While I bask in the afterglow of the New England Patriots nail-biting win in Super Bowl XLIX over the Seattle Seahawks – something I would have sworn they couldn’t pull off because of past Super Bowl failures against lesser teams – I have to take objection to a few things I see bandied about which make me a bit squeamish, even as a Patriots fan.
First, some history
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, which means you have one of two choices for your major sport franchises. Since there is NO sport but football (American, not what they call “football” in other parts of the world) to me, there are two choices for your NFL franchise: The San Francisco 49ers (note the spelling please), and the Oakland Raiders.
For a long time in NFL history, the Raiders were the winning franchise. John Madden was, at one point, the winningest coach in NFL history. (No more, I don’t think.) So many people from the East Bay (on the East side of the SF Bay itself) rooted for the Raiders. But before the former AFL became part of the NFL, it was the San Francisco 49ers unless you went AAAAAAAAALL the way to Los Angeles to root for the Los Angeles Rams.
Push forward. After trying to pick my own team, for myself, in early childhood, my parents ridiculed me and brow-beat me into rooting for either the Raiders or the 49ers. By the time I was in high school, I was a firm and loyal 49ers fan. I was in the city the night they won their first Super Bowl (XVI), driving through the streets and watching strangers high-five each other and celebrate.
Throughout the 1980s, the 49ers became the “team of the decade” by winning four Super Bowls behind the leadership of a legend: Joe Montana.
Now, the objection
Joe Montana was only the second quarterback in NFL history to get four Lombardi trophies (if you don’t know, that’s the trophy the Super Bowl winner gets after the game, the one they kiss, lick, wipe with, cuddle, make love to, etc. after the game, under the streamers and confetti with applause-track audio piped through the stadium). Terry Bradshaw was the first. (Interestingly, Terry Bradshaw’s name NEVER comes up in the context of what I’m about to say.)
Tom Brady, on Sunday, February 2, 2015, became the third quarterback to do so.
Just before the game (and by “just before”, I mean the two weeks leading up to it, beginning just a few seconds after the end of the AFC Championship game when the New England Patriots won to reach the Super Bowl), there started to be rumblings about who the greatest quarterback in NFL history is. Could Tom Brady surpass his childhood hero, Joe Montana? And now that he’s won the Super Bowl and reached Montana’s level, there is debate about whether Brady has, in fact, surpassed Montana.
Pros and Cons
I think Tom Brady is certainly one of the best quarterbacks to play his position in a long, long time. His achievements show it. He’s been to nine Championship games, six Super Bowls, and has impressive stats in them all. But I will firmly and soundly cast my vote for Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of all time, every time the option arises, and there is no question in my mind why that is.
First, Brady just passed Montana for touchdown passes in the post season. Congratulations, Tom! Great job! But…he’s played in more post season games than Montana has, too. He’s also been to the Super Bowl more times than Montana. Congratulations, Tom! Great job, and something to be proud of, for sure. It’s not easy to get there, and no one who says it is has played or even watched the sport.
Joe Montana, though, is undefeated in Super Bowl appearances. Two of those were nail-biter victories. Two of them were dominant, blow-out routs. (Interestingly, the Cincinnati Bengals were the team to play the 49ers close both times.)
Tom Brady plays with receivers of little notoriety. He elevates what might be called “mediocre” receivers to his own stature by virtue of his talent and drive. Joe Montana had the advantage of playing a long time with superstars like John Taylor and, of course, the incomparable Jerry Rice as his receivers. One analyst on the NFL network said it astutely: “No one has done more with less throughout his career than Tom Brady.” There’s a reason his nickname is “Tom Terrific.”
On the other hand, there is no one who handed Joe Montana anything. He and his teammates earned every Super Bowl victory they had, sometimes even with what appeared to be inordinate help from the referees. Maybe it was because they were my team, but it always seemed they were the recipients of the bad calls or phantom penalties.
Meanwhile, the New England Patriots haven’t won a single Super Bowl victory apart from controversy. In 2001, it was the infamous “Tuck Rule”, which launched Tom Brady’s legend. Then there was “SpyGate”, wherein the Patriots were accused of using unfair video practices to gain advantage over their opponents. (Some of the players from the now-St. Louis Rams still feel they were unfairly robbed of their victory.) Now, it’s “DeflateGate”, wherein the footballs during the AFC Championship game this past season did not meet the NFL standards for PSI inflation during the game. (Even Joe Montana has said if someone did this, it would be Brady’s idea because quarterbacks are the ones who want the ball a certain way; no one does it for receivers or running backs.)
So now, yet another “asterisk” tarnishing the Super Bowl for the Patriots. My wife would love to see conspiracy here. I do too – but not the same way. It’s really starting to look as if this team can’t win without either breaking or skirting the rules. And that makes me sad, because when I finally grew up and decided I’d root for my own team, not the one I had forced on me as a child, I chose the Patriots. And now I sort of regret that decision.
But back to the debate.
Part of the reason Brady is statistically better is because he’s had more opportunities. He’s been to the big dance more times, which means playing through a variable number of games to GET to the big dance, which all provided opportunities for throwing touchdown passes.
This is a tough one, because those things should count for something. Montana never squandered his shot at the brass ring, though. I think Brady also has the benefit of more lenient rules as the NFL leans toward making the game more pass-centric (long pass plays are far more exciting, and therefore put more butts in chairs watching NFL games, than running plays which go for three or four yards). So it’s been easier for the game to go that way. Montana benefitted from a pair of Hall of Fame wide receivers catching his passes; when Brady had one, they lost the Super Bowl.
But I still feel the undefeated record in the Super Bowl itself gives Montana the title. Brady’s a great, great quarterback, and has earned his spot in Canton’s Hall, but he’s not at the same level in my estimation.
But you know who I think shouldn’t be in this debate at all, and very often is? Peyton Manning.
That’s for another day, though.