|Brady's regular-season winning percentage is higher than Montana's. (Getty Images)|
When he was a kid growing up south of San Francisco, Tom Brady wanted to be Joe Montana. Now, two decades later, he might get his wish.
By beating the New York Giants, Brady would tie Montana with four Super Bowl victories. More than that, he would start squeezing Montana on the Greatest Ever list. Montana is considered among the best three quarterbacks ever, usually behind Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham, and has been no worse than No. 3 for years.
Then Tom Brady came along.
"I've never really considered anyone at the same level as Joe," said former San Francisco wide receiver Dwight Clark, "but if there's anyone who's remotely close, I guess it's Brady."
It is ... only there is nothing remote about it. With one more title, Brady gets the debate going. He would've been to one more Super Bowl. He would've won as many. He would've done it in the salary-cap era. And he would've done it with less talent around him.
"Honestly," Brady said, "I haven't really given much thought to any records or anything like that. For me and for our team, it's really about this one game and the challenges that the Giants present to us."
OK, fair enough. But the comparisons between Montana and Brady are inevitable, and not merely because Brady is on the same track. Like Montana, he raised the Titanic. Like Montana, he went to the top early in his career. Like Montana, he hasn't wavered, in his fifth Super Bowl in 12 years. Montana went to four in his first 11 seasons.
But Montana has four Super Bowl wins. Brady has three. Let the conversation begin.
I'll make this quick: Montana never lost a Super Bowl. Never. He never got intercepted in one, either. Plus, he was named the game's MVP three times. In four Super Bowls, he completed 68 percent of his passes, with 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 127.8, and stop when you find someone whose numbers are better.
He doesn't exist.
"I've watched him in practice," said former coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst with ESPN, "and the ball never hit the ground. I mean ... really? But he was that way."
In Montana's four Super Bowls, the 49ers outscored opponents 139-65 -- or an average margin of victory of 18.5 points. Moreover, in his closest call -- a 20-16 defeat of Cincinnati -- he launched one of the Super Bowl's most memorable series, a 92-yard drive punctuated by a 10-yard Montana-to-John Taylor touchdown with 34 seconds left.
"I would say Joe and Tom Brady are statistically similar," Clark said, "and have some of the same mechanics. They're both accurate, they both move around in the pocket and they're both deadly accurate.
"I just know that Joe was a different guy in the huddle. Most of the time, he was calm and collected, but he wouldn't be afraid to jump someone's ass if he wasn't doing something right. He was a coach in the huddle who would tell you, 'Be ready. If the outside linebacker drops over here, I'm coming to you.' And he was always able to deliver ... and deliver in the clutch. Joe's my guy."
The year before Brady stepped in at quarterback, the New England Patriots were 5-11. They haven't had a losing season since. Moreover, in the 10 seasons in which he started more than one time, New England failed to win the AFC East only once -- and that was because of a tiebreaker.
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People tell me Bill Belichick might be the greatest coach of all time, and he might. Except look at his record with Brady: It's 140-40, including 16-5 in the playoffs and 3-1 in Super Bowls.
Now look at his record without him: 52-63, including 1-1 in the playoffs.
I talk about Montana's accomplishments in the Super Bowl, but look at Brady. He completed 65.35 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and only one interception. Plus, he's 3-1, with more Lombardi Trophies than any current quarterback.
Not bad. But not Joe.
"You'd think a guy like Tom Brady, with all the success that he's had, that maybe he'd start to think about his legacy," one coach familiar with the guy said, "but I don't get a sense of watching him play. I think his legacy is winning."
It is. Brady's regular-season winning percentage is second-best in NFL history and two ahead of ... you guessed it, Joe Montana. Now, look how he got there: Without Jerry Rice and Roger Craig and John Taylor and Dwight Clark for a supporting cast.
In essence, nobody did more with less.
"He makes guys look better than they should," an AFC coach said. "You look at guys like David Givens or David Patten, and it's right on down the line. Deion Branch does really well with Tom, and then he leaves and doesn't really do anything. And that's what I love about Tom: He makes people around him better."
But there's something else. Like Montana, he refuses to lose. Shortly after St. Louis tied New England at 17 late in Super Bowl XXXVI, broadcasters said Brady and the Patriots would be smart to play it safe, run out the clock and take his chances in overtime.
He did not. Instead, he completed five of seven passes, put the Patriots in position for a winning field goal and produced one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history.
"The guy is an absolute driven machine," one AFC head coach said. "When you watch him from the field, he's large, and he's in charge. Tom Brady is as good as it gets."
Neither Tom Brady or Joe Montana has a spring-loaded right arm, but both are accurate. They're smart. They're mobile. They're poised. They're Super Bowl MVPs. They're regular-season MVPs. And they're the best quarterbacks of their generations.
"They're in different offenses," one NFC defensive coordinator said, "but the results are the same. Plus, the mastery of their offenses is exactly the same.
"Both are in total command of what they're doing, and they're uncanny with their accuracy. Neither is known as a guy with a gun, but every throw is there. Plus, they both win."
Montana's playoff record was 16-7; Brady's playoff record is 16-5.
"Neither one is going to win a decathlon," our coordinator said, "but they can move around and do what they have to do. In essence, they know how to play quarterback. You have some guys who are quarterbacks, and others who know how to play quarterback. These guys know how to play. They win, and they win consistently."
Obviously, they played in different eras. Montana's 49ers ran the ball more and more effectively than Brady's Patriots. The rules weren't as quarterback-friendly for Montana as they are for Brady and today's passers -- which is another way of saying that defenses were better.
But there was no salary cap with Montana, and there was no Rice, Taylor, Clark, Craig and Brent Jones, either. So Brady had Randy Moss. He had him for just more than three years and didn't win a Super Bowl.
"You can't deny what Tom Brady has done," said former coach Brian Billick, now an analyst with Fox and the NFL Network. "But Joe Montana would say, 'Wait a minute, give me the same rules now. Let me operate under these rules. Come look at me then.'
"I think the other thing on the flip side, taking nothing away from Joe, is that Bill Walsh called every play. That was Bill Walsh's offense that Joe Montana orchestrated so magnificently. But this is Tom Brady's offense -- less demonstrative but very much Peyton Manning-esque.
"Brady and Peyton Manning are old-school. They understand it's a team effort, but when they get on the field, they're orchestrating these offenses. And if you're looking for a distinction, that's one of them."
If you're looking at their mobility, that's another. Montana was more active outside the pocket, often throwing on the run. Brady moves well, but it's within the pocket to avoid the sack, pressure or late hit.
Check out replays of The Catch. That's not Tom Brady. Nor will it be. He seldom scrambles to make throws on the run.
"They had some sprint-out passes for Joe, no doubt about it," Edwards said. "He was probably better that way. But that's not to say Brady couldn't do it. He's just not asked to."
Then there's the team around them. Montana's starting receivers in his four Super Bowls were Rice, Taylor, Clark and Freddie Solomon. Period. Because he played in an age where there was no salary cap, there was a consistency in lineups that is absent today.
Now look at the starting wide receivers in Brady's four Super Bowls: They were Moss, Givens, Patten, Branch, Troy Brown and Wes Welker. Tell me which was better than Rice.
Bottom line: Brady carries a heavier burden to produce.
"Joe was a little bit different in that they ran the ball a lot more than New England," Edwards said. "Joe went to his backs more than Brady, whose outlet pass -- for the most part -- has been to Wes Welker.
"So they're built different in that sense. Brady plays in an offense where they spread the field on you and throw the ball all over the field. But, basically, they attack you the same way: They attack you inside the numbers."
I called one GM and asked if one more Super Bowl victory put Brady in the conversation with Montana.
"I don't know if he has to win the fourth championship for you to do that," he said. "I mean, what else does he have to do?"
Montana is 4 for 4 in Super Bowls. Brady is 3 for 4. But Brady didn't have the talent around him that Montana did. He played with an ever-changing assortment of running backs and receivers, and this season had to bail out the league's 31st-ranked defense.
"Plus," Billick said, "he's transformed from the vertical game to small ball. Joe was in the same offense forever. We're splitting hairs here. This is one where you have no definitive answer."
I'll second that. Montana was extraordinary. Brady is extraordinary. Montana almost never lost. Same with Brady. But Brady is one Lombardi Trophy short of Joe, and until or unless he wins a fourth, our debate doesn't begin.
"You're posing a question I always ask people," Edwards said. "Who do you love more -- your wife or your Mom? C'mon. The bigger the moment, the bigger these guys played. And that's all you need to know."