Another Super Bowl has come and gone. The end of the season always leaves me reflecting on the greatest games, teams, and players of all time. Tom Brady’s recent retirement has many people talking about his legacy as the “Greatest Of All Time,” or GOAT for short.
First off, can we agree that GOAT is a terrible and unflattering term with which to honor someone? I prefer the term “Greatest Ever To Play The Game” or simply the “Greatest Ever.” Second, that designation doesn’t belong to Brady; as I demonstrate below, Joe Montana is the greatest QB ever to play the game.
- Montana Did It Better When It Was Harder – It’s always hard to compare players of different eras and we can always wonder how well Brady would have done at a time when QBs and receivers were beat to hell. Brady benefited from numerous rule changes meant to protect QBs and receivers, increase their passing productivity, and increase scoring. To Brady’s credit, he fully capitalized on those rule changes – but it makes Montana’s accomplishments in a tougher era all the more impressive. It’s hard to imagine Brady, who established a reputation for lobbying refs for penalties, having much success against the punishing NFC defenses of the 1980s.
- Montana Did It Better Faster – We can also wonder how much more Montana would have accomplished had he not been so beat to hell / injured and if he hadn’t had a really bizarre QB controversy foist upon him by coaches. With the advantages of the rule changes above, a coach committed to his longevity, and advances in drugs and physical therapy, Brady played for 22 seasons while Montana was limited to only 13. It only took Montana 10 seasons to earn his four Super Bowl rings, though; while it took Brady 14 seasons to earn his first four.
- Montana Was Perfect When It Counted – Brady won the most Super Bowls in history – but he is also #3 for Super Bowl losses. Brady made many mistakes on the biggest stage, tossing six interceptions, while Montana was perfect, not throwing a single interception during his 4-for-4 Super Bowl wins. Tom Brady had a cumulative 98 passer rating in his Super Bowl appearances; Joe Montana blew him away with a 128 Super Bowl passer rating. And again, Montana outperforming Brady is even more impressive because he did it during a time when it was even harder to be a passing QB.
- Montana Earned All Of His Super Bowl Wins – Brady got away with lots of crazy wins attributed to his kicker (2001, 2003), the opposing team’s ineptitude (2003 out of bounds kickoff, 2004 McNabb 3 INTs, 2014 end zone INT, 2016 offense implosion), etc. while Montana was the deciding factor for all of his wins.
- Montana Beat The Best Of The Best – Brady mostly took on forgettable teams and was out dueled by so-so QBs while Montana out dueled NFL MVP QBs and Hall Of Famers in his Super Bowl wins. Let’s look at Brady’s opponent QBs:
2001: Beat Kurt Warner, an elite QB and HOFer
2003: Beat Jake Delhomme, a forgettable QB with nearly as many INTs as TDs
2004: Beat Donovan McNabb, a good QB who never shined on the big stage
2007: Beaten by Eli Manning, a mediocre QB who outperformed Brady when it counted
2011: Beaten by Eli Manning, a mediocre QB who once again outperformed Brady when it counted
2014: Beat Russell Wilson, who didn’t make the Pro Bowl that year
2016: Beat Matt Ryan, an elite QB that year (but limited by Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s trademark choking in big games)
2017: Beaten by Nick Foles, a forgettable backup
2018: Beat Jared Goff, who?
2020: Beat Patrick Mahomes, probably an elite QB in the making but still too early to tell
Now let’s look at Montana’s opponent QBs:
1981: Beat Ken Anderson, NFL MVP that year, 2x NFL passing leader, widely regarded as one of the best NFL players not in the HOF
1984: Beat Dan Marino, NFL MVP that year, HOFer, NFL 100-year All Time Team, retired as all-time NFL passing leader
1988: Beat Boomer Esiason, NFL MVP that year
1989: Beat John Elway, former NFL MVP, HOFer, two Super Bowl rings
It really isn’t close; Montana stepped into the ring against the best of the best every Super Bowl and beat them every time.
- Montana Was a More Dynamic Player – Brady was an immobile pocket passer throwing route trees – more of a game manager for the first part of his career – while Montana was elusive, mobile, and able to stretch plays / improvise.
- Montana Was Iconic – Montana is responsible for multiple signature plays (“The Catch“) and drives (“The John Candy Drive“) that have been immortalized whereas the signature big game moments associated with Brady are attached to his opponents (Atlanta’s second-half collapse, New York’s helmet catch, Seattle’s interception in the end zone).
- Montana Was A Leader – Montana’s physical attributes weren’t the best of all time – or even of his time – but his leadership was a force multiplier that made everyone on his team – even on defense – better, especially in big moments. Brady, by comparison, was known for having his wife publicly blame and disparage his teammates when he lost.
- Montana Did It All Cleanly – Brady will always have an asterisk next to his name due to Spygate, Deflategate, and who knows how many other instances of cheating that were never discovered.
- Montana Won At Multiple Levels – While Brady was a good-not-great college QB, Montana led his team to a national championship.
- Bonus: Montana Won In The Recording Studio Too – Montana’s off-the-field endeavors met with great success as well. He, Dwight Clark, and other 49ers sang backup on the 1985 Huey Lewis & The News #1 Hit “Hip To Be Square.” Brady’s off-the-field endeavors are more known for pseudoscience, such as “The TB12 Method.”
In general, I think people overemphasize the importance of QBs in American football and underemphasize the importance of other players – especially linemen. If we really wanted to debate the greatest football player of all time, I think it likely wouldn’t be a QB. It might be a running back like Jim Brown or a linebacker like Lawrence Taylor – players that were so dominant that they changed the way the game was played.
If we’re going to focus on QBs, though, it comes down to this: the NFL changed the game to help QBs like Brady be more successful. Montana, on the other hand, was so successful that he changed the game.
Joe Montana is the greatest QB ever to play the game. If you would like to learn more, I recommend watching “Joe Montana: Cool Under Pressure,” a six-part series about his magical career.