Unless you’ve been trapped under a particularly dense rock since Sunday afternoon, you know the New England Patriots won Super Bowl LI in an astonishing fashion, coming back from a 25-point deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons for their fifth franchise championship.
Quarterback Tom Brady was one of the main catalysts behind the comeback, taking advantage of Atlanta’s mistakes to claim his fifth ring in an unlikely manner. Brady completed 43-of-62 passes for 466 yards and two touchdowns.
Brady’s the greatest of all time, no ifs, ands or buts about it. He is the best person to ever play quarterback in the National Football League. Whether he’s the best NFL player of all time, regardless of position, is a question for another day, but considering the importance of the quarterback position he probably has that designation locked down too.
What does it mean to be the Greatest of All-Time, or the G.O.A.T.? Not goat as in Matt Ryan after taking that late sack Sunday, but G.O.A.T. There are a lot of factors involved.
You need to have the volume statistics. Brady is fourth on the all-time passing yards leaderboard, and sits just 10,358 yards back of Peyton Manning for the No. 1 spot. Similarly, he’s fourth on the passing touchdowns leaderboard, and sits 83 behind Manning.
From the winning standpoint, Brady’s notched 14 division titles in 15 years as a starter. In the playoffs, he’s reached seven Super Bowls and won five of them. Combined, he’s won more regular season and postseason games than any quarterback in NFL history.
You can’t just have the volume numbers, though. Eli Manning sits eighth on the all-time passing yards leaderboard and you can’t make a rational case for him as one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Anyone can rack up numbers if they play well long enough to shoot through the record books, but that doesn’t mean they played at an elite level.
Brady’s year-to-year numbers are equally good. He’s never had a down season. Every year except 2001, his first year as the starter in which he took over from an injured Drew Bledsoe and rode a great defense, his numbers put him in the league’s top tier.
In fact, while many athletes decline as they reach the back nine of their careers, Brady has continued to play at the same high level, and you could potentially argue he has improved. This year, he threw for 296 yards a game while finishing with an incredible 28 to two touchdown/interception ratio. Media members made the case for Brady as the Most Valuable Player despite him playing only 12 games – that’s how good he was.
You need the honors. Brady is a 12-time Pro Bowler and a four-time All-Pro. He’s won two MVPs and two Offensive Player of the Year awards. He has two passing yards titles and four passing touchdowns titles.
You need the signature season that shows your peak was just as good as anybody else’s. Brady has 2007, when he threw for 4,806 yards and 50 touchdowns on his way to a 16-0 regular season.
It helps your case stylistically and aesthetically if you have the signature moment, but it’s not necessary. Nonetheless, Brady has Super Bowl LI. Before that, no one had come back from more than a 10-point deficit to win the Super Bowl.
And of course, you need the rings. Rings are probably weighed too heavily in these types of discussions, but they’re fun to talk about and any candidate needs them. It’s the No. 1 hurdle that LeBron James has to clear if he wants to steal the G.O.A.T. title from Michael Jordan. He’ll have all the other boxes on his G.O.A.T. résumé checked.
Brady has five rings. No other quarterback has five rings, and only one other NFL player (Charles Haley) has five. Brady started at by far the sport’s most important position for all five, and won Super Bowl MVP in four.
And he’s not done. Would you be surprised if he won the Super Bowl next year too? I wouldn’t be, and he’s 39 years old. He’s the G.O.A.T. right now, and he’ll add to his case.
That’s true greatness: when spectators believe, unequivocally, that you will find yourself in the championship conversation year after year. The greatest athletes always give themselves a chance to win. They don’t always win, but they give themselves a chance.
And when all's said and done, when they hang them up for the final time, we remember them as the best to ever do it.