Sports

Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers Is All in Our Heads

Tom Brady stands face to face with Aaron Rodgers for a postgame chat on the field
Two GOATs passing in the night. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As one of his last acts in office, Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday to establish a statuary park called the “National Garden of American Heroes.” The administration released a hodgepodge of figures—Kobe Bryant, Samuel Morse, Whitney Houston, and Antonin Scalia among them—with little in common beyond the fact that they have extensive Wikipedia pages. The only qualification appears to be fame, which is good news for the two quarterbacks facing off in Sunday’s NFC championship game as well as those who aspire to worship them in statue form.

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Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers may be the league’s most famous faces, but they’re not exactly rivals. Next weekend’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will mark just the fourth time that the quarterbacks have played against each other. It’s surprising given the length of their careers—Brady is in his 20th season as a starter, Rodgers his 13th—but the NFC championship is a Halley’s comet–type event for NFL stargazers. You can be sure that league executives are tremendously excited about it. When Rodgers and Brady met in 2018, they had Michael Jordan cut a promo for Sunday Night Football.

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The New England Patriots (remember them?) won that game, but the Brady-Rodgers debate, to the extent there is one, can’t really be settled based on anything that’s happened with both men on the same field. The argument between them is one of success vs. aesthetics. Brady is unassailable in pretty much every category that signifies winning. He’s won six Super Bowls (Rodgers has won one), and Sunday will be Brady’s 14th conference championship game (Rodgers has played in four). Rodgers, for his part, bests Brady in a bunch of quarterbacking metrics: passer rating, adjusted net yards per pass attempt, interception percentage. But the argument that Aaron Rodgers is the greatest of all time is most of all a testament to how much fun it is to watch Aaron Rodgers play football.

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You won’t find the above play in Tom Brady’s football vocabulary. Brady honed a commitment to ruthless efficiency during his two-decade stint in New England, and extraneous flourishes are almost nonexistent in his game. There’s a reason that one of his signature moves is the quarterback sneak, a hugely valuable yet inelegant maneuver that he deployed to perfection against the New Orleans Saints during Sunday’s divisional round game.

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While they have their own stylistic approaches to quarterbacking, the differences between Rodgers and Brady may be easiest to spot in between plays. Brady is a cauldron of intensity and emotion. When one of his teammates messes up—an occurrence that happens more frequently now that Brady has cast himself off Bill Belichick’s tightly run ship—he’s capable of reaching a rolling boil. Rodgers, on the other hand, is Jim Halpert with a golden arm, all eye-rolls and smirks. (Though, to Brady’s credit, the jaunty pirate flag on his helmet seems to have unlocked some levity.)

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These differences are evident in their projected personas off the field as well. When Brady shills for a brand, he almost exclusively does so in glossy print advertisements. Rodgers, by contrast, can be seen in roughly 8,000 State Farm spots on any given Sunday. The character he plays in those ads is “Aaron Rodgers: normal guy.” This is the kind of role that Brady, a man who adheres to a quasi-religious dietetic belief system, wisely avoids.

If they have anything in common beyond their jersey numbers, it’s the fact that they represent the league’s old guard. Brady, 43, is one win away from his 10th Super Bowl appearance. Rodgers, 37, is the league’s likely MVP. Patrick Mahomes, who might one day pass either or both of them as the acknowledged greatest quarterback ever, will be 43 when Brady is 61. If both men are still active at that point, I don’t think there will be a statuary garden big enough to hold them.

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