Tom Brady is Not The Greatest of All Time… He’s Number Three
That’s what ESPN pundit Jemele Hill, as well as many other analysts and fans across the country, said about Tom Brady hours after he and the New England Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit for an improbable Super Bowl 51 victory.
But you might want to pick that mic up Jemele.
Because the debate, for those of us unwilling to latch onto to over-simplified qualifiers like Super Bowl victories (and unwilling to move on from football season), remains ongoing…
Tom Brady is the most accomplished quarterback of all time; his seven Super Bowl appearances and five championships certainly prove that. However, most believe Michael Jordan and his six championships to be the NBA’s GOAT over Bill Russell and his nine. Most NHL fans would take Wayne Gretzky (four Stanley Cups) over Mark Messier (six), a handful of baseball players would be argued over Yogi Berra and his ten World Series rings, with most settling on Babe Ruth.
In short, the amount of championships is not the be-all and end-all number when talking about all time greats. They’re a huge part of the equation, but there are other, insurmountable factors at play — which is why I believe Tom Brady cannot be unanimously considered the Greatest Of All Time.
Really, if I’m being honest, he’s more like #3…
Right behind Peyton and Elway.
Not to get too Jonah Hill-in-Moneyball, but the formula I personally take into account when considering an athlete for the Greatest Of All Time is as follows:
Individual Accomplishments* + Team Accomplishments = GOAT
*if there is generational crossover, head-to-head performance is a major factor
Which leads us to…
Brady vs. Peyton Manning
Perhaps the most damning evidence to Tom Brady’s case is that he isn’t even (definitively) the best quarterback of his generation, as many still argue Peyton Manning as the greatest of the two players’ respective era. Brady’s five rings to Manning’s two is undoubtedly a strong edge in the Patriots’ QB’s favor, but Peyton re-wrote the quarterback record book while amassing the most impressive resume the position has ever seen.
- two Super Bowl wins out of four appearances
- a 3-1 record vs. Brady in head-to-head Conference Championship games
- the distinguished honor of being the only quarterback to win Super Bowls with multiple franchises, and get there with four different head coaches
- a lofty place in the record books under virtually every statistical category for a quarterback
Brady may have held the overall edge including regular season games, but when you’re talking GOATs, you’re talking big performances in big games. In fact, if you include little brother Eli, Brady was 0-5 in his last five playoff matches vs. the Mannings (not to mention some ugly playoff losses to mediocre quarterbacks, like Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco). I dare you to find a stat like that on Jordan’s resume.
Football may be a team game, and these losses are certainly not all Brady’s fault; but if you’re give him credit for the team accomplishment of winning championships, you also have to knock him when his Patriots come up short.
Brady vs. John Elway
Elway’s a little tougher to directly compare to Brady for a few reasons: one, their careers didn’t cross paths, so there’s no head-to-head comparison; two, though he had incredibly impressive individual numbers, Elway didn’t “re-write” the record books the way Manning did; and three, the different eras in which each player played (Brady spent his career flourishing in the pass-happy, protect-the-quarterback era, where any quarterback playing is going to have better career numbers than a comparable player of the past). So, I therefore try to look at where Elway ended up in the record books when he retired.
The admitted issue there is that Brady still has time to add to his career numbers, though at 39 and still significantly behind Manning in touchdowns and yards (also, the still-active 38-year-old Drew Brees), Brady’s going to be hard-pressed to crack the top three in those statistical categories.
Unlike Elway, whose name was stamped all over the record books when he retired…
- 5 Super Bowl appearances (second most of all time), 2 wins (tied for top five)
- Retired second or third in virtually every statistical passing category behind Dan Marino and/or Fran Tarkenton
- (Marino and Tarkenton were a combined 0-4 in Super Bowls, making Elway the clear leader when he retired in the aforementioned formula of individual + team success = GOAT)
Like all quarterbacks, Elway doesn’t have as many rings on his resume as Brady. Also like Manning, Elway once had the “not a big game quarterback” label thrown around by the media at times during his career. However, his losses in big games were almost entirely due to dragging an otherwise inferior team to that level in the first place. With Bill Belichick running the show, no Brady team can ever be considered “inferior.”
Speaking of Belichick, he’s the reason behind one of a handful of admittedly not-completely-fair detractions from Brady’s GOAT argument.
We’ll call this the “Auxiliary Evidence” section…
Auxiliary Evidence #1: Bill Belichick
Belichick is, especially now, considered by most to be the greatest coach of all time.
Manning’s coaches, for comparison, ranged from infamous meme legends (think: “Playoffs?!?”) to very-good-but-not-all-time-greats like Tony Dungy and Gary Kubiak. Nevertheless, he took four of them to the Promise Land. Meanwhile, Elway’s best coach, Mike Shanahan (at the helm for Elway’s two Super Bowl wins), was a combined 1-4 in the playoffs without his hall of fame QB. In fact, Shanahan only made the playoffs in 5 of the 16 seasons he was a head coach without Elway, compared to 3 out of the 4 seasons he teamed with the Denver Broncos’ legend.
When Peyton Manning went down before the 2011 season, the Indianapolis Colts went 2-14 and head coach Jim Caldwell was fired. During the one season Belichick coached the Patriots without Brady, they went 11-5 and missed out on the playoffs only due to being on the losing end of a logistical tie-breaker. They also happened to go 3-1 this season when their iconic QB was (admittedly unfairly) suspended.
At the end of the day, only Tom Brady was able to reap the rewards of the unparalleled brain — and let’s call it “advanced scouting” methods — of William Stephen Belichick.
Auxiliary Evidence #2: The AFC Least
One of the most glossed-over aspects of Brady’s historic run is that he played in unquestionably the worst division in football throughout his career. Only a couple solid New York Jets teams separated the AFC East from complete ineptitude outside of the Patriots (perhaps not-so-coincidentally, those two years that the Rex Ryan-led Jets made it to the AFC title game, New England did not win a playoff game); which means for most of Brady’s career, the Patriots were able to sleep walk to a first round bye, usually with home field advantage for the playoffs.
While teams in other divisions were knocking the slobber out of each other for 17 weeks before even getting to the playoffs, the Pats were consistently able to coast to a level that brought them just one win from the conference title game, two from the Super Bowl, year after year.
Auxiliary Evidence #3: The Choke Jobs
Brady has benefited from a couple of all-time choke jobs to give him those five rings he wears so proudly…
If the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons run the ball a few more times, we’re likely talking about Brady tying the record for most Super Bowl losses, not setting the record for most Super Bowl wins. That isn’t even mentioning Andy Reid’s late-game clock management for the Eagles#, or Adam Vinatieri’s Super Bowl-winning kick# back when Brady was more of a game manager.
History went how it went, though, and all five of the rings were well-earned; but are other teams’ historically bad decisions really enough to put Brady definitively above the other greats? Not for me.
Look, I’m not here saying Brady isn’t great; he’s kicked my favorite team’s butt too many times for me to argue that. He belongs in the conversation and, along with Joe Montana#, is firmly entrenched in any Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks. He’s an all time great. But he also happened to land in an all-time great situation, with an all-time great coach.
Therefore, in conclusion, Tom Brady cannot be the greatest quarterback of all time.
Really, he’s more like #3.
(And I didn’t even have to mention Spygate).
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