HOUSTON—He may not have the precision of Joe Montana, the arm of Terry Bradshaw, the grit of John Elway or the mind of Peyton Manning.
What Tom Brady does have are the numbers. And, win or lose in the Super Bowl on Sunday, he has built as strong a case as anyone that he is the greatest quarterback ever.
A Patriots victory would give Brady his fifth Super Bowl ring, and put him one notch ahead of Montana and Bradshaw for the most ever for a quarterback. But the “Greatest” debate was, in many minds, resolved even before kickoff because of these two numbers: seven Super Bowl appearances and 22 playoff wins, both records that will be difficult for anyone to catch.
“In my mind, it’s already set,” Kurt Warner said earlier in the week, before being elected to the Hall of Fame, where Brady will join him someday. “We all have different takes and different things that say someone’s the greatest. At the end of the day, he’s going to have more of these (Super Bowls) than anyone else. The fact you play in seven Super Bowls, it’s ridiculous.”
The postseason success not only represents Brady’s ability to perform when the stakes are highest, it reflects his ability to keep the Patriots in the mix during their best years, and even the seasons that aren’t so good.
Since taking over the starting position in 2001, Brady’s teams have missed the playoffs only once, in 2002 (they also missed in 2008, when Brady was injured). Since then, they have strung together double-digit-win seasons and playoff appearances every year. Brady has made mediocre rosters good, good rosters great and helped lift the great rosters to championships.
Some say he should have six rings. Brady got outplayed in two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, including in 2008, when New England was trying to close out a perfect season.
Mere quibbles in this discussion.
“As much as I love John, it’s hard to say Brady is not the greatest,” said former Broncos running back Terrell Davis, also a newly announced Hall of Famer, who teamed with Elway for two titles. “Let’s be honest there. What we’ve seen him do with rosters that other teams would’ve gone 2-14 or 3-13 with, this man has taken to championships. You can’t ignore that fact.”
Brady’s 28 touchdowns and two interceptions since he returned from his season-opening four-game suspension for “Deflategate” set the record for best TD-interception ratio in a season. He has 61,582 passing yards, which ranks him fourth all-time. He has never had a completion percentage under 60 in any season.
Though Manning won the two most recent big games between them—the 2014 and 2016 AFC title games—before heading into retirement, Brady got the best of his main rival throughout their long side-by-side careers. He won the overall series 11-6. Manning won five MVP awards to only two for Brady, but in the Super Bowl, Brady captured three of those to one for Manning. Manning closed his career with two titles; Brady’s final total: TBD.
“I’m a little biased, I had a guy for 11 years,” said Reggie Wayne, one of Manning’s favorite targets in Indianapolis. “But if Tom Brady wins this one, it’s kind of hard not to say he’s the best quarterback of all time.”
It seems like a foregone conclusion, in large part because Brady is showing no signs of wanting to step down. He turns 40 in August and has talked about wanting to play until he’s 45, or longer. He takes meticulous care of himself and, in many ways, finds that easier to do now than when he was younger.
“It gets easier because you have priorities,” he said. “If one of my priorities is to be a great quarterback, everything else falls in line.”
Willie McGinest, a teammate of Brady’s when the quarterback took over the starting job for Drew Bledsoe in 2001—the first Super Bowl season—said Brady was prepared from Day One.
“You see guys get injured and the guy who comes in doesn’t do so well,” McGinest said. “It’s tough to do that and win football games, let alone be the best in the game from the time he took over until now.”
For years, a debate has percolated about whether Brady would be what he is without his coach, Bill Belichick, and vice versa.
Doesn’t matter, Warner says. The former Rams and Cardinals quarterback says that more than any specific throw, any single run to the championship or any one statistic Brady has compiled, he is great because he’s been great year after year, regardless of the players or sometimes-challenging circumstances surrounding him.
“We’d all love to be in one place, stay healthy and see what we could do, but we all don’t get that opportunity,” Warner said. “For him to have that opportunity and take advantage of it the way he has, you admire it. Especially when you know it’s the most difficult position in sports to play.”