The Eagles’ dramatic victory on Sunday did more than enhance Nick Foles’ future earnings and doom the city of Philadelphia to 12 hours of drunken, vomiting mayhem. It reanimated one of the great sports debates of our generation: Tom Brady or Joe Montana?
Team Brady had clearly grabbed the upper hand over the past year, as Tom Terrific shrugged off his four-game Deflategate suspension in 2016 to lead New England to Super Bowl 51, then proceeded to earn MVP honors while executing the greatest comeback in the history of the sport. Brady followed that up by taking home the NFL Most Valuable Player trophy this season.
None of which necessarily convinced Team Montana that their guy had been bumped to the second rung. But let’s just say the choir got a little quieter. It was getting much harder to downplay Brady’s body of work.
But now …
The lingering images from Super Bowl 52 were of Brady on his backside, victim of Brandon Graham’s late-game strip sack, and of No. 12 glumly leaving the field in defeat.
And just like that, Twitter and sports-talk radio and quite possibly your family group text were alive with the old debate. Brady had lost his third Super Bowl, this time getting outdueled by a career backup. Montana was ascendant again.
So let’s wade into the mess. There’s room for just one right-handed matinee idol in this huddle.
Before we begin the earnest comparison, I’m going to preemptively eliminate the dumbest argument on the board — the one that says Montana was better than Brady because he never lost a Super Bowl. The 49ers legend, as you know from your classes at DeBartolo University, was 4-0 in the universe’s biggest sporting event. Brady is now 5-3. Case closed? Not so fast, Inspector Clouseau.
If I live to be as old as the Giants outfield, I will never understand how one can contend that losing in the divisional playoff round, or in a conference championship game, is better than losing in the Super Bowl. It just isn’t. Montana was amazing, but he failed to reach the Super Bowl 11 times. That’s not a feather in his cap.
Another way to look at it: As a football player, your goal is to win the Super Bowl. Brady has done it five times. Montana did it four times. The only way 4-0 is better than 5-3 is if you somehow value “not losing in the Super Bowl” as a major triumph. And if that’s the case, you should be advocating for Jeff Garcia and Tim Rattay and Blaine Gabbert to join the all-time greats, because none of them ever lost a Super Bowl, either.
OK? You with me? Good. Now let’s check some gauges.
PHYSICAL ABILITY: I’m no Mel Kiper Jr., but I’ve seen plenty of both quarterbacks. I think we can safely say that Brady, who is two inches taller than Montana, has a more classic QB build and the stronger arm on deep throws.
On the other hand, Montana was much more mobile, threw better on the run and, despite his everyman build, was better equipped to take a beating. As brilliant as Brady has been over his career, the secret has been out for a long time: If you can hit him, you can beat him. Few teams are able to do it, thanks to his quick mind, quick release and quick-hitting offensive scheme. But when the rush gets to him, as the Giants did in those first two Super Bowl losses, Brady is vulnerable.
NUMBERS: I would never anoint an athlete solely on the basis of statistics, but let’s be honest — they’re part of the discussion.
Over his 18-year career, Brady has completed 63.9 percent of his passes, and has averaged 261 yards and 1.9 touchdowns per game, for a passer rating of 97.6. (These are all regular-season figures.) Over his 15 seasons, Montana completed 63.2 percent of his attempts, averaged 211 yards and 1.4 TDs per game, and compiled a rating of 92.3. The stats favor Brady. But remember that he has played in an era of inflated passing numbers. Montana helped usher in that era. Brady epitomizes it.
ADVANTAGE: Brady (by a whisker)
WINNING: Right or wrong, a player’s legacy is determined, in large part, by his teams’ fortunes. Ask Peyton Manning, whose historical value took a huge leap after he won his second Super Bowl at the age of 39, when he was far past his prime and riding the coattails of the Denver Broncos’ dominant defense.
Montana was 117-47 (a .713 winning percentage) in the regular season and 16-7 (.696) in the postseason. He was 4-3 in conference championship games (including one loss with the Chiefs) and a spotless 4-0 in those Super Bowls. Brady is 196-55 (.780) in the regular season and now 27-10 (.730) in the postseason. He is 8-4 in conference championships and 5-3 in Super Bowls.
SUPPORTING CAST: This one is super complicated and my analysis is bound to be imperfect. But here goes.
When Brady won his first three Super Bowls in the span of four years, those New England teams were built on defense. Brady didn’t have to be great at that stage of his career, and he wasn’t. He was really good, but not great. More recently, he has played in seven consecutive AFC title games — that accomplishment alone is unfathomable — and the Patriots have evolved before our eyes. In four of the past seven years, they have ranked 25th or worse in total defense. Brady’s offense has carried his team.
The 49ers defense was always somewhere in between those poles when Montana played. That was a strong unit, an underrated unit, but not exactly dominant.
On offense, both these quarterback played behind superb offensive lines. Brady has had more blue-chippers in front of him, but Bobb McKittrick, the old 49ers O-line coach, was a miracle worker in getting the most from his blockers. Brady has played behind five Pro Bowlers; they have gone to a cumulative 12 Pro Bowls. Montana had six Pro Bowlers who teamed up for 11 Pro Bowl seasons, including his two years in Kansas City.
And receivers? Jerry Rice and John Taylor composed one of the greatest receiving duos in history. Before that, Montana had Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon. His tight ends were at least solid, especially Brent Jones. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the best tight end in the NFL, and for a couple years he had peak-efficiency Randy Moss. Other seasons, his No. 1 wideout might have been David Patten, Deion Branch, David Givens or Julian Edelman. Picasso working with carwash sponges.
COMPETITION: If you look at the Montana-Brady Super Bowl opponents, surprisingly few were Goliaths. Among Montana’s obstacles, really only the 1984 Dolphins stand out. And as of now, without knowing how history will view the 2017 Eagles, it looks like the 2001 Rams and the 2014 Seahawks would be the only Brady foes to qualify as bullies.
But if you look at their paths to the Bowl, the 49ers had to walk through a veritable minefield. These were the days before true NFL free agency, and the Giants, Bears and Washington all had the makings of dynasties — none fulfilled that destiny, because Montana and his Niners were, more times than not, a little better.
Part of the genius of the Patriots and their brooding coach, Bill Belichick, is that they have maintained an enduring run of greatness in an era when it shouldn’t be possible. New England is a power every year, while everyone else in the league bobs up and down.
Add it all up, and Brady emerges in front. And the final gap is larger than that, because of another factor: longevity.
At 40, Montana had retired to his ranch near Calistoga and was dabbling in cutting-horse competitions. At the same age, Brady is one of the five best players in the NFL. Maybe the Brady-Belichick tension is real, and the quarterback will cut his losses and get out of the business soon. Or maybe he’ll play another five years. Would you doubt his ability to do so?
Yes, longevity means something in the world of sports-bar quibbles. It’s why Jerry Rice is clearly the best wide receiver in history, and why 49ers favorite Frank Gore deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. And it’s another reason the Bay Area kid gone east, Tom Brady, has eclipsed the Easterner come to California, Joe Montana.
And if you’re thinking, “I’d still pick Montana for one big game,” then good for you. That’s how loyalty works. You’re convinced Montana is No. 1, just as Packers fans are sure it’s Aaron Rodgers and your grandfather yells at the clouds that it’s Johnny Unitas.
Just know that if you’re still going with Montana over Brady at this point, the argument is no longer based on logic.