Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been compared and contrasted about as often as Star Trek and Star Wars. The Cliffs Notes versions of their careers go like this: Manning is a great regular season quarterback who struggles in the playoffs, while Brady is a consummate winner who always raises his game when it matters. That’s why Brady has three rings to Manning’s one, and anyone who can count knows that makes Brady better.
Brady is frequently held up as a shining example of all that is right with quarterbacks, leading timely drives and upping his game when the pressure mounts, while Peyton is a guy who got lucky to win the big one even once with all of his choking in the clutch. All you have to do is look at their career postseason records to see the obvious difference – Brady is a stellar 17-7 while Manning is a pedestrian 9-11. This narrative is convenient because it is simple, and its simplicity has helped it become very widespread among media and fans. This narrative is also obviously false on the face of it.
Let’s look at clutch. For starters, Tom Brady has never had a game winning touchdown drive in the postseason. All those clutch moments Brady gets hailed for in the playoffs? They are an unbroken string of Adam Vinatieri kicks (Vinatieri coincidentally enough was Manning’s kicker when he finally broke through after years of Mike Vanderjagt choke jobs). Brady sure has seen his share of game winning touchdown drives in the postseason, though – from the losing sideline. Both Manning brothers have done it to him, twice in the Super Bowl and once in the AFC championship game.
In fact, both Manning brothers have higher playoff passer ratings than Brady. Brady clocks in at 87.4 with Eli and Peyton posting 89.3 and 88.4 respectively. That’s right, choker Peyton has a higher postseason passer rating than Brady, and goofy Eli bests the both of them. Regular readers of the Cold Hard Football Facts know how important passer rating is! Just wait, it gets weirder.
Peyton is supposed to be the top dog in the regular season. If that were so, it would stand to reason that his 95.7 career passer rating would be better than Brady’s… but it’s not. Brady has posted a career 96.6 rating to date. Eli is way behind them both at a merely adequate 82.7. Notice that Peyton and Brady both have significant dips in their postseason efficiency, while Eli has a fairly impressive jump.
Canny observers will note that it is not particularly noteworthy for a player’s performance to dip in the playoffs, as the competition is better. Clearly, the data ought to bear that out. So with 47 Super Bowls in the books, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks looks like a large enough data set to start to draw some conclusions. For example, 18 winning qbs posted career postseason passer ratings below their regular season averages, while only 12 improved. This seems to suggest that a quarterback that can improve in the postseason is not particularly helpful in achieving playoff success.
When looking at total rings, though, the picture changes dramatically. Six multiple Super Bowl winners improved their performance in the postseason, including both four time winners (Montana and Bradshaw). Those 12 won a total of 23 rings, leaving 24 for the 18 passers whose efficacy diminished in the playoffs. There are, however, 3 passers whose career variance was 0.3 or fewer rating points: Flacco (-0.1), Elway (-0.2) and Favre (+0.3). If you toss out these flatliners, the count stands at 21 rings for passers whose postseason performance significantly declined versus 22 who improved upon their regular season numbers. That’s among 11 qbs who improved and 16 who declined, although it seems unfair to give the declining group Aaron Rodgers for slipping from a ludicrous 104.9 career rating to a merely absurd 103.6 postseason rating.
A further look at the two lists shows guys like Brad Johnson (-19.7), Trent Dilfer (-4.2), Jim McMahon (-2.1) and others who were notably carried to championships by historically good defenses. On the improving side of the ledger, Terry Bradshaw (+12.1) is the only name that jumps out as being paired with a legendary D, but Bradshaw’s two MVPs argue against his being carried there (interesting side note: Bradshaw had seven career 300 yard games, with three coming in the playoffs and two in Super Bowls). Bradshaw also cleared the 100.0 rating barrier in all four of his Super Bowl appearances.
Brady’s career variance of -9.2 is very low on the list of Super Bowl champions. In fact, there are only five champs with a worse discrepancy. These five all won only one Super Bowl, although one earned rings in the pre-Super Bowl era: Johnson, Doug Williams (-15.8), Steve Young (-11.1), Joe Namath (-9.9) and Jonny Unitas (9.3).
The most interesting name of those five is Steve Young. Long maligned for not being able to win the big one, Young had failed to guide the loaded 49ers to a title in the years following Joe Montana’s departure. Then, San Fran poached some top defensive talent from Dallas in Charles Haley and won a bidding war for Deion Sanders. Boom, title.
Brady was a winner in his first ten career postseason starts, winning three rings in the process (yes, that means Brady is only 7-7 in his last 14 playoff starts). In the first five of those starts, Brady was below his career postseason passer rating. In contrast, Peyton’s Colts lost the first five performances in which he failed to top his career playoff passer rating. Dan Marino (-9.3) won only once in the nine times he failed to reach his career playoff passer rating (77.1).
How did Brady manage to be so clutch then, if his performance was so much worse than what ought to be typical? Defense, of course. In the Patriots’ first championship season, the New England defense ranked sixth in the league in points allowed before holding a series of high-octane offenses (capped off by the Greatest Show on Turf) to an average of only 15.7 points per game in the playoffs (the tuck rule helped too). The ’03 team led the league in scoring defense by a wide margin, and allowed an average of 19.0 points in the playoffs – a figure inflated by Carolina’s 29 point Super Bowl outburst. Finally, the ’04 defense tied for second in the league in scoring defense behind Pittsburgh, then held opponents to 17 points per game in the Lombardi run.
Of course, there were good moments for Brady. He led several game winning field goal drives, and Vinatieri established himself as the anti-Norwood. As time passed, Tom’s legend and celebrity grew. The team began to be constructed more around the golden boy quarterback. This culminated in 2007, with Randy Moss and Wes Welker giving Brady a prolific tandem of wideouts with which to smash several NFL offensive records en route to the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. The defense, based on a prolific pass rush, finished fourth in the league in points allowed. The offense smashed the all time scoring record and kept the pressure squarely on opposing teams to throw to keep up.
Of course, the formula turned out to not be perfect. The only team in 2007that recorded more sacks than the Pats was the New York Giants. The teams met in week 17, with the Patriots earning a 38-35 victory. In the Super Bowl rematch, everyone knows what happened. The Giants pass rush rattled Brady (5 sacks and numerous hits), who had grown accustomed to sterling protection (only 21 sacks all season). Eli Manning outplayed him, joining Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to throw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. The undefeated dream was dead at 18-1, and Brady would not join Montana in the “four rings” club.
Brady got the ball back needing a late field goal. 35 seconds and three timeouts proved not enough. Brady proved not up to the comeback challenge in his next Super Bowl meeting with the Giants either, getting the ball back and needing a touchdown with 57 seconds and one timeout. The media rushed to lay the blame on Wes Welker for failing to make a spectacular catch late. As the Cold Hard Football Facts have pointed out, that was a connection that Brady and Welker just didn’t make during the season. Commentators and writers claiming it was a “routine” catch for Welker apparently didn’t see the play or watch the Patriots all year. They rushed to defend the “clutch” of Tom Brady.
Scott Kacsmar has pointed out Brady’s shortcomings before, with a look at specific flaws in his game. Hopefully the data here can put those shortcomings into a larger historical context. Tom Brady’s dirty little secret is that he’s never been a great postseason quarterback. Without the tuck rule and Drew Bledsoe’s TD pass (the only one of the game) against Pittsburgh in the AFC championship, he never gets that first ring, and this debate never starts. So let the debate end now – despite an impressive resume, Brady is not “just a winner who steps up.”
All player stats from www.pro-footballreference.com. All team stats from www.nfl.com