It was Week 6 of the 1983 season. My family’s Sunday tradition was to eat Grandma’s homemade pizza and watch football in her South Buffalo home. On this particular Sunday, the Buffalo Bills were playing at Miami to take on the Dolphins. The Bills had not won in Miami in my lifetime. However, the Dolphins were struggling offensively early that season, so they made a switch to a rookie quarterback on this day.
We had a good feeling about this game. The Bills bolted out to a 14-0 first quarter lead. We were smiling, giggling, eating, relishing the moment that our Bills would snap their streak of futility in Miami’s Orange Bowl. Then, something happened that made me even as a child stand up and pay closer attention. The Miami player wore number 13. The way he played quarterback completely mesmerized me. His name was Dan Marino and I had the privilege to watch him play in person 10 times. He was the greatest pure passer I have ever seen.
The Other Quarterback GOATs
I was 14 years old watching the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers rake the turf with their opponents during their postseason run. The 49ers were going to kill the Broncos in the Super Bowl. I recall it was a freezing January day in Western New York, so we were homebound for the three-hour pregame show. We were not Broncos fans. Nevertheless, we hoped they would give San Francisco a game. They didn’t.
The 49ers put on a show for the ages. Their quarterback wore number 16 and in this, his fourth Super Bowl appearance, he pitched a perfect game. His name was Joe Montana. He was an assassin on the field. Montana always played with poise and threw gorgeous spirals into tight windows. He trusted his receivers implicitly. Whenever the 49ers were on national television, it was must watch. He was the most clutch player I have ever seen.
GOATs of the Past and Present
Peyton Manning was another player I witnessed at his best. He was the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history and it is not even close. Teams that he played for won 75 percent of their contests. I rarely found myself rooting for the teams he played for, but I respected him so much for his intelligence and leadership.
Aaron Rodgers makes the impossible seem possible. I remember watching him on a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas in 2007 when he came in for Brett Favre and thinking that he was “pretty good.” It only took him a few years to win the Super Bowl. Rodgers combines great athleticism with an uncanny football mind. His teams are never out of a game and his throws are sometimes majestic and other times magical. Rodgers is the best player in the NFL today.
GOAT Wide Receiver
Jerry Rice posted numbers as a wide receiver so gaudy and incredible that 34-year old Larry Fitzgerald would have to record seven more 1,000-yard seasons to break the record for most receiving yards. Rice was the best wide receiver of the 1980s, the best wide receiver of the 1990s and made the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl at 40 years old in 2002. He was the best non-QB in NFL history. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to watch him play a few times in Buffalo.
The Non-Football GOATs
The first time I realized that Michael Jordan was other-worldly occurred in a playoff game against my beloved 1986 Boston Celtics. The Celtics were obviously the far better team, but Jordan was so amazing, he single-handedly forced overtime and double-overtime. He won six titles. I did not get to see him play until he was past his prime, but it was a great joy to be at that game nonetheless. He was the greatest competitor in sports history.
Wayne Gretzky was above and beyond the finest hockey player to grace the ice. He had speed and maneuverability like Bobby Orr. He had a sneaky hard slap shot like Mark Messier. His passes put Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson onto leaderboards for goals annually. Additionally, he was a leader, a gentleman and an ambassador. That is why in hockey circles, he is known as “The Great One.” He was the greatest athlete in the history of team sports.
I don’t observe individual sports with the regularity with which I enjoy team sports. I understand Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods have gone through eras of invincibility and I respect their accomplishments as well.
The Evolution of a GOAT
On Sunday, we will witness an athlete that will forever be discussed in the same breath as those mentioned above. The first time I saw him play was during the 2001 season. I recorded a game on my VCR between the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers. My beloved Bills were having a dreadful season with the two-headed quarterbacking monster of Rob Johnson and Alex Van Pelt at the helm, so I enjoyed watching other teams play as much as possible. The young Pats’ quarterback played a fine game and led his team to a comeback win. The performance hardly stuck with me.
A few weeks later, I watched this young man play in person at Rich Stadium for the first time. He did nothing special. In fact, the play I remember most from this game was how the quarterback impressively popped right up after a vicious hit delivered by Buffalo’s Nate Clements. The Patriots won the game. Nothing stood out to me about this player even as he continued to help his team win games leading to a surprise playoff spot. In the playoffs, he benefited from a controversial, obscure rule. In the AFC championship game, he was knocked out of the game.
Tom Terrific is Born
He was back to play in the Super Bowl and he was average through three-plus quarters. The Patriots took a 17-3 lead as they converted three turnovers into the 17 points. Their opponents, the St. Louis Rams, tied the game 17-17 with less than 2 minutes to play. This is when I first noticed Tom Brady.
The last drive of the 2002 Super Bowl can give any football fan goose bumps. Brady’s poise on that platform at that age is almost incomprehensible. He pulled it off launching the most compelling and polarizing career in the history of team sports.
His story has been told countless times, so I need not get into the nuances of winning this game or losing that one. Inevitably, due to his consistent success, people want to debate his place among the greats of all-time. The fact that people need to explain to us why Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and even Aaron Rodgers are better than Brady teaches us that even they believe he is one of the best of all-time or we would not have to rehash his resume annually as his records get loftier. Otherwise, why would they bring it up days before Brady is to play in yet another championship game?
Can Somebody Really be Called the GOAT?
I don’t believe in saying that somebody is the greatest of all-time. There is simply no way of knowing, so it is futile to argue such things. For example, how would one know if Michael Jordan is better than Tom Brady? That is like asking to choose a favorite entertainer between Tom Hanks and Justin Timberlake. Hanks is a better actor while Timberlake is the better singer and dancer. By the way, Jordan won his titles between the ages of 27 and 35 while Brady has done it between the ages of 24 and 39 when athletes are said to be too young or too old to peak.
Others bring up Jerry Rice. How might we decide who is a better football player between Tom Brady and Jerry Rice? Well, who is the better musician between Lenny Kravitz and Lars Ulrich? Kravitz is a better guitar player while Ulrich is a better drummer.
The comparison that I hear the most has to do with Joe Montana. Who is the GOAT: Joe Montana or Tom Brady? Well, who is the more attractive female between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie? To each his own! I will say this about the Montana-Brady debate. We have a lot of revisionist history when it comes to the great Joe Montana’s career.
Is Joe Montana the GOAT?
Montana was very good in 1981, but not great. The 49ers were the best team in the NFC because of their phenomenal defensive backfield and they won the NFC championship game due to the excellence of Bill Walsh’s coaching as they overcame six turnovers. The 1982 49ers were poor virtually from start to finish and missed the playoffs. One year later, the Pro Bowler Montana was solid in defeat in the 1983 NFC championship game.
In 1984, Montana was spectacular. He played tremendously in the Super Bowl against a terrible Dolphins defense. However, Montana was terrible in three consecutive seasons in the playoffs. Following the 1985 and 1986 seasons, Bill Belichick’s Giants defeated the 49ers 17-3 and 49-3. In the 1987 playoffs, the 49ers got embarrassed at home by the Minnesota Vikings in a game that got so out of hand, Montana was benched in favor of Steve Young. These losses occurred while Bill Walsh was the coach and Jerry Rice was a wide receiver.
Montana’s Transcendent Seasons
Montana bounced back to have a very good season in 1988. He played great in the NFC championship game against Mike Ditka’s Bears at Soldier Field as the Niners won 28-3. He also played very well against an average Bengals defense in the 1989 Super Bowl until the fourth quarter. In that final frame, Montana’s unflappability was put on display like nothing we had ever seen up to that point in the history of the big game. Most of the first 22 Super Bowls were lousy ball games. Yet, the 1989 version featured one of the great fourth quarters of all-time as Montana and Rice possessed excellence of execution in the tensest of moments. In the end, Montana hit John Taylor with a sublime pass with just 34 seconds to play to give San Francisco their third Super Bowl championship.
That momentum carried through the 1989 and 1990 seasons. This is the Montana that “Joe Cool” lovers will most frequently boast of. He was phenomenal during those two campaigns. As mentioned above, he was flawless in his dismantling of Wade Phillips’ Broncos defense in the 1990 Super Bowl. He likely could have won another Super Bowl and a “three-peat” had Coach Belichick’s Giants not crushed him with such ferocity that he did not become a starting quarterback again until 1993 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
A Painful Conclusion
In his two seasons with the Chiefs, Montana maintained his trademark poise in leading Kansas City to the playoffs. I was an eyewitness in Buffalo when he was knocked senseless in the AFC championship game by Bruce Smith and again in 1994 when the Bills destroyed the Chiefs 44-10 at Rich Stadium. The mojo was gone and the 38-year old retired following that season beaten and bruised.
Thus, as you can see with this brief recap, there is no doubt that Montana was a tremendous player and perhaps if he played in today’s era of protecting the quarterback, he may have survived to do greater things. He may well be the greatest ever to do it in the Super Bowl, but unless one simply despises Brady, a concession has to be made that Brady’s career is the stronger of the two.
Tom Brady Brings out Extreme Passion
What makes Brady unique is he is not universally beloved and there are millions of people who make the claim that he isn’t even that good. On the other and, I’ve yet to meet a smart sportsperson rationalize that Montana, Jordan, or Gretzky weren’t that good. However, there are people standing in line in an effort to discredit Brady. Some of these folks are giants in our industry.
Especially because I am from Buffalo, I witness people who loathe Brady as a player. Who can blame a fanbase that is 2-29 against this man in meaningful Patriots’ games? Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find a Bills fan say, “I hate Tom Brady, but he is an excellent football player” as if acknowledging such might indict the fan of actually liking Brady. Some fans plainly know Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers do not have the same playoff success. Yet, they will blabber about Brady is successful because of “fill in the blanks.”
Brady supporters can be equally annoying. In their eyes, we must all now admit he is the GOAT or we are foolish. Bring up a time when he failed such as in the fourth quarter of the 2012 Super Bowl and you will hear a montage of, “Gronk was hurt, Welker dropped the ball, etc.” Talk about how he struggles throwing the ball deep as evidenced by his terrible output at Miami two months ago and prepare to be pelted with verbal snow balls. The point is Brady supporters have become so used to having to defend his greatness that even rational criticism based on film study and analysis gets met with outrage unless, of course, they do it themselves.
Tom is the GOAT
Brady could have won the two Super Bowls against the New York Giants as easily as he could have lost against the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons. In the end, those inches don’t matter. It’s about the yards traveled to be in those kinds of positions season after season from the age of 24 through the age of 40. Also, keep in mind that this thing is a work in progress. The Patriots can come right back in 2018 and do this again. Who do you think in the AFC East might be better than New England next year?
You want statistics. He’s got those. You prefer to measure individuals on the greatness barometer based on championships, he’s your man. Perhaps you just use the eye test or a player’s longevity. Maybe you look at one’s ability to make others around him better or work ethic or composure or whatever. One player stands above the rest in the history of sports and that is Tom Brady. That is why he is the GOAT.
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills