Ness Notes: G.O.A.T. vs G.O.A.T in Waiting

by Larry Ness

I was born in 1953 and while my boyhood hero was Johnny Unitas, the QB who set the standard for "winning championships" during my personal "Wonder Years,' was Green Bay's Bart Starr. Starr led the Packers to NFL titles in 1961 and 1962, then suffered a two-year 'drought,' when the Bears won in 1963 (George Halas' last championship team) and the Jim Brown-led Cleveland Browns won in 1964 (Browns haven't won an NFL championship since!).  Starr and the Packers were back to winning another title in 1965 and followed with NFL titles in 1966 and 1967. Green Bay's 1966 and 1967 seasons were capped off by the Packers winning the first two Super Bowls, giving Starr FIVE titles in a seven-year span. Was he a better QB than Johnny U? I doubt many (if any) would say that but those five rings in seven years speak VOLUMES!

Tom Brady gets set to participate in his 10th Super Bowl, having won SIX of his previous nine tries. In the Super Bowl era, Bradshaw and Montana have each won four Super Bowls but when Brady earned his SIXTH Super Bowl title, it was Starr's record of five NFL titles that he broke. Let's start with Brady's regular season numbers. He's got 230 wins as an NFL starter, 44 more than the 186 wins owned by Farve and Peyton Manning, who are tied for second-best. 17 QBs have won at least 100 regular season starts and only THREE own winning percentages of better than .700.  Peyton (186 wins) owns a .702 winning percentage and Montana (117 wins) has a winning percentage of .713. As for Brady, his winning percentage is a mere .769! 

Moving to the postseason, Brady's 33 playoff wins are more than double his nearest competitor, as Montana owns 16 postseason victories. Only NINE other QBs have as many as 10 postseason wins. Bradshaw (4 Super Bowl wins), Elway (2) and Peyton (2) have 14 playoff victories. Big Ben (2) and Favre (1) have 13 wins, postseason wins while Aikman (3), Wilson (1) and Staubach (2) have 11. Who am I leaving out? The legendary Joe Flacco with 10 postseason wins, four coming in Baltimore's run to a Super Bowl 47 win. Returning to winning percentages, Brady's 33-11 (.750) is again tops, followed by Terry Bradshaw (14-5, .737) and Troy Aikman (11-4, .733) . Montana falls just short of "The 700-Club" at 16-7, .696.

You want to argue that Jim Brown or Jerry Rice deserve to be ranked No. 1 all-time among NFL players, you can make that case (go for it!). However, love him or hate him, I don't see how anyone can seriously argue against Brady being the G.O.A.T. when one is discussing QBs in NFL history. So what's all this talk about a "G.O.A.T. in Waiting?" Quoting Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame for those too young or without cable TV), "Let me submit for your approval" the name Patrick Mahomes. 

Mahomes played just one game as an NFL rookie (in a meaningless Week 17 contest) but 'exploded' on the NFL scene in 2018 with 5,097 passing yards, 50 TD passes and just 12 INTs (QB rating of 113.8). He was named the NFL's 2018 MVP and led KC to an AFC championship showdown with New England, which the Chiefs lost in OT (at KC) to the Brady-led Patriots. Mahomes threw for 4,031 with 26 TDs and 15 INTs (105.3 QB rating) last season and more importantly, to a 31-20 Super Bowl win over the 49ers. Mahomes threw for 4,740 yards in the 2020 season with 38 TDs and six INTs (108.2 QB rating) and has the Chiefs back in the Super Bowl again. Before going any further, let's look at the start of Mahomes' regular season career.

He made one start in his rookie season (a win) and has made 45 starts the last three seasons. His record is 38-8 (.826) with 114 TD passes and 24 INTs (108.7 rating). How does that compare with Brady's first-three seasons as a starter (2001-03). Brady didn't make a start in his rookie season of 2000 (attempted THREE passes) but took over early in the 2001 season after Bledsoe got hurt. Brady never gave up the starters job. Brady would go 34-12 (.739) as a starter with a much more modest TD-to-INT ratio of 69-38 (see above for Mahomes' TD/INT ratio). Brady's highest QB rating in his first three seasons was 86.5, compared with Mahomes 108.7 three-year average. Brady did lead the Pats to Super Bowls wins in 2001 and 2003 (missed the postseason with a 9-7 record in 2002), building his incomparable postseason record (see above) by starting 6-0. For the record, Brady won a THIRD Super Bowl title in his fourth season (2004) and won his first 10 postseason starts, before losing 27-13 at Denver in the 2005 playoffs' Divisional Round. I guess one could look at Brady's Super Bowl record and say after a 3-0 start, he's just 3-3 in his last six Super Bowl appearances but c'mon!!

Getting back to Mahomes. He wins the comparison between the two QBs over their respective first three regular seasons but he will need to beat Brady and the Bucs on Sunday to match Brady's two Super Bowl titles in his first three seasons. As noted, Brady missed the playoffs in his second full season but then won it all again in his fourth. So, in Brady's 9-0 run to his first three postseasons, he averaged 216.8 YPG passing with 11 TDs and just three INTs. Mahomes has one more game left to complete his first three postseasons and will enter Sunday's game 6-1 as a playoff starter (lone loss to Brady's Pats in 2018) but again, has much gaudier stats than Brady had in a comparable span. Mahomes has averaged 293.4 YPG passing in his seven postseason starts, throwing 17 TD passes with just two INTs in 252 attempts. His QB rating is 109.8! I mentioned earlier that just three QBs have  postseason winning percentages of better than .700. Brady's tops at .750 and his QB rating is 89.9, Aikman is second at .733 and his QB rating is 88.3 and Bradshaw is third at .737 and his QB rating is 83.0. In his modest seven-game playoff career so far, Mahomes' winning percentage is .857 pending Sunday's and again, his QB rating is 109.8, FAR above the competition.

Mahomes could sure use a win over Brady on Sunday, as a SEVENTH Super Bowl win for Brady seems an unreachable target. What's more, it would make Brady 2-0 in playoff showdown with Mahomes and who knows what Brady's plan for the future is? Is this last meeting between the two? Mahomes has had a spectacular start to his career and seems to be with the perfect team and perfect coach. That said, let me remind all Andy Reid fans that before Mahomes lined up as his starting QB, Reid's postseason record stood at 11-13 and just one Super Bowl appearance (a loss to Brady and the Pats in the 2004 season), including a 1-4 record with the Chiefs. However, Reid's become a much SMARTER coach with Mahomes at QB (6-1).  Mahomes talent is undeniable and he's a worthy choice to fill the role of "G.O.A.T. in Waiting" but staying healthy and 'good fortune' will likely define his career. In case you don't remember, Brady's first three Super Bowl wins came by exactly THREE points. His fourth win came in a four-point win over Seattle when Pete Carroll made one of the stupidest play calls in Super Bowl history. His fifth win came in the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history, as the Falcons led 28-3 in the third quarter, only to lose 34-28 in OT. Win No. 6 came in a 'snooze-fest' over the Rams 13-3, a game that was tied 3-3 entering the fourth quarter.

One last thing (I rarely leave well enough alone)...Otto Graham entered Northwestern in 1940 on a basketball scholarship but football soon became his main sport. After a brief stint in the military at the end of World War II, Graham played for the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League (the precursor to today's NBA) in the 1945-46 season. The Royals won the championship that season. However, Paul Brown (the founder of the Cleveland Browns and its head coach) signed Graham to play QB for the Browns in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) for the start of the 1946 season. The league featured two, four-team divisions (East and West). The Browns would win the West at 12-2 that season and then beat the East champs (NY Yankees, yes that's right) 14-9 to capture the first AAFC championship over. Graham's 1946 NBL and AAFC titles made him the first person to have won championships in two of the four major North American sports (neither Brady nor Mahomes can match that!).

The AAFC would exist for four years (1946-49) and Graham led Cleveland to a championship in all FOUR seasons of that league's existence. The Browns joined the NFL in 1950 and went on to win the NFL championship that year when they beat the LA Rams 30-28. Graham and the Browns were "just getting started," as the newcomers from the "upstart league" would play in SIX straight NFL championship games (1950-55). The Browns lost 24-17 to the Rams in 1951, to the Lions 17-7 in 1952 and 17-16 to the Lions (again) in 1953. However, the 'third time was the charm' for Graham and the Browns in 1954, beating the Lions 56-10. Graham was talked out of retirement in 1955 for ONE last season and he capped his career with a 38-14 championship game win over the Rams in 1955.

Doing the math, Graham led the Browns to 10 straight championship games (four in the AAFC and six in the NFL), winning SEVEN! A check of the NFL record book reveals that Graham's statistical accomplishments have long been surpassed in the modern era but he still holds the NFL record for career average yards gained per pass attempt (8.63) plus owns the highest career regular season winning percentage of any NFL starting QB at .810 (57-13-1). His record in AAFC and NFL postseason games is 9-3 (.750), which matches Brady's postseason winning percentage mark (see above) heading into Super Bowl 55.

10 seasons, 10 championship games and SEVEN championship game wins. Is he the G.O.A.T.? Has anyone ever known long-time New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to be wrong about anything? He once called Graham "as great of a quarterback as there ever was." My opinion? I will say this much. Graham sure earned his nickname of "Automatic Otto!"

Enjoy Super Bowl 55...Good luck, Larry

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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