Is Brady the greatest athlete of all time?
Tom Brady won seven Super Bowls titles over his 22 year NFL career, cementing his legacy as the greatest football player to ever put the pads on.
Roger Goodell's description of Tom Brady on Tuesday as merely "one of the greatest to ever play in the NFL" felt a little generous to the competition.
The G.O.A.T. calls it a career
In the period of claim and counter-claim between reports of his retirement on Saturday and confirmation on Tuesday, the verdict had been cast – not that it was ever in doubt.
Among others, Patrick Mahomes, better placed than most to consider quality quarterback play, told ESPN: "His career is one of a kind. That's why he's the GOAT."
There is no dispute, no debate: Brady is the greatest.
Brady has the rings, and the stats
The 44-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 84,520 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 22 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.
MJ vs. LeBron
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 has done what James could not with Jordan in matching Michael Schumacher's haul of titles.
But when Hamilton closed in on a record-breaking eighth drivers' championship in 2021, 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.
Montana no match for Brady
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, 10 years younger than James and Hamilton are now, there appeared little doubt Brady would leave Marino behind.
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 vs. Messi
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have matched each other stride for stride, meaning there remains no consensus pick for football's 'GOAT'. Both merit the position, yet neither have dominated an era like Pele or Diego Maradona.
Rafa vs. Federer vs. Djokovic
In tennis, the tussle is even more intense. Until Rafael Nadal's Australian Open triumph on Sunday, three men were tied on a record 20 grand slam titles.
Injuries to Roger Federer and coronavirus complications with Novak Djokovic may be enough to keep Nadal at the summit, 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.
Brady vs. the next generation
Mahomes had appeared the most likely to challenge that mark in the years to come, but four seasons as a starter have now yielded one title. At the same point, Brady had three and that GQ headline.
"To win that many Super Bowls and win that many games, it's hard," Mahomes said after losing Sunday's AFC Championship Game. "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."
Will one of fresh faces top Brady?
In Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert, Mahomes will not have it easy going forward either – an exciting new generation guarding Brady's legacy, not that he could not have done it himself had he chosen to play on.
Brady, in the regular season and playoffs, holds a 3-2 record against Mahomes, 4-0 against Allen and 1-0 against Herbert. He never faced Burrow, potentially the next Super Bowl-winning QB.
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.