After coming off three straight losing seasons, the Dallas Cowboys decided to ditch their legendary head coach Tom Landry and brought in Jimmy Johnson from the University of Miami to take over the helm in 1989. And Johnson made Aikman, the All-American out of UCLA, his first draft selection with the #1 overall pick in 1989.
An interesting side note, the Cowboys actually selected two quarterbacks as overall #1 picks in that 1989 draft! Huh? Well, the Cowboys used a #1 pick and selected Johnson’s quarterback at Miami, Steve Walsh, as the overall #1 pick in the subsequent Supplemental Draft that year. While it was somewhat of a head-scratcher at the time, Johnson turned out to be a genius when he traded Walsh early in the 1990 season to the Saints for 1st and 3rd round picks in the 1991 draft and a 2nd round pick in the 1992 draft and Aikman became a franchise quarterback for the Cowboys.
Aikman’s career got off to a rocky start, with the Cowboys going 1-15 in his rookie year. But by 1991, he along with a talented supporting cast that included RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin, had the Cowboys in the playoffs. Over the course of the next four years, Aikman lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles. All told, Dallas made eight playoff appearances during Aikman’s 12-year NFL career with the Cowboys and he had a remarkable 11-4 record as a starter in playoff games. Aikman was a 6-time Pro Bowler and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.
Even the most casual football fan pretty much knows that for the past 40+ years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most consistently successful franchises in the NFL. But only the most diehard fan knows that the success the Steelers enjoyed early in that time frame was due in large part to the outcome of a coin flip! How so, you ask?
Well, you have to go back to the 1969 season. The Steelers were 1-13 that year, but found themselves tied with the Chicago Bears for the worst record in the NFL. So, in order to determine who would get the 1st pick in the 1970 draft, the NFL held a coin flip. By winning that coin flip, the Steelers were poised to acquire a player who would help transform them into the most dominant team of the 1970’s. With that 1st overall pick in the 1970 draft, Pittsburgh selected Bradshaw, a big, athletic quarterback out of Louisiana Tech who had a cannon for an arm. He came to the “Steel City” with much fanfare and promise.
Unfortunately, life in the NFL did not start well for Bradshaw. He split playing time his rookie season with the 1969 2nd round pick, Terry Hanratty out of Notre Dame, and ended up throwing just 6 TD passes but leading the league with 24 interceptions! But by 1972 things began to change for Bradshaw and the Steelers. They won their division that year with an 11-3 record and with the help of an “Immaculate Reception”, they ended up in the Conference Championship game, which they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins. That season marked the beginning of eight straight playoff appearances, four of which resulted in Super Bowl titles and two others which ended with a loss in the Conference Championship game.
Early on in that run of playoff appearances, the devastating “Steel Curtain” defense was considered to be the main reason for the Steelers rise to prominence. But make no mistake, by 1975 Bradshaw had established himself as one of the brightest stars on a team full of bright stars on both sides of the ball. And he just had that knack for coming up big in the biggest games, as evidenced by his exceptional 14-5 record as a starter in playoff games.
Bradshaw was a 3-time Pro Bowler and was voted to the All-Pro Team once. In 1978, he was selected as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player after leading the Steelers to a 14-2 record and a Super Bowl victory over Dallas. He led the league that year in touchdown passes, touchdown passes per attempt and yardage per pass attempt. After a 14-year career, Bradshaw retired prior to the 1984 season and in 1989 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Smith, the consensus All-American and Outland Trophy winner out of Virginia Tech, was taken as the 1st overall pick by Buffalo in the 1985 draft. He was one of three future Hall of Famers selected in the 1st round of that draft. And even though one of them was Jerry Rice (Chris Doleman was the other), you would be hard pressed to find someone who would say that the Bills made a mistake in taking Smith over Rice, especially in light of the fact that the Bills were able to get their own future Hall of Fame receiver, Andre Reed, in the 4th round of that draft!
Smith quickly began to establish himself as one of the premier defensive players in the game. With his stunning combination of strength, speed and quickness, he was one of the most feared pass rushers in the league. In just his second season, Smith recorded 15 sacks. Over the course of his remarkable 19-year career (15 with Buffalo & 4 with Washington), Smith recorded 10 or more sacks in 13 of those seasons. He currently is the NFL’s career sack leader with 200.
But Smith was more than just a pass rusher. He was widely respected for his overall defensive game, as evidenced by his selection as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1996. Smith was so consistently dominant for such a long time that he was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for BOTH the 1980’s and the 1990’s! During his time in Buffalo, Smith helped lead the Bills to 10 playoff appearances, including 4 trips to the Super Bowl. Smith was an 11-time Pro Bowler and was named to the All-Pro Team 8 times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
John Elway, the All-American out of Stanford, played his entire 16-year career with the Denver Broncos. But yet, as most everyone knows, he was not drafted by the Broncos. The Baltimore Colts had the #1 overall pick in the 1983 draft. But prior to the draft, Elway clearly indicated that he had no desire to play for the Colts and suggested that they use their #1 pick on someone else. The Colts took him anyway with that 1st overall pick. And so, a standoff took place. Elway threatened to play baseball. He had been drafted by the New York Yankees and already had played one fairly impressive minor league season for them.
The Colts believed it was a bluff, but nonetheless, a week after selecting Elway, they executed a trade with Denver. They sent Elway to the Broncos in exchange for Denver’s 1984 1st round pick, backup quarterback Mark Herrmann and the Broncos 1st round selection (#4 overall) in that 1983 draft, offensive tackle Chris Hinton (thus making him the answer to one of the most asked trivia questions in sports)! Okay, so that’s the back-story.
Now for the real story – if indeed it needs to be told. Quite simply, Elway had an exceptional career. According to Pro-Footbal-Reference.com, Elway stands in the top 10 all-time in most of the important passing categories, including his 51,475 passing yards (4th) and his 300 touchdown passes (7th). He has led the 3rd most career comebacks (35) and the 3rd most career game-winning drives (45). And who can forget “The Drive”? Over the course of his career, Elway led the Broncos to 10 playoff appearances, with 5 of those resulting in trips to the Super Bowl. In the last two years of his career, the Broncos won their only two Super Bowl titles. Elway was a 9-time Pro bowler and he won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1987. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Well who else would it be? Is an explanation even needed? For the sake of consistency, we’ll provide one. With the luxury of hindsight, it would seem that the selection of Manning out of the University of Tennessee with the 1st overall pick in the 1998 draft would have been a no-brainer for the Colts. But, while it’s hard to believe now, there was quite a bit of pre-draft discussion as to whether Manning or Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf should be the 1st pick. While the Colts pretty much botched the handling of the #1 overall pick in the 1983 draft, they nailed it in this one.
Manning of course is still going strong after 13 glorious years in Indianapolis and two remarkable years in Denver. Meanwhile, Leaf, the #2 overall pick by San Diego, had a penchant for poor on-field performance and equally poor off-field behavior and that had him out of the league after three seasons. Since then, his personal life spiraled downward. In recent years, Leaf has been arrested several times for felony drug and burglary charges. So currently, while Manning is well on his way to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, Leaf is sitting in prison in Montana! One is headed for a bust in Canton, the other is widely considered to be the biggest draft bust ever.
All right, so why is Manning #1 on this list? Well, for starters, he overcame a rough rookie season and has since demonstrated sustained excellence and durability that few, if any, have matched. Discounting the 2011 season that he sat out due to the serious neck injury/surgery issue, Manning has started every game of his career. In 13 of his 14 post-rookie-year seasons, he has led his team to double digit victories.
Even in the 2001 “blip” season when the Colts went 6-10, Manning had an outstanding year, finishing in the top 5 in nearly all of the important passing categories. The Colts that year were victimized by having one of the worst defenses in the league.
Manning has been a 13-time Pro Bowler and has been named to the All-Pro Team 7 times. He has been selected as the NFL Most Valuable Player 5 times. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Manning currently ranks 2nd all-time in the following passing categories: completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns, and passer rating. Now he IS only 4th all-time in completion percentage! Additionally he ranks 1st in comebacks and 1st in game-winning drives. And on top of all that, he leads all NFL players in making the best TV commercials ever!
Manning has led his teams to 13 playoff appearances, which include 3 trips to the Super Bowl. Surprisingly, considering all the success he has enjoyed, Manning only has one Super Bowl ring to show for it. Indeed, his performance in the playoffs often has not been stellar. Manning’s 11-12 record in playoff games is probably the one area where he does not compare favorably with the other quarterbacks on this list and with other top quarterbacks who have made a number of playoff appearances. Certainly, a quarterback’s playoff accomplishments are always one consideration when making a judgment about the greatness of the player. But I don’t believe that Manning’s relative lack of success in the postseason diminishes him to the extent that he should be dropped lower on this list. After all, he did make it to three Super Bowls. How many guys who have worn an NFL jersey can say that?
I instead chose to focus on Manning’s complete body of work. That is what makes him stand out in my eyes and makes him most worthy of being ranked #1 on my list of the Top 10 Overall #1 Draft Picks.