Tom Brady retires: Unlike Messi, Federer or Hamilton, TB12 is his sport's undisputed 'GOAT'
Roger Goodell's description of Tom Brady last year as merely "one of the greatest to ever play in the NFL" felt a little generous to the competition.
Plenty more has been said in the year since Brady reversed his initial retirement decision, up until Wednesday's announcement that he is calling it quits "for good".
Among others, Patrick Mahomes, better placed than most to consider quality quarterback play, told ESPN in 2022: "His career is one of a kind. That's why he's the GOAT."
There is no dispute, no debate: Brady is the greatest.
The 45-year-old leads the way by most metrics, including the most important one, with an unprecedented seven Super Bowl championships.
Yet the stunning nature of some of those successes mean the emotional argument in Brady's favour is as convincing as the statistical one.
Unmoved by his NFL-record 89,214 passing yards? Try the Super Bowl LI comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.
This career had it all, and most dissenting voices had long since disappeared by the time Brady arrived in Tampa in 2020 "as the greatest football player of all time", as Bruce Arians put it. He still had another title in him.
But Brady has not just set the standard in the NFL for the past 23 years; his achievements are surely unmatched across the entire sporting world.
BEATING THE BEST
Wrestling with past legacies is never easy for an elite sports star. Even as the best of their generation, comparisons will be drawn with those who have gone before.
In the case of LeBron James in the NBA, Michael Jordan casts a long shadow.
James may now widely be considered the second-greatest player in the history of the league, but the gap to the number one spot scarcely seems to be closing, even now with titles and Finals MVP recognition on three different teams – and his own Space Jam sequel.
Elsewhere, Formula One's Lewis Hamilton did what James could not with Jordan in matching Michael Schumacher's haul of titles in 2020.
But when Hamilton closed in on a record-breaking eighth drivers' championship in 2021, which ultimately went the way of Max Verstappen, rival Sebastian Vettel scoffed: "Even if Lewis wins, to me Michael is still the greatest. Lewis can win one more, two more, three more, five more championships, but it doesn't change anything for me."
The combination of being unable to see two athletes side by side and having memories tinged with nostalgia makes life hard on the modern great.
For Brady, Joe Montana was the closest thing to a Jordan or Schumacher figure at quarterback.
Although Montana ranked sixth for all-time passing yards – Dan Marino, the 20th century's passing yards leader, never won a title – his four Super Bowls had matched Terry Bradshaw's benchmark and were still fresh enough in the memory in 2000, the last coming in the 1989 season.
Yet that was a gap Brady was swiftly able to bridge. By August 2005, with three rings already in his collection, the headline of a GQ profile asked if the Patriots passer was "the best there ever was".
At 27, 11 years younger than James and Hamilton are now, there appeared little doubt Brady would leave Marino behind.
TOP OF HIS CLASS
Perhaps Brady benefited from the standard of the competition. His career overlapped with Brett Favre at the start, Mahomes at the end and met with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers somewhere around the middle, all of them forcing him to raise his game.
But such depth of talent can so easily muddy the waters.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi had matched each other stride for stride prior to the latter winning the World Cup in December, around the same time his long-term foe effectively entered semi-retirement by making the move to Saudi Arabia.
Yet for many, Ronaldo's achievements at Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus give him the edge over Messi, meaning there remains no consensus pick for football's 'GOAT'. Both merit the position, yet neither have truly dominated an era like late pair Pele or Diego Maradona.
In tennis, the tussle is even more intense. Novak Djokovic's 10th Australian Open triumph last week moved him level with Rafael Nadal – himself still going strong at 36 – on 22 grand slam titles.
That may be two more than Roger Federer, who called time on his illustrious career last year, but personal preference dictates the all-time rankings when the margins are so fine.
Again, however, Brady came through. None of those modern-day rivals have won three Super Bowls, let alone matching Montana's four or Brady's staggering seven.
Mahomes appears the most likely to challenge that mark in the years to come. However, even his fantastic first four impressive seasons as a starter yielded just one title, displaying how hard it is to get over the hump. At the same point, Brady had three Super Bowl wins and that GQ headline.
"To win that many Super Bowls and win that many games, it's hard," Mahomes said after falling short in to the Cincinnati Bengals in last year's AFC Championship Game, a defeat his Kansas City Chiefs avenged on Sunday.
"I understand that. The years that I've had, I've been close a lot.
"I've only been there twice, and I've only won once. I understand it takes a special player ... for that to happen."
Mahomes now has a second crown in his sights in Arizona next week, but he would still have some task facing him to catch Brady.
With Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson and Trevor Lawrence all in the AFC, Mahomes will not have it easy in his bid to reach further Super Bowls going forward – an exciting new generation guarding Brady's legacy, not that he could not have done it himself had he chosen to play on.
Instead, the perennial winner departs not as a champion – he has been that enough times – but as undoubtedly the best player his sport has ever seen. A rare phenomenon indeed.