Can we stop having the GOAT discussion?
For one, it’s over. But more importantly, what’s the point of it? We have a need to put everything into historical context to such a degree that it’s almost like the game-to-game moments that make sports so great aren’t worth anything. But that’s what sports are about. The games, the moments, the drama in real time. It’s why I fell in love with sports in the first place, and it’s why I spent the early years of my life wanting to be a play-by-play announcer. But sports commentary seems to have this innate need to make every game about something else, and it’s really detrimental to what makes sports so great. Look no further than Tom Brady, who is, yes, the GOAT.
For me, it’s been hard to appreciate Tom Brady for much of his career because he’s rarely felt like the most talented quarterback in the league. The fact that the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers, who Tom Brady just beat in consecutive games, are already favored over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win next year’s Super Bowl seems to underscore this idea.
But the greatest of all time? That was settled when he brought the New England Patriots back from a 28–3 deficit against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. By beating two other great quarterbacks of his era on his way to his 10th(!) Super Bowl against the man who might one day take the crown from him, he set the stage to definitively settle the debate once and for all, against perhaps the most talented quarterback to ever play the position.
How to measure greatness
Rather than turn this into a retrospective on Brady’s storied career, I want to discuss why I’ve personally had such a difficult time appreciating what he’s been able to do. It has to do with what he doesn’t do.
His stats don’t pop off the page. Yes, he’s led the league in passing touchdowns four times, but it was with totals of 28, 36, 36, and 50. Only the 50 stands out in any historic context. It was only this past year that he hit 40 for a second time. His career-high passer rating for a season is 117.2 (Aaron Rodgers, who we’ll get to, has two seasons of more than 120). He’s never completed 70% of his passes, and has only thrown for more than 5,000 passing yards once (for context, Drew Brees holds the record with five). His 12 4,000 yard seasons, while exceptional, are still behind Peyton Manning’s 14 (although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brady get to 15). He doesn’t hold the single-season record for passing yards (Peyton Manning), completion percentage (Drew Brees), passing touchdowns (Peyton Manning), or passer rating (Aaron Rodgers). The only single-season passing record he really holds is longest pass, which he shares with the likes of Trent Dilfer.
He doesn’t make plays that “wow” you. Patrick Mahomes is the king of off-script plays. He throws sidearm, submarine, across his body, and he completes these passes on a regular basis. Before him, there was Aaron Rodgers. Brady can’t run (Lamar Jackson had more rushing yards in 2019 than Brady has in his career), he doesn’t force throws that create highlight-reel catches, he simply knows where to go with the ball and puts it there. And he throws a beautiful ball, but throwing a beautiful ball to the right receiver over and over and over again doesn’t get you on SportsCenter.
He commands an offense with the best of them, but he’s not famous for calling audibles like Peyton Manning. Plus, there was always a sense that he was operating within the best system ever devised, a system that made Matt Cassel’s career in just one season. Unlike many great quarterbacks, Brady’s never had to win in spite of his coaching. Even in Tampa Bay, he was paired with a great offensive mind in Bruce Arians.
So, he doesn’t improvise like Mahomes or Rodgers, doesn’t put up gaudy numbers like Brees or Dan Marino, doesn’t command the line of scrimmage like Peyton Manning, and has benefited from great coaching. In so many ways, Tom Brady doesn’t pass the “eye-popping” test, leaving the door open to criticize his winning ways. Now, let’s talk about what he does do.
Just win, baby
Tom Brady wins football games. Tom Brady wins football games better than anyone who’s ever played the game.
In the regular season, he’s won 230 of them, in only 299 games. In the playoffs, he’s won 34 of them, in 45 games. That’s better than 75% in the regular and postseason.
Fairly or not, quarterbacks are deemed more responsible for their team’s wins than any other position, so they’re judged by that stat, even though there are 21 other guys on the field and 11 of them play with the quarterback watching from the sideline. But in sports, winning is the only stat that matters.
There’s a sense of inevitability when Tom Brady has the ball, a belief that the game’s not actually over, that the more surprising outcome is that he will find a way to lose. Even in his early days with the Patriots, where he was seen as more of a game manager, he was instrumental in putting together the drives his team needed to win three Super Bowls in four years.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Brady’s statistical prowess seemed to live up to his ability to win, but his ability to win has always been there. Was he put in a position to succeed by the team around him early on? Sure. But he still had to make good on that position. The undercurrent to his greatness has always been winning.
Difficult to appreciate
In watching Super Bowl LV, it finally hit me why I’ve had such a hard time appreciating what Brady’s been able to do.
It has to do with the incongruity between what he’s done and how he’s done it. I think, for me at least, there’s always been this lingering sense that greatness needs to come with the eye-popping stats, “wow” plays, and a general sense that winning needed, in many ways, to accompany an overwhelming display of talent. Patrick Mahomes does this, Aaron Rodgers does this, Peyton Manning did this, so many quarterbacks have succeeded in a way that makes me think, “this guy is more talented than Tom Brady.” And when the discussion always turns to, “who’s the greatest quarterback of all time,” I’ve felt a need to push back against Brady because of all the things I mentioned above.
But Tom Brady’s biggest talent isn’t in making playing quarterback look amazing. Plenty of guys can do that. Heck, Sam Darnold can do that. Yes, Sam Darnold can make throws (and runs) that Tom Brady can’t. But isn’t that the point? There are many guys who do things on the football field that Tom Brady can’t. And those guys make highlight reels. Those guys “wow” you. But those guys don’t win 230 regular season games, 34 postseason games, and 7 Super Bowls (and counting). Because Tom Brady’s greatest talent is knowing where to go with the football and throwing it there. And he does it better than anyone who’s ever played the game. That’s what being quarterback’s all about, and that’s why he’s won so many damn games. It just took me 10 Super Bowls to appreciate the fact that Brady does that to such a perfect degree that the rest of the noise doesn’t matter.
Forget the GOAT discussion
In writing all this, I don’t actually want to add to the GOAT discussion. I think it’s asinine, a cheap talk show topic, and counterproductive to really appreciating the sport of football. Because the narrative going into Super Bowl LV was about Tom Brady’s all-time status and Patrick Mahomes’ all-time status, and the idea that it was Mahomes’ chance to start staking his claim to being the greatest quarterback of all-time, overtaking Brady. And if you really want to indulge that discussion, the Bucs’ 31–9 trouncing probably makes it impossible (or at least significantly harder) for Mahomes to really ever take that crown (unless, of course, they meet sometime in the next one to eight years before Brady maybe retires).
And I had that thought as it became clear that the game was well and truly over. Patrick Mahomes, as of right now, probably doesn’t have a stake to the claim that he’s better than Tom Brady. And that really bummed me out. Because I like Patrick Mahomes. I think he’s more talented than anyone to ever play the position (including Brady). I think he’s going to hold a lot of records before his career is over. And I love watching him play. I want him to be the GOAT. Then I thought, what does it matter?
I’ve already pointed out a whole bunch of ways that Tom Brady isn’t better than a lot of quarterbacks. Many of his records are counting stats, a testament to his consistency and longevity. His most impressive throws have more to do with the context of when they happened rather than how they happened. His cerebral command of an offense — pre-snap reads, working through progressions — doesn’t appear onscreen. He’s simply better at winning football games than the rest of them.
So, rather than ruining the next fifteen years of Patrick Mahomes by comparing him to Tom Brady, rather than trying to parse Drew Brees’ and Aaron Rodgers’ larger legacies, rather than worrying about whether any other player will ever be able to hold a reasonable claim to GOAT status, why not just appreciate what all of these guys are capable of doing in their own way? Enjoy the eye-popping numbers and highlight reel throws, enjoy the thrilling spectacle of an incredible sport. Enjoy the fact that Tom Brady is better at winning football games than anyone the sport has ever seen. And spend less time worrying about who’s better than who.