BY ADRIAN JARDING | Ball State Sports Link
As Tom Brady prepares for his eighth Super Bowl appearance, the most in its history by any player, many assume that the debate between who is the greatest player ever is essentially over.
To those who believe Brady is the clear-cut GOAT, let me offer some perspective on why it’s impossible to compare Brady or any player of today’s league to those of old, like Joe Montana.
I am here to look at this as objectively as possible and have been researching this topic for over a year. Without further ado, let me debunk why you can’t compare Tom Brady to Joe Montana, or any player of old really.
1. Modern Medicine and Nutrition
Humans always evolve, it’s the only way we can grow and stay alive in this very competitive world. Technology has evolved so much in the past 10 years we haven’t stopped to marvel at how much has been accomplished.
For the NFL, the game has also evolved. Gone are the days of practicing until you faint in the summer heat. An emphasis has been put on nutrition and modern medicine has played a huge role in helping players return to the field stronger than ever. This is why quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees have had very few problems lasting this long and are playing better than ever.
Back when Joe Montana played, there was a complete lack of awareness for nutrition, medicine was much less advanced and surgery was almost never a guarantee. As said in the NFL Films documentary “America’s Game”, 49ers players back in 1984 went for a free burger after each game they won (they won 18 games). Tom Brady isn’t eating any kind of meat, much less a fatty one.
Surgery was much less effective back in Montana’s day. Nowadays players can come back from most injuries in a year and play again normally. Joe Theismann broke his foot in the most gruesome way possible in 1985 (only look it up if you can somehow stomach it). His career ended that play. Brady is now 10 years removed from his knee surgery and is still playing at a Hall of Fame level.
There was also a total lack of awareness for concussions when Montana played. Montana took many vicious hits in his final few years, including one against the Bills in the 1993 AFC Championship, and they contributed to his shortened career.
Brady is aware of what injuries will do to his body and will hit the deck to avoid any big hits. The hits he does take are not of the same ferocity which Montana took, mostly because of the rules and fines the NFL has in place to protect quarterbacks now. This leads me to my second point.
2. Rule Changes Lead To Offensive Evolution
The NFL has drastically changed since Joe Montana left the game in 1994.
There are ample rules in place (too many in my opinion) to help make the game more offensively friendly. Hits to the head are completely illegal, the amount of penalties which receivers have received in favor of them has grown ridiculous and if you breath on the quarterback two seconds after he releases the ball you will get a flag.
When asked what were to happen if they played in today’s NFL like they played then, the 1985 Bears as part of the “30 for 30” documentary “The ’85 Bears”, players said they would be sitting at home for most of the season and would rack-up large fines. It was a much different era of football where brutality was encouraged.
The Bears, Redskins, Giants and Cowboys all defined the 80s with smash-mouth defense and run-heavy offenses. It’s a wonder the innovative 49ers won four Super Bowls in a period where they were much more finesse on offense. They were just as nasty though on defense as the teams mentioned above, sporting gladiators like Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean.
In the 1980s, if a quarterback threw for 3,400 yards they were considered elite. When Dan Marino threw for 5,00 yards in 1984 they didn’t have any way to describe it other than ‘astronomical’ because video games like Madden were not around yet. Today subpar quarterbacks can throw for 4,400 yards and they are considered “video games numbers”.
Joe Montana never once cracked 4,000 yards. The closest he came was in the 1990 season in which he threw for 3,944 yards. Again, he played in an era of dominant defenses.
In his 15 year career as a starter (not counting 2008) Brady failed to reach 4,000 yards seven times, four of those came in his first four seasons as a starter.
To put this in perspective, Matthew Stafford has only failed to reach 4,000 yards twice in his nine years as a starter, both coming in his first two seasons. Stats are overinflated in today’s game due to rule changes. It makes sense Brady would have greater numbers than Montana and has lasted longer thanks to rule changes.
3. Overlooked Aspects
All Patriots fans have to say is “Jerry Rice” and they make you pause. You then say “Rob Gonkowski”, “always hurt.” “Randy Moss”, “three seasons.” “Reche Caldwell”, “are you alright?”
Joe Montana played in an era where free agency was not a thing and he had great consistency/continuity with his offense.
Tom Brady has went through a great deal of turnover with personnel, especially on the offensive line which makes his accomplishments all the more impressive.
Last time I checked though, quarterbacks make those around them better. Whose to say Joe Montana’s leadership and work ethic didn’t help them win? It’s what his teammates said about him. It’s often an overlooked aspect of sports. Brady does the same thing.
People also forget Rice only lasted six seasons with Montana, the majority of his numbers came from Steve Young. Montana played with guys like Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon (very underrated), Russ Francis and John Taylor. All talented players, but not Hall of Famers.
Yes, Brady has gone through more personnel, but I would argue he has had more talent over the years than Montana. Montana played in a much better system though in an era where the emphasis was not to move the ball vertically.
Appreciate The Greatness
The point of this article is not to convince you one player is better than the other, but to show you that it is hard if not impossible to compare players of different eras in the NFL because there are major factors in place.
You should celebrate both Brady and Montana’s accomplishments for what they are worth, but let’s not get hungover on who is the better player.
Watch today’s game with clear eyes and just appreciate greatness, as hard as that may be for a Colts fan.