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Has Drew Brees pulled ahead of Tom Brady amongst the all-time greats?

Strap yourselves in and get ready.

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Special Entry By: Ryan Michael

Pro Football Analyst

Ryan Michael is a Pro Football Analyst who specializes in quarterback statistics, analytics, film-study and interviews with NFL veterans. He has used his own era-adjusted metric, QBS2, to grade every qualifying starting quarterback since 1937. For more information, visit his website: www.quarterbackscore.webs.com and follow him on Twitter: @theryanmichael

Prior to the start of the 2018 NFL season, I released my list ranking the “50 Greatest Quarterbacks in Pro Football History.”

The list got over 70,000 hits, but not without it’s fair share of criticism.

Peyton Manning No. 1?

Marino over Brady? Are you kidding?

Brees over Montana? You’ve lost all credibility!

John Elway at No. 18? Lol!!

Such is life.

In a day and age where quarterback analysis is all too often stripped down to non-era-adjusted raw numbers, TD-INT, W-L and #QBRINGZ, criticism was expected. My views often go against the grain, but are not without root. I’m less concerned with “Lol’s” and emojis than I am with how quarterbacks actually perform on the football field.

In my opinion, Drew Brees should have been AP NFL MVP in 2017 and Tom Brady should have been Super Bowl XLII MVP. But hey, Brady for regular season MVP and Nick Foles for Super Bowl XLII MVP weren’t bad choices either.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.

Ranking Brady 4th and Brees 6th was a tough decision. I’ve long felt the two to be neck-and-neck amongst the all-time greats. Both have excelled in areas where the other has not, to one extent or another.

Brady had been the better regular season quarterback and that’s not a back-handed compliment. One shouldn’t overlook the 2002-2003 edition of Brees just because so many years have passed. Sure, his story of struggle to success adds to his narrative, but those struggles are still marks against his resume.

Brees didn’t come into the NFL as an elite quarterback, he worked himself into one. Brady on the other hand, ranked 6th in passer rating in 2001, led the NFL in touchdown passes in 2002 and was dominant vs. the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. If everything else were equal from 2004-2017, 2001-2003 pushed Brady ahead of Brees.

The postseason has been a different story. Per game, Brees tops Brady in virtually every category and in many cases, it’s not even close.

  • Passer Rating: 100.7 vs. 90.9
  • Completion-Percentage: 65.9% vs. 62.8%
  • Passing Yards 323.8 vs. 276.4
  • YPA: 7.8 vs. 7.0
  • Touchdowns: 2.2 vs. 1.9
  • Interceptions: 0.7 vs. 0.8

Brady’s superior postseason record (27-10 vs. 7-6) despite playing at a lower level is a testament to the impact of teammates and coaching on wins and losses.

Brady holds many NFL records, but you usually only hear about the good ones. Few know that his 8 playoff wins with a passer rating below 79.0 are the most since 1950 (min. 15 attempts). Nobody else has more than 4 and if you were wondering, Brees has only 1 (75.7 vs. the Eagles on 1/4/14).

6 of Brady’s 8 playoff wins with a passer rating below 79.0 came en route to Super Bowl appearances. All 6 of Brees’ postseason losses came with a passer rating of 83.0 or higher.

One of the most interesting parts of a quarterback’s final act is their ability to move up or down one’s “all-time list.” I like to think of careers as discographies: seasons as albums and games as songs. The more hits, the more quality albums, the greater the career.

The great quarterbacks produce multiple elite seasons, but the number of elite season matters, right? If peaks were equal, wouldn’t most rank Jerry Rice above Calvin Johnson because longevity mattered? Taking inventory of how many times a quarterback produced at an elite level is a good starting point for separating one great from another.

Very quietly, Brees has produced more elite marks than most of the quarterbacks mainstream media would rank above him. He’s had help of course. Sean Payton’s play-calling helps. Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara have helped. Do they represent the totality of his supporting cast over 17 seasons as a starting quarterback? Not by a long shot. Are they amongst the greatest supporting casts in NFL history? No disrespect intended here Saints fans, but not…even…close.

While I won’t release my updated Top-50 list until the conclusion of the 2018 postseason, a major shuffle in my rankings took place on Sunday, November 11th (51-14 win over the Bengals). It was that Sunday when Brees pulled ahead of Fran Tarkenton and Brady on my all-time list.

Although his upward trajectory was set months ago, it took a lot to move Brees up two spots. So, what has changed since the beginning of the 2018 season?

  • Brees moved from 3rd all-time in pass completions into the No. 1 spot.
  • Brees moved from 3rd all-time in passing yards into the No. 1 spot.
  • Brees broke a tie with Brady for 3rd all-time in touchdown passes, then moved past Brett Favre to claim the No. 2 spot.

During that time, Brees set a new single-season record for games with an 80.0%+ completion-percentage (4 in 10 games—with 6 more opportunities). He is on-pace to obliterate the single-season completion-percentage record set by himself (72.0% in 2017). If he breaks the record again, he will have held it four times (2009, 2011, 2017, 2018). Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Montana have combined to hold the record zero times.

Let’s not sour grapes this accomplishment.

Brees (97.8) has also moved ahead of Brady (97.5) in career regular season passer rating. Astonishing, given the fact that he’s thrown 62 more interceptions (229 vs. 167).

Interceptions correlate well with low ranked scoring defenses. Brees has played with units ranked: 22nd (2002), 31st (2003), 25th (2007), 26th (2008), 20th (2009), 31st (2012), 28th (2014), 32nd (2015) and 31st (2016). That’s not to short-change Brady of the credit he deserves for avoiding interceptions. He’s been one of the greatest in history at doing that. He’s been better than Brees at doing that—don’t let 2018 fool you.

But he’s had help and a lot of it.

In his 17 seasons as a starter, Brady has been supported by a scoring defense ranked 20th or worse 0 times. He’s been supported by a Top-10 scoring defense 13 times.

Brees, the NFL’s all-time leader in career completion-percentage (67.3%), has ranked in the Top-3 10 times (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018). No easy feat. Brady has finished ranked in the Top-3 just once in his career (2007).

I’m waiting for it. Care to share common knowledge?

Brady plays outdoors in Foxboro. Brees plays indoors in a dome. I’m confident that ten out of every ten NFL fans knew that. They may also know that Brady has become the greatest short-distance, dink and dunk thrower in NFL history. Not a back-handed compliment, but something to take note of as it absolutely helps his completion-percentage.

While weather has undoubtedly been a factor, so too has been Brady’s pension for off-target passes.

In my opinion, Brees is an even more accurate passer than the quarterback ranked No. 1 on my all-time list. Brady’s accurate too, but there are levels of greatness with any skill set. I believe Freddie Mercury was a greater rock vocalist than Robert Plant—that doesn’t mean I’m knocking the latter.

There are still 6 regular season games left to play in 2018. The story of this season isn’t over, much less the story of Brees and Brady’s storied careers.

Just as Brees pulled ahead of Brady this season, in both the world of my opinion and in the NFL record books, Brady will have every opportunity to change that.

Brady is behind Brees by 8 touchdown passes, 608 pass completions and 4,502 passing yards.

If he plans on playing until age 45 and Brees retires after 2018, anything is possible.

It’s not at all unreasonable to expect Brees to regress from his 126.9 passer rating (which would set a new all-time single-season record). Brady’s 94.7 passer rating ranks 17th amongst his peers, but I think he’ll finish the season close to cracking the Top-10.

The chase to break Manning’s all-time record for career touchdown passes (539) may go down as the greatest record chase in NFL history. If history has shown us anything, it’s that the greatest of the greats care about history and their place in it. The fact that two of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time have the opportunity to do what they’re doing now, at their ages, is special.

Wherever you rank them, we should all appreciate the final act of their careers.

Follow Ryan Michael on Twitter: @theryanmichael