Putting Tom Brady’s Recent Playoff History In Proper Perspective
The critics of Tom Brady have been gradually gaining confidence in recent years, and with the New England Patriots’ loss in the AFC Championship Game last week, they’ve found their voice. It’s been eight years without a Super Bowl title for Brady, the critics note. ESPN’s Skip Bayless—not normally one I would cite as an authority, but worthwhile here, because he’s generally a Brady defender—said the storyline on the Patriot quarterback would now shift to “hasn’t won a Super Bowl in eight years”, and that last Sunday’s loss to Baltimore was a “a big hit on his legacy.” Is this true? And if it’s true, is it fair?
To be fair, none of Brady’s critics are arguing against his place in the pantheon of quarterbacks who elevate above even standard Hall of Famers and into the discussion of the greatest who ever played the game. Rather, the criticism is aimed at two goals—downgrading Brady’s place within that pantheon, and from there downgrading his place when we measure the best quarterbacks in the game today.
Evaluating players from a historical perspective as their careers unfold is always a tricky business, but we’ll give it our best shot here. What I’d like to do is compare Brady’s postseason record—it’s early triumphs and recent disappointments to two other legends. We’ll use John Elway as one because his career was the mirror image of Brady’s—a long stretch of frustration at the front end, then multiple rings at the end. And the other will be Joe Montana, conventionally regarded as the best NFL quarterback ever. These three quarterbacks have all played a comparable number of postseason games (24 for Brady, 23, Montana, 22 Elway).
Let’s start with a summation of the first indictment put against Brady, and it’s that he’s delivered a series of what’s seen as pedestrian playoff performances—each of the last two AFC Championship Games, the 2007 AFC Championship Game and subsequent Super Bowl, the bitter losses in 2009 (Ravens) and Jets (2010) at home. Is it really possible that someone could have this many shaky playoff starts in a row and still be the best quarterback of all-time (or at least in the top three)?
I’m going to set aside whether Brady’s play in these games was really as bad as the critics make them out to be for further down. For now, let’s remind everyone that Montana and Elway were not always stalwarts in the playoff crunch. Consider the following…
*Montana’s 49ers lost their first playoff game each year from 1985-87 (twice in the divisional round, once in the wild-card round). In the first two of these games, they did not score a touchdown. One of the losses was 49-3 (to the ’86 Giants). As a heavily favored #1 seed in 1987 they were beaten by a mediocre Minnesota team 36-24, a game that only got close after Montana was pulled for Steve Young and the Niners scored some garbage time touchdowns. These weren’t just shaky playoff performances for Montana. They were flat-out awful.
*The knock on Brady’s 2007 playoff run is that in the AFC Championship Game against San Diego, he threw three interceptions. Did you know that in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, where Montana first started building his legend, with a late touchdown pass to Dwight Clark to win the game, the Niner quarterback also threw three interceptions. What’s more, he did in the same in the 1984 playoffs against the Giants. It’s worth noting that while quarterbacks in general threw more interceptions in the early 1980s, that would not necessarily apply to Montana. San Francisco, on the cutting edge of offensive thinking under head coach Bill Walsh, was the first to implement the high-percentage short-passing game that’s universal in the NFL today.
We can add more to the Montana record—he took the first half off in the 1983 NFC Championship Game at Washington and even though a strong second half ensued, the Redskins launched a late drive for a field goal to win 24-21. As a member of the Chiefs in the 1993 AFC Championship Game, Montana went to Buffalo and went 9/23 for 125 yards and had to be removed from the game.
Now let’s move to Elway. His first two playoff performances were extremely mediocre. He can be forgiven a so-so game in the 1983 wild-card round at Seattle (10/15, 123 yards and an interception) because he was a rookie. But the following year was a big disappointment as the two-seed Broncos lost at home to a so-so Pittsburgh team, with Elway going 19/37 for 184 yards. This is the very definition of mediocre play.
Even when Denver broke through and went to the Super Bowl the following year, Elway’s play against New England in the divisional round left much to be desired—at home, he only completed 13/32 passes. Fortunately for him, the Patriot secondary seemed to be opposed to keeping receivers in front of them, so the completions produced 257 yards. But as Denver lost three Super Bowls in the four-year window of 1986-89, Elway had terrible games against Washington (1987 Super Bowl) and San Francisco (1989 Super Bowl). Over the ensuing seven years, Denver didn’t make a Super Bowl, and Elway’s only notable moments were a good drive to beat the old Houston Oilers (1991, AFC divisional) after an above-average game. And he played well in a 1993 first-round loss to the Raiders.
And if Brady’s play against Baltimore last Sunday didn’t measure up, look at Elway’s 1996 divisional round loss to Jacksonville. Elway went 25/38, but averaged less than six yards per attempt. Like what happened to Brady on Sunday, the ’96 version of Elway was kept underneath by the defensive coverage.
So what’s the point? That Montana and Elway suck, while Brady reigns supreme? Not at all. What I’m attempting to do is illustrate that when legends retire, we forget how many rough moments they had along the way to greatness. We forget that not every pass thrown in the postseason was exceptionally brilliant, not every game—or even most games—were ones for the archives of NFL films.
To gain further perspective on this, let’s look at what Montana, Elway and Brady have done in years where they didn’t win Super Bowls. For Montana, that was seven seasons and his teams won a grand total of four games. To be fair, there was one fewer team per conference in the playoffs those years, and one instance (as the #3 seed in 1986) where San Francisco might have grabbed an additional victory. Even so, that’s an 11-game stretch for Montana that includes all the genuinely awful games noted above I count three of the seven losses being horrific.
Elway played in eight postseasons that didn’t end with a ring, and his teams went 7-8 in those games. That includes the bad Super Bowl performances and other shaky games discussed above. It also includes a mediocre game in Buffalo for the 1991 AFC Championship when heavy winds created problems for both teams.
Brady has played in 15 playoff games over the last eight title-less years and has a winning record in those games, going 8-7. The worst game was the 2009 loss to Baltimore (23/42, 154 yards, three interceptions). It also includes a complete carving up of Jacksonville in 2007, when he went 26/28 for 262 yards, easily the best game any of three legendary quarterbacks had in a non-Super Bowl ring year. It includes a six-touchdown massacre of Denver last year. It includes two additional Super Bowl appearances, a feat Montana can’t match. And even the worst of Brady’s games don’t compare to the depths Elway touched in his Super Bowl losses or what Montana did from 1985-87.
There is, of course, much more that goes into an objective evaluation of quarterback performance as it relates to winning and losing. I don’t like the whole culture in NFL media that defines a quarterback by his won-loss record. To the extent I’ve used it here, it’s only to illustrate the Patriots’ play under Brady from 2005-12 is quite within the norm of what teams with legendary quarterbacks do. They don’t win every year—they don’t even win most years. I suppose the media is entitled to hold Brady to whatever standard they want—but they should be aware it’s a standard that’s never been hit by anyone in the history of professional football, nor is it likely to.
Those of us who believe the New England quarterback is the best of our lifetime have plenty to stand on, and it doesn’t require a single additional Super Bowl victory to prove the point. A fourth Super Bowl ring would make the case airtight, and it would be great for all Boston sports fans to get one at the end of his career. But it’s not necessary. The careers of his fellow legends are proof of that.