To be remembered as the best quarterback to ever grace an NFL field, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady must emulate former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway in his final seasons. Like Elway, Brady has left several rings on the table, damaging his legacy to some extent. Winning just one more Super Bowl would launch Brady back into the conversation as the best passer in NFL history.
Before proceeding further, let’s acknowledge one major difference between Brady and Elway: Brady gathered a nice little collection of rings early in his career, while Elway didn’t win a title until his 15th season. It’s only since the end of the last decade in which Brady’s ability to win big games as been called into question. Critics and talking heads claim that Brady only won those early Super Bowls because of the great defense the Patriots had in the early 2000s.
If you set aside the rings that Brady won early in his career and the ones that Elway earned late in his career, you’ll see that the two legends have a lot in common when it comes to the postseason. Both Brady and Elway have lost eight playoff games—a pretty hefty amount, enough for eager critics to leap to conclusions about a guy’s tendency to lose big games.
Of these eight postseason exits, Brady has lost two Super Bowls, three AFC Championships, two Divisional Round games, and one Wild Card game. During his career, Elway dropped three Super Bowls, one AFC Championship, two Divisional Round games, and two Wild Card games. Interestingly, neither Brady nor Elway were able to solve the New York Giants, as both quarterbacks were bested by Big Blue on the biggest stage.
When you examine the two greats in this light, it’s clear that Brady is in a similar place at this stage of his career. Year in and year out, Brady hauls the Patriots deep into January or February, but can’t corral that elusive fourth title. Brady needs that fourth ring as badly as Elway needed his first. If he doesn’t get it, Brady’s case for best quarterback ever won’t hold water.
When Elway led the Broncos to victory in Super Bowl XXXII, it was as much a feeling of relief for him as it was exuberance. Finally, Elway was able to silence the “he doesn’t win big games” naysayers. Entering his 15th season, Brady is in the same position Elway was at the beginning of the 1997 season before that first ring. If he is able to hoist that fourth Lombardi Trophy, Brady will have enough hardware to challenge the likes of Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, and yes—Elway—for the label of best quarterback ever.