On Wednesday’s installment of Colin Cowherd’s The Herd radio program on ESPNRadio, guest host Brian Kenny brought some interesting analysis to the table, comparing the careers of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, as well as offering some additional reference to Johnny Unitas.
Avoiding some of the team-oriented statistical categories (such as wins and championships) that we often see used, Kenny’s formula compared how many top five finishes each of these quarterbacks had in their careers at the end of each season for the following categories: Yards, Yards Per Attempt, Quarterback Rating, Touchdowns, Interception Percentage and Completion Percentage. In the end, his numbers seemed to support his perception: While he is certainly talented and Hall of Fame bound, Tom Brady is highly overrated, and a lesser quarterback than Manning and other greats.
According to Kenny’s research, Manning has 52 top five finishes total, between all of these categories combined, to Brady’s 16. Kenny did not acknowledge that Manning has played three more seasons than Brady (I'm including 2008 as a season for Manning and not Brady), but Kenny did acknowledge that these numbers do not include this season.
Admittedly, they do seem like important categories, but I question the actual correlation between some of those numbers and quality of quarterbacking.
At first, I thought I would do some research of my own. The first thing I attempted was to check some of those statistics, and I found that Brady has his share of sixth place finishes, or seventh place finishes, in many of those categories. Now, I realize that’s not top five, but it’s not so far off either.
Then, I stopped myself. I didn't even bother to check for Manning. I don’t much feel like getting into a numbers war on the topic. I’d actually brought myself back to a question that I would love some feedback on, mostly from current and former quarterbacks, preferably of Hall of Fame status, but I welcome input from readers as well. That seems like a more realistic goal, as far as I can tell. So here goes…
I’ve heard the suggestion that Tom Brady is a “product of the system.” I probably first heard it between 2001 and 2004; it was sort of the thing to say, if you will. I’m guessing some analysts posed that viewpoint, and it caught on with fans in the Oakland and Pittsburgh areas. Maybe even a wider demographic than that, as the Patriots had left their share of victims in cities across the country during that time span.
The general media, though, seems to have dropped that perspective. Given the success Brady has achieved, not only in field-spreading offenses like those in 2007-2009, but also in the shorter, almost west-coast-offense-like styles in other years, it seems apparent that Brady can play, and win, with a variety of “systems.”
And, if you thought that Matt Cassel taking the Patriots to 11-5 in Brady’s absence in 2008 is reflective of the credit due to “the system,” think again. Sure, the Pats still won 11 games, but that’s five less than they had with Brady and a similar cast the year before. Likewise, Cassel threw 29 fewer touchdowns, three more interceptions, 1.2 fewer yards per attempt and 70 fewer yards per game, for a quarterback rating of 89.4 to Brady's 117.2 the year before.
And the team averaged about 10 fewer points per outing. I don’t know that it’s fair to call those seasons “comparable.” Matt Cassel, by the way, is actually a pretty good quarterback as it turns out.
Some more food for thought: Find a player who has played some of his career with Brady, and some of it without. It will be a very short list of players (probably somewhere between zero and…none) that have looked even remotely as talented playing without him as they did playing with him. Seems like spending a few years in New England is likely a good way to pad your statistics a bit.
But, maybe that’s not fair to credit Tom Brady for that. Surely, they were all benefiting from the same “system.” Plus, he had offensive guru Charlie Weis coaching him for a few years there, and look how well he’s succeeded since leaving New England…Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best example, but I mean, Brady’s entire career has been with Bill Belichick, and he’s arguably the greatest coach of all time, right?
That reminds me, Belichick is 52-57 in the regular season without Brady, and that includes the 11-5 season with Matt Cassel under center.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I have a difficult time buying into the idea of Tom Brady being a product of the system. In fact, when I really stop and look at it, I start to think that maybe, just maybe, the system is actually a product of Tom Brady. I imagine that when Drew Bledsoe was injured in 2001, Belichick probably thought it best to play to the strengths of his second-year backup. Anything else seems unreasonable.
This all brings me back to Kenny’s assessment on The Herd. I don’t disagree that there is some relevance of those categories that he chose to compare. But I contest how reflective they are of the quarterbacks’ actual talents, without considering other factors. The categories favor heavily the idea of moving in larger chunks; getting more yards through the air, and using the fewest passes to get the most yards.
That sure sounds like a measure of efficiency to me. That being said, can you really credit those numbers entirely to the quarterback?
Isn’t it relevant whether or not the quarterback has spent his career in a dome (like in Indianapolis, just as an example), which removes weather from the equation? Isn’t it relevant whether or not the quarterback has spent his career with deep-threat receivers, like a Marvin Harrison or a Reggie Wayne, or both at the same time (again, using those names purely as an example, I promise)?
Isn’t it relevant whether or not the quarterback has had the benefit of a running game that demands attention, thereby strengthening the potential of the deep-threat receivers, with backs like Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai (again, purely examples, people)? That all sounds relevant to me…
Lastly, remember how I said I had a question for the Hall of Famers. Well, we’ve reached that point in the program.
Dear Steve Young/Joe Montana/John Elway/Dan Marino/Peyton Manning/Troy Aikman/ Tom Brady/Johnny Unitas (RIP)/Terry Bradshaw/Phil Simms (anybody else you can think of): There seems to be this perception, amongst the average football fan, that spreading the field and targeting receivers that are further from the line of scrimmage requires more talent from the quarterback than using an approach that shortens the field and creates more traffic between the receivers, tight ends, linebackers, cornerbacks and secondary. Can we talk about this? Great, I'll go first...
To me, the latter approach sounds more reliant on the skill of your quarterback. As I see it, there is far less margin for error when you have the added traffic surrounding your targets. Not only are you throwing balls at tighter angles and a lower trajectory (which makes it easier for linemen to impact the throw), but there will likely be no time for a receiver to make any adjustments to catch balls that are not placed perfectly.
You are squeezing passes through quickly closing windows, and if you are off, there is a high likelihood of a dropped pass—or much worse an interception, given all the hands that are in the area. I mean, if this approach were the easier one, wouldn’t more teams do it? My thoughts are, they probably can’t do it. That is, they don’t have the talent at quarterback that a team like, say, New England (another random example) has, which is why they are able to succeed with that “system.”
Don’t get me wrong. You’ll never hear me say that Peyton Manning isn’t a great quarterback. He’s one of the best ever. But, I don’t think it’s fair to be suggesting that Brady can’t even compare to him and other greats, because of the statistics that Kenny was using. Maybe he’s right, and I’m wrong. But, I want to hear it from someone more qualified. That’s why I need you, Hall of Fame Quarterback.
Brian Kenny is of course entitled to his opinion, and it was probably healthy for his analysis to surface when it did, on the heels of Cowherd's undying praise for Brady. And, to be honest, I initially appreciated Kenny's commentary and his approach, using an angle that often gets overlooked when comparing great players from different generations. But, sometimes the story isn't readily available within the numbers.
I admit, I’m no expert. I’m just going off of 28 years of intuition and zero years of experience playing NFL quarterback. Coincidentally, this is the same number of years that Brian Kenny spent at the position.
A previous article I've written on Brady: Tom Brady, From a Different Perspective: Here's My Story of a Man Named Brady