In the NFL’s Super Bowl era (1966-2015), Big Ten quarterbacks have had a huge imprint on the league. This presents a good opportunity to rank the NFL’s 10 best Big Ten quarterbacks of the last 50 years.
It’s worth noting: Given the time-span constraints, Northwestern legend Otto Graham (10 straight championship games with the 1940s/50s Cleveland Browns) wasn’t eligible for the countdown.
Also, for this survey, college accomplishments have no bearing on the rankings.
1. TOM BRADY, MICHIGAN
YEARS ACTIVE: 2000-PRESENT (PATRIOTS)
Tom Brady is only one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to win four Super Bowls as the starter (along with Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana). The Patriots have won 12 straight AFC East titles, in years that Brady was the full-time starter (2008 as the lone injury exception).
To date, Brady has passed for 58,028 yards and 428 touchdowns. Within these numbers, we’re talking about eight different seasons of 4,000 yards passing. In 2007, Brady broke the NFL single-season record for passing TDs (50), a mark that has since been eclipsed by Peyton Manning.
Brady is only one of five QBs in history to break the 5,000-yard passing threshold in a single season (along with Manning, Drew Brees, Dan Marino, Matthew Stafford). The Patriots, who have won six AFC championships during the Brady era, have reached the conference title game in each of the last five seasons (2011-15).
A first-ballot Hall of Famer someday, Brady easily stands as the greatest Round 6 pick in NFL draft history (199th overall selection).
2. DREW BREES, PURDUE
YEARS ACTIVE: 2001-PRESENT (CHARGERS, SAINTS)
Through 15 NFL seasons, Drew Brees has passed for 60,903 yards and 428 touchdowns. In his 10 years with the Saints (2006-15), the Purdue product holds supreme annual averages of 4,855 yards passing and 34.8 TDs.
Brees stands as one of five QBs in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards in a single campaign (along with Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford). However, Brees is the only passer to accomplish the feat multiples times (four, actually).
A nine-time Pro Bowler, Brees cemented his Hall of Fame legacy during the 2009 season, leading the previously woebegone Saints to their first Super Bowl title.
If Brees can maintain his normal pace for another three seasons, he’ll break Peyton Manning’s all-time passing record (71,940 yards). As for Peyton’s 539 touchdown passes … that will likely avoid Brees’ reach, unless he’s still killing it six or seven years from now.
3. LEN DAWSON, PURDUE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1957-75 (STEELERS, BROWNS, CHIEFS)
Dawson currently stands as this countdown’s highest-ranked member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But rest assured, Brady and Brees will be first-ballot selections five years after their respective retirements.
During his decorated career, which included time with the American Football League’s Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, Dawson led the league in completion percentage eight times, passer rating six times and touchdown passes four times.
Dawson carved out a Hall of Fame career despite rotting on the bench for his first five NFL seasons. Hence, the wise move to the AFL, following the college coach from his Purdue days, Hank Stram.
The Chiefs routed the heavily favored Vikings in Super Bowl IV, the AFL’s last great accomplishment in advance of the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Dawson was also the AFL starting quarterback for Super Bowl I with the Chiefs.
4. BOB GRIESE, PURDUE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1967-80 (DOLPHINS)
Bob Griese never reached the threshold of 2,500 yards passing in his 14-year career (an easily attainable number in the present day), but who cares? The man shepherded the Dolphins to three straight Super Bowl appearances in the early 1970s, including back-to-back Lombardi trophies for the 1972 and ’73 seasons.
Speaking of the Super Bowl, during the Dolphins’ 17-0 perfect season in 1972, Griese broke his leg early in the campaign, before returning for the AFC playoffs and Super Bowl VII (defeating the favored Washington Redskins). Griese owns a record that will NEVER be topped — the fewest pass attempts from a winning quarterback in the Super Bowl (seven in SB VIII).
Griese’s most prolific day as a pro — championships aside — occurred on Thanksgiving Day 1977, when the Purdue product threw six touchdown passes – including three to receiver Nat Moore – on only 15 completions. A two-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler, Griese (No. 4 overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft) was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
5. JIM EVERETT, PURDUE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1986-1997 (RAMS, SAINTS, CHARGERS)
Jim Everett currently ranks 24th on the NFL’s all-time passing list (34,837 yards), immediately ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Young, Y.A. Tittle and Troy Aikman.
Curiously, the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) took Everett at No. 3 overall in 1986 — only two years after the franchise signed Warren Moon to a multi-million-dollar contract (beaucoup bucks at the time). After a lengthy contract stalemate, the Oilers subsequently traded Everett to the Rams (for All-Pro guard Kent Hill, defensive end William Fuller and three draft picks).
Everett (203 career TD passes) was amazing in Years 3 and 4 with the Rams, throwing for 8,274 yards and 60 touchdowns. Of equal importance, he posted a 21-11 record as the starter during that span (1988-89). In hindsight, Everett’s pro career was more star-crossed than successful. He didn’t play on a winning team during his final eight NFL seasons.
6. RUSSELL WILSON, WISCONSIN
YEARS ACTIVE: 2012-PRESENT (SEAHAWKS)
Within his four-year NFL career, Russell Wilson holds excellent averages of 4,102 total yards (3,494 passing) and 29 touchdowns per season. Wilson, who has started every Seattle game since 2012 (including the playoffs), owns a 53-21 career record. At CenturyLink Field, likely the NFL’s loudest venue, Wilson also has a 31-5 overall mark.
The Seahawks claimed their first Super Bowl title during the 2013 season and came within a whisker of collecting back-to-back Lombardi trophies the following year. A Wilson interception at the goal line thwarted Seattle’s quest for glory in Super Bowl 49. Wilson, who registered his first 4,000-yard passing campaign in 2015, had a seven-game finishing kick that included averages of 3.5 touchdowns.
Consider this a ‘placeholder’ ranking for Wilson. Four or five years from now, he would probably be worthy of the No. 4 slot.
7. KERRY COLLINS, PENN STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1995-2011 (PANTHERS, SAINTS, GIANTS, RAIDERS, TITANS, COLTS)
Kerry Collins, the No. 5 overall pick in 1995, currently ranks 15th on the NFL’s all-time passing list (40,922 yards), immediately ahead of icons Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas. He also holds a top-40 ranking with passing touchdowns (208).
With Collins as the QB starter, the Carolina Panthers reached the NFC title game in Year 2 of their expansion-addled existence (1996). In 2000, Collins led the New York Giants to the Super Bowl. For that season, which included a 41-0 whitewashing of the Vikings in the NFC championship, Collins passed for 3,610 yards passing and 22 TDs. Two years later, Collins passed for a career-best 4,073 yards.
8. TRENT GREEN, INDIANA
YEARS ACTIVE: 1997-2008 (REDSKINS, RAMS, CHIEFS, DOLPHINS)
In 1998, Green (drafted in 1993) capably replaced Gus Frerotte as the Redskins’ starting quarterback, passing for 3,441 yards and 23 TDs over a 14-game span.
The following offseason, Green inked a lucrative free-agent deal with the Rams and was slated to be the club’s franchise quarterback. However, that plan changed dramatically during the preseason, when Green suffered a major knee injury … opening the door for little-known backup Kurt Warner, who would subsequently capture MVP honors and lead St. Louis to a Super Bowl title.
In his first five seasons with the Chiefs (2001-05), Green stealthily averaged 4,023 yards passing and 22 TDs. It’s worth noting: During this prolific age, Kansas City also had the NFL’s best 1-2 rushing punch (Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson).
Green crossed the 4,000-yard passing threshold over three consecutive seasons (2003-05). In 2003, the Chiefs had the NFL’s No. 1 offense (30.2 points per game); and Green led the club to a 13-3 record and the AFC West crown.
9. JEFF GEORGE, ILLINOIS
YEARS ACTIVE: 1990-2001 (COLTS, FALCONS, RAIDERS, VIKINGS, REDSKINS)
Jeff George, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, remains one of the league’s best pure passing talents of the last 30 years. His arm strength and quick release had few peers during the 1990s, or any other era).
That aside, George, who started his college career at Purdue, wasn’t a consistent winner in the NFL, which partly explains why this supremely talented passer bounced around with five teams over 12 hot-and-cold seasons.
George currently ranks 59th with the NFL’s all-time passing list (27,602 yards), immediately ahead of Hall of Famers George Blanda and Bobby Layne. With the Raiders in 1997, George claimed the AFC passing title (3,917 yards). During the 1990s, George eclipsed the 3,700-yard passing threshold three times and racked up 23-plus touchdowns four times. In 1999, George posted an 8-2 record as the Vikings’ starter. In the club’s playoff loss to the Rams (eventual Super Bowl champs), George passed for 423 yards and four TDs.
10. ELVIS GRBAC, MICHIGAN
YEARS ACTIVE: 1994-2001 (49ERS, CHIEFS, RAVENS)
Despite only 70 NFL starts, Elvis Grbac still amassed 16,774 yards yards passing and 106 total touchdowns. As Steve Young’s short-term injury replacement in 1995, Grbac led the 49ers to a 3-2 record. For the three victories, in which San Francisco absurdly averaged 41.5 points, the Michigan product notched 269 yards passing and 2.7 TDs per game.
Grbac enjoyed three seasons as a team’s full-time starter (two with the Chiefs, one with the Ravens). During that period, he averaged 3,530 yards passing and 22 TDs.
Back in 2002, Grbac became the first (and only) quarterback of the Super Bowl era to start Week 1 for a defending champion … without having anything to do with the club’s Lombardi Trophy run from the previous year. Denver’s Mark Sanchez will likely become the second QB to accomplish this quirky feat later in the fall.
And Grbac would end up retiring from the game after that 2002 campaign (3,033 yards passing, 15 TDs), which didn’t result in back-to-back championships for the Ravens.
Honorable Mention: Jim Harbaugh, Todd Collins (Michigan), Kirk Cousins, Brian Hoyer (Michigan State), Curtis Painter, Gary Danielson (Purdue), Chuck Long (Iowa), Randy Wright (Wisconsin), Jack Trudeau, Tony Eason (Illinois) and Mike Tomczak, Troy Smith (Ohio State).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.