Tom Brady creeping up on Joe Montana
For more than two decades, there has been plenty of debate on the topic, but the answer invariably comes back to one name and one name only.
Who's the best quarterback of all time? It's Joe Montana, the former 49er who dominated the sport in the 1980s with four Super Bowl championships and three Super Bowl MVP awards.
That's the way most of us have felt about the subject, including former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, who saw firsthand what Montana can do to ruin your dreams of winning a Super Bowl. But Esiason, whose Bengals were beaten by Montana in Super Bowl XXIII on one of his signature game-winning drives, believes it is time for another man to take his rightful place in the debate.
It is time to consider Tom Brady as the game's most dominant passer.
"Prior to this year, the best ever was Joe Montana, but the fact that [Brady] passed his idol in playoff wins, has put together 11 incredible seasons, you compare the regular-season wins, the playoff wins and the numbers, I think Tom Brady is right there," Esiason said. "I think if he went on to win his fourth Super Bowl, that would cement him as No. 1 in the eyes of many."
Brady, 35, is two wins away from doing just that. With a win over the Ravens in Sunday night's AFC Championship Game, he would reach his sixth Super Bowl. No other quarterback has gotten to as many. Only Montana and Terry Bradshaw (four each) have more Super Bowl titles than the three owned by Brady and Troy Aikman.
What sets Brady apart, Esiason said, is that he has maintained such an extraordinarily high level of play despite having very few blue-chip players around him.
"When I say Joe Montana, you say Jerry Rice," Esiason said. "When I say Terry Bradshaw, you probably think 'Steel Curtain' defense. When I say John Elway, it's Terrell Davis. But Brady never really had that.
"I'll tell you what, it's that great level of consistency at which [Brady] plays," Esiason said. "It could be Game 2 of the regular season or Game 2 of the playoffs. It doesn't matter if it's in the wind or rain, at home or on the road, preseason games or the Super Bowl. The incredible level of consistency is what I most admire. And I know how difficult it is, how many variables go into how your numbers are affected. You can look at every quarterback in history and there are probably three or four stinkers a guy throws out there every year. But Brady doesn't do that."
Best ever? Esiason is right. It is time to at least put Brady in the conversation. And by the time his career is over, there might not even be a debate.
"He's still in his prime," Esiason said. "As long as he doesn't sustain a serious injury, he could go until he's 40. If he plays that long, the numbers will be scary."
They're already scary.
Brady is 136-39 in the regular season and 17-6 in the playoffs; his win over the Texans in last week's AFC divisional playoffs put him ahead of Montana for most postseason wins in NFL history. He has 334 touchdown passes and 123 interceptions in the regular season, a ratio of 2.7-1. He has passed for more than 4,000 yards in five of his last seven full seasons. His 44,806 passing yards rank ninth.
Take it from another Super Bowl MVP: It is time to put Brady in Montana's class. Or put him up against anyone else you might think deserves to be considered the best in history, be it Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, John Elway or Dan Marino.
"I definitely think it's time to have that conversation, although it's one of those topics where you can never really decipher that across generations because the game changes," said former Rams and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, now an analyst for NFL Network. "The bottom line, he belongs in the conversation of the great to ever play. There's no question in my mind he does.
"And the thing is he's not even done yet. Maybe what he accomplishes will be enough to really solidify himself and say, 'Yes, he's the best.' "
What Warner respects most about Brady: that he has had to do all his work inside the pocket, where the degree of difficulty is so much higher because Brady can't make plays on the run.
"In this day and age, there are a number of quarterbacks who can run and prolong plays, and if they miss a read, they can still make a play," Warner said. "But certain quarterbacks like myself, who have to play inside the pocket, you can't make those same mistakes and have success. You have to know what you're seeing, and so for a guy like Tom to do it as consistently and as well as he's playing inside the pocket, I have a tremendous amount of admiration for what he's accomplished.
"There's nothing wrong with being an athlete and making plays [on the run], but if you take that all the way, to me, that is where the greatest quarterbacks reside," Warner said. "If you can take away all the playmaking ability, can you win with your mind and your arm? That's what makes quarterbacks great, and that's what makes Tom great."
What does Brady think of all this? Well, he doesn't. At least not outwardly. Try and get him to talk about his legacy, and he'll tell you this is neither the time nor the place to discuss it.
Maybe after his career is over. Not now.
"This week, I am trying just to focus on Baltimore," Brady said. "I owe my team my attention to be focused on the task at hand, and that's playing a great Baltimore team."
Just another reason for his greatness. No matter how much he has accomplished in the past, there is always more to be done.