- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

PHOENIX — Since the 2001 playoffs, Tom Brady has been considered this era’s Joe Montana.

No quarterback has played better in the clutch or won more big games in the past decade than the unflappable maestro of the New England Patriots.

But this season, following the offseason acquisitions of receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth, Brady added Dan Marino-like productivity to his Cool Hand Luke Persona, passing for a record 50 touchdowns and 4,806 yards (third all time) while posting a 117.2 passer rating (second).

Brady also led the Patriots to the first undefeated 16-game regular season. A victory against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII tomorrow would give the Patriots four titles in seven years and enable the 30-year-old Brady to join his childhood hero Montana of the San Francisco 49ers and Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls.

“Those guys — Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway, Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach — as far I’m concerned are in a league of their own,” Brady said modestly when asked to assess his place among the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks. “I don’t think [I belong] at all.”

Others beg to differ.

“No. 1 on my list is Joe Montana,” said Hall of Famer quarterback Troy Aikman, who led the Dallas Cowboys to three championships in the 1990s. “If the Patriots go on to win this game, Tom Brady will be a hard guy to argue against. And I don’t think [the Patriots] are done [after this season].”

Favre, the league’s only three-time MVP, marveled at Brady’s 2007 season.

“It hasn’t been matched,” Favre said. “The players around him have obviously played well, but regardless, Tom’s mechanics, the way he handles himself in the pocket … it’s unbelievable.”

However, CBS analyst Phil Simms, who led the Giants to a Super Bowl win 21 years ago, said this season didn’t change his glowing view of Brady.

“There’s nothing that Tom did this year that will change my opinion,” Simms said. “He was just presented with more opportunities, and he took advantage of them. They had a better offense, better players. It was designed to be aggressive and he took advantage of that.”

Indeed, since Troy Brown began to slip in Brady’s third season, New England hadn’t had a receiver with more than 78 catches or five touchdowns until Moss (98 catches and a record 23 touchdowns) and Welker (112 catches, eight touchdowns) joined the Patriots this season.

“Obviously, he’s got a lot of weapons around him, but Tom has gotten better,” said Dante Scarnecchia, New England’s offensive line coach throughout Brady’s career. “If we give this guy time, he’s awful tough.”

Whether Brady has made the previously struggling Bill Belichick the game’s best coach or Belichick turned sixth-round draft pick Brady into a star is always a question.

But Patriots Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins didn’t have to think too hard about it.

“I would have to go with Tom,” Mankins said. “There have been a lot of good coaches that had average quarterbacks that didn’t win that many games. You have to have a field general in someone like Tom that can make every play and makes the right plays when you need them.”

Brady’s .782 regular-season winning percentage is the best among Super Bowl-era passers. And only Packers immortal Bart Starr (.900) has a better postseason winning percentage than Brady (.875).

And yet, despite all of this success, the supermodel girlfriend and the $60 million contract, Brady remains perhaps the hardest-working player on the Patriots and a popular teammate.

Center Dan Koppen talked about “busting” Brady for all of the tabloid headlines about his personal life and then praised him for the type of person he is and how he carries himself.

“Whenever you have your marquee player as one of the hardest workers that helps everyone else,” linebacker Junior Seau said. “You can’t buy that. You can’t automatically say to Tom Brady, we want you to start working hard today. That’s inbred in you.

“That’s a character person who knows his position on this team and how he can affect others along the way. [Individual] success is great, but if you can’t bring anyone with you, you won’t be successful in this league.”

There’s no arguing with Brady’s success.

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