Consider this: Tom Brady isn’t a great quarterback. That’s a bold statement, isn’t it? How can anybody possibly believe that Tom Brady could possibly be anything less than one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time? He’s been to the Pro Bowl 12 times, been a Super Bowl MVP four times and played in a record seven Super Bowls. Oh, and he just won his record 5th Super Bowl ring while throwing for a record number of passing yards and staging a record comeback. That’s a lot of records. At the risk of being accused of writing click-bait, let me start by saying that despite the theory that I am about to present, I do believe that Tom Brady is one of the greatest NFL players of all time. I write about my theory not to attempt to discredit what he’s done, but to simply talk through a nagging question that has haunted me late at night when pondering Tom Brady’s place among the NFL’s greats:
Is it possible that Tom Brady isn’t a great quarterback?
The defining QB “rivalry” (if football players who are never on the field at the same time can be considered to have a rivalry) of my time was Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady. Consistent regular season success versus post-season greatness. Individual records versus Super Bowl rings. With Manning now retired and Brady continuing to play at a high level, the debate has taken on less of a sense of urgency, but it’s still hard for me to talk about Brady without comparing him to Manning. So please indulge me and be patient, as I start talking about my theory of Brady being a mediocre quarterback by first talking about the greatness of Peyton Williams Manning.
There should be no doubt about Peyton Manning’s greatness as a football player. He was an elite player and a winner at every level, with multiple teams and multiple head coaches. In high school, he led his team to a 34-5 record in his three seasons as a starter and won numerous awards. He ended up being recruited by nearly 60 colleges. At the University of Tennessee, Manning continued to excel. He won 39 of 45 games as a starter, breaking the SEC record for career wins while continuing to put up impressive stats and rack up awards.
His NFL career, though, is where it becomes indisputable that Peyton Manning is a great player. During his 17 year NFL career, there were only three seasons where he didn’t win double digit games:
- His rookie season, after joining a 3-13 team
- In 2001, with his team having a historically bad defense
- In 2015, his last season, where he only started 9 games and still won 7 for a 78% win rate
Not only did his teams win, but he was a key contributor. He won a ridiculous number of NFL awards and broke numerous records, including being a five time MVP and 14 time Pro-Bowler. He is the NFL all-time leader in TD passes and passing yards.
Every variable around Peyton Manning changed. The one constant was he always put up great numbers and his team always won.
He did all of this despite playing for two different teams (Colts and Broncos) and multiple different head coaches (Mora, Dungy, Caldwell, Fox, Kubiak). He did it playing in a dome and playing a mile above sea level. He did it with different talent around him (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Demaryius Thomas). Basically, every variable around Peyton Manning was changed and the one constant was that he always put up great numbers and his team always won.
But perhaps the best indication of just how great a player Peyton Manning was and what effect he had on his team’s success is what happened to the 2011 Colts. That was when Peyton Manning sat out the entire season due to neck surgery. Without Peyton Manning, the Colts, who were coming off nine consecutive seasons of double-digit wins and were two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, started off 0-13 and ended with a record of 2-14, tied for worst in the league that season. With Peyton Manning at the helm, the Colts were perennial AFC South champions. Without him, they were picking first in the draft.
Tom Brady, by comparison, had a fairly unremarkable high school and college career. In high school, he initially wasn’t good enough to start for an 0–8 team that had not scored a touchdown all year. He eventually gained the QB job after the starter went down with an injury. Brady ended up starting his junior and senior years, but his team only went 11-9 over that time. His college career was fairly similar, albeit with slightly more team success. Like high school, Brady started as a backup, riding the bench in his first two years at Michigan. Brady would eventually end up starting every game for his final two years, but still had to split time with Drew Henson at the position for the early part of his senior year. Michigan went 20-5 in games that Brady started during his college career, and he ended up in the top five for many Michigan passing records, but it was a far cry from the overwhelming success that Peyton Manning had in college.
NFL teams apparently weren’t impressed by what they had seen of Brady in college, as he was infamously picked in the sixth round of the draft. However, once he made it to the NFL, his professional career has been above reproach. He has shattered both individual and team records and not only is he considered one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time, but perhaps the greatest of all time. So how can I possibly even ask if it’s possible that Tom Brady isn’t a great quarterback?
What is interesting to me, and what separates Tom Brady’s career from Peyton Manning’s, is that all of Tom Brady’s greatest successes, all of his Super Bowl wins and playoff appearances, have come under the same circumstances, with the same team and, most importantly, for the same coach: Bill Belichick.
Unlike Peyton Manning, we’ve never seen Tom Brady break records at every level. He hasn’t won championships for multiple teams and multiple coaches. My bold theory? That Tom Brady is merely a good football player that had the good fortune of playing his entire professional career under Bill Belichick. Belichick has been the most important factor in Tom Brady’s (and the Patriots’) success. Without Belichick, Tom Brady’s career would’ve been vastly different, and likely much less successful. My evidence follows.
So what does Matt Cassel have to do with Tom Brady? Brady’s ACL, specifically when it got torn during the 2008 season. When Brady went down for the season early in the first game, Patriots fans clearly had good reason for concern. How would the team be able to replace even a fraction of Brady’s production? And more worrisome was that Brady’s backup, Matt Cassel, was a seventh round draft pick who hadn’t thrown a meaningful pass since high school (he was a four year backup in college).
Patriots fans needn’t have worried. Cassel stepped in seamlessly, led the team to an 11-5 record, and threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns. While those numbers were less than the incredible numbers put up by Brady in the undefeated season just a year prior, Cassel’s 89.4 QB rating that year was better than Tom Brady’s numbers in his other five seasons.
Jimmy Garoppolo is another “Matt Cassel” data point. When Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season, Jimmy Garoppolo was thrust into the starting role. He only lasted 2 games before being felled by an injury, but in those two games the third year veteran actually put up a better QB rating than the future Hall-of-Famer would put up in his twelve regular season games played.
A Kind of Magic
So when Peyton Manning went down with an injury, his team completely fell apart, but when Tom Brady missed games due to injury or suspension, the Patriots not only continued to win games in his absence (14-6), but the offense didn’t even seem to skip a beat despite relying on unproven backup QBs. What if the real magic lies with Bill Belichick, widely considered one of the best NFL coaches of all time? What if Belichick is able to wring elite levels of performance out of non-elite QBs and Brady has just been the beneficiary for his entire 16 year NFL career?
If the first part of the “Bill Belichick is primarily responsible for Tom Brady’s success” equation is pulling elite performance from unheralded quarterbacks, the second part of the equation would be to see how those same quarterbacks perform upon leaving the the magical aura of Bill Belichick. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, Tom Brady has never played professional football for another head coach, but we do have a few examples of quarterbacks that have left.
It’s probably unfair to draw a sweeping conclusion on Ryan Mallett based on such a small sample size, but his career thus far illustrates my point quite nicely. Despite his professional career mostly consisting of playing in pre-season games, the Texans thought they saw enough out of Mallet during his time with the Patriots that they traded for him. He ended up playing so poorly that he essentially lost the starting job twice in one season before being traded to the Ravens.
Matt Cassel, Part Deux
Matt Cassel provides a bit of a larger sample size. As previously mentioned, he had a magical 2008 season despite not having thrown a meaningful pass in eight years. The next year, he was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs (perhaps an indication that Belichick knew he could easily find a replacement backup QB?) where he struggled, throwing for fewer yards and TDs along with more interceptions; the Chiefs won only 4 games. In fact, in the eight seasons since playing for Belichick, Matt Cassel has never won more games or thrown for more yards in a season, and only once thrown for more TDs. Except for a brief successful stint in Kansas City, Matt Cassel’s career after Belichick has sadly been largely one of a competent backup.
Just to be clear, I don’t mean to diminish the tremendous amount of success that Tom Brady and the Patriots have had. Few professional teams in any sport have had a more successful and dominant run over two consecutive decades. My quibble is one of attribution of credit. Is Tom Brady an all time great talent who would’ve led any team to success and with any coach? Could he have had consistent double digit win seasons under five different coaches and with two different teams? What are the chances he was just a late bloomer who had a relatively unremarkable high school and college career, and didn’t become great until playing at the highest level? Were the great Matt Cassel and Jimmy Garoppolo performances just flukes, or perhaps indicative of the advantages that Tom Brady may have benefited from during his entire professional career? Unless and until Tom Brady moves out of Belichick’s sphere of influence (and given how close Brady is to retirement, that seems less and less likely), we may never know.