The first Super Bowl I can remember watching was Super Bowl XXIV. It was January 28, 1990 — my sister’s fifth birthday. I was seven-years-old. I can’t recall much of the game, but I do remember the post-game celebration. I watched in awe as offensive tackle Bubba Paris lifted his young son onto his shoulders, while the jubilant 49ers celebrated their record-tying fourth Super Bowl victory. San Francisco had whipped the Denver Broncos, 55-10, thanks in large part to the golden arm of quarterback Joe Montana, who was awarded Super Bowl MVP honors for the third time. With the victory, Montana, already a legend and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, cemented his place atop the list of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. In my seven-year-old mind, he was akin to a god.
Fast forward 14 years.
It’s Super Bowl week again, and the media-hype machine is in high gear down in Houston. The NFL wants desperately to cast the defensive struggle that seems sure to emerge in Super Bowl XXXVIII in an attractive, viewer-ensnaring light. Neither New England nor Carolina has much of an offense, but there is one legitimate offensive star. Tom Brady — the hero of Super Bowl XXXVI, the David who caused Kurt Warner’s Goliath to come crashing down — is back. For the second time in three years, the unassuming sixth round pick out of Michigan has led his team to the highest plane of football existence. Suddenly Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ defense is pushed under the table. Tom Brady is the story. Tom Brady is being compared to Joe Montana.
When I first heard the comparison made, I was incredulous. Tom Brady is a bright young star, but he wasn’t even the best quarterback in the league this season. That honor belongs to Co-MVP’s Steve McNair and Peyton Manning. Brady may have beaten them in the playoffs, but there were extenuating circumstances (see: Bill Belichick’s defense). The comparison seemed ridiculous. After all, Tom Brady is just a quarterback. Joe Montana is an immortal. Tom Brady is sliced bread. Joe Montana is Disney World.
Being a stat-geek, I went to the numbers. Those would prove such a comparison to be utterly foolish. I would, of course, only compare Brady’s stats with Montana’s stats through his first four years. Only fair.
The most basic measuring stick for a quarterback is passing yards. And by that barometer Brady beats Montana 10, 233 to 8,069. Montana and Brady played sparingly as rookies, and emerged early in their second year. But Montana’s fourth season, 1982, was a strike-shortened nine game campaign. Thus Brady has 414 more attempts and 242 more completions than Montana by this point in his career, accounting for the yardage advantage.
Montana’s completion percentage through four seasons trumps Brady’s 63.1 percent to 61.9 percent. Both play(ed) in a dink-and-dunk offense that value(d) itself on high percentage passes. Montana just completed the dinks more often. Plus, his dunks went for more yards: Montana’s yards-per-attempt wins out by a score of 7.14 to 6.63. And though Brady has more touchdowns (69-52), Montana had fewer interceptions (32-38). Then there’s the statistical quagmire known as Quarterback Rating. When their numbers are pumped into QBR’s complicated formula, the final score reads: Montana: 87.1. Brady 85.9.
So Montana was a better passer. But his numbers are not nearly as dominant as I had anticipated. And, as NFL.com says:
“It is important to remember that the [Quarterback Rating] system is used to rate pass-ers, not quarterbacks. Statistics do not reflect leadership, play-calling, and other intangible factors that go into making a successful professional quarterback.”
OK, so let’s look at something more telling. The playoffs. There’s a barometer for success. Surely there’ll be some separation there.
But the results are no more conclusive. Brady is 5-0 through four seasons. Montana was 3-0. Brady has a Super Bowl ring and an MVP trophy. So did Montana. Brady did win his first Super Bowl in his second season, at age 24, while Montana’s first victory came in his third, at age 25. If Brady wins on Sunday, he’ll have his won his second Super Bowl in his fourth year. Montana’s second didn’t come until year six.
Therefore if Brady should win Super Bowl XXXVIII, he will be ahead of where Montana was at this point in his career. IF he wins. Granted, should he lose, Brady will still be in the discussion with Montana. Yet in either scenario, for Brady to ultimately merit comparison to Montana he will have to win at least two more Super Bowls. And another MVP or two.
So what’s the conclusion? I was wrong. Brady, at this point in his career, CAN be compared to Joe Montana. But so could Kurt Warner two years ago. Before he ran into an inspired underdog with a vicious defense and a no-name quarterback named Delhomme, er — Brady.