We just watched Leonardo da Vinci in cleats.
Tom Brady ranks as the greatest player in the history of the National Football League, and kind fate allowed us all to witness it. Perhaps more accurately, given the specialization inherent in the quarterback position, Tom Brady retires as the greatest player at the most important position. And that position, in an evolution ongoing since the advent of the forward pass 116 years ago, rapidly grew, as a result of rule changes and coaching trends, in importance from when Tom Brady completed his first pro pass to Rod Rutledge on Thanksgiving Day 2000 to 7,731 days later when he made his final throw to Cameron Brate.
His emergence as the quarterback of the New England Patriots conjures up the word “storybook.” Drafted in the sixth round after battling Drew Henson (one hit in MLB, one touchdown pass in the NFL) for playing time at Michigan, Brady remained on the Patriots during the 2000 season only because of the Belichickian decision to retain four quarterbacks on the roster. In 2001, after Mo Lewis nearly ended the life of Drew Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who led the Pats to Super Bowl 31, Tom Brady became Lou Gehrig to Bledsoe’s Wally Pipp.
Pick a metric. Winning? Statistics? Clutch performances? Brady reigns no matter the standard applied.
We saw TB12 lead the league in touchdown passes, completions, and passing yards in his final season.
He won seven Super Bowls in the 20 seasons in which he served as his team’s primary starter. He competed in 10 Super Bowls, meaning that in half of the seasons in which he started most games his team played in the Super Bowl. He played in more playoff games than the number of total games the average player competes in during his entire career. He owns more Super Bowl titles than any individual NFL franchise.
The three-time MVP rewrote the quarterback record book, completing 11,317 passes, throwing 624 touchdowns, and accumulating 84,520 yards through the air. His most impressive statistics tellingly ensured that his team won games: a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 50-8 in 2007, 36-4 in 2010, and 28-2 in 2016. But numbers, even though he compiled the most impressive ones, do not tell the story of Tom Brady.
He shone during the biggest moments. He drove the Patriots from the 17-yard line with 1:21 left and no timeouts to set up a game-winning field goal in Super Bowl 36 against the St. Louis Rams. John Madden famously advised the Patriots to kneel on the ball. “What Tom Brady just did gives me goosebumps,” Madden admitted. The Patriots–Seahawks Super Bowl, perhaps more so than all the rest, gave off an Ali–Frazier vibe. Brady leading the comeback from 10 points down in the fourth quarter seemed the stuff of legends. Then what happened several years later against the Atlanta Falcons, who took a 28-3 lead at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter only to lose to the Patriots in overtime, made people forget Brady’s comeback in that earlier Super Bowl. Up until last season’s drubbing of the Kansas City Chiefs, Tom Brady played in — win or lose — only exciting, competitive Super Bowls.
The NFL, even when the league office tried, could not stop him. The Keystone Cops affair known as Deflategate saw the NFL disregard referee Walt Anderson’s memory of what gauge he used to measure the pressure of Patriot footballs because it cleared the quarterback of wrongdoing, sidestep that Colts footballs also lost a significant amount of pressure by halftime, tout investigator Ted Wells as “independent” even as he invoked attorney–client privilege as the league’s lawyer to block questions regarding his investigation by Brady’s attorney, leak false information to reporters, allow its commissioner to hear the appeal of his own decision to suspend Brady, and admit ignorance of the Ideal Gas Law. After learning the lesson that you cannot fight city hall, Brady posed for pictures with Roger Goodell presenting him the Super Bowl MVP trophy. (READ MORE: Tom Brady Is a Gent)
Many were the keys to his success. He released the ball extremely quickly. He conducted the no-huddle offense masterfully. He ran the best quarterback sneaks. With Peyton Manning, he transformed the position by immersing himself in film and study. He boasted a strong arm but never the strongest. He threw the ball accurately. Like Bruce Lee, he used no way as the way. With Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk, dink and dunk prevailed. With Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth in 2007, he threw bombs. When Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez joined the Patriots, the offense relied more heavily on play action and creating matchup nightmares. His TB12 method, relying on pliability exercises and an interesting diet for longevity, faced many skeptics in the football world until his unprecedented late-career play convinced.
Tom Brady threw for 22,938 passing yards after the age of 40. Only 91 players in NFL history bettered that number of yards during their entire careers. He threw for more yards after the age of 40 than Sammy Baugh, Roger Staubach, Billy Kilmer, Jim Zorn, and Earl Morrall did during their entire careers.
And this leads to one of the most astounding aspects of his career. The retirement announcement coming at the end of an MVP-caliber season means that NFL fans never saw a hobbling-Johnny-Unitas-on-the-Chargers, Dan-Marino-throwing-five-interceptions-against-the-Cowboys-on-Thanksgiving, Broadway-Joe-declining-into-Freeway-Joe Tom Brady. In just two seasons on the Buccaneers, the 40-something quarterback set the franchise seasonal records for passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback rating.
We saw Michael Jordan score two points on 1-for-9 shooting on the Washington Wizards and Muhammad Ali reduce Larry Holmes to tears by taking such a beating from him. We saw TB12 lead the league in touchdown passes, completions, and passing yards in his final season.
Like Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and others who left at the top of their game, Brady inspires fans two or 10 years from now to imagine that he could still dominate if only he kept playing. The difference, of course, is that they retired by 30 and Brady left at 44.
Leaving at the top only furthers the legend of the legend. Football remains a boy’s game. Old men play at quite a risk, which explains why we do not see 40-somethings playing the way they do in adult baseball or basketball or even hockey leagues.
Tom Brady competed for 22 seasons but abided by the first rule of show business in leaving the crowd wanting more. That achievement seems more unbelievable than overcoming a 25-point second-half deficit.