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Sorry Kids, Brady tops Montana

Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time. (Keith Allison photo, via flickr, creative commons license)

With the Patriots last Super Bowl championship, it would seem that the debate as to who’s the best quarterback in NFL history should be over. For most people, the debate was over after the win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

But for some reason, there are still some people out there clinging to the idea that Montana is still better. This tends to lie in really shallow, anecdotal evidence. Reason and evidence don’t back this conclusion up in the slightest.

Brady vs. Montana

Joe Montana was a great quarterback. The original overlooked quarterback to lead his team to multiple Super Bowl championships. He was the best. Brady’s greatness does nothing to take away from Montana’s. He’s Joe Cool. He pointed out John Candy before leading the 49ers to a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl. But let’s look at the numbers.

We won’t spend too much time on the regular season numbers – as Brady has played 45 more games, and I will grant you that the style of play in the NFL is different in 2016 than it was in 1986. The thing to look at is the wins and losses. In order to match that mark, Montana would have to go 66-5.

Playoff Records

Tom Brady is 5-2 in the Super Bowl, and Joe Montana is 4-0. At first glance, it seems like you could make a reasonable argument that “Montana never lost a Super Bowl” means he comes out on top here.

But does it? When you realize that getting to the Super Bowl is better than losing in the conference championship game, that argument starts to fall apart in a hurry. So coming in first five times, and second twice is better than coming in first four times, never coming in second, and a lot of times worse than that.

The best results a team can have in a season is winning the Super Bowl, the second best would be losing the Super Bowl, after that, the best result would be getting to the conference championship, and so on – so let’s compare Brady’s seasons, best-to-worst with Montana’s.


Tom Brady and Joe Montana results by year







Starting at the top, each QB has four Super Bowls, and thus look fairly similar. But that’s where they diverge. Brady’s fifth best season would be the 2001 Super Bowl victory over the Rams. Montana’s fifth best season ended with a Conference Championship loss at Candlestick Park to the Giants, 15-13. Advantage, Brady.

Brady’s sixth best season was the last-second loss in Super Bowl at the end of the 2007 season. Montana’s 6th best season ended with a 24-21 loss to the Redskins in which Montana led his team back from a 21-0 fourth quarter deficit to tie the game, only to lose on a late Mark Moseley field goal (who had missed four previous field goals in the game). Advantage, Brady. Brady’s seventh best ends with the 2011 Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Montana’s is the 1993 Conference Championship Game loss to the Bills. Again, advantage Brady.

To spare you seasons 8 through 13, as you can see above, Brady finishes further in the playoffs than Montana does every single year. Again, no knock on Montana, he beats everyone when you run this kind of comparison.

And for those of you wondering about the overall playoff statistics, here they are.

Brady’s got nine more wins than Montana, against only two more losses, and he’s not done yet.

The Matt Cassel Argument

The 2008 New England Patriots went 11-5 without Tom Brady. This for some is the magic bullet that shows them anybody could be plugged into the Pats offense, and it will roll on like nothing changed. But this argument falls apart in a hurry when you see that the 2007 Patriots returned largely intact, and won five fewer games under Cassel than Brady. But that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. He threw 29 more touchdown passes than Cassel did, over 1100 more yards, and three fewer interceptions.

The 2016 Patriots went 11-1 with Brady under center. As good as they were with Garrapolo and Brissette under center, they were better with Brady.

But the argument works the other way, too.

The Many Backups of Montana

Here’s a rundown of the fill-ins for Montana, who missed much more time over the course of his career.

In 1984 and 1985, the 49ers went 2-0 in games started by Matt Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh was drafted by the Patriots in the 2nd round in 1978. He was a career 8-11.

The 1986, the 49ers went 4-3-1 behind journeymen passers Jeff Kemp and Mike Morowski.

1987 saw Steve Young come to San Francisco to back up Montana. He went 2-1 backing up Joe that year. Technically, Bob Gagliano went 1-0 as a strikebreaker that year as well.

From ’88 to ’90, Steve Young went 5-2 filling in for Montana.

1991 would seem to be the parallel to Brady’s lost 2008 campaign. The 14-2 49ers of 1990 fell back to 10-6 under Young and Bono. However, they were back to 14-2 in 1992 under Young.

Moving on to Kansas City, Montana took over a team that had finished 10-6, and led them to 1-game improvement in 1993. They were 3-2 with Dave Krieg under center that year. They lost both games in 1994 that Montana missed.

But… the 9-7 Chiefs of 1994 improved to 13-3 under with old 49er teammate Steve Bono at the helm.

All told, from 1984 to 1992, the 49ers were 38-14-1 with somebody other than Joe Montana calling signals.

Quick hits

  • “Montana took over when 49ers were 2-14, and led them to a Super Bowl within two years. Brady’s Patriots were never that low.” – Brady took over a team coming off a 5-11 team, that was off to a 2-0 start, and won the Super Bowl that season. He didn’t wait two years.
  • “Brady has Belichick” – True, But Montana had Bill Walsh.
  • “He’s a system quarterback” – You’ve never heard of the West Coast Offense?
  • “But… but… cheating” – There’s no evidence Brady deflated anything. Meanwhile, Montana’s top target used illegal stickum, and his linemen were covered in illegal silicone.
  • “The rules favor quarterbacks today” – Brady’s opponents offenses are also aided by this. Defenders are larger, more athletic, and much better conditioned today than they were in 1988.
  • Brady won in the salary cap era with a consistently changing cast of characters, compared to Montana, who had the stability that came in the time before free agency.
  • “Montana didn’t need a kicker” – Put Brady against some of the bad AFC Super Bowl teams of the 1980s, and he may win by 40, too.
  • “Um… Tuck Rule?” – According to the NFL rules at the time, Brady’s arm was going forward, and it was an incomplete pass. This doesn’t do anything to take away from the fact that Brady led a comeback in a blizzard in the first playoff game of his career.
    • No, the rule wasn’t created by Walt Coleman under the booth, but passed by the NFL competition committee in 1999 to clear up ambiguity for officials on the field.
    • It was actually used in the Patriots-Jets game in September 2001, to overturn an apparent fumble by Vinny Testaverde, recovered by the Patriots. Check the play-by-play, it’s at 1:09 of the second quarter.


Of course, Brady won’t say that he’s better than Montana. Montana’s Hall of Fame career is ahead of just about everyone else’s, it’s not better than Brady’s.

No shame in that. Nobody’s is.



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Mike Cooney
Mike is a lifelong Boston sports fan. He's got a degree in journalism from Northeastern University, and has been writing about sports in various methods since the mid-1990's. He's gotten to meet Bobby Orr, Luis Tiant, Rich Gedman, Nomar Garciaparra, and once shut out Carlos Pena's two twin brothers in a game of foosball at McCoy Stadium.