Is Tom Brady the greatest football player of all time?
Jerry Rice is.
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I should probably elaborate.
This seems to be the take so hot, you need oven mitts to handle it: That Tom Brady, in orchestrating a comeback from 28-3 down in Super Bowl LI; in winning his record 5th Super Bowl title as a starting quarterback; in winning his record 4th Super Bowl MVP, has cemented his case as the greatest player ever.
Except, he’s not.
He may not even be the greatest quarterback ever.
And Jerry Rice is the greatest football player of all time. That’s not even much of a question.
Now that I have your attention, and have enraged Brady Nation, let’s all calm down and speak more rationally.
Tom Brady has the greatest resume of any QB in the Super Bowl era, and I will indeed entertain arguments that he may be the greatest QB in the history of the NFL.
The fact that he’s started seven Super Bowls — two more than his nearest competition, John Elway — is a heavyweight statistic. The fact that he’s played in 11 AFC Championship games — four more than his nearest competition, Joe Montana; and more than 27 entire franchises — is seriously making a case for all time status.
To win his 5th by virtue of the most massive comeback in Super Bowl history is compiling an argument I am finding difficult to fight.
Except: We all know football is the “ultimate team game”, as we’ve heard in every cliche ever uttered since Pop Warner fondled a pigskin. So, to assign Brady all the glory for Super Bowl wins is to discount Bill Belichick’s unreal influence in all this, and Bill Belichick’s unreal defensive wizardry in all this, starting with Brady’s first-ever Super Bowl, a strategic stifling of the Kurt Warner/Marshall Faulk “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, 20-17; or Malcolm Butler’s rather well-timed interception against Seattle.
By comparison, it’s easier to note a single basketball player’s influence on winning, given that one player constitutes 20 percent of his team on the floor. Yes, I’m looking at you, Bill Russell (11 NBA championships) and Michael Jordan (6 NBA championships).
When it comes to more measurable statistics with which we can compare Brady to his peers — touchdown passes, QB rating, completion percentage, interception rate, game-winning drives, 4th quarter comebacks — we can get a closer look.
In TD passes, a measure of excellence and longevity, Brady shows quite well: 4th all-time with 456, trailing Peyton Manning (539), Brett Favre (509) and Drew Brees (465).
In QB rating, a statistic some find wonky, some find useful, Brady shows quite well: 3rd all-time at 97.2, trailing only Aaron Rodgers (104) and Russ Wilson (!) (99).
In completion percentage, a measure of accuracy, but also contingent on receivers, Brady shows quite well: 14th all-time with 63.8%, but a decent margin behind Drew Brees’ top mark of 66%.
In interception rate, Brady shows quite well: tie-2nd all time with 1.8%, trailing only Rodgers’ 1.5%.
And in a less numbers-oriented statistic, let’s look at Game-Winning Drives: Again, Brady shows quite well, 3rd all-time with 50 behind Peyton Manning’s 56 and Dan Marino’s 51.
So, by any of these measures, Brady shows quite well. Just not so well that he stands above his peers, Everest-like.
Yeah, you say, but how about how he dominated Peyton Manning, his true rival? Well, yes. He owned the regular season. But in AFC Championship games, it was Peyton 3, Tommy 1.
Meanwhile, there’s Jerry Rice.
You can see him standing over there among the NFL greats, looking like Wilt Chamberlain in a class of kindergarteners.
Compare a player by his peers to see true dominance. Let’s see . . .
In all-time receptions, Jerry Rice shows quite well: 1st all-time with 1,549.
His nearest rival? Tony Gonzalez, with 1,325.
That’s a 224 catch difference, to save you the math.
In all-time receiving yards, Jerry Rice shows quite well: 1st all-time with 22,895.
His nearest rival? Terrell Owens, with 15,934.
That’s a nearly 7,000-yard difference, to save you the math.
And what’s that other category I’m forgetting? Oh, wait! It’s the whole reason you play football. It’s called touchdowns.
In all-time touchdowns, Jerry Rice shows quite well: 1st all-time with 208.
His nearest rival? Emmitt Smith, with 175.
That’s a 33-TD difference, to save you the math.
Jerry Rice won three Super Bowl titles, and played in four. So, Brady has him there. Jerry Rice has one Super Bowl MVP. So, Brady has him there.
(I’d add that in Super Bowl 29, Rice caught 13 balls for 149 yards and three TDs, all while with a broken collarbone, and did not win the Super Bowl MVP. So, these things can be misleading, one might say.)
And in the ultimate game stat, Jerry Rice played in more football games (303) than any non-kicker in NFL history.
Baseball historian George Will once said of Babe Ruth’s career, that when Ruth retired, looking at his career compared to his peers was like putting “Mount Everest in Kansas.”
Well, we’ve looked at Jerry Rice’s career. Hey, look! Turns out there are *two* Mount Everests in the great state of Kansas.
There’s only room for one G.O.A.T. in the NFL, though. Take a bow, Number 80.