I have published articles on many controversial topics: Trump, border walls, religion, politics, terrorism, Tim Tebow, and, heck, even one on dodgeball. But this may be my most controversial subject yet. Here goes:
Tom Brady is overrated.
Now, before the lynch mobs from Boston can reach my house, hear me out. I’ll make my case as I stack furniture against my door, pull the blinds, and kill the lights.
Tom Brady is unquestionably a great quarterback and among the greatest of all time. He has led the Patriots to an unprecedented nine Super Bowls (and a 10th seems likely). He has been named MVP of that game four times, and he owns no less than 54 NFL records. Brady’s accomplishments are beyond dispute.
So when I say that he is overrated I don’t mean that he is not good or that he is average. No, he is, as I have said, great. But I am having trouble with the “G.O.A.T.” label — that is, “Greatest of All Time” — and I think there are several reasons why we should, in the words of Keith Jackson, say “Whoa, Nelly!” to this careless sports talk.
1. What is a G.O.A.T.?
First of all, as someone who writes and constructs arguments for a living, I find myself a bit frustrated by the lack of clarity on what sportswriters and commentators mean when they say that Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T. Best passer? Best athlete? The most skilled person to ever play that position? When you listen to their arguments, it becomes clear that almost no one believes he’s any of those things. No, it usually boils down to the fact that Brady has six Super Bowl rings. The implication is that those with rings are better than those without rings, and he who has the most rings is the G.O.A.T. It’s a simple and tempting measurement of greatness. But by that logic, Trent Dilfer was better than Dan Marino, and Brad Johnson was better than Jim Kelly. Does anyone really believe that?
2. This isn’t Olympic sprinting
Usain Bolt has been called “the greatest sprinter that ever lived.” Because his is a sport where individual performance alone determines the outcome, this title has greater merit than Brady’s “greatest” label. After all, we have objective data to support Bolt’s claim: his 100-meter sprint time smashed all previous records. But even Bolt’s G.O.A.T.* label needs an asterisk. That’s because his record is only the fastest since such records have been kept with hyper-accurate clocks that use photoelectric cells. Football is nothing like sprinting, tennis, or bowling, in which individual performance and statistics tell the tale. It’s not even like baseball, in which the pitcher and batter are engaged in a one-on-one contest and the other players on the field are largely irrelevant until the ball is in play. Football is a team sport like no other. A quarterback’s performance is dependent upon several factors that are beyond his control: his coaching, his offensive line, the skill of his receivers, his team’s ability to run the ball, and so on. For roughly half of every game the quarterback isn’t even on the field. That other half — the defense — has been fantastic for Brady (talkin’ about you, Malcolm Butler) over the course of his career. During the Belichick–Brady championships run, the Patriots have put together one of the greatest defensive dynasties in NFL history. Only three times in the last 17 years has the Patriots defense ranked outside of the league’s top 10. During that same period, more than half the NFL’s defenses have allowed more points than the worst Patriots defense. That’s dominance.
3. Pax Kraftica
Roman philosopher, Seneca, spoke of something called Pax Romana in reference to a period of prolonged stability and prosperity during Rome’s long history. Well, Brady has enjoyed something we might call Pax Kraftica. The Robert Kraft–Bill Belichick partnership has produced an extraordinary era of stability. It is no coincidence that every quarterback but one (Peyton Manning) who has multiple Super Bowl rings had that kind of stability, too: Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning won their Super Bowls with the same historically stable franchises. Of the 12 quarterbacks with more than one Super Bowl championship, only Montana, Aikman, Roethlisberger, and Peyton Manning won Super Bowls with different coaches, and students of the sport would agree that Montana’s and Aikman’s last championships came with teams built by the coaches with whom they had won their first championships. The 49ers’ George Seifert and the Cowboys’ Barry Switzer were inheritors of teams they were smart enough not to screw up. Peyton Manning alone has won Super Bowls with both different coaches and different franchises. By contrast, Tom Brady has enjoyed an extraordinary period of ownership stability with one of the sport’s greatest defensive minds guiding the ship the whole way. One suspects many mediocre quarterbacks would have won a Super Bowl or two under Belichick, but what about a Dan Marino or a Philip Rivers?
4. History, history, history
I maintain that Bo Jackson is the greatest running back of all time. By that I mean that he is the most skilled person to ever play that position. His statistics do not make him the most accomplished and he won’t make the Hall of Fame because his career was so short, but I have never seen anyone run like he did. My father, however, always said that the only reason I think that is because I never saw Gale Sayers or Jim Brown, two players of his generation that he believed were better than any he ever saw. He had a point. Our memories are short. He never saw Jim Thorpe or Red Grange. Many modern football fans never saw Montana, much less Bradshaw or Namath.
5. Evolution is true
Perhaps the strongest argument against labeling any quarterback the G.O.A.T. is that the sports world goes back eons, and the game and its rules have evolved radically. To feed fan appetites for more scoring in the manner of a Madden video game, the rules have been radically altered since the ’90s, tilting in favor of offenses in general and quarterbacks in particular. As a consequence, to compare the statistics of Bart Starr with those of Brett Favre is like comparing Neanderthals to modern man — it’s a meaningless comparison. The game is played much differently. Furthermore, quarterbacks today enjoy Endangered Species Status. Thomas Hobbes described the natural state of man as “nasty, brutish, and short.” So it was back in football’s Ice Age, thanks to guys like Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, and Jack Tatum — otherwise known as homo neanderthalensis — who destroyed quarterbacks and were both rewarded and celebrated for doing it. Watch those old NFL films and you’ll see what I mean. Yikes. The violence of the (perfectly legal at the time) hits absorbed by Unitas, Jurgensen, Stabler, and Tarkenton are shocking if you haven’t seen such hits in a while. Were Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady to take hits like these, refs wouldn’t simply throw a flag or the league fine the perpetrator, they would put him in jail. Modern players who endeavor to play as defensive players once did (Vontaze Burfict and Ndamukong Suh come to mind) are pariahs in today’s league. As a result of these changes to the rules, today’s quarterbacks have massive advantages over their predecessors.
But he’s also underrated …
Where Brady is, perhaps, underrated is that he is among the smartest quarterbacks to play the game, and this is, I think, the secret to his greatness. This season has already seen a plethora of quarterbacks suffer season-altering injuries if not season-ending ones. Brady has the good sense to avoid unnecessary hits when he can. He feels no need to prove how tough he is by dropping his shoulder and running head-on into a linebacker or a defensive back as his one-time back-up Jimmy Garoppolo did last season. Brady also takes nutrition to a whole new level: fish, fruits, an extraordinary amount of water, and a diet that is 80 percent vegetables. These things undoubtedly contribute to his longevity. And, in an ego-driven league in which athletes squeeze owners for every penny they can get, Brady has sacrificed as much as $60 million in salary so that the team could retain or attract key free agents, thus making the team better.
The Lord of the Rings
So what is Brady if not the G.O.A.T.? Well, he is definitely the L.O.T.R. — “Lord of the Rings” — which is another way of saying that he is the most accomplished quarterback of all time.
I see the faint glimmer of torches carried by a mob with distinctly Bostonian accents. Gotta run!
Larry Alex Taunton is the executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation and freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, First Things, The Atlantic, CNN, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Grace Effect and The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.