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It's one of the greatest arguments in all of sports. Who is the greatest of all time? In the NFL, the argument is probably most associated with quarterbacks. But it's hard to make a judgment on who is the best ever given the different era's the players have suited up in. How can we compare Otto Graham or Johnny Unitas to John Elway or Joe Montana? How can we even compare Elway or Montana to anyone playing today given the way the game has changed? It's a difficult thing to do. Bough and Unitas played so long ago that they are often left out of the conversation (fair or not), leaving people to concentrate on the modern era quarterbacks. Usually this list comes down to two names: Montana and Brady. My opinion is a biased one, and anyone who wishes to disagree can, but if I had to pick one guy to win one game it's not even a discussion. I'm going with Joe Cool. But given that Brady and Montana are so often linked I've always wanted to take a look at both of them using the following criteria: Winning, Competition, Super Bowls and Signature moments.
Montana and Brady have both quarterbacked the best team of their respective decades. While Joe Montana and the 49ers were the team of the 1980's, Brady and the Patriots were the team of the 2000's. Regular season stats don't really tell the story here. Brady plays in an era were the rules are geared to help the passing game. When Montana played, defensive backs could be much more physical with receivers. Comparing their stats in different eras wouldn't paint the picture properly. While Montana never threw for 4,000 yards or 40 touchdowns in his era, he certainly could have playing in Brady's. Similarly, Brady's stats would have been more like we saw early in his career playing in the 80's rather than the video game numbers he and other quarterbacks are putting up now.
What does matter in any era is winning. Montana's career regular season record is 117-47 (100-39 with the 49ers) or a 71% winning percentage in 164 starts. Brady is 136-39 or a 78% winning percentage in 175 career starts. Montana boasts a 16-7 record in the playoffs and has appeared in and won 4 Super Bowls. Montana won 7 postseason games in a row from 1988-90. Brady is 17-7 in the playoffs. He has appeared in 5 Super Bowls and won 3. He started his career 10-0 in the playoffs. He is 7-7 since. Obviously, he still has time to add to these marks. Looking at this on the surface, it appears Brady may have the edge on Montana, but what we'll look at below will suggest otherwise.
This is where I have the biggest issue with the Patriots dynasty itself let alone Brady. In fact, I would argue that during their back to back Super Bowl run, the NFL may have been as weak top to bottom as it had been in some time. Early in his career, Brady arguably did not see the kind of competition Montana did throughout the 80's. Once the competition improved in the NFL, Brady's reign of championships ended. There were no other strong teams to really challenge the Pats during their back to back run in 2003/2004. In the AFC, The Colts were one dimensional and the Raiders got old. Other than Manning and Brett Favre, there were no other Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks playing in the entire NFL and Favre wasn't exactly at the top of his game in those years. Also, remember, Bulger was starting over Warner in 2003 and Warner struggled for the Giants in 2004. Brees was just coming into the league with the Chargers and Roethisberger and Eli Manning were rookies in 2004. Let's look at the starting quarterbacks in 2003 for example. Not exactly a murderer's row.
NYJ: Pennington; Buff: Bledsoe; Mia: Fielder
Pitt: Maddox; Bal: Boller/Wright; Cin: Kitna; Clev: Holcumb
Indy: Manning; Tenn: McNair; Hous: Carr; Jack: Leftwich
SD: Brees; KC: Green; OAK: Gannon/Mirer; Den: Plummer
NYG: Collins; Dallas: Carter; Phil: McNabb; Wash: Ramsey
GB: Favre; Chi: Stewart/Chandler; Minn: Culpepper; Det Harrington
TB: Brad Johnson; ATl: Doug Johnson/Vick; Car: Delhomme; NO: Brooks
SF: Garcia/Rattay; STL: Bulger; ARI: Blake/McCown ; SEA: Hasselbeck
Once the league picked back up and a stable of top tier quarterbacks emerged, Brady has not won another title. Now the NFL is a who's who of quarterback stars with Rodgers, Brees, both Mannings, Ryan, Roethisberger, etc. By comparison, in 2003, you can make a case someone like Matt Schaub may have been one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Brady also did not have to complete with the type of defenses Montana did in his era.
Montana faced much stiffer competition, specifically in the NFC. In the mid to late 1980's the NFC saw the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, and Washington Redskins all field teams that could dominate and showed just how good they were in their Super Bowl victory routes. The 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1984, the Bears, Giants, and Redskins won the next 3 season before the 49ers ran off another two in 1988 and 1989. Those teams did not have dominant quarterbacks like an Elway or Marino (although good ones), but did have great defenses and running games. As far as other quarterbacks, Warren Moon, John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly are all Hall of Famers and were in or nearing their prime. Montana also had to get past the likes of, Danny White, Joe Theisman, Phil Simms and Randall Cunningham over the years. All of which were top NFC quarterbacks.
There simply is no better big game quarterback than Joe Montana. While he had some up and down games in the playoffs themselves, Montana dominated in Super Bowls. In 1981, he led the 49ers to a 20-0 lead against the Bengals. In 1984, he outplayed fellow Hall of Famer Dan Marino while putting up 38 points. He led one of the greatest fourth quarter game-winning drives in NFL history in a 1988 rematch with the Bengals who were quarterbacked by NFL MVP Boomer Esiason. The following season, 1989, saw Montana shred the Denver Broncos and Hall of Famer John Elway in the biggest rout in Super Bowl History. To go along with his undefeated record, Montana did not throw an interception in 122 pass attempts. His passer rating was over 100 in every game and he threw 11 touchdowns passes. It all added up to three Super Bowl MVPs and a 4-0 record in the big game.
Brady has also had terrific games in Super Bowls, but may have never had a dominating or signature performance like Montana did. Brady was more a caretaker in his first Super Bowl but actually had stats very similar to Montana's. Brady threw for 145 yards and a touchdown, Montana for 157 and a touchdown. Both won MVP honors with those marginal stats. Still, Brady helped the Patriots record a big upset against the Kurt Warner led Rams and showed a lot of poise driving the team down for the winning field goal. In his next two Super Bowl games, Brady played very well and won tight match ups against the Panthers and Eagles. He was 3-0 in Super Bowls with 2 MVPs and many though he was going to challenge Montana for the best Super Bowl quarterback of all time. But Brady's legacy has taken a hit in his 4th and 5th appearances in the big game. Both times the Patriots were beat by a possibly inferior Giants team. Brady only put up 14 and 17 points in those 2 contests. Looking deeper, Brady has only put up 55 points in his last 3 Super Bowl games. The exact amount Montana put up in Super Bowl XXIV. Also, Montana out dueled two Hall of Famers (Marino and Elway) and two Bengal quarterbacks coming off of MVP seasons (Esiason and Ken Anderson). Brady didn't exactly beat slouches in Warner and Donovan McNabb but he barely got by a Jake Delhomme led Panthers team and lost twice to Eli Manning and the Giants.
When you're breaking down the greatest players of all time, especially at the quarterback position, you have to take into consideration moments that are engrained in our minds. It's the plays, drives, and performances that we see over and over again that have become part of the history of the game. These moments give fans chills decades after we first saw them. How can you be a legendary player without legendary moments? "The Catch" goes down as one the greatest plays in the history of the NFL. We all know the play by now but it did so much more than send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. That play ignited a dynasty. It set off four championships over nine seasons. It catapulted a franchise that would see their success carry on even when Montana and Walsh were gone. They would win 10 or more games 16 years in a row (83-98) and five championships. The other moment for Montana was the game winning drive of Super Bowl XXIII. In an era of Super Bowl blowouts, the 49ers and Bengals played a tight, low scoring game that saw the 49ers down 16-13 with 3:10 left on the clock. Montana led the team on a 93 yard, machine like, scoring drive that culminated in a 10 yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left. This might be the signature drive of the Super Bowl era.
When looking at Brady, I struggle to come up with any of these kinds of moments. Actually, when I think of the Patriot's dynasty run, I think of Adam Vinatieri. All of the signature/legendary moments belong to him. His winning field goals in 2001 in the snow against Oakland and to win the Super Bowl against the Rams are what will stick in our heads. Even in Super Bowl XXXVIII, it was John Kasay's kick off out of bounds that help set up another Vinatieri field goal to win it. That's not to say Brady didn't play well and drive the team to get those fields goals. That not to say he couldn't have gotten touchdowns if that's what they needed, he certainly might have. Brady simply does not have those moments that will be at the forefront of NFL lore. Even his in the AFC championship games, it's Bledsoe coming off the bench, it's the defense forcing 4 Peyton Manning interceptions, it's Phillip Rivers playing with a torn ACL, it's Lee Evans dropping a pass and Billy Cundiff pushing a kick. Have we ever really had that Tom Brady moment? In fairness to Brady though, he is the only player to quarterback a 16-0 season. That in itself has to be recognized as a signature accomplishment, although, again, the "moments" that stick out in that season belong to the Giants.
Look, I don't want this article to come off as an indictment of Tom Brady. Brady is a great quarterback, probably the best of his era. He will go down as one of the best to ever play the game. But he's not Joe Montana. Records aside, Montana faced better competition and had more signature moments that are important in the history of the game. While Brady has been great in some Super Bowls, Montana has been legendary. The Montana vs. Brady debate shouldn't really be a debate at all...at least in my humble opinion.
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