A favorite pastime of sports junkies is debating the all-important question of who’s the greatest to ever play a particular sport. Naturally, these questions tend to transcend generations, with people old and young alike being able to engage in these conversations. But these debates aren’t immune to the differences in opinion created by the generation gap, with those in their younger years often being unable to truly understand the greatness of players who came before their time, thereby impacting their stance on this debate.
The question of who’s the greatest NFL player, however, isn’t the common question debated among NFL fans. After all, each position requires such specialized skill that it’s difficult to properly compare those playing two different positions. Instead, the primary question that’s debated has to do with determining who’s the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Over the past couple years — especially following last season’s Super Bowl victory — the general consensus has been that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the greatest in league history. Yet, despite the common belief, I’m not ready to provide him with that distinguished title.
Although the quarterback is indeed the most important position on the team, football is an extremely team-centric game. This requires not only good players in various positions, but also very strong coaching. The fact, then, that Bill Belichick — who’s coached the New England Patriots during Brady’s entire career — is considered by many, including me, to be the greatest coach in NFL history, shouldn’t be ignored when analyzing Brady’s greatness. Concluding that Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history means that any other quarterback in competition with Brady for consideration as the greatest quarterback must have played under an inferior coach. This therefore demands the quarterback of the other teams play a bigger role in the team’s success. Whereas former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning reached four Super Bowls with four different head coaches — with only Tony Dungy being a likely Hall of Famer — Brady’s successes have come under the supervision of the NFL’s greatest coach.
There’s perhaps no better example of Belichick’s incredible impact on the team than the fact that in 2008, when Brady suffered a season-ending injury in the season’s opening game, he coached the Patriots to an incredible 11-5 record with backup quarterback Matt Cassel serving as the starter for the season. This greatly contrasts the Indianapolis Colts’ 2-14 record in 2011, which was the year Manning missed the season following neck surgery. Cassel followed up this impressive season with a subpar career, never sticking long-term on any team, showing that the team’s success in 2008 had far less to do with the quarterback’s success and far more to do with Belichick’s impressive handling of the situation. Also important to understand is that during Brady’s four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 season, Belichick guided the team to a remarkable 3-1 start, despite the fact that he used two different quarterbacks during that stretch. As these records show, Belichick’s impact on the team’s success is remarkable, and should be considered when analyzing Brady’s success.
Although Brady’s played in seven Super Bowls — more than any other quarterback by a margin of two over John Elway — and has won one more than any other quarterback with five Super Bowl victories, the impressive players he’s had around him have certainly been a vital part of his elongated success. He’s had two of the NFL’s greatest receivers to throw the ball to and one of the best slot receivers: Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, respectively. It’s certainly true that other great quarterbacks have also had impressive offensive talents surrounding them. Manning had Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, Joe Montana threw to Jerry Rice and Elway had Terrell Davis as his running back. Yet, when these talents are combined with unquestionably one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, you realize that the Patriot’s continued success has had quite a bit to do with factors separate from Brady.
Although Brady’s postseason success is unparalleled among NFL quarterbacks, it’s in the postseason that a team consistently faces the league’s best opponents and therefore sees their weaknesses become most exposed. Brady’s Patriots have often had few weaknesses, which speaks to their postseason success. They’ve had a marvelous coach, solid defense — the Patriot’s have had one of the NFL’s top five scoring defenses seven times during the Brady-Belichick era — and strong offensive targets. Not to mention that Brady’s Patriots have had two of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, with Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski.
To me, the most important figures in determining the greatness of an NFL player relate most to impressive individual statistics throughout a player’s career. Brady’s been NFL MVP twice, which is behind Brett Favre’s three and Manning’s five. Manning also holds the NFL record for career touchdown passes (539) with Favre being second (508) and Brady third on that list (488), despite having started only 14 fewer games than Manning. Manning also holds the record for single-season touchdown passes (55 in 2013) and yards (5,477 in 2013) by a single yard above Drew Brees (5,476 in 2011), while Brady has passed for the second-highest number of touchdowns in a single season (50 in 2007) and is third highest in single-season passing yards (5,235 in 2011). To be fair, however, Manning attempted 659 passes in 2013 as compared with Brady’s 611 in 2011 and 581 in 2007. Over his career, though, Brady’s averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt. This equals Montana’s statistic, but falls behind Manning’s 7.7 yards per attempt, Bart Starr’s 7.8 yards per attempt and Aaron Rodgers’ 7.9 yards per attempt, among many others. Also, Brady’s career completion percentage of 63.9 percent sits below Rodger’s 65.1 percent, Manning’s 65.3 percent and Brees’ 66.9 percent. Moreover, Brady’s averaged a touchdown every 5.5 pass attempts, which is below Manning’s figure of throwing a touchdown every 5.7 passes and Rodger’s total of a touchdown per 6.4 pass attempts.
Someone who holds none of the most important individual statistical records for a particular
position is unlikely to be considered the greatest to ever play that position. This is particularly true when figures are properly compared across generations via percentage data. Although Brady has experienced unparalleled playoff and Super Bowl success, the fact that a team’s weaknesses are most prominent during the playoffs speaks to why the Brady-Belichick Patriots — teams that have had such few weaknesses — have experienced incredible and long-term playoff success from these two leading the team.
Brady’s certainly one of the greatest to ever throw a pass in an NFL game. But the greatest ever? Not yet.
Dan Ford is a senior international affairs and international business double major. Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.