Feb 12, 2021 | SPORTS | By Zeke Lloyd | Illustration by Daniel de Koning
Sunday’s Super Bowl undoubtedly left viewers with a wide range of questions. How could the 11-5 Buccaneers defeat the 14-2 Chiefs? How could Mahomes, one of the greatest offensive players of his time, only score nine points? How were the commercials so lacking in creative charm?
While the Chiefs may have been bewildered by the nature of such a crushing loss, many New Englanders did not find themselves so surprised. During his long reign with the Patriots, Brady has shown an uncanny ability to win playoff games. So at the end of the night, one of the most commonly asked questions was about that very talented player: How many Super Bowls has Tom Brady won?
Seven. Brady not only has more Championship titles than any other NFL player, but also more than any NFL team. Some have come to wonder if Brady is the greatest of all time. During his 21 years in the NFL, he has certainly built an impressive resume, though his number of Super Bowl wins is chief among them. But with 55 total Super Bowls in NFL history, the first dating back to 1967, can an all-time greatest ever really be selected?
John Brown, an intense football fan and borderline sports analyst, admits that football is a fluid sport. “The game is definitely completely different,” Brown said. “Look at the way that Deion Sanders played cornerback. He perfected the arm bar across a wide receiver’s chest. That would instantly be called pass interference today, whereas before it was just good defense.”
While changes in the game create challenges in comparing players across football history, it doesn’t explicitly prevent the comparison. “I think you can and should compare him to other generations,” Brown said.
It was not the timeline that made Brown hesitant to compare players, but instead their ilk. Comparing players across sports is incredibly difficult. How do home runs measure to touchdowns? The term GOAT, with no modifiers, is incredibly broad. Brown added some nuance: “[Brady] is the most accomplished football player of all time, he is the most successful signal calling quarterback of all time,” Brown said. “I’m ok with that. In my mind that’s shorthand for GOAT.”
Assuming it is possible to have a single greatest player of all time, considering that status is limited to a single sport — football — how have people like Brown come to the conclusion that the GOAT is Brady?
Michael Braithwaite ’24, a lifelong Patriots fan and statistical enthusiast, has a list of qualifications for the GOAT. “I look at three main things,” Braithwaite said. “I look at individual statistics and metrics, I look at individual [accolades], and then I look at championships.”
Looking at individual metrics, Brady has a good shot at being one of the all-time greats. He leads in career touchdowns (although that is somewhat a function of the sheer number of years he has played in the NFL). Moreover, Brady ranks second in both career completions and career yards.
When it comes to individual awards, Braithwaite was ready to list them all: “He was the Super Bowl MVP four times, the NFL MVP three times, he’s won offensive player of the year twice, he’s won comeback player of the year once, he’s been to 14 Pro Bowls, and he’s been first team all pro three times,” Braithwaite said. On top of that, he has won a total of seven Super Bowls.
One of the most common arguments against Brady’s GOAT status stems from the strength of the teams around him. Bill Belichick, a man widely considered to be one of the greatest coaches of all time, coached Brady for the first 20 years of his pro-football career. While the Buccaneers coach, Bruce Arians, was not quite as renowned, the surrounding Tampa Bay team was filled with talent. Undaunted, Brown suggested that both teams could be examined without Brady, and his enormous positive impact would then be more evident.
“Before Brady came along: no Super Bowls,” Brown said. “After Brady, this year, that team looked like he was running the single wing offense with Cam Newton. Jameis Winston had the same weapons last year — not Gronk, but essentially the same weapons. He threw 30 interceptions.”
To Brown, Brady was never helped by a team so much as he carried the teams he was on. “This is his job: to lead a team, to win, and to win championships,” Brown said. “He’s done all three of those things since he’s been in the league.”
How well can those measures, or even Braithwaite’s measures, actually gauge the talent of a single player? Considering a team’s overall success with or without a player might be somewhat shortsighted. Breaking down the different components of each team can, in many ways, reveal how much impact Brady actually had.
For example, while the Patriots maintained an elite team for two decades, their defensive capacity is somewhat creditable. Based on the number of times the offense scored per possession, and the number of times defense was scored on during an opponent’s possession, their defense ranked higher than their offense in four of the last six Super Bowls the Patriots have won.
In 2003, the Patriots offense was a measly 16th in the league, while the defense was ranked No. 1. Later on, in the infamous 2019 Super Bowl, the Patriots put up only 13 points, winning the game largely because their defense held the Rams to a single field goal.
In the NFL, skilled positions can take the forefront (and much of the credit) within sports analysis. While Jameis Winston certainly squandered the offensive talent around him, there was nonetheless a myriad of skilled players.
According to the Offensive Simple Rating System, relative to an average of zero the Buccaneers offense had a score of 4.9 in the 2019 season. This made the Buccaneers the fifth best offense in the NFL the year before Brady arrived. Unsurprisingly, the defense was not only ranked No. 6 in the NFL in 2020, but also had two integral interceptions in the championship game against Kansas City.
Demonstrating that there were subtle aspects of Brady’s teams that have enabled his success might not assuage those who argue his statistics are unassailable. A deeper look at the figures reveal that his career statistics are much more remarkable than those that are season specific. That is, Brady’s advantage is in the number of years that he has played.
In the four career categories listed on the chart above, he places No. 1 once and No. 2 twice. After 21 years in the NFL, no less should be expected from a talented quarterback. This is not indicative of his ability during a single season; that is a better metric for a quarterback’s talent.
In the season specific stats listed, though, he merely ties for third place twice. Drew Brees, on the other hand, dominates the category of “Most Completions in a Season” and places higher than Brady for “Most Yards in a Season.” Playing football for many years is certainly an impressive feat, but it can also lead to some misleading tables.
Brady’s career is one that attracts a lot of attention, as it should. He is indubitably one of the most talented quarterbacks of all time. Whether he is the GOAT is a point of high contention, but his legacy is one that both New England (and now Tampa Bay) will remember for decades to come.
“Tom Brady was on the team before I was born,” Braithwaite said. “I grew up in the Brady era.” That era is not yet over. For those who are wary of Brady’s ability, the takeaway from the last 21 years is clear: as long as Brady is on the field, he’s a threat.