The 1980s are the first decade where the rules of the NFL favored the offense. As a result, this would be the first decade where stats are comparable to today’s NFL.
Be sure to check out the best quarterbacks of other decades below.
10) Dan Fouts, San Diego Chargers
Fouts came up short in his two biggest games at the start of the decade, as he lost in the 1980 and 1981 AFC Championship games. He led the NFL in yards passing in three consecutive seasons at the beginning of the decade.
9) Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles
The NFL had never seen a Quarterback like Randall Cunningham! He had a tremendous arm and was maybe the fastest QB to ever play in the NFL, at least up until Michael Vick. He was a top-level passer throwing for more than 3,400 yards every season between 1988-90. Cunningham in his career help set the tone for the NFL going to a more spread attack.
8) Boomer Esiason, Cincinnati Bengals
Esiason took over as the starter for good in 1985, and his first three years saw some good numbers, but Esiason was streaky. Then came 1988, and during the regular season, Esiason put up numbers that would end up getting him named NFL MVP. However, Esiason’s problem was always that he lacked consistency, and in the end, it ended up being why he never would win a Super Bowl.
7) Ken Anderson, Cincinnati Bengals
Anderson would rank higher on this list, but his days as a starter ended at the end of the 1984 season. In 1981 he led the Bengals to Super Bowl XVI and was named the NFL’s MVP; he followed that up with another spectacular year in 1982.
6) Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins
Theismann made a list mainly because of 1982-84 when he led the Redskins to two Super Bowls. 1983 even though they lost the Super Bowl, may have been his finest year as the Skins set team scoring records that lasted for over a decade. Unfortunately, his career was cut short in a Monday Night Football game in 1985 when his leg was broken from Lawrence Taylor’s hit.
5) Jim Plunkett, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders
Plunkett led the Raiders to two Super Bowl titles but got little to no respect for it. He came to the Raiders in 1979 after being judged a bust. The Raiders traded Ken Stabler for Dan Pastorini before the 1980 season, and it looked like Plunkett would be a career backup. Early in the season, though, Pastorini got hurt, and Plunkett took over. The Raiders would make the playoffs as a Wild Card, and Plunkett became the first QB in history to take a Wild Card team and win the Super Bowl. He led the Raiders to a Super Bowl title in 1983 also, and he should at least be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame.
4) Phil Simms, New York Giants
Simm’s career in New York got off to a rocky start, then in 1984, it all came together for Simms. 1984 was his breakout season when he passed for over 4,000 yards and led the Giants to the playoffs. Simms led the Giants to the Super Bowl in the 1986 – 87 season, and he had one of the greatest 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.
3) Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins
Dan Marino led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in just his second season in 1984 after he passed for an incredible 5,084 yards and 48 touchdown passes. Despite the Dolphins 38 – 16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, most assumed that this was a minor setback and that Marino would have many more opportunities in the Super Bowl, but that was not the case. Marino will probably go down as the greatest QB to never win a Super Bowl.
2) John Elway, Denver Broncos
Elway led the Broncos to the Super Bowl in 1986 and 1987. For his efforts in 1987, 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. Although Elway was best known for his late-game heroics, probably the most remembered drive of his career was in the 1986 AFC Title game where he drove the Broncos 98 yards as time ran out to tie the game and force overtime in a game the Broncos would eventually win. In the end, I have Elway over Marino because Elway was better in the clutch, and he got three teams in the 80’s to the Super Bowl that not many could have got that far.
1) Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
There is no debate on the finest QB of the 1980s; Joe Montana was the best from 1981 until the end of the decade. He led the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles during the decade and just missed having a couple of more. He was clutch; in 1981, you had the “Catch,” in 1988, you had the 92-yard drive to beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl, and in 1989 he was flawless.