We live in a society of extremes. Especially in our evaluations of other people’s opinions. “I love Seinfeld more than Friends.” “Why do you hate Friends?”
That sort of thing.
I say that because it may seem contradictory for a man who has spent many hours of his life angry typing about Tom Brady1 to now say that because he is retiring that he respects him. But it really isn’t. While I stand behind 95% of everything I’ve ever written about Brady, I still appreciate his unprecedented career. And I think he’s a phenomenal football player. Other haters I have seen on Facebook and Twitter have not been able to express these or similar sentiments. Yet there are two reasons I want to.
First, in their most pure form, sports are entertainment. For fans at least. Of course, we have corrupted them with rage, obsession, obscenity, greed, and a host of other sins. But at the end of the day, I hope I can see Tom Brady as someone who entertained me to the full for over 20 years. He really was nothing more or less than an actor on a stage to me. I see him the same way I see Joaquin Phoenix.
In this way I do not actually hate him, any more than I hate Dabo Swinney or Albert Pujols2. Two other men I have spent too much time talking about on the internet. I do not know any of these men personally. I only know the on-camera fame and sports results.
And in this sense, Tom Brady is a transcendent American celebrity. Perhaps the most exalted and influential ever in the sports realm. He played in so many big games, stood on so many stages, created so many arguments. I admit I love arguing about him. I feel alive during those debates. No athlete has captivated this nation the way he has. Not even Michael Jordan. At least partly because football is bigger than basketball. But also because Tom Brady just out-Jordan-ed Jordan to me, in all the ways that matter.
Meaning, sometimes perception is more important than reality. As soon as I heard Brady retired, my small, contrary view of him could not bear the weight of how revered he is. I got chills when I read it. It hit me as so surreal. Instinctively, I knew this was the biggest retirement announcement of my lifetime and probably in American history. Not just because of recency bias. But because Tom Brady as a sports personality is a mammoth figure. I knew I needed to write about it. Because I’m a writer, and because this is history. My personal feelings about him did not matter. They’ve always been in the minority. Now, for a few days or weeks at least, they should be completely irrelevant3.
Today I’m not a Brady-hater spitting fire; I’m a sports fan standing in awe.
By out-Jordan-ed Jordan, I also mean that Tom Brady is the undisputed king of images. I’ve written about this with Jordan before, and why I think LeBron has such a hard time passing him in the public eye. With things like social media and Tiktok type reels expanding and changing the culture, this may change with it. But right now Americans are heavily influenced by images. Jordan had them: carried off the court by Pippen after the Flu Game, shrugging after his 6th three in Game One of the 1992 Finals, and on and on.
Yet I think Brady may be the champion here as well: His sideline passion, screaming “LET’S GO!!!”. His fist pumps after a go-ahead TD in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. The 7 rings needing two hands to hold them all. The way Richard Sherman barked at him after a regular-season game in 2012 in response to his trash-talking, only for Brady to get the best of him in the Super Bowl two years later. The way Roger Goodell suspended him for four games in 2016 and then had to hand him the Super Bowl trophy that very year. Even the jokes about the Falcons and “28-3” cannot be detached from the lore and legend of Tom Brady.
The reputation and image he built over 22 years is a thing of wonder to behold. He was a bad man, and “bad” in a way that Michael Jackson captured in song when Brady was just a boy. His legacy in this way is unrivaled. The feeling you got when Tom Brady stepped onto a football field for a clutch 4th quarter or OT drive is as close to any real-world version of Superman or Gandalf or Yoda or Dumbledore as you’ll find. In 2014 the media buried him after a blowout loss to Kansas City. He made them all look like fools.
On that note, there is a second major reason why I think Tom Brady deserves my tribute. Going back to my Seinfeld vs. Friends illustration above, even though I have argued against him being the greatest I still believe he was great. Indeed, one of the greatest ever. Football is a team sport, with a lot of moving pieces, dozens of players, several coaches and referees in each game, and some luck involved with an odd-shaped ball bouncing around. As such I have no love for using team accomplishments to explain why Brady should be among a small handful of players in the conversation for the GOAT.
Nor do I need them. Just evaluating him on his own merit by watching his play, he was clearly one of the best to ever do it. There is an avalanche of evidence to this, but you can find the common data in any of the billion tributes that have been and will be written. I’ll limit myself to a couple of crucial pieces of evidence.
One, even though he had help, favorable circumstances, and luck at times, there is no doubt he was clutch quite often. In the 2019 AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, in overtime, New England twice faced a 3rd and 10. Twice, Brady found Julian Edelman across the middle for a conversion. If he misses either, the Chiefs get the ball back and probably score4. After those two throws, the aforementioned Sherman tweeted, “Two third-and-long conversions back-to-back. That’s amazing.” Sherman knows football. He knows what he saw was special.
Similarly was that comeback vs. Atlanta. Again, it took Atlanta committing a turnover, making dubious offensive play calls in FG range, and an amazing catch by Edelman on a tip by Falcons defensive back Robert Alford for that comeback to happen. As well as a dozen other things Brady did not impact. Yet when Brady had the ball in his hands in the 4th quarter and overtime and they needed a great throw, much more often than not, he found the right guy for a big gain. By the last drive, the championship-clincher, he was in a zone.
That was kind of Brady’s MO for his career. He never had the same kind of “highlight reel” type skills that Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes have. He was just the best at reading a defense and finding the right guy. Often that guy was open, which is often used to detract from his greatness by his haters. But as we have seen in these NFL playoffs even this year, even Pro Bowl and elite-level quarterbacks often miss the wide-open guy in the flat or underneath on crucial downs and throw to covered receivers downfield, and into crowds. Brady was an extraordinary QB in this regard.
Finally, I’ll add that what Brady did from ages 38 to 44 is also worthy of our praise. No one in any sport that I watch from any era comes close to how good he was in those years when nearly every athlete’s body starts to fall apart. He produced at a high level until his very last year in Tampa Bay, leading the league in yards and touchdowns. He had a lot of help of course, but for anyone to do that in their mid-40s is insane.
There are other things that I could say, but again, you will have a Mount Everest of articles that gush about Brady to choose from over the next five years. These are unique things I have picked up from being deep into sports essentially my whole life. I will miss rooting against Brady on Sundays, and formulating arguments in my head as to why whatever great play he just made isn’t all that great. But in my heart of hearts, I know his career was otherworldly.
And even as his biggest hater, I cannot deny it.
- I call it internet debating. My wife calls it “angry typing”. ↩
- I hasten to add that I have publicly on social media blasted all three of these men, arrogantly. And in every case, they went on to win championships after I did so. People should pay me to insult their favorite players and teams. ↩
- I fully plan to go back to arguing about him soon. It’s too much fun not to. ↩
- They scored four times in four possessions in the last quarter, only getting a FG on their last drive instead of a TD because of a lack of time, so them scoring again was highly likely. ↩