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Tom Brady’s (Statistical) Place In The Pantheon Of NFL QBs

A vast amount of column space was spent this week debating whether Tom Brady had finally ascended to No. 1 in the all-time pantheon of quarterbacking greatness. (Many of the articles argued that, yes, Brady is now the best ever.)

These assessments leaned heavily on the fact that Brady is tied with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most Super Bowl victories of any quarterback. But even Patriots fans have to acknowledge that “count the rings” isn’t the most nuanced argument in the world. So, what do the numbers say about Brady’s legacy?

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The common narrative is that early-career Brady wasn’t a statistical monster, to the point that his playoff wins over Peyton Manning in 2003 and 2004 were held up as victories for clutch, gritty winners everywhere. But the truth is that, in addition to his gaudy record as a postseason starter, Brady was one of the league’s top five to 10 regular-season quarterbacks statistically even before his transformation into a passing efficiency god in 2007.

In other words, the “clutch game manager” phase of Brady’s career was never as game manager-y as his detractors made it out to be. And ever since, he’s been as efficient a regular-season QB as any in NFL history.

To measure QB performance, I used Chase Stuart’s formula for passing value, which compares a quarterback’s adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) to the league average after adjusting for home-field advantage, weather effects and strength of schedule. By that metric, the late-career version of Brady owns practically every stretch of the best consecutive peak passing regular seasons in the Super Bowl era:

paine-datalab-brady-table-1

Now, some of that is due to sheer passing volume; while shorter schedules have been prorated to 16 games, today’s passers drop back so much more often per game than their predecessors did that they have more chances to add value. Even so, Brady’s stats have risen far above those of his peers (including Manning) during the peak of his career once all the aforementioned adjustments are made.

In terms of total career regular season value, however, Brady does not rank No. 1 among Super Bowl era quarterbacks — his 11,921 adjusted yards of value over average ranks second to Manning’s 13,791-yard mark:

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QUARTERBACK REG. SEASON VALUE QUARTERBACK REG. SEASON VALUE
1 Peyton Manning +13791 21 Trent Green +3512
2 Tom Brady +11921 22 Sonny Jurgensen +3145
3 Dan Marino +10354 23 John Hadl +3094
4 Joe Montana +7951 24 Daryle Lamonica +3008
5 Steve Young +7854 25 Donovan McNabb +2837
6 Aaron Rodgers +7545 26 Jim Kelly +2669
7 Fran Tarkenton +7421 27 Carson Palmer +2620
8 Ken Anderson +7126 28 Roman Gabriel +2564
9 Drew Brees +6863 29 Jeff Garcia +2442
10 Dan Fouts +6863 30 Matt Schaub +2379
11 Ben Roethlisberger +5615 31 Joe Namath +2371
12 Tony Romo +5406 32 Jim Hart +2303
13 Roger Staubach +5303 33 Phil Simms +2161
14 Philip Rivers +5204 34 Bart Starr +2155
15 Brett Favre +5020 35 Troy Aikman +2071
16 Kurt Warner +4344 36 John Brodie +1978
17 John Elway +4300 37 Daunte Culpepper +1936
18 Boomer Esiason +3944 38 Mark Brunell +1935
19 Bob Griese +3564 39 Matt Ryan +1865
20 Len Dawson +3546 40 Bert Jones +1852

Of course, any good ranking of quarterbacks should also give credit for performance in the playoffs, and Brady’s trump card over Manning has always been the postseason. But here’s where the twist comes in: After crediting playoff passing value over average (according to the same formula described above) with weight given to each game according to how much it changes a team’s probability of winning the Super Bowl relative to the average regular season game — a form of leverage index for the importance of football games — Brady passes Manning but is surpassed by two others: Joe Montana and our old friend Kurt Warner:

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 2.04.36 PM

QUARTERBACK WEIGHTED VALUE QUARTERBACK WEIGHTED VALUE
1 Joe Montana +207680 21 Mark Rypien +39538
2 Kurt Warner +143779 22 Phil Simms +38564
3 Tom Brady +131355 23 Eli Manning +38401
4 Terry Bradshaw +126410 24 Ken Anderson +37520
5 Peyton Manning +122474 25 Colin Kaepernick +35337
6 Troy Aikman +115648 26 Jeff Hostetler +33862
7 Brett Favre +100935 27 Jim McMahon +32416
8 Drew Brees +87105 28 Doug Williams +29832
9 Steve Young +71045 29 Len Dawson +28991
10 John Elway +70593 30 Mark Sanchez +28016
11 Jim Plunkett +65477 31 Bernie Kosar +25207
12 Ken Stabler +63372 32 Philip Rivers +24280
13 Aaron Rodgers +62031 33 Donovan McNabb +23794
14 Bart Starr +61970 34 Dan Fouts +23589
15 Roger Staubach +56803 35 Joe Theismann +23474
16 Joe Flacco +50438 36 Erik Kramer +23353
17 Jake Delhomme +48123 37 Matt Hasselbeck +22607
18 Russell Wilson +43118 38 Randall Cunningham +20142
19 Daryle Lamonica +42879 39 Bob Griese +19743
20 Dan Marino +40236 40 Joe Namath +19573

Why? Under the leverage-weighted scheme, playoff games are given an incredible amount of emphasis. Wild card games are worth about 26 times as much as the average regular season game; that multiplier becomes 51 for the divisional round, 102 for the conference championship games and a whopping 205 for the Super Bowl (you can read more about this math at the end of the post).

Because of the extreme weighting given to playoff games, Brady loses ground to Montana, whose three best Super Bowls were each at least 47 adjusted yards of value better than any of Brady’s Super Bowls. (Montana’s worst Super Bowl was also better than three of Brady’s Super Bowls.) Warner also gets a massive boost from his Super Bowl performances in 2000 and 2009 — the latter of which ranks as the single-best passing game of the Super Bowl era after adjusting for the strength of opponent and the leverage of the game — in addition to big games at lower rungs of the playoff ladder. Adding in the postseason hurts Brady.

So, is Brady the best all of time? At his regular-season peak, he might very well be. And if he has a few more great seasons, he could pass Manning on career value over average. But for now, Montana reigns supreme among Super Bowl-era QBs when playoff performance is included in the calculations.

Here’s how the math works out: The average regular-season game moves a team’s chances of winning the Super Bowl by about 0.24 percentage points. That’s because every team starts out with a 1 in 32 chance of winning it all, which inevitably moves to either zero (for the 20 teams who miss the playoffs) or 1 in 12 ( for playoff teams) once all 16 games are played. Meanwhile, the Super Bowl swings each team’s chances by 50 percent — either up from 50-50 to 100 percent, or down to zero.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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