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BOSTON (CBS) — I grew up in the Boston area, and I grew up loving sports. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to love. The Red Sox of the ’90s, save for a few blips, were worse than they are today, the Bruins were perfecting the art of the early playoff exit, the Celtics struggled to even reach the postseason, and the only reason to feel great about the Patriots was that they were no longer the laughingstock of the league.
But like it was for so many others, that all changed for me thanks to the work of a half-man, half-god named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.
Brady became my generation’s Orr, Russell or Williams. Not only was he the best, and not only was he unbeatable, but seemingly only for good measure, he was the perfect underdog. He was the humble young man who at times played second fiddle to Drew Henson in college and then had to watch quarterbacks Giovanni Carmazzi and Spergon Wynn, along with 196 other players, get drafted before him. He’d tell team owner Robert Kraft that he was “the best decision this organization has ever made,” and he’d go on to prove it by reaching the apex of his professional craft.
As anyone in New England will tell you, it just doesn’t get much better than Tom Brady. He’s gritty, he plays with guts, and when it’s all on the line, he plays his best.
Now, NFL.com is asking if Brady is indeed the best quarterback of all time. Albert Breer makes a compelling point in that regard.
“Four quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowl MVPs,” Breer wrote. “Four have won three Super Bowls. Two have made five Super Bowl starts. Eight have won multiple regular-season MVPs. Seven have averaged 300 yards passing per game over a season. Seven have thrown 40 touchdown passes in a season.
“But the kid from San Mateo is the only one to make every one of those lists.”
That’s an incredibly impressive fact, and if I had to simply go on a gut feeling, I’d have no problem saying Brady is the best of all time.
But it’s just not that simple.
For one, the comparison of one quarterback to another is an inherently specious practice. Not only do all quarterbacks run entirely different offensive systems, but these days, it’s as if they’re all playing a completely different game than their predecessors. There are enough differences in the league Tom Brady plays in now from the league he played in 10 years ago, it becomes impossible to compare it to the league in which Joe Montana played in the ’80s or Johnny Unitas in the ’50s and ’60s. And what about guys like Sammy Baugh? It’s laughable and downright foolish to try to say a quarterback in 2012 is unequivocally better than a quarterback in 1940, or vice versa.
Breer also raises the point that Brady never had a transcendent teammate like Jerry Rice or Marvin Harrison for a long period of time, the way Joe Montana and Peyton Manning respectively had, which is most certainly true. Still, it’s unfair to punish the other guys from an evaluation standpoint because of the talented players around them. Such discussion would only lead the “best quarterback ever” debate down a path of no return.
Statistics, too, don’t provide a neat analysis of who is better than anyone else. Brady’s certainly achieved some incredible statistical feats, but the nature of passing statistics are misleading in themselves. A three-yard dump-off to a running back can net the quarterback 75 passing yards, while a perfectly delivered 22-yard bullet can bounce off a receiver’s chest and into the hands of a safety, with the quarterback being rewarded with an interception on the stat sheet. And with the way defenses aren’t allowed to hit receivers anymore, records are essentially useless. It’s no coincidence that three of the five highest single-season passing yardage totals came last season alone, and the fact that Matthew Stafford (a good QB but certainly no all-time great) became just the fourth quarterback to ever break the 5,000-yard mark shows that there’s just nothing left of the historical context of any passing statistic.
And of course, there is the ultimate measure of success: winning. Montana is credited with never losing a Super Bowl, which is true, but is it any less impressive for Brady to have made it there more times? Who has the more impressive playoff record: Brady (16-6) or Montana (16-7)? Moreover, in the ultimate team game of football, winning and losing are never determined solely by the play of the quarterback. Meanwhile, Terry Bradshaw is tied for the most Super Bowl victories of all time, but you’ll never hear his name raised in this debate (unless you’re talking to some crazies from Pittsburgh). Essentially, winning is important, and winning championships is important, but win-loss records don’t provide black-and-white pictures of one quarterback being better than another.
There is one important factor, though, that shouldn’t be overlooked in evaluating Brady, and it’s where he played. The football season begins in New England when the weather is nice in September, but after that, it can be an absolute disaster. Unlike Dan Marino in Miami, Peyton Manning indoors in Indianapolis and Montana in the temperate Northern California, Brady faced the elements in at least eight (but usually more like 11 or 12) of his games every single season, and his home postseason games were played in the bitter cold and driving snow that comes in January in New England. The only other modern greats who can really say the same might be John Elway and Brett Favre, adding yet another incomparable layer to the group of great quarterbacks in the discussion. Would Tom Brady have better statistics if he played in a dome? Almost assuredly yes, but that doesn’t matter because, well, he didn’t play in a dome. To borrow a phrase from Bill Belichick, it is what it is, and you can’t always compare “it.”
Quite simply, to say Tom Brady is the best quarterback to ever play the game overlooks too much — the rule changes, the different eras, the various environments, the teammates, the coaches, the game plans and the millions of split-second variables that differentiate every single snap from another. It’s more accurate to say that Brady is one of the greatest to ever play the position. The practice of listing them in a numerical order based on incomparable factors is akin to handing out 22 different biology tests to a classroom of students, with each test having varying degrees of difficulty, and grading the students on the same scale.
It comes down to this: If you had your choice of Brady, Montana, Unitas, Manning, or whoever, you’d be happy with any one of them. Brady is part of that elite group of Hall of Famers, and he’s one of a handful of icons in Boston, a city with a century’s worth of rich sports history.
For Boston, that (plus the trio of Lombardi Trophies sitting at 1 Patriot Place) really should be enough.