Tom Brady was never the most approachable quarterback in the NFL. That would be Peyton Manning, who just last weekend brought down the house on Saturday Night Live. Aaron Rodgers is probably more athletic; Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford have those cannon-fire arms. Lamar Jackson knows when to run the ball, while any number of QBs might be said to be faster.
Yet it’s Brady who is indisputably the greatest of all time. Somehow the geeky kid from that rookie weigh-in photo all the way back in 2000, the one who looked like he spent too much time brooding in a computer lab, blossomed into a force of nature the likes of which the professional sports world has never known.
Brady’s stats seem unreal: seven Super Bowl wins and ten Super Bowl appearances, the most games ever won by an NFL player (278), the most passing completions (8,428), the most touchdown passes (710). Over the course of a 21-year career, Brady threw for 97,569 yards. That’s more than fifty-five miles, enough to get you across Rhode Island, all out of one man’s arm. And he played until forty-four years of age, around when the rest of us start to notice we’re getting a bit winded raking the leaves.
His best Super Bowl performance was one of the few that he ever lost, against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018, when he notched 505 passing yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Yet the one that will be clearest remembered was his win against the Falcons when he came back from that now-infamous 28-3 deficit to tie the game and win it in overtime. And that’s the thing about Brady: he almost did it again. In the last NFL game he ever played, he dug the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of a 27-3 hole against the Los Angeles Rams, only for the Rams to blaze down the field and Matt Gay to kick a field goal in the final seconds.
It was the rare instance when time, that infernally ticking foe, got the best of Brady. Many have embarrassed themselves by predicting that the aging QB, born when Jimmy Carter was president, would collapse into an osteoporotic heap on the 25-yard line. Foremost among them was ESPN’s Max Kellerman, who declared all the way back in 2016 that Brady was about to “fall off a cliff” and would look like “a bum in short order.”
Since then, Brady has been to three Super Bowls and won two, while even Kellerman has admitted he was wrong. (Anyone who understands the New England/New York rivalry knows exactly why the Bronx-born Kellerman made that remark; it’s the same reason I used to chant “Yankees suck” in defiance of all the evidence.) And it was Kellerman, a sharp commentator when he isn’t dishing out hot takes, who more recently gave the best theory as to why Brady finally walked away: “There is no one left saying he can’t do it next year.”
That’s just it. Rewind a couple years and there were still a few prominent doubters, those who accused Brady of being just a “system quarterback,” a foosball figurine manipulated into greatness by New England head coach Bill Belichick. Then Brady left the Patriots and won a Super Bowl in his first year with the Bucs. The idiotic “was it more Brady or Belichick?!?!” debate, destined to play on a Fox Sports loop until time is no more, was suddenly turned on its head. Brady was partying on a boat in Tampa Bay while Belichick was glowering from out of his hoodie at an inconsistent Cam Newton and an emaciated receiving corps. The success in New England was always thanks to both men, but no one could now claim that Brady was the junior partner.
Defiance is delicious fuel, and with no one left to prove wrong, maybe Brady finally decided it was time. Because what remains for the haters? Deflategate? There isn’t a scientist left in America who thinks those balls were flabbed by anything other than the elements. Eli Manning, whose Giants beat him in two Super Bowls? Even Achilles had his heel. And sure enough, watching Brady play for the Bucs has sometimes felt like some surreal gridiron rendition of the Iliad, one of those battles where a larger-than-life hero performs impossible feats in spite of being way too old.
We live in a time when deconstruction is prized above achievement, when we think nothing of ruining accomplished men over some off-handed remark they made decades ago. Brady endures because he bucked all this. He sought out excellence for its own sake and realized it, ignoring the Twitterati who laughed at his crazy fitness diet, his avocado ice cream. In this sense, he was a thrillingly transgressive figure, even as he became the NFL’s inescapable golden boy.
Now the GOAT has earned himself a little R&R. Here’s to the best to ever don a pair of cleats.