The New England Patriots just won the Super Bowl. Again. After what was considered a lackluster season by their standards, the Patriots defied the odds to take home another Lombardi Trophy. Tom Brady, although largely unimpressive in the game, won his sixth Super Bowl ring. Throughout his career, Tom Brady has drawn comparisons to another all time great: Joe Montana. For many, Brady’s latest championship puts to rest the “Brady vs Montana” debate. After the Pat’s victory in Super Bowl LIII, the ring count stands at Tom Brady – 6, Joe Montana – 4. So, that’s it. It’s settled. Tom Brady is the undisputed king of quarterbacks. Except he’s not. To me, Joe Montana will always be the greatest quarterback of all time. This is deeper than just winning championships. Since Super Bowls are the criteria that most use to determine the greatest, let’s take a closer look the Super Bowl performances of both players.
Montana’s Super Bowls
People forget just how good Joe Montana was. Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowls in the 80’s, winning championships in 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989. Super Joe did things that, at the time, were unprecedented. In 1984, the 49ers routed Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX. Montana won MVP and set the record for most passing yards in a Super Bowl with 331. In Super Bowl XXIII, Montana had one of his best performances. He threw for 357 yards, two touchdowns and calmly led his team on a 92 yard game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, throwing the go-ahead touchdown pass with 34 seconds left in the game. The very next season, Montana earned the highest passer rating in league history, throwing for over 3,500 yards, 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. The 49ers capped-off the 1989 season by pummeling the Denver Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. Montana threw for five touchdowns and earned a third straight Super Bowl MVP. Joe Cool was at his best on the big stage, he never lost a Super Bowl and finished his career with a total of 32 fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories.
Brady’s Super Bowls
Although Brady has made it to the Super Bowl an impressive nine times, he’s lost the big game three times and, if not for a few fortuitous plays, he loses a couple more. In Brady’s first championship, Super Bowl XXXVI, he threw for only 145 yards and one touchdown and needed an Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired to beat the Rams. Just a couple of years later in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Patriots again needed a last-second Vinatieri field goal to beat the Panthers. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks had the Pats on the ropes. With the Patriots leading 28-24, the Seahawks had the ball on the goal line with 26 seconds left. For reasons that will never be understood, the Seahawks attempted a pass instead of letting one of best running backs in the game, Marshawn Lynch, punch it into the end zone. The result of the play was an interception, handing Brady his fourth Super Bowl. Brady won his fifth ring two seasons later with a comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots trailed the Falcons 28-3 in the third quarter and scored 25 unanswered points to send the game into overtime. The Patriots eventually won the game 34-28 in what could be considered more of a total meltdown by the Falcons than a Patriots’ comeback. The very next season, the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII to the Philadelphia Eagles, who were led by back-up quarterback Nick Foles.
Today, it’s a different game.
Compare the modern-day NFL to the NFL of Montana’s day and a striking contrast becomes blatently obvious. Has Tom Brady benefited from rule changes that were not available to Montana? Obviously, football has changed dramatically in just the last five or six years. Offense sells tickets, so the rules have been skewed to favor offenses and quarterback protection has become a point of emphasis. These days, any hard tackle made on the quarterback is a penalty and, depending on the severity of the tackle, a possible ejection. Anything short of softly laying the quarterback down on a bed of roses draws a penalty flag. In the not too distant future, I expect tackling the quarterback in the pocket to become illegal in the NFL.
Montana played in an era when the quarterback could actually be tackled, and tackled hard. In the 80’s, a helmet to helmet hit was considered a routine play, and pass rushers made it their mission to take out the quarterback. While Brady has basically been coddled his whole career, Montana endured absolute punishment. Playing an entire season uninjured was a not a privilege often enjoyed by Montana. By age 30, Super Joe was broken down and a shell of his former self. Brady, now 41 years old, has benefited from the longevity provided to him by rule changes, modern nutrition and training regimens. Montana did more in less time in a tougher league with less advantages.
So who’s the GOAT?
Montana won and set records in an era when the quarterback was head-hunted and teams were allowed to play defense on wide receivers. And speaking of wide receivers…sure, Montana had Jerry Rice, but Brady had Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Gronk, among others. Brady is also the main beneficiary of the Bill Belichick system. What happened when Brady suffered his only season-ending injury at the start of the 2008 season? The Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at the helm. I’m not saying Tom Brady is a system quarterback, but an argument can be made. I’m not even going to get into the tuck rule, Spy-gate or Deflate-gate stuff other than to say that Montana won without controversy.
Admittedly, my opinion is not an unbiased one. I grew up a huge 49ers fan. But to crown Tom Brady the undisputed greatest quarterback of all time and completely dismiss Montana’s accomplishments is ludicrous. Without question, Tom Brady is an all-timer, one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has ever seen. He has also benefited from a softer league, rule changes and an infallible system. His longevity is unrivaled. I am interested to see how long he can hold off Father Time and still be productive. Tom Brady is an absolute legend, but let’s not forget that there would be no Tom Brady without Joe Montana. Joe Montana changed the game. For me, the GOAT list will always be: 1a. Joe Montana, 1b. Tom Brady.