Some things are so obvious on the surface that you fail to realize how incredible they are. The fact that the sun rises every day is a miracle, but with such consistency, it almost seems irrelevant. The success that the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL draft has had over the last two decades has been so relentless, it almost seems routine. But when you sit back and look at the career that Tom Brady had, it defies all reason. Today, his career ends, the kind of career that we’ll never see again.
This is the script Hollywood threw out.
Tom Brady: There Will Never Be Another
After 20 years of “Tom Brady will probably be in the Super Bowl,” it’s funny to remember his rise to NFL stardom hardly seemed certain. In all reality, there were 100 ways that Tom Brady’s career could’ve gone differently. At any given point in the first 24 years of his life, Brady could’ve made a different decision or had slightly different luck, and the history of professional sports would’ve been different. I say sports because really, he could’ve played in the MLB instead. You’re welcome, baseball fans.
Tom Brady was the back-up quarterback on his junior varsity football team in high school when the varsity team went the entire year without scoring a single touchdown. Tom Brady was the seventh-string quarterback at Michigan when most schools wouldn’t offer him a scholarship. As a senior, Tom Brady had to constantly battle Drew Henson, a dream prospect, for reps as Michigan’s starting quarterback. Then, after 198 players were selected, Tom Brady went to New England, where not only did they have a franchise quarterback they had just re-signed, but he was fourth on the depth chart. Roster spots are invaluable, so most teams don’t even keep three quarterbacks on the active roster, let alone four, but that’s what Bill Belichick did with Tom Brady in 2000.
Two quarterbacks departed in free agency, Brady earned the backup quarterback spot, Mo Lewis hospitalized Drew Bledsoe, and finally, without pomp or circumstance, Tom Brady became a starting quarterback in the NFL.
And that… was the unremarkable part.
There used to be a debate about who the greatest quarterback of all time was. Dan Marino had the stats before Peyton Manning did, and Joe Montana’s four rings were the benchmark for all quarterbacks. For a solid decade there, Manning and Brady inherited the rings versus stats debate. Brady won three Super Bowls, seemingly right away, but his numbers were nowhere near as good as Peyton’s. Brady was perceived as a cog in the Patriot Machine while Peyton revolutionized the quarterback position.
But after the 2006 season, where Troy Brown and Reche Caldwell were not enough to bury Manning’s loaded Colts team in the AFC Championship game, things changed. The Patriots invested in offense, getting Randy Moss for basically nothing, and discovering an oft-ignored slot receiver by the name of Wes Welker.
In that season, cheating scandal and all, Tom Brady raised the stakes in his feud with Manning. The Patriots were a perfect 16-0 in the regular season, with Brady setting the then-record for passing touchdowns in a season with 50. The Patriots seemed primed to run it back in 2008, but a torn ACL in week one essentially ended their dreams.
Brady rebounded effortlessly in 2009, throwing for 4,393 yards, 28 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. Over the rest of his career, Brady never went back to being a “game manager” again, averaging 4,816 yards, 35 touchdowns, and only 10 picks a season.
He retires as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns in the regular season, post-season, and combined. Nobody, not Drew Brees, not Peyton Manning, and not Aaron Rodgers were able to take that title from him.
Even in his last season, he led the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43)… at 44 years old. He walked away from the game because he chose to, not because he had to.
Rings aren’t an individual stat until it’s time to start talking about your favorite player. Dan Marino is still a top five quarterback all-time to me, he never got that ring, but Trent Dilfer did. It’s not necessarily fair to praise or criticize a quarterback over one ring of the lack thereof.
But seven rings? That’s a different story. Seven rings on two different teams over the course of 20 years? That’s not a coincidence. Outside of Bill Belichick, what do the 2001 Patriots and the 2018 Patriots have in common? The 2011 Patriots didn’t have a good defense, and none of that came with him to the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
How many quarterbacks came back from a 25 point deficit in the Super Bowl? Even if you could film the inside of a defensive coordinator’s brain, how do you argue against someone who was so relentlessly competitive over the course of twenty years as the league evolved around him? Brady survived the Tampa 2, killed the Cover 3, and appeared in 14 conference championships and 10 Super Bowls.
The Salary Cap Era
I think what’s really impressive is that this happened in the Salary Cap Era. The salary cap was designed to create parity and prevent dynasties, but the Patriots did it anyway. Only the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs have played in consecutive Super Bowls, and they both lost the second one, with the Hawks falling from the ranks of the contenders immediately after. But Brady, even switching teams, played in half of the Super Bowls during his career.
End of an Era
Tom Brady’s dad wasn’t a Hall of Fame quarterback (or a MLB pitcher). He didn’t run a stellar 40, he didn’t have a generational arm, and he wasn’t the number one high school prospect in the country. He didn’t get drafted to a team that had a special gimmick to fit his strengths, and he didn’t consistently have All-Pro or Hall of Fame weapons. He fought his way into the NFL, stole a starting job, and spent the better part of two decades punishing the rest of the league it.
He took pay cuts, he kept a competitive edge, and even in his very last game, no lead was big enough for the game to be comfortably over. The ultimate competitor with an insatiable appetite for victory, Tom Brady is not only the greatest quarterback ever, but the best player in NFL history.
Love him or hate him, Tom Brady won with different schemes in different eras on different teams, and walked away in his mid-40s, still the league’s best quarterback. We were blessed (or more appropriately, cursed) to have bared witness, and he’ll be the guy you tell your grandkids about.
However, it was a fumble, and yes, I’m still bitter.