It’s official: Tom Brady is retiring. Again.
As the 23-season veteran quarterback prepares to move off the field and into the commentary booth, the headlines have begun to flow — “legend”, “superstar”, “immortal”.
Yet somehow, it doesn’t feel like those terms quite do justice to what Brady accomplished.
If you aren’t a fan of American football, you could easily get lost in the lingo and assume this is a typical case of sportswriters reaching for breathless superlatives.
You’d be wrong. Here are five facts that should convince even the most confused Australian just why Tom Brady is the undisputed GOAT of gridiron.
He won seven Super Bowls in 23 years
Sounds impressive, right? Let’s put it into perspective.
Seven Super Bowl wins is the most by a quarterback in history. Tied for second are Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, at four.
No team, collectively, has won seven Super Bowls. The Patriots and the Steelers have won six each.
That’s because winning a Super Bowl is hard. Very hard. So hard, in fact, that 12 of the NFL’s 32 teams have never managed it in the championship game’s 57-year history.
That’s right, there are 32 teams vying for the Lombardi Trophy each year — compared to, say, the 17 teams in the NRL, the 18 in the AFL, or the 20 in the English Premier League.
That means there are 31 teams going home broken, bruised and bitterly disappointed every year.
The NFL is also based on parity — the principle that the struggling teams should get a leg up and the dominant teams be brought down a peg or two every year to keep things interesting.
The league achieves this by giving the top draft picks to the worst-performing teams, as well as capping the total pool of salaries that can be paid to players on a single team, meaning rich clubs can’t just buy the best players and everyone has to make trade-offs at certain positions.
It’s meant to make it harder for individual teams to establish long-running dynasties — and for the most part it does a pretty good job.
It’s why commentators talk about “Super Bowl windows” — usually the three or four years in which a rookie quarterback has hit their stride but is still on their cheap initial contract (freeing up money to bring in other star players), or when a team has managed to juggle its players’ contracts so as to maximise roster talent before it finally has to pay the piper and everything comes crashing down.
Brady somehow managed to win three Super Bowls in the New England Patriots’ early-2000s window — then jammed that window open and kept it like that for another decade and a half, winning three more, all in a league set up to prevent one team from dominating.
But of course, he didn’t do it alone.
He settled the greatest ‘coach or player’ debate of all time
Perhaps more so than in any other sport, coaches in the NFL have a great deal to do with the on-field action.
They don’t just draw up a game plan. They draw up a playbook — a meticulously detailed guide for what every player on the field should be doing at any given moment — and then decide which play to run in real time, their decision relayed to the quarterback or linebacker via a speaker in the player’s helmet.
You might say NFL players are the chess pieces, and their coaches are the chess players.
Of course, there’s much more to the game than that. But it’s easy to see why a great coach can elevate a team as much as, if not more than, a great quarterback.
With defensive genius Bill Belichick at head coach for the Patriots, Brady was in the perfect position to succeed.
The problem was their success together inevitably led to the question: Who was the real mastermind here?
There’s little doubt that proving he could win without Belichick was part of the reason for Brady’s eventual departure from New England.
Moving to Florida in his old age, as many Americans do, he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, immediately won another Super Bowl, and topped it off with a tequila-soaked boat parade.
Belichick, meanwhile, experienced his first losing season since 2000 after signing former MVP Cam Newton.
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He racked up the stats (at his own pace)
Gridiron football is the ultimate team sport, with 53 players on each roster, separate groupings for offence and defence, and specialists for punts and field goals that can decide the fate of a close game.
Not to mention someone has to catch the passes the quarterback throws.
For that reason it’s hard to find a statistic that can be used to measure Brady’s individual performance against the GOATs of other sports, like Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky or Don Bradman, using a statistical method like standard deviations.
What we can do is marvel at the fact that Brady currently leads the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and a slew of other metrics, despite maintaining a longevity-focused style of play that never lent itself to flashy highlights or mind-blowing individual statistics.
He played until 45 — and he played well
Even more impressive, perhaps, than Brady’s statistical achievements — Super Bowl rings notwithstanding — is the fact he was able to play at such a high level for so long, in a league where the average career typically lasts only a few years.
A quarterback playing 23 seasons in the NFL is practically unheard of. Only George Blanda beats Brady’s record, however he played in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and started and ended his career predominantly as a kicker.
Brady didn’t miss a game due to injury from 2008 through to retirement, playing a position which makes you the target of the four or five biggest, meanest dudes on the other team every single play.
Other Hall of Fame-tier quarterbacks of Brady’s generation, such as Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, also managed to put together long, successful careers, but suffered a severe drop-off in play as age began to take its toll.
Brady, meanwhile, threw the most completions and the third-most passing yards of any quarterback for the 2022 season.
There’s an argument to be made that you could split Brady’s career up into three separate segments and each of them would be a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career in itself.
He simply had the intangibles
What ultimately made Brady the GOAT was the way he could inspire the rest of his team to win in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Whether it was Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception to clinch Super Bowl XLIX, or Julian Edelman’s miracle catch to come back from 28-3 down in the third quarter and steal Super Bowl LI, Tom Brady’s team winning felt fated. It felt inevitable.
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The fact that he often did it in the absence of a star-studded supporting cast (with a few notable exceptions) made it all the more impressive.
At no point during the last 23 years has anyone playing against Brady felt truly comfortable. There was never a game in which he wasn’t competitive right to the end.
It’s the same reason people don’t believe him when he says this retirement is “for good”. A reminder: the previous one lasted 40 days.
Besides, his childhood team, the San Francisco 49ers, might need a quarterback next season while their rookie quarterback, Brock Purdy, recovers from an elbow injury.
What could be more competitive than that?