The Greatest NFL Quarterbacks of the 1970s

Well, I have refrained from discussing this topic, because I know that it will inspire plenty of debates, but I must give in and talk about it here. It’s probably one of the most common topics for any pro football historian who studies this time period. Who were the greatest quarterbacks in the decade of the 1970s? And among them, who was the best? I know that I am opening a Pandora’s Box of sorts, but it is time that I gird my loins, as it were, and address the issue head-on.

I believe that there were nine truly great quarterbacks in the NFL during the 1970s. I’m going to list them in random order here, then at the end of this podcast, I’m going to make my case for who I feel is the greatest of the ones that I list here.

The finalists are, in random order:

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Terry Bradshaw

We know about his four Super Bowl wins in four Super Bowl games. We also know that he had a rocket for an arm, and he was big enough to run with the ball, especially earlier in his career.

He could break several attempted tackles on many of his runs. He completed 2,025 passes in 3,901 attempts for 27,989 total passing yards and 212 touchdowns during his 14-year career (all with Pittsburgh). He was named the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Terry Bradshaw (Quarterback Pittsburgh Steelers) football card
Photo Courtesy Mark Morthier's private collection of a Terry Bradshaw (Quarterback Pittsburgh Steelers) football card

The next quarterback on this list is Ken Stabler. The issue that I have with Stabler was that he had some truly great seasons with the Raiders, then many more mediocre seasons with the Oilers and the Saints. He ran a great two-minute drill…he was probably the best at it from 1973 to 1977.

Stabler completed 2,270 passes in 3,793 attempts for 27,938 total passing yards and 194 touchdowns during his 15-year career. Stabler was rated as the league’s highest-ranking passer in 1976. He won one Super Bowl and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bob Greise

I know that some of you might ask me why Bob Griese is on this list.

Well, I’ll tell you. Griese was a very athletic quarterback who had the ability to move around in the pocket. He was probably the second-best in the league at scrambling next to Fran Tarkenton. Once he got a weapon to throw to like Paul Warfield, he then spent more time throwing the ball.

Griese was a member of three Super Bowl teams, winning two of them. He completed 1,926 passes in 3,429 attempts for 25,092 total passing yards and 192 touchdowns during his 14-year career, all with the Dolphins. He led the NFL in passing in 1977. Griese is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Roger Staubach

Roger Staubach is an obvious choice for this list. Once he was given the starting job as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys back in 1971, the Cowboys began winning consistently. He led the NFL in quarterback rating in 1971, 1973, 1978, and 1979. No other quarterback on this list was rated as the top passer more than twice.

Staubach played in four Super Bowls in his career, winning two of them. He finished his career with 1,685 pass completions in 2,958 pass attempts for 22,700 total passing yards and 153 touchdowns. With Staubach under center, the Cowboys were never shutout.

He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Roger Staubach (Quarterback of Dallas Cowboys) football card
Photo Courtesy Mark Morthier's private collection of a Roger Staubach (Quarterback of Dallas Cowboys) football card

Fran Tarkenton

When Fran Tarkenton retired, he was the all-time statistical leader in almost every major NFL passing category. He began the decade as the quarterback for the New York Giants, but he was traded back to his initial them – the Minnesota Vikings – in 1972.

From 1973 until his retirement following the 1978 season, Tarkenton came into his own. He led the Vikings to three NFC Championships in 1973, 1974, and 1976. Tarkenton finished his 18-year career by completing 3,686 passes in 6,467 attempts for 47,003 total yards and 342 touchdowns.

He too is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bert Jones

Bert Jones had the nickname of “The Ruston (Louisiana) Rifle, and he certainly displayed a rifle for an arm. From 1975 to 1977, Jones turned the Baltimore Colts from a losing team to a winning one. In each of those three seasons, Baltimore made the playoffs, thanks largely to Jones’ efforts.

He had one heck of a rifle for a right arm. But unfortunately for Jones, he also had his share of arm and shoulder injuries from 1978 to the end of his career in 1982. If he did not have so many injuries, Jones would probably be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the Colts would have undoubtedly won more games than they did at that time.

Jones completed 1,430 passes in 2,551 attempts for 18,190 yards and 124 touchdowns during his 10-year pro career.

Bert Jones of Baltimore Colts football card
Photo Courtesy Mark Morthier personal collection of a Bert Jones football card

Ken Anderson

Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals enjoyed more health and more success than Bert Jones. Anderson led the NFL in passing in both 1974 and 1975. He was one of the most accurate passers of his era. He led the league in completion percentage three times during his 16-year career.

Anderson benefited throughout most of the decade from the tutelage of future Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who coached quarterbacks at Cincinnati during most of the 1970s. Anderson completed 2,654 passes in 4,475 attempts for 32,838 yards and 197 touchdowns.

Dan Fouts

The last two quarterbacks on this list both were fortunate to learn all about the pro passing game from Hall of Fame coach Don Coryell. Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers was a good quarterback until Don Coryell became his head coach.

Then Fouts became a great quarterback. Granted, Fouts had John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow to throw to, but Fouts nevertheless was a great pocket passer.

He finished his 15-year career by completing 3,297 passes in 5,604 attempts for 43,040 yards and 254 touchdowns.

He led the NFL in passing yardage for four consecutive seasons (1979-1982). Although he never took San Diego to a Super Bowl, he still made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Jim Hart

Jim Hart rounds out this list, and his career speaks to the success of persistence. On several occasions, Hart was placed on second string by several different coaches.

Then as soon as Don Coryell became the Cardinals’ head coach in 1973, Hart was promoted back to first string, and he stayed there with the support of Coryell. Hart responded by completing 2,593 passes in 5,076 attempts for 34,665 yards and 209 touchdowns during his 19-year career. Hart led the Cardinals to NFC Eastern Division championships in both 1974 and 1975.

How well would the teams who employed these great quarterbacks have faired if those signal callers were injured during any one particular year? The answer is merely conjecture, but I’m guessing that those teams would probably have lost more games than they won. What do you think? I’d be interested to read your opinions.

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Trivia Question:

Can you name the backup quarterback for any of these quarterbacks that I discussed in this episode? Good luck on that because it’s a tuffy.

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