01 February, 2017

The Monday Morning Quarterback

Championships Matter More Than Individual Stats. That's Why Tom Brady is the Best Ever

February 1, 2017
Peter Solari, Contributing Editor

In the latest episode of the "For Pete's Sake podcast, I argued that Tom Brady was the greatest quarterback of the Super Bowl era. More specifically, I made my case for why championships matter more than individual stats, when it comes to gauging who the best QBs ever are. 

Every year around Super Bowl time, and especially when New England appears in the big game, a great debate over who the best quarterback is, Joe Montana or Tom Brady, erupts. History looks at Montana and Brady like they're immortal. So much in fact, that a lot of fans don't realize that neither Montana nor Brady were even the best quarterback of their respective eras. So why are they the standard bearers for greatness in the NFL?

Listen to the most recent episode of "For Pete's Sake" below.

I set out to see how Montana stacked up against the other quarterbacks of his day, and what I found was, with a couple of seasons set aside, he was never the best quarterback in the league.

Upon examining three specific categories that are almost exclusive to quarterbacks (passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passer rating), I noticed that in the early part of Montana's career, San Diego's Dan Fouts put up numbers that dwarf Montana's in the late 70's and early 80's. However, Fouts was a seasoned veteran at that point, and Montana was merely a third round draft pick out of Notre Dame, trying to make a name for himself. A more fair and telling comparison of this era is between Montana and Miami's Dan Marino from 1984 through 1990. 

The Dolphins drafted Marino 27th overall out of Pittsburgh in the 1983 NFL Draft, and he was later named the NFL's Rookie of the Year for that season. In 1984, he set the NFL on fire, leading the league in all three of the aforementioned stat categories, on his way to being named MVP. 

By 1984, Montana had established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and already had one Super Bowl ring on his finger. By the end of the 1984 season, Montana would add a second piece of hardware to his collection, by leading the 49ers to a 38-16 rout over MVP Marino's Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. For the next six seasons, Montana and Marino battled for the title of league's best quarterback, and more times than not, it was Marino who came out on top.

Take a look at how Montana and Marino stacked up against the rest of the NFL in the categories of passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passer rating, between the years 1984, when Marino arrives on the scene, and 1990, Montana's last season as San Francisco's starter. You may be surprised. Note: All statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference 

Joe Montana of the 49ers (left) and Dan Marino of the Dolphins.
1984 NFL QB leaders. (Notes: San Francisco beat Miami is Super Bowl XIX. Dan Marino named NFL MVP.)

1985 NFL QB leaders.

1986 NFL QB leaders.

1987 NFL QB leaders.

1988 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Joe Montana wins his third championship in Super Bowl XXIII.)

1989 NFL QB leaders. (Notes: Joe Montana wins his fourth championship in Super Bowl XXIV, and is named NFL MVP.)

1990 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Joe Montana wins his second straight NFL MVP.)
Perhaps, after looking at these stats, you're saying the gap between Marino and Montana isn't as wide as I previously made it sound. Before you come to that conclusion, however, see if Montana's and Marino's side-by-side career stats make you think differently. Again, these are courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Joe Montana's career stats.

Dan Marino's career stats.
There really is no debate. From a statistical standpoint, Marino was a better, maybe even far better, quarterback than Montana. But stats aren't the whole story, and this is exactly why winning championships, carries more weight than individual accomplishments.

I also wanted to see how Brady compared to his counterparts, and how he stacked up against Montana overall. So I looked at the same three categories between the years of 2001, Brady's first as a starter, and the present. The results were pretty interesting and quite similar to what I found in Montana's case.

Like Montana, with a couple of seasons set aside, Brady was never the best quarterback in the league. It wasn't Marino standing in his way, though. It was an imposing force by the name of Peyton Manning.

Like Montana and Marino 20 years before, Brady and Manning battled for the crown of NFL's best, and like their predecessors, the one with the most gaudy statistics, didn't have the rings to back it up. And it wasn't just Manning who outshone Brady.

As Brady's career progressed, another great quarterback, by the name of Drew Brees, had burst onto the scene to challenge Brady. Like Manning, Brees was putting up stats that were more impressive than Brady's. But Brady just kept winning. Manning and Brees simply couldn't keep up in that category.

Take a look at how Brady, Manning, and Brees stack up with each other, and the rest of the league below. Pay close attention to the Brady vs. Manning matchup between 2001 and 2014, as well as the Brady/Brees matchup between 2006 and 2016. What you'll find, is two quarterbacks who are statistically better than Brady. All stats are courtesy of Pro Football Reference. Note: 2008 season is omitted, as Tom Brady only appeared in one game.

Peyton Manning (left), Drew Brees, and Tom Brady
2001 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Tom Brady won his first championship in Super Bowl XXXVI.)
2002 NFL QB leaders.
2003 NFL QB leaders. (Notes: Tom Brady wins his second championship in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Peyton Manning is named NFL MVP.)
2004 NFL QB leaders. (Notes: Tom Brady won his third championship in Super Bowl XXIX. Peyton Manning won his second straight MVP award.)
2005 NFL QB leaders.
2006 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Peyton Manning won his first championship in Super Bowl XLI.)
2007 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Tom Brady is named NFL MVP.)
2009 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Drew Brees won his first championship over Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV. Peyton Manning wins his fourth NFL MVP.)
2010 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Tom Brady wins his second NFL MVP.)
2011 NFL QB leaders.
2012 NFL QB leaders.
2013 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Peyton Manning wins his fifth NFL MVP award.)
2014 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Tom Brady wins his fourth championship in Super Bowl XLIX.)
2015 NFL QB leaders. (Note: Peyton Manning wins his second championship in Super Bowl 50.)
2016 NFL QB leaders. (Notes: Peyton Manning retired before the season. Tom Brady will play for his fifth championship in Super Bowl LI.)
Now have a look at how Brady, Manning, and Brees stack up to each other, with their full career stats to this point. As Brady and Brees are still active, these numbers are subject to change. Thanks again to Pro Football Reference for the stats. 

Tom Brady's career stats.
Peyton Manning's career stats.
Drew Brees's career stats.
Let's say you were running an NFL franchise in the year 2000, and you had these individual statistics in front of you. Given the choice of any quarterback to build your team around, who would you choose? Even though you'll come out ahead with any three of these guys, logic would dictate that Manning would be chosen first, Brees second, and Brady third.

Likewise, if you could go back to 1981, with these stats in front of you, you'd likely take Marino over Montana, right? Well, you'd be incorrect on both accounts. 

Now, assume you could go back in time with not only the raw statistics in front of you, but the following lists of career accolades for the four quarterbacks in question. 

Tom Brady's career accolades.
Peyton Manning's career accolades.
Drew Brees's career accolades.
Joe Montana's career accolades.
Dan Marino's career accolades.

It's safe to say that given this extra bit of information, Marino and Manning are no longer the clear cut favorites. You'd probably take, in this order, Brady, Manning, and Brees in 2001, and undoubtedly choose Marino over Montana in 1981.

This is why championships are more important that individual in a debate such as this. After all, everyone within a given organization, as well as it's fan base, have the same objective: winning! At the end of the day, I'm sure every quarterback with love to have flashy statistics. What I know, however, is that every quarterback wants to win the Super Bowl first and foremost, every single season. 

The ultimate goal for every football player is to reach the top of the mountain with his teammates at the end of each season, and when you've done that as consistently and as well as Montana and Brady have, it's hard to say anyone is better.

Earlier in this piece, I said that individual stats are for the Hall of Fame, while winning is the mark of greatness. To prove that point, consider Brees. He's going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, because his numbers are that good. That wouldn't have changed, regardless of Super Bowl credentials. Had Brees never won the big game (like Marino didn't), he'd still end up in Canton (like Marino did). Winning doesn't come easy, so a lack of championships will never keep a great player out of the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, however, championships carry so much weight, that they're, at times, enough to push a borderline Hall of Famer, over the top. Look at Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw. I doubt either one would be in Canton without their Super Bowl rings. Look at Peyton's little brother, Eli Manning. Nowadays, people talk about him as if there was no doubt he'll be in the Hall of Fame. But where would he be without two Super Bowl victories over Brady's Patriots?

This is why winning matters more. It truly separates greatness from legendary status. I've shown you three quarterbacks with better stats than Montana and Brady, but the discussion over who is the best ever, still comes down to those two. Why? Because America loves a winner!

So now that we've wittled it down to just Brady and Montana, which one of those two is the best quarterback of the Super Bowl era? For my money, it's Brady.

Sure, Montana was undefeated in his four Super Bowls, and should be commended, but on Sunday, Brady will play in his unprecedented seventh Super Bowl, and by game's end, he could be the first and only quarterback to win it five times, and his career isn't even over yet. On top of that, a combined seven points in two games, are the only reasons Brady hasn't already won six championships of his own. Other than the Pittsburgh Steelers, no franchise has that many rings, let alone a single player.

Over the past 16 years, Tom Brady has taken NFL fans on a ride like we've never seen before, and may never see again, and it's not over yet. So as the sun sets on possibly the greatest football career ever, we, as fans, need to enjoy it and appreciate it as much as possible.

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