Tom Brady might just be the greatest quarterback in NFL history, but the overwhelming consensus that he is ignores a hard-nosed history.
Labeling Tom Brady as the G.O.A.T. is as fashionable as bell-bottoms in the 1970s. Questioning that exact status is as fashionable as cargo shorts in today’s slim-fitting world. (I don’t care what anybody says; cargo shorts should still be widely accepted, but I digress.)
The point is simple and clear: Six Super Bowl championships mean Brady is the greatest of all-time. It’s an idea that’s mostly accepted and rarely disputed.
When did championships alone become the barometer that sets the greatness benchmark? This is football, after all. No one man can lift or sink a team—even if that man is a quarterback.
As much as the entertainment-sports media crossover movement would have you believe championships are the only barometer, this simply isn’t the NBA. It’s not the world that features a LeBron James who can single-handedly make up a 40-game difference in a season. It’s not the world that features Michael Jordan, the man who brought us to this point in which only chips matter.
Tom Brady may very well be the greatest quarterback of all-time. It just shouldn’t be unanimous, and to challenge that point shouldn’t happen so scarcely.
The physicality of the sport
Tom Brady and his contemporary quarterback colleagues were born at the perfect time. No more cheap shots. No more drilling the quarterback in the rib cage. No more Buddy Ryan bounties. No more Charles Martin plays.
What quarterbacks experienced prior to the turn of the century was nearly medieval. Had Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas started their careers in 2001, each would have suited up in an incredible number of additional games.
Montana started just 164 games over the course of his 16-year career. Unitas started just 185 games in 18 years. Each quarterback would take his fair share of punishment on a weekly basis.
Some of the hits and stories these guys used to deal with makes the NFL in the 20th century a completely different sport than it is today. Brady has been incredibly fortunate to play in this era.
Leonard Marshall would probably be jailed if he ever laid that hit on a quarterback today.
It’s a different game
Obviously, the 14-game season for Unitas puts him severely behind the eight-ball. The shorter season needs to be considered a huge detriment for the older guys.
More importantly, it’s a completely different game.
Around 13-14 years ago is when passing really took off. Offensive numbers started to jump off the page thanks to new rules and a new league attitude surrounding defensive back contact with receivers.
Interestingly, Brady’s New England Patriots really helped the league act on the offensive push. Bill Belichick’s defensive backs mugged, held and otherwise draped themselves all over Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in the 2003 AFC championship game. Peyton Manning had no room downfield and the topic was fierce following the game.
Little by little, it led to a revolution—one Brady capitalized on as he improved in his career.
Things really started to pick up in 2007 and 2008 and continued from there. In 2020, games featured an average of 240.2 passing yards per game. That number was a mere 204.8 in 2006. It spiked to 214.3 in 2007, the very same season Brady enjoyed his finest regular season (with Randy Moss and Wes Welker).
And if you think it was a coincidence that Belichick started spending a bulk of his salary cap on offensive players that season—a year after losing the Colts in the 2006 AFC championship game—you’re kidding yourself. He saw where the league was headed and appropriately adjusted from a defensive-first team to an offensive bonanza.
Interestingly, Brady’s career numbers follow the league’s historical passing trend. The first time he threw for over 4,200 yards in a regular season came in 2007 (the second time he eclipsed 4,000 yards in seven years). It also marked the first time he threw more than 28 touchdowns in a season (50).
Montana’s mere 40,551 passing yards place him 21st on the all-time list, while Unitas’s 40,239 puts him 22nd. These numbers are child’s play to Brady’s second-all-time ranking (79,204) and Drew Brees‘s top billing (80,358).
But how could anybody take these rankings seriously considering what’s transpired over the last decade and a half?
Brady’s per-game-started average stands at 264.8, Montana’s is 247.2, and Unitas’s per-game-started average is 217.5. The only correct way to view the numbers is to compare them against the league average.
For instance, the league average was taken for each quarterback’s time in the league, starting with the year he first started a game and ending with the final year in which he started a game.
- League average during Brady’s career (2001-2020): 223.1
- League average during Montana’s career (1979-1994): 196.4
- League average during Unitas’s career (1956-1973): 165.6
Brady’s career per-game-started average is 40.7 yards above the league average. Montana’s number is 50.8 yards above the league average. And Unitas’s number is 51.9 yards above the league average. Dan Marino‘s numbers for his time period probably stand the test of time best, but when comparing the greatest three of all-time, Brady’s passing yards output is behind Montana’s and Unitas’s (and the same can be applied for most of the other passing stats such as touchdowns).
The cheating scandals
To completely ignore the cheating scandals is to wave the pom-poms without fear of subjectivity. Not only was there Spygate, which was a very real occurrence, but there was also Deflategate.
Argue the severity of each all you want, but the fact of the matter is that these scandals must be considered. Hell, the Patriots were even docked draft picks in 2021 for their role in illegally taping the Cincinnati Bengals recently. The noise simply doesn’t stop.
If you’re one who doesn’t put too much stock into the scandals, I can’t vehemently argue with that point of view. But it needs to at least be a topic of conversation.
Unitas has four championships (one Super Bowl), Montana has four Super Bowls and Brady has six (looking for his seventh this Sunday). Don’t stop there. There’s just too much that needs to go into this debate which means foolishly stopping there doesn’t get you any closer to the best version of the truth.
Does anybody view Drew Brees as the NFL’s greatest passer? After all, he’s No. 1 on the all-time list. Brady, a man who’ll seemingly take that crown next season, is the best big-game quarterback ever. But was he ever the consensus best quarterback in the game at any point over a good chunk of time in his career?
Unitas was. Montana was. Folks would argue Peyton Manning was as well. Even Aaron Rodgers consistently put up better numbers than Brady when the totality is reviewed.
The first decade of the new century featured Manning as the top guy. January wasn’t as kind to the middle Manning child, but it’s tough to come across a more consistently great quarterback. The man was simply unstoppable in the regular season.
Meanwhile, Brady did just enough while catching breaks in the tournament. If Mo Lewis doesn’t smack Drew Bledsoe along the sideline, what happens? If the Tuck Rule isn’t in the rulebook, what happens? Remember, that was a backup quarterback at the time and the then-Oakland Raiders would have won that game.
So much of it comes down to opportunity. The opportunity to flourish in the most favorable quarterback era of all-time. The opportunity to be paired with one of the greatest coaches of all-time. The opportunity to experience an easy entry into the AFC championship game nearly every season.
What we know:
- The stats can’t be relied upon to prove Brady’s G.O.A.T. status. Too much has changed. In fact, when comparing against the league average for the time, Brady doesn’t stand out at all.
- While never considered the undoubted best at his position over the course of his regular-season career, Brady is the best big-game quarterback ever.
- The physicality aspect is a topic that flies so far under the radar that it’s insulting. Quarterbacks today can easily and laughably play into their 40s without a care in the world, while the guys of yesteryear had to worry about real punishment and still connect downfield.
Perhaps Brady’s greatest positive on the topic (other than his big-game play) is the idea that he won six championships (perhaps seven) in the hard salary cap world. Before free agency, that was never a concern for the older guys. Great teams often remained great while bad teams often remained bad. That wasn’t always the case, but the overall parity has increased during Brady’s time.
On Sunday, the man who figured out how to manipulate the matrix seeks his seventh Super Bowl ring. If that’s good enough to call him the undoubted greatest of all-time, you’re drinking too much of the Michael Jordan/NBA water. Other factors must be considered, and if those factors are considered and you still come back with Brady as the G.O.A.T., that’s fair.
To me, Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time (along with Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana). A plethora of breaks came his way over the course of his incredible career. What can’t be disputed is his big-game G.O.A.T. status. He has that one locked up.
But in terms of the true quarterback G.O.A.T., it still remains a discussion. In terms of the football G.O.A.T., Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor and Jerry Rice would have a few things to say before it’s settled.
You can call Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all-time. Just don’t think it should be unanimous.