The top 10 quarterbacks in CFL history

With Tom Brady’s performance in Sunday’s Super Bowl having inspired many pundits to label him the greatest NFL quarterback of all time – or GOAT – let’s take a look at a CFL version of that list.

Naming the best quarterbacks in CFL history will always be a contentious one due to the simple fact that there are so many ways to evaluate the game’s most important position. For some, stats are king, for others, it’s about team success. This ranking is my attempt to sift through 104 years of CFL history while trying to balance era, stats, wins, career length and dominance.

Without further ado, the list.

10) Henry Burris, 1997-2016

After 20 years of professional football, Burris went out in style, with a Grey Cup-winning MVP performance. Burris finishes his career with 63,227 passing yards, 435 touchdowns (374 passing, 61 rushing), 118 wins and 93, 300-yard passing games. In addition to his three Grey Cup rings, the five-time all-star and two-time MOP owns the CFL record for completions in a season (481) and an individual game (45).

9) Kenny Ploen, 1957-1967

The three-time all-star led the Bombers to six Grey Cup berths, winning four. While his passing stats might not compare with some on this list, there’s no doubt that he was one of the most dominant players of his era, taking Winnipeg to the playoffs in eight of his eleven seasons and winning 15 out of the 21 playoff games he suited up in.

8) Ron Lancaster, 1960-1978

In addition to being the first quarterback in CFL history to pass for 50,000 yards, Lancaster was one of the most winning QBs of all time, leading his team to victory 158 times. Over 18 years the seven-time all-star and two-time MOP played in 288 games with Ottawa and Saskatchewan, registering just two losing seasons. Lancaster led Saskatchewan to the playoffs 14 times in a row, appearing in the West Final 12 times, the Grey Cup five times but only winning Earl Grey’s trophy once.

7) Russ Jackson, 1958-1969

Three-time Grey Cup winner. Six-time CFL all-star. Four-time Most Outstanding Canadian. Three-time CFL MOP. The last great Canadian quarterback. In the 12 seasons he played for the Rough Riders, Jackson led them to the playoffs every season and was the league’s most dangerous dual threat; passing for 24,592 yards and 185 TDs while rushing for 5,045 yards and 54 TDs.

6) Tom Wilkinson 1967-1981

During his 15-year career, Wilkinson missed the playoffs only once and turned his eight Grey Cup appearances into five victories. The CFL MOP in 1974 was a three time all-star and one of the most clutch players in league history.

5) Joe Krol, 1942-1955

One of only four players to have his number retired by the Argos, the “King” was a four time all-star and six time Grey Cup champion. While stats are hard to come by for the era in which he played, it’s universally agreed that Krol, a triple threat to score by passing, rushing or kicking the ball, was among the most versatile and valuable players in the CFL when he suited up.

4) Anthony Calvillo, 1994-2013

Montreal Alouettes’ quarterback Anthony Calvillo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Atop nearly every CFL passing record, you’ll find Calvillo’s name. He’s got the most passing yards (79,816), most touchdowns (455), most completions (5,892) and most 300-yard games (125). But what holds him back from being higher on this particular list is his dismal record in the Grey Cup. In eight trips to the big game, Calvillo only managed to muster three wins. For an Alouette team that was consistently a regular season juggernaut, years of playoff disappointments cannot be overlooked.

3) Warren Moon, 1978-1983

In six brief years, Moon helped establish a dynasty that will never be rivaled. While throwing for 21,228 yards and 144 touchdown passes, Moon won 9 of 10 playoff games and captured the Grey Cup five straight times, twice being named the Grey Cup MVP.

2) Damon Allen, 1985-2007

It’s fair to say we’ll never see another career like Allen’s. Over 23 seasons, the dual threat QB found the end zone 487 times (394 through the air and 93 on the ground), played in 370 games and was a part of 17 playoff teams. If coming up big when it matters most is how you judge a QB, Allen’s three Grey Cup MVPs in four championship wins speaks volumes about his ability to rise to the occasion.

Upon retiring in 2007 Allen was the CFL’s career passing leader with 72,381 yards and an incredible third on the league’s all-time rushing list, with 11,920 yards on the ground to his credit. He’s also the only QB in league history to throw for at least 10,000 yards with four different teams.

1) Doug Flutie, 1990-1997

Was there ever any doubt? Nobody’s claim to the top of this list is as strong as Flutie’s. Over eight years he complied a 105-38 record as a starter, passed for 41,355 yards and 270 TDs, led the league in passing five times, was named the CFL’s MOP six times, brought his team to the playoffs seven times and won three Grey Cups.

In addition to his team success, Flutie also put up eye-popping personal stats which have stood the test of time, such as averaging a CFL record 306.3 passing yards per game. To this day he still holds the record for the most passing yards (6,619) and touchdowns thrown in a single season (48).

Though his career doesn’t boast the longevity of others on this list, it’s undeniable that when compared to every other pivot in the CFL’s storied history, Flutie stands head and shoulders above his peers. 

Honourable mentions:

Matt Dunigan, 1983-1996

Perhaps the greatest testament to Dunigan’s legacy is that despite suiting up for six different teams, he led his team to the playoffs in 13 of his 14 seasons. Five Grey Cup trips resulted in two rings but Dunigan’s biggest claim to fame is the astounding 713 yards he passed for in a single game in 1994.

Danny McManus, 1990-2006

A Grey Cup winner with three different teams (Winnipeg, BC and Hamilton), McManus passed for 53,255 yards, 259 TDs and won 103 games over the course of his 17-year career.

Sam Etcheverry, 1952-1960

A six-time all-star who played 122 games and set a CFL record with 34 consecutive regular season games with a touchdown pass. Etcheverry made three trips to the Grey Cup but never managed a win.

Tom Clements, 1975-1987

It took 1975’s rookie of the year thirteen seasons to win the CFL’s MOP award, but when he did it was the cherry on top of a terrific career. Clements passed for 39,401 yards and 252 touchdowns while playing in 182 games and going two-for-two in Grey Cup appearances.

Bernie Faloney, 1954-1967

The first QB to win a Grey Cup with both an Eastern and Western team, Faloney was a five-time all-star, a three-time Grey Cup champion and the CFL MOP in 1961.

Santino Filoso

Santino Filoso

Born and raised in the 613, Santino has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know.)
Santino Filoso
Santino Filoso
About Santino Filoso (225 Articles)
Born and raised in the 613, Santino has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know.)

43 Comments on The top 10 quarterbacks in CFL history

  1. Sorry, there’s no way Jackie Parker can be left off this list. Especially not when you’ve got Joe Krol, Bernie Faloney and Sam Etcheverry on the list. Krol was a triple threat for passing, running and kicking. Parker did all that plus played defensive back, safety and special teams. Not to mention when TSN did the “top 50 CFL players”, Jackie placed third among ALL players, not just QBs.

    Here’s an article that sheds some light onto how good he was:

  2. Lindsay Wilcox // February 6, 2017 at 2:50 pm //

    Yup, got to find a place for Jackie Parker; otherwise I am
    100% in agreement with list.

  3. Yup, 3 time grey cup champion, 3 time CFL MOP, 8 time all star, Jackie Parker needs to be on the list and not just as an honorable mention.

  4. Not necessarily in that order.

  5. Marc Lebut // February 6, 2017 at 3:16 pm //

    Makes sense, but there’s a lot of room to debate here. Anyone can put good arguments to shuffle the first 5 positions.

    First of all, Flutie, Allen, Moon never played in salary cap era. Second, Moon was starter for 3 of the 5 Grey Cups the Esks won. Wilkinson was starter in 1978 and 1979. Third, none of Flutie or Moon went to the Grey Cup as underdogs. Fourth, where do you put rushing yards in the balance? Fourth, where do you put winning the Grey Cup with 3 different teams? Many things can be brought up that would make a different look of all those rankings.

    I agree though that the top 5 of this list should be the top 5.

    • Wilkinson gets credit for 5 Grey Cup victories, and Moon gets credit for 5. Does that mean the Esks won 10 between 1968-1983? Why, no – they actually won 6. Very impressive, but it’s an average of 3 per starting QB. That puts them in the company of a lot of other guys, including some not on the list like Ricky Ray.

      • Marc Lebut // February 8, 2017 at 10:52 am //

        Right, and Moon nearly lost his first GC start. Wlikinson had so step in to put the team back on its tracks. Moon finished the job but Moon was on his way to lose it before. anyway, he started that game and they won it. So it’s a win on him too. But as you say, it’s hard to credit a win to a QB that didn’t play it.

  6. mr62 cats // February 6, 2017 at 3:30 pm //

    Sorry but….Ron Lancaster will always be the #1 QB in the CFL!

    • Enrico Della Penta // February 9, 2017 at 9:14 am //

      Yeah great QB, him and Russ playing on for the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 60s. The original dynamic duo.

  7. Slim Pickens // February 6, 2017 at 4:10 pm //

    Truth is it`s subjective, there are many names, not really any right or wrong answers.

    Keep in mind it`s 2017. Many/most fans only consider what they have personally witnessed.

    A number of years ago they did a poll asking what`s the best tv comedy of all time, not surprising the biggest winners were the more current programs, Cosby was voted as the best show… I shook my head and said that`s terrible, the best show was either Ozzie and Harriet or Hogan`s Heroes, maybe Marry Tyler Moore or the Beverly Hillbillies

    The consensus over at is Tom Clements and I agree, but there are no wrong answers (within reason)

  8. Damon Allen played for 23 years, but was an all star only twice. When there are only 8 starting qbs and to only make it into the top 2 twice is not greatness. He deserves credit for his longevity, but is no where near the second best QB of all time.

    • I agree. Allen played great in Grey Cup games, but he was rarely top-of-mind in the conversation for best QB in the league. There were generally a handful of guys who were more coveted than him at any given time.

  9. Ricky Ray should be in the conversation.

  10. I agree with most that Parker should be in the top 10. Burris in my eyes should not just because of his ego and me first attitude. I’d have Clements or McManus on there over Burris. List is fine just don’t order them leave it as the top 10 greatest and let the fans debate who they thought was the best.

  11. Jim Harvie // February 6, 2017 at 7:09 pm //

    The honourable mentioned make it a top 15 list and that’s sparse for so long lived a league. Each at his peak was “the guy” any team would covet

  12. No Jeff Garcia ??

    • Less than four full years as a starter. Tough to crack an all-time list like this with such a short resume. NFL exploits aren’t really a factor.

  13. Bernie Faloney was in charge of the best team in CFL history the sixty Tiger-Cats.He did this while running a full-time business in Hamilton.There is no player in the CFL that could better represent the greatest of all time, leading the greatest team of all time.Real tough men, not the boys of latter years.

  14. David Herle // February 6, 2017 at 8:34 pm //

    In any game where one team is quarterbacked by Moonand the other by Allen, I’ll take Moons team

  15. Kevin Henderson // February 6, 2017 at 9:12 pm //

    What about Jeff Garcia…he had a great CFL career and he did more than carry a clipboard in the NFL…or Peter Liske to bad he battled Sam Echevery in the Grey Cup in the 60’s

    • I think Garcia makes this list if he stuck around CFL longer,Just Like Dave Dickensen would have if injuries didn’t consume him

  16. List is brutal. any list that doesn’t have Flutie, Moon, Jackson and Parker 1-4 is a joke.Obviously the author was stats oriented here.

    • George Fogarty // February 7, 2017 at 7:49 am //

      Thanks for reading it though Angelo glad you got through it. As most people commented the order of the list is subjective but it contents for the most part are correct with the omission of Parker.

  17. Kaptain beyond // February 7, 2017 at 1:38 am //

    Rakeem Cato

  18. Enrico Della Penta // February 7, 2017 at 7:56 am //

    Yup have to add Jackie Parker on this one, overall great QBs that have played in the CFL. A couple of people have mentioned Jeff Garcia, who? Anyway great list and timely.

    Hope Robin from(theCITY) reads this list, they have been awfully quite since Hank and the REDBLACKS won the GC, come back Robin I miss you. Your pal Enrico.

  19. Michael Uzenko // February 7, 2017 at 8:26 am //

    Tom Clements?

  20. Brian Beebee // February 7, 2017 at 9:26 am //

    All great QBs who added to the great CFL game. Personally Moon was my favourite he could sling that ball. Nice article Santino.

    • Enrico Della Penta // February 9, 2017 at 9:08 am //

      Yeah Moon and Wilkinson were a great combo and powered the Esks. So many great QBs have played in the CFL.

  21. ken middaugh // February 7, 2017 at 9:54 am //

    In 60 years of listening to and watching the CFL,Russ Jackson rocked.

  22. Parker, and Flutie, my top two guys. The Lancaster and Moon

  23. Notable omissions: Troy Kopp, Akili Smith, Spurgeon Wynn, Troy Smith, Jim Zorn, and Vince Ferragamo. Oh, sorry, these guys are candidates for the bottom 10 QBs in CFL history.

    • Enrico Della Penta // February 9, 2017 at 9:11 am //

      Man Ferragamo ex-NFL QBs who struggle playing the Canadian game. Let’s hope the REDBLACKS don’t make the same mistake with Ryan Lindley, training camp will tell.

  24. Graham Kelly // February 7, 2017 at 1:41 pm //

    By his own admission, Joe Krol was not a quarterback. I have it on tape
    Jackson should be higher.
    No Jackie Parker?!

    • If it’s the same Graham Kelly that’s written countless books about the CFL, that’s a voice that should be listened to.

  25. DundasDude // February 7, 2017 at 3:53 pm //

    Tough call. Agree with Flutie being the greatest I ever saw, but I would rank Danny Mac and Matt Dunnigan ahead of some of the guys on the list. Burris was a great QB. Calvillo played on some loaded teams and like Calgary recently, never really lived up to the regular season expectations.

  26. Always tough to select all time lists. I saw all of the listed players play here in Ottawa except Joel Karol.

    Apples & organges. 1950’s 1960’s early 1970’s different game. Much more running
    Ronnie & Russ should be ahead of everyone except for Moon. Jackie Parker and those 1950’s teams special. Then only 12 NFL teams CFL could pay the same or more money.

  27. What many here forget is that Flutie only played 3 quarters, as the games were often so out of hand… if he was kept in he’d destroy the stats page. Love them all but it’s unlikely we’ll ever see anyone like Flutie again.

  28. Could make a good case for Tracy Ham among the H.mentions, if not the Top 10.

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  30. Barry Lemoine // February 11, 2017 at 5:59 pm //

    Please. Who made up this crazy list.???
    I grew up through the 50s and 60s. Russell Jackson behind Wilkinson and no Jackie Parker. Ridiculous!!!!!!

  31. I don’t see how Ricky Ray isn’t on this list

  32. As a stamps fan I have to say Henry Burris was a great everyday QB meaning most games he played well and put up really good numbers.Unfortunately in big games and at big moments he often didn’t show up (until 2016 playoffs).He didn’t have that ability to make plays out of nothing and too often tried to force pays that weren’t there often causing turnovers..I’d put in Ray over him anyday

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