Twelve days removed from orchestrating a signature 4th quarter comeback on the sub-twenty degree battlefield of Arrowhead Stadium, former 6th round pick Tom Brady is poised to take the field for his record 9th Super Bowl. After a late Rex Burkhead touchdown helped push the contest to overtime, Tom took the field for overtime. Thirteen plays later, converting three separate 3rd and 10s along the way, that was all she wrote. It’s the type of masterpiece even the most ardent Brady-detractors will miss. At the ripe old age of forty-one, Brady maintains that he’ll play until his mid-forties. Even so, and although he may be older, slower, and less muscular then ever before, Tom is still the best there is and, quite clearly, the best there was.
Those who discredit the greatness of Tom Brady say he’s been the disproportionate beneficiary of a tremendous coach, an underrated supporting cast, the right foot of Adam Vinatieri, and more than a few lucky breaks. Allow me to offer the following as a rebuttal.
The End of The Joe Montana Conversation
First, it is vitally important to note that very rarely do the Brady-detractors name an alternative GOAT, knowing that every other quarterback falls pitifully short in both statistical success and career legacy. When another QB is offered, however, it tends to be Joe Montana. A brief side-by-side comparison will make clear to even the most ignorant statistician that the two signal callers are hardly comparable. Brady, for example, has accumulated 70,514 career passing yards compared to Montana’s 40,551. The gap between these two figures is approximately equivalent to the combined career passing yardage totals of Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. Brady has also thrown for 517 touchdowns to Montana’s 273 (essentially twice as many). Brady also bests Montana is career passer rating and completion percentage. Tom even has a better TD:INT ratio (3.02:1 vs 1.96:1). Well, Brady must be juicing his numbers through short dump-offs, right? Incorrect. In Montana’s entire career, he completed just 8 passes of over 40 yards. Brady has completed 156 such passes. Likewise, Montana completed 68 passes of over 20 yards compared to Tom’s absurd total of 862 (12.6 times as many). As recently as this season, MVP candidates such as Drew Brees have thrown a higher percentage of their passes within ten yards of the line of scrimmage than has Brady. Well, surely Montana could have achieved comparable numbers if he’d had a supporting cast as string as Brady’s, you say. Let’s take a closer look. While Brady has undeniably benefitted from Bill Belichick, Montana had an all-time great coach of his own in Bill Walsh, who pioneered the West Coast offense. And although many are quick to give Belichick all credit for the Patriots’ Dynasty, allow me to remind you that, before Brady, Belichick was a failing coach. Since drafting Brady, furthermore, Belichick has posted a win percentage of approximately .500 in games not started by Tom. In games Brady does start, the percentage jumps to nearly .800. Likewise, in the two seasons where Brady did not play in more than one game, the Patriots missed the playoffs both times. With Tom, New England has missed out just once, and has qualified every year since 2003. Has Tom had the occasional talented receiver? Certainly. Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski are both bound for the Hall of Fame. Neither one of them, however, can hold a candle to Jerry Rice, indisputably the greatest receiver of all time. Montana also had the late, great Dwight Clark running routes. And while the Patriots have almost never had a true running back, all four of Joe Montana’s Super Bowl wins came at the end of seasons in which all-time great running back Roger Craig had compiled a 1,000-yard year. On the defensive end, things still seem to favor Montana. In three of Montana’s four super bowl winning years, his defense, featuring the likes of Ronnie Lott, ranked third or better in points allowed per game, surrendering just 14.9 per game in 1990. The fact of the matter is that every quarterback benefits from the rest of their team, at least to some extent. To belittle the accomplishments of any great player because they were surrounded by talented teammates is to belittle the accomplishments of every great quarterback ever. Montana had Walsh, Rice, and Craig. Bradshaw had the Steel Curtain, Swann, Harris. Troy Aikman had Johnson, Smith, and Irvin. And yes, Brady had Belichick, Gronkowski, and a few minutes of Moss.
The Supporting Cast
Outside of any Joe Montana comparisons, few would argue that Brady has been forced to drag some pretty motley crews to success. In 2012, for example, Brady managed to win the AFC in spite of a defense that ranked 25th in the league and surrendered over 370 yards per game. In Tom’s first three Super Bowl-winning years, he never had a defense that ranked higher than 24th. Interestingly enough, Aaron Rodgers’s sole championship came in 2010, a year in which his defense ranked 5th in the league. On the offensive side, aside from Randy Moss’s brief stint in New England, when did we last see Tom benefit from a true number one receiver. Maybe Deion Branch? Allow me to direct your attention to Tom’s most recent season, a year in which, despite purportedly showing his age, he posted a higher passer rating than Aaron Rodgers, tallied more yards than Russell Wilson, and threw just three fewer TDs than Drew Brees. Let me ask you this: Of the four teams that played on conference championship weekend, which offense had the least firepower? New England, and it isn’t even close. The Chiefs’ third-best receiving option would have been New England’s first. In all seriousness, who does Tom Brady have? The 32-year-old Julian Edelman one year removed from a complete ACL tear? College lacrosse player Chris Hogan? The speedy but one-dimensional Phillip Dorsett? The crumbling shell of Rob Gronkowski? Incredibly, Brady has thrown a touchdown pass to a record 71 different receivers, perhaps the greatest testament to his adaptability. To me, what Tom Brady has accomplished in 2018 when, considering the talent (or, really, lack of talent) he’s been surrounded with, stands among his greatest achievements in pro football.
The Myth of a Weak AFC East
The talking heads on 2019 morning sports broadcasts, however, would have you believe that any and all success Tom Brady has ever found in football is the direct result of a weak AFC East division. This is simply not the case. This is, statistically speaking, simply a false narrative. Since 2001, not including the record of each year’s division winner, the AFC East has the highest win percentage of any team in football. Essentially, since 2001, the three non-winning AFC East teams were the most competitive group of non-winning teams in any division. So, in order to win the AFC East each year, the Patriots have had to fend off the best group of fellow division members.
A Few Additional Achievements
To conclude, let’s examine the legacy Tom Brady. Essentially, what have been his crowning achievements and highest peaks? Don’t ask me about Brady’s greatness, just go right to his peers. The NFL Top 100, held at the conclusion of each NFL season, allows players to rank, in order, the league’s 100 most dominant competitors. Nobody has ever been voted #1 twice, except, that is, for Tom Brady, who has won the honor three times. Although Tom has won three MVP awards, second only to Peyton Manning, and while he does hold nearly every playoff-inclusive stat there is, Brady himself will tell you he’s much more into winning. Well, nobody has ever won more, both including (236) and excluding (207) postseason competition. Like a fine wine, Tom performs better as the season wears on, leading all active and retired quarterback with 29 playoff victories, 13 more than the next best total, held by Joe Montana. Brady has also toughed out three postseason overtime victories, a mark no other player has matched. In Super Bowls, Tom is 5-3, winning more than any other QB and tied by only Charles Haley (DE) of the Cowboys and 49ers. Declaring that there is “zero” chance he does not return for the 2019 season, Tom sits just two back of the most game-winning drives in NFL history and one shy of the 4th quarter comebacks record, both marks which he should, in theory, surpass next season.
The Immortal Moments
But it all started in week two of 2001, when Jets linebacker Mo Lewis punctured the lungs of Drew Bledsoe. We know how that year ended. Escaping Foxborough’s “Snow Bowl” by the narrowest of margins, Tom led the Patriots to what was then the greatest upset in Super Bowl history, toppling the Greatest Show on Turf with an immaculate last-minute drive. Please, spare me the Vinatieri excuses. The kick was clutch, yes. But it was also just 48 yards, and a miracle by no means. Brady captured Super Bowl MVP, and another two years later against the Panthers (this Vinatieri game winner was just 41 yards and he went ⅓ on his kicks that night) before watching Deion Branch shred the Eagles in New England’s third Super Bowl victory in just four years. Then, in 2007, after leading the Patriots to the NFL’s only 16-0 record and throwing for 50 touchdowns along the way, Tom fell to the Giants, and the perfect season was for not. Eli again bested Brady in 2011, and Tom didn’t see the Super Bowl again until 2015. Facing the Seattle Seahawks, who were fresh off a soul-crushing victory over Aaron Rodgers, Brady trailed by 10 with under twelve minutes to go in the 4th quarter. Two money-on-the-line, ice-in-the-veins drives later, following a series of crucial 3rd and long conversions, the Patriots led, and Malcolm Butler made sure things stayed that way. In the 4th quarter, Tom completed 14 of his 16 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Defeating what many considered to be a defensive squad that stood among the greatest ever, Brady was a world champion for the first time in a decade. And for the first time ever, whispers of Brady’s greatness began to include the “best ever” distinction. Two years later, Tevin Coleman rushed past New England’s right pilon and, in his seventh trip to the Super Bowl, Brady trailed by the 28-3 margin. The Patriots added six points in the waning minutes of the third-quarter, but the falcons carried 19-point lead into the 4th. In the 4th quarter and overtime, Brady completed 22 of his 28 passes for 246 yards, and a score, posting 25 points. Although, as many players have revealed since that evening, when New England won the overtime coin toss toss, the game Atlanta had once lead by four scores was over. “Brady has his fifth,” exclaimed Joe Buck. Brady was, henceforth, the greatest of all time. He had trailed like no one had ever trailed, rallied like no one had ever rallied, and pulled it off like no one had ever pulled it off. So, today, a year removed from falling to Philadelphia despite his NFL record 505 passing yards, Brady once more stands at the precipice of football immortality. As ESPN’s Will Cain suggested earlier this month, to continue to explain away Brady’s success, detract from his accomplishments, and minimize the credit he is due reflects much more on you, your bitterness, and your jealousy than it does Brady, his greatness, and his legacy. When he is gone, we will all miss him.