When you say someone is the greatest player in the history of their sport, what you probably mean is that they are the best of their generation. Changes in rules/strategy/league size/player pool/equipment/etc. make it difficult to truly compare Mike Trout to Ted Williams, or Michael Jordan to Bill Russell. Even Jordan vs. LeBron James, the signature sports argument of the decade, is thornier than its combatants would like to admit. It has been “only” 20 years since M.J. broke Bryon Russell’s ankles, but Jordan’s NBA would be unrecognizable to James and vice versa.
It is with that paragraph-length caveat that I say I find it uncontroversial to call Tom Brady the greatest player in NFL history. We will never know how Brady might have fared in Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana’s world. What we do know is that he has dominated his time like no one else has in 99 years of NFL football. No quarterback has started more Super Bowl winners.
Brady has carved his likeness into football’s Mount Rushmore at the crossroads of two eras. Titles 1-3 came in the dying days of the run the ball/stop the run NFL. In Brady’s first six seasons, he exceeded 3,800 yards only once and never threw for more than 28 touchdowns. 3,800 yards would have been 11th in the league in 2017.
But as sub-60 percent passers and 300-carry running backs became rarities instead of commonplace, Brady was reborn for an age of Peyton Mannings and Drew Breeses. Randy Moss’ 2007 arrival was the big bang of Brady 2.0 Since, Brady has won all three of his MVP awards while holding the single-season touchdown record for six years and surpassing 4,000 yards passing in 8-of-9 complete campaigns. (“Complete” in this instance excludes Brady’s injury-ruined 2008 and suspension-shortened 2016.)
Which brings us to Brady's opponent this week on Sunday Night Football: Aaron Rodgers (Packers at Patriots, Sunday at 8:20 pm ET; watch on NBC and the NBC Sports app). Whereas Brady’s career has long been colored by the Brady/Manning debate, Brady/Rodgers has generated considerably less chatter. That’s partly because they have played head to head only one time. Rodgers was a backup in 2006 and injured in 2010. When the two finally squared off in 2014, Rodgers’ Packers narrowly won at Lambeau Field.
Again, amidst the tangled reality of cross-era comparisons, I believe “Tom Brady” is the most satisfactory answer to the imperfect question of “greatest player of all time.”
So I will ask something different: Is Brady the best quarterback since Aaron Rodgers came onto the scene? This is where it gets knotty. If your sole criteria is championships, Brady has Rodgers beat. The Patriots have been to four Super Bowls since Rodgers became starter in 2008, winning two. Rodgers’ Packers have made it to only one championship game, beating the Steelers in 2010-11.
Box scores are where Rodgers states his case. We will throw out 2008 since Rodgers was a rookie and Brady was sidelined with a torn ACL. Since 2009, Rodgers has made a numbers-based argument that no other quarterback can match. Narrowing the list to the 16 signal callers who have made at least 100 starts since 2009, Rodgers has posted truly staggering statistics. Drew Brees leads in raw scores, but Rodgers’ 6.5 touchdown percentage is 0.6 ahead of anyone else. Russell Wilson is second at 5.9. Brady is fourth at 5.6. That’s despite the fact that Rodgers’ 1.42 interception percentage is the lowest of the group. So not only has Rodgers thrown touchdowns at a higher rate than any of his peers, he has also been picked off with the least frequency. To pair touchdown production that prolific with that kind of ball security is unprecedented.
Since 2009, Rodgers also leads the pack in quarterback rating at 105.2. Brady’s 100.7 is third. Yards per attempt? Rodgers leads at 7.94. Brady’s 7.69 is sixth. Rodgers has the third-best completion percentage at 65.14, Brady’s 64.75 is sixth. Brady does have the advantage in yards per game at 283.2 compared to Rodgers’ 273.8, though neither player is close to Brees’ league-leading 309.9. To remind, this is amongst quarterbacks to make at least 100 starts since 2009, Rodgers’ second season in place of Brett Favre and Brady’s first full year with Rodgers as a competitor. In graph form:
Ranks Amongst The 16 Quarterbacks To Make At Least 100 Starts Since 2009
|Player||TD Rate||INT Rate||YPA||YPG||QB Rating|
|Brady||5.6 (4th)||1.49 (2nd)||7.69 (6th)||283.2 (3rd)||100.7 (3rd)|
|Rodgers||6.5 (1st)||1.42 (1st)||7.94 (1st)||273.8 (6th)||105.2 (1st)|
Going by more advanced stats, Rodgers is a bonkers +300.6 on Pro Football Focus since 2009. Brady is an equally-absurd 303.7 but has played 15 more games. To put that in better perspective, Rodgers has averaged a +2.26 rating on a weekly basis since 2009, Brady 2.05. Brady does have Rodgers beat in QBR over the past 10 years, posting nine of the 100-highest single-season marks in NFL history. Rodgers has “just” six top-100 campaigns. The highest ever is Brady’s 88.5 from 2007, which is not included in the comparison.
Eschewing the admittedly arbitrary 2009-18 timeframe, Rodgers’ 103.6 career quarterback rating is No. 1 all time. Brady’s 97.6 is third. Rodgers’ 7.9 yards per attempt is tied for fifth. Brady’s 7.5 is tied for 26th. Rodgers’ 6.3 touchdown percentage is tied for sixth. Brady’s 5.5 is tied for 23rd. Rodgers’ 1.5 interception percentage is the best ever. Brady’s 1.8 is tied with Colin Kaepernick for second best. Rodgers’ 64.9 completion percentage is eighth, Brady’s 64.0 is 13th. Again, in graph form:
Career Statistics And All-Time Ranks
|Player||TD Rate||INT Rate||YPA||YPG||QB Rating|
|Brady||5.5 (23rd)||1.8 (2nd)||7.51 (26th)||261.9 (7th)||97.6 (3rd)|
|Rodgers||6.3 (6th)||1.5 (1st)||7.87 (5th)||261.4 (9th)||103.6 (1st)|
Aaron Rodgers is the greatest statistical player of the most explosive statistical age in NFL history. Brady is an unparalleled, era-spanning dominator who has stacked trophies on top of rarified numbers while displaying jaw-dropping longevity. Rodgers deserves the top spot for his time as starter. Brady’s overall résumé cannot be touched, by Rodgers or anyone else.
You can say my parameters are random and my conclusions a hedge. You would not necessarily be wrong. I just think they are the most honest answers to questions we cannot resist but also never truly answer. Both Brady and Rodgers are the best. It just depends on what we are talking about.