Like Ruth, Secretariat, Jordan, Gretzky before him, Brady was in a league of his own
Longtime NFL quarterback officially retires and takes his place among those who transcended their sport
Someday you’ll tell your kids you saw Tom Brady play, just as fathers once told later generations about Babe Ruth. When Brady announced his retirement this week at the age of 44, it was like hearing the Beatles broke up. It marked the end of a rare era and one that transcended its field. His playing days had to end sometime, but by then there was this feeling that maybe they would continue forever. Twenty-two years of excellence and no slowing down; why not 25? Or 30?
Maybe it’s more analogous to the passing of Halley’s comet every 75 years. You won’t see Brady’s like for … well, maybe ever.
For one thing, in this era of parity in the National Football League it’s very difficult to repeat as a champion. NFL rules are stacked against it — the reverse order of the draft, the design of the waiver wire, the hard salary cap, compensatory picks, etc.
In the last 22 years (the 2000s), only three teams managed to appear in the Super Bowl more than twice (Steelers, Seahawks, Giants — three each) and no team won more than two of them — that is, other than Brady’s teams, which appeared in the Super Bowl 10 times (nine with the Patriots, one with the Buccaneers) during that era and came away with seven wins.
Even the designs of parity couldn’t stop Brady. And if anyone was tempted (for good reason) to credit it to the luck of being paired up with coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, he won a Super Bowl in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as if to drive home a point.
His 10 Super Bowl appearances are four more than any other player. His seven Super Bowl wins are two more than runner-up Charles Haley, a defensive lineman who happened to play for the Cowboys and 49ers at the right time.
Brady came within 14 points of winning all 10 of his Super Bowl appearances, his three losses coming by an average of 4.7 points (on the other hand, he won his fourth Super Bowl only because the Seahawks called the dumbest play in football history and were intercepted at the goal line).
There are a handful of athletes who are so far ahead of their time that they create another category of greatness. Tiger Woods won almost 25% of the tournaments he played. Wayne Gretzky still owns 60 NHL records 22 years after he retired. Michael Jordan won six championships despite leaving the sport for three years in the middle of them. Babe Ruth is still the greatest (drug-free) power hitter ever 100 years later. Secretariat didn’t just win the Triple Crown; he won the Preakness by 31 lengths and was still pulling away.
They were outliers.
Brady has joined that club. He played so well that hardly anyone even mentions the quarterback that used to be held up as the standard — Joe Montana, whose record was supposed to be unassailable.
No one could have predicted it. Brady was hardly a prepossessing prospect, which is why he was the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL draft. He was not athletic — his pre-draft 40-yard “sprint” was just under 5.3 seconds — much slower than most linemen. Who can forget the lurpy attempt he made to catch a pass in the Super Bowl. But apparently Brady knew he had something that set him apart.
According to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brady told him after the draft that it was “the best decision this organization will ever make.” Brady says what he really said was, “You’ll never regret picking me.” Anyway, through sheer force of will, he climbed to the top, driven by an intense competitive streak. He worked. Hard. He could decipher defenses with the speed of a computer. He looked for every advantage he could find, right down to his diet and his private chef. He obsessed over his throwing mechanics down to the smallest detail.
It wasn’t just that he reached a high level of play; it was more that he sustained it for more than two decades. He got better and better when nature normally dictates that athletes his age go into steep decline. He was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player at the age of 40. Five of his 10 Super Bowls came after the age of 37 — which is more than the combined total of Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Drew Brees for their entire careers; three of those occurred after the age of 40. He won his first Super Bowl in his second year in the league and won his last Super Bowl in his second to last year in the league. He won Super Bowls in three different decades.
Last season, at age 43, he threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns (against 12 interceptions) en route to that seventh Super Bowl win. This season, at age 44, he led the league in passing yardage — 5,316 — and touchdown passes — 43 (against 12 interceptions). That’s the third highest single-season yardage total in NFL history, 81 yards better than the third-place mark, which was set by Brady when he was 10 years younger.
He threw for a career-record 84,520 yards and a career-record 624 touchdowns, but what he did best was win. There have been more talented players (Rodgers, for instance), but no one was more successful; no one won the way he did. Maybe the only athlete who matched Brady’s drive to win was Jordan, who also had that ability to put his teammates on his back and will them to victory.
Brady claimed a career-record 243 victories, and that’s despite sitting out virtually two seasons — 2000 and 2008. If you attribute that to the length of his career, consider this: he has the highest winning percentage of any quarterback who played at least 200 games, and it’s not even close — Brady won 76.4% of his games and runner-up Peyton Manning won 70.3%. Brady also played in a record 47 playoff games — the equivalent of three regular seasons — and won a record 35 of them.
No lead was safe when Brady was on the other side of the line. When the Atlanta Falcons opened a 21-0 lead against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, Atlanta players were talking confidently on the sideline — “They never seen anything like us!” they were saying — until wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said quietly, “It’s Tom Brady, though.” The Patriots eventually fell behind 28-3 and then Brady rallied them to a 34-28 overtime win.
Maybe some of his passing records will be broken years from now — especially since the NFL has evolved more and more into a passing league — but his standards for winning and for sustained excellence will never be touched.