Brady vs. Rodgers: NFL defenders define their GOATness

“This is an epic matchup. Both quarterbacks are as good as any that has ever played the game and totally different in styles. I don’t know who I’d give the nod to or the advantage to.” — Brett Favre discussing Sunday night’s game between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers on his SiriusXM show.

It’s as good an individual matchup as there is in the NFL. Is Brady-Rodgers the NFL equivalent of Jordan-LeBron? There are some similarities. The championships belong to Brady (5) and Jordan (6), while James, who has three titles, and Rodgers, with one ring, are considered the more athletically gifted.

Jordan and Brady are recognized by many as the greatest of all time in their respective sports, and the titles have a ton to do with it. But James fans can make a statistical argument — one enhanced with each passing season — that their guy either is the best or will be by the time he’s done. The Rodgers crowd would have a tougher time getting around the ring criteria.

NFL Nation talked to players around the league who have played with or against the two quarterbacks to discuss what sets them apart and defines their greatness. ESPN Stats & Info also provided some context to the discussion as Brady and Rodgers prepare to start against each other for just the second time in their storied careers. Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers to a 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots in 2014.

One of those old-school football players

Rodgers’ toughness and elusiveness were common themes with the players. Dallas Cowboys safety Jeff Heath remembers getting a blindside hit on Rodgers during a 2016 divisional-round game. For many quarterbacks, the hit would have forced a fumble. But Rodgers took the sack, shook it off and, four plays later, connected on an athletic third-and-20 strike to Jared Cook for a first down that set up the winning field goal.

Heath: “I couldn’t see the ball, so I tried to hit him through the back and kind of punch down, and I missed the ball by a couple of inches. But I thought maybe the hit would jar the ball loose. On a lot of quarterbacks it probably would have, but I mean, I guess he has huge hands. If that play happens 10 times, I don’t know if he holds the ball 10 times. It’s just kind of one of those things. He happened to hold on that play, and then he did what he did.”

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan: “He had hurt his hamstring against us [in 2014] and finished the game and, like, outran one of our D-ends or something like that. And you’re just sitting there, like, ‘I thought you were injured.’ He was out for maybe a play and then put himself back in. What’s different about Aaron Rodgers is that he’ll give it all on the field, and you see he’s hurt. … You saw it again this year. He came back, and he’s hobbling down the field. … If his back leg is hurting, he now just throws off his front leg, and he’s just as accurate. I don’t know if there’s much that he can’t do. … It’s that tenacity that you don’t see often in quarterbacks. He’s like one of those old-school football players …”

Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes: “The guy was on one leg versus us [in Week 4] and still making plays all across the field. You turn on the TV, he’s scrambling, rolling across his body, still making throws across the field. He doesn’t throw an inaccurate pass, to be honest with you. That’s kind of the astonishing thing that sticks out about him. You leave 50 seconds on the clock with him, and he’ll score.”

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman: “You’re going to have to run. You’re going to have to cover for a long period of time. You got to be ready for the backyard football. He’s a great passer, and he get the ball anywhere. He can be on his back foot and throw it 75 yards if that’s what he needs to do.”

Detroit Lions linebacker Eli Harold: “I remember facing [Rodgers] my rookie year. I had a free sack up the middle, and he shook me. Would have been my first NFL sack, and he shook me. Completed a pass, an explosive pass. I was like, ‘God dang it.'”

New York Jets linebacker Avery Williamson: “I came free on a sack, and he saw me at the last second, and he spun out, and I fell [laughs]. I thought I was about to have an easy sack, and I let that one get away.”

New York Giants safety Michael Thomas: “How do you defend it? If a guy is rolling out to the right, even in your plaster coverages, you’re like, ‘OK, we’re not worried about outside third [of the field].’ That’s 60 yards downfield. But flick of the wrist, not even setting up to make throws — dime. There is no coverage for that.”

Jacksonville Jaguars and former Cowboys cornerback Tyler Patmon: “The thing that stuck out to me was we played them when it was playoffs. We were winning the game, and this guy’s kind of driving down the field, and you just look over and look him in his face, and he’s just like as calm as can be. He doesn’t have any expression of worry, stress, excitement — nothing. Just a stale-faced guy, and he’s just killing us, and it’s just like, you see this dude, and he just looks like it’s so effortless to him. That’s the one thing I remember. He just made it seem like he’s just having fun and just playing the game with no effort.”

‘A step ahead of the defense’

This is Brady’s 19th season, so it’s no surprise that one of his most impressive traits is his knowledge of the game.

Tennessee Titans and former Patriots running back Dion Lewis: “I remember one time, I think I had a checkdown, and he said to run a swing route, and I was wide-open. Nobody was covering me. Sometimes he will just tell you to do something that isn’t a part of the play because he knows it will work. He’s not trying to override the coach or anything, it’s just the freedom he has to make those changes. It’s just the comfort level in that offense. … His experience is what makes him a different type of guy. His overall preparation and focus, he’s always locked in and in tune with what’s going on. He’s always a step ahead of the defense.”

Thomas, recalling a Brady pass during a 2015 game that seemed to bend around defenders into the hands of Rob Gronkowski: “Seeing that throw, I was like, ‘How?’ He was clearly doubled. He was clearly covered. Guys did exactly what they were supposed to do. When he threw it, you’re thinking interception or a big hit. And he makes a throw that the defender couldn’t get to, and Gronk just knew to keep running.”

Houston Texans safety A.J. Moore, who was with the Patriots in the preseason: “[Brady’s] attention to detail. Just being able to read coverages and to stay poised throughout the game, whether he’s behind 21 or up 21. And that’s probably the biggest thing that stood out to me. Throughout one of the preseason games where he actually played, we were down early in the game, and you just kind of got another glimpse of that, where he stayed poised when we were down. But he came back and won the game. That was pretty awesome.”

Williamson: “He understands coverages and what you’re going to do. It’s hard to disguise …. He’s just a smart player. He gets the ball out of his hands quick. He has good chemistry with his receivers. He puts it in tough spots, back-shoulder throws … where only his receivers and tight ends can catch it.”

Hughes: “Any type of fourth-and-short, third-and-short, he’s willing to call his own number. Get dirty, throw his head in there. Not too many quarterbacks want to run that sneak in the trenches with two 300-pound guys barreling down on top of them. Tom, he’ll do. He’ll call his own number. He’ll make the play. He’ll keep the sticks moving. So I think, to me, that whole field awareness and the fact that he’s cunning enough and not worried about his own body, that probably puts him over the edge.”

Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty: “With Tom, the difference is before the snap. He’s so hard to prepare for — all the talking and different shifts and motions and just checking and audibling into this play or that play.”

Martellus Bennett, one of only two players to have a pass thrown to him by both quarterbacks compared the two earlier this year: “I think that no one has more arm talent than Aaron. Aaron can do pretty much anything with the ball. I feel like Tom is really precise, easier to play with. … He just makes the game easy, like what he expects, where he wants you to be and where he’s putting the ball. It’s just repetition. He does so many repetitions with you, whether it’s mental reps, physical reps or walk-through. He’s always letting you know. He communicates the best of what he expects. The communication between [Brady] and the receiver is probably on the highest level of what you like to do, what he likes to throw. If he sees something, if you ask him to do something, he’ll try it, and he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s go with that.'”

Signature moments

Leading the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit in the second half of Super Bowl LI was one of the greatest achievements in NFL history. It earned Brady his fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy and fifth Super Bowl title.

Lions defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who is one of six players to have played with both quarterbacks: “At the beginning of [Super Bowl LI], when we saw the score, we’re like, ‘Oh man, they lost. This game is over with.’ Next thing you know, they kept their head down. They kept grinding, grinding, grinding. All you see is Tom just go here, here, here, here, and then in no given time did you see him break a sweat. One thing they both don’t do is break sweat. You don’t see either of them get panicked.”

Rodgers’ scrambling on third-and-20 in the divisional-round game in Dallas and then finding Jared Cook for a first down to set up the winning field goal defined his greatness.

Los Angeles Raiders tight end Jared Cook: “Just right place, right time, man. Just him rolling. That just shows who Aaron is. It was kind of like a drawn-up play, and he found a way, well, we all found a way to make the play work. He rolled to his left and dished it off with his right, and that’s pretty incredible in itself. He’s just a true pro’s pro. He’s a perfectionist, and his ball placement, his command in the huddle, it’s the way he goes about his daily routine. He does the same workouts, the same warm-ups every day on his own. Nobody got to tell him to do that. And then, just the way he throws the ball, man — he’s always going to put the ball where you need it to be. You never have to question that about him. He’s always going to get you to the right place, and he’s never going to really lead you into trouble out there in the field. He sets himself apart. He knows he’s a winner, and he knows how to do that.”

What stands out to Browns safety Damarious Randall, who played three years with Rodgers, has more to do with the man than the player.

“He’s actually one of the better teammates I’ve ever had in the NFL,” Randall said. “Because he’s a down-to-earth guy.

“You would think a quarterback that makes that much money really wouldn’t care about somebody up on the defensive side of the ball. But he’s one of the best team players that I’ve seen. He’s a guy that’s going to do whatever you got to do to try to win the game. When you know you got that guy behind the center, you feel like you can win each and every game. That’s why each and every year he’s healthy, the Pack have the potential to win the Super Bowl.”

As far as a personal rivalry, Brady said Rodgers inspires him.

The respect is so high for these two quarterbacks that their matchup will be appointment television for other players.

“Is that game in prime time?” the Jets’ Williamson asked. “I’d like to watch that one.”

Contributing: Rob Demovsky, Mike Reiss, Rich Cimini, Paul Gutierrez, Michael Rothstein, Todd Archer, Pat McManamon, Mike Rodak, Nick Wagoner, Jeremy Fowler, Turron Davenport, Sarah Barshop, Jordan Raanan, Mike DiRocco

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