One summer during college I worked in the purchasing department of a medical clinic that stretched across several blocks of downtown Palo Alto. When the doctors and nurses needed supplies, it was my job to box them up and deliver them by hand truck.
During one such delivery, to pediatrics, I was pushing a load down a hallway, turned a corner and accidentally bumped into someone’s legs.
At first all I saw was the person’s pants. Looking up, there stood Joe Montana.
Joe Freaking Montana.
This was 1991, when Montana was at the peak of his powers. (He had a bum elbow that cost him nearly two seasons.) For a Bay Area kid of the ’80s who grew up absorbed in those four Super Bowls, and can still vividly recall where I was for each of them, there was no bigger sports god to randomly and literally bump into.
I remember the jolt of surprise and stammering out an apology, to which Montana smiled and kept walking. He was Joe Cool on the football field and at the doctor’s office.
He was Joe Cool on the football field and at the doctor’s office.
Over these past two weeks there’s been lots of chatter about how Montana and Tom Brady stack up in the Greatest Quarterbacks of All-Time debate. The subject will surely resurface if the Patriots subdue the Falcons on Sunday to win their fifth Super Bowl with Brady under center – I’ve predicted a 35-31 New England victory – to break the current three-way tie with Montana and Terry Bradshaw.
Sports, and sports fandom in general, are built on these sorts of arguments. You can start one on any barstool. Who’s the greatest quarterback, the greatest home-run hitter, the best team? We compare titles and statistics. We make allowances for teammates, systems and eras. We examine the evidence trying our empirical darndest.
Before always falling back on our own inherent biases. Sports fans are only people.
If Brady wins No. 5, then he’s the greatest by the most important measure. Championships are the ultimate arbiter, and one more would make Brady the most accomplished quarterback in history. That’s no alternative fact.
Let’s also reject the argument that Brady’s record is diminished by the two Super Bowls he lost. If anything, his seven appearances are just as impressive as the four wins. It means that in his 17 seasons, Brady’s team reached the championship game more than 40 percent of the time.
7 Super Bowl appearances by Tom Brady, three more than Joe Montana
Montana’s record in four Super Bowls is unblemished. That’s a big chunk of his legend. Still, I’ll bet he’d gladly take three more chances, even knowing there’s a chance he could lose. That’s how competitors tick.
The Patriots’ revolving, largely anonymous receiving corps is another factor in Brady’s favor. While Montana benefited from great receivers around him, Brady has consistently elevated average receivers to greatness.
Montana had Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark early on, then later Jerry Rice and John Taylor. That’s one Hall of Famer and three studs. Brady has had (insert name here). Interestingly, the Patriots didn’t win any Super Bowls with Brady passing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker – the two best receivers to play with him. They won with Brady passing to Troy Brown, David Patten and Julian Edelman. Sunday it could be Chris Hogan’s turn.
Both Montana and Brady benefited from top-notch coaching, though you can argue Montana benefited more since Bill Walsh was an offensive genius while Bill Belichick’s expertise is on defense. Walsh’s West Coast scheme was years ahead of its time. Defenses didn’t know what hit them. That’s no longer the case.
Brady has racked up more passing yards and touchdowns than Montana, but comparing statistics between players of different eras is folly. The rules of today’s game are designed to favor offense and protect quarterbacks from injury. Defensive backs can barely graze a receiver without getting flagged. In Montana’s day, no one went over the middle without making sure their dental plan was up to date.
In Montana’s day, no one went over the middle without making sure their dental plan was up to date.
The debate might not even be between Brady and Montana. If we’re comparing championships, no quarterback in NFL history owns a better résumé than Otto Graham. Look it up. During Graham’s 10 seasons with the Browns from 1946-55, he reached the championship game in all of them and won seven. If pure talent is the thing, no one had more of it than John Elway – another guy I was lucky to watch growing up. Except for maybe Aaron Rodgers.
Where Brady beats them all is longevity. He’s 39, shows no signs of slowing down and wants to play another “five or six” years. Montana’s last Super Bowl came at age 33. By 39 he was already retired.
A fifth championship would further elevate Brady in the quarterback pantheon and lead more and more pundits to declare him the Greatest of All Time. And that’s gonna be tough for those of us who watched and worshiped Montana to accept.
But we shouldn’t let that be a source of exasperation. Because no matter how many championships Brady wins, he’ll never cause my mother to leap off the couch in celebration.
I cherish that memory of Mom, now 12 years gone, leaping off the couch.
Which is why Montana will always be No. 1 on my list, irrespective if he winds up No. 2 in Super Bowl rings. I’m just thankful our collision in the doctor’s office didn’t turn out anything like the one he had with Leonard Marshall.