angeles Rams
ANAHEIM, CA – OCTOBER 19: Quarterback Eric Hipple of the Detroit Lions sets to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during a game at Anaheim Stadium on October 19, 1986 in Anaheim, California. The Rams won 14-10 (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

It’s pretty amazing that Hipple remained with Detroit throughout the entire 1980s. After being selected in the fourth round of the 1980 NFL Draft, the Utah State product proceeded to start 57 games for the Lions. He threw 55 touchdowns compared to a resounding 70 interceptions while boasting a 28-29 record as a starter. Hipple remains the worst regular starter of this decade

28. Lynn Dickey, Green Bay Packers (1980-85)

Los Angeles Rams v Green Bay Packers
MILWAUKEE, WI – SEPTEMBER 12: Lynn Dickey #12 of the Green Bay Packers drops back to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during an NFL football game September 12, 1982 at Milwaukee County Stadium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dickey played for the Packers from 1976-85. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Stuck between the late Bart Starr and the likes of modern superstars Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, Dickey represented an era of mediocrity for the heralded Packers franchise. A third-round pick of the Houston Oilers back in 1971, Dickey was traded to Green Bay for a much better quarterback in that of  John Hadl. He ultimately served as Green Bay’s starter for parts of 10 seasons. In the 1980s, the Kansas State product combined to post a 36-41-2 record while throwing 116 touchdowns compared to 119 interceptions. 

27. Tommy Kramer, Minnesota Vikings (1980-89)

Minnesota Vikings v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
TAMPA, FL – SEPTEMBER 15: QB Tommy Kramer #9 of the Minnesota Vikings drops back to pass during a NFL game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium on September 15, 1985 in Tampa, Florida. The Vikings won 31 to 16. (Photo by Michael J. Minardi/Getty Images)

As you can tell, the old Black and Blue division did not necessarily put out the best quarterbacks of the decade. Much like Hipple in Detroit the mediocre Kramer spent all 10 seasons of this decade with the Vikings. Outside of earning a Pro Bowl appearance in 1986, he did nothing of substance. This included a near .500 record with three more touchdowns than interceptions. Kramer also threw three touchdowns compared to seven interceptions in four playoff appearances. Yuck!

26. Bert Jones, Baltimore Colts (1980-81)

Baltimore Colts Bert Jones
BALTIMORE – OCTOBER 3: Quarterback Bert Jones #7 of the Baltimore Colts prepares to take the ball from center Ken Mendenhall #57 during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Memorial Stadium on October 3, 1976 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

The Colts of the 1980s were a complete disaster, earning one combined playoff appearance. Their quarterbacks that decade were so disastrous that Jones represents the best the Colts had in the 80s. A former NFL MVP, Jones posted a 9-25 record in his three seasons as Baltimore’s starter this decade. The good news? He threw one more touchdown than interception. Glass half full and the like.

25. Steve Grogan, New England Patriots (1980-89)

Cleveland Browns v New England Patriots
FOXBORO, MA – NOVEMBER 20: Quarterback Steve Grogan #14 of the New England Patriots goes back to pass against the Cleveland Browns on November 20, 1983 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

Tough as nails. That’s the best way to describe Grogan’s 16-year career with the Patriots. No story more so than the 1985 season defines what Grogan meant to the Patriots. He suffered a broken leg during the season, only to return after Tony Eason struggled against the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. While he could not lead Ne England to a win over the vaunted Bears’ defense, it became something of folklore in New England. All said, Grogan posted a 33-31 record as a starter in the 1980s, throwing more interceptions (103) than touchdowns (89). But that doesn’t tell the entire story.

24. Bill Kenney, Kansas City Chiefs (1980-88)

San Diego Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs
KANSAS CITY, MO – SEPTEMBER 20, 1981: Bill Kenney #9 of the Kansas City Chiefs goes back to pass during a NFL game against the San Diego Chargers on September 20, 1981 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

Vastly underrated throughout his nine-yer career, this former 12th-round pick of the Miami Dolphins actually led the NFL in completions and attempts en route to earning Pro Bowl honors in 1983. At issue here was a lack of team-wide success in Kansas City. The Chiefs posted a mere 34-43 record in 77 starts under Kenney during the 1980s. He eventually retired following the 1988 season, only to be replaced by Steve DeBerg. In a run of bad luck, the Chiefs would go on to in double-digit games in consecutive seasons.

23. Bobby Hebert, New Orleans Saints (1985-89)

Bobby Hebert
6 Sep 1992: Quarterback Bobby Hebert of the New Orleans Saints looks to pass the ball during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles won the game, 15-13. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hixon /Allspor

Born and bred in the Bayou, Hebert’s ascension from undrafted free free agent to the face of a downtrodden Saints franchise is by now well known. He started six games as a rookie in 1985 and ultimately took over as the full-time starter two years later. Though, it did not come with a ton of success. Throughout his five years with the Saints in the 1980s, Hebert threw 57 touchdowns compared to 51 interceptions. He ultimately held out throughout the 1990 season due to a contract dispute, only to take up residence with the then division-rival Falcons in 1993.

22. Steve Bartkowski, Atlanta Falcons (1980-86)

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons
ATLANTA, GA – OCTOBER 6: Steve Bartkowski #10 of the Atlanta Falcons turns to hand the ball off to a running back against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game October 6, 1983 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Bartkowski played for the Falcons from 1975-85. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The NFC Rookie of the Year in 1975, this former No. 1 overall pick did not necessarily live up to expectations after starring for the California Golden Bears. Known as a quarterback with a strong arm, Bartkowski and the Falcons were mired in mediocrity throughout his tenure as the team’s starter. He threw 61 combined touchdowns in 1980 and 81 before regressing big time. Throughout the final four years of his tenure in Atlanta, the team posted a 14-25 record when Bartkowski was under center. One has to wonder how his career might have turned out if the quarterback had a better supporting cast.

21. Ken O’Brien, New York Jets (1984-89)

New York Jets
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1991: Quarterback Ken O’Brien #7 of the New York Jets drops back to pass during an NFL football game circa 1991. O’Brien played for the Jets from 1984-92. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

A 10-year NFL veteran, O’Brien did most of his heavy lifting in the 1980s. Selected in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft, the New York native posted a mediocre 35-35-1 record in the decade. He did, however, lead the NFL with the lowest interception rate three times while leading the Jets to consecutive playoff appearances in 1985 and 1986. Following that final campaign, New York would earn only one postseason appearance over the next decade.

20. Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers (1980-83)

Sylvia Allen/Getty Images

One of the top quarterbacks of the 1970s, Bradshaw oversaw the final great stretch run for Pittsburgh under the legendary Chuck Noll. That didn’t necessarily translate to the final three years of his Hall of Fame career. Terry threw 41 touchdowns compared to 25 interceptions while leading the Steelers to a 15-9 record in parts of four seasons this decade. His final playoff appearance came in a loss to the San Diego Chargers in the wild card round following the 1982 campaign.

19. Steve Young, Tampa Bay Buccaneers/San Francisco 49ers (1985-89)

San Francisco 49ers v Pittsburgh Steelers
PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 15: Quarterback Steve Young #8 of the San Francisco 49ers passes during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium on December 15, 1996 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The 49ers defeated the Steelers 25-15. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Another former USFL player, Young joined Tampa Bay after that league went belly up. He was a supplemental draft choice of the team, but bombed out big time for what had been a long-downtrodden franchise. Young posted a 3-16-1 record in Tampa before being dealt to San Francisco ahead of the 1987 season. What we saw that year would be a harbinger of things to come. Young accounted for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions behind Joe Montana. The rest is history.

18. Jim McMahon, Chicago Bears (1982-88)

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
CHICAGO, IL – NOVEMBER 29: Quarterback Jim McMahon #9 of the Chicago Bears passing against the Green Bay Packers during a game on November 29, 1987 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

A top-five pick by Chicago back in 1982, McMahon had a largely unassuming career in the NFL. He threw only 100 touchdowns during 15 seasons in the league. Though, the 1985 Bears remain one of the greatest teams in league history. Riding a dominant defense, McMahon won all 11 of his regular-season starts that year. Chicago outscored its three playoff opponents by a combined margin of 91-10, culminating in a blowout win over New England in the Super Bowl. McMahon and his teammate remain legends in the Windy City.

17. Jim Plunkett, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders (1980-86)

Cleveland Browns vs. Los Angeles Raiders
LOS ANGELES – NOVEMBER 16: Quarterback Jim Plunkett #16 of the Los Angeles Raiders drops back to pass during the game against the Cleveland Browns at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 16, 1986 in Los Angeles, California. The Raiders won 27-14. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

A journeyman in ever sense of the term after the Patriots made him a first-round pick back in 1971, Plunkett struggled big time in New England and San Francisco before finding a home with the Raiders. He led the Raiders to a blowout 39-9 win over Washington in in Super Bowl XVIII following the 1983 season. This still represents the Raiders’ last championship. All said, the Stanford product might have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns during his time with the Raiders. But that one title allows him to ascend the rankings here.

16. Bernie Kosar, Cleveland Browns (1985-89)

Cleveland Browns Bernie Kosar
CLEVELAND, OH – 1986: Quarterback Bernie Kosar #19 of the Cleveland Browns looks to pass during a National Football League game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1986 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

It can be said that Kosar was the last real winning quarterbacks for the Browns’ organization. He posted a 39-23-1 record in five seasons as the team’s starter this decade, leading Cleveland to four consecutive playoff appearances from 86-89. The Browns have made two playoff appearances since. That very same span saw Kosar throw 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions. He remains one of the most underrated quarterbacks of this generation.

15. Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills (1986-89)

Frank Reich took over for injured Jim Kelly at the Meadowlands on Dec. 15, 1990, and led the Bills past the Giants. Reich Frank

Better known for leading Buffalo to a dominating run through the AFC the next decade, Kelly laid the groundwork under Marv Levy in the 1980s. Selected in the first round of the 1983 draft, Kelly opted to play in the USFL until that league folded in 1986. During his four years as a starter in the 80s, Kelly threw for north of 12,000 yards with 81 touchdowns and 63 interceptions and led the Bills to 12 ins in 1988. It would only be a harbinger of things to come.

14. Doug Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Washington (1980-89)

Super Bowl XXII
SAN DIEGO – JANUARY 31: Quarterback Doug Williams #17 of the Washington Redskins looks to pass during Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos at Jack Murphy Stadium on January 31, 1988 in San Diego, California. The Redskins won 42-10. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Long beore Williams led Washington to the Super Bowl XXII title, he made history as one of the first African-American quarterbacks selected in the first round. The Grambling State product was the No. 17 overall pick back in 1978. He proceeded to put up 115 total touchdowns and 93 interceptions in six seasons as a full-time starter before retiring following the 1989 season.

13. Neil Lomax, St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals (1981-88) 

Washington Redskins v Phoenix Cardinals
TEMPE, AZ – SEPTEMBER 25: Quarterback Neil Lomax #15 of the Phoenix Cardinals runs as he looks for a receiver down field during a game against the Washington Redskins at Sun Devil Stadium on September 25, 1988 in Tempe, Arizona. The Cardinals won 30-21. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Lomax, a second-round pick of the Cardinals back in 1981, was a full-time starter for the organization from 1983-88. He helped oversee the relocation from Missouri to the Arizona desert from an on-field perspective. The former Portland State star finished his career having thrown for 22,271 yards with 136 touchdowns and 90 interceptions. He led the NFL in completions, attempts and passing yards during the strike-shortened 1987 season. 

12. Jim Everett, Los Angeles Rams (1986-89)

New York Jets v Los Angeles Rams
ANAHEIM,CA-CIRCA 1992: Jim Everett of the Los Angeles Rams looks to pass against the New York Jets at Anaheim Stadium circa 1992 in Anaheim,California. (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)

Perhaps better known for his feud with Jim Rome, Everett was actually an extremely successful figure under head coach Jon Robinson in the late 1980s. Sure his Rams had a hard time getting past the San Francisco 49ers in the old NFC West, but the success was there. From 86-89, Everett led the Rams to a 29-19 record, helping the team earn three playoff appearances in the process. He led the NFL in touchdown passes in both 1988 and 1989

11. Boomer Esiason, Cincinnati Bengals (1984-89)

Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason
1988: The Bengals Boomer Esiason. The Enquirer/Gary Landers scanned February 16, 2010 The Bengals © Gary Landers, Cincinnati Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Boomer was the only quarterback of this decade to go tit-for-tat with Joe Montana. It resulted in the Bengals’ second Super Bowl loss to the 49ers, 20-16, following the 1988 season. Though, it also showed us how underrated Esiason was.

He threw 50 more touchdowns than interceptions during his six seasons this decade. That included tossing 25-plus touchdowns four times in a five-year span. That was unheard of during an era of football when defense dominated the landscape of the league.

10. Joe Theismann, Washington (1980-85)

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins
WASHINGTON, D.C. – CIRCA 1977: Joe Theismann #7 of the Washington Redskins drops back to pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during an NFL football game circa 1977 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.. Theismann played for the Redskins from 1974-85. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Sadly, Theismann is best known for the career-ending leg injury that he suffered against Lawrence Taylor and the Giants in 1985. The former Notre Dame star’s injury set the tone for teams focusing more on pass protection from the blindside.

Though, this didn’t change how well Theismann performed in his six seasons with the franchise during the 80s. He led Washington to a win over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII and earned Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year honors that very same season. All said, Theismann finished the decade with a 53-30 record as a starter with 110 touchdowns and 85 interceptions.

9. Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles (1985-89)

Randall Cunningham
23 Sep 1990: Quarterback Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles is ready to pass during a game against Los Angeles Rams at the Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. The Eagles won over the Rams, 27-21. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allspor

One of the greatest players in UNLV history, Cunningham was selected in the second round of the 1985 NFL Draft by Philadelphia. The idea was that Cunningham would take over for the great Ron Jaworski. It didn’t take too long.

The dual-threat quarterback became a regular starter in 1987. In his three seasons in that role during the 80s, Cunningham tallied a whopping 11,734 total yards with 80 touchdowns and 43 interceptions. It was a harbinger of things to come for Cunningham heading into the new decade, laying a foundation for other black quarterbacks years later. A generational talent, Cunningham was a transcendent star in the City of Brotherly Love.

8. Phil Simms, New York Giants (1980-89)

Classic NFL
1989: Phil Simms of the New York Giants during a game at Giants Stadium in New York, NY.

Simms’ long NFL career spanned parts of three decades, including the entire 1980s. While his stats weren’t gaudy, the former Morehead State star proved to be a winner during a career that saw him play exclusively for only the Giants.

Simms posted a 57-30 record as a starter for the Giants from 1984-89. He led the team to a Super Bowl win over Elway and the Broncos following the 1987 season. This very same span saw Simms combine for over 20,000 passing yards with 23 more touchdowns than interceptions.

7. Danny White, Dallas Cowboys (1980-88)

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys
IRVING, TX – DECEMBER 11: Quarterback Danny White #11 of the Dallas Cowboys passing in a game against the Washington Redskins on December 11, l983 in Irving, Texas. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

White will be best known for failing to lead Dallas to a championship following the retirement of all-time great Roger Staubach. The Cowboys’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 1981 NFC Championship Game stands above the rest.

Despite this, White remains one of the most underrated quarterbacks of the 1980s. He led Dallas to four playoff appearances in parts of seven seasons before the team went into full-scale rebuild mode. This very same span saw White throw for north of 21,000 yards with 152 touchdowns and 126 interceptions.

6. Warren Moon, Houston Oilers (1984-89)

1991 AFC Divisional Playoff Game - Houston Oilers vs Denver Broncos - January 4, 1992
Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon (1), elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2006, fires a pass during the AFC Divisional Playoff, a 26-24 loss to the Denver Broncos on January 4, 1992, at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by William R. Sallaz/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

Al Davis made waves when he selected Eldridge Dickey in the first round of the 1968 NFL Draft. Doug Williams shocked the nation in leading the Redskins to a Super Bowl title. Even then, Moon is often seen as one of the players who really changed everything for Black quarterbacks and his play in the 1980s and 1990s proved why.

A product of Washington, Moon did most of his damage in the early 90s. However, he was a trendsetter the decade before. During six years of play in the 80s, the Hall of Famer accounted for 116 total touchdowns in part-time action. It was a precursor of things to come.

5. Dave Krieg, Seattle Seahawks (1980-89)

Seattle Seahawks v Miami Dolphins
MIAMI, FL – DECEMBER 16: Dave Krieg #17 of the Seattle Seahawks drops back to pass against the Miami Dolphins during an NFL football game December 16, 1990 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. Krieg played for the Seahawks from 1980-91. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

One of a handful of quarterbacks who played on the same team throughout the 1980s, Krieg turned a tremendous career at small-school Milton into a shockingly long NFL career. In his seven seasons as Seatte’s primary starter during the decade, Krieg led the team to its first four playoff appearances ever. He ultimately threw for nearly 21,000 yards with 169 touchdowns and 116 interceptions throughout the decade, making sweet music with Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent in the process.

4. Dan Fouts, San Diego Chargers (1980-87)

Denver Broncos v San Diego Chargers
SAN DIEGO – NOVEMBER 29: Quarterback Dan Fouts #14 of the San Diego Chargers looks to pass during a game against the Denver Broncos at Jack Murphy Stadium on November 29, 1987 in San Diego, California. Fouts completed 23 out of 48 passes for 322 yards and 2 interceptions. The Broncos won 31-17. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

In a precursor to the modern era, Fouts’ success under the “Air Coryell” offensive system enabled him to put up some staggering numbers. The former Oregon standout led the NFL in passing yards each season from 1979-82.

He started the decade by tallying 4,715 passing yards with 30 touchdowns. Fouts followed that up by going for 4,802 yards in 1981. Both set single-season passing marks. Unfortunately for the Chargers, this did not lead to postseason success. Fouts posted a 3-3 playoff record as the team’s starter during the 1980s.

3. John Elway, Denver Broncos (1983-1989)

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

One of less than a handful of quarterbacks who would make top-10 lists in multiple decades, Elway didn’t reach the pinnacle of his career until the 1990s. This doesn’t mean the No. 1 overall pick of the Baltimore Colts (that was a thing) in 1983 didn’t have success the decade prior.

Despite losing all three of his Super Bowl appearances in the 80s, Elway acted as a revolutionary figure. He tallied 131 total touchdowns in parts of seven seasons as Denver’s starter, leading the team to four double-digit win seasons during that span. The only issue with Elway was a lack of individual and team-wide success in the playoffs. He posted a 6-5 record while throwing 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

2. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins (1983-89)

Miami Dolphin's quarterback Dan Marino broke Fran
MIAMI, FL – OCTOBER 8: Miami Dolphin’s quarterback Dan Marino broke Fran Tarkenton’s NFL career reception record with 3,687 with his fourth completion 08 Oct at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami against the Indianapolis Colts. Marino ended the day with a career total of 3,702. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read CHRIS BERNACCHI/AFP via Getty Images)

If it weren’t for Miami’s lack of postseason and Super Bowl success with Marino under center, he would be mentioned among the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. Heck, an argument can be made that the Hall of Famer is still a top-five quarterback despite not having won a title.

Across the seven seasons he played in the 80s, Marino threw for 27,853 yards with 220 touchdowns and 125 interceptions. Those are numbers that were not even in the NFL’s lexicon at the time. He also led Miami to an average of nearly 10 wins per season during that span while earning five trips to the Pro Bowl and the MVP award once.

1. Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers (1980-89)

Joe Montana during Super Bowl XXIII
San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana celebrates after he threw the winning touchdown to John Taylor against the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl XXIII in Miami on Jan. 22, 1989. Xxx E01 Montana 24 Sbsbs S Fbn Usa Fl (© H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY, USA TODAY via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Debates will continue to rage regarding Montana’s status as an all-time great quarterback. Has Tom Brady surpassed him? One telling stat that favors Montana is his 4-0 record in the Super Bowl during the 1980s. Those four Super Bowl appearances saw Montana tally 11 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions for a quarterback rating of 110-plus.

Before injuries derailed Montana’s career in San Francisco, he was known as GOAT. The 80s saw this Hall of Famer boast an 86-37 regular-season record and a 13-4 mark in the playoffs. He tallied almost 31,000 yards with 215 touchdowns and 107 interceptions in the regular season, turning that latter number up big time in the playoffs with 36 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Unquestionably, Montana was the greatest quarterback of this decade.