Ranking All-Time Quarterbacks: Win or Lose, Brady's Already Cemented His Legacy

Art VandelayCorrespondent IJanuary 20, 2012

03 Feb 2002:   Quarterback Tom Brady celebrates after Superbowl XXXVI at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Patriots won 20-17, with a 48-yard field goal by kicker Adam Vinatieri with 10 seconds left in the game . DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Imagine you were given a test about sports.

Question 1: Who was the best basketball player of all time?

Piece of cake—Michael Jordan.

Question 2: Who was/is the all-time best NASCAR driver of all time?

Trick question, NASCAR isn't a sport.

Question 3: Who's the best quarterback of all time?

Tom Brady? Peyton Manning? Joe Montana? Johnny Unitas? Bart Starr? Otto Graham?

What's the correct answer?

I've read several articles and comment sections to said articles of people arguing how Brady "obviously is" or "clearly is not" the greatest quarterback of all time.

His accolades are great and many. He has a better passer rating than any of the aforementioned quarterbacks, a better TD to INT ratio, the most passing TDs in a season to date, second most passing yards in a season to date and he has to play outdoors in New England as opposed to cozy domes or temperate outdoor stadiums with mild weather conditions.

Brady has four Superbowl appearances and the highest winning percentage of any quarterback in NFL history to date.

Some say that if he can win his fourth Super Bowl this year he will pass Montana as the greatest ever. Others say he'll tie Montana and Unitas.

We get caught up with ranking players generally, historically and in terms of positions  generations.

Some said that Brady isn't as good as Montana even if he wins four Super Bowls, because Brady lost one.

To that person I ask: is it more impressive for a quarterback/team to make it to a Superbowl and lose or not make it to a Superbowl at all? Were the Baltimore Ravens more impressive than the Pittsburgh Steelers last year because the Steelers lost in the Super Bowl?

If Brady makes it to his fifth in 10 real seasons starting, shouldn't he get some credit for getting there while Montana was only able to make it to four in about 12 seasons starting?

(Note that Montana was in the league from 1979-1994, but didn't start his first season and missed significant time due to injury in his career, including pretty much the entire 1992 season. Without adding up game totals, I estimate that he started about 12 seasons.)

Some people bring up the fact that NFL rules have changed so much to protect receivers and quarterbacks, making playing the position so much easier and allowing current quarterbacks to dominate, dilute and undermine statistics, especially when comparing generations.

To those I could argue that while the rules favor the current generation, players are bigger, faster and stronger now, and because of their complexity, defenses are almost incomparable now.

With the way teams mask blitzes and coverage schemes, and with the immense variations in defensive playbooks now, what the quarterbacks of old had to face in many ways pales in comparison to that of current signal-callers.

The fact of the matter is: There is no black and white correct answer to this question.

I could make a logical and rational argument that Peyton Manning is the best quarterback of all time, and I could make a logical and rational argument that he's not even one of the 10 best quarterbacks of all time. 

The same goes for Dan Marino.

Every situation is unique for every quarterback, and every quarterback is asked to do something a little different.

It was much harder to pass when Montana played, but he didn't have to face the same kind of defenses and athletes that Brady does, so who gets the advantage here?

Unitas didn't finish his career with a great completion percentage or TD to INT ratio, but he had to operate in a world before even the West Coast Offense had been invented! Football was neither the moneymaker nor the spectacle that it is today. We now have specialists and geniuses changing and developing new defenses, offenses, packages, ideologies and variants to current and past systems in hopes to obtain the slightest of advantages. 

How can what he, Bart Starr or Otto Graham be compared at all, favorably or unfavorably, to the modern greats?

One thing that I disagree with is that I don't believe one play or one game defines a career.  In the 2008 Superbowl, if Asante Samuel intercepted an easy lob from Eli Manning on the Giants' final drive, the Patriots would have won and gone 19-0. In that case, Brady would probably be considered the best quarterback of all time, yet he would have played no differently—save for a couple of kneel-downs or hand-offs to run out the clock.

So you're telling me that despite playing the exact same game, what someone else on the team did (or in this case, didn't do) when Brady wasn't even on the field largely affects his place in history? That doesn't even make sense.

On some level, lists ranking quarterbacks just doesn't work, and you just have to appreciate great quarterback play when you see it.

Great quarterbacks throughout history excelled at different things, played with better and worse receivers and running backs, had better and worse offensive lines and defenses and had different obstacles to overcome in the process.

So in a sense, comparing Brady to Montana is kind of like comparing Brady to Andre Johnson. The fact of the matter is they have different skill sets and have had different hurdles to jump in becoming great players.

Brady could lose to the Ravens in the AFC Championship and it's not going to alter his legacy. Regardless of what happens, he's already achieved greatness this season and throughout his career.

One game isn't going to diminish what he's already accomplished.

Now, if you're going to make me choose which quarterback to lead my team—and I can choose any QB in their prime—I'll go with Brady, but I've always been a big Michigan homer. You're no less correct if you prefer Unitas, Manning, Montana or Elway.


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