If New England beats the Giants in today's Super Bowl, Tom Brady will tie Joe Montana (and Terry Bradshaw) with the most Super Bowl wins for a quarterback — four. So, if the Patriots win, does that make Brady as good as Montana, or even better?
Before we dive into that one, let's mention the quarterbacks we're leaving out of this discussion. Like John Elway. You could make a case Elway is the greatest quarterback ever. He went to five Super Bowls, won two. Compared to Montana and Brady, his offensive line was no big deal. And in his first three Super Bowls, he didn't have much in the running-back department.
But for the sake of today's argument we don't anoint Elway. Nor do we anoint other great quarterbacks, including Steve Young — won just one Super Bowl. Or Dan Marino — won exactly no Super Bowls. Or Peyton Manning — kind of a dud in the postseason. Or Bradshaw — not at the level of Montana or Brady. Or Jim Kelly — got to the Super Bowl four times, which is good, but never won, which is not so good. Or Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers — both are still works in progress.
Right about now, you may be wondering what criteria I'm using to define a great quarterback. It would be a fair question to ask. Here are the ground rules — totally arbitrary but, hey, they're my ground rules.
The quarterbacks had to play after 1980. Why? Before that, it was a different era, although you could argue there have been several eras since 1980. This choice of era eliminates Johnny Unitas, among others. Sorry, Johnny.
The other criterion involves winning. Great quarterbacks win big games. Kelly, for example, took the Buffalo Bills to five division championships. That's not the same as winning Super Bowls, but it's not shabby, either. Most people don't think of Kelly as elite — say, in the class of Brady — but it's not easy to dismiss him, even if I'm dismissing him from the ultimate accolade in this column.
Why is winning so important? Because the purpose of playing games is to win. It is not to get eye-popping statistics, the low-hanging fruit Jim Harbaugh goes on about. It is to win. Give me the quarterback who wins over the quarterback with the best completion percentage or passer rating.
Which brings us to Montana and Brady, two winners, and to Bill Walsh, another winner. A year or two before he died, Walsh would phone me and, from time to time, talk about the old days. Walsh was reviewing his life — although he probably didn't know that. It was a prelude to dying. That sounds harsh, but I don't mean it to be harsh.
During one call, he mentioned Montana. He had been watching old film, he said, for a presentation he was giving and he reviewed Montana footage. As I recall, he said, "Everything he did was perfect, each throw exactly where it was supposed to be."
Walsh's voice had a tone of hushed awe combined with outright astonishment. It was like he had discovered Montana all over again, had discovered him that very week and fallen in love with him a second time. Walsh was brilliant and imagined quarterback play a certain way — call it the ideal of quarterback play. Montana embodied that ideal — he WAS the ideal. Because Joe was Joe, Bill could be Bill (and vice versa).