On Sunday, Tom Brady is playing for a chance to win his 5th Super Bowl title, so naturally the discussion of his place in history has been a big topic of conversation. Many people think Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all-time. For the ones who don't agree with that, the most obvious contender for that title is Joe Montana. So, who's better?
First, let's take a look at their regular season numbers. But not the raw totals, since the game has evolved so much. Instead the comparison will be made by era. Montana became a starter in 1981 and finished his career in 1994. Brady became a starter in 2001 and is obviously still going. So we'll compare how they performed relative to their era (1981-1998 for Montana and 2001-present for Brady). Also, since the number of games can vary between players, the stats that we'll be looking at will be yards per game, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, completion percentage, and passer rating (minimum 2,500 pass attempts).
Yards per game:
Montana ranked 4th
Brady ranks 6th
Yards per attempt:
Montana ranked 3rd
Brady ranks 10th
Montana ranked T-4th
Brady ranks 4th
Montana ranked 3rd
Brady ranks 2nd
Montana ranked 2nd
Brady ranks 10th
Montana ranked 2nd
Brady ranks 3rd
Montana performed better in his era than Brady has in his era, almost across the board. Now a common argument from Brady supporters is that Montana had Jerry Rice. Which is meant to imply that Montana benefited more from Rice than Brady has from Moss, Welker, Gronkowski, and Edelman. But is that true? Let's compare Montana before and after 1985 and Brady before and after 2007.
Montana pre-1985: 240.7 yds/game, 7.7 Y/A, 5.1 TD%, 2.5 Int%, 63.7 Cmp%, 93.6 passer rating
Montana post-1985: 248.6 yds/game, 7.7 Y/A, 5.4 TD%, 2.8 Int%, 63.5 Cmp%, 94 passer rating
Brady pre-2007: 226.9 yds/game, 7.0 Y/A, 4.8 TD%, 2.5 Int%, 61.9 Cmp%, 88.4 passer rating
Brady post-2007: 283.8 yds/game, 7.8 Y/A, 6.0 TD%, 1.4 Int%, 64.9 Cmp%, 102.5 passer rating
Montana had almost no statistical change from before Rice to with Rice. Meanwhile, Brady's numbers all increased considerably, once he got elite weapons (and the rules changed). Before Rice, the Niners offense averaged 5th in scoring. With Rice, they averaged 5th in scoring. Before Moss, Welker, Gronk etc, the Pats averaged 8th in scoring. After Moss, Welker, Gronk etc, they averaged 3rd in scoring. So whose stats really benefited from better weapons (and massive rule changes)?
Montana was truly eligible for awards in 11 seasons (he missed 1991, 1992, and half of 1986). In those 11 seasons, he made 8 Pro Bowls, First-team All-Pro 3 times, Second-team All-Pro twice, MVP twice and Super Bowl MVP 3 times. In 15 seasons, Brady has made 12 Pro Bowls, First-team All-Pro twice, Second-team All-Pro twice, MVP twice, and Super Bowl MVP 3 times. Their award cases are pretty identical. The one major difference is in All-Pro appearances. Montana made 5 in 11 seasons (45%). Brady has made 4 in 15 seasons (27%).
The final point of comparison is performance in Super Bowls. The reason that people put Brady and Montana over Marino, Elway, Manning, Brees, Rodgers etc is because of one thing: winning. So the question is, who won more impressively? Here are the stats for each:
Montana- 1,142 yards (285.5 yds/game), 11 TDs, 0 INT, 68% completion percentage, 127.8 passer rating, 105 yards rushing, 2 TDs
Brady- 1,605 yards (267.5 ydgs/game), 13 TDs, 4 INT, 66% completion percentage, 95.3 passer rating, 11 yards rushing, 0 TDs
Montana was lights out in the Super Bowl. He outperformed Brady by every single measure. And that was reflected in each team's performance too. The Patriots' total point differential is currently +6. The Niners point differential was +76. Yes, the Niners' defense did perform better (15.75 pts/game compared to 21.5 pts/game for the Patriots), but their offense also performed substantially better (34.75 pts/game compared to 22.5 pts/game). In total, the Niners scored 139 points and the Patriots scored 135 points (technically 136 for the Niners, because Ray Wersching essentially scored three points by himself, and 128 for the Patriots, because Ty Law had a pick-6 in the first Super Bowl). Yes, the Niners scored more points in four Super Bowls than the Patriots have scored in six. Which is why the Niners convincingly won three of them. The other one was tied in the 4th; and after Cincinnati gained the lead with a FG, Montana drove down for a touchdown with 34 seconds to go. Worst case scenario for Montana is 3-1. Meanwhile, the Patriots only convincingly won a single Super Bowl (against the Eagles), so it's completely possible for them to be 1-5.
For the record, in their Super Bowl seasons, the Niners averaged 4th in
offense and 4th in defense and the Patriots averaged 5th in offense and
5th in defense; so the teams performed very similarly. And the Super Bowl the Niners almost lost was one with Rice. And the year they went 15-1 and blew out Dan Marino and the Dolphins, they didn't have Rice yet. Brady in Super Bowls with Moss, Welker and/or Gronk averaged 19.7 points. Montana before Rice averaged 30.5 points. So the idea that Montana only achieved greatness cause of Jerry Rice is patently false.
None of this is to disparage Brady. He's clearly an all-time great. But when you look at how they compared to their eras, and to each other on the biggest stage, anyone anointing Brady needs to take a second look.