Philip Rivers’ hot take on Tom Brady has merit… but it’s still wrong

New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images) /

Chargers QB Philip Rivers had a valid argument for why he thinks Patriots QB Tom Brady isn’t the greatest of all time… but he’s still dead-wrong.

Put down the pitchforks and torches, Patriots Nation; there’s no need to march cross-country all the way down to Philip Rivers’ San Diego domicile and destroy the Chargers quarterback.

Rivers has been a buzzy name in the news of late for two reasons. One, he’s offered up some seemingly self-contradictory opinions on star teammate Melvin Gordon’s contractual holdout from camp. And two, he recently sat down for an interview on The Dan Patrick Show, where he offered up this sizzling little hot take: he doesn’t think that Tom Brady is the GOAT.

Per CBS Sports’ John Breech, here is exactly what Rivers had to say regarding his quarterback contemporary:

"“I remember thinking when the Patriots beat the Seahawks, when they had that interception against the Seahawks down [on the goal line] and that gave them what, their [fourth] championship? You know everyone said, ‘Well, (Brady’s) now the greatest of all time.’ And I thought to myself, I already thought he was already one of [the greatest] — I mean, how do you ever decide that? It’s like the old Michael Jordan [debate], right? We could talk about that forever, too — but I already thought he was already one of the greatest of all-time, but because they intercepted the pass, he’s now the greatest of all time? What if the Seahawks were to run it in? And the Seahawks were to have won? Brady would have just played the exact same game. He didn’t do anything different, you know? It is funny how that works, so I don’t look at that [Super Bowl wins].”"

There’s a lot to unpack in that Rivers rant.

Let’s start with his example of Super Bowl 49. True, Brady’s performance in that game probably wouldn’t have changed much depending on whether or not Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had decided to run the football with Marshawn Lynch, as opposed to throwing it with Russell Wilson.

There’s really no way of knowing for sure that even if the Seahawks had run the ball (like everyone outside of New England wanted and expected them to) they would have scored a touchdown. The Patriots’ defense had just kept Lynch out of the end zone from their own five-yard line on the previous play, so they could have conceivably stopped him again.

Assuming Lynch did get the call, did in fact find a way to score, and then the Seahawks kicked an extra point attempt, the Patriots probably would have been left with somewhere between 10 and 20 seconds of game clock at the very least, plus a timeout, down by a new score of 31-28.

That’s not really much time to work with, but assuming a decent kickoff return and keeping in mind that Tom Brady is at quarterback, it’s not absurd to think he could pilot the New England offense at least within field goal range to try and attempt a kick that would have sent the game to overtime, tied at 31 points apiece. After that, who really knows what would have happened?

All of this speculation and conjecture isn’t the point though.

The real point is that it’s fruitless to play the “what if?” game when it comes to the NFL – or with anything in sports, for that matter.

Now is it a fun game to play? Absolutely.

Sports fans can and often do play the “what if?” game all the time, pointing out just how different their lives might have been if only that one call had been made properly by the referees; or that one player hadn’t committed that stupid penalty; or that other player hadn’t been injured at such an inopportune time; etc. etc. etc…

At the end of the day though, we all only have one thing to go off when it comes to analysis and forming coherent opinions, and that’s what actually did happen.

Yes, Tom Brady and the Patriots very easily could have lost Super Bowl 49. They also could have easily lost a number of the other Super Bowls they won (51, 36, and 38 immediately come to mind), just as they could have easily won three of the Super Bowls they lost (42, 46, and 52, namely).

Brady could have nine rings or he could have zero rings. It doesn’t really matter. What he has is six rings, which is a stone-cold fact… so that’s what we all should use and consider in this debate, instead of messing around with hypothetical alternate realities.

Setting that whole aspect of Rivers’ argument aside, he did offer up another bit of analysis on Brady and the GOAT discussion that holds a bit more water and weight:

"“That’s why I always think Marino is right there in the mix, too. All these guys. You can’t just go off that [Super Bowl wins]. I don’t think that you can. Not in this sport, especially.”"

Marino is the classic, go-to example of an extraordinary quarterback who never saw his individual prowess and regular season accomplishments translate into January/February success. Though he guided the Miami Dolphins to the playoffs in 10 separate seasons, he reached the Super Bowl just once (where he lost to Joe Montana), and he finished his career with an ugly 8-10 record in the postseason.

Rivers’ point – which is a valid one, to be fair – is that Marino’s abilities as a quarterback shouldn’t be dismissed simply because “he never won the big one.” Marino set numerous NFL records over the course of his 17-year professional career, and he is still today widely-regarded as one of the best to ever play the position.

It’s also true that football is the ultimate team sport. Just as former Patriots great Rodney Harrison recently reminded everyone, New England’s historic success this millennium goes well beyond the incredible pairing of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Patriots have been an NFL powerhouse since 2001 because of the collective efforts and abilities of hundreds of players over the years, not just those two guys.

And yet… can we really dismiss Brady’s excellence and achievements simply because he has a brilliant head coach in Belichick? Can you write those first three Super Bowl wins off for Brady just because New England had a terrific defense at the time, and because Adam Vinatieri was (and still is) an exceptionally-accurate field goal kicker? Can you discount Brady’s most recent Super Bowl win because his punter arguably put on a more impressive show than he did?

The answer is you can’t. You certainly could try and make those arguments, but then it goes back to that game of “what if?” all over again.

Borrowing Rivers’ own comparison (and the one most frequently used when it comes to Brady’s GOAT debate), let’s talk about Michael Jordan in the NBA for a second. Jordan is almost universally considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time, and with good reason: he has both gaudy individual stats and accolades as well as six championship rings to his name (the same number as Brady).

Should we discount Jordan’s accomplishments simply because he played for Phil Jackson though, one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time? What about the fact that he also played with superstar sidekicks like Scottie Pippen, John Paxson, Dennis Rodman, and Steve Kerr? Or what about the fact that Jordan never won a title without Jackson or Pippen… does that somehow diminish his legacy?

The answer to all those questions is a resounding no.

Just as Jordon’s place atop basketball’s Mount Olympus is secure, so too should Brady’s place be considered in football. No other player in either professional sport has come close to matching the combined individual and team accomplishments of these two icons, and for that reason and that reason alone, Rivers is ultimately dead-wrong in his assessment.

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The one thing he did get right in his interview? Acknowledging that’s he no match for Brady, against whom he is 0-8 all-time in his regular season and playoff career:

"“No, I don’t think I can say that (I’m better). A Brady-led team versus a Rivers-led team, we’re [winless]. That just tells you a little bit head-to-head.”"

We’re with you on that one at least, Phil.