San Francisco 49ers

Joe Montana Myth: Are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Or Terry Bradshaw Better Than Montana?

The Joe Montana myth continues to grow years after he retired from the NFL. During his playing days, Montana won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, and he has gone down as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. But has the Joe Montanta myth surpassed what he actually did on the field? Peyton Manning just won Super Bowl 50, participating in his fourth championship game. He joined an elite group that already includes Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady, and Jim Kelly.

While Peyton Manning has gone just 2-2 in his Super Bowls, Joe Montana was 4-0, Terry Bradshaw was 4-0, Tom Brady has gone 4-2, and Jim Kelly was 0-4 in the history of the big game. So what makes one quarterback better than the next one to come along? Many NFL fans will point simply to the number of titles that a quarterback has achieved. So if the argument is limited to just Montana, Brady, and Bradshaw, because they have each won four championships, how does the debate get decided.

Many young NFL fans argue on social media that Tom Brady’s titles are tainted because he was saved by a call against the Oakland Raiders in 2002 (The Tuck Rule) and then later by his kicker (Adam Vinateri). Other quarterbacks have components of their teams used against them as well. When Russell Wilson helped lead the Seattle Seahawks to the 2013 title, it was claimed by many people that he only won it due to his defense. The same is said of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens getting Trent Dilfer a title.

Part of the Joe Montana myth has been that not only was he a great quarterback, but that he took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl with no help. That statement couldn’t be further from the truth. While Montana put up great numbers that earned him a spot in Canton, he certainly had a lot of help along the way. In his Super Bowl runs, Montana has been saved by his defense, saved by a kicker, saved by his running back, and saved by several key turnovers by opponents late in games.

Joe Montana And Terry Bradshaw
(Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Friars Club)

The fourth Super Bowl win by Joe Montana came in spectacular fashion, as the San Francisco 49ers destroyed the Denver Broncos 55-10 to win the 1989 title. That game alone may have helped create the Montana myth and how he would be remembered long after he played his final game with the Kansas City Chiefs. He finished with 297 passing yards and five touchdowns, earning a well-earned MVP against Broncos team shut down by one of the best defenses in the NFL.

During his four Super Bowl runs, Joe Montana had the fortune to work with the #1 defense (1984), #2 defense (1981), #3 defense (1989), and #8 overall defense (1988) in the NFL. The 1988 defense allowed just 3.6 yards per rush, ranking it as the best in the NFL for that season. Those top-rated defenses really helped out in the postseason as well, shutting out the Chicago Bears 23-0 in the 1984 NFC Championship Game and then beating then down 28-3 in the 1988 NFC Championship Game. In the 1989 NFC Championship Game, the defense helped beat the Los Angeles Rams 30-3.

In the 1981 NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco 49ers had six turnovers, including three interceptions thrown by Joe Montana and a fumble by the quarterback. The 49ers defense helped the team stay alive and got them into the Super Bowl. In the 1981 Super Bowl, Montana struggled and posted just 157 yards, while kicker Ray Wersching carried the team with four field goals.

In the first two playoff games of the 1984 season, Montana had five interceptions, but got bailed out by a stout 49ers defense. The 49ers had nine sacks in the 1984 NFC Championship Game and kicker Ray Wersching had three field goals to put the game in the win column. The 1988 defense was also admired in the playoffs, posting six sacks and forcing three turnovers in the divisional round. The 49ers would also only allow 229 total yards in the Super Bowl, complementing the four forced turnovers and five sacks the team posted.

Joe Montana At Super Bowl 50
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The 1989 San Francisco 49ers defense was even more impressive in the postseason, forcing five turnovers in the divisional game while sacking the quarterback four times. The defense also took three interceptions into the red zone, making scoring a bit easier for the offense. In the 1989 NFC Championship Game, Mike Cofer kicked three field goals, while the 49ers held the Rams to just 156 total yards. That included just 26 total rushing yards. Then in the 1989 Super Bowl, the defense allowed only 167 total yards, forcing four turnovers and sacking the quarterback six times.

It’s also worth mentioning that during the 1984 season, San Francisco 49ers running back Wendell Tyler was fifth in the NFL in rushing yards. In the 1988 season, 49ers running back Roger Craig finished third in the NFL in rushing yards. During the other two Super Bowl years, the 49ers averaged more than 121 rushing yards per game as well. It shows how well-rounded the teams were that Montana got to work with for many, many years.

The Joe Montana myth may very well lead to a conclusion that he is the best quarterback to ever step on a football field. What it shouldn’t do, though, is gloss over the fact that he was also part of some great San Francisco 49ers teams that needed to help him along the way as well. Montana finished his career with a 117-47 regular season record, 40,551 passing yards, 273 passing touchdowns, 139 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 92.3. In the playoffs, he was 16-7 with 5,772 yards, 45 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and a 95.6 quarterback rating.

Simply for comparison, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots has a regular season record of 172-51 so far. He has 58,028 passing yards, 428 touchdowns, 150 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 96.4. During the playoffs, he has a 22-9 record to go with 7,957 passing yards, 56 touchdowns, 28 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 88. Terry Bradshaw is at 107-51, 27,989 yards, 212 touchdowns, and 210 interceptions. In the playoffs he was 14-5 with 3,833 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, 26 interceptions, and an 83 QB rating.

Peyton Manning At Disneyland
(Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images)

As for Peyton Manning, he has a 186-79 record, 71,940 passing yards, 539 touchdowns, 251 interceptions, and a 96.5 quarterback rating. Manning is 14-14 in the playoffs, with 7,339 passing yards, 40 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, and an 87.4 quarterback rating. Simply for comparison, Troy Aikman, who was 3-0 in Super Bowls, had a 94-71 record. Aikman also finished with 32,942 yards, 165 touchdowns, 141 interceptions, and an 81.6 quarterback rating. He was 11-4 in the playoffs with 3,849 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and an 88.3 quarterback rating.

So does the Joe Montana myth hold up to scrutiny? That’s up to NFL fans to decide, but it certainly needs to be remembered that he also had the help of a great running game, a historically good defense, several great kickers, and possibly the best receiver of all time to get those four Super Bowl titles.

[Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]