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Is Brady playing better than any QB ever?

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 27, 2010 02:41 PM

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The short, subjective answer to the question posed in the headline:

Ab-so-lutely.

So there. Case closed. If you disagree, you are either Archie Manning or prefer the Brady from the explosive 50-touchdown 2007 season to the killing-them-softly version of this season. Which, all facetiousness aside, is fine.

Statistically, Brady's 2007 remains the greatest in NFL history, slightly better than Peyton Manning's 2004 season when he threw 49 touchdown passes.

But this -- what is happening right now with this amazing quarterback and a mesmerizing, eerily familiar team full of possibilities -- is just as fun, and more impressive.

You know the numbers: An NFL-record 319 passes without an interception. Twenty-three touchdown passes since his last pick. And then there's the coolest number of all, courtesy of WEEI's Kirk Minihane on Twitter. Since Brady's last interception Oct. 17 against Baltimore, the Manning boys -- Peyton, Eli, and hell, include Cooper and Archie if you want -- have been picked off 31 times.

Brady has thrown 34 touchdowns with just four interceptions. According to our extensive yet rudimentary research, some of what he is accomplishing this season is as unprecedented as his feats in '07. Consider: Before this season, no quarterback has ever thrown 25 or more TD passes with five or fewer picks. Heck, only five had thrown 25 or more touchdowns with seven or fewer interceptions:

  • Brett Favre, 2009: 33 TDs, 7 INTs. He really had an amazing year, right up until the moment he hit Tracy Porter in the numbers.
  • Aaron Rodgers, 2009: 30, 7.
  • Vinny Testaverde, 1998: 29, 7.
  • Drew Brees, 2004: 27, 7. Easy to forget he was so good as a Charger.
  • Steve Young, 1992: 25, 7.

And Brady this year. That's it. Whoops, wait, there's one more.

Coincidentally -- or perhaps a bit ironically, given that this is the quarterback who got his first chance to play since high school only after Brady was injured in '08 -- that group added a new member yesterday. Matt Cassel joined the club when the threw three TDs without a pick to improve his season numbers to 27 TDs and 5 INTs. If you're a Patriots fan who watched him grow during the Bradyless 2008 season, you have to be happy for him, and perhaps a little surprised as well.

It's extraordinarily exclusive company, for some names you might expect to see on that list -- Marino, Elway, Manning, Montana, the game's true legends and icons -- never gained admittance. For further context, we matched up some of Brady's key stats this year and in his career against those of the five other best quarterbacks we've ever seen play:

Biggest gap between TD and INT totals in a season:

marinodanfin.jpgBrady: 42. 50 TDs, 8 INTs in 2007.

Joe Montana: 18, three times. 28/10 in '84, 31/13 in '87, 26/8 in '89.

John Elway: 16. 27/11 in 1997 at age 37. I hope he thanked Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey in his Hall of Fame speech along with Terrell Davis. It was also Elway's career high in TD passes, a number Brady has surpassed five times.

Dan Marino: 31. During his legendary 1984 season, Marino threw a then-record 48 TD passes against 17 interceptions. I'm willing to bet he got all Tom Coughlin on a receiver after every one of those 17 picks.

Steve Young: 25. Our requisite southpaw threw for 35 TDs and just 10 INTs in 1994 for another stacked Niners team.

Peyton Manning: 39. 49 TDs, 10 INTs during the '04 season, which, all snark aside, is the best season an NFL quarterback not named Tom Brady has ever had. Yet . . . think Brady would trade his Super Bowl ring from that season for Peyton's numbers? I think we know better than that, don't we?

Lowest interception total in a season (300 attempts minimum)

elwayfinntatb.jpgBrady: Eight in 578 attempts, 2007.

Montana: Eight in 386 attempts, 1989.

Elway: Ten, three times. In a league-high 551 attempts in 1993, in494 attempts in '94, and in 356 in '98.

Marino: Nine in 373 attempts, 1996. Brady's career high in interceptions is 14, which he's done three times. Marino threw more than 14 picks in a season 10 times. That's a lot of yelling and finger pointing. You think Duper and Clayton wore earplugs? And yes, I am going to beat this Marino-yells-at-his-receivers angle to death. It's what I do. It's who I am.

Young: Six, twice. In 316 attempts in 1996 and 356 attempts in 1997. If you wanted to, you could make the argument that his peak was better than Montana's. I'd disagree . . . but you could build a case.

Manning: Nine in 557 attempts, 2006.

Highest passer rating in a single season:

youngstevefinn.jpgBrady: 117.2 in 2007. Second-best all-time. His current season would put him sixth.

Montana: 112.4 in 1989. Fourth-best all-time.

Elway: 93.0 in his final season, '98. Brady's rating for his career is 95.0.

Marino: 108.9 in 1984, the season he and the Dolphins lost to Montana and the Niners in his lone Super Bowl appearance.

Young: 112.8 in 1994. Third-best all-time.

Manning: 121 in 2004. NFL record. One-hundred-and-21 is also the number of commercials he did that season, I believe. Also a record.

Brady's current passer rating of 109.8 would be good for sixth-best all time, behind the aforementioned seasons of himself, Manning, Montana, and Young as well as the fifth-best single-season passer rating of all time, which belongs to . . . Daunte Culpepper?! Yep, that Daunte Culpepper, late of the UFL's Sacramento Mountain Lions. During his 2004 season with the Vikings, he threw 39 TD passes against just 11 picks. Randy Moss sure made a lot of flawed quarterbacks -- Randall Cunningham, Jeff George -- look spectacular in his youth. In 2007, he helped make Brady transcendent.

Right now, though, in the season of Moss's bizarre and necessary departure, the truth is in the numbers and the aesthetics: Tom Brady is better than he has ever been. Which means he's better than anyone else has ever been, too.

* * *

montanajoefinn.jpgWhen we watch Brady at his best, it's impossible not to recognize some of the traits and characteristics of the quarterback he grew up idolizing as a boy in the Bay Area, Joe Montana. The incredible accuracy, of course. And that poise, that uncanny sense to stay calm and focused, to take that subtle sidestep and hit the open man when all hell is breaking loose in the form of a ferocious pass rusher bearing down with menace on his mind. I can't think of two great quarterbacks with more in common than these two. (OK, maybe Dan Fouts and Drew Bledsoe. But I said great, and besides, Bledsoe didn't have an awesome beard.) And that's never more evident than what they accomplished in their age-33 seasons.

Check out Brady's numbers and accomplishments this year, then match them up Montana's 1989 season. Despite missing three games, Montana threw 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, completed 70.2 percent of his passes, threw for 3,521 yards (270.2 per game), and had the best rating of his career, 112.4. He was named the NFL MVP. Sound like anyone you know?

It should be noted that these Patriots, as accomplished as they are and may continue to be, would require the most brilliant scheme of Bill Belichick's career to beat those '89 Niners, who put themselves on the short list of the greatest teams in NFL history that season.

They went 14-2, and their two losses, to the Rams and Packers, came by a total of five points. They led the NFL in points (442), then rampaged through the playoffs, beating the Vikings, Rams, and Broncos by a combined score of 126-26.

It's worth noting that Montana, despite suffering a devastating hit by the Giants' Leonard Marshall in the 1990 postseason and missing all of 1991 and most of '92 with an elbow injury, continued to play to an extremely high level up to his retirement at age 38.

Brady, of course, has often said he wants to play until he's at least 40. Based on what Montana, his historical doppelganger, accomplished late in his career, who's to say he can't?

* * *

After all of this talk about his greatness, it's -- well, whiny, I guess -- to suggest Brady doesn't get his due. Despite the countless highlights provided by the Michael Vick Redemption Tour, he's a lock for the MVP award this year, something one of the more notable talking heads, Boomer Esiason, emphasized on WEEI this morning.

Still . . . let's fire up the whine machine anyway.

It is annoying to hear all of the plaudits heaved Peyton Manning's way for the miracles he's working playing with -- let's see, I think it's the three blind mice at receiver, a couple of running backs who suffer from polio, and a huddle filled with Culpepper's former UFL teammates, and the occasional beer vendor who knows how to run a go route. (This is the point where Blair White is usually cited as a punch line, while the existence of Reggie Wayne is overlooked.)

Maybe I'm still ticked that Manning was ranked 13 spots ahead of Brady on the NFL Network's 100 greatest players list -- actually, make that yes, I'm definitely still ticked -- but it's because the reality of the careers of the two greatest quarterbacks of this generation is this: Brady has beaten Manning with lesser firepower and broken his records when he had more.

Manning is an all-time great; Brady is better.

And the argument can be made with ease that winning with two street free-agents at running back, two rookie tight ends, a scar-kneed receiver for which might Seattle had no use, another scar-kneed receiver who had some subtle fits and starts during his comeback, and isn't what Brady has accomplished with this crew even more impressive yet again than what Manning has done with his?

* * *

Part of the reason that we appreciate the season-in-progress for Brady and the Patriots so much is because the ending to last season suggested that these days of efficient victories and selfless championship-level play may have been gone for good.

It's interesting to look at the game book from the Patriots' embarrassing 33-14 loss to the Ravens in the playoffs in January and consider the names that are no longer on the team.

Moss . . . Maroney . . . Thomas . . . Springs . . . Burgess . . . Watson . . . Thomas . . . Thomas . . . Thomas . . .

It's even more interesting when you consider Brady's blunt diagnosis of the team's downfall during his press conference after that Ravens whupping:

"There are some things that we didn't do well over the course of the year and I think the things we didn't do well today - a lot of [reasons] of why we've been successful and mental toughness and leadership and discipline and commitment and all those things that we displayed at times and certainly didn't display at other times. I think that's something that we all reflect on and individually, that's what we have to make more of a commitment to each other. I think [for the] guys that are going to be here next year - the 2010 version of the team - it's going to be something we can learn from this year."

I'd say they learned. Those who are still here, anyway. Those who are fortunate enough to be playing with a quarterback playing the position as well as it has ever been played.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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