By Sam McPherson
Sunday’s Super Bowl LI matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the favored New England Patriots features a subplot that could end up dominating the headlines after the game. If the Patriots emerge victorious at NRG Stadium in Houston against the Falcons, quarterback Tom Brady will break a tie with two Hall of Fame QBs for the most Super Bowl wins. Currently, Brady shares the record of four championship victories with Pittsburgh Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw and San Francisco 49ers deity Joe Montana. While Bradshaw and Montana were both a perfect 4-0 in the Super Bowl, Brady also has two title-game losses on his record, having lost twice to the New York Giants in NFL championship games.
Brady has the record for most Super Bowl starts all to himself, though, as this will be his seventh appearance in the NFL’s title contest. Bradshaw’s four starts came during a six-year span from 1974-1979, and Montana’s four games spanned nine seasons (1981-1989). The enduring quality and stability of the New England organization as a whole has enabled Brady’s seven appearances now over a 16-year window, from 2001-2016. Comparing the three quarterbacks comes down to splitting hairs, but context does matter in looking at which of the three greatest players ever really was the best on the big stage.
Bradshaw’s True Greatness Came Later In Career
While the Steelers QB won the Super Bowl MVP award twice for his performances in Super Bowl XIII and XIV, Bradshaw was little more than a game manager for Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl victory in January 1975. He threw only 14 passes and gained just 96 yards through the air, letting the running game and the defense do the damage in a 16-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings. The following year, he completed just nine of his passes in Super Bowl X as the Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys, 21-17. Although his QB rating for the game (122.5) was his best effort in a Super Bowl. He also ran for a combined 49 yards in Super Bowl IX and X with zero thrown interceptions.
Overall, Bradshaw posted a 112.8 QB rating in his four Super Bowl starts, and considering two of those starts came before the 1978 rules changes that opened up the passing era in the NFL, it’s pretty amazing what Bradshaw was able to accomplish under the old rules. In his MVP efforts against the Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams, respectively, he threw for over 300 yards each time despite also tossing four picks total. Bradshaw also made the big plays when they were needed. In his final three Super Bowl starts, successively, he threw a 64-yard pass against Dallas in Super Bowl X, a 75-yard pass against the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII and a 73-yard pass against the Rams. He was the king of the highlight-reel long bomb, long before NFL fans even knew what a highlight reel was.
Montana Did It All, And He Did It Well
What stands out to everyone about the 49ers quarterback was his calm and cool demeanor. That is reflected in the fact Montana never threw an interception in his four Super Bowl starts. In 122 passing attempts in the championship game, he notched 11 TDs and zero INTs on his way to a 127.8 QB rating in those four starts combined. He also ran for 105 yards and two scores on just 17 rushing attempts, numbers that any running back would be happy to post on the biggest NFL stage of them all. Neither Bradshaw nor Brady have had that kind of scrambling ability.
In the category of perfection under pressure, Montana also has a major distinction that Bradshaw and Brady do not: He led a game-winning, come-from-behind touchdown drive in the final minutes of Super Bowl XXIII to win the game over the Cincinnati Bengals, 20-16. Consider this as well: Montana probably should have won four Super Bowl MVP awards, considering wide receiver Jerry Rice won it for the Super Bowl XXIII victory that Montana clinched with the 92-yard “John Candy” drive. He simply refused to lose on the big stage, because Montana truly was Joe Cool.
Brady The Best This Century, By Far
While the 1990s Super Bowls were dominated by the efforts of Dallas Cowboys star Troy Aikman and Denver Broncos hero John Elway, the 21st-century NFL has been owned by Brady and his Patriots. In New England’s six Super Bowls, Brady has thrown 13 TD passes and just four INTs, while winning three Super Bowl MVP awards. He’s thrown more than twice the amount of passes (247) Montana threw in Super Bowls as well, which is crazy if you think about it. Four times, Brady has aired it out at least 41 times in the championship game, including a whopping 50 throws in the Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seattle Seahawks. He is by far the most prolific Super Bowl QB ever in terms of passing yards (1,605), attempts (247) and completions (164). He has at least one more start to add on to those impressive records.
Perfection Wins Out In The End: Montana’s Performances Can’t Be Topped
Montana won four Super Bowls without a loss, and in those four victories, he didn’t throw a single interception. Montana also wins the QB rating discussion here, as Brady’s best Super Bowl effort in terms of QB rating came against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, and that rating (110.2) for his single-best game falls short of the collective rating for both Bradshaw and Montana, respectively. In fact, the Steelers QB and the 49ers QB outperformed Brady by far on the big stage, as Brady’s Super Bowl QB rating (95.3) trails both Hall of Famers by a considerable amount. This is not meant to criticize Brady, but he just hasn’t actually been as good in the Super Bowl as the other two.
It’s also a matter of quality over quantity. Brady has all the counting-stats records (attempts, completions, yards, TDs), while Montana owns the QB rating and perfection marks. Bradshaw falls short against both Brady and Montana in both ways save the perfect 4-0 record, although again, he played half of his Super Bowls with nasty rules that enabled the defense to basically mug receivers downfield without penalty. Plus, neither Brady nor Montana can match the Pittsburgh QB for the big-bomb potential.
With a win on Sunday, Brady can separate himself from Bradshaw and Montana on perhaps the only level that counts: Super Bowl victories. However, if most experts could pick one QB for one game for all the marbles, they probably would pick Montana. It’s hard to argue with that choice considering all of the above.