Tom Brady is not a young man. While he’s still slinging the ball at an All-Pro level at 37 years old, the reality is that his best days are behind him. The day is fast approaching where he will have to retire, and in doing so will begin an intense and undoubtedly divisive discussion about his legacy as an NFL quarterback. That he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer is not really a question; the questions surrounding Brady’s NFL imprint are even larger in scale. From both an individual and team perspective, his achievements on the field warrant his inclusion in the conversation of the greatest players ever to play the game, and a win in Super Bowl XLIX would cement his status as the greatest football player of all-time (even though technically he already has a grip on the goat).
Before going any further, it’s important to parse out what “greatest” actually means. While it’s an entirely subjective term, most would accept that “greatest” happens somewhere at the intersection of individual and team accomplishment in both the regular and postseason. How you weigh the relative merits of gaudy regular season stats vs. weak playoff numbers (looking at you, Peyton Manning) is up to you, but to be one of the true greats you need plenty of demonstrated success in both.
Five years ago, the NFL put together its own Top 10 of all-time list. It went:
- Jerry Rice
- Jim Brown
- Lawrence Taylor
- Joe Montana
- Walter Payton
- Johnny Unitas
- Reggie White
- Peyton Manning
- Don Hutson
- Dick Butkus
Obviously, that’s a lot of great players. All 10 are (or will be, in Manning’s case) in the Hall of Fame. And despite three Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVPs, an NFL MVP, and several other awards to his credit, Brady did not even appear in that group of 10; so how does he leapfrog all of them to the No. 1 spot?
For starters, since that list was put together, he’s been to two more Super Bowls, won the AFC East every single year, been named league MVP, made the Pro Bowl every year, and twice been named AFC Offensive Player of the Year. And really, that’s only scratching the surface when you look at all the other things he’s accomplished on the field.
When the clock hits 00:00 on Sunday and Super Bowl XLIX is in the past, Brady will have set a number of Super Bowl records regardless of whether the Patriots win or lose. Here are just a few, some of which he already owns:
- Most career Super Bowls played and started (six)
- Most career Super Bowl wins as a QB (if the Patriots win, tied with Bradshaw/Montana)
- Most career Super Bowl attempts and completions
- Most career consecutive completions in a Super Bowl
- Most career Super Bowl passing yards
Brady’s success doesn’t just start and end in the Super Bowl, either. He’s been to the playoffs so many times, and dominated those games so many times, that he owns a number of postseason records as well. These records are reflective of both individual and team success; to make the playoffs and keep coming back every single year, you have to be doing something right. Here are some of the major playoff records that belong to Brady:
- Most career playoff passing TDs
- Most career playoff passing yards
- Most career postseason wins
- Most career starts in a conference championship game
Brady is no slouch in the regular season, either. His longevity and incredible output during his 13 years as the Patriots’ quarterback has put him near the top of nearly every conceivable all-time ranking among quarterbacks. Here’s where he stands all-time in nearly every major category:
- Career passing yards (5th, will likely retire 3rd or 4th)
- Career passing TDs (5th, will likely retire 3rd or 4th)
- Career QB Rating (5th)
- Career pass interception percentage (2nd, will retire 1st or 2nd)
- Game-Winning Drives (4th, could retire as high as 1st)
- Comebacks (4th, could retire 1st or 2nd)
- TD/INT Ratio (2nd, will retire 1st or 2nd)
Those numbers are pretty staggering. While he trails Manning and is neck-and-neck with Drew Brees in some of those categories, Brady’s incomparable playoff record sets him apart from his peers when it comes to taking the wide view at who was the best QB ever. Ask yourself: if you had to win one critical game, which of those three would you want on your team? If you want to say Manning, consider the fact that in the four games Manning and Brady have gone head-to-head in the playoffs, Manning has thrown for four touchdowns and six interceptions compared to four TDs and just one INT for Brady. And that doesn’t even touch Manning’s stink bomb in last year’s Super Bowl, or Brees’ inability to even make the playoffs this season.
Would Jerry Rice still be Jerry Rice if he didn’t have such gifted quarterbacks throwing to him?
One of the other huge common threads linking all-time greats is the quality of their supporting casts. As great as he was, Jerry Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing to him almost his entire career. Montana had Rice and Dwight Clark. Walter Payton played for several Bears teams that were simply dominant on both sides of the ball. Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis, followed by an embarrassment of talent in Denver. While it’s true that the enormous talents of these all-time greats made their supporting casts look good, there’s no denying that having All-Pro level talent around a player is going to be a huge boon to their potential output on the field.
So who has Brady had? Plenty of good players, but very few greats. In his career, he’s completed touchdown passes to an astonishing 57 different players. The best receiver he ever had was Randy Moss in 2007 (and to a lesser extent, 2008 and 2009), and by 2010 he was gone. Wes Welker and Troy Brown were both great slot receivers who benefited from playing on Patriots teams where there was basically nobody else who could be trusted. Rob Gronkowski has been a revelation, but he’s also been hurt a ton and is still very early in his NFL career.
Really, to understand how good Brady is you need look no further than the 2006 Patriots. In what may have been Brady’s finest hour, they reached the AFC Championship game despite a receiving corps whose No. 1 target Reche Caldwell would be straight-up released in the offseason. They also featured an aging Troy Brown (who also was playing nickelback that season due to injuries in the secondary), Oakland reject Doug Gabriel (never played in the NFL again following the season), and the immortal Jabar Gaffney. Really, mediocre tight end Ben Watson was their best pass-catcher. And yet, they were one Caldwell dropped pass and one defensive stop away from playing in (and likely winning, because Rex Grossman) the Super Bowl. While an epic Manning-led comeback thwarted Brady and Co., that may have been the Patriot quarterback’s finest effort.
When comparing Brady to other greats, it’s also important to keep in mind the timeframe. Yes, Brady has put up great numbers in a passing-friendly era, but look at his year-by-year stats. From 2002 through this year Tom Brady has been a model of consistency. Save for his 2008 season (lost to a torn ACL during the first quarter of the first game) and his crazy 5235-yard 2011, he’s been between 3700 and just over 4800 yards passing every year, with about 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. It doesn’t matter what the rules have been or how they’ve changed; the numbers stay largely the same every single year. And he’s done it all in the salary cap era, in which player movement between teams has risen dramatically and led to catastrophic receiving corps like Brady’s 2006 group. Those are challenges someone like Montana never really had to deal with.
There’s also the significant factor that Brady is a quarterback. While there’s no denying that someone like Rice or Jim Brown has a case for the best ever, even the most novice football fan can tell you that the quarterback is the most important player on the field. He is the one who has the largest impact on the game, he is the one guy you need above all others to reach the Super Bowl, and he is the one who can completely submarine your season with a bad game. Would Jerry Rice still be Jerry Rice if he didn’t have such gifted quarterbacks throwing to him? He still would have been great, sure, but the best ever? Hard to say.
Look, picking an all-time greatest NFL player is an inexact science. Comparing across eras and positions on the field is difficult, and there certainly are ways to argue in favor of others. However, of you look at those key signifiers of what makes a player “great”—regular season and playoff success, individual awards and accomplishments, and the player’s overall impact on the game—you have no choice but to find that Tom Brady is the greatest there ever was. Deflated balls or not.