Whenever a legend retires, America insists there will “never be another like them.”
Michael Jordan retires with six NBA championships, and then LeBron James comes along and takes his teams to 10 NBA Finals (and counting). Gordie Howe skates away with the NHL’s career points record, and then Wayne Gretzky beats it by more than 1,000. Joe Montana retires with four Super Bowl championships, and then along comes a guy who nearly doubles that total.
With the retirement of that last guy, though, we’re in uncharted territory. Nobody in NFL history has ever won so often, and for so long, as Tom Brady. By every standard that measures ultimate excellence in the NFL, Brady is so far out in front of the pack that it would take the league’s best a decade or more to catch up.
Start with the eye test: Brady has won every way possible. He has won in blowouts, he has won in final-drive nailbiters, he has won by coming back from four possessions down. He has played in harmony with Hall of Famers like Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, and he raised otherwise-journeymen like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman to the A-list.
After the 2002 season, Brady reached the playoffs in every single season in which he played more than 15 plays. Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the Patriots’ 2008 opener. He wouldn’t miss any more games to injury after the 2009 season.
Consider Brady’s seven Super Bowl rings, more than any other franchise in the NFL. The only other player with even five rings is Charles Haley of the Cowboys and 49ers. The only active player with even four rings is Gronkowski.
Brady won his first three Super Bowls by a field goal apiece, the result of game-winning drives and tight battles. But he won two with miracle comebacks — against Seattle and Atlanta — and he won one in an absolute blowout, last year against Kansas City.
It’s impossible to remember now, but back around 2014, talk was swirling about Brady’s ability to win another Super Bowl. After winning three early, he lost two, both to the Giants. Then he won four more Super Bowls after age 36, a time when most quarterbacks can see retirement looming like an oncoming linebacker.
Broaden the lens a bit. Brady played in 10 Super Bowls, most of any player in NFL history. Behind him — well behind him — are longtime teammate Stephen Gostkowski and former Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos nose tackle Mike Lodish, both with six.
Like Jordan boxing out his Dream Team contemporaries for championships in the 1990s, Brady has spent so much time in the Super Bowl lately that he blocked the path for almost anyone not on his team. Brady played in four of the past five Super Bowls and five of the past seven … and it was only one-third of his career.
Speaking of which: there’s a case to be made that Brady had three entirely separate Hall of Fame-worthy careers. Consider:
In his 20s, Brady won three Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVPs. He won almost three of every four games he played in the regular season, and threw 147 touchdowns – just five fewer than Bart Starr threw in his whole career.
In his 30s, Brady won two Super Bowls, two Super Bowl MVPs and three league MVPs. He won four out of every five games he played, and threw 309 touchdown passes, more than John Elway’s career.
In his 40s, he won Super Bowls for two different teams, in addition to a Super Bowl MVP. He kept on winning at nearly a 70 percent clip, and led the league in both passing yards and touchdowns two seasons before his retirement.
Now, some comparisons, just to give a bit of perspective for how much distance there is between Brady and the rest of NFL history.
Brady’s teams made the AFC championship game every year from 2011-18. To match that feat, the Chiefs would have to reach the conference championships every year for the next three years; the Bengals and 49ers, the next six; and the Eagles, the next seven.
Brady made every team on which he played better. He gave every fan hope that victory was possible, every year for more than two decades. That’s the kind of excellence that defies measurement and belief.
It always seemed like Brady would play forever. It still seems likely that his records will stand that long.