I am starting to smell Autumn. Welcome back football. I saw my first NFL game in the early 1980’s. It’s not like I’ve seen all of NFL history in real-time. I’m trying to rank the 55 greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. By naming only 55 guys, I’ll be leaving off several elite players and champions.
There is no disputing that Terrell Owens is one of the most polarizing athletes of all time. He’s a guy that’s left us with a lot to talk about.
Here are my memories of the unforgettable T.O.
HE POSED ON THE TEXAS STADIUM STAR– It was the opening month of the 2000 NFL season. After catching a touchdown pass early in the game, San Francisco’s Owens ran to the middle of the Texas Stadium field to celebrate on the star. It was one of the most obnoxious things I’d ever seen. Dallas came back down the field, and Emmitt Smith plunged into the end zone. Emmitt headed to the same place in the center of the turf. He slammed the ball down, turned to the 49er side line and yelled, “this is our house!” I was actually more upset with Smith than Owens. Instead of being proud of Emmitt’s retaliation, I felt like he was adding to a weird circus. I also knew the Cowboys were over matched on this Sunday, and better be quiet. Late in the game, Owens scored again. He ran back to the middle of the field. This time he was greeted by Dallas safety George Teague, who shoved him off the spot. Terrell made sure and got in the pose like he had intended. At that point, T.O. was public enemy number one to Cowboys fans.
HIS PEAK AS AN EAGLE– The Owens, Donovan McNabb thing ended horribly. Before that, Owens peak as a Philadelphia Eagle was something to behold. Terrell’s physical attributes were on full display. His explosion off the line of scrimmage is unmatched to this day. His football IQ, dominance, and his ability to play winning ball were all melting in harmony. His Super Bowl performance, coming off an injury was likely his most impressive feat as professional.
THE SAYING “81 ON A MISSION”– A short time later, Owens became a Dallas Cowboy. Naturally, he was easy to hate until he put on my favorite teams jersey. I then put his jersey on my back. There is a sports hypocrite in all of us. Early in his journey on one of his sound bites, T.O. said the following: “They say Randy Moss is Mr. Clutch? They better look again…81 on a mission!” That saying took over mine and my buddy Jon Brown’s life. It wasn’t just something we said when Owens made a play. We said it for everything. I just woke up, “81 on a mission”. I just got groceries, “81 on a mission.” When we saw Terrell before a 2008 game, you can guess what we yelled to him in unison… “81 on a mission!”
A TIMELY CHANT FROM THE CROWD– October 5th, 2008. The Cincinnati Bengals were in Dallas to play the Cowboys. It was a competitive game. I was in the stands with Jon Brown, Anthony Mower, Tyler and Randall Pettit. Late in the third quarter this fan in front of us starting chanting “T.O… T.O…T.O…” It was a little random. The fourth quarter started and it was obvious what Dallas needed WAS a play from Owens. There was twelve minutes left in the fourth quarter. I decided the annoying guy was right. If you can’t beat em, join em. As loud as we could we chanted “T.O… T.O….” I’d guess we got about 600 people to join us during a time out. On the very next play, Owens caught a 57 yard TD pass from Tony Romo. Dallas eventually won the game, True or not, we felt like we did our part.
A SAYING THAT I TOOK TO HEART– On his episode of “A Football Life” T.O. said one of the coolest things ever. “You got to stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.” I love it, and try to live it.
EVEN WHEN HE WAS SINCERE, HE WAS CRITICIZED– January 13th, 2008. The 13-3 Cowboys lost a playoff game against the eventual world champion New York Giants. Owens felt Romo was the one being blamed. In a sincere, tear filled defense T.O. said, “You can point the finger at him. You can talk about the vacation. If you do, it’s really unfair. That’s my teammate. That’s my quarterback. If you do that, that’s unfair. We lost as a team.” I thought that was the most genuine moment of his NFL life. Instead of getting credit for his team first attitude, Owens has been clowned for it ever since.
NOT ATTENDING HIS OWN HALL OF FAME ENSHRINEMENT– Everyone knows Terrell Owens is a Hall of Fame player. It’s not about the incredible numbers. It was about his level. He was a work ethic guy, and a bionic force. I’m a Hall of Fame nerd. I love the process, the arguments, and the induction speeches that come along with it. I’m very disappointed that Owens has decided to not go to Canton Ohio this August. He will speak at his alma mater, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This has been scheduled on the same day (August 4th) that the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be conducting their ceremony.
I thought Owens should have been elected into the Hall in his first or second year of eligibility. When year three came, he was voted in. He has the right to be mad, and to not show up in Canton. Owens told Eric Dickerson last week he would have attended if he made it on the first ballot. There have been many players near Owens level who had to wait much longer. The process is flawed. Cris Carter put it, “he thinks his tears are more important than the other guys.”
I reached out to a mentor, Derrick Pearson a couple of weeks ago to rant. DP said to me, “So, you are sensitive that he is sensitive?” That comment threw me off. I then said, “yes. If I’m sensitive about his choices, I get Owens is someone who has made it in life.” Terrell is one of the most important characters in the games history. He has the right to do what he wants, and I have the right to be bugged by it. What he says next month matters. I want his Hall of Fame peers to know he DOES respect them. This is not a daring, pioneer like move by Terrell by skipping out. He felt insulted by having to wait for this honor. Perception wise, this cements T.O. as the greatest individual, in a sport built on the idea of team.
The only offended people that should matter, are those that have gold jackets themselves. It’s like Terrell gets one more game this August. I bet he says some things that help me see his side of things. The selfish fan in me, wishes he would celebrate with the class of 2018. On a day he will be king of a league he dominated, he could be starring on their stage one more time. Terrell Owens will live in the Pro Football Hall of Fame forever. I wanted to see him there on the day he gets the keys to the place.
The New York Giants (2-9) have benched Eli Manning for the rest of the year to look at younger players. This has caused quite a stir, and a reason for everyone to judge Manning’s career. As a Dallas Cowboys fan, my job is to “hate” Eli. I truly have thought of his interceptions to put myself to sleep a few times. I can picture each pick, like cute little sheep.
From a family of football royalty, it comes across like Eli has always been fighting through shadows. He doesn’t have the skills his father had. The only time he has ever been better at football than his brother Peyton, is right now.
Who has ever thought of him as top three QB at any point? Top five? Bueller? This guy is very hard to rank among the best that ever played.
Manning has three seasons of disgusting interception totals (20, 25, and 27). He would turn the ball over and have this mopey expression that would annoy Giants fans to no end. I can see him unsnapping his chin strap to a chorus of New York boo birds as he walked to the sideline. Tiki Barber said he would follow a young Manning off the field yelling “posture matters”!
Eli is very good. He is tough, durable, smart, and above all clutch. Some will claim “Eli threw a couple lucky passes to win his two Super Bowls.” That’s garbage!
In the 2007 post season, he beat a Cowboys squad with 13 Pro Bowlers on the road. Number ten then out clutched Brett Favre in extreme temperature in Green Bay.
Manning then played a huge role in the biggest NFL upset of my lifetime. That Patriots team came in 18-0, and WOULD HAVE been considered the best single season team of all time.
Eli won a second ring and Super Bowl MVP a few years later. Let’s not under do that his teams beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady TWICE when it mattered most.
This guy is a class act. He will end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday. First ballot? Probably not…Eli Manning a weird level of greatness.
I’m only rating the quarterbacks that I have seen play near or at their best in my time watching football. These will only be players from the mid 1980’s to 2015. I saw the great Dan Fouts for example (Jim Plunkett, Danny White, Joe Theismann), but will not include him in this ranking. I did not see him enough or at his best. Active players on this list remain in position to climb it. These are the 30 best quarterbacks I’ve watched play in the National Football League as of February 2015.
JUST MISSED THE CUT: (Bernie Kosar, Dave Krieg, Matt Hasselbeck)
#30– RUSSELL WILSON (Active) Three years ago I would not have guessed Wilson would have got my attention this early in his career. He has a knack for making plays at the right time. After throwing an interception to lose the Super Bowl, I would trust his attitude and self security to bounce back more than any player in pro football.
#29– MATTHEW STAFFORD (Active) Stafford has left me with some painful memories burning the Cowboys late in games. He gets rid of the ball at all kinds of odd angles. His banner season to date was 2011 where he passed for 5,038 yards and 41 scores.
#28– MATT RYAN (Active) His first pass a professional was a 62 yard touchdown. Ryan has been a star caliber player since and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. In only seven seasons he has 27 game winning drives.
#27– MARK BRUNELL (1994-2011) Mark was a mobile lefty who was sneaky good. He helped his Jaguars upset the Denver Broncos in the 1996 playoffs and was also part of a team that won a post season contest 62-7. Brunell played in three pro bowls.
#26– MICHAEL VICK (Active) Vick is the most dynamic runner to have ever played QB in the NFL. It seemed like he could run for eight yards on accident. For a short period of time, I thought Michael was one of the 10 best players in the entire league.
#25– ANDREW LUCK (Active) Andrew was a lock for stardom from day one. He’s bright, hungry, and has powerful legs. It is obvious he can make every throw and is a team first guy.
#24– RICH GANNON (1987-2004) Rich was a solid QB before he exploded for 105 touchdown passes over four seasons as an Oakland Raider. He ran the west coast offense beautifully and is the only athlete to ever be the player of the game at the Pro Bowl in back to back seasons.
#23– JOEFLACCO(Active) Flacco is a nice deep ball thrower who has already proven his big game credentials with 10 playoff wins. In his 2012 world title run he tossed 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
#22– PHIL SIMMS (1979-1993) Phil was part role player part star. His 22-25 passing performance in Super Bowl 21 remains the standard for completion percentage. It seems forgotten he was 11-3 as a starter before getting hurt in 1990. He set the table for another New York Giants championship.
#21– BOOMER ESIASON (1984-1997) Boomer was the first guy to use the no huddle offense for consistent stretches. He had a cool play fake where he would crouch low. Esiason helped the 1988 Bengals win the American Football Conference and he was named the NFL Most Valuable Player.
#20– RANDALL CUNNINGHAM (1985-2001) Randall was one of the most exotic talents to step on a field. He was an MVP Caliber player as a dual threat at the end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Cunningham was at the top of his game as a pass first player a decade later leading the explosive Minnesota Vikings inches from an NFC crown.
#19– TONY ROMO (Active) Romo’s ability to escape defenders and extend plays is all time great. Tony was named “NFL Offensive Player of the Month” for December in 2009 and 2014. Even Romo’s biggest critics praise his toughness.
#18– PHILLIP RIVERS (Active) He annoys you if he’s against you, and you would love him if he was yours. Rivers is full of grit and competitive juice. Over his time in the NFL he has been the best of the second tier QB stars. He has quietly been building a resume that has a chance to become Hall of Fame worthy.
#17– DREW BLEDSOE (1993-2006) The Patriots had made the playoffs six times in 33 years before Bledsoe arrived. In his first five years they made the post season three times including a trip to Super Bowl 31. He stepped in for a hurt Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game to make help ensure his presence was felt in this modern New England dynasty.
#16– STEVE MCNAIR (1995-2007) Steve had a stout presence in the pocket and threw the ball with ease. He worked around lack of practice due to injuries better than anyone.
#15– DONOVAN MCNABB (1999-2011) McNabb rolling to the right on third and seven was a scary sight. He was an intelligent and crafty playmaker. He carried offensive units most of his career.
#14– ELI MANNING (Active) Manning was the most difficult player for me to rank. He is the owner of two of the sharpest post season runs in league history. Beating the 18-0 Patriots was the top upset of any NFL game in my lifetime. Eli is almost more clutch than he is good.
#13– WARREN MOON (1984-2000) Moon was not drafted by an NFL team so he tore up Canada instead. Even after losing years due to discrimination, Warren Moon lit up the National Football League. He was the smooth operator of the Houston Oilers run and shoot offense in the early 1990’s. He had a loud clear cadence and embarrassed those that doubted him by finding a permanent home in Canton Ohio.
#12– JIM KELLY (1986-1996) Jim played in the K-Gun offense in which he called his own plays. He was linebacker tough. Losing in four consecutive Super Bowls is an amazing, under respected achievement by his Buffalo Bills teams.
#11– KURT WARNER (1998-2009) Kurt was 1-2 in Super Bowls but owns the three highest passing yard efforts in the games history. Getting the Arizona Cardinals within a couple of minutes of a world title ensured his prominent place among passers.
#10– BEN ROETHLISBERGER (Active) Fans tend to mention that Ben played poorly in his first Super Bowl victory. They forget that he led the Steelers to three straight playoff road wins. During that stretch he completed 68% of his passes to go with seven touchdowns and one pick. “Big Ben” also made a game saving tackle at Indianapolis in the Divisional round.
#9– TROY AIKMAN (1989-2000) Legendary broadcaster Pat Summerall loved to gush over Aikman’s accuracy. Troy could throw the deep out with his eyes closed. He sacrificed his stats for footballs best running game. It paid off with three rings, a Super Bowl MVP, and a 13-4 record as a playoff starter.
#8– DREW BREES (Active) The Saints were in Dallas Thanksgiving day 2010. The Cowboys were up 27 to 23 with three plus minutes remaining. My stepdaughter texts me, “Cowboys are gonna win.” I wrote back, “Three minutes is a lifetime for Drew Brees.” Drew completed a 55 yard pass, followed by a 12 yard touchdown to win the game 30-27. Some guys are just too good to ever let you get comfortable.
#7– AARON RODGERS (Active) Aaron carries himself with the appropriate arrogance for his job description. He’s agile, with an accurate whip for a right arm. In the 2015 post season he led his team to victory on essentially one leg. As a move to throw talent, Rodgers is the best I’ve ever seen play the position.
#6– BRETT FAVRE (1991-2010) Brett was entertaining television. He had the enthusiasm of a young child and the swagger of Han Solo walking into a bar fight. Favre was a gunslinger to the core and earned the recognition of being an iron man. Counting the playoffs, Brett played in an incredible 321 straight games.
#5– DAN MARINO (1983-1999) Nobody had a cat quick release like Dan. He also manipulated the pocket with the best of them. NFL Films co creator Steve Sabol said, “Watching Marino in the pocket was like watching a great matador. With just a little bend of the waste, a jab step forward, a step back, he could avoid the horns.”
#4– STEVE YOUNG (1985-1999) What Dan Marino was to yardage and touchdown passes, Steve Young was to completion percentage and passer rating. He was a superior athlete who had no peer regarding clean, efficient play. Steve was consumed with the mental test the game of football provided. In the end he received an A plus.
#3– PEYTON MANNING (Active) Manning has made himself the face of preparation and in-game chess play. The five time MVP gets sacked less than any QB who has played. Peyton is smashing the NFL record books. You know you are unbelievable at football when you have 70,000 passing yards, 530 touchdown passes, a world title, and fans say you need to do more.
#2– JOHN ELWAY (1983-1998) Before winning consecutive rings to end his career many people claimed John was a “choker.” What I saw was a guy carry three pretty good Denver teams to Super Bowl losses while being the best clutch player in the AFC. Elway had the strongest arm I’ve seen and could throw the ball 50 yards across his body to the opposite side of the field.
#1– JOE MONTANA (1979-1993)& TOM BRADY (Active) This tie is not a cop-out on my part or an excuse to mention 31 quarterbacks. The selection is perfect for me right now. Montana has always been the clear-cut best QB of my lifetime. The morning of Super Bowl 49, I had Tom Brady a close second. After Tom’s dynamite fourth quarter, and taking home his fourth World Championship, I feel Brady deserves to be categorized as Joe Montana’s equal. Joe moved much better than Tom. Brady has been more durable and prolific. Joe played on slightly better, more dominant teams. Tom won big over a longer window of time with a higher variety of teammates. Joe was cool and Tom was fiery. They were the same guy from the neck up and the two best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen play in the National Football League.