Tom Brady is not the greatest quarterback of all time.
That got your attention, I suspect1. You can’t swing a cat without hitting someone making the claim that Mr. Brady of the Patriots is the greatest of all time, especially at times (like now) when he’s added to his collection of championship jewelry. It’s a popular view, shared by many a sportswriter, but I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny.
We won’t stoop so far as to bandy about the word ‘cheater’. My argument is rooted in statistics. What is Brady best at? As it turns out, none of the headline quarterback numbers. He’s fourth all-time in passing yards and completions, and third all-time in quarterback rating and touchdown passes. Drew Brees is better in all three categories2, and has consistently had a less effective supporting cast. Peyton Manning still has more yards and touchdowns than Brady, and took one season fewer to rack up the numbers. (Manning played 18 seasons. Brady is up to 19.) Aaron Rodgers leads all of them in career quarterback rating by a country mile, and frequently has no surrounding offense of any note. So, why does the sports world think Brady is the best?
Wins. That is, both regular-season wins and playoff wins, where his record is admittedly superb. He’s 237-70 in games he started for a .772 winning percentage, both of which are marks that may stand forever3. Only our own Ben Roethlisberger and Seattle’s Russell Wilson are even close, and by ‘close’ I don’t even mean within .100 (.670 and .668, respectively). In the playoffs, his record is just as good, 30-104, and all six of the Patriots Super Bowl wins.
It’s a pretty wild resume, that’s for sure, but we’ve established that Brady, statistically, is NFL royalty but not the undisputed king. Given that science indicates there is no such quality as clutch, we can’t give Brady the nod for that in our scientific study. To set him apart from the crowd, all we’re left with is his record.
The regular season is easy to explain: the Patriots are a big fish in a small pond. They are joined in the AFC East by three perennial dumpster fires, who they repeatedly thrash year after year en route to an easy playoff berth, coasting on an all-but-guaranteed four to six wins per season. The playoffs require a deeper look.
Or, perhaps, a thought experiment. Why is Drew Brees not making deep playoff runs or winning championships year after year? Remember, clutch isn’t a thing. Given that New England and New Orleans both have top-tier quarterbacks under center, what’s the difference?
Coaching. That, I think, is the real answer here. Without taking anything away from Brady, who is deservedly bound for the Hall of Fame, Bill Belichick is the reason why the Patriots are always contenders.
For one, there’s scheming5. If you follow sports, you’re no doubt familiar with two genres of article: first, those predicting that a game the Patriots are playing in will go in such-and-such a way; second, those following said game which express surprise that it went in an entirely different direction. That’s the true Patriots way: in must-win games, they always play a game which perfectly exploits their opponents’ weaknesses. Look at the Super Bowl: the high-flying (if you’ll permit me the cliche) Rams scored three points, and those only on a long field goal. By playing an unusual defense they have little history with, the Patriots made it hard to plan for their defensive strategy. By using a very north-south style of defensive line play, they took the teeth out of the Rams’ running game, and put so much pressure on Goff that he could never find a rhythm.
For another, there’s personnel. Brady has never had a huge supporting cast, but he’s almost always had at least two good receivers to throw to: usually, a deep threat and an underneath possession guy. This year, it was Edelman and Gronkowski. In 2007, it was Welker and Moss. Belichick has a preternatural talent for finding the right pieces to the puzzle, and they’re rarely big-name stars.
Finally, there’s motivation. Belichick keeps his teams hungry by convincing them nobody is giving them credit, or that everybody has lost faith in their ability to win. This is facially absurd, but it works. All it takes is one iffy loss for the nation’s sportswriters to plaster their front pages with stories about how the Patriots dynasty is over, Brady is decrepit, and Belichick’s devil’s bargain has finally run out. Wallpaper your locker room with those and give the right speech, and bam. A motivated, hungry team.
It’s worth saying that Brady would probably still be a top-tier quarterback talent without Belichick. I don’t think he would have as many rings as he does, though, and I do think that Belichick would be widely regarded as a successful coach even without a superstar quarterback.
I’ll put it to you in the form of a hypothetical. You can have one of these two scenarios: your team retains its head coach but gets Brady as its quarterback; your team retains its quarterback but gets Belichick as its head coach.
I think it’s an obvious choice.
- Unless you aren’t a football fan, but then why are you reading this article? ↩
- At least as of October 18, when the SB Nation article I’m cribbing from was written. I’m not invested enough in this argument to bother with very much research. ↩
- He’s .825 at home, which is absurd. ↩
- Playing in 40 playoff games itself is absurd. Roethlisberger is next on the list at a mere 21. ↩
- In the sense of game planning, not in the sense of nefarious moustache-twirling. ↩