Tom Brady made his retirement from the NFL official Tuesday. The overriding reaction is that Brady changed the league, the quarterback position and the standard for success in that 22-year career. All of that is true.
Brady’s career, which spanned 20 seasons in New England and two more with Tampa Bay, warrants the GOAT label. He is the all-time leader in passing yards (84,520) and touchdowns (624). He won seven Super Bowls.
That will lead to inevitable conversations comparing Brady to the all-time greats across every sport. This is a Michael Jordan argument worth having.
How did Brady change the game? It lies in the redefined standards — credentials that are somehow better than the 27 modern-era quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Brady is a no-doubt No. 1 when he joins that fraternity in five years.
He also influenced the next wave of quarterbacks that will operate under that standard. With every TD pass, Brady raised that bar a little higher.
Here’s a closer look at all the ways Brady transformed the game.
You can’t have one without the other. Brady teamed with coach Bill Belichick to transform the Patriots into arguably the greatest sports dynasty of all time. New England had two Super Bowl appearances before Brady was drafted in 1999, but the franchise was not even close to a blue-blood in the NFL pecking order.
He replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2001, and the rest is history. The Patriots compiled a 262-84 record (including playoffs). New England reached the Super Bowl nine times in 13 years and the AFC championship game 13 times in 19 years. Every time you thought the dynasty was over because of a playoff loss or a controversy such as Spygate or Deflategate, Brady would pull it back up.
It was not over until Brady said it was over, which finally happened when he left for Tampa Bay after the 2019 season.
The Patriots are tied with the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins six and have 11 appearances, which is three more than Pittsburgh or Dallas. New England is the standard for success in the Super Bowl era.
Brady vs. Peyton Manning is standard for QB duels
There has never been a quarterback rivalry with this dynamic.
It had the ultimate tale of the tape. Peyton Manning was the No. 1 pick in 1998 with the royal NFL bloodline. Brady was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. There was even an SEC-Big Ten twist to it given their respective alma maters at Tennessee and Michigan.
Brady and Manning met head-to-head 17 times, but it felt like so many more. Brady had an 11-6 overall record in their matchups, but Manning was 3-2 in the postseason. A dozen of those matchups were decided by 10 points or fewer.
It didn’t have the fanfare of Lakers-Celtics during the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird heyday or the bluster of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry in the same decade, but the heat in Brady-Manning made for appointment-setting TV that defined the NFL in the 2000s.
Most all-time quarterbacks lists will have Brady and Manning in their top three. If they don’t, then they’re wrong.
The next generation has some intriguing possibilities, especially with the Patrick Mahomes-Josh Allen-Joe Burrow triangle developing in the AFC. But it has a long way to go before it feels anywhere close to the Brady-Manning rivalry.
The Spygate controversy broke out after a game against the New York Jets on Sept. 9, 2007, and the ripple effects still tear at the fabric of the Belichick-Brady dynasty.
The response that season was a scorched-earth tour on the field. Brady reset the regular-season record book with 50 TD passes and eight interceptions. Randy Moss caught a single-season record 23 TD passes. The Patriots set a NFL record with 36.8 points per game and finished 16-0 in the regular season.
This was the first time Brady came out of the shadow. He wasn’t a game-manager. He was the game-changer, and it was like watching a college powerhouse dominate inferior competition.
Of course, the Patriots lost Super Bowl 42 in shocking fashion to Eli Manning and the New York Giants, and Peyton Manning reset those records with 5,477 yards and 55 TDs in 2013.
Yet Brady’s season set all that in motion into the present day.
Brady set comeback standard off field
Injuries and controversies somehow enhanced Brady’s career.
Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 in the 2008 season, which threatened his career one year after that amazing ride. He won Comeback Player of the Year in 2009, his second NFL MVP award in 2010 and returned to Super Bowl 46 in 2011, where the Giants pulled another 21-17 upset.
Deflategate was the next controversy that threatened to derail Brady’s career after the 2014 season, which ended with his fourth Super Bowl victory. It led to a long battle with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owner Bob Kraft, and Brady would serve a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season.
What did Brady do? He responded with the defining moment of his career.
Brady set comeback standard on field
Atlanta led Super Bowl 51 against New England 28-3, and it looked like Brady would slip to 4-3 in Super Bowl appearances.
Instead, he led the Patriots to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Brady led the game-tying 91-yard drive then slammed the door on a 34-28 victory with the game-winning drive in overtime. That gave Brady his fifth Super bowl victory.
This had to be what it felt like to watch Babe Ruth call his shot in the 1932 World Series or Muhammad Ali knock out George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974.
It was the OMG moment for the second generation of fans.
Brady would lead another overtime close-out drive against Mahomes in the AFC championship game the next season, one in which he won a third MVP award. He even led the Buccaneers from a 27-3 deficit in this year’s NFC divisional playoff game.
That was the evolution in Brady’s game. It was never over when he was on the field.
Brady tacked on two more Super Bowl victories after the comeback against the Falcons, the last in his first season with Tampa Bay in 2020. The Buccaneers rolled through New Orleans and Green Bay in the NFC playoffs before steamrolling Kansas City 31-9 in Super Bowl 55.
Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw had been the Super Bowl standards with four victories apiece. Brady finished with a 7-3 record that will be almost impossible for anyone to catch.
Brady has 21 TD passes in the Super Bowl, 10 more than Montana. He set the single-game Super Bowl record with 505 yards in Super Bowl 51, and he averaged 303.9 passing yards with a 97.7 rating in those 10 appearances.
He has as many trips to the Super Bowl as LeBron James does to the NBA Finals. Brady also took one more championship than Michael Jordan.
Brady set a new standard for how to walk away
Brady’s last five seasons, when he played in his 40s, are absurd. He had 22,938 passing yards, 168 TDs and 51 interceptions in those five years. That’s a line that’s close to Roger Staubach’s entire career.
Brady led the league with 485 passing attempts, 5,316 yards and 43 TDs this season at 44 years old. He could have returned and played at the same ridiculous level.
Brady, however, found a way to retire the right way. He won’t get the farewell that John Elway or Peyton Manning got with Super Bowl runs in their final seasons, but Brady is leaving the game without showing signs of decline.
Brady will be 45 in August, and the comeback rumors likely will persist for a year or two. Yet Brady is on track for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame right around his 50th birthday.
That’s a fitting number, too. There hasn’t been a quarterback quite like him in the past 50 years. It’s going to be difficult for one to match that greatness for the next 50 years.