(Photo Courtesy of ESPN.com)
As a 37-year-old man, I have found it so fascinating to see that I apparently have lived to watch the greatest player in every single sport. I can just turn on my television to hear broadcasters and talking heads throwing around the title of GOAT (Greatest of All Time). No one questions just once that maybe there was someone who played before 1995 that might be on the list. We hear no dissent. Michael Jordan is the NBA GOAT. Jerry Rice is the receiver GOAT. Now we have to endure the unquestioned statement that Tom Brady is the Greatest NFL Player of All Time. The saddest point is we declare this by specifically not comparing him to All Time.
History is an actual casualty of the NFL Super Bowl Era. Let me fill you in. The NFL was founded in 1920. We can do the simple math and realize that the Super Bowls do not extend over the entire history of the NFL. The NFL has grown and changed over the years to be sure, but championships are a thing that has remained constant. When we attempt to judge the landscape of the NFL, we are not given the full context of the argument.
45 Years of Champions Matter
Let’s start with the Brady GOAT declaration. Tom Brady is the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls. This is a fact. Sadly, we lose all context. Here is another fact: Tom Brady is the second quarterback to win five NFL Championships. People correctly state that Bart Starr only won two Super Bowls, but he won three other NFL Championships in the years preceding that. In an eight-year run, Starr led the Packers to six Championship games and won five Championships in seven years. This also included a run of three straight.
We also couch our discussions in the Super Bowl Era when saying only two other quarterbacks (Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana) have ever won Four Super Bowls. We fully ignore that Sid Luckman won four Championships with the Chicago Bears of the 1950s and Arnie Herber did this with the Green Bay Packers of the 1940s. Both these quarterbacks are Hall of Famers and never make into the discussion.
Offensive Eras Matter
Forgotten in the argument is the way the game has changed. The raw numbers are misleading because of the significant difference in passing games. Compare Tom Brady to two greats of the game who played in a run-centric era, Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. Take the raw numbers. Since his first year as a starter (2001), Brady has 61,582 yards passing and 456 touchdowns. Bart Starr only managed 24,718 yards and 150 touchdowns since he became the starter in 1957 through 1971. Johnny Unitas had 18 years in the NFL and threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. These numbers seem very dominant and support the Brady argument. Things get far closer when you start to account for the movement to a more pass heavy league. Tom Brady has averaged 34.8 attempts per game. Bart Starr only threw 15.8 passes per game and Unitas averaged 24.6 passes a game. Essentially Starr threw about 45% as much as Brady and Unitas 70.7% as much. Not due to ability, but due entirely to the changing nature of the offense and the rules changes favoring the passing game between the 1970s and the current era.
When we extrapolate some of these numbers to adjust for the increased passing in today’s game, we see some improvement for Starr and Unitas. Adjusting purely for the increased passing attempts, Starr’s career would look more like 4,018 completions on 6,900 attempts for 54,929 yards and 338 touchdowns. Johnny Unitas would look more like a quarterback who completed 4,002 of 7,335 attempts for 56,915 yards and 410 touchdowns. These compare far more favorably to Brady’s numbers.
Tom Brady has played his entire career in an era of 16 game schedules. Starr and Unitas each entered the league when the schedule was just 12 games each year. While the schedule increased to 14 games in 1961, each quarterback lost significant snaps simply due to the scheduling differences. Since the NFL went to the 16 game season in 1978, many have not lived in an era (or maybe just not old enough to remember one) where the schedule was not 16 games.
What this boils down to is Starr missed out on 36 more games by playing in an earlier era than Brady. Unitas missed out on 46 additional games. When we then extrapolate the numbers out to reflect what a modern playbook and a 16 game schedule might have done for Starr and Unitas, we see some great numbers. Starr could have completed roughly 4,756 of his 8,167 attempts for 65,018 yards and 400 touchdowns. Take that against the 5,244 completions and 8,221 attempts for Brady, and we finally have an apples to apple comparison. Brady would have fewer yards and more touchdowns, but the argument is solid either way. Then, we have Johnny Unitas. Johnny Unitas would be comparable to someone completing 4,874 of his 8,934 attempts for 69,323 yards and 499 touchdowns. These numbers would have been in two more seasons than Brady, but this basically what Brady is on pace to accomplish.
Anytime I hear the declaration that someone is the Greatest of All Time, I get skeptical. This is why. Using just two championship quarterbacks of the 1960s, we can see that each was just as good at playing the position of quarterback as Tom Brady. We could carry on this statistical analysis over any number of other names. Tom Brady is in a club with Sid Luckman, Arnie Herber, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana with his four NFL Championships. He is in the smaller club that is just him and Bart Starr to have five. Saying that Brady is one of the six most accomplished quarterbacks does not diminish his greatness. Saying that there is more to the quarterback position than just wins is also not crazy. Taken in a vacuum, you cannot discount Dan Marino from the discussion of the greatest to play the position. The problem comes from ignoring history and then treating wins not only as somehow a quarterback statistic but as THE quarterback statistic. The thing to remember is this; there is no possible way you have watched the greatest athlete ever to play in every single sport.