Since the New England Patriots won Super Bowl LI, it’s been a non-stop debate over who’s the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Many pundits have argued that Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady has now earned the “G.O.A.T.” moniker after winning his fifth Super Bowl ring in seven tries, a feat no other quarterback has accomplished in the 97-year history of the league. 

Tom Brady - Joe Montana2

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (left) pose with the MVP trophy during a news conference after the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, in Houston; (right) Dec. 20, 2015, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana (16) carries a Super Bowl trophy as he and other former players are introduced for a halftime ceremony during an NFL football game between the 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photos/David J. Phillip and Tony Avelar)

But as a longtime NFL reporter and historian of the game, I’m here to tell you that not only is Brady not the greatest ever, but that it’s downright disrespectful to the legends of a past NFL era to make such a claim. 

I get it. We’re all just prisoners of the moment. We, as avid sports fans, see something great happen in the present and totally forget all about the greatness that preceded it. 

Tom Brady had just come off leading the Patriots to a 25-point comeback, overcoming the largest deficit in Super Bowl history. That gave him his fifth world championship and fourth Super Bowl MVP honor. No other quarterback can say that – not even the legendary Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls with three Super Bowl MVP awards while with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s. 

So by theory, if Brady has five rings and Montana (who was widely considered the G.O.A.T. pre-Super Bowl 51) has four, clearly Brady has surpassed Montana in the all-time rankings—right?  

Wrong. Dead wrong.

Somewhere amongst the cheers and celebration of Brady’s latest achievement, we forgot just how much the NFL has changed over the last 22 years. That’s how many years it’s been since Montana last played a game, after all. And over that time span, the NFL has morphed from being one of the most brutally violent sporting leagues to offering much safer sport to play and watch. 

Some of the younger NFL fans may not be old enough to know or remember, but there are a ton of safety rules enforced by the NFL now that weren’t in place when Montana or other legendary quarterbacks like Dan Marino, John Elway, Troy Aikman or Jim Kelly played. 

For example, it wasn’t until 1996 that the league made “helmet-to-helmet” or hits to the head area illegal. That rule was enforced to help protect offensive players, particularity quarterbacks. By then, Montana had already been retired for two years and perhaps his biggest rival, three-time Super Bowl champ Troy Aikman had already suffered several concussions in his career.

In 2001, the rules in place to protect the passer from unnecessary hits were emphasized even more. A year later, the NFL officially began penalizing free hits on a quarterback during turnovers, so if an interception or a fumble occurred, defensive players could no longer act as if they’re blocking just to get a cheap shot in on the quarterback. 

By 2009, the NFL had added another rule to protect quarterbacks, this time outlawing defenders from lunging or diving into the legs of a pocket passer. The rule was nicknamed “the Brady rule,” in part because of the season-ending left ACL injury that Brady suffered in the Patriots’ 2008 season opener. It was the only time Brady had ever missed any playing time since he was first named a starter in 2001, and the NFL made sure he would never miss a game due to a hit like that, again. 

Unfortunately for legends like Montana, they didn’t get to benefit from any of these rules that have obviously played a major role in not only extending Brady’s 17-year career, but also in making it a lot easier to play the position at a high level. The legends of old simply got beat to a pulp and just had to deal with it. If they didn’t want to get hit, they had to call better plays and hand the ball off. 

Suddenly, it’s starting to make sense why teams ran the ball so much during the ’80s and ‘90s. Oh yeah, that’s right: Running the ball was how you protected your quarterback before the rules were changed. We forget that sometimes, don’t we? 

So what’s more impressive? Winning five Super Bowls in today’s era, or winning four during an era when the degree of difficulty was far greater? If you ask me, the answer’s obvious: what Montana did in the ’80s was by far the greater accomplishment. And it’s not even close. 

Tom Brady has gone on record saying he wants to play until he’s the age of 45. He’ll be 40 years old in August, so that’s giving him at least five more seasons to stack up as many Super Bowl rings as he possibly can. But I bet my bottom dollar, he wouldn’t dare consider playing into his 40s if he was getting hit in the head and legs like the greats that came before him. He’d probably be retired years ago by now. 

 

Perry Green

AFRO Sports Editor