The Week 9 schedule looks as good as any week this season, and the game of the week should be Rams at Saints. However, I am using this space (and the weekend’s extra hour) to clear up some things from late in the 2016 season that I wanted to write about, but never got around to doing. After all, this very well may be the second and last time there’s a game between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
The GOAT Discussion: Part I (Statistical Regret)
Naturally, the discussion has been who is the GOAT? Brady or Rodgers? More accomplished or more talented? I tend to avoid this particular debate, because I’d easily take Peyton Manning over both of them as no one played the position at as high of a level as consistently long as he did.
But that’s not the main focus today. I want to express some rare regret over posting a stat from January 2017. It’s hard to regret citing a fact, because I don’t feel responsible for how people choose to interpret them. However, if I knew what Patriots fans would do with this one, I never would have brought it up.
Leading into the 2016 NFC Championship Game (Green Bay at Atlanta), I was doing research on the Packers that showed this team was not good as an underdog, not good against high-scoring offenses, and as I’ve written about since 2011, not good at winning after falling behind. That led me to post the stat that said:
Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.
I wanted to make it clear how getting off to a good start was paramount for the Packers in Atlanta (Narrator: they didn’t.). I tweeted the stat of course, and in the months & years since, it randomly gets retweeted and liked at all hours of the day, typically by Patriots fans who use it as the ultimate dig against Rodgers and a sign of his anti-clutchness in comparison to Brady.
Beyond my own mentions, I see it often cited on Twitter from people who probably have never seen my work, and many who would be pissed if they did since I always choose to push fact over narrative for their King of Kings. Here’s a small sampling of tweet results for “Rodgers 0-35” from just the last day, and notice how none of them actually get all the details of the stat correct (like more than 1 point):
Basically, by arming NE fans with this stat, I feel like the US giving chemical weapons to Saddam, and I regret it more and more by the day.
The fact that people don’t even choose to update it just shows some of the damage I caused by getting this out there. For the record, it’s now 1-38 for Rodgers when trailing by more than 1 point in the fourth quarter against teams with a winning record thru 2017.
And that’s teams who finish the season with a winning record, so it’s thru 2017 only. Maybe the Bears game this year will be his second win, but the first was Dallas last year. Oddly enough, the Cowboys only finished 9-7 instead of 8-8 because the Eagles rested starters in Week 17. That’s one of the ways this stat can be totally unfair to the QB, just like citing their playoff W-L record often would be. These guys aren’t playing Andy Dalton postseason bad and earning winless records in a small number of games. It’s much more nuanced than that, but I’ve unfairly helped label Rodgers as the 0-35 guy.
So why post it in the first place? You have to remember that of Rodgers’ 10 4QC at the time, the first was a 1-point deficit against the 0-16 Lions (a game Detroit lost by 23). Then he had a pair of them against the otherwise 7-7 Bears of 2009, a bad debut year by Jay Cutler. His 6th was the first against an 8-8 team (2013 Bears) where the argument is valid that the Bears would have been 9-7 division winner had Rodgers not come back to beat them in Week 17. That’s fair, but someone like Peyton Manning had nine 4QC against teams that finished 8-8, but he still managed at least 17 of these comeback wins against winning teams. Then I noticed Rodgers had two comebacks from a 1-point deficit early in the quarter against 2014 Dallas and 2015 Seattle. Teams down 1 point early in 4Q often have a win probability > 50%, especially if they were at home and favored. So it was an interesting mix of comebacks from typically small margins against pretty average teams.
It’s a wild stat, and while it is a difficult situation, the average QB is going to win 10 percent of the time, and it’s more like 25 percent for the best. Even the aforementioned Dalton is 7-25-1 in that situation in his career thru 2017. So there is still some doubt to associate with Green Bay and comebacks, but Rodgers rarely is the main problem there.
The GOAT Discussion: Part II (Those Damn Super Bowl Collapses)
I also have to blame the 2016 Falcons and 2014 Seahawks for not running the ball in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowls and ruining the GOAT discussion on a national level. People think it ends with those games, both won by New England to give them a fourth and fifth title in the Brady-Belichick era.
I think they only add to the overwhelming evidence that Brady, who had shaky performances throughout both games, gets to win games other quarterbacks would lose based on factors out of their control. Did Brady will Malcolm Butler to intercept a pass at the 1-yard line for the costliest interception in NFL history? Did he will Robert Alford to drop an interception that turned into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman? Did he will the Patriots to win the coin toss in overtime and get the ball first? That came only after a stop in the last minute against Matt Ryan (something Russell Wilson couldn’t get the benefit of with 31 seconds left in 2012).
Some people are such simpleton ring counters that I think they’d still call Brady the GOAT even if the Seahawks and Falcons finished off the Patriots on the ground. But I do believe a lot of national perception would be different if the Patriots were riding a 5-game Super Bowl losing streak with no titles since the 2004 season. However, Butler made the play, so good for him. Dont’a Hightower had the crucial strip-sack on third-and-short to change the Atlanta game, and the Patriots sacked Matt Ryan again to knock the Falcons out of field goal range when they could have put it away by going up 11. So good for them too. They made the plays to get the win.
The problem is when people act like these comebacks were all Brady, or worse: that no other quarterback could do what he did. They act like he has some special sauce or gene that will elevate him in these spots over the likes of Rodgers, Manning and any other QB you want to name.
It’s really just a bunch of narrative-driven BS, so let’s look at the facts. Two weeks before SB LI, Rodgers faced this same Atlanta team and its lousy defense on the road in the NFC Championship Game. He was down 31-0 in the third quarter after Julio Jones embarrassed his defense with a long touchdown (wow, feels like he hasn’t scored since). Never mind the fact that Rodgers wasn’t as bad as Brady (pick-six in 2Q) to this point in the game against Atlanta. Never mind that Atlanta went up 10-0 after Green Bay started with a missed 41-yard field goal and fumble by the fullback deep in scoring territory. The fact is it was 31-0 and Rodgers was going to have to be amazing the rest of the way.
What did Rodgers do? He led three straight 75-yard touchdown drives against Atlanta. It may have been four in a row, but he sat out the last drive. Why? The Falcons were up 44-21. Despite Rodgers’ best efforts on those touchdown drives, his defense continued to give up two more touchdowns to Atlanta. You can’t come back without stopping them too, and that’s not on the quarterback. Brady’s defense stopped the Falcons on four straight drives, including the huge stops with sacks in the fourth quarter. Rodgers didn’t get that benefit, so no comeback.
Go back two years earlier to 2014: Rodgers was at Seattle for the NFC Championship Game. Again, tougher to play on the road than neutral field, but I digress. Rodgers didn’t have a good game, but that’s likely a win if GB just recovers an onside kick late. They didn’t and Wilson put the Seahawks ahead. Down 22-19, Rodgers still put the Packers in range for a game-tying field goal to go to overtime. He just never touched the ball again after the Seahawks scored a touchdown on the only drive of overtime.
Now imagine if the Falcons did that to Brady in the Super Bowl: a TD in overtime with him not getting the ball. We’d probably have a rule change by now because the outcry would be so massive. No one cares that it happened to Atlanta though. The GOAT won his fifth (after escaping a game-ending interception, mind you).
I’m also just realizing how close we were to Rodgers/Brady II in SB 49, which may have changed a lot of perception years ago, but alas, things happened. The Packers beat NE that year, by the way.
Let’s also use these ATL/SEA games and compare this to Manning, who faced the tougher version of the Seahawks in 2013. That defense didn’t feature the Legion of Boom with all the serious injuries that Brady saw them with in SB 49. They also didn’t lose Cliff Avril and Jeremy Lane to injuries after interceptions like with Brady. But again, I digress. Manning threw a pick-six in the first half of that game and was down 22-0. Not much unlike Brady, who threw a worse pick-six (wasn’t hit in motion like Manning) being down 21-0 to Atlanta. However, the Patriots settled for a field goal before halftime to make it 21-3. They knew Atlanta’s D was bad at holding leads and could be scored on. Down 22-0, Denver felt the need to score a touchdown now, especially with Seattle getting the ball to start the third. So they went for a fourth-and-short over the field goal, but Manning’s pass was knocked down. 22-0 was going to be a hell of a comeback effort against one of the best defenses this century, but Seattle made it a moot point after Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff for a TD to make it 29-0.
Now Manning would need the 2nd-largest comeback in NFL history, so good luck with that one. Manning actually had his best quarter that night in the third quarter, but they ran the ball on a third-and-10 before punting, Demaryius Thomas lost a fumble at the SEA 21, the Seahawks added another touchdown, and it was 36-0 before Manning finally got Denver on the board to end the quarter at 36-8. A 28-point 4QC has never been done in NFL history, but Manning never even got the chance after Seattle added yet another touchdown for a 43-8 final. Again, Rodgers and Manning didn’t get any stops when they needed them like Brady continued to get against what was actually the strongest offense in this little study (2016 Falcons with MVP QB Matt Ryan).
So while Brady gets praise and MVP honors for the 10-point 4QC against Seattle that only held up after Butler’s incredible pick, no one remembers that Manning played the 2014 Seahawks (without torn MCLs and labrums in the secondary) in Seattle that year. He was down 17-5 in the 4Q and threw two touchdown passes to force OT. He was down 20-12 in the final minute with 80 yards to go before leading a touchdown drive with a game-tying two-point conversion pass. That type of comeback drive (down 8 in final minute) had never been pulled off before in NFL history.
But no one remembers this drive because the Seahawks got the ball first in OT and they handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch in the red zone for a 6-yard TD to end it. We just covered four games for Manning and Rodgers where they never got the ball in overtime after tying late, or they didn’t get the stops on defense to make a huge comeback possible. But for Brady? He always gets that help, which is why the Patriots have this long-running dynasty.
We have seen playoff comebacks of this nature from several of the game’s recent greats, but the difference in winning or losing is rarely ever about the QB himself.
Peyton Manning led an 18-point comeback win against Brady’s Patriots in 2006 AFC Championship Game, which was the biggest comeback in a championship game until SB LI. Manning also came up a field goal short (missed terribly by Mike Vanderjagt) of overtime against the Steelers in 2005 after trailing 21-3 in the fourth quarter.
Ben Roethlisberger erased a 28-10 4Q deficit against the 2007 Jaguars to take a late 29-28 lead, but his defense allowed a game-winning field goal in the final minute after David Garrard converted a 4th-down scramble (holding penalty missed).
Drew Brees has twice erased 17-0 deficits on the road in the playoffs against the 49ers (2011) and Vikings (2017). He put his team ahead in the final 100 seconds in both games, but watched his defense give up touchdown drives to Alex Smith and Case Keenum.
Don’t forget Atlanta has a history of blown leads. In 2012, the aforementioned Russell Wilson led a 20-point 4QC in Atlanta to take a late 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left, but his defense still blew it in that small amount of time. A week later, Colin Kaepernick helped the 49ers erase a 17-point deficit to beat Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
In his first playoff game, Aaron Rodgers led three 4Q touchdown drives in Arizona in 2009 to force overtime. Granted, he did miss an open Greg Jennings in overtime and gave up a game-ending fumble-six, but he still at least got the game to overtime on a day where Kurt Warner shredded the defense for 45 points.
Andrew Luck has already led a 28-point comeback win in the playoffs, beating the 2013 Chiefs 45-44.
I just stuck to Brady’s peers here, but Joe Montana also once led a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the 1983 NFC Championship Game by throwing three touchdown passes to tie the game. It’s just unfortunate that the Redskins hogged the ball and got away with a shaky pass interference call to set up their game-winning field goal to advance to the Super Bowl.
If I see QBs in need of a late-game drive to win, I expect Brady will get the win more often than anyone. However, my expectations of that are due to the overall machine that NE has under the Faustian Belichick rather than the quarterback himself. If it’s a Manning or Rodgers team, I’m expecting how one of their teammates is going to screw the latest game up. That difference in help is the main difference between these quarterbacks, because individual QB skill is certainly not driving these results.
The GOAT Discussion: Part III (Help)
We know ring counters ruin most sports talk, but it’s always amazed me when people bring up the eye test to label Brady as the GOAT. I claim to have bad eyes, but I’m pretty sure my football vision has been good enough to see that there are more talented quarterbacks in this era. Let’s add Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing king, to this discussion.
Brady doesn’t have the accuracy of his peers, especially Brees. Brady doesn’t command the offense from the line, practically serving as the coordinator like Manning did in his career. Brady doesn’t have the mobility and improv skills of Rodgers. He’s got a hell of a QB sneak though.
It’s 2018, yet people still seem to define a QB’s help as his receivers. The fact is a great QB will elevate his receivers by producing better stats for them and help them make Pro Bowls and get paid if they hit free agency. He’ll keep pressures and sacks down since those stats are more reflective of QB play than offensive line play. He’ll get his offensive coordinators hired to more important jobs. He’ll make the whole operation run smoother, and while Brady does those things, it’s hard to say with any actual evidence that he does them better than Manning, Rodgers or Brees.
I can write a whole book about this part, but let’s keep it simple for today. The real #1 advantage in New England has never been at quarterback, but at head coach. Brady simply gets more help from always having Bill Belichick, a defensive genius who has also kept the team ahead of the curve on the other sides of the ball.
Peyton Manning went to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches, a feat likely to never be repeated. Without him, those coaches have often been fired from their jobs with subpar records. But he could win 12+ games with just about anyone as he was the ultimate coach on the field. Despite mostly having defensive-minded coaches, Manning rarely had a good defense. That’s the edge for Brady. He actually has a defensive-minded coach who keeps the points down on that side of the ball.
Brees succeeded in San Diego first with Marty Schottenheimer as his head coach. Sean Payton has been a godsend to him offensively, but Brees proved in 2012 when Payton was suspended the whole year that the offense could still run through him just as well. Payton’s problem is that he’s Don Coryell with a ring in the way he has struggled to put together a defense to help Brees.
Mike McCarthy has been the head coach of every NFL start by Rodgers, but many have noticed his tactics have grown stale over the last four years as the Packers lost their league-best wide receiver depth. He hasn’t been an innovator on the level of recent hires like Sean McVay and Doug Pederson, nor has he taken the game to another level to keep up with the times a la Andy Reid and Belichick. When Rodgers went down last year, the offense looked terrible for the most part. We know that’s not the case when Brady is out in New England. Rodgers is saving McCarthy his job, and if they miss the playoffs this year, it might be time up for Mike.
It’s not as sexy as Rodgers 0-35, but let’s state some more facts that people should know about these quarterbacks.
Brady (11) has had more top 10 scoring defenses than Manning (four), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined.
While not as important as defense, the help on special teams is even more advantageous for Brady.
Brady has had 12 top eight finishes in special teams DVOA compared to one for Rodgers, Brees and Manning combined. We’ll see if the 2018 Saints can finish that high, but don’t be surprised if New England finishes high again for DEF and ST this year. Remember, they have more AFC East games coming.
I got through 3500 words of this before even mentioning that Brady’s had the biggest divisional advantage over any quarterback in the 32-team era (2002-2018). Yeah, that helps too when the best quarterback you have to compete with in 17 years is Chad Pennington, or when the best coach is Rex Ryan. But I’m not even getting into that today as I want to wrap this up now.
The GOAT Discussion: Conclusion (Some Guys Have All the Luck)
While I regret my Rodgers 0-35 stat, it has to pain Green Bay fans who are in my corner when it comes to the lack of help for him to hear what Rodgers said about the GOAT this week. In talking about Brady, Rodgers said “He’s got five championships, so that ends most discussions, I think.”
Except it shouldn’t end them, Aaron. I don’t know why, but the football gods always seem to grace a lesser quarterback with the most help, which leads to the most championships. We saw it with Bart Starr over Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw over Roger Staubach, Joe Montana over Dan Marino, and I think you can argue Brady over all three of Manning/Rodgers/Brees in this era. The only one there who I think still had a good argument as the better quarterback was Montana over Marino given Montana’s continued statistical greatness and success after Bill Walsh retired. Marino’s big stat years peaked early and he had a lot of playoff losses that were routs.
But when so many quarterbacks are doing great things statistically year after year, we’re doing them a great disservice to let a series of coin flips in the playoffs tell us who is the best. Plays where the quarterback wasn’t even on the field are writing these legacies, but that’s why I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing for 15 years: analyzing the impact of the team around the quarterback via statistical evidence to explain why games are won and lost. The other side will continue to do what they’ve done for 15 years: poorly explain why the quarterback who doesn’t have any statistical edge over his peers deserves the most credit for why his team wins the most.
All Rodgers can do this week is play his best to try getting a rare road win over the Patriots and make their path to a top seed harder. This defense has some holes he should be able to exploit, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the game come down to a final drive. At the very least, Ty Montgomery won’t be there to defy his coaches and fumble a kickoff to deny Rodgers a chance again like in Los Angeles last week. Can you imagine that happening to Brady’s team? No, and therein lies the real difference.
Now excuse me while I crank up some of the GOAT.
NFL Week 9 Predictions
I had one of my best weeks ever last week (10-4 ATS, 13-1 SU). Having faith in the Giants cost me from a perfect 14-0 week, but not again this season on the Giants. I already started 0-1 this week after having bad expectations for Nick Mullens, but underestimating just how little Oakland cares right now.
Still reeling from my lock last week (Bengals -4) blowing that late lead to the Bucs and only winning by 3. This week, I like an underdog teaser with PIT +9, ATL +8, NO+8 and GB +12. I also feel like the Browns could give the Chiefs a real scare in Cleveland with Gregg Williams replacing Hue Jackson.