Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks of the 1980s
10. Jim McMahon
Coming out of tiny Roy, Utah, few would have predicted that Jim McMahon would have made the list of the decade’s top ten quarterbacks. After a prolific collegiate career that saw McMahon set multiple NCAA single season records and lead one of the most improbable comebacks in the history of NCAA football against the SMU Mustangs in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, Jim McMahon was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1982 NFL draft with the fifth overall pick. McMahon was well known as a rebel with a cause, and his on-field attitude and demeanor was and still is extremely memorable for fans of the NFL and the Chicago Bears. McMahon won control of the Bears’ quarterback position as a rookie, and he went on to be named to the All-Rookie Team. McMahon was blessed with an ability to throw the ball accurately on the run, and his mobility and speed made it difficult for NFL lineman to sack him with any type of consistency. 1985 was the year when McMahon and the Chicago Bears broke through and went on to win the Super Bowl in dominating fashion. While the Bears may be better known for their defense and the Super Bowl Shuffle, McMahon was undoubtedly the team’s offensive leader. At the end of the decade, McMahon was traded to the San Diego Chargers where he led the team to a 4 – 8 season. For his NFL career, McMahon passed for over 18,000 yards and he had 100 touchdowns.
9. Warren Moon
Warren Moon was a barrier breaking quarterback who helped revolutionize the way the NFL game was played thanks to his performance in the Houston Oilers’ prolific Run and Shoot offense. With a strong arm and an unnatural ability to put the ball in the perfect place for his receiver to catch and run with the ball, Moon threw for almost 50,000 yards during his 17 year NFL career. While at the University of Washington, Moon had to combat racial hatred that plagued him throughout his NFL career. While he was the target of multiple death threats during his playing career, he was able to overcome these obstacles on the way to a Hall of Fame career. After six seasons spent in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos, Moon set off a bidding war when he decided to come to the NFL. 1986 was the most successful for Moon during the decade, and he threw for over 3,400 yards and led the team to their first winning season since 1980. At one point, he was the highest paid player in the NFL after he signed a five year contract that was valued at $10 million. While Moon never made a Super Bowl at the helm of the Oilers, he had an extremely successful career that saw him pass for over 33,300 yards and 196 touchdowns during his 10 year Oiler Career. He went on to play with the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs before he retired.
8. Bernie Kosar
At six foot five and 215 pounds, Bernie Kosar was one of the first prototypical drop-back passers to enter the National Football League. Kosar was born in Boardman, Ohio, and was drafted by the in-state Cleveland Browns in the 1985 Supplemental NFL Draft to save the hometown team. Following a collegiate career that saw him named to the Second Team All-American Team, Kosar decided to take his future into his own hands, and his agent and Bernie concocted a plan where he would forego the typical NFL draft and enter the NFL through the Supplemental Draft. This ensured that he would go to the Browns and not the Buffalo Bills who had the first pick in the draft. Kosar instantly became a fan favorite for the Browns, and he played in 12 games as a Rookie and threw for over 1,500 yards. 1986 was a breakout season for Kosar from a statistical standpoint when he threw for over 3,800 yards. He led the team to a first place finish in the AFC only to see it come crashing down when John Elway and the Denver Broncos marched 98 yards for a game winning TD that is known simply as The Drive. Kosar bounced back in 1987 and threw for over 3,000 yards in the 12-game strike shortened NFL season. His next season was cut short by injury. His 1989 comeback was again cut down by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Title Game. Bernie Kosar is still one of the Browns’ most celebrated and beloved players.
7. Randall Cunningham
While Randall Cunningham may not have the same gaudy passing stats as some of the other drop back passers on this list, his impact on the National Football League at the quarterback position is undeniable. Coming out of the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the second round of the 1985 NFL Draft, Cunningham had a mix of speed and agility that was unheard of for an NFL QB at that time. During his highlight reel career, Cunningham frustrated defenders with his elusiveness, strong arm, and all around God-given talent. Cunningham was brought in to backup Ron Jaworski, and Cunningham had an immediate impact on the game with his ability to scramble and run for big gains coming out of the pocket. In 1987, Randall Cunningham became the Eagles permanent starting quarterback, and he started to make grains in his accuracy and passing numbers. By 1988, Cunningham was considered one of the top quarterbacks in the entire National Football League, and he was named the starter for the National Football Conference in the Pro Bowl that was held in Hawaii. His performance earned him the honor of being named the game’s Most Valuable Player. 1988 was also the year when Randall was able to lead the Eagles to a hard-fought NFC Eastern Division Title. Rockin’ Randall Cunningham’s popularity soared towards the end of the decade, just like the Philadelphia Eagles as a whole, and he passed for over 3,400 yards in each season from 1988 – 1990. After leaving the Eagles, he played five more seasons for the Vikings, the Cowboys and the Ravens. Cunningham finished his career as the NFL’s top rushing quarterback of all time and set the tone for spread football.
6. Boomer Esiason
Debby Wong / Shutterstock.comThe first southpaw on our list of top QBs, Boomer Esiason led the Bengals to the franchise’s most successful stretch. Born Norman Julius Esiason in West Islip, New York, Esiason grew up answering to the nickname of Boomer due to his constant kicking in the womb. After starring for the University of Maryland Terrapins under future NFL Coach Bobby Ross, Esiason was drafted in the second round of the 1984 draft with the 38th pick by the Bengals. Boomer spent the first 9 years of his 14 year career with the Bengals, and he finished his career with over 5,200 passing attempts and 37,900 yards passing. Boomer was a great leader in the Bengals huddle from the moment he became the team’s starting quarterback in the 1985 season. Esiason stands at 6’5″, and he used his height to see over his offensive lineman to pick out receivers on all parts of the field. Boomer was surprisingly nimble for a man of his stature, and he rushed for almost 1,600 yards over the course of his NFL playing career. In his post-football career, Esiason has established a very successful foundation to raise funds and awareness for Cystic Fibrosis. The Boomer Esiason Foundation was started to help his son Gunner battle the disease, and the success of the Esiason foundation is now a huge part of Boomer’s life.
5. Dan Fouts
Daniel Francis Fouts was a third round draft pick out of the University of Oregon who entered the NFL in 1973. At the start of the decade, Fouts was in the midst of a four year stretch when he threw for over 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. The Chargers, a bumbling franchise before the arrival of Fouts, became an extremely dynamic offense that had a passing attack that was feared by teams throughout the NFL. Over the course of his 16 year career, he was the third quarterback at the time to pass for over 40,000 yards. In 1980 and 1981, Fouts led the chargers to the AFC Conference Championship Game but his team came up short in each of these big games. This was the closest that Fouts would get to the Super Bowl during his career. In 1982, he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Football Player for his superior performance on the field. Fouts was a starter for one of the NFL’s most memorable contests. While the Ice Bowl may get all of the headlines and time on the NFL Network’s throw back time slots, Fouts and the Chargers took part in the Freeze Bowl where temps below negative fifty degrees seriously hampered the Chargers and their high-flying offense in a 27 – 7 loss to the Bengals. For all of the accomplishments and accolades that he enjoyed during his prolific career, Dan Fouts was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame as one of the members of Canton’s distinguished class of 1993.
4. Phil Simms
While young fans may now know Phil Simms more for his voice and opinions that he offers in the broadcast booth more than his on-field performance, sorry Bronco Fans, Simms was an extremely proficient QB that led an efficient New York Giants team throughout the decade. While some see Simms as little more than a game manager for a dominant defense and a stout running game, most see him as a QB who was an expert decision maker and leader for Bill Parcells and the Giants. After being drafted out of tiny Morehead State in the first round of the 1979 NFL Draft, Simms spent his entire professional career with the Giants. Simms was thrust into the starting roll during his rookie season, and he finished second in Rookie-of-the-Year voting. The first half of the 1980s were filled with injuries and inconsistent performance from Simms. Giants’ fans and management were rough on the young QB during this stretch, but it did harden him for the scrutiny that comes with being the starting QB for a football team in the brutal New York market. 1984 was his breakout season when he passed for over 4,000 yards. Simms led the Giants to the Super Bowl in the 1986 – 87 season, and he had one of the finest games of his career on the biggest stage. His 22 of 25 performance sealed his legacy as a clutch performer and erased any doubts about his greatness. His outstanding career stats and impact on the organization led the New York Giants to retire his #11 jersey.
3. Dan Marino
Debby Wong / Shutterstock.comWhile Dan Marino may have the dubious distinction of being known as the best quarterback who has never won a Super Bowl, there is no doubt that he was one of the most prolific passing quarterbacks of all time. Coming out of the University of Pittsburgh, Marino was the last QB taken in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft. Marino used this snub to fuel him throughout his Hall of Fame NFL career. Marino started the season as the backup to David Wooley, but quickly became the Dolphins’ starter. Dan Marino ended up leading the team to the Super Bowl in 1985 after he passed for an unbelievable 5.084 yards and 48 touchdown passes. In spite of the Dolphins 38 – 16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, most assumed that this was a mere setback and that he would be back to play in multiple Super Bowls. This was not the case, but Marino went on to throw for over 61,000 yards while he was the Dolphins starting QB. Marino held over 40 records at the time he left the NFL in 1999, and the fact that 12 of these records still stand today in the era of high-flying offenses is a testament to the fact that Marino was one of the most prolific passers of all time. Marino played in nine Pro Bowls during his 17 year NFL career, and he led the league in passing yards four times. Injuries cost Marino large chunks of time during multiple seasons, but he still found ways to help his team.
2. John Elway
While John Elway could have possibly been on a top 10 list of the best baseball players of the 1980s, he decided to utilize his incredible talents to quarterback the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles during his remarkable 16 year career. Elway had a solid career at Stanford University where he threw for almost 10,000 yards during his time as the starting QB for the Cardinal. After being drafted by the Baltimore Colts with the first overall pick in the 1983 draft, he was able to leverage his baseball talents to force a trade from a franchise that he had no desire to play for. The Broncos acquired Elway in what may be considered one of the greatest steals of all time. For Offensive Lineman Chris Hinton, backup QB Mark Herrman and a first round pick in 1984, Elway became a Denver Bronco. He made an immediate impact on a franchise that was mired in mediocrity, and he led the team to the Super Bowl in 1987 and 1988. For his efforts in 1988, Elway was also named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. That season saw him pass for over 3,300 yards, although he had more interceptions than touchdown passes. Elway finally won a title in Super Bowl XXXII against the Green Bay Packers, and his competitive fire and drive were on display for the world to see in spite of his advanced age at the time. Elway finished his career with 51,475 passing yards, and he was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.
1. Joe Montana
With Joe Cool at the helm, the San Francisco 49ers were perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL. Number 16 led the 49ers prolific West Coast Offense to the top of the league during his exciting tenure with the club. Joseph Clifford Montana was born in Pennsylvania, and he went on to play college football for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Montana battled injuries throughout college, and he was only the 82nd player selected in the 1979 draft. Montana spent his first year and a half in the League in a backup role, and he did not breakout until the 1981 season. He guided the team to a 13-3 record and in the NFC Title Game against the Dallas Cowboys, he hit Dwight Clark for the go ahead touchdown with 51 seconds left that would live on in NFL history as The Catch. The next year he passed for almost 4,000 yards before the team came up short in the NFC Title Game against the Washington Redskins. 1984 was a bounce back year for the Niners who went on to defeat the Miami Dolphins for the title. Montana threw for over 330 yards in the Super Bowl in a performance for the ages. Joe Cool would go on to win two more titles as the starting QB for the Niners, and he finished his career with over 40,000 yards passing and a QB efficiency rating of 92.3. His ability to play at his best under pressure is what has placed Montana at the forefront of the conversation for the title of greatest QB of all time. Montana led the 49ers to a 4-0 record in the Super Bowl.
The 1980s saw some of the finest quarterback play in the history of the NFL, and these ten quarterbacks all left a mark on the game that is still felt today. Quarterbacks will always be compared against Montana, Elway and Marino. It is a marvel that some of their records still stand today in an era where teams throw the ball upwards of 50 times a week on a regular basis. These 10 NFL quarterbacks helped define the position and transform the NFL into a game that is predicated on the pass instead of the run. For their collective effort, this group of players is one of the most respected ever. Fans who missed their play and do not appreciate their greatness should visit YouTube or NFL.com for highlights immediately.