What quarterback would you rather have in a clutch situation?
That was the question that put New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the spot during an appearance on The Late Show. David Letterman managed to box Belichick into an answer to the kind of question that can, and will, be debated for years to come.
"In a big game situation, Tom Brady or Joe Montana?" asked a very serious Letterman.
Coach Belichick tried to laugh it off, as many have done this week with comparisons between the recently great Brady and the All-Time Great Montana all too rampant. But Belichick composed himself, and an answer, quickly stating, in rapid fire succession: "Tom Brady, Phil Simms, Bert Jones."
Not Montana. Brady, Simms and Jones.
Perhaps that was because Belichick never coached Montana, so he felt he should stick with quarterbacks with whom he had had actual experience. He had coaching experience with the three he named. But these three are also all worthy of consideration as the quarterback you would want with you in the biggest games.
Obviously Belichick has coached Tom Brady, whom Belichick selected in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Brady showed so much developmental promise as a rookie that the team actually went through his rookie season with four quarterbacks; Brady was the fourth but the coaches were betting he would pay off.
It didn't take long for that to prove true, as Brady became the starter in week three of the 2001 season and never looked back. He led the Patriots to the franchise's first Super Bowl victory in its 42-year existence, then followed that storybook season by leading the league in touchdown passes (the first time a Patriot has ever done that) in 2002.
Last Sunday, Brady captured his second Super Bowl victory, and his second game MVP award, in his short four-year career (of which he has only actually played three years, after warming the bench as a rookie). He was the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl two years ago and he is now, at 26, the youngest to win two. Twice he proved that he is one of the league's most dependable quarterbacks by leading game-winning drives in both Super Bowls, demonstrating a remarkable calm under the most intense pressure.
Brady's performance gave the team its first two Super Bowl championships, and Belichick's first two as a head coach. Now that Brady is 40-12 as a starter, it is not hard to see why Belichick would quickly pick Brady to top his list.
Phil Simms is another excellent choice. Belichick's familiarity with Simms comes from his tenure as the defensive coordinator for two Super Bowl champion New York Giants teams that Simms quarterbacked (although backup Jeff Hostelter had to complete the run for an injured Simms in Super Bowl XXV). Simms was the MVP of Super Bowl XXI, leading his team to 30 second-half points. In his outstanding career, he put up the numbers (more than 30,000 career passing yards), he was a winner (a .589 lifetime winning percentage), and he was at his best in the biggest games (a career rating in the post-season of 90.0).
Again, the choice of Simms as a quarterback you'd want to have in the clutch makes sense.
But why Bert Jones? Jones played for the Baltimore Colts, and Belichick grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, where his father was a football coach at Navy. Belichick was just leaving high school at Philips Academy in Massachusetts for nearby Wesleyan University when Jones started playing for Baltimore in 1972, Jones's first year in the league. But Belichick's first job in the NFL was an assistant with Baltimore in 1975, where Belichick had his first professional contact with Jones.
Jones's is not exactly a name that leaps to the fore when the best quarterbacks of all time are discussed. He is not in the Hall of Fame nor is he is not in the Top 50 of any major statistical category in NFL history.
Yet Jones was arguably the best player in the NFL in 1976 when he earned the title of league's Most Valuable Player and a berth in the (then-nascent) Pro Bowl, a year that also saw him lead the league in passing yards and average yards per pass. He was at the helm of two of the team's three straight AFC divisional championships. In just 10 short years in the NFL, when the seasons were only 14 games long compared to today's 16, his career totals include 18,190 passing yards and 124 touchdowns. His hurdling running style made him a thrill to watch.
Jones also led the league in pass completions in 1977, and this is worth remembering, since that statistical category seems to be a connecting similarity among Belichick's three choices. Brady's career Super Bowl completion percentage of 64 percent ranks third all-time behind Troy Aikman (70 percent) and Joe Montana (68), and he has set the franchise record for completion percentage as well. Simms was a near-perfect 22 of 25 in his Super Bowl XXI victory, and his 88 percent completion rate in that performance still ranks as the best single-game performance in Super Bowl history. He also holds the Giants' franchise record for lowest career interception percentage.
Belichick covets that kind of accuracy. But he also knows that players are more than just statistics. He wants leaders, as Brady is and Simms was.
So, too, was Jones. Roger Carr, Jones's top receiver with the Colts, calls Jones "a special player, one of those types who you know has a presence about him that separates him from others. When you play quarterback, you have to have an air of confidence about you and Bert had that and more. You knew the minute you leaned over in the huddle, he was in charge and you were confident he was going to lead you in the right direction."
Jones "was as good a quarterback to ever play in the league," according to long-time NFL scout Ron Nay. He had the task of evaluating one Bertram Jones during his senior year at Louisiana State University. "When I finished," said Nay, "I had 42 pages on him, still the longest scouting report I've ever written on any player."
Jones was a winner. He was 26-6-1 at LSU. The Colts were only 4-10 in his rookie year (remember Brady's Patriots were 5-11 his rookie year), but by the time Jones took over as a starter in 1975 and played a full 14 games, the Colts were 10-4. He led them to their best mark of that decade with an 11-3 record in 1976 then another 10-4 outing in 1977 before injuries limited him to three games the following season (he suffered a separated right shoulder injury in 1978 and then a spinal injury that forced him into retirement after the 1982 season).
His head coach with the Colts, Ted Marchibroda, who also was something of a mentor to Belichick, raves to this day about Jones. "I can't say enough about him. He's as good a quarterback who has ever played in the NFL, I honestly believe that. He had the whole package. Arm strength, running ability and, most of all, great leadership qualities."
When Jones was at his best, so was his entire team, and that intangible is the same rare quality found in players. Players like Tom Brady, Phil Simms, and Bert Jones.
Trust Belichick to know what he was talking about when he answered with these three.