In Week 4, the NFC West takes center stage with two standout matchups in the late afternoon slot: Cardinals/Rams and Seahawks/49ers. These are the first division games of the year in what is shaping up to be the best division race in the league just like we expected coming into 2021.
But the Seahawks (1-2), winners of last year’s race, are in danger of slipping to 1-3 for the first time in the Russell Wilson era. While Wilson has some impressive stats again this season, he has the lowest QBR ranking – 55.6 is only good for 15th – of the four quarterbacks in the NFC West, and the Seahawks (15th) are the only NFC West offense not ranked in the top eight in points per drive through three games.
Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray both have their teams at 3-0, top four in points, and both are top five in QBR with Stafford (82.6) leading the whole NFL so far. If they keep this up, we might see multiple quarterbacks in the NFC West get MVP votes before Wilson ever gets one in his career.
It’s almost like Wilson is becoming the forgotten man in the division that he has been the top star of for a decade now.
But this is nothing new for Wilson. Ever since his rookie year in 2012, he has had to share the spotlight with several quarterbacks in his division as they led their teams to great success too. This has made Wilson’s path to the Hall of Fame a bumpier ride than most of his great peers.
Russell Wilson vs. His Peers vs. Their Division Rivals
It would be wrong to say that Russell Wilson is the only top quarterback to face a real challenger from every team in his division in the last decade.
Ben Roethlisberger faced the Ravens (2014), Bengals (2015), and Browns (2020) in wild card playoff games in the last seven seasons, losing two of them at home. Aaron Rodgers had his toughest division competition early in his career when the 2009 Vikings had Brett Favre and the 2010 Bears gave Jay Cutler a great defense. But in the last decade, he has seen playoff seasons from the Lions with Matthew Stafford, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater/Case Keenum’s one-year wonder/Kirk Cousins, and a couple Chicago seasons when Mitchell Trubisky managed Matt Nagy’s offense to something better than 1 net passing yard.
In the NFC South, Drew Brees watched Cam Newton (2015 Panthers) and Matt Ryan (2016 Falcons) win MVP and lose the Super Bowl, while the Saints lost to Tom Brady and the 2020 Buccaneers in the final game of Brees’ career, a pivotal divisional round game that launched Tampa Bay on the path to a Super Bowl win.
However, Wilson has experienced multiple runs and at least one elite season from his NFC West counterparts in addition to some strong quarterback seasons and some of the most successful new coaching hires in the NFL in the last decade.
San Francisco: The 49ers were in the middle of a three-year run to the NFC Championship Game under head coach Jim Harbaugh when Wilson joined the division in 2012. Led by the dynamic Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers lost the Super Bowl that year and lost a tight game to Wilson’s Seahawks in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Things were bad after that, but after hiring Kyle Shanahan and acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, the 49ers rebounded with a great 13-3 season in 2019, clinching the No. 1 seed in the season finale after stopping Wilson’s Seahawks at the 1-yard line. The 49ers blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.
Arizona: The least successful team in the division, but the Cardinals won at least 10 games in every season from 2013 to 2015 under head coach Bruce Arians. He had a good thing going when Carson Palmer was healthy, and in 2015, Palmer had what I will always say was an MVP season, leading the Cardinals to a 14-4 record and the NFC Championship Game where they lost to Carolina. Things declined after, but now with Kliff Kingsbury and 2019 No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, the Cardinals could be heading back to the playoffs as long as Murray stays healthy. He had a great start to 2020 before his health diminished his play in the second half.
Los Angeles: The Rams were in rough shape with Jeff Fisher as the coach when Wilson joined the league, but they started acquiring talent like the best defender in the game, Aaron Donald. Once they drafted Jared Goff No. 1 overall and hired Sean McVay as the head coach, the team immediately took off. McVay has never had a losing record and is looking to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Goff had great seasons in 2017-18 and the Rams were in the Super Bowl in 2018 before losing 13-3 to the Patriots. They leaned on their defense last year to make the playoffs and beat Wilson’s Seahawks in Seattle in the wild card round. Now they have the top-ranked offense with Matthew Stafford poised to have a career year. It’s just another huge challenge for Seattle.
Outside of 2016 when the Seahawks won the NFC West with ease, Wilson has always had to deal with at least another 10-win team in his division. Outside of 2016 and last year when the Rams finished 10-6 thanks to a late loss to the Seahawks, Wilson has always had to deal with an 11-win team or better.
Since 2002’s divisional realignment, the NFC West is the only division where every team has won at least 13 games in a season. That is thanks to the Seahawks (2013), Cardinals (2015), Rams (2018), and 49ers (2019) all finishing 13-3. The Lions, Bengals, Jets, Buccaneers, Texans, and Browns (AAFC excluded) have never won 13 games in their franchise’s history, so it never could have happened for the two North divisions, the two South divisions, or any version of the AFC East. That also disqualifies the defunct AFC and NFC Central divisions. It technically has happened for the original NFC West (49ers/Rams/Falcons/Saints), but the Saints didn’t hit 13 wins until the Brees era (2009), or well after realignment and long after Joe Montana and Steve Young retired.
In fact, the only other divisions that can say all four of their teams have won 13 games before are the AFC West and NFC East. Given that the Raiders haven’t done it since 1976 and the Chiefs didn’t do it until 1995, no one has a career that spanned that long to say they were in a division where all four did it. The Seahawks also used to be part of that AFC West and didn’t win 13 games until 2005 in the NFC West.
As for the NFC East, it hasn’t happened for the Giants since 1990 and for Washington since 1991. Dallas first won 13 games in 1992, so you might think, hey, this probably happened to a young Troy Aikman or an old Phil Simms. Nope, because the Eagles never won 13 games until 2004, or after they were long retired.
This puts Wilson and his division in unprecedented territory as it confirms he is the only quarterback in NFL history to play in a division where every team actively won 13 games in a season. Goff and Garoppolo weren’t in the NFC West prior to 2016 when Seattle and Arizona did it, and Palmer was retired before the Rams and 49ers did it. So there you have it. History.
If Only Wilson Had Tom Brady’s Division Luck…
Now compare this to Tom Brady, the LOAT. His first full season as a starter happened to coincide with realignment in 2002 when the Patriots were put in a revamped AFC East with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, or as I like to call them, The Three Stooges. From 2002 to 2019, The Three Stooges managed just two 11-5 seasons to challenge Brady in the division. One was by the 2008 Dolphins, a team that shocked the Patriots with the Wildcat in the year Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. The other was the 2010 Jets, who beat Brady in the regular season to get one of their 11 wins, and then shocked him at home in the playoffs in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
But for two decades, the best The Three Stooges could do was 11-5, the best they could do at quarterback was Even-Years Chad Pennington, and the best they could do at head coach was probably Rex Ryan. Flash forward to Brady joining the 2020 NFC South. The Falcons and Panthers had two of the worst seasons in NFL history in close games. The Saints with Brees were a worthy foe and they swept Brady to finish 12-4, the first time Brady was ever swept by a division rival. This also means of the only two 11+ win teams Brady’s ever had in his division, he was complicit in them winning that many games. Compare this to Peyton Manning, who swept the 2003 Titans (12-4), 2005 Jaguars (12-4), 2007 Jaguars (11-5), and 2013 Chiefs (11-5) but still watched them win 11-12 games. Wilson was able to hang one loss on the 2015 Cardinals and 2019 49ers. He was swept by the 2018 Rams despite scoring 31 points in both games. Let’s just say not anyone could beat the 2018 Rams by a final of 13-3.
Brady’s division now consists of an Atlanta team that lost all its offensive mojo after hiring Arthur Smith. Matt Ryan has gotten off to the worst start of his career in 2021. With Brees retired, the Saints are weirdly leaning on defense with Jameis Winston throwing for 387 yards in three full games. The Panthers are 3-0 and have never trailed this season, but only time will tell if Sam Darnold, an old foe from The Three Stooges, will turn back to a pumpkin. Go figure, the AFC East only got another elite passer (Josh Allen) the second Brady moved to the other conference.
Wilson and Brady are certainly on two different ends of the spectrum for division rivals. What if Brady had to deal with this NFC West that Wilson has been in since 2012? He is only 5-6 as a starter against those teams in the Wilson era, including playoffs and including Sunday’s loss to the Rams. I plotted every quarterback with at least five starts against Wilson’s NFC West since 2012 through 2020, looking at their win percentage and their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A).
Wilson has a better winning percentage (.598) against his division than Rodgers (.440), Brees (.474), Brady (.500), and Peyton (.400). Wilson (6.26) and Brady (6.24) are almost identical in ANY/A, though Wilson is not that great statistically here compared to his other top peers. Of course, he’s played 56 division games against teams who know him well compared to 25 for Rodgers, 19 for Brees, 10 for Brady, and five each for Manning and Mahomes. On the other hand, Wilson never has to play his own defense, which has been the strongest of the bunch in this division since 2012, which also explains why the other quarterbacks have lesser records and stats. But it’s an amusing chart.
I have better, including this look at how quarterbacks have done against Brady’s Three Stooges in the AFC East from 2002 to 2019. Can you notice anyone who stands out?
Yep, that’s Russell Wilson (8.16) and Alex Smith (7.58) as the only quarterbacks with an ANY/A above 7.5. Brady’s record is 81-21 (.794), but are we really going to pretend his top peers couldn’t replicate that in this division or even improve on it given those ugly upset losses in Miami? The guy once lost 21-0 to Joey Harrington.
I am proud of these next two charts since they visualize what I have been saying for years about these divisions. This looks at 2002-2020 for Wilson, Brady, Peyton, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger while excluding the full year those quarterbacks missed for injury. The entry that is their full name is every game that quarterback played in 2002-2020. The other entries show what the starting quarterbacks for each division rival cumulatively did in every game while the quarterback was in that division, so that would be the AFC South teams for Peyton in 2002-10 and the AFC West teams in 2012-15. The x-axis is win% and the y-axis is ANY/A.
That cluster of The Three Stooges as losing teams with bad quarterback play that only the Browns 2.0 can rival is perfect.
Finally, here is a similar chart that sums up each quarterback’s division rivals into one entry.
As I have been saying for years, no quarterback has had a bigger advantage over his division rivals than Brady, and it’s due to a lack of competition rather than his play being that much better. Brady ranks third in ANY/A here and is only 0.01 above Brees in fourth, and Brady’s division has the worst win rate (.435) and ANY/A (5.24). Wilson’s division has the best record (.496) and second-highest ANY/A (5.88) behind only Brees (6.05).
You cannot deny that the careers of Wilson and Brady will forever be linked. Super Bowl XLIX was the most pivotal game in the NFL in the last dozen years. The Seahawks were a yard away from repeating and possibly being the next dynasty, while bringing the ring count to 3-2 for Brady vs. Wilson and dropping the Patriots to 3-3 in Super Bowls under Belichick and Brady. Then a call for a pass came in and the rest is history. Brady has won three more Super Bowls since and the Seahawks have not even been back to the NFC Championship Game.
In the lonesome crowded NFC West, Russell Wilson is starting to sound like Cowboy Dan.
I got mine but I want more.
With the way the NFC West is developing, and the Seahawks are decaying under Pete Carroll, we may never see Wilson past the second round of the playoffs again, or at least not with Seattle. Maybe he can replace Rodgers in Green Bay some day, a return to Wisconsin.
Also, I didn’t even mention the potential of Trey Lance in San Francisco.
In Part I, I looked at the common breakdown for any Tom Brady statistic or split. He’ll have the best record, but he won’t have the best statistics. When looking at how he does relative to his top peers in games split by points allowed, the only key range where he excels is with 26-32 points allowed. From 0-25 points and anything above 32, Brady does not impress over his peers. His sweet spot is in that 26-32 range where teams struggle to win but it’s still not a hopeless endeavor (NFL average win rate since 2001: 25.7%).
Why is this the case? Let’s continue but be sure to read Part I first if you haven’t, because it explains why 26-32 is a key range. It also shows how Brady faces fewer games with 30 or 40-plus points allowed relative to his peers.
Tom Brady’s 26-32 Range Voodoo Exposed
As a refresher for those who skipped Part I, Brady is easily outpacing his peers in starts from 2001 to 2020 where his team allowed 26-32 points:
Tom Brady: 37-31 (.544)
Peyton Manning: 21-28 (.429)
Drew Brees: 29-48 (.377)
Aaron Rodgers: 13-24-1 (.355)
Ben Roethlisberger: 12-29 (.293)
Given that Brady’s lone high-scoring game that he left early for playoff rest (28-26 vs. 2005 Dolphins) is included here, he’s more like 37-30 (.552). To be fair, Manning should also have three playoff rest games removed (2005 Seahawks, 2009 Jets and 2009 Bills) to make him 21-25 (.457), or still nearly 10 percentage points behind. Rodgers should have two games removed for early exit after injury (2013 Bears, 2018 Lions) to make him 13-22-1 (.375). Brees should have one injury (2019 Rams) and one playoff rest (2006 Panthers) exclusion to make him 29-46 (.387). Roethlisberger should have one injury exclusion (2019 Seahawks) to make him 12-28 (.300).
Still, this all comes despite a lack of statistical dominance from Brady in his QB stats. I tried to look at every piece of data I had available on these games for these quarterbacks to find where Brady’s team had a glaring advantage, and I was coming up empty. This made me want to look at more quarterbacks for help, so I expanded the list to 35 quarterbacks with at least 20 starts from 2001-2020 (playoffs included) where their teams allowed 26-32 points.
Brady, Andrew Luck (10-10, .500), and Peyton were the only three with a win rate above 38%. I’ve included a scatter plot of these 35 quarterbacks looking at their win % vs. their Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A). I did not exclude playoff rest games or games left injured for anyone.
Brady’s ANY/A (6.65) is almost identical to that of Kirk Cousins (6.67), but his win% is nearly triple that of Cousins’. Okay, I can understand that one. Cousins is Hollow Stat Man, but how do you explain Peyton and Russell Wilson being the only quarterbacks above 7.0 ANY/A and they still have a losing record?
Now that I had data for 35 quarterbacks, I still could not find what led to such a better record for Brady.
Brady (28.3) had the highest scoring average of anyone on the list. Only Luck (27.3) and Peyton (27.3) were also above 26.0 points per game.
That can explain them having the three best records, but these rankings for Brady in the other stats among the 35 quarterbacks adds to the confusion of how he got the most points and wins.
Brady ranks 20th in completion percentage, 17th in YPA, ninth in passer rating, and seventh in ANY/A. Not quite elite.
Brady received an average of 98.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 21st. His team’s average rushing yardage margin was minus-14.8, which ranks 13th. That’s a lot better than Peyton’s minus-47.2 (second worst), but it’s not like the ground game made a huge difference for Brady’s teams.
Brady’s offense converted on third down 43.1% of the time in these games, good for fifth but still trailing Peyton (46.8%, first) and Brees (43.4%, fourth).
Brady’s defense allowed the sixth-highest conversion rate on third down (45.0%), which doesn’t help. Still, that’s better than Peyton’s defense allowing 48.3% or Rodgers’ Packers allowing 46.2%, the two worst marks.
Brady (-3.9) edged out Roethlisberger (-3.3), Peyton (-3.2), Brees (-2.7), and Rodgers (-2.4) for the highest average spread going into these games, so that should help that they were favored by the most. But a Vegas line says more about expectations than what actually happened once the ball was snapped.
Brady’s average opponent won 56.3% of its games on the season, the 13th-highest mark in this group. Their average defensive rank in points per drive allowed was 15.0, also about average. It’s not like he beat up on easier teams than anyone in these games.
Brady’s team’s average fourth quarter scoring margin was +0.9, the fourth best in the group, trailing Luck (+2.5), Matt Schaub (+2.2, WTF?), and Peyton (+1.6). Closing certainly helps a ton, but I didn’t see the scoring from Brady and the stops from his defense in the numbers here to suggest his win % should be so much better.
At this point, I can only rely on my ace in the hole: an encyclopedia-like knowledge (and documentation) of the close finishes in the last 20 years in the NFL.
There are facts I know about Brady’s luck that are just not the case for these other quarterbacks. Like how he’s only lost one game in his whole career after a kicker missed a clutch field goal, and that was in a game not in this bin (20-18 vs. 2012 Cardinals). I’m sure Manning would have liked Mike Vanderjagt to make his field goal and take the 2004 Patriots to overtime, 27-27, on opening night instead of a miss in a 27-24 loss. That was one of several missed kicks in the clutch from the liquored-up idiot kicker.
Outdated but still relevant and accurate for Brady (and Manning):
Brady has the lowest percentage of blown fourth-quarter/OT leads against his teams. It’s only happened 21 times despite him holding more late leads than anyone in NFL history. How many of those 21 fall into the 26-32 range? Just five games, including the 29-28 loss in Miami (2004) after Brady threw four interceptions and lost to A.J. Feeley. The Dolphins shocked Brady again in 2019 as a 17.5-point underdog in New England with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing a late game-winning touchdown. But Brady also had good chances to put away the 2012 Ravens (31-30), 2015 Broncos (30-24 in overtime to lose the No. 1 seed), and 2016 Seahawks (31-24) before failing to close.
How many blown 4Q/OT leads for the other quarterbacks in the 26-32 bin since 2001? Brees (16), Ben (10), Peyton (7), and Rodgers (7 plus one tie) all had more than Brady’s five even though he’s played the most games and had the most leads to blow.
As I said before, in the 26-32 range, Brady is 37-30 and Manning is 21-25 when you remove the playoff rest games for both of them. Manning’s actual record would be worse if you included 1998-2000 for him, but I’ve kept this whole study to the time period of Brady’s career since my game database goes back to 2001, and I am not changing now.
But there is no need for me to write off all 37 of Brady’s wins in this range. That’s pointless, a waste of my time and yours. But if I can just write off four wins as his ass getting lucky when he should have lost? That already puts him under .500. If I just find three should-be wins for Manning, that puts him up to 24-22, a winning record.
I can easily do that. I went right to the 68 games in Brady’s career in the 26-32 points allowed range and simply started remembering what happened and how unique (or exclusive) some of these finishes were.
2020 Packers (W 31-26): Thank Matt LaFleur for kicking that field goal to add this game to the bin. It was 28-10 before this rally attempt came up short, by the way.
2015 Giants (W 27-26): Landon Collins dropped a game-ending interception in the last 2:00. Brady then gets a game-winning 54-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
2013 Browns (W 27-26): Every HOF QB should get one game in their career where an onside kick recovery helps them win. Surprisingly, this was the only one for Brady to help pull off an improbable comeback in the final minutes. Also, a bogus DPI penalty to put the ball at the 1 on the game-winning drive
2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The intentional safety game. Try naming another game in the last 20 years where a trailing team took a safety on purpose in the fourth quarter and still won.
2013 Saints (W 30-27): Brady needed three different game-winning drive opportunities in the final 3:35 after turning it over on downs with 2:46 left and throwing an interception with 2:16 left. This never happens to anyone else.
2010 Colts (W 31-28): After nearly throwing a pick with 2:32 left, Brady let Manning get the ball back again for another improbable 17-point 4QC. But this time Manning was hit as he threw in field goal range and the pass was intercepted to end the game.
2018 Chiefs (W 37-31 OT): Must be nice to get Dee Ford a millimeter offsides to negate a season-ending interception, then win the coin toss in overtime and not see Patrick Mahomes get the ball back because of the worst overtime system in professional sports.
2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Ah, 28-3. Just imagine if Peyton Manning threw a pass to New Orleans’ Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, it goes through his hands, and Austin Collie makes a diving catch to secure it before it touches the ground. Then Manning goes on to score a game-tying touchdown, watch his defense hold against Drew Brees, win an overtime coin toss, and never have to see Brees touch the ball, because again, overtime is a broken system. Beyond all the other fuckery the Falcons did in Super Bowl LI after 28-3, this is what Brady did at the end after Robert Alford dropped a game-ending interception, Julian Edelman made that catch, and Brady cemented his legacy as the undisputed LOAT.
That’s eight games and there were several more I could mention. However, to do this properly I need to play devil’s advocate and point out the games among the 30 losses where Brady should have won.
Except that’s incredibly hard to do when Brady just doesn’t have the bad luck of other quarterbacks, especially in the 26-32 range. For starters, in 15 of the 30 losses he failed to score more than 20 points and lost by at least eight points (lost by double-digits 14 times). In a 28-20 loss to the 2005 Broncos, he was down 28-3 and couldn’t luck his way into a win that day. Just like that, I’ve cut the sample of losses in half.
Brady also was outplayed in back-to-back weeks at home in 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs last year, games he never led in the fourth quarter. He’s also been outplayed by Aaron Rodgers and the 2014 Packers (L 26-21), Deshaun Watson and the 2019 Texans (L 28-22), Mark Sanchez and the 2010 Jets in a playoff stunner that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests (L 28-21), and several other games he never sniffed a late lead like the 4-INT night against the 2006 Colts (L 27-20) or losing to Jay Cutler as a 10.5-point favorite in Miami in 2017 (L 27-20).
I simply cannot point to any missed field goals or miracle field goals that went against Brady. Hell, New York’s Daniel Jones just lost a 30-29 game in Washington because of a lame offsides penalty on a missed field goal. Never happens to Brady. He could have lost his first ever comeback win (2001 Chargers) if Wade Richey made a 59-yard field goal, but that didn’t happen. In fact, kickers are 0-for-6 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against Brady in his career. Peyton lost three games to Jacksonville alone on 50-plus yard field goals (53 in 2004, 51 in 2008, 59 in 2010). Scobee-Motherfuckin’-Do.
I can’t point to a rare fumble by a teammate like what Clyde Edwards-Helaire just did to Patrick Mahomes in Baltimore. There’s never been a no-call penalty so egregious that Brady went on to lose a championship game 26-23 in overtime like Drew Brees did against the 2018 Rams after that defensive pass interference was missed. That sent the Rams and all three of their points they’d score to the Super Bowl against Brady too. How convenient.
Like I said, there were just five games where Brady had a fourth-quarter lead and he completely shit the bed in the first one (2004 Dolphins). Brady also didn’t get the ball in overtime against the 2015 Jets (L 26-20) after Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a game-winning touchdown, a few rare occurrences mixing indeed, but Brady also needed three drives in the fourth quarter just to get one game-tying touchdown. But I guess we can count that one. It looks better than the 30-27 loss to Geno Smith and the 2013 Jets when Brady did fail in overtime after having a poor game.
It’s not my fault that Brady isn’t a more dominant winner or a more lovable loser. Definitely better than Drew Bledsoe though. Never denied that one.
Now let’s switch gears and do a few Manning losses really quick. I’ve already mentioned a few actually with the 2004 Patriots (27-24), 2009 Saints (31-17), and 2010 Patriots (31-28).
2006 Texans (L 27-24): One of the most underrated losses in regular season history. Manning was limited to just six possessions because of his historically bad run defense, and he even lost one to a running back fumble and settled for a field goal after a third-down drop. He scored 24 points on the other four drives but lost to a last-second field goal after tying the game.
2010 Jaguars (L 31-28): Manning followed Reggie Wayne’s red zone fumble with two touchdown drives to tie it at 28 before the Jaguars won on a 59-yard field goal. Manning also had a superb game against the 2004 Jaguars and lost 27-24 to a 53-yard field goal.
2013 Patriots (L 34-31 OT): Oh look, another Manning-Brady game where the ending was decided by neither quarterback. After seven straight failed drives between the two, Manning expected to get the ball back before Tony Carter muffed the punt, setting Brady up for a game-winning drive where he just sat on the ball at the Denver 13 and the Patriots kicked a field goal. You know, LOAT stuff.
2014 Seahawks (L 26-20 OT): Manning led the first game-tying drive in NFL history where a team was down eight in the final 60 seconds at the start of the drive, doing it in Seattle when the Legion of Boom was healthy. He never saw the ball in overtime as Marshawn Lynch got the 6-yard game-winning run instead of Russell Wilson throwing a slant to Malcolm Butler, because of course that’s what happened.
Again, I could bring up more games, but Brady’s luck is unrivaled in all of NFL history.
Scoring 30 on Brady Usually Requires Him Screwing Up
By going over these games and talking about how infrequently Brady’s teams allow 30 or 40-plus points, I was reminded of something. It used to be that if the Patriots allowed 30 points in a game, they probably had a return touchdown, usually from a Brady turnover, to get over that benchmark. There were very few games when the defense (and we’ll add special teams too in the context of what a quarterback is dealing with from a points allowed perspective) allowed 30 real points on its own.
So, I decided to go through just the 10 seasons where Brady was in the Super Bowl to see how many games got into the higher-scoring bins because of non-offensive scores. I highlighted the six games where Brady’s Patriots allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a turnover returned for a touchdown.
2001 Chargers (W 29-26 OT): After a Brady three-and-out, the Patriots botch getting a punt off and it’s returned for a touchdown.
2001 Dolphins (L 30-10): A Brady fumble is returned by Jason Taylor for a touchdown to give Miami a 27-10 lead.
2001 Broncos (L 31-20): On a four-INT night for Brady, he throws a pick-six while trailing 24-20 with 2:24 left.
2003 Bills (L 31-0): Brady’s four-INT game includes a pick-six.
2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The aforementioned intentional safety after Brady couldn’t move the offense out of his end zone moved this game into the 26-32 bin.
2004 Steelers (L 34-20): The only game the Patriots allowed 30 all season, it got there because of a Brady pick-six in the first quarter that gave the Steelers a 21-3 lead to end New England’s 21-game winning streak.
2007 Giants (W 38-35): The 16-0 game was the only time all season the Patriots allowed more than 28 points. The Giants needed a kickoff return touchdown and a late touchdown (down 10) to get there.
2011 Bills (L 34-31): Brady threw a pick-six as part of another 4-INT game. It was the only game all season where New England allowed more than 27 points.
2014 Chiefs (L 41-14): One of only seven 40-burgers in Brady’s career, he threw a pick-six down 34-7 to get it there.
2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Lost in 28-3 is that New England held the prolific Atlanta offense led by MVP Matt Ryan to 21 points and 1-of-8 on third down. Brady’s pick-six in the second quarter opened up a 21-0 lead.
2017 Texans (W 36-33): Brady gave up a touchdown on a strip-sack in the second quarter. He later threw a game-winning touchdown after another game-ending interception was dropped.
Brady has even carried this tradition with him to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have had three games where they allowed 30-plus points with Brady, and he threw a pick-six in two of them to get them over that mark (34-23 loss in New Orleans and 38-31 comeback win over Chargers).
Remember that this is only using Super Bowl appearance seasons, and that’s still eight games where Brady’s team allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a return touchdown involved. That’s only one fewer than Manning and Rodgers had combined using their full career starts, as well as how many Roethlisberger has had in his whole career:
When including Brady’s whole career, the number goes up to 10 games, so 80% of his games came in those Super Bowl seasons. That also means he has the highest rate of 30-points allowed games that he is partly responsible for.
Tom Brady – 10/48 (20.8%)
Ben Roethlisberger – 8/41 (19.5%)
Drew Brees – 13/82 (15.9%)
Peyton Manning – 7/53 (13.2%)
Aaron Rodgers – 2/51 (3.9%)
Conclusion: Drive Stats Are the (Huge) Missing Piece
Before I even started writing this week, I knew that the best solution to this points allowed area is a huge dataset that I am sad to say I don’t have even though I have been writing about drive stats for as long as anyone out there (cringey lede included).
Drive stats are the best way to go about this. If you had drive stats broken down for every game in the last 20 years, you could learn so much. Which quarterback starts the highest rate of games in a 7-0 hole on his first possession? Who really gets the best field position? The shortest touchdown drives? The longest? Does Brady really do better on a short field than his peers? Does Brady’s defense give up more garbage time touchdowns to create more artificial high-scoring games that he won with ease?
That last point is something I noticed when going through his 26-32 range. Brady beat both the 2012 Texans and 2018 Chargers in the playoffs by the final score of 41-28. However, those were fake high-scoring games. Brady went into the fourth quarter with a 31-13 lead on Houston, grew it to 38-13, then the defense allowed two touchdowns in a 41-28 final. Same thing with the Chargers. The Patriots were up 38-13 after three quarters, which you’d gladly take from your defense against a top offense through three quarters every single time. Then Rivers threw two touchdowns in garbage time for the 41-28 final. The outcome was never in doubt. The threat was never there.
Does this type of game happen more often for Brady? The answer is yes. From 2001 to 2019, the Patriots allowed a league-high 63 touchdowns in the fourth quarter when leading by at least 17 points (three scores), lapping the next closest teams in the Packers (52), Broncos (50), Steelers (47), and Colts (43). But of course they did. Brady’s the only consistently high-scoring quarterback to play with a consistently great scoring defense for two decades.
But if you look at how many of those games went into Brady’s 26-32 bin, the answer is nine games. That’s more than Brees (5), Peyton (3), Rodgers (2), and Roethlisberger (2) ever had.
One day I will have to suck it up and put the drive stats together for the regular seasons, likely using the tools on Stathead as my starting point. But I’ve seen enough data errors in the drive finder there over the years to scare me away from doing that. The thoughts of manually going through 267 games a year are too overwhelming, but I really need to get this data at some point.
If you had really good drive stats, you can map out how these games play out for the quarterback. How many points do they average on their first four drives? How much does the defense allow? Again, what’s the field position impact?
People never seem to want to even acknowledge field position, but it’s not something that all quarterbacks are playing on equal grounds with. Is it any surprise that since 2020, Brady’s Buccaneers average the shortest touchdown drives in the league at 60.8 yards? Mahomes’ Chiefs are the fourth longest at 71.4 yards. Ditto for the period of 2001-2019 when Brady’s Patriots had the sixth-shortest touchdown drives at 62.8 yards. Where were the other great offensive teams? They had the longest average touchdown drives in the league: Colts (66.8), Packers (66.2), Saints (65.6), Chargers (65.5), and the Cowboys (65.2) rounded out the top five. Imagine that.
Maybe dominating the field position battle is the missing piece of data in Brady’s success in the 26-32 range. It has to be something. When it’s clearly not just skill, you look at the advantageous factors out of his control, also known as his luck, and that to me is what he has in spades and no one else has been able to come even close to matching. The excess success in his career is a result of his great luck. That doesn’t mean his whole career is lucky or that luck is the only driving force behind his success. It’s that he gets to win more games and get to more Super Bowls than other quarterbacks because of what’s been around him and what’s happened in his favor.
You can still ignore the data and facts if you want, but nothing I ever say about Brady will be better than the quote the man gave about himself in 2017:
“I know myself as a player. I’m really a product of what I’ve been around, who I was coached by, what I played against, in the era I played in. I really believe if a lot of people were in my shoes they could accomplish the same kinds of things. So I’ve been very fortunate.”
On Sunday afternoon, Tom Brady improved to 92-0 as a starter in games where his team scored at least 35 points, easily the best record in NFL history for a feat that leads to a win about 92% of the time since 2001. Peyton Manning (63-3), Drew Brees (56-5), Aaron Rodgers (42-2), and Ben Roethlisberger (35-4) not only all have multiple losses in games where they scored 35-plus, but they all lost a playoff game (two in Ben’s case) after scoring that much as well.
But never Brady. When the King of Kings puts up points, even if it involves two Matt Ryan pick-sixes as it did in Sunday’s 48-25 win over Atlanta, his teams win the game every time. On Sunday night in Baltimore, Patrick Mahomes just lost his third career game in 56 starts after scoring at least 35 points. He is 15-3 now. Thanks for nothing, Clyde.
I guess Brady’s just better than everyone else in high-scoring games then. End of post. No 5,000 words and graphs necessary.
But that’s just not my style. Instead, I am finally going to provide a deep dive into the data on quarterbacks and points allowed after years of citing these stats without much context. As it turns out, there is a sweet spot on the scoreboard where Brady does in fact outperform his top peers, but like with virtually every Brady stat that’s ever existed, he only outperforms them in team win percentage.
With roughly 18 years of experience in dealing with Tom Brady’s cult-like following on the internet, I know how his worshippers think better than probably anyone. While the casuals post pictures of his rings, and the weirdos post pictures of Gisele – as if her bank account isn’t the hottest thing about her – it’s easy to just ignore those people. Life is too short and you’re never going to find any substance there.
What better draws my attention is when they try to use any number besides the ring count to justify the case for their alleged GOAT.
Look, I get why they are so defensive and protective of his legacy. It’s really hard to prop up Brady as the greatest thing since sliced bread, which he doesn’t even eat. Would you feel comfortable in telling someone that the greatest football player of all time is someone who has been named first-team All-Pro, the best at their position, just one more time than Rich Gannon?
When someone brings up Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky as the GOAT in their leagues, they don’t need to rely on a ring count or team winning percentage to make their case. The individual resume speaks for itself. The record-setting dominance in both the regular season and postseason that still resonates decades after their retirements, as well as the eye test, it all speaks for itself. Just look:
When I come at the king, I don’t miss. Brady just pales in comparison to those two actual GOATs. But enough GOAT talk for today. The point is any pro-Brady numbers argument boils down into something very simple:
First, pick a split. Playoff games, division games, island games, December games, games after a bye week, 4QC/GWD opportunities, games against top 10 defenses, games against playoff/winning teams, games with 50+ pass attempts, games with 3+ interceptions, games taking three sacks, games in freezing temperatures, games with a passer rating under 80, etc.
When you compare Brady to his peers in the split, chances are he will have the best winning percentage, but he won’t have the best individual statistics. Pick any metric (PR, YPA, ANY/A, DVOA, DYAR, QBR, EPA, WPA, CPOE) that’s not the equivalent of an English teacher subjectively grading your Catcher in the Rye essay, and this will be true for just about anything you dig into.
This has always been the case too. He is eternally “Brady Just Wins” and that’s the way he was covered by media for six seasons in the Spygate era. You know, back when he shared a lunch table with Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck when it came to quarterback stats, but the media forced him on us as the best in the game because his team won three Super Bowls by three points each. Jim Nantz would cream his pants weekly on CBS about the latest “Brady record” that was just a graphic of him (grinning pre-plastic surgery) with some crazy win percentage record the Patriots had back in 2001-06 or some “attempts without an interception streak” that Brady would then end with a pick in a playoff game he still went on to win.
But after Spygate came about in 2007, Brady developed into a better player and started playing with loaded offenses and the two most stat-inflating receivers (Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski) of this era, if not of all time. He’s currently on a Tampa Bay offense that features four Hall of Fame-caliber receivers, three of which he had nothing to do with developing into studs. Keep in mind the 2018-19 Tampa Bay offenses, which did not have Gronk or Antonio Brown, and had error-prone Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, threw for over 10,400 yards and 69 touchdowns in those two years. Yet here we are hyping up Brady for a nine-game winning streak with scoring 30 points where three of the games were against the Atlanta Falcons during a pandemic.
But the big-picture stuff can wait for another day as I’m getting off track again. This is about points allowed. Like Bruce Wayne seeing the Bat Signal, I was pointed to a tweet last week about Brady winning high-scoring games better than his peers.
I was asked if the graph was wrong, and initially I thought it was since the curves shouldn’t be that smooth. Then I realized the x-axis was when the “opponent scored at least x points” instead of “opponent scored exactly x points.” It reminded me of this old ESPN article that featured this paragraph:
“NFL teams have won just 23.6 percent of the time since 2001 when they gave up 21-plus points. Brady’s 66-50 record in these higher-scoring games equates to a .569 winning percentage — a whopping 2.4 times better than the league average. No other QB with 50 games played since 2001 has won even half of those tough-to-win games. Brady remains on top as the scoring bar climbs even higher. He is a league-best 20-29 (.408) when the other team scores 28-plus points, far above the .151 league average.”
The graph and this paragraph are both correct, but they are both very misleading. By using a minimum number of points allowed and not putting a cap on the other end, both are ignoring that Brady’s teams do a much better job of not having games where they allow 30+ and 40+ points. I’ve been on this for years.
While teams have won 27.2% of their games during Brady’s career where they allowed 21-plus points (it’s gone up since that 2016 article), that includes games where they allowed 38, 45, or 54 points too. Literally anything 21 or higher would count. However, when teams allow 35-plus points, they win just 7.9% of the time. If you look at games where teams allowed exactly 21 points since 2001, they win those 63.8% of the time. Why? That’s a below-average amount of points in this era. You should win those games, and if you’re a Hall of Fame quarterback, you should win those at a high rate.
In fact, I just tweeted something to this effect on September 3 about Brady, Jared Goff, and games where a QB’s team allowed 28-plus points. While 28 is the minimum, that ignores how far past 28 points the teams went. Sure enough, Brady’s average 28+ game had the lowest average (32.3) of points allowed while Goff’s had the highest (37.7) of the 46 QBs in the study. So, is Brady having the best win% really as impressive as it sounds when you learn that additional information? I don’t think so.
Confession: I too am guilty in the past of presenting these points allowed stats in misleading fashion or at least not with better context.
So, how do we improve on this?
The Key Ranges for Points Allowed
With NFL teams averaging a record-high 24.7 points per game in 2020, these are stats that will have to be adjusted in the future. It was harder to win a game in 2001, Brady’s first year as a starter, when a team allowed 21 points and the league average was 20.3 points scored. Now if you allow 21 points in a league where the average scored is 24.7 points, then you got an above-average game out of your defense in that regard. For reference, teams in 2021 are averaging exactly 24.0 points per game thru Week 2.
My thinking for over a decade on these points allowed stats is to bunch everything under 17 points together as a low-scoring game. Peyton Manning was 89-0 in games he finished when the team allowed fewer than 17 points, which is still the gold standard for that range. His only technical loss was in 2007 against the Titans (16-10) in a Week 17 game where he left very early for his playoff rest. I always figured anything under 17 just means you can score two touchdowns and a field goal and get the win. Should be no big deal for a Hall of Famer.
Then using 24-plus or “more than 24 points” are probably the way I’ve used these stats the most over the years on Twitter. Fans of Alex Smith and Carson Wentz can attest to that. From 2007 to 2019, the average points scored was 22.5 in the NFL. Since teams rarely land on exactly 22 or 23, I viewed 24+ as the minimum standard for a game with above-average scoring, especially since you likely need to land on 27-28 or 30+ to win that day.
My third favorite range of points was to use 27+ or 28+ points. This is basically saying “games where you had to score 30+ to win.” Anything higher and we’re probably stuck in a land of small sample sizes and terrible win percentages.
But with all the data available to us these days, we can do something better than this, right? What’s really the difference between allowing 22 and 24 points? So, I looked at every game for 2001-2020 (playoffs included) and got the winning percentage for each point allowed total. First, a bubble graph that shows the win percentage for each point total.
Obviously, as points allowed goes up, win percentage decreases. But you can see four little outliers with small samples of games (smaller bubbles) at 32, 39, 46, and 51 points allowed where winning percentage is higher than expected. The 46 is when the 2019 49ers won that huge 48-46 game in New Orleans to help them get the No. 1 seed. I think you know what 54-51 is all about.
Now here is the data grouped together in what I am going to consider the six key ranges for points allowed: 0-11, 12-18, 19-25, 26-32, 33-39, and 40+.
0-11: These are the easy games. With the exception of 9 points, these are all above 92% win rates. At 9 points, a few more teams are content with winning after kicking three field goals. Sounds like a Jets thing to me.
12-18: All still winning records above 60%, but we dip under 80% every time except for a bump at 14 points. Why are there bumps at 7, 14, 21, and 28? Those are the more common scores with touchdowns and extra points in this game. If a team scores exactly 14 points, chances are those two touchdowns were all they could get that day, but it wasn’t all they needed. If a team finishes on 13 or 15, they may have only needed a late field goal to win a 13-10 or 15-12 type of game.
19-25: Now we start to see losing records except for at 20 and 21. Why the bump there? Again, the more common scores. If a team scores 19, it could have just won a 19-9 or 19-16 game. You don’t see too many teams down 21-19 lose on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt. Nineteen is just what they needed that day. Similar thing at 23 points when a lot of games could end 23-16 or 23-20. But 23 is the lowest win% here at 36.3%.
26-32: Now we’re dropping under 26.5% except for the expected bump at 28 (35.8%) and the aforementioned outlier at 32 (42.9%) on just 63 games. Every other point total from 19 to 35 has at least 108 games in the sample.
33-39: This is miracle territory as only the outlier at 39 points is above 18%. What do we have to thank for that 6-22 record at 39 points? Thank Dan Quinn’s Falcons for not picking up that onside kick and losing to Dallas 40-39 last year. Thank Dwayne Rudd for taking his helmet off and helping the Browns lose to the Chiefs on opening day in 2002. Also a shoutout to the 2004 Seahawks for this inexplicable choke against the Cowboys on Monday night in a 43-39 loss. Two onside kick recoveries and Rudd keeping his helmet on from making that 3-25 (.107).
40+: I think it’s safe to group everything from 40 through 62 (the night the Saints destroyed the 2011 Colts) together for the last range. The only one with a winning percentage above 6.7% is that outlier at 46 due to the George Kittle play on fourth down in New Orleans in 2019.
Okay, now I have six ranges I feel better about using for this. Again, we’ll have to keep an eye on how things progress in the NFL with scoring. Maybe my days of doing “since 2001” stats can be dialed back once Brady (and Ben and Rodgers) finally retires. Then “since 2008” might become my new standard, since that was the year Ryan and Flacco changed the rookie quarterback expectations, and the 2007 Patriots had an influence on the league with the shotgun-spread offense. Team scoring shot up to 22.0 points per game in 2008 for the first time since 1965. But we’re not there yet, so it’s since 2001 for now.
Brady vs. His Peers in High-Scoring Games
How does Brady fare against his peers in these six different ranges? Unlike the original chart, I’m interested in comparing Brady to the only four quarterbacks who have sustained success with both winning games and accumulating stats on their way to locking up a first-ballot bust in Canton: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers. I’m sure the day will come when we can add Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes to this, but not today.
First, a very telling scatter plot of these five quarterbacks for each of the six key points allowed ranges. The x-axis is their win% as a starter with no games removed for injury (would affect Rodgers and Ben the most) or playoff rest (would affect Manning the most). The y-axis is their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A) in these games, which takes sacks into account, but does not include rushing touchdowns (would help Rodgers the most) or fumbles (would help Manning the most). This methodology is arguably most beneficial to Brady than the other four given his history of injury/playoff rest games/fumbles/rushing TDs. The original tweet’s graph used 1999-2020, so he also excluded Manning’s rookie year. I am excluding 1999-2000 as well, but that shouldn’t change much here. But for every other quarterback it is their full career minus two games in 2021 for Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger, the last three standing.
Tale as old as time: Brady does not have the best statistics in any of the point ranges, but he has the best winning percentage (or at least a tie for it) in half of the six ranges. However, that’s not as dominant as one would expect from the way the original tweet by a guy named Tucker claimed it to be. You can also see that Brady’s lone sweet spot is the 26-32 range, but again, more on that below.
0-11: These QBs are a combined 248-2 in this range. Ben’s loss was a 9-0 game on MNF to the Jaguars in 2006, his first game after his motorcycle accident and an emergency appendectomy. He was just not healthy enough at that point. Likewise, Rodgers lost a 7-3 game to the 2010 Lions after leaving with a concussion after only 11 pass attempts. Brees had the most dominant stats (110.9 PR, 8.09 ANY/A). Brady (7.51) has the second-lowest ANY/A in this range.
12-18: Manning had the best record here (59-2), even including that playoff rest loss to the 2007 Titans. Brees (.909) and Rodgers (.902) are one game behind Brady (.919) in win%, but Brady has the lowest completion percentage, YPA, and second-lowest passer rating and ANY/A in this range. The Tuck Rule is literally the difference here in Brady having the second-best win% and the fourth-best win% as he easily could have lost that game 13-10 without that rule and the greatest kick in NFL history. Meanwhile, Rodgers has the Fail Mary as one of his losses here (14-12 in Seattle) and a 2015 game against Detroit that would have been a 19-18 win if Mason Crosby made a 52-yard field goal. Remember, Brady has lost one game in his whole career after a missed clutch field goal (20-18 vs. 2012 Cardinals) and that comes in the next range.
19-25: In this range Brees does drop off statistically with the lowest win% (.629) and second-lowest ANY/A (6.92). Manning (.762) just edges out Brady (.753) for the best win percentage with Rodgers (.733) not far behind. In this range Brady moves up to third in passer rating (97.8) and ANY/A (7.24), but he certainly doesn’t dominate his peers or the stats Rodgers had (107.0 PR and 7.94 ANY/A). While I did mention the Stephen Gostkowski miss against Arizona costing Brady a win here, I raise you Adam Vinatieri missing a 29-yard field goal against the 2007 Chargers (23-21 loss) and Mike Vanderjagt missing a 45-yard field goal against the 2005 Steelers (21-18 loss) in this range for Manning. The point is Brady does not dominate his peers at winning games or how he performed in them at this range (or the first two ranges).
26-32: Every range is pretty tight, but this one has the most separation of them all. Despite Brady firmly ranking third in ANY/A (6.65) behind Manning (7.19) and Rodgers (6.90), he still has a winning record (37-31, .544) in this range while the others are all under 43%. Roethlisberger is especially bad here at 12-29 (.293) and 5.74 ANY/A. Why does Brady have such a winning advantage here despite not blowing away his toughest peers statistically? See Part II. I’ll give you a hint though: 28-3 is a game in this range.
33-39: Brady has the worst record (4-16, .200) and the lowest YPA (6.81), passer rating (85.7), and ANY/A (5.70) in this range. It includes two of his highest-scoring losses of his career in games against Manning: 38-34 in the 2006 AFC Championship Game and 35-34 on 4th-and-2 in 2009, a game that could have ended 34-28 if he didn’t turn into Alex Smith and threw past the sticks on that drive to deny Peyton the ball. But this is a bad looking range for Brady as his teams scored the fewest points (25.6) and allowed the fewest too (34.9). Manning had the best record (5-13) but not the best stats thanks to some of his most improbable comebacks. Not just the Patriots wins but also that 38-35 overtime win in Tampa Bay in 2003.
40+: While Roethlisberger had the lowest ANY/A in the first four ranges, he has the highest ANY/A in both the 33-39 and 40+ ranges. As I wrote in January after the 48-37 playoff loss to the Browns, he has a way of trying his best with huge passing days when the defense completely shits the bed to Baker Mayfield and Blake Bortles. So, this was amusing to see. Manning (1-11) definitely had some incredibly bad days when his team gave up a 40-burger, but it usually was a sign that the whole team imploded like the 41-0 playoff loss to the Jets and the 2013 Super Bowl against Seattle (43-8) that basically fell apart on the first snap over his head for a safety. Not only does Brady (1-6) have the lowest rate of 40+ games in his career, but his teams allowed the lowest average (40.9) above 40 points compared to Manning (43.2), Brees (44.0), Ben (44.6), and Rodgers (46.3). Brady got one win over Mahomes in 2018 (43-40) by virtue of getting the ball last that night. All Brees needed was one defensive stop on fourth down against Kittle in 2019 to beat the 49ers 46-45 and get the No. 1 seed, but he didn’t get it of course. Otherwise, he’d have the best record here at 3-13.
Again, where exactly does Brady shine over his peers? I removed the 26-32 range and summed up all the remaining games and put it in this chart:
Brady has the highest win% despite having the lowest YPA, completion percentage, and the second-lowest passer rating and ANY/A. His team averages the third-most points, but the key thing is his teams still allow the fewest points per game in these five ranges (23.8).
We should try to account for the different distributions of games into each range for the quarterbacks. For example, 23.8% of Brady’s starts have seen his team allow fewer than 12 points. That’s almost double that of Brees (12.2%) and Rodgers (13.8%). If Brees had 23.8% of his starts play out like that, he’d have over 72 such games instead of his actual number of 37. Remember, he was 37-0 when this happened. Likewise, Brady has the lowest percentage of starts with 33-39 points allowed (5.8%) and 40+ points allowed (2.0%).
In giving everyone the same distribution of points allowed as Brady, this is what the numbers look like for all games for 2001-2020:
Brady still has the best record without the best stats, but that’s always a given. Manning is right behind him now and Brees makes a huge leap with an extra 33 wins and raising his win rate nearly 11 percentage points. He’s definitely had the worst defensive support of these five quarterbacks.
Maybe the worst luck too, but when it comes to luck, no one holds a candle to Brady, the LOAT.
Check back for Part II where I find Brady’s voodoo magic in the 26-32 range.
Trust me, the title sounds way more ambitious than what the post is actually going to be. I’m settling into this new role of writing more on this blog during the season, but it’s going to come in the form of quick data dumps of interest rather than epic-length projects like the 43,000 words I wrote in a week on my top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century.
Today’s topic is quarterback rivalries. These often drive the league’s intrigue, though we haven’t always seen a lot of great quarterbacks meet numerous times in the past with the way schedules used to work. For example, Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted to the AFC in 1983, both active through 1998, both on a lot of winning teams, yet they only met a total of three times and two of those happened in 1998 when they were old. That’s just stunning. We’re about to see Round 4 of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson Sunday night, and Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Allen in Week 5.
But it’s not a real rivalry until the other side starts to win too, and that’s where we are stuck waiting right now.
The AFC: Patrick Mahomes vs. ?
I keep stressing that this is a transition period in the NFL, and perhaps the biggest story in the whole league is the reshaping of the AFC. We need to find the best challengers to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as the best QB and team in the conference. He just beat Baker Mayfield and Cleveland again. He has yet to lose to Josh Allen/Buffalo and Lamar Jackson/Ravens. He also will have his second meeting with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who took him to overtime last year after Herbert got the surprise start following a team doctor’s incompetence.
Someone has to step up here, or Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to have an easy run to the Super Bowl year after year a la what we’ve seen recently with Tom Brady and LeBron James in the NBA. But even Brady needed his rival in Peyton Manning, who stopped him from getting to the Super Bowl more often than the other way around, and LeBron had the Golden State Warriors as a super team to deny him Michael Jordan’s ring count. Even Magic Johnson had a Larry Bird to deal with in the 80s. You need that rival or else it’s one-sided and the results are too predictable. It gets boring, even if watching Mahomes operate is anything but boring right now.
Oddly enough, Brady and his teams have been the biggest Mahomes stoppers so far, taking away a potential three-peat in 2018-20 for the Chiefs. These teams very well could meet again in February.
The NFC: The Future Is What Exactly?
Brady’s run is unlikely to go on forever, though his quack trainer Alex Guerrero has done a magnificent job of keeping the Lazarus Pit running for him. As for Aaron Rodgers, I swear he looked like he aged five years this weekend and I don’t even mean by the way he played, which was terrible in the first 35-point loss of his career. I mean when I saw the teaser for his FOX interview, he looked like a 44-year-old quarterback in the NFC. Maybe he just got out of practice and skipped makeup and a shower, but he just looked haggard to me.
With Brees tapped out and those two probably not far behind, it will soon look different in the NFC. But is it too soon to predict a Matthew Stafford vs. Russell Wilson showdown now that they’re in the same division? Or are we headed for a Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields run where Wilson still doesn’t get MVP votes and Stafford still can’t beat teams with winning records? It’s probably going to have to be those two rookies as the future unless Kyler Murray is ready to take that next step or Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You know I love Dak too, but that coaching combo of Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn is bound to fail.
Not only has the AFC taken Mahomes, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, and 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen, but the AFC has drafted Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow with the last two No. 1 picks. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 in 2018 and even if you’re not sold on him yet, he’s really not that bad of a quarterback. The AFC also recently drafted Tua, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Herbert, and would have another stud in Deshaun Watson if he wasn’t an alleged sexual predator.
With respect to Dak possibly throwing for 6,000 yards this year to make up for his defense, there’s just not a lot of intrigue built into the NFC yet. We have to see how Winston and Stafford continue to do with their upgraded coaching and team situations. It’s only been one week.
The Sweet Sixteen to Meet a Dozen Times
Finally, the data dump. From 2001 to 2020, there were 16 quarterback matchups that had at least a dozen meetings when you include playoff games. I gathered the stats on win% and ANY/A (so I can account for sacks) for each quarterback in the matchup, so this chart has 32 points on it.
I have some good news for fans of the Falcons and Giants. Brees vs. Ryan and Romo vs. Eli are the only two matchups where the winning QB (Brees and Romo) had a lower ANY/A than the losing QB. No two quarterbacks were closer in ANY/A than Eli and Romo (0.14), though Manning-Brady (0.22) was a close second on the list. Considering this doesn’t adjust for the quality of the defense faced, that looks very good for the Manning brothers.
No matchup was more lopsided than Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler. Rodgers was 11-2 and +3.37 in ANY/A over Cutler, the biggest gap on the list. Rodgers vs. Stafford was also the second-biggest difference in ANY/A at +2.46 for Rodgers. We’ll see if Stafford can close that a little this year. The closest matchup by record was Philip Rivers going 7-6 vs. Derek Carr in the AFC West despite a difference of 1.27 ANY/A in Rivers’ favor. That speaks to the Chargers blowing games late while Carr inexplicably wins a lot of those games.
How many of these 16 matchups are still possible in the future? Brady-Fitzpatrick, Rodgers-Stafford, Ben-Brady, Ben-Dalton are about the only four realistic ones. Maybe something with Cam Newton if he ever gets another job and plays Matt Ryan again. Stafford vs. Rodgers is scheduled for Week 12 this year. The Bears are in Pittsburgh in Week 9, but Fields has to take over for Dalton by then, right? Fitzpatrick could face Brady in Week 10 if he doesn’t already lose the job to Taylor Heinicke by then. Hey, Brady could get a second win over Heinicke in that case.
But this was a great era with a lot of memorable and important games in that chart. New rivalries will emerge, but nothing is certain in this league. If you thought Mahomes-Watson in 2019 would be the first of several playoff meetings between the two, no rational person would have disagreed at the time. Now? Oof.
And if you’re a disappointed Ravens fan not looking forward to the Chiefs this week, then just remember that Manning’s Colts lost six straight to Brady’s Patriots in 2001-04 before turning that one around. For it to be a real rivalry, the other side has to start winning at some point. Maybe Sunday night is that turnaround moment for the Ravens.
Finally, the top five in my top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century. Something that started as a thought exercise last Tuesday has turned into an eight-part trip down memory lane totaling over 43,000 words. If you missed the beginning of the series, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 6:
Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries. In part VII, I unveiled the first half of the top 10, including a detailed story on witnessing Ben Roethlisberger’s whole career unfold as a local.
I do not know if Green Bay fans are still mad at me, but they might be after reading this. On the other hand, maybe the last decade has worn them down to say, “he was onto something after all.”
Ten years ago, Aaron Rodgers was on top of the NFL world having just won Super Bowl MVP honors and leading the Packers back to championship glory in his third season as a starter. I was just a newbie writer covering my first NFL season as a freelancer, and I was known as “the comebacks guy” for my work on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, the latter stat being officially adopted into record by the NFL after my work went viral.
One of the first times I ever did a 6,000-word opus was a piece called Aaron Rodgers: Front-runner Extraordinaire for Cold Hard Football Facts. The link no longer works, but basically I defined what a front-runner is, if it’s a bad thing or not, and how Rodgers and the Packers have an incredibly low number of comebacks and game-winning drives despite their overall success under head coach Mike McCarthy. At the time, Rodgers was 3-16 at 4QC opportunities with one of the wins against the 0-16 Lions in 2008.
I mentioned the long list of crucial interceptions the defense made off Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Caleb Hanie, and Ben Roethlisberger in that 2010 Super Bowl run, and concluded with “Is it a repeatable strategy? Probably not, as that was a heavy reliance on key interceptions. But if they can figure it out and get more team performances like the Atlanta game, then this could be the league’s next dynasty.”
Well, the defense never returned to 2010’s level, and not only did they fail to become a dynasty, but we have gone 10 seasons and the Packers have yet to return to the Super Bowl with Rodgers. They are 0-4 in the NFC Championship Game. He has still never had more than three game-winning drives in any season (including playoffs), something that has been done 92 times by other quarterbacks since 2008.
Right after I wrote that article, the 2011 Packers started 13-0 without trailing once in the fourth quarter. Combined with their similar six-game winning streak to end 2010, that marked 19 straight wins without trailing in the fourth quarter, an NFL record. The previous record was 13 games by a World War II-era Washington team, so Green Bay smashed it. Greatest front-running team ever just like I said.
When a bad Chiefs team punched the Packers in the mouth that year, they folded and lost for the first time. Then in the playoffs against the Giants, they lost another game that was within one score early in the fourth quarter before New York won in shocking fashion, 37-20.
The whole time my thought process was that we need to slow down before proclaiming Rodgers as the next GOAT when I was able to pick up on this pattern throughout his first three seasons as a starter that showed up again in spades in 2011, his first MVP season. I knew from my research and general study of quarterback play that he could never reach GOAT status if he continues to practically never win any close games. When is front-running a bad thing? When it’s the only thing you do. I tried to tell Green Bay fans that if this continues, it is going to cost your team wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, and ultimately Super Bowls.
I’d say I rest my case with the last decade as proof, but there’s so much more here to unpack. In 2012, the Packers again blew three close games early in the season to the 49ers, Seahawks (Fail Mary), and Colts (Andrew Luck’s coming out party). I continued to write about this close game subject at all the sites I was working with at the time, including Bleacher Report when I shared that Rodgers was 0-18 at 4QC opportunities against teams better than .500. The line “To reach the goal of another Super Bowl, the 2013 Packers will be looking for the balance the team had in 2010 between the offense and defense” could literally be reused every year for the last decade for Green Bay.
In 2013, Rodgers had a rough outing in Cincinnati in Week 3 and Green Bay blew a lead in a 34-30 loss. He came up short again on the final drive. I immediately wrote about “Aaron Rodgers’ Hidden Weakness” for a piece on ESPN Insider. “Rodgers is 9-26 (.257) when he has to score the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, but 49-5 (.907) in all other games, meaning the Packers are often on the winning end of blowouts. That .650 difference in winning percentage is the largest I have found in a sample of 67 quarterbacks.” I concluded by saying that for Rodgers to earn the status as the best quarterback in the league, he has to deliver more in these moments.
Shortly after, I was made aware that ESPN’s First Take did a segment about my Rodgers article. There has probably been nothing more surreal in my career than watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless holding a printout of my article in their hands as they screamed at each other about it on TV.
For better or worse, I got this comeback talk into the mainstream media. Rodgers broke his collarbone that season and missed seven starts. The team mostly flopped without him, but it sure was interesting when backup Matt Flynn led a comeback tie against Minnesota after trailing by 16 points and a 23-point comeback win over the Cowboys. These were the kind of games Green Bay never had with Rodgers at quarterback. So that started creeping into my stats, because Flynn also had a 9-point comeback against the 2011 Lions when he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in Week 17.
Soon you started seeing me put out stats with tables like this one:
Eventually, Rodgers snapped that 0-for streak with a Hail Mary win in Detroit in 2015. But it was during that 2015 season that things changed drastically in Green Bay. Rodgers won his second MVP in 2014’s “Relax” run. A deserving choice, though I think Tony Romo at least had a case. In 2015, he lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL, but the Packers were still 6-0 and his numbers were what you expect and in line with his peak of 2009-2014. However, the team then went on a bye week and came back and played Denver’s outstanding defense on Sunday Night Football. Rodgers looked lost and threw for 77 yards in a 29-10 loss. Without that Hail Mary in Detroit, which followed a bullshit facemask penalty on the Lions, the Packers would have lost five out of six following a 6-0 start.
What the hell kind of Palm Springs cave did Rodgers stumble into during that bye week that sapped him of his powers?
It was all pretty peculiar as Rodgers continued to rely on Hail Mary passes late that year just to keep the team competitive. He hit one in the playoffs in Arizona to force overtime, though I think the play on 4th-and-20 that preceded it was far more impressive. The Packers never touched the ball in overtime, losing on the final play for the third postseason in a row.
In 2016, the Packers started 4-6 with Rodgers continuing to underwhelm from what we’re used to seeing from him. There were also some uncharacteristic losses that weren’t even close games. My other advice for Green Bay fans about the front-running critique was to treat it as a positive since it shows that your team is in almost every game with Rodgers. No one blows him out. From 2008 to 2012, the Packers had a nice 69-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. The 2012 Giants ended that one with a 38-10 blowout. The only longer streak in NFL history that I’ve found was 98 games by Seattle in 2011-16.
But now the Packers were not keeping it close, and Rodgers still had no comebacks in 2016. However, he talked about running the table, and that kicked off an eight-game win streak where he was hot and in his MVP form, reaching the NFC Championship Game again after an impressive game-winning drive in Dallas in the divisional round. But the real MVP that season, Matt Ryan, lit up Rodgers’ defense and the Packers lost 44-21. Prior to that game, I unveiled a crazy Rodgers stat that I have since regretted posting because of how Brady fans have used it so recklessly. I’m not repeating it here, but if you’re curious, you can click those links.
In 2017, Rodgers had the Packers off to a solid 4-1 start, but another collarbone injury derailed his season. Again, the team flopped without him, but boy was it amusing to see Brett Hundley lead a 14-point 4QC win against Cleveland. There was no magic this time when Rodgers returned late in the season, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since his 2008 season.
In the 2018 opener against the Bears, the Packers were down 20-3 to start the fourth quarter. Rodgers’ success rate was 0-for-10 in the first half, and he suffered what looked like a season-ending injury. But something crazy happened. Rodgers returned after being carted off the field, and he led the biggest comeback of his career and the Packers won 24-23. It ended a record of 0-31 when Rodgers trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter.
That was Rodgers’ sixth game-winning drive in his last 16 appearances, the hottest clutch streak of his career. Maybe 2018 was going to be the turning point. In Week 16, Rodgers led a 15-point 4QC against the Jets. He finished the season with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions. If I told you that Rodgers led two 15+ point 4QCs and had that touchdown-to-interception ratio, you would predict a great season, right? Wrong. The Packers finished 6-9-1 with a middling offense as Rodgers was too conservative with taking sacks and making throwaways to keep his picks down that season. In the end, Mike McCarthy was fired as his stale offense was often the scapegoat for Rodgers’ decline.
Whatever the cause, the change from Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-14) to Not Peak Aaron Rodgers (2015-19) was fascinating to see and unprecedented for a player of this caliber.
That does not have the numbers updated for 2018-19, but they could not have been much better. Even after bringing in Matt LaFleur as the head coach in 2019, the Packers were still middling on offense and Rodgers had his lowest QBR (52.5) yet, which ranked 20th in the league. The difference in going 13-3 was that the defense played better, and the Packers hung on from ahead in a lot of one-score games in the fourth quarter. But the 49ers pushed them around twice and beat them badly, 37-20, in the NFC Championship Game.
Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers made his unexpected but triumphant return for his third MVP season despite the biggest offensive change being Robert Tonyan taking over for Jimmy Graham at tight end. I detailed that rise here. I feel like it was the weakest of his MVP seasons, and his record for 1-yard touchdown passes (eight) in a season did not impress me. But overall, it was a great season, I can understand why he won the award, and it was good to see him back to playing at that level. I just wish he didn’t implode in Tampa Bay, because that sure seemed to give the Buccaneers confidence that they could win in Green Bay in the title game. Rodgers played much better that second time around, but the uncharacteristic red-zone struggles hurt on a day the Packers needed more touchdowns. But nothing hurt more than the play of corner Kevin King and Aaron Jones’ fumble, the double whammy in the middle of the game that led to a 28-10 deficit.
We could have had two straight Super Bowls with Rodgers vs. Mahomes, but instead we are still hoping to see their first matchup this regular season. The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since the 2012 season. They just never seem to figure out these teams that get the best of them in the regular season.
Being pushed around by those NFC West and NFC South teams has really taken over as my preferred talking point on the Rodgers-era Packers. He tends to own his division and Dallas and the crummy East, but the 49ers (2012-13, 2019), Seahawks (2014), Cardinals (2015), Falcons (2016), and Buccaneers (2020) are the seven NFC teams that have swept Green Bay since 2012.
There is still a shortage of comebacks in Green Bay, but I can say that Rodgers has at least improved his record and my expectations of him in that department. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 15-17-1 (.470), which would be just behind the career records of Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477) and Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) near the top of the league.
I have often said that Rodgers’ A-game is as good as any quarterback in the history of the NFL. From a pure talent standpoint, he has to be right up there with Mahomes and Steve Young as the best players. His highlight reel could run the longest of anyone on this list, which speaks to his skill and longevity.
But when it comes to having to brush off a bad start or when the game does not go according to plan, I still have a hard time trusting Rodgers as much as I do some other quarterbacks. The lack of comebacks has always bugged me with him, but beyond that, I think the abyss he fell into during 2015-19 eliminates him from the conversation of the greatest to ever play. That kind of thing just does not happen.
When Peyton Manning became an elite quarterback in his second season (1999), he basically stayed that way until his quad injury late in 2014. When Tom Brady finally started producing good numbers (2004) and he then had his statistical down years (2006, 2013, 2019), he didn’t let it linger beyond those seasons. When Drew Brees broke out in 2004, he basically rode that wave all the way through retirement after 2020 with only a couple short-lived slumps. For five whole seasons, Rodgers basically had his six-game hot streak to start 2015 and his eight-game hot streak in 2016. The rest of the time he was hovering around mediocrity, which is unacceptable for someone this talented.
We’ll see just how long Peak Aaron Rodgers 2.0 sticks around too. Was it just a one-year revival, or does he do it again this year, which could very well be his last with Green Bay? Does he go to another team in 2022 and add to his legacy a la Manning and Brady? The book isn’t finished here, but I’ve sure as hell written a good draft for my time in covering the one and only Aaron Rodgers.
4. Drew Brees
That’s right, we have a change at the top of my list. In December 2019, I wrote about how Drew Brees was the Hypothetical GOAT. Already the passing king with records for touchdowns and yards, Brees also dominates the metrics that look at passing accuracy (things like CPOE and plus-minus), so he has a good argument as the most accurate quarterback of all time. But he also could have been the biggest playoff winner with the best playoff stats of his era as well, not to mention hold records for the most comebacks and game-winning drives. That’s the hypothetical part.
“Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.”
How did I get to that? All I did was change five outcomes in his career that had nothing to even do with his play, including a 29-yard field goal being made instead of missed, three defensive stops instead of scores allowed, and a flag for pass interference on the 2018 Rams. It’s really that simple and that thin of a margin between the multiple Super Bowls he played well enough to make and only the one appearance he got.
That was my epiphany moment on Brees’ career as he was having another stellar season in 2019 and Brady was floundering at the end of his run in New England. That led me to rank Brees ahead of Brady on my all-time list for the first time, putting Brees at No. 4 and Brady at No. 5. I’m really going to test people’s patience with reading full articles with this one as they’re going to complain on Twitter that I wrote one sentence about Brady below, but the fact is he’s sprinkled throughout this top five and in great detail below.
But my prediction that Brees will probably jinx me and have his worst postseason proved true. The Saints lost to the Vikings in overtime in the wild card round. Last year, Brees looked noticeably weaker at getting the ball down the field, then he suffered multiple fractured ribs (starting at the hands of Brady’s Tampa Bay defense) and a collapsed lung. He was never quite the same when he came back and he had arguably his worst game in a Saints uniform in the playoffs against Tampa Bay, a 30-20 loss in the divisional round that sent him into retirement.
Brees really did not have my back on this one, so after seeing him tap out at 41 and play a huge role in Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, I feel like I can no longer justify ranking him ahead of Brady. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pick a 22-year-old Brees over a 22-year-old Brady to start a fictional team from scratch, but that’s a whole different argument than something like this, which I’ve always based on a mixture of achievement and ability. Hell, the list of quarterbacks I’d take over a 22-year-old Brady would be massive, but again, that’s a different perspective.
I’ll certainly miss Brees in New Orleans. I’ve talked about a quarterback’s A-game multiple times already, and we know that when Brees was playing in the Superdome in prime time, he was absolute money for over a decade. That was him in his element. It’s also not like the Saints spent a ton of draft resources on offense or always had high-priced free agents on that side of the ball. Brees helped so many receivers to ridiculously high catch rates and great receiving metrics with his accuracy. There will almost certainly be more Hall of Fame teammates from the four years that Brees started in San Diego than there will be from his time in New Orleans. I just wish Sean Payton would have cared more about coaching defense and they could have had more success on that side of the ball.
In five seasons with serious Super Bowl aspirations, Brees watched Rex Grossman (2006), Alex Smith (2011), Case Keenum (2017), Jared Goff (2018), and Kirk Cousins (2019) get the most significant win of their careers against his Saints. Otherwise, those quarterbacks were 3-13 as playoff starters. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and that doesn’t even include the “Beastquake” loss to the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010 or his only playoff game with San Diego, an overtime loss to the Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a makeable overtime field goal.
Brees goes down as the king of the lost comeback, or games where he led his team from behind to a lead in the fourth quarter, but the team still lost the game. He did that 19 times, the most in NFL history and more than Brady (nine) and Manning (seven) combined.
With Brees retired, I did want to update these numbers from that 2019 article through 2020. These are their adjusted records in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game, we’re sticking with that as a loss.)
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Leads Upheld and 100% FGs
Drew Brees: 86-44 (.662) from 57-73 (.438)
Tom Brady: 74-37 (.667) from 63-48 (.568)
Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)
That last head-to-head game won by Tampa now gives Brady the edge in adjusted win rate, but Brees still has by far the largest total of wins and the biggest increase in wins from his actual record (+29).
As for why I still put Brees ahead of Rodgers, it’s because I don’t think Brees had a slump that lasted longer than four games in the 17-year period of 2004-20. He did take longer to shine than Rodgers, who was already good in his first year as a starter, then great in 2009. But once Brees broke out in 2004, I see very few cracks in his game outside of a rough four-game start to 2007 and a few too many multi-pick games in 2010. He definitely didn’t have a 2015-19 run on his resume, and even when the Saints weren’t making the playoffs in those 7-9 seasons, it was because Brees had the worst team support (D/ST) of these top five quarterbacks in his career. Also, yes, he is better with the game on the line than Rodgers and I think he’s performed better in the postseason. The fact that both have only reached one Super Bowl while never meeting in the playoffs is mind blowing to me. It’s not like they were holding each other back. Rodgers still has time to pass Brees for me.
Brees’ place in history figures to be as the best quarterback to never win an MVP, but he deserves better than that. My concern is with the 17-game season, 5,000-yard passing seasons are going to become more common and people are going to overlook just how prolific Brees was in a league with great competition at his position.
3. Tom Brady
Pretty good for a sixth-round pick who only got his start because Drew Bledsoe was injured.
2. Patrick Mahomes
Did you guess it? I may have let it slip a month ago on Twitter.
While I might not be able to bring myself to rank Mahomes second in all of NFL history after 54 starts, I have no doubt that no other quarterback has been this great so soon in their career. It also could be the best 54-game stretch any quarterback has ever had. Definitely the best 53-game streak.
Yes, that 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV has removed Mahomes’ invincibility. It was the first time he lost a game by more than eight points and the first time he did not lead a touchdown drive. But in reviewing the game, I still have a hard time saying he was bad that night given the pass rush and two potential dropped touchdowns. It was a dreadful game for his standards, but his standards are so ridiculously high. If this game or the Atlanta game in Week 16 is what a “bad” Mahomes game looks like, then I guess his bad games are still decent.
But one thing I am certain of is that Mahomes has no discernible weakness in his game. Your basic rebuttal of “just pressure him like the Raiders and Bucs did last year” is not exposing a weakness. All quarterbacks do worse under pressure vs. not pressured. But guess who the best quarterback under pressure has been? Mahomes.
When I reviewed the 2020 offense, I found just how hard it is to stop Mahomes.
“By the numbers, the Chiefs are more likely to score than be stopped with Mahomes this season. In 160 drives with him including the playoffs, the Chiefs have scored 85 times (56 touchdowns and 29 field goals) and did not score 75 times. Even the 75 non-scoring drives include positive offensive results such as three missed field goals and running out the clock on three opponents, including the Buccaneers in Week 12.
The Chiefs just may be their own worst enemy. They missed out on seven extra touchdowns this season just because of dropped passes (four) or penalties that wiped out scores (three). Mahomes has turned the ball over eight times this season via interceptions (six) or lost fumbles (two), but he is more likely to see a drive end because of a dropped pass that would have extended the drive, which happened 11 times to the Chiefs this year. The skill players have also lost six fumbles and the short-yardage offense has been stopped nine times when trying to move the ball without Mahomes.”
I could spend a lot of time sharing crazy Mahomes stats and facts:
I’m sure there will be more to come soon. We’re already getting to the point where the nitpicking on Mahomes will be things like “he’s never had to play a road playoff game” and “he’s never had a great four-quarter performance in a Super Bowl!” While both are true, if that’s the best thing you can come up with after 54 games….
The only real concern about Mahomes at this point would be his health. He’s narrowly avoided a season-ending injury two years in a row with his dislocated kneecap and that scary situation against Cleveland only costing him about a dozen quarters of action combined. Health is always the No. 1 thing for every quarterback. Look at how many careers I wrote about here that were negatively impacted by injuries. So, let’s hope Mahomes is one of the more durable players at his position.
I guess the other thing I would caution is that he’s been all instant peak. The quarterbacks who peaked so high right out the gate had a difficult time ever finding their way back to that level of play. Think Johnny Unitas after 1959, Dan Marino after 1987, and Kurt Warner after 2001.
For as great as Mahomes has been in the last three years, can he keep that pace up for another eight or 12 years? Can he stay this dominant when Travis Kelce is no longer his tight end or Andy Reid is not the head coach? Remember, Aaron Rodgers was at a ridiculous level for six seasons and six games before he fell off in 2015. But when it comes to keeping up a ridiculous prime for over a decade, someone else is still the gold standard, and that is why Mahomes cannot be ranked No. 1 yet.
1. Peyton Manning
Simply put, Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in NFL history. Just in the 10 seasons he was active from 2003 to 2013, he won five MVP awards (most ever) and was named first-team All-Pro seven times (most ever). That is an insane run that we may never see again. Even Mahomes is only 1-for-3 in winning those honors so far.
Honestly, he should have won eight of each, but fatigued voters still loved their running backs (2005, 2006, 2012) instead of true value, and someone so clueless picked Marc Bulger to rob Manning of the All-Pro nod in 2006, still his best season ever in my eyes. I do not say that because it was his only Super Bowl win in Indy. His drive engineering was never better than in 2006, his third-down performance was record breaking (peep the QBR), he was at his physical peak in throwing downfield and moving in the pocket better after that 2005 Pittsburgh loss made him improve that area of his game. He had bigger statistical years (2004, 2013), and he carried weaker teams in 2008-09, but 2006 was the all-around greatest Peyton Manning season. It’s also the last time since 1999 Kurt Warner that the best quarterback in the regular season won the Super Bowl that year.
Pick your proprietary metric – QBR, DVOA, DYAR, EPA, WPA, ANY/A – and he’s going to outshine his peers. He led the most efficient offenses on a per-drive basis of any quarterback, and his units often did great on third down and in the red zone. He had the career records for comebacks and game-winning drives, including a record seven comeback wins in that 2009 season as the team started 14-0. Along with Dan Marino, he was the hardest quarterback to pressure and sack because of how quick he released the ball, making him able to succeed with any offensive line. He was one of the most durable quarterbacks of all time before a Gregg Williams defense got to his neck. Only missed one play due to injury from 1998 to 2010. He got to his final of 539 touchdown passes in fewer games and pass attempts than Brees and Brady did. He broke the touchdown record twice with 49 and 55 touchdown passes. Breaking a significant record like that twice is unheard of and unlikely to ever happen again.
Like having a coach on the field, you will never see another quarterback go to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches and two different teams, becoming the first quarterback to win one with two teams. His Super Bowl teams were among the most imbalanced winners ever as one great offense (2006 Colts) and one great defense (2015 Broncos). Even his other two appearances were two of the biggest one-man show runs to the big game, which does a lot to explain why those were not wins. He always drew the toughest matchup possible in all four of his Super Bowls too.
Mahomes may be raising the standard for a quarterback avoiding bad games, but Manning rarely had cold streaks. When he threw 11 interceptions in a three-game losing streak for the Colts in 2010, it was headline news in the NFL. He shook it off with a four-game winning streak that led the Colts to the playoffs one last time. In the 17 seasons he started, he made the playoffs and won 10+ games 15 times. The only times he didn’t were the seasons where he had the bottom ranked scoring defense in the league and schedules loaded with playoff teams.
He was awful for his first six games as a rookie, but once he settled down and figured out how to play in the NFL, he basically rode that wave until late in 2014 when his body started to fail him. A quad injury exacerbated by the four neck surgeries as he had to adjust his mechanics to account for the lost arm strength. Manning was never physically the same quarterback in Denver as he was in Indy, but his anticipation on throws got even better to compensate. The fact that he could throw 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yard (both records) in 2013 with such limited arm strength is amazing.
In watching the state of defense continue to decline in the NFL since Manning retired, you only wonder what kind of numbers he would put up if he was getting his start now. While the position is moving to athletic playmakers who can run and pass, Manning’s intelligence, preparation, accuracy, and ability to get rid of the ball would make him a great success in any era. He is his own offensive system.
The Lousy Arguments vs. Manning
What I loved about Manning is that he disproved every garbage argument thrown his way in his career.
“He’s only good cause he has Edgerrin James at running back and defenses bite on the play-action and stretch plays.”
Edge left in 2006 and Manning immediately won a Super Bowl. Indy’s running game disappeared in 2007 and he continued to thrive and win MVP awards.
“He’s only good cause he has Tarik Glenn at left tackle.”
Glenn retired after 2006, the Colts put a turnstile named Tony Ugoh in his place, and the 12-win seasons and MVP awards kept coming. Manning could make any offensive line combination work out.
“He’s only good cause he has Marvin Harrison.”
Harrison was also one of the worst playoff receivers in NFL history as I’ve documented before. As soon as he left, Manning won his fourth MVP in 2009, but people love to ignore 88’s contributions to the down years in the playoffs.
If the best wide receiver in NFL history isn’t Jerry Rice, then it’s the guy who was Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver. That’s part Marvin, part Reggie Wayne, and part Demaryius Thomas in Denver. Put those numbers together and they are outstanding, because that’s what a consistently accurate elite passer can do for his receivers. Manning got many guys paid after big seasons, including the likes of Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, etc.
This also speaks to the weak “he threw to first-round picks” argument, especially since that argument is most beloved by people who worship a sixth-round pick at quarterback and advocate for Julian Edelman to make the Hall of Fame.
The truth is Harrison (1.19), Wayne (1.30), Dallas Clark (1.30), Anthony Gonzalez (1.32), and Demaryius Thomas (1.22) were all chosen 19th or later in the first round, making them more of a crapshoot to succeed. It is a fact that players in the lower portion of the first round have inferior careers, on average, to players at the top of the draft. The only thing keeping those averages closer is Manning’s contributions to helping those players have several of the best careers for players drafted in the bottom half of the first round. But he never played with a surefire receiver like Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, or A.J. Green. He played with a lot of shorter, possession receivers who ran great routes, but did not do much after the catch. The ball was expected to be on time, and it often was as Manning was never a “just throw it up and hope something good happens” passer. His offense was built on precision, timing, and exploiting matchups pre-snap.
“His stats are inflated by the dome.”
Ah, the dome quarterback. This one always pisses me off because it shows no understanding of the game. For one, only a few quarterbacks (Manning, Brees, Ryan, Stafford, maybe Warren Moon back in the day) ever get this label because there aren’t that many domes in the NFL. Also, you must actually be good to get this criticism. No one has ever said “Joey Harrington would suck in Detroit if he wasn’t a dome QB.” No, Joey Harrington would suck on every playing surface known to man because he was a shit quarterback. I could say the same about Sam Bradford, who played for the Rams, Vikings, and Cardinals.
When someone like Brady or Rodgers has great stats in games played indoors, it’s because that’s a small sample of games against a fixed, limited set of opponents who often have bad defenses (Saints, Lions, Vikings, Falcons, etc.). But for someone like Manning or Brees, they played at least half their seasons indoors for extended periods of their careers. They faced all different types of defenses in home games doing that, including elite ones. So, if you’re going to compare indoor stats, compare apples to apples and compare only indoor road games for the quarterbacks who have an indoor home stadium.
Plus, Manning proved it quite well in Denver that he didn’t need an indoor stadium to dominate. He also was one of the best cold weather quarterbacks, but people who act like the only games that matter are two snowy playoff games in New England missed that fact.
With Manning and Brees retired, Ryan aging, and Stafford moving to LA, it will be interesting to see where the future of dome passing stats go. Especially in an AFC that has totally retooled the quarterback position with guys in outdoor stadiums (Mahomes, Allen, Lamar, Baker, Burrow, Tua, Herbert, Lawrence, Z.Wilson, Mac Jones, etc.). Things may not look so hot if Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Carson Wentz are our new indoor passers.
“Best regular-season QB ever, but he was a playoff choker!”
While he absolutely disproved this on the field, to this day too many people still believe it. I have written about the topic extensively on this blog, on ESPN Insider, and in two parts on FO where I think I really solved it. Manning’s teams blew a record six fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs, and most of them came in the first game of a playoff run, which explains why he had the record for nine one-and-done postseasons. No other quarterback has seen his team blow that many playoff leads. Then when you do it right in the first game, there’s no next week after that. When Manning’s teams got past the first game of the playoffs, they were very good. Ask Rodgers and Brees how hard it is to get to more than one Super Bowl.
But Manning was one of the best playoff performers in NFL history. How else do you explain his first three AFC Championship Game wins that were some of the best games of his career? The way he dominated the Broncos in back-to-back years, beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in a game without any punts.
Yet when he threw the interception to Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, people treated it as him doing what he always does in the playoffs. What pattern is that when it’s literally the first time in his playoff career that he turned the ball over in a 4QC/GWD opportunity? Are people pretending that throwing picks when you’re down 34-0, 41-0, and 20-3 in the final minute of the fourth quarter are what lost those games to the 2002 Jets and 2004 Patriots? Manning was 6-6 when he threw zero interceptions in a playoff game, still the most losses in playoff history doing that.
From 1998-2010, Manning’s Colts were 1-5 (.167) in the playoffs when they had zero turnovers. The rest of the NFL was 43-4 (.915). Chew on that one for a minute.
If these articles won’t work, I guess a documentary is the next step for me, but unfortunately, we live in an era where people can be shown video evidence and facts and still not change their beliefs. They see what they want to see. Worse, Manning’s career took place during Tom Brady’s career, and there is no quarterback who gets his worshippers more riled up to defend his honor than the King of Kings himself.
I’ve Been Coming at the King for Two Decades
That’s right, Brady fans. If you think I was only going to leave him at one sentence above, then you clearly don’t know any better. I’m going to go over the whole origin story of why I think he’s the most overrated player ever.
They say first impressions are everything.
I caught my first Tom Brady game on January 19, 2002. All I knew about him was that he was a sixth-round pick who took over after Drew Bledsoe was injured early in the season. I heard he was supposed to be decent, but the Patriots had a bunch of players I never heard of while I saw the likes of Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charles Woodson on the Raiders. I wasn’t into rooting for either team, but it was a big playoff game and the snow looked cool on our new 27-inch TV.
Late in the game, it looked like the Raiders had wrapped it up, 13-10 with a strip-sack fumble recovery. But there was a review, and from there I learned all about things like Walt Coleman’s pro-Patriots past and this new rule called the Tuck Rule. It no longer exists because it never made any sense, it has been applied liberally and inconsistently, and to this day, that looks like a fumble to me. Game over. But the Patriots kept the ball, Brady completed only one more pass, and Adam Vinatieri was tasked with a super difficult field goal to tie the game. He hit it from 45 yards away and it is still the greatest kick in NFL history if you ask me.
The Patriots won the overtime coin toss, they dinked and dunked down the field, and Vinatieri hit a game-winning field goal, another weak element of the game that had to go years later. I read a recap online after the game that the Patriots got really lucky, which I thought was obvious. Then I saw this snotty quote from Brady about the play that saved his bacon. “You know, he hit me. I wasn’t sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right.”
How do I like that? This low-rent Matt Damon looking mug couldn’t even admit he got away with one. I was looking forward to seeing the Steelers face this team since I thought the Raiders would have been a tougher out in the AFC Championship Game.
Of course, Kordell Stewart pulled his usual big-game display with three picks. The special teams got absolutely hosed on a missed penalty that should have negated a touchdown return. And Brady? He dinked and dunked, then he left the game injured in the second quarter and they hung on with Drew Bledsoe finishing the game. Brady led his offense to 29 points in the entire postseason. He started in the Super Bowl against the Rams, a team I was fond of at the time for their high-flying offense. It was supposed to be a rout, which the Super Bowl usually was in those days, but it turned out to be a huge upset. However, if you watch that game now, it’s pretty boring. The Patriots would back the Rams up, they’d get a few first downs, then either stall or turn the ball over and set the Patriots up on short fields.
Brady didn’t even break 70 air yards in that game, and he never converted a third down. He led his offense to 13 points, but that was good enough for the win as Ty Law, who should have been named MVP, had a pick-six. The Rams tied it up, John Madden gave horrible advice on sitting on the ball that teams did not follow even back then, and then I watched Brady throw three dump passes, get away with intentional grounding, make one nice pass to Troy Brown, and before you know it there’s Vinatieri kicking a 48-yard field goal that somehow took seven seconds off the clock to end the game.
Aside from the U2 halftime show, that was not a fun night. It was hard to tell a difference between what Brady did that postseason and what Trent Dilfer did with Baltimore the year before.
The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002 and started 0-1 in 2003 after letting Lawyer Milloy go before the season. Brady threw four picks in that opener, a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. I used to watch ESPN in the afternoon at the time and they would have talking heads like Sean Salisbury ask if the players hate Bill Belichick as their coach. But soon enough, this team embarked on a record 21-game winning streak that looked like the luckiest damn thing I’d ever seen in football.
They won a game 19-13 in overtime in Miami after Olindo Mare missed two 35-yard field goals in crunch time. At least one was blocked, but he flat out missed the game-winner in overtime. That was Game No. 3 and it proved to be the difference in making a record.
In Game No. 5 in Denver, they took an intentional safety while trailing 24-23 late in the game as Belichick did not want to punt from his own 1. That felt ballsy. Denver gave the ball back in record time, and Brady only had to go 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown. You rarely see the intentional safety work out that well.
Game No. 8 in Indianapolis was the real ball buster and the true beginning of the Manning-Brady, Colts-Patriots rivalry. New England led 31-10 in the third quarter, but Manning turned a couple of Brady picks into touchdowns and quickly tied the game up at 31 in the fourth. Just when you expect a good finish, Bethel Johnson has a 67-yard kick return to give Brady great field position for another touchdown. Johnson also had a 92-yard kick return touchdown to end the first half, which you almost never see in this league.
The Colts were down 38-34 late with the ball. They got a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Edgerrin James ended up getting stuffed three times, including a loss on fourth down. Linebacker Willie McGinest, who ran off the field “injured” on the drive, returned to make that tackle before high-stepping in celebration. There was my introduction to faking an injury in the NFL.
In Game No. 13, the Patriots hosted the Titans in the AFC divisional round. Now I hated the Titans as an old division rival of the Steelers, but I kinda felt myself rooting for them in this one because of how annoying the narrative was on this Patriots team. ESPN was already moving onto the “Brady just wins” crap that would only get worse. Keep in mind this was a season where the Patriots had the No. 1 defense, ranked 16th in points per drive on offense, and Brady was on the fringes of the top 10 in passer rating and YPA behind the legendary Jon Kitna. I mean, I hated Jeff Fisher and his team, but I was fine with seeing them win this one.
It was a freezing cold night, but the offenses started hot before tanking. It was 14-14 in the fourth quarter when Vinatieri once again enhanced his legacy and connected on a 46-yard field goal. Steve McNair had so much time to answer, but pressure did him in, resulting in penalties for grounding and holding. He had to go for it on a 4th-and-12. He threw a pass to Drew Bennett, but Bennett dropped it down the field and the game was over. The Patriots had another playoff win by three points.
January 18, 2004 – This was the day that changed the course of NFL history, how quarterbacks are judged in the mainstream media, and it had a huge impact on me as well.
Peyton Manning was co-MVP with McNair that year, but after winning his first two playoff games in dominant fashion, he was ready to go into New England with a Super Bowl on the line. I was really excited for this one.
I actually watched several Brady games before I watched a full Manning game in the NFL. Sounds shocking, but that’s the truth. I knew his name for years and that his dad played for the Saints in the paper bag over the head days. I knew he was a highly touted player and “the next Dan Marino” and all that. I knew from playing Madden that he was a pain in the ass with the audibles, and in one of my franchise modes, he actually suffered a career-ending injury, the only time I remember seeing one that notable in my game.
But outside of some highlights, I never really saw him play a whole game. That changed in October 2002 when the Steelers hosted the Colts on MNF. Expecting to see something great, the game was a rout. The Steelers were up 21-0 in the second quarter while Manning had a few passes knocked away and Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal. Manning ended up throwing three interceptions and the Colts lost 28-10 in a forgettable game.
But I knew new coach Tony Dungy was a Pittsburgh guy and someone my family wanted to root for. A year later, the Steelers were off to a lousy start and disinteresting me in the season. I watched Manning throw six touchdowns in New Orleans on SNF in a 55-21 win. I hadn’t seen anything like it since Steve Young threw six touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Chargers, which is my earliest Super Bowl memory. As it turns out, Manning’s six touchdown night in New Orleans was the first one in the NFL since that Young Super Bowl win. Young (and Rice) was my favorite non-Pittsburgh player in the 90s.
I was excited to see this 4-0 Colts team take on the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay the next Monday night. I was not happy that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl the previous year and liked to root against Warren Sapp and company. The pre-game show focused on it being Dungy’s birthday, his return to Tampa, and that he never started 5-0 before. Well, it looked like a bad night with the Bucs up three touchdowns early. Manning threw a pick-six with just over five minutes left and Tampa Bay led 35-14. That’s game over for sure.
I was watching it with my grandma, and we decided to let it finish before calling it a night. I was a senior in high school and usually went to bed late anyway. The Colts got a 90-yard kick return and a short touchdown run on fourth down. No big deal. Then they recovered an onside kick, which I had almost never seen done to that point. It got interesting again after Manning threw a 28-yard touchdown to Harrison on 4th-and-6. The defense got the ball back, and there goes Harrison again for 52 yards. They were really doing this. The Colts scored a touchdown and forced overtime after blocking a 62-yard field goal attempt. Each team touched the ball once. Manning was able to complete three third downs in a row and set up a field goal attempt to win it. The Vanderjagt kick was no good, but a penalty was called on Simeon Rice for leaping. Leaping? What the hell is that? I didn’t even know that was a penalty. Vanderjagt got another chance from 29 and he nearly choked that one away too, but it doinked in for the stunning win.
I went to school the next day and a kid who sat at my lunch table had his Mike Alstott jersey on. He clearly didn’t stay up and watch the end of the game like I did with my grandma. That remains the only game in NFL history where a team down 21 points in the final five minutes won. I was hooked from there. I started following along with the live play-by-play updates on the NFL website during games, running from the living room to the dining room computer to see what the Colts were up to. Seeing every updated Manning to Harrison touchdown was exciting.
CBS cut live to the end of the Colts-Patriots game in Week 13. I was bummed at that ending, but maybe they would meet again. In the playoffs, Manning was about as perfect as any quarterback has ever been through two playoff games. He was 22-of-26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns against Denver. He had another 300-yard game in Kansas City, a 38-31 win where neither team punted. He was on a roll.
Then we get to the 2003 AFC Championship Game in New England. The Patriots had a far better defense than the Colts and it was snowing, so that’s a really bad mixture for a “soft dome team” as the Colts were at the time. The Patriots scored on their opening drive. Manning hit a pass for 32 yards on his first play. But on a third down from the NE 5, Manning got careless and forced a pass into the end zone. Rodney Harrison intercepted it and that ended his perfect postseason run. Manning’s next pass was intercepted by career nemesis Ty Law. The Colts also botched a punt for a safety and Marvin fumbled in the red zone before halftime. The team was a mess and trailed 15-0.
While the Colts eventually got the deficit to 21-14 and had the ball late, Manning’s drive came up empty quickly. The Patriots played the receivers very physically all game long, but it especially looked like they held tight end Marcus Pollard on consecutive plays. Walt “Tuck Rule” Coleman was the referee, there were no flags, and the Patriots took over on downs and added a cheap field goal for a 24-14 final.
The league later admitted that those should have been flags on New England on third and fourth down, and there were several other missed calls in the game as well that favored the Patriots. With similar tactics used by Carolina in Philadelphia that day, the league ended up making a league-wide reinforcement of illegal contact in 2004. That opened up the passing game again as the stats were down in 2003.
As for the game itself, Manning had his worst playoff game ever with four interceptions. Law really got the best of him and even got a pick on a pass Manning was trying to throw away. However, I watched the same game as everyone else and I couldn’t believe how careless Brady was with the ball against a far lesser defense. He tried to match Manning pick for pick, and the only reason the game was still close late is a Brady interception in the red zone. But seriously, just watch this video I made years ago of Brady floating the ball out there to the defense. Even Phil Simms goes on about the Patriots having so much luck and catching breaks that year.
After watching Brady start 5-0 in the playoffs with five pretty damn mediocre games, I was beyond annoyed with the way the media fawned over this team. After he finally had a great game in the Super Bowl against Carolina, it was still one where he threw a red-zone pick, arguably got outplayed by Jake Delhomme, and got a John Kasay kickoff out of bounds to start his game-winning drive at the 40. That hasn’t happened in the last 2:00 of any tied NFL game since.
Then 2004 started on opening night with the Patriots hosting the Colts. Once again, Manning played very well against a far better defense, and it was a tight game late. Down 27-24 after a Brady pick, Manning had his offense with first-and-goal at the 1. Edge got the carry and fumbled with 3:43 left. Are you kidding me? After getting the ball back, Manning hit a 45-yard pass right away. On a third down, McGinest was somehow unblocked and came in for a 12-yard sack. Vanderjagt, one of the biggest choker kickers in NFL history, came out and missed a 48-yard field goal to end the game. Does Vinatieri miss there? I think not.
Two years in a row the Colts finished 12-4 and the Patriots finished 14-2 with the Patriots beating the Colts, then beating them again in snowy New England in January. Yet if Edgerrin James could just score from the 1-yard line in both games, that could be two playoff games in Indy instead. The quarterback with homefield was 5-0 in the Manning-Brady playoff games. And those Edge runs had nothing to do with Manning or Brady, yet they were so critical at that point in the rivalry. Despite Manning winning both MVPs in 2003-04, the Patriots won all four head-to-head meetings and both Super Bowls to lock up dynasty status with three rings in four years.
The talking heads like Salisbury just ate this “Brady just wins” shit up. I knew I could do better analysis than this. Meanwhile, I had started to collect data on quarterbacks in those pre-Pro Football Reference days and kept track of things like points allowed and what they did in one-score games, and nothing was adding up for me. How can the best quarterback in the league be someone with stats barely distinguishable from Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and Marc Bulger?
So, I just continued watching games and collecting game logs and even moved on to downloading torrents of games and going through play-by-play data. Learning what I can about this game as guys like Brees and Roethlisberger started to come into the fold as well. I tracked down Manning’s oldest playoff games and I’m watching his receivers drop 7-8 passes against the Titans and Jets. In his first playoff game against the 1999 Titans, Manning watched Jerome Pathon drop a first down on 3rd-and-10, Harrison drop one on 3rd-and-22, and Edge drop one on 4th-and-4. That’s just one quarter of one game the Colts went on to lose 19-16 after Eddie “3.0 YPC” George ran wild. In 2000 against Miami, I watch Pathon drop a touchdown on another third down, and saw how Vanderjagt sent that game-winning attempt into the parking lot that day. He did the same thing against the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round.
At least by that weekend in January 2006, Brady had his first playoff loss after starting 10-0. He threw a brutal pick in the end zone that Champ Bailey returned 100 yards, but it didn’t go for a pick-six because athletic tight end Ben Watson tracked him down and tackled him short. To this day, I kind of feel like that ball went through the end zone and it should have gone to New England on one of the dumbest rules in sports, but god damn, New England had enough breaks already.
You just start thinking about these things. Vinatieri makes a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule while Vanderjagt can’t make a 45-yard field goal indoors against Pittsburgh after Manning caught a rare break with the Jerome Bettis fumble. Vinatieri makes a 46-yard field goal in 4-degree temperatures against Tennessee while Vanderjagt can’t make a 49-yard field goal in Miami weather that he told his coach he could make. All because of four swings of the leg by these two kickers, one quarterback gets to go 6-0 in the playoffs and the other comes out 0-2 those years.
And guys in suits arguing with each other on TV can’t see this stuff for what it is? They have to talk up one player being a better leader or “more clutch” to justify the outcome on the scoreboard that fell in the lap of another player? Fuck that. We can do better.
Fortunately, in 2005-06, the Colts were 3-0 against the Patriots, twice winning in Foxboro to set up an AFC Championship Game in Indy. We all know how that one started and ended, and while I could tell a great story about it, I’ll save that for another time.
The fact is the Colts got over the New England hump and Manning won a Super Bowl that year. But in that same postseason, I watched Brady throw three picks against San Diego and still win a playoff game. I saw him do it again a year later in the AFC Championship Game too. Hell, we just watched him do it in Green Bay this January but forget about recent times for a second. When Manning lost to the Chargers in back-to-back postseasons (2007-08) and his only turnovers were tipped balls off his own receiver’s hands, I was livid again.
After watching Brady flop in Super Bowl 42, self-destruct at home against the 2009 Ravens, and have a shockingly terrible game against the 2010 Jets one month after 45-3, I had seen enough. Not only was Brady not a great playoff quarterback, but Manning was better. Look at where they were through 19 playoff starts through 2010 before Manning left for Denver. It’s even wilder when you consider how the Colts receivers dropped so many more passes (including some tipped picks) and Manning threw more interceptions in garbage time.
Rather than continue writing about each season, I will just show you a graphic I put together of how their careers overlapped when they were competing against each other. Nothing but facts.
Manning and Brady played the same team in the playoffs five times (2007 Chargers, 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets, 2012 Ravens, and 2014 Colts). Manning played a better game than Brady every time but the last against the Colts. That’s why 2014 is the only season on this chart where I think Brady comes out looking much more favorable than Manning based on the way they both played.
While the rivalry between the teams was one sided at the beginning, I never believed it was like that between the quarterbacks. By the time he retired, Manning was 3-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in the AFC Championship Game against Brady. He was eliminated in the playoffs as often by Philip Rivers (with an assist from Billy Volek) as he was by Brady.
Manning was actually more detrimental at limiting Brady’s playoff success than vice versa. The NFL needed this rivalry for competitive balance. In the seasons from 2002 to 2015 where both played, Manning’s teams had five No. 1 seeds compared to four for Brady. It was also tied 7-7 as far as which team had a deeper run with each getting an easy win in the year the quarterback missed for injury. I gave Manning the tie-breaker in 2005 since they both lost in the divisional round, but the top-seeded Colts were eliminated on Sunday and lost a closer game to Pittsburgh than the Pats did to Denver.
Once Manning retired after 2015, Brady has admittedly enhanced his playoff legacy, getting to four more Super Bowls and winning three more, including matching Manning’s feat of winning one with a second franchise. A worthy successor in the AFC failed to step up and challenge the Patriots, because we know the Steelers sure as hell weren’t prepared to do it. Andy Reid’s Chiefs were the best option, and you’d expect that now with Mahomes, but we have seen his only two playoff losses come at the hands of Brady-led teams. Dee Ford a centimeter offsides and not getting the ball in OT was one thing two years ago, but 31-9 is a gut punch. Just wait until you see my 2021 season predictions too.
Conclusion (No, Really)
Manning (seven) has as many first-team All-Pro seasons than Brady (three), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined. Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? Of course not. But is it because of his effort and unrivaled consistency that he earned those honors with his individual play? Yes, it was.
Brady (seven) has more Super Bowl rings than Manning (two), Brees (one), and Rodgers (one) combined. Scratch that, he has as many as them since 2014 alone compared to their whole careers (53 seasons). Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? No, he’s the least talented of the group. But is it because of his effort and that he’s played that much better than those guys in the regular season and postseason?
No, not at all. It’s because Brady had better team support and is the luckiest quarterback of all time. He’s the LOAT, not the GOAT.
Outside of Brady actually being Faust, it beats me why the football gods have chosen this guy as the one who gets the best coaching, the best defenses, the best starting field position, the best special teams, the most clutch kicking, a poverty division of historic proportions for two decades, and almost any other break he could ask for.
Brees played 20 years and gets one postseason with Tracy Porter saving the day with two picks. Any other year, it was someone making a mockery of his defense. Marcus Williams against Stefon Diggs, anyone? Rodgers has seen the same thing in Green Bay where the defense was only dominant and clutch in the playoffs in that 2010 season. Otherwise, we think of things like Brandon Bostick on the onside kick recovery in Seattle or what Kevin King was doing in January against Tampa Bay. But Rodgers is holding out hope for a second act by his defense in the playoffs. Manning got one in Denver with Von Miller dominating in 2015. Now if only he willed Rahim Moore to pick off Flacco in 2012…
We don’t talk up Alvin Kamara or Aaron Jones for what they do in the playoffs. Instead, they are used against those quarterbacks to say that they have a Pro Bowl back and ignore their weak production or fumbles in the big games. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount is the clutch running back or “Playoff Lenny” Fournette is a sensation again in Florida. Hell, Julian Edelman caught as many touchdowns (two) in his playoff debut as Marvin Harrison had in 16 playoff games combined. Even though they’ll argue that Edelman should be in the HOF, “Brady has no weapons” somehow remains a thing even though he’s the only one who played with the most stat-inflating wideout (Randy Moss) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski) of the 21st century. And the most clutch kicker (Adam Vinatieri) ever, and the best coach ever (Bill Belichick). But no help.
Mahomes could play 300 games and Super Bowl LV might be the only one he doesn’t score a touchdown in. Brady: best two-way player ever. Hasn’t given up a touchdown in his last two Super Bowls. Held two all-time great offenses to 12 points.
While we talk about Marcus Williams, Kevin King, Rahim Moore, and trigger PTSD in fans of Brees, Rodgers, and Peyton, with Brady we can bring up Ty Law (twice), Rodney Harrison, Malcolm Butler, and Stephon Gilmore, all of whom should have won a Super Bowl MVP for the Patriots. That’s not including Sterling Moore, who helped make Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown in the end zone in the 2011 AFC Championship Game for Baltimore. Brady didn’t get a ring out of that one, but he still got to another Super Bowl after one of his defenders saved him again.
The Brady difference is the things that have nothing to do with the quarterback. The things that are out of his control that still benefit him. The textbook definition of luck. He has that in spades.
It’s been an exhausting two decades, hasn’t it? I only thought about doing this a week ago as a project with some one-liners about 100 quarterbacks, and here I am 86 pages into a 43,000-word document. I took a nice five-month break from football this year, but it is cathartic for me to get this out before the season starts.
I’d compare Brady to Tim Duncan, but the thing is Duncan was actually great in the playoffs. There really is no comparison for Brady. If you bring up Michael Jordan, you’re ignoring how dominant and record-setting he was, and how great he was in those Finals MVP runs. The best Brady may have ever played in a full playoff run was in 2017, a year that did not end in a championship. Go figure.
Manning’s career has a lot in common with that of LeBron James, another generational talent we are fortunate to have experienced. They came into their leagues with so much hype and expectations, and somehow, they lived up to it and even exceeded them. Yet because their record in the final round and their ring count aren’t the greatest ever, they still get criticized for that.
I know that no one else would have been able to take the teams they played with and had more success than they did. That is why they are the best players in their respective sport in the 21st century, or at least, that is how I have viewed the last 20 years. That concludes this trip down memory lane.
If this is somehow still on the internet decades from now, and you’ve managed to read it all, I just want to say thank you, and I’m sorry.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
On Tuesday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame released the list of 25 modern-era semifinalists for the 2021 class. The list includes four players eligible for the first time and four older players making their first semifinalist list:
Eric Allen (first-time semifinalist)
Jared Allen (first-year eligible)
Willie Anderson (first-time semifinalist)
Cornelius Bennett (first-time semifinalist)
Rodney Harrison (first-time semifinalist)
Calvin Johnson (first-year eligible)
Peyton Manning (first-year eligible)
Clay Matthews (final year of eligibility)
Charles Woodson (first-year eligible)
The first-ballot choices are interesting, because there has never been a HOF class with more than three of them. I think that trend will continue as voters will wait on Calvin Johnson because of an early retirement, and Jared Allen isn’t a lock to go right in either. Remember, Michael Strahan had to wait until his second year. But I do believe all four will be in soon enough.
Clay Matthews (Sr.) is in his final year of eligibility, but much like Carl Banks a year ago, I do not see a strong push for him. He’ll get added to the senior list next year.
I’m not convinced any of the four first-time semifinalists are going much further in the process. In fact, I don’t see Willie Anderson, Rodney Harrison, Cornelius Bennett, or Eric Allen making the Hall of Fame at all. Maybe as senior selections some day. Harrison, despite an indisputable reputation as a dirty cheater, has the best shot of the four due to his postseason success with New England. He should have been the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX against Philadelphia.
Here are my predictions for the 15 finalists:
Finally, these are the five players I predict to make up the 2021 modern-era class:
Now if only we could get a ceremony next year as we already didn’t have an oversized one in 2020 for the centennial class. Manning deserves a big audience to close the night, or the end of a long week after the Hall of Fame will have 28 people to induct in 2021.
Tom Brady (552) is chasing Drew Brees (555) for the NFL’s all-time touchdown pass record, while Aaron Rodgers (377) still has an outside shot of passing both if he chooses to play long enough (and if they ever retire).
With Brady kicking off Week 5 against Chicago on Thursday night, it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes all out — think excessive throws from inside the 3-yard line — to throw three or four touchdowns to get at least a share of a record he has yet to hold.
It’s unclear if this will be the final season for Brees or Brady, but this should be a tight race in 2020, and neither may be able to entirely wipe out Peyton Manning from the leaderboard when you break down the touchdown passes by yards gained.
In the following chart, you can see the record holder for the most touchdown passes that gained at least X amount of yards from 1 to 99. So for the entry of 10, that means Peyton Manning threw 324 touchdown passes that gained at least 10 yards, still beating out Brees (320), Brett Favre (298), and Brady (293) for the time being.
Brees is within striking distance of basically the whole 1-45 block, but there are some amusing entries in the middle column that show how different the NFL used to be in regards to the long ball. John Hadl and the great Johnny Unitas threw long touchdown passes with amazing frequency that still holds up today. Eli Manning making a few appearances is also interesting. Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to take over the 80+ yard plays, but Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind for the 70+ yard touchdowns. He has 18 of those, or one behind Brees.
We can also see some interesting things when we go by the game-by-game progression of these records.
Brees is at 555 touchdown passes in his 279th game. Brady will play in his 290th game on Thursday night. You can see Rodgers is ready to do some damage to this leaderboard after taking over from Dan Marino at Game 111 of his career. Remember, this includes the seven games he didn’t start as Favre’s backup in 2005-07. Rodgers is at 377 touchdown passes in 185 games, giving him a share of the record with Brees at 193 games. So that’s an eight-game cushion.
He still has a long way to go, but Patrick Mahomes may very well wipe out Marino, Rodgers, and anyone else in his path on this chart. Mahomes has a tie of the record at 39 games with Marino, but he’s only played 35 games so far. He should become the fastest player to 100 touchdown passes, then we’ll see from there.
The history of the NFL is layered with statistical oddities.
The 12 teams with the most points scored in NFL history have won zero championships.
The Detroit Lions have only won one playoff game since 1958.
Bruce Smith has the most sacks (200.0) in NFL history, but never led the league in sacks in 19 seasons.
Drew Brees holds most NFL passing records, but has never won an MVP award.
Something that’s being treated as an oddity is the fact that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has never received a single vote for MVP in his first eight seasons. In a quote I only noticed this week from early in the offseason, Wilson himself joked about this fact:
“Come on? No votes at all? What more I got to do around here, huh? I’m just saying, you know, can we get a couple votes here or there? Why not?”
Russell Wilson, May 2020
Sure, his linebacker teammate Bobby Wagner receiving a vote from Tony Dungy in 2014 is the height of ridiculousness, but a vote for Wilson that year also would have been laughable. It’s not an oddity at all that Wilson has yet to get a vote.
The truth is that an MVP vote for Russell Wilson in any of the last eight seasons would have made as much sense as voting Jill Stein for president in 2016.
When you only get one vote, why would you waste that vote on someone out of pity or for the lesser candidate who has no chance of winning? It would be different if voters had to rank their top three candidates in a points system and Wilson still had zero points in eight years, but that’s not how the NFL does this award.
So we’re going to break this into two sections. First, I’m going to show why Wilson has rightfully never received a vote, and then I’m going to explain why 2020 might finally be his year.
Part I: Russell Wilson vs. 2012-19 MVP Field
Let’s go season by season, and remember the only thing that matters for MVP is the regular season performance.
2012 MVP Vote: Adrian Peterson (30.5), Peyton Manning (19.5)
This one should have gone to Peyton Manning for his transformative impact on the Broncos claiming the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but old-school voters still loved their workhorse running backs and round numbers like 2,000 rushing yards. Wilson’s impact was almost immediate on the Seahawks, but rookies have never won an MVP in the modern NFL and Seattle’s defense and Marshawn Lynch still drew a lot of headlines that season. But the Seahawks were definitely on their way to something special starting with this season.
2013 MVP Vote: Peyton Manning (49), Tom Brady (1)
First of all, former pro quarterback Jim Miller was the lone Brady vote, which should have been the last time he had an MVP vote. Manning should have been unanimous this year after rewriting the record books again with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns for the highest-scoring team in history. Granted, Wilson got the Super Bowl win that year over Denver, but when it came to the MVP, Manning pretty much had that on cruise control since opening night when he threw seven touchdowns against the Ravens.
2014 MVP Vote: Aaron Rodgers (31), J.J. Watt (13), Tony Romo (2), DeMarco Murray (2), Tom Brady (1), Bobby Wagner (1)
This was one of the more undecided years. Manning started hot before fading. Aaron Rodgers had a rough September, but turned it around quickly to go on a big run. Tony Romo was at his best for Dallas. As for Wilson, this was a weird year in that he passed for a career-low 20 touchdowns, but it was his most prolific rushing season with 849 yards and six touchdowns. He also led the league with 13 fumbles. So overall he had a nice year, but quarterback play was really strong in 2014 and you could argue he was behind Rodgers, Romo, Manning, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. Wilson finished 13th in DYAR and DVOA, but 6th in QBR since he had the rushing impact.
Still, he was more valuable than Bobby damn Wagner, Mr. Dungy.
2015 MVP Vote: Cam Newton (48), Carson Palmer (1), Tom Brady (1)
Out of the last eight MVP awards, I think this is the most debatable and cringeworthy one based on the voting outcome. It’s also the only one where Wilson had a good case.
Best QB over the last seven games? Wilson had 24 TD, 1 INT, 132.8 passer rating to end the season.
Best QB over the last nine games? Cam Newton had 24 TD, 2 INT, 115.8 passer rating and six more scores on the ground for a team that finished 15-1.
Best QB over the first nine games? Tom Brady had 24 TD, 3 INT, 111.1 passer rating for team that started 10-0 before losing four of his last six.
Best QB over the whole 16 games? Carson Palmer led the league in YPA and QBR on a 13-3 Arizona team with the most vertical passing game in the NFL.
Ultimately, voters fell in love with Newton’s team record and his total touchdown number (45). Wilson had that blistering finish, but he had a rocky first nine games where he only threw 10 touchdowns and the Seahawks were 4-5. The hole was dug too deep to climb out of. If voters actually cared about which quarterback played the best over the full season, they would have voted Palmer as I would have if I had a vote. Still, Brady and Palmer got a vote while Wilson didn’t, so that mostly tells me the Seattle-based voter isn’t a homer.
2016 MVP Vote: Matt Ryan (25), Tom Brady (10), Ezekiel Elliott (6), Derek Carr (6), Aaron Rodgers (2), Dak Prescott (1)
This one could have gone terribly, but at least half were sane enough to give it to Matt Ryan for one of the most consistently great passing seasons in NFL history. Brady received 10 votes despite the Patriots starting 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett while he was suspended. The votes for Zeke should have gone to Dak Prescott, who I would argue had the best rookie quarterback season to that point. It’s actually surprising a hot six-game finish and playoff trip didn’t earn Rodgers more than two votes, which should have at least been more than the absurd six votes Derek Carr received.
As for Wilson, 2016 is arguably his worst NFL season. He finished 15th with a career-low 57.1 QBR. He was never able to string together more than two or three high-quality games in a row.
This is the year I refer to as Brady winning a Default MVP since there really was no standout candidate. This was the brutal QB injury year where Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone again, Andrew Luck never played a snap, and other players like Carson Palmer and Carson Wentz were injured. Wentz probably could have won it if he didn’t tear his ACL when he did.
Wilson actually ended up leading the league in touchdown passes (34) for the first time, but again, that was thanks to the Wentz injury. Seattle also missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record and you’re just never going to see someone get an MVP vote with that resume. Despite the touchdowns, Wilson’s YPA was also a career-low 7.2 that year.
2018 MVP Vote: Patrick Mahomes (41), Drew Brees (9)
This was mostly a year-long battle between Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees before Brees faded after Thanksgiving. Philip Rivers popped into the conversation late in the year, but it was always logical to go with Mahomes, who finished with 50 touchdown passes in his first year as a starter. That’s historic stuff and he’s continued to be a history maker ever since.
Wilson had an efficient passing season, but 2018 was when Brian Schottenheimer took over as offensive coordinator and the team began dialing back the number of pass plays. Wilson finished 11th in QBR that year and was never really in the conversation. He had another amazing eight-game stretch (Weeks 5-13), but Mahomes was clearly better from start to finish.
2019 MVP Vote: Lamar Jackson (50)
As I wrote on here last November, Wilson was the clear MVP winner if the award was given after Week 9. But I also warned that with the tough upcoming schedule, these things can change quickly. Wilson in fact did not thrive the rest of the season, throwing just 9 touchdown passes in the last seven games with a 90.7 passer rating, 7.2 YPA, and he took 26 more sacks. The Seahawks also lost three of their last four games with efforts that weren’t even close against the Rams and Cardinals.
Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson only got stronger in Baltimore, a team that wouldn’t lose again until the postseason. After Week 9, Jackson threw 24 touchdowns to one interception with a 130.0 passer rating and 8.06 YPA. He also finished the season with 1,206 rushing yards, an absurd record total for a quarterback in this league. That’s why by season’s end it was a no-brainer choice to vote for Jackson, who received all 50 votes as he should have.
But leave it up to NBC/PFF’s Cris Collinsworth to bemoan during this season’s Week 2 game that he would have spoiled Jackson’s unanimous MVP by voting for Wilson last year if he could have. Why? Beats me, because Jackson was the only logical choice in 2019 when it came time to vote.
Part II: Russell Wilson’s Year?
We’re only going into Week 4, but maybe this lack of an MVP vote stuff has motivated Wilson to play his best football yet. Through three games, Wilson has the Seahawks at 3-0 despite allowing 86 points in those games, the third most ever for a 3-0 team in NFL history. Wilson has thrown 14 touchdown passes, the new record for the first three games of a season:
Notice the other four seasons on this chart all led to an MVP award too. Usually when someone starts this hot, it turns into a prolific season that challenges the touchdown record.
Wilson could be joining an interesting list of quarterbacks who really peaked in the ninth year of their careers in the NFL.
Counting stats be damned, as an expert on Peyton Manning’s career I will tell you that he was never better than he was in the 2006 season when he helped the Colts set records for third-down conversion rate and still won 12 games (then a Super Bowl) despite a horrid run defense that really limited the possessions that team had each week. His drive engineering, the ultimate job of every quarterback, was never better and that was probably his physical peak as well. That was the season where he took a nasty hit against Gregg Williams’ Washington defense that may have started the neck issues that later led to surgery.
Drew Brees had his most MVP-worthy season and won his only Super Bowl in Year 9 with the 2009 Saints. Things never actually got sweeter for Brees and head coach Sean Payton there. Matt Ryan peaked and won his only MVP award in 2016, his ninth season in the NFL. Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers were at their best in 1978, his ninth season and the only one where he was named NFL MVP. Steve McNair won a co-MVP with Manning in 2003, his ninth season. Even someone like Joe Montana had a career-high 31 touchdown passes in 1987, his ninth season, and it was his best numbers to that point until he surpassed them (efficiency wise) in 1989.
There’s not any special significance to the number nine, but if you think about it, that’s right around where a quarterback should be turning 30. At that point of his career, he has great experience and knowledge of the position, but should still be young and athletic enough as the physical decline stage isn’t there yet. It really should be most quarterback’s prime, but we’ll have to see how Wilson finishes this year because having a seven or nine-game hot streak hasn’t been a problem in the past for him. He’s just never had that ungodly season from start to finish that wins MVP awards like it has for Manning, Ryan, Brady, Mahomes, Jackson, etc.
There’s also the fact that 2020 is super offensive so far. We’re talking about the most points scored per game and the highest passing numbers (completion rate, yards, TDs, passer rating, etc.) through three weeks in NFL history. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise in a pandemic year without a real offseason or preseason. Referees aren’t calling offensive holding as much, which definitely helps offenses sustain drives. Defenses look well behind the offenses (New York teams aside), which is what we saw happen in 2011 when the lockout also led to a problematic offseason.
So is Wilson’s hot start just him being more amazing than ever, or is it a bit of “wow, Dallas and Atlanta are horrible on defense and so is most of the league”? Wilson is definitely going to have competition for MVP this year from Mahomes and Rodgers, if not others (dare I say Josh Allen?). The five-touchdown night Wilson had against the Patriots was special, but will voters remember that Week 2 game come January when they vote? There’s definitely a disadvantage to peaking early for MVP, which is why it’ll be crucial for Wilson to continue this stellar level of play throughout the season.
Seattle’s rough looking defense and placement in the toughest division also don’t bode well for a great record by season’s end, but if Wilson’s going to throw for 55+ touchdowns, he’s probably going to get the benefit of the doubt with only 11 or 12 wins.
That means for once, Wilson will actually deserve an MVP vote.*
*Any and all 2020 predictions come with the caveat of “if the season doesn’t end early due to COVID-19.”
On Monday night, the Ravens were dominated by Kansas City in a 34-20 game that wasn’t as close as the final suggests. Special teams helped give the Ravens an 11-point advantage, but the Chiefs gained almost 300 more yards, finished 10-of-13 on third down, didn’t allow a sack, and Patrick Mahomes put on a masterclass with 411 yards and five touchdowns of total offense. Meanwhile, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson only completed 15-of-28 passes for 97 yards and took four sacks. Sure, he was the game’s leading rusher (83 yards), but that production mainly led to just two Baltimore field goals.
We tend to obsess over creating rivalries in sports. With the changing of the guard in the AFC, the most logical choice for the new NFL decade was Mahomes vs. Lamar, Chiefs vs. Ravens. This was going to mirror the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry, especially from the days when it was the offensive juggernaut Colts vs. the masterfully-coached Patriots. We thought last year would be the first AFC Championship Game between Mahomes and Jackson, but it didn’t happen. We thought last night would be the Game of the Year in the regular season, but it wasn’t even the best game of Week 3.
The reason those things didn’t happen is the same: Jackson didn’t pass the ball well in games where the opponents were able to score early and force him to be better as a passer.
While we’re quick to create rivalries, the truth is Jackson compares more favorably to 1988-90 Randall Cunningham than he does Manning, Brady or Mahomes.
If you don’t believe me, consider that Cunningham won the PFWA MVP in 1990, was the most prolific rushing QB the league had seen at the time, and he was 0-3 in the playoffs with no touchdown passes and led the Eagles to 25 total points in those games.
I’ll show you why it’s not good to compare Jackson to these other quarterbacks.
Lamar Jackson Is Not Tom Brady
Originally, Jackson was supposed to be the Brady in the rivalry with Mahomes, but that’s really gone to the wayside in the last year. Jackson had the impeccable winning percentage on the balanced team with a great defensive tradition and top-notch special teams with the most trustworthy kicker in the league. But ever since the Chiefs last lost in Tennessee in 2019, the defense has really improved to the point where it’s a strength rather than a liability like it was in 2018. The Chiefs have only allowed more than 24 points once in their 12-game winning streak.
Meanwhile, Jackson has been very dependent on his defense playing well to have success in this league. So far, he is 0-5 as a starter when the Ravens allow more than 24 points, including all three losses to Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Chiefs are also the only team to score more than 14 points in the first half against Baltimore in Jackson’s 27 starts.
When the Ravens can play their game, they’re as dominant as any team in the NFL right now. Their game, consisting of controlling the clock with a prolific rushing attack, efficient passing, a blitzing/opportunistic defense and great special teams will work against most of the 31 opponents. But when you get an opponent that can score early and break down some of those Baltimore advantages, Jackson and the Ravens seem to go into panic mode. We saw it in the shocking Tennessee playoff loss and again last night.
That’s why there’s really no comparison here between Jackson and the early run of Tom Brady with the 2001-06 era Patriots. Those teams were known for being able to adapt to any play style and winning any type of game. They could win an ugly defensive slugfest, but they can also win a shootout or high-scoring game. They could come back from large deficits with the passing game. Brady could throw 40 or 50 passes in a victory.
Sure, Brady’s pass efficiency stats from those days looked indistinguishable from the Trent Greens and Matt Hasselbecks of the day, but he wasn’t a liability when asked to play from behind like Jackson has been so far in his career.
In his third career start, Brady led the Patriots to a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback over San Diego. So far, Jackson is 0-5 when trailing by two possessions at any time in the game. Jackson does have three game-winning drives, but they were all field goals in a tied game. The only fourth-quarter comeback of Jackson’s career was in Pittsburgh last season. He led two field goal drives in the fourth quarter, then in overtime led a 6-yard drive after a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble for another game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker. Not exactly the stuff of legends. When Jackson faces the Steelers this year, they should have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges like they did that day.
The fact is those Patriots were far from front-runners, so it’s really hard to compare Jackson to any version of Brady.
Lamar Jackson Is Not Peyton Manning
Now the conversation has shifted to “well Peyton Manning lost his first three playoff games and first six games to Brady, so Lamar is in the same boat in regards to Mahomes.”
This is a gross simplification and bad comparison to make.
First, Manning actually had second-half leads in both of his first two playoff games, including a 7-point lead in Miami (2000) in the final 40 seconds before losing in overtime after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal. Jackson has lost two home playoff games wire to wire, meaning he never had a lead. Not even a “3-0 in the first quarter before the opponent touched the ball” type of lead. I’ve gone over in great detail before how Manning routinely had late leads in playoff games that his teams surrendered.
Second, Manning didn’t have a turnover in a playoff game until he was down 34-0 in the fourth quarter of his third playoff game (2002 Jets). In two playoff games, Jackson has thrown three interceptions and fumbled four times, losing two of them. Manning’s first two playoff games were clearly better performances than Jackson’s first two have been.
Then there’s the head-to-head showdowns. For starters, one of the biggest myths in the NFL this century is the idea that Manning kept losing to Brady in the early 2000s (the first six games in fact) because he wasn’t the better or more “clutch” quarterback. While both teams used to be in the AFC East, this rivalry didn’t actually start until 2003, the first year Manning and Brady both made the playoffs. The Patriots swept them that year and again in 2004, and the impact those four games have had on the legacies of these quarterbacks is absurd. If you look at what actually happened in the regular season meetings, the most significant plays involved Edgerrin James not being able to score at the 1-yard line both years:
Brady wasn’t outplaying Manning in these games, and the same can be said about those playoff games played in snowy New England that otherwise would have been played in Indianapolis had the Colts been able to score those 1-yard touchdowns late.
Seriously, don’t even get me started on those playoff games. Some other day maybe.
Manning’s Colts were right there with the Patriots, and they finally broke through and defeated them all three times in 2005-06. When it comes to Lamar-Mahomes, isn’t it alarming how Jackson continues to get more outclassed by Mahomes with each passing meeting?
Jackson at least took Mahomes to overtime in Kansas City in 2018 before losing 27-24, a game he technically didn’t finish (Robert Griffin III threw the final fourth-down pass). Mahomes had to convert an amazing 4th-and-9 to Tyreek Hill in that one to even get to overtime. In last year’s trip to Arrowhead, the Ravens lost 33-28, but that was after falling behind 23-6 at halftime and failing on three two-point conversions. It was arguably the worst game of Jackson’s MVP regular season while Mahomes was fantastic with 374 yards and three touchdown passes. Then of course last night was an embarrassment with Mahomes passing for 385 yards and four scores while Jackson didn’t even hit 100 yards through the air. Sure, TE Mark Andrews didn’t help Lamar out with any great catches, but it was a night of inaccurate throws and questionable short passes that never had a chance to do anything. Jackson just looked off the whole night while Mahomes was in God Mode again.
While Jackson has yet to throw an interception against Kansas City, he’s only completed 52.63% of his passes against them with 5.38 YPA. Those are incredibly bad numbers, and for as much as Kansas City’s defense has improved over time, they’re not that great. Rookie Justin Herbert just had a much better game than Lamar against the Chiefs a week ago and he didn’t even know he was starting until the coin toss. Jackson also lost a fumble last night, his second lost fumble against the Chiefs.
Lamar Jackson Is Not Patrick Mahomes
It’s probably not fair to pretend that the only big games of Jackson’s NFL career are the two playoff games and the three Chiefs games, all five of which he has lost and underperformed significantly. For example, the stage was definitely huge with a playoff atmosphere on Sunday night last year when the Ravens hosted the 8-0 Patriots. Jackson was fantastic and the Ravens won 37-20, putting them on the path to the No. 1 seed.
That game just can’t be ignored. However, Jackson is 21-1 as a starter in all other games that aren’t the playoffs and Chiefs, only losing to Cleveland last year. When it comes to Baltimore ultimately achieving championship success, they will be measured by playoff games and how they fare against the best of the best. The Chiefs were the No. 1 seed in 2018, they were the No. 2 seed and Super Bowl champions last year, and Monday night’s game was quite possibly the tie-breaker game for this year’s top seed.
These games should matter more, but Jackson and the Ravens looked ill-prepared for what the Chiefs were able to do. That’s very concerning after finally getting them out of Arrowhead, albeit in an empty stadium.
Jackson is 23 years old. I don’t want to make it sound like he’ll never win a playoff game or won’t erase a double-digit deficit in this league. There’s still plenty of time to grow and achieve everything he wants to achieve in the NFL. But the unescapable fact is Mahomes is only 25, and with half a billion dollars coming to him, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So if Jackson is going to get over the hump, he’s likely going to have to beat Mahomes. After what happened last night, that doesn’t seem like it will happen any time soon.
Until Jackson develops into a more consistent passer, Mahomes and the Chiefs have no rival in this NFL.
Back in August I spent a little time breaking players down by position to create my list of the 100 greatest players in NFL history. My plan was to post this before the 2019 season started to celebrate 100 years of the league, but then I ran into a familiar problem of not being sure how to rank one player over another when they play different positions.
For example, I knew I would have more quarterbacks (15) than any other position. However, just because I favor Roger Staubach over John Elway, does that mean I like both over Jack Lambert, my No. 4 linebacker, or does Lambert belong somewhere between the two? Also, thought was given to extending the list to 101 players and starting it with Patrick Mahomes just because of how absurd the start to his career was coming into 2019. I’m not doing that, but he is off the charts so far.
So as a late Christmas gift, you are getting my list today. After seeing the way the NFL has rolled out its controversial top 100, I decided to just rank the players by position instead of a 1-100 ranking. I’ve already made my share of comments on here and Twitter about the NFL Network’s list, and some of those will be repeated here. I expect about 66 of my players to match the 100 on here:
As far as how I arrived at my 100 players, I did not purposely neglect the early decades. I absolutely did place an emphasis on players who were truly dominant and stood out despite having so many worthy peers to compete with for honors and statistics. I can honestly say I’m not too interested in what a two-way lineman from the 1920s did, but I feel like I still included enough pioneers of the game who deserve honor in 2019. I also wasn’t going to neglect this past decade and the players who have already carved an incredible legacy.
I am not a ring counter, but I respect a player’s contribution towards winning. There’s no fancy formula or system I use to rank players, but I try to take everything I’ve learned from research into consideration from stats, eye test, peak performances, longevity, durability, awards, rings, how quickly they made the Hall of Fame, and how the player was perceived during his career. When we’re only picking 100, we should be focusing on first-ballot HOF types.
The choice to keep comments open may be one I regret, but let’s do this. Scroll to the bottom (or click here) if you want to see my full list of the top 100 players in NFL history.
My last real post about the top quarterbacks in NFL history is over four years old and a Part II was never made. You can read that if you want, but the fact is my thoughts have changed a lot since September 2015. Sure, my top 15 quarterbacks are the same group of players, and my top three hasn’t changed. However, nearly five full seasons have been played since and even just fundamentally I am seeing things a bit differently now.
I may be even more down on rings for quarterbacks than I was in 2015. This comes after watching Zombie Manning win his second, the Falcons handing Brady another after he turned a game-ending pick into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman, Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP, and Brady again cementing his legacy as the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl by scoring 13 offensive points (for the second time). When 2016 Matt Ryan and 2018 Patrick Mahomes turn in two of the greatest QB seasons ever and don’t even get the ball in overtime in championship game losses, what are we really accomplishing by putting everything on rings?
Sustained peak play is also something I value more now, so that will definitely come up when we get into the middle of the list here.
1-3: No Changes (Manning-Montana-Unitas)
I still have Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas as my top three quarterbacks of all time, which has been the case for quite a while now.
3. Johnny Unitas
Unitas always deserves respect for being the game’s first true field general. He called the shots and is regarded as having created the two-minute drill. His championship game performances against the Giants are the stuff of legends. He led the league in touchdown passes four years in a row. He threw 32 touchdowns in a 12-game season in 1959. He was as good as anyone when it came to throwing game-winning touchdown passes. He was a five-time All-Pro and three-time MVP winner. He succeeded with multiple coaches. The only real knock on him would be that his career was in the gutter after Year 12 and his playoff games after 1959 were rough, but what a run it was before that. He would have loved to play in this era with more passing, more shotgun, better kickers, wild cards, etc. In his last great season (All Pro in 1967), Unitas led the Colts to an 11-1-2 record that wasn’t good enough for the playoffs. Imagine that now. Unitas would have routinely been in the playoffs in a league with expansion.
2. Joe Montana
Montana was a great fit for Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, displaying elite accuracy, decision making and underrated mobility for years in San Francisco. He put up great numbers and won two Super Bowls even before the team drafted Jerry Rice in 1985. Montana proved he could win big without Walsh as he did in 1989, his most dominant season and first MVP. Montana also showed later in Kansas City after major injuries that he could still lead a team to success, getting the cursed Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game immediately in 1993. Like Unitas, Montana was great at throwing game-winning touchdowns in the clutch. His playoff runs over the 1988-1993 seasons were incredible. Durability was a knock as Montana did miss roughly 55 games to injury in his career. So he never threw for 4,000 yards and only hit 30 touchdown passes once, but he was the most efficient passer of his era.
1. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning played the position at a higher level more consistently for a longer period of time than any quarterback in NFL history. He was the most individually-honored QB of all time with seven first-team All-Pro seasons and five MVP awards. He could have easily had eight of each (see 2005, 2006 and 2012). He struggled the first six games of his career before improving and setting numerous rookie records in 1998 at a time when rookies rarely did anything in the NFL. He didn’t struggle consistently like that again until 2015 when he was 39 and his body was failing him. He still led the Broncos to five late wins in the fourth quarter that year to help win a second Super Bowl before retiring.
Manning’s career path is most enviable, if not logical. He was at his worst as an infant and an elder, and still came away with records and a ring in those two seasons. For the 15 seasons in between, he was the most valuable player in NFL history. We’ll likely never see another quarterback take four different head coaches (from two franchises) to a Super Bowl like Manning did. He was the system, and it fell apart any time he was taken out of the game for playoff rest or when he missed the 2011 season for the 2-14 Colts. He couldn’t even leave a game for one play with a broken jaw without the offense fumbling in the fourth quarter to lead to a game-losing touchdown. No player took on a heavier burden and won as often as Manning did. He was also 89-0 when his team allowed fewer than 17 points in a game he finished. No one was better at making sure a strong defensive effort resulted in a win.
We’ll likely never see another quarterback break the passing touchdown record twice like Manning did, including 2013 when he threw 55 scores and the most yards ever in a season with marginal arm strength at best. The way he tailored his game in Denver to throw with even more anticipation was amazing.
In his physical prime in Indianapolis, Manning led the Colts to at least 12 wins in every season from 2003 to 2009. They were almost never out of any game then, including that 21-point comeback in the final four minutes in Tampa Bay in 2003 or the 18-point comeback win over the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. With most quarterbacks you can turn the game off with a big deficit in the fourth quarter, but Manning was the best at making those games uncomfortable for the opponent.
Aside from maybe Dan Marino, Manning was the toughest quarterback to pressure and sack, always making life easier for any offensive line put in front of him. He called his own shots like Unitas in an era that’s increasingly gone towards radio communication telling the QB what to run. The Colts took the no-huddle offense to new heights in the 2000s. Manning was so uniquely talented that he even made the end zone fade — one of football’s worst play calls — a useful weapon thanks to the work he put in with Marvin Harrison before games. Manning’s work ethic, accuracy and consistency helped make millionaires and household names out of numerous coaches and teammates. When a putz like Adam Gase brags about being rich, he can thank Manning for their time in Denver.
The bugaboo for Manning will always be the 14-13 playoff record and the nine one-and-done postseasons, but the fact is he was one of the best playoff quarterbacks in NFL history too with numerous records there. As I solved before Super Bowl 50, the record number of playoff losses (13) are a combo of making the playoffs more often than anyone with teams that sometimes had no business being there, and losing several of the most highly-contested opening-round games to good teams. Most players aren’t opening their playoffs against the 99 Titans, 05 Steelers, 07 Chargers, or 12 Ravens. Other quarterbacks would have their close calls in the later rounds of the playoffs, but Manning saw five of his record six blown fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs happen in opening games. Only one other QB in NFL history (Warren Moon, 3) had more than two such games. In years where Manning got past the first game, his teams were 13-4 in the playoffs and 2-2 in the Super Bowl.
The detractors have to stick with poor box-score scouting of playoff games and remembering things like Tracy Porter and Ty Law (but forgetting the picks the 2003 Colts didn’t make that day) because that’s all they have left. Year after year Manning erased the arguments against him:
They said Manning was only good because of RB Edgerrin James (see record in 1998 and 2001 without him), so Manning immediately won his first Super Bowl after Edge left in 2006.
They said Manning was only good because he had a left tackle like Tarik Glenn, so after Glenn retired he kept things going and even won an MVP with noted bust Tony Ugoh as his left tackle in 2008. He also improved his pocket movement after the 2005 Pittsburgh loss.
They said Manning would miss the calming presence of Tony Dungy and his all-time leading receiver Marvin Harrison after retirement in 2009. He only started that season 14-0 with the corpse of Jim Caldwell on the sideline and by integrating Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie seamlessly into the offense.
They said Manning’s QB whisperer Tom Moore was the key to his success in Indianapolis, but Manning set up shot without Moore in Denver and immediately got the desired results for a franchise that tried to run a 1930s offense with Tim Tebow in 2011.
They said Manning had great stats because he played in a dome in Indianapolis, so after diminished arm strength following four neck surgeries, he led one of the most dominant passing offenses in NFL history for three years in Denver outdoors. Several of his worst games in that uniform came indoors as a visitor.
The only thing Manning didn’t prove is that he can still play at a high level thru age 39 and beyond like Favre, Brady and Brees have. Then again, they’re the only three on my list to do that, so it’s not a deal-breaker.
Manning is the easiest quarterback to defend because his success isn’t dependent on one constant coach, team, owner or any factor but his own hard work and skill. He wasn’t the most durable, but he was more durable and harder to replace than Montana. He wasn’t washed after Year 12 like Unitas nor did he peak in his first five years like Marino. His peak was far longer than the eight years of relevance Young gave us. He didn’t need four years to break out like Brees did and 7-9 seasons were beneath him. There were some throws he’d like to have back, but that’s true for all of these guys, and there were fewer regrets than Favre had. He also didn’t have Bill Belichick holding his hand for two decades like Brady. We didn’t have years of “What’s wrong with Peyton?” articles like we’ve had with Aaron Rodgers since 2015, because the decline was so rapid.
Manning ascended to the top of the game quickly, stayed there for a long time, and then fell off the cliff in a hurry. Maybe another quarterback with the initials P.M. will wipe Manning out of the record books in the next 15-20 years. But for the first 100 years of NFL history, the only clear GOAT to me is Peyton Manning. Period.
4-6: I Want to Watch the World Burn (Brees-Brady-Marino)
Good news for Brady fans: this is the first time you’ve seen me rank Brady ahead of Dan Marino. Bad news for Brady fans: I put Drew Brees ahead of them both, which you might have expected was coming from my recent look at Brees as the Hypothetical GOAT. You can read that for more context on the crazy amount of records Brees owns so I don’t need to repeat them here.
My very recent epiphany on this was that Brees is having the career we wish Marino had. Don’t get me wrong when it comes to Marino’s greatness. If Marino played now he would be battling Brees for the most 5,000-yard passing seasons and would still be incredibly hard to sack with his quick release. But why do we seemingly only do this “if he played now” thing with Marino and never with Unitas or Montana or even 1983 classmate Elway? It’s always the hypothetical for Marino, the best to never win a Super Bowl, or something Brees actually has done and could still do again.
My justification for putting Marino ahead of Brady all these years was that he was a better passer surrounded by far worse teams, especially on defense. If it was a close playoff game, Marino always did his job. He just wasn’t always close or in the playoffs often enough because he didn’t have enough help around him.
This argument actually works better for Brees, who has seen more great seasons and games go to waste than any QB in NFL history. Sean Payton has just never done much to coach up the defense in New Orleans. Brees won three passing titles in a row in 2014-16 for teams that never won more than seven games in any of those seasons. Brees has been saddled five times with a defense that ranked 31st or 32nd in points per drive allowed. As I already explained a few weeks ago, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most comeback wins.
In the playoffs, Brees actually has better efficiency stats than Brady and Marino. Brees is one of 12 quarterbacks to appear in at least eight different postseasons (he’ll make his ninth this year). He’s the only QB out of those 12 who can say he’s never had a bad postseason. The closest was 2013, but in two road games he still pulled out one late win in Philadelphia before struggling with Seattle’s vaunted defense. The guy just doesn’t have duds in January, and I’m sure I’m jinxing myself here but it’s a fact so far.
Brees has been on the losing end of many heartbreakers in the playoffs. Brees lost his first playoff game (2004 NYJ) after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal in overtime. He threw for over 400 yards and scored 36 points in Seattle, but it wasn’t enough because of the Beastquake. He is the only quarterback to lose a playoff game after throwing two go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter because of what Alex Smith did to his defense in the final two minutes. Then we have the last couple of years with the Minnesota Miracle (only walk-off TD in 4Q in playoff history) and the sham of no DPI on the Rams that would have enabled the Saints to kick a last-second field goal and get to another Super Bowl.
While Brees continues to excel at 40, Marino peaked very early with that 1984 sophomore season and never got back to the Super Bowl. His first five years are significantly better than the rest of his career. He struggled at 38 and retired. One of the most nonsensical things is when people say “Marino would throw for 6,000 yards and 60 TD if he played today.” No, he wouldn’t. Even though passing stats continued to get better throughout Marino’s career, his own numbers did not. Maybe that was from a decline of the talent around him a la Rodgers in Green Bay right now (see below), but he never really found that resurgence outside of his 1994 season when he came back from the Achilles injury. Why would Marino throw for more than Brees and Peyton ever did when he was barely ahead of the pace of Moon and Kelly in the 90s?
Meanwhile, Brees was the best QB not named Mahomes in 2018 and should have been back to the Super Bowl. He was injured this year, but is back to being a top passer again. Even if he was fully healthy he’d probably still be denied MVP because of what Lamar Jackson did, which is just the kind of luck Brees has had in his career.
Brees’ continued excellence and success that would be even greater if he had better teammates gives him my Marino argument, except his case is even better. So that’s really why I swapped him into Marino’s spot at No. 4 ahead of Brady. The biggest knock on Brees is really the length of time it took him to get to a high level of play.
Brees didn’t do himself any favors in that he played one game as a rookie, was middling at best in 2002, then played poorly and was benched in 2003. He finally broke out in 2004 and has played at a high level for the 16 seasons since. Meanwhile, Marino had that incredible start, but as I said, he never really had elite years down the stretch of his career. Brady also started off better than Brees, only hitting his low point this year at the age of 42. So early impressions have put Brees behind the eight ball here, but he’s continued to play at such a high level that he owns the all-time passing records and may never have to give them up to Brady if he puts it far enough out of reach.
The concept of Brady chasing Brees is wild given how it’s really always been the other way around due to how their careers started. Perception is a hell of a drug in the NFL. By the time Brees finally showed us he was good (2004), Brady had already won two Super Bowls. After Brees’ first year in New Orleans, big things were expected, but 2007 actually proved to be his worst season as a Saint with a poor 0-4 start. Meanwhile, Brady exploded that year with by far his best season with 50 touchdown passes. Then after Brees was Super Bowl MVP in 2009, big things were again expected with him set to join the ranks of Manning and Brady at the top. However, 2010 proved to be Brees’ second-weakest season as a Saint while Brady had a hot eight-game finish to claim his second MVP award. Brees exploded in 2011 again, but Aaron Rodgers was just a hair better, so Brees again was second fiddle. Then a lot of those seven-win seasons started for the Saints and it wasn’t until 2017 that they started consistently winning again. Meanwhile the Patriots are in at least the AFC Championship Game every year since 2011.
Over the last three years Brees’ passer rating is 15 points higher than Brady’s (111.1 to 96.1). If we continue working backwards from 2019, Brees has a higher rating than Brady for every single year back to 2001. However, we experienced their careers in the normal order where Brady was higher every year from 2002 through 2017. Brees didn’t surpass him until 2018.
Now how could I put Brees ahead of Brady when the MVP count is 3-0? Even with Marino it’s 1-0. That one’s simple. I think their top seasons match up very well, and Brees’ lack of MVPs is a case of bad luck. Several of his best years coincided with someone else having a career year like Mahomes in 2018 or Rodgers in 2011. Then he’s also been bitten by Peyton a couple of times. Meanwhile, I think Brady was a default MVP in 2010 and 2017 since no other candidate stayed healthy or was worthy enough that year. In the end, I think Brady (2007) and Marino (1984) have the best individual seasons (2007) between the three, but seasons from Brees like 2009, 2011 and 2018 are all better years than Brady’s MVP years of 2010 and 2017. Marino’s only other MVP argument would have been 1986, but he missed the playoffs at 8-8. So I don’t think the MVP argument is a valid one for Brees vs. Brady/Marino like it would be for Brees vs. Peyton/Unitas/Montana.
Sadly, it looks more and more likely that Brees will be left off the NFL’s top 100 as I have been saying for weeks. It’s a tough list to crack and people have stronger biases than usual when it comes to quarterbacks. Brees has had the misfortune of trying to shine in an era with three other all-time greats, but I just don’t know how anyone could look at the body of work and how he’s played and not be super impressed. Most accurate quarterback of all time and most prolific passer of all time are worth celebrating.
Some quarterbacks simply receive more help and have better luck than others. These things do not just even out, even over two decades in the league. It’s true that I don’t think I can use my method of changing one play (usually one that has nothing to do with the QB too) to change enough outcomes to get any other QB in nine Super Bowls like Brady. But I know I just have to change the Tuck Rule/Vinatieri’s kick (2001), Lee Evans in the end zone (2011), and Dee Ford offsides (2018) and I already have Brady down to a 4-2 Super Bowl record. Don’t even get me started on the 2014 Seahawks and 2016 Falcons not committing to the run when they should have, or Drew Bennett in 2003 (Titans) or #MylesJackWasntDown in 2017. The list just goes on and on for what I call the Coin Flip Dynasty in New England. Meanwhile, I could find a few more title games and possible Super Bowls for Manning and Brees quite easily.
That’s how I don’t get caught up in counting Super Bowls for this list. I can look at how the QB performed individually and asses how much help they had to win or lose the game. We know Brady isn’t blowing away his peers in any statistic except for the one that says New England wins the most in practically every situation.
The one stat the QB has the least control over should not be the centerpiece for his greatness. That’s been my argument for Marino over Brady, but it’s better applied to Brees now.
7-10: The Curious Case of Aaron Rodgers
Here’s an interesting one. Roger Staubach and Steve Young are similar in that they were the most efficient passer of their decade while also being really good at scrambling. Both had shorter-lived runs as starters for various reasons, but they rarely left you disappointed. The Green Bay quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, also showed some dominance with multiple MVP awards and a flair for extending plays. They however couldn’t be any more different when it comes to interception avoidance. Maybe Rodgers learned from watching Favre slump through a bad 2005 season as a rookie, but we know he’s very protective of the ball and will throw it away or take sacks at a higher level than he should. Favre was the ultimate gunslinger, but he paid for that a lot too. You had more exciting comebacks with Favre, but also some really tough losses after bad interceptions.
With Staubach, we basically had eight relevant seasons with only one of those (1974) seeing him have subpar stats and missing the playoffs. With Young, his peak in San Francisco was also eight years (1991-98) and it’s one of the best eight-year runs you’ll ever see. I think only 2003-2010 Manning exceeds it. Young, Favre and Rodgers are three of the best ever one-ring QBs. Favre’s Packers (and Aikman’s Cowboys) actually had a lot to do with Young only starting one Super Bowl. It’s one of the biggest disappointments this decade that the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl with Rodgers.
Favre obviously has the ironman streak and longevity in his favor. The thought was that Rodgers could provide 15 years of standout play despite having to wait until his fourth season to start a game thanks to Favre. However, it has been a strange path. Most all-time great quarterbacks don’t have to wait as long to start as Rodgers did. Most never come close to the peak run Rodgers had in 2009-2014, which I have dubbed as Peak Aaron Rodgers. Then we have the last five years that have taken place since I last ranked quarterbacks. Ever since that 6-0 start in 2015 without Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has seen his stats take a major nosedive from his lofty standards. In his last 64 regular season games, starting with that embarrassing night in Denver (2015), his YPA is just 7.05. Rodgers has had the lowest TD% of his career in the last two seasons.
Blame has made its rounds everywhere. Former head coach Mike McCarthy took the brunt of it, but under new coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers is having a very familiar 2019 season that looks a lot like last year. The difference is the defense has been much better and the schedule more favorable. We have metrics to show the offensive line is pretty good. Aaron Jones has been an impressive running back as the running game has been blamed for this decline even though Rodgers rarely had one in his peak years.
I think there is something to be said for having the best and deepest receiving corps in the NFL when Peak Aaron Rodgers played, compared to now just having Davante Adams and some guys. That obviously doesn’t reflect greatly on Rodgers for not developing the receivers better, but he is clearly working with less than he had before. He’s also never been a huge fan of tight ends for some reason so Jimmy Graham hasn’t been much help there. I think this hurts him a bit in an era where Manning and Brees could seemingly plug anyone in and get production. Rodgers loves to extend plays and go off script, but the rewards just haven’t been there like they used to, and he misses having a threat like Jordy Nelson. Health concerns have also been present for Rodgers in some of these seasons.
I used to knock Rodgers for the lack of 4QC/GWDs. He’s improved there for sure, but some of it has come at the expense of his usual early-game dominance. Simply put, the Packers trail by bigger margins and more often now than they used to. So while it helps Rodgers get more big comeback opportunities like the ones he led last year against the Bears and Jets, it’s overall hurting the team that he’s just not as efficient as he used to be.
So it’s unusual to see such a great QB with these struggles in his ages 32-36 seasons. If Rodgers had a 15-year career that looked like his play for 2015-19, I’m not sure he’d be a HOFer. He might be short of the mark like Philip Rivers actually. I’ve been saying that the ways to get Peak Aaron Rodgers back come in only three forms. One is to change teams, which seems unlikely right now. Another was to change coaches, but again, that hasn’t done the trick yet. The third is for Green Bay to land a generational talent at receiver that can transform the offense. Unfortunately, players like this rarely come along (think Rob Gronkowski or Randy Moss). That might be the only hope.
Peak Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs we’ve ever seen, but this guy of the last five years is not. I’m keeping Favre ahead of him for now because not only did he have an MVP reign and great run in the 90s himself, but he rebounded later with a great season at 38 in 2007 and nearly had the Vikings in the Super Bowl when he was 40.
Rodgers will turn 37 next season. Does he have that kind of resurgence in him? Time will tell, but he still has an opportunity right now to turn in an impressive postseason no one really expected from Green Bay and get to another Super Bowl in February. Perhaps denying Brees a second trip would be a big win for Rodgers’ legacy.
11-15: Roethlisberger over Elway
Wrapping things up for quarterbacks, I’ve kept my order of Baugh > Tarkenton > Graham from 2015, but Elway has moved down from eighth and Roethlisberger has gone from 15th to 13th. I have known for years that I wanted to move Elway down more, but this did not prove to be perfect timing for the Roethlisberger push only because he suffered the first long-term injury of his career this year and missed all but 1.5 games.
Let’s not ignore the facts though. Roethlisberger and Elway have each played 16 seasons in the NFL. Roethlisberger expects to play at least a 17th too, so there’s no longevity dispute here. Elway has only appeared in 16 more regular-season games than Ben, but Ben already has more passing yards, more passing touchdowns, and he is only four wins behind Elway as a starter. They have the same number of comeback wins (34) and game-winning drives (46). Roethlisberger has one more lost comeback (9) than Elway (8), or games where the QB put his team ahead late but still lost.
Roethlisberger kills Elway in rate stats and top 5/10 finishes among his peers. Top 5 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has five to Elway’s two. Top 10 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has 10 to Elway’s seven. Roethlisberger has finished 11th or better in passing DYAR (total value) in 14 of his 16 seasons, only missing in 2008 (23rd) and 2019 (IR). We don’t have any QBR data on Elway’s career, but chances are he wouldn’t finish that well in most years. Elway had more rushing production which could help, but he also fumbled 38 more times.
Beyond that, Roethlisberger didn’t need 11 seasons to start putting up efficient passing numbers like Elway, who had 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions from 1983-1992. Look at this split for each quarterback’s first 10 seasons versus their 11th-16th seasons and how they ranked among their peers at that time (minimum 1,000 attempts for rate stats).
(Keep in mind Roethlisberger has had stiffer competition too with Brady, Brees and Rodgers in each split. Someone like Manning is replaced by Mahomes in the 2014-2019 split. Meanwhile, Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell were two of the better quarterbacks in that 1993-1998 split for Elway, a bit of a down period for offenses league-wide.)
Roethlisberger immediately had great efficiency stats and was Offensive Rookie of the Year before later having the volume stats as well. He’s always had top 10 statistics while Elway was often poor for a decade among his peers before turning it on later when the Broncos eventually supplied him with a HOF tight end (Shannon Sharpe), HOF RB (Terrell Davis), HOF left tackle (Gary Zimmerman), HOF-caliber wideout (Rod Smith), and other good assets. Roethlisberger’s boost starting in 2014 was Le’Veon Bell becoming a capable receiver at running back, which he never had before in his career. The improved line and his personal change to get rid of the ball faster has resulted in far fewer sacks taken. The Steelers also had better skill weapons in recent years before Bell and Antonio Brown mentally imploded, but Roethlisberger has always helped his receivers excel. Santonio Holmes, Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant disappointed greatly after leaving Pittsburgh, and almost every draft prospect (mostly mid-round picks) has panned out thanks in part to Roethlisberger’s consistency. The only wideout who broke out somewhere else was Emmanuel Sanders in Denver (with Manning of course).
Roethlisberger didn’t need 15 seasons to win his first Super Bowl either. He needed two and then added a second in his fifth year with the greatest game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. If you want to say Roethlisberger sucked in his Super Bowl win against Seattle, that’s fine. Just admit the same for Elway against the 1997 Packers. The helicopter spin was cool, but it’s not a better play than the tackle Roethlisberger made to save Jerome Bettis’ legacy and his team’s ring in the playoffs in Indianapolis in 2005. While “The Drive” is an iconic moment for Elway, it didn’t directly win the game for Denver like Roethlisberger’s march and throw against Arizona.
Elway has his moments of lore, but so does Roethlisberger to anyone paying attention to the last 15 years of the NFL. This is the problem of playing in the same era as the big four of Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers. Yet Roethlisberger is the only QB in NFL history with three 500-yard passing games, which were all wins against winning teams, including the last-play touchdown to Mike Wallace against the 2009 Packers. He also has the most 450-yard games (7). He’s the only QB to ever throw six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, which was also done against playoff teams. He is tied with Brady for the third-most games of five touchdown passes (seven) in NFL history, and five of those games were nationally televised. He is tied with Peyton for the most 158.3 perfect passer rating games with four. He had a great game as a rookie to end New England’s historic 21-game winning streak. He led a memorable comeback to win the AFC North on Christmas in 2016, connecting with Antonio Brown in the final seconds. There was the slug-out win in Baltimore in 2008 with a Santonio Holmes touchdown breaking the plane late. He’s broken the hearts of Bengals and Ravens fans with nine game-winning drives against each.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t surprise me that Roethlisberger wasn’t even one of the 22 nominated names for this list by the NFL. He’s always been the Rodney Dangerfield of quarterbacks — no respect. But what factors other than nostalgia would make one choose Elway? Are an extra two Super Bowl losses the deciding factor? It’s not for me when I know that’s the result of Elway playing in a far weaker AFC where he took advantage of cursed Marty Schottenheimer teams like so many others would. Imagine if Elway had to deal with the Patriots and Manning-led teams like Roethlisberger has. Elway did nothing to break up Buffalo’s four-year run of winning the AFC. Elway wasn’t the only one who saw his defense implode in playoff games either, most notably those three Super Bowl losses. Roethlisberger is 13-1 in the playoffs when the Steelers allow no more than 24 points, but 0-7 when they allow 29-plus.
It’s hard to say how Roethlisberger, going on 38, will recover after surgery. The Steelers could also be in for some lean years with the Ravens running wild now and the Bengals probably drafting QB Joe Burrow with the top pick. The Super Bowl window may be closed for Ben, but he’s long since matched Elway in that “precious” ring category people care about.
It has been a pleasure watching Roethlisberger the last 15 years. It has been painful watching the Steelers try to operate an offense without him this season. That should earn him more respect, but we know that never seems to be the case despite all the evidence.
Running Backs (7)
My top three have been set in stone for quite a number of years now thanks to their pure domination and consistency. When it comes to No. 4 Emmitt Smith, I hear the arguments about the offensive line, but his longevity and durability were special. There’s no other way you get to be the all-time leading rusher without that. He was also the dominant, featured player in his offense at a time when his Cowboys were the most successful team in the NFL. The 90s were a peak time for workhorses and he won four rushing titles despite battling with the human highlight reel that was Barry Sanders. Eric Dickerson rounds out my top five, and he may be No. 1 if we just focused on his first six or seven seasons when he was so prolific and didn’t have much help from his passing game. His record of 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 still holds up and may never be broken (at least not in a 16-game season).
While the NFL included 12 backs, I only felt it was necessary to pick seven as I am a firm believer in the ease of replacement at the position. I also picked LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk to round out my list, which explains why I was so shocked to see neither make the NFL’s list. Both were league MVPs who set the single-season touchdown record and were prolific receivers as well. Faulk had that dominant 1,000-yard rushing, 1,000-yard receiving season in 1999 that led to a Super Bowl win for his Rams. Tomlinson was insanely productive through seven seasons back at a time when the league was still filled with the workhorse back, a dying breed ever since.
You have to wonder if there was a personal vendetta against Faulk at the NFL Network to not honor him on this show due to his involvement in a sexual harassment case years ago. That would be a bit hypocritical for a show that had no problem bringing Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, and Lawrence Taylor on the studio and also talked about the inclusion of O.J. Simpson. Not to get on a moral high horse, but allegations of murder and physical/sexual assault against women are a serious matter.
Either way, I have no problem putting players who finished third and seventh in career touchdowns on my list. Tomlinson and Faulk were massive snubs by the NFL. I did not pick a back older than Brown, but I respect the NFL’s decision to include Steve Van Buren. I think that’s the right pre-1950 pick and I also like Lenny Moore a lot too as a big-play threat. I can even respect O.J. Simpson’s inclusion as he was a monster (on and off the field).
But again, I just do not love the position enough to include more than seven as I wanted to get more quarterbacks on my top 100.
Wide Receivers (10)
For the record, if I was ranking all players 1-100, Jerry Rice would be my No. 1 overall player, the GOAT. You could kill a lot of time digging into his records and being amazed at how incredible his peak was and how he was the best Old Man WR in history too. One of the first football articles I ever did was about how unbreakable Rice’s records were. Even in this era of pass-happy offenses, it’s hard to see anyone playing now breaking his records. It would have to be someone who comes in later when the seasons are 18 games long. Hopefully that change never happens and someone beats him on merit instead of increased opportunities. If one record falls it would have to be receptions, but good luck to anyone on the yards and touchdowns. Not to mention all the playoff records.
I saw more of Randy Moss than I ever did Rice, but he’s my No. 2 because I think he had a tendency to take plays off. He basically quit on the 2006 Raiders, which maybe I can’t blame him for given his QB was Andrew Walter and his coach was Stuck in the 1990s Art Shell. But Moss was such a dangerous deep threat and I loved seeing him raise his hand almost instantly out of his break to get his QB’s attention to throw it. He might have sniffed Rice’s touchdown record if his career didn’t go haywire at age 33 (played for three teams in 2010), but that’s just another reason Rice is the GOAT.
Now that I hit on my two favorites, let’s circle back to the NFL’s very controversial list, which I had a somewhat viral tweet about in mocking the addition of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
Not Calvin Johnson. Not Julio Jones. Not Terrell Owens. Not Michael Irvin. Not Cris Carter.
In my opinion, my top five players should be locks for a top 10. The NFL didn’t go with Terrell Owens for probably some of the same reasons he had to wait years for the HOF. Perceived “bad teammate” stuff. As an on-field talent, the guy was amazing and excelled with several quarterbacks and franchises, and his teams generally won. His performance in the Super Bowl loss after a serious leg injury was also awe inspiring. T.O. can be in my top five for sure.
When it comes to 6-10, I think many players have a good argument. Wide receiver is a very difficult position to evaluate because their success is so dependent on the quarterback in a way that just isn’t true for RB/OL/TE (see my rant here). We have to consider the team’s pass-run ratio, the quality of the quarterback and other receivers, and did the receiver create a lot of YAC, score a lot of touchdowns, or did he just load up on short completions from the slot? There’s a lot more to evaluate here so it’s not surprising that the HOF has a difficult time with the position and so did this list.
For one, I think having five of the top 10 wide receivers of all time as white players is a head scratcher (unless that was the Bill Belichick Special given he’d include “Julian Welkendola” as a player if he could combine the three). Don Hutson and Lance Alworth were locks that I included in my top five. Hutson is basically the George Washington of the position, the first true great receiver. Alworth was an incredible deep threat and the best from the AFL era. I did not include Raymond Berry or Steve Largent on my list, but I at least see cases for them making the NFL’s list.
The one that bugged me was Crazy Legs Hirsch. He indisputably had one of the all-time great receiving seasons in 1951 with 1,495 yards and 17 TD in 12 games. But that was on a stacked, historically prolific passing team with two HOF passers. The competition also leaves something to be desired from that year. The Rams opened the season with the New York Yanks, a team that finished 1-9-2 and was defunct the following year. That’s the game where Norm Van Brocklin set the single-game record with 554 passing yards, and Hirsch had 173 yards and four touchdowns that day. Hirsch never came close to his 1951 numbers again and only had a couple other really strong seasons.
I get that they were trying to highlight different eras, but why so much focus on that time between Hutson and the pass-happy AFL that Alworth helped bring along? I would have ignored Hirsch’s era for sure, just like how they ignored the last dozen years when Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones were so outstanding, living up to the draft hype with their freakish talent. Calvin came the closest to a 2,000-yard season of anyone so far and retired early much like Detroit’s other great skill player (Barry Sanders). Julio doesn’t score touchdowns like you’d like to see, but it’s hard to argue with his NFL record average of 96.4 receiving yards per game. He is looking to finish in the top three in yards for the sixth time this year. That’s big when you consider Larry Fitzgerald has only finished in the top three one time in his career (he has been fourth a total of three times). This gets back to how voters don’t seem to properly understand how to evaluate a player relative to his peers in this era.
Fitzgerald made my list too even though he’s less dominant than most of the other guys. His hands are amazing, he’s been very durable, and his playoff performances were nothing short of historic. Cris Carter also made my list for his ability to score a ton of touchdowns with various quarterbacks. I’ve always had him ranked ahead of the likes of Tim Brown and Michael Irvin. Sterling Sharpe would get more respect if injury didn’t stop him early, but he should be in Canton.
Then there’s Marvin Harrison. I’ve said that the best WR in NFL history, statistically, would be Peyton Manning’s No. 1 WR. Harrison was fortunate to get the biggest chunk of those seasons as he lit up the record books with Manning in Indy. Harrison’s playoff struggles are hard to explain, but it’s hard to argue with his 1999-2006 peak when he averaged 105 catches, 1,425 yards and 13 TD per 16 games.
Tight Ends (6)
This was probably the least disagreeable position on the NFL Top 100. They only selected five players, but I had the same five plus Antonio Gates, who played college basketball in case you forgot. Shannon Sharpe would also be an honorable mention, but I like this list.
Gronk was the GOAT and the numbers would be even more stunning if he wasn’t injured so often. But when playing he was the best. Think of Tony Gonzalez as Arnold’s T-800 model of Terminator. Iconic and durable. Got the job done. But Gronk was the T-1000, except he’d rather melt into a puddle of goo off the field than continue risking his body after yet another Super Bowl win. Man, it sure is funny how the two most stat-inflating receivers of the last two decades (Moss and Gronk) played at their peak with the quarterback who “never has any weapons” in New England.
John Mackey has one of the best highlight reels of any player in NFL history. He was an OG like Mike Ditka, and Kellen Winslow took things to another level in Air Coryell’s offense as a receiving tight end. A relatively newer position than the others, it wasn’t hard to come up with the tight ends.
OFFENSIVE LINE (19)
Before we get into the OL positions, I want to acknowledge that it’s still the unit we have the least data for, especially for past decades. At least we have new game charting metrics for blown blocks and rates of snaps won in pass blocking, but we’re still pretty much in the dark on most decades of NFL history. So excellence at these positions have largely been defined by draft status, games started/longevity, and Pro Bow/All Pro honors. We know that can be very dubious, such as Maurkice Pouncey making eight Pro Bowls largely on the fact that the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2010 rather than his actual play. So when I’m picking an offensive lineman, I try to pick someone who contributed to successful offenses while also garnering a lot of individual honors, but again I think a lot of us are simply guessing when it comes to these positions.
Offensive Tackle (7)
The NFL list had seven tackles too, though we only agreed on three of them. Sort of. Jim Parker made my list here, but the NFL list put him at guard where he also played. He was Johnny Unitas’ left tackle during the title years in Baltimore. Point is he’s on this top 100 list. My top pick was Anthony Munoz who seems to be the consensus for the best tackle ever.
It was surprising not to see Orlando Pace on the NFL’s list. He was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 and really highlighted that great run on tackles in the late 90s with Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Tony Boselli, etc. I have no problem including someone from the Greatest Show on Turf Rams.
Joe Thomas did not make the NFL’s list, which is another slap in the face to modern players since he was retired at the time they voted. Thomas went to 10 Pro Bowls and 6 first-team All-Pros for the freakin’ Browns, their best player by far since returning to the league in 1999. He never missed a snap until 2017. He’s a first-ballot HOF lock and in an era where a lot of tackles struggle and high draft picks miss, it’s worth highlighting the best of the last two decades in Thomas. It’s just too bad he retired right before the Browns got a quarterback worth protecting (at least we hope that’s the case with Baker Mayfield).
Offensive Guard (7)
John Hannah was the GOAT for the Patriots before people ruined that label. Bruce Matthews could excel at any position on the line, so you know he would make the list high somewhere. I did not choose Art Shell for my tackles, but I did go with Gene Upshaw from those Oakland lines for the guards. Larry Allen was a monster who could also play multiple positions. Randall McDaniel was a 12-time Pro Bowler who was also All-Pro when the 1998 Vikings set the scoring record.
The NFL also chose seven guards, including my tackle pick of Jim Parker. They didn’t pick Steve Hutchinson and Jerry Kramer like I did. Kramer finally got into the HOF as a key member of the Packers, the most successful dynasty in NFL history. Hutchinson was my pick for representing the last 20 years of football. He should get into the HOF soon too, and he was an anchor for those strong Seattle offenses and also blocked for a young Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
Hard to say if there’s any consensus on the #1 center like there is for tackle (Munoz) or guard (Hannah), but Jim Otto was a 10-time first-team All-Pro. Sure, it helped that most of that came in the AFL when there weren’t many teams, but the Raiders were a highly successful offense in that era. Dwight Stephenson might have gone down as the best if he played longer (just 114 games), especially since he was with Dan Marino in Miami.
I mentioned Pouncey earlier, but you can see why center is such a big deal in Pittsburgh. Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson were two of the best to ever do it. Finally, Mel Hein made my list as the best from his era (1931-1945).
The NFL had the same list, except Dawson didn’t make it there. So there’s probably more groupthink with OL than any position, but my 19 picks being somewhat close to the NFL’s list makes me feel good.
Defensive End (9)
You might be able to argue with the order, but I think White/Smith/Jones make up a pretty consensus top three. This is such a crucial position, so I was surprised to see the NFL only chose seven players. More baffling was how they included Doug Atkins and Lee Roy Selmon, but not J.J. Watt or Michael Strahan.
The Watt snub especially bugged me because it showed that they’re not acknowledging how great an active player has already been in his career. Watt played six full seasons and was first-team All-Pro in five of them and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Most guys can play 15-20 years and never sniff those achievements. Watt’s only played nine fewer games than Selmon, who started out on those horrible Tampa Bay teams and only had one All-Pro season and DPOY award. Watt is as big of a snub as any by the NFL.
I also like to represent Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters line, so I included Eller on my list. Strahan was a surprise snub too. Not only does he still hold the record for sacks in a season (22.5), but he still ranks sixth all time (141.5) and led the Giants defense on that great Super Bowl run in 2007, shutting down the undefeated Patriots. Julius Peppers also made my list as a modern player with his freak athleticism and having the fourth-most sacks ever. He should be an easy HOF choice in 2024.
Defensive Tackle (9)
Much like with the Watt selection, I think Aaron Donald has already done enough this decade to belong on the list. We are fortunate to have stats for pressures and QB hits now, even if they aren’t as objective as a sack. But Donald is so dominant in those categories despite playing inside and seeing a lot of double teams. Donald and Watt will be the first two incredible defenders in the game charting era where we have more data to quantify just how much better they were than their peers. I’m not surprised the NFL snubbed him, but I won’t.
Like with Marshall Faulk, I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren Sapp was purposely left off as he’s also run afoul off the field in recent years. But he was another great pass-rusher at a position where it’s just harder to break through to the quarterback than playing on the edge.
The NFL chose seven players, of which I agreed with six of them (not Buck Buchanan from the Chiefs). It’s pretty obvious to agree with the gold standards of the position like Greene, Olsen and Lilly. I just think Sapp, Donald and also the late Cortez Kennedy deserved it too.
Here is an old-school position where teams start three or four players, so it’s not that hard to come up with a list of legends. I picked 12 just like the NFL did, but we had two big disagreements. I went with Derrick Thomas and Mike Singletary while they chose Willie Lanier and Ted Hendricks. Sure, Hendricks is a fine selection and nearly made my list too. Lanier is overkill for me since he played with Bobby Bell on the Chiefs, who also made the list. Singletary was a dominant force in Chicago and is second to only Ray Lewis in Pro Football Reference’s new HOF monitor for inside linebackers.
Derrick Thomas was the snub that stood out most to me the night the NFL revealed their list, because I assumed Singletary was on there too. But for Thomas, he was a great pass-rusher with monster games (games of 7 and 6 sacks) and production (41 forced fumbles) for a winning Chiefs team in the 90s. He sadly passed away at 33 after a car accident, but I have to have him on my list.
This was a position where I didn’t think any active player was really deserving of inclusion. Ray Lewis was the most recent player, retiring after 2012. Luke Kuechly is building up a great resume in Carolina, but I wouldn’t put him ahead of Brian Urlacher yet, let alone in the top 12.
Night Train Lane
This was another controversial position from the beginning when Patrick Peterson was included on the finalist list over Richard Sherman. What bugged me about the NFL’s list of seven cornerbacks is that Mike Haynes was reportedly a unanimous choice, but Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders were not. How in the world can any of the 26 voters not all have Woodson and Sanders on their ballot? That’s absurd. I put them in my top two along with Mel Blount, who changed the game so much for Pittsburgh that they had to create illegal contact.
I also made sure to give credit to shutdown corners in this era where the pass is so heavily utilized. So that’s why I have Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis so high when neither made the NFL’s list. Charles Woodson also made the cut for me with one of the best resumes a football player has ever put together.
Night Train Lane is someone I joke about getting 15-yard penalty after 15-yard penalty if he played today with his rough style, but he was the stud corner in his era. I also gave respect to Willie Brown and Herb Adderley with the latter being a snub in my eyes from the NFL list. Given what we know about NFL media and the things they value, you would think a six-time champion with five picks in the playoffs and four All-Pro seasons would be more highly regarded.
I left out Darrell Green on my list, but the NFL didn’t. I said on Twitter that he was most notable for his speed and insane longevity (played thru his age-42 season). In 20 seasons he was an All-Pro just once and he never had more than five interceptions in any season. While interceptions may not be the end-all, be-all stat for a player, just keep in mind that roughly 600 players can claim to having a season with six interceptions at least once. It’s not asking for much. So I’d much rather have Revis and Bailey than Green and Mike Haynes.
This was a position I cut short a bit at the end to not go over 100 players. The NFL list had six, including all four of my players. Ed Reed was an easy choice as the GOAT for me and the only one needed from his era (over Troy Polamalu and Brian Dawkins). Ronnie Lott was crucial and a punisher for the 49ers’ success so he’s up there, but I love the way Reed could outsmart the Manning’s and Brady’s in a way no other safety could. When Reed got the ball in his hands (64 INT!) he was electric to watch too. You didn’t know if he’d make a 100-yard return or lateral to a teammate. Here’s one of my favorite stats ever:
Longest interception return in NFL history 1. Ed Reed – 107 yards vs. 2008 Eagles 2. Ed Reed – 106 yards vs. 2004 Brownshttps://t.co/JqtvqzdftJ
Emlen Tunnell was before my time, but the four-time All-Pro still ranks second in interceptions (79) and probably will never be passed unless someone changes teams weekly to play against Jameis Winston for years to come. Paul Krause still holds the record with 81 interceptions and may have been my fifth safety if I had room, but I felt like he was more of a compiler in that statistic than anything. So my last pick went to Larry Wilson, an innovator of the safety blitz.
I did not select a punter, let alone two like the NFL did, but Ray Guy is the obvious choice there. For kicker, I’ll go with Adam Vinatieri for his longevity and reliability in clutch situations and inclement weather. He also really started finding the touch on 50-plus yard kicks in the back half of his career. Justin Tucker is on his way though, but this is still too much kicker talk. Devin Hester would be my pick for the return specialist, and finally, you can see my top 10 coaches here:
My picks for the top 10 head coaches in NFL history (no order)
Brown Lombardi Walsh Belichick Landry Shula Gibbs Noll Halas Lambeau