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Lowell Cohn: Five tops among all-time favorite quarterbacks


Drew Brees is the reason for this column. I got to thinking I love Drew Brees the quarterback, love to watch him work and play.

Then I asked myself: "Who are my top-five, all-time favorite quarterbacks?" Not the best. The five I love or loved to watch more than anyone else. I'm limiting my discussion to the 1980s and after. Sorry, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw and Y.A. Tittle. Sorry, John Brodie.

It turns out my five are all pretty good. Note: I'll get back to Brees anon. (Don't know if I ever wrote the word "anon" before.) Here they are.

<b>Joe Montana</b>

Duh. I was lucky. I got to cover most of Montana's career — before he went to Kansas City. You might say I was blessed. So, I'm not going to dissect what Montana did, although I will say he's the best quarterback I ever had the privilege to watch.

Instead, I'll tell you a story. A Bill Walsh story. Toward the end of his life, Bill and I talked on the phone a lot. I got the feeling he was lonely, needed to talk. He would phone and we'd go on about the old times and, sometimes, the new times. This one call, I don't remember if Bill was dying or if it was before that.

There's a haze in my head.

He said he was preparing for a speech, a speech on Montana. To get ready, he watched tape of Joe. "He was beautiful, Lowell," Bill said. "Every pass was perfect, exactly where it had to be."

Bill was an emotional man — one of the lovely things about him. He didn't just say Joe was beautiful. He gushed it. He sighed it. He sang it. This was decades after Bill and Joe worked together, and it's like Bill had discovered Joe a second time on that film, discovered Joe's other-worldly precision and calm. And I'll tell you something else — Bill fell in love with Joe all over again. Joe was a natural at the footwork it took Steve Young years to learn. Dwight

Clark told me something amazing. Before he ran a route, Joe would say what part of Clark's body the pass would come to — which shoulder, which area of his chest.

And the ball always came right there. "From 18 yards away," Clark said with amazement in his voice.

"He was beautiful, Lowell."

<b>Steve Young</b>

Duh. I also was privileged to cover Steve. What an honor. I loved watching him work, although he was different from Joe, the exact opposite. Joe was a cool quarterback — Joe Cool and all that.

Steve was a hot quarterback. He was all motion and intensity and sometimes he seemed tense, and after a game he was covered in dirt and sweat. I don't think Joe Montana sweats. Steve had to learn his craft over a period of years, over a frustrating period of observing Joe and waiting. Steve learned.

He learned to be a precision passer instead of merely a runner. He learned proper footwork and how to read his progressions.

And it took time. But after he learned, he was incomparable. Bill Walsh never admitted to me who was better, Joe or Steve. He'd say, "Steve was the best athlete of any quarterback I coached."

<b>Brett Favre</b>

I could not get enough of him — of his gifts and his flaws. You couldn't get one without the other. God love him. He is the most daring quarterback I ever saw. Daring veering into reckless.

No one had a quicker release, not Namath, not Dan Marino (who doesn't make my top five). Favre had confidence he could complete a pass into an opening no bigger than a nickel. OK, no bigger than a quarter.

And if he threw a pick, no problem. He'd wipe his hand across his mouth and joyfully get back to work.

He was quarterback as adventurer.

He understood there are more great catches than passes, and he put the ball out there — brilliantly — and let his guys catch. You want a quarterback as adventurer.

Alex Smith has all the tools, but he lacks the love of adventure, needs everything perfect before he throws the ball, needs the territory to be fully charted. That's why he never will be Favre.

That's why he won't make my top-five list or anyone's top-five list.

<b>Peyton Manning</b>

Is this guy a trip, or what? He is an all-time great in any era. In fact, he's a throwback. He's a coach on the field. He calls his own plays. I love watching him before the snap.

He bounces his legs and points his finger at the defenders and runs to the line of scrimmage and talks to his linemen and then he bounces his legs some more and points some more and I'm thinking — delay of game — and the clock ticks and finally he gets the ball and throws a pass, just perfect, touch like nobody's business and it's complete and his guys run back and he performs the whole act all over again.

Bounce, point, talk, throw.

<b>Drew Brees</b>

Finally, Brees. He's the reason for this column in the first place. The 49ers are going to New Orleans to play the Saints and I get to watch Brees in person.

Thank you, Lord.

He is too small to be a great quarterback. That's what they thought in San Diego when they let him go and got nothing for him. Seriously? And he is too small to be a great quarterback if life amounts to mere measurements. He is the size of a regular person.

But the defensive linemen don't knock down his passes. And his passes are perfect — like Montana's. They are right there — exactly where they must be.

And he thinks fast and he's smart. You can see he's smart by the way he plays. And he makes you fall in love with brainy athletes who defeat the big beefy guys through sheer intelligence.

Drew Brees. Great in any era. He is one of us. He is you and me, the average person's ambassador into the NFL.