In a way, the defining moment of the New England Patriots’ dynasty did not happen in a Super Bowl, a playoff game, or any other game. It happened at a press conference on October 1, 2014, when Patriots coach Bill Belichick said four words:
“We’re on to Cincinnati.”
This was two days after New England’s 41–14 blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, the team’s most lopsided defeat since 2003 and one of the worst performances of quarterback Tom Brady’s career. The Patriots were 2–2. They looked shaky and out of sync. At 37, Brady was coming off a relatively mediocre 2013 season. Through the first quarter of 2014, he was averaging fewer than 200 passing yards per game. For all its success, New England had not won the Super Bowl in a decade.
After the Kansas City loss, a steady stream of questions about Brady’s age, ability, and supporting cast suddenly became a typhoon. At Belichick’s weekly press conference, reporters wanted him to talk about the loss and its implications. Was Brady too old? Did he have enough help? Were the Patriots short on talent?
Belichick wouldn’t bite. “We’re on to Cincinnati,” he said, referring to New England’s next opponent. Then he said it again. And again.
The questions kept coming. Belichick was unmoved. “We’re preparing for Cincinnati.” Just in case someone had missed it: “We’re getting ready for Cincinnati.” Once more, to avoid any confusion: “We’re getting ready for Cincinnati.”
The message was simple: Win or lose, New England doesn’t obsess over any single game, let alone a regular-season game in September. Instead, the Patriots concentrate on the next game. They turn the page. They block out the noise and focus on the big picture. They trust themselves to make the necessary adjustments when things go wrong. They never get too high or too low.
Following that press conference, New England won seven games in a row, with Brady throwing 22 touchdown passes and only four interceptions while averaging 315 passing yards per game. The Patriots finished 12–4, claimed the top playoff seed in the AFC, and went on to beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Brady earned his third Super Bowl MVP award, throwing for 328 yards and four touchdowns against the league’s top-ranked defense, including 124 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter alone, which helped New England erase a ten-point deficit.
Two years later, the Patriots won their fifth Lombardi Trophy by completing the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, rallying from a 28–3 hole in the third quarter to defeat the Atlanta Falcons. Brady set a new Super Bowl record for passing yards (466) en route to winning his record fourth Super Bowl MVP honor. A year after that, he broke his own passing mark when he threw for 505 yards in Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles, albeit in a 41–33 loss.
On Sunday, the 41-year-old from San Mateo will play in his ninth Super Bowl in 17 full (or almost-full) seasons as a starting quarterback. (He was a rookie backup in 2000 and missed all but eight minutes of the 2008 season with a torn ACL.) Think about that: Tom Brady has now made it to the Super Bowl in a majority of his 17 complete seasons as a starter. He’s also made it to the AFC championship game in more than 75 percent of those seasons.
The technical word for that is “crazy.”
After all, the NFL deliberately tries to prevent teams from becoming dynasties, through free agency, salary caps, revenue sharing, and draft order. Yet New England’s vaunted winning machine continues to plow ahead, 17 years after a 24-year-old Brady led the Patriots to an upset victory over the St. Louis Rams — and their “Greatest Show on Turf” offense — in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Watching the Patriots defeat Kansas City in this year’s AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium, I kept thinking back to Belichick’s 2014 press conference. Not only because that press conference had followed an earlier Patriots–Chiefs game at Arrowhead, but also because of Belichick’s famously curt remarks. On one level, “We’re on to Cincinnati” reflects his always-forward approach to coaching. On a deeper level, it captures the mindset and mental toughness that have enabled Tom Brady to become the greatest quarterback of all time.
The AFC championship game provided yet another example of that. Brady threw an end-zone interception at the start of the second quarter, and then another interception in the fourth quarter that deflected off receiver Julian Edelman’s hands. Kansas City jumped ahead 21–17 on its ensuing possession. Many quarterbacks would not have been able to recover, especially given the hostile road-stadium environment and frigid weather. Yet Brady subsequently led three touchdown drives, including a 75-yard, game-winning drive in overtime in which he converted three consecutive third-down passes, all on third and ten.
Likewise, in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers, Brady threw an end-zone interception in the fourth quarter, only to bounce back and lead a pair of scoring drives that helped New England secure a last-second win on Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal.
In Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle, Brady threw an end-zone interception in the first quarter, and another interception in the third quarter, but then played an almost-perfect fourth quarter, connecting on 13 of 15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner.
In Super Bowl LI against Atlanta, Brady threw an interception deep in Falcons territory that was returned 82 yards for a touchdown by Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford. Yet he subsequently led one of the most impressive comebacks in sports history while setting a new Super Bowl record for passing yards.
In the 2017–18 AFC championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had the league’s top-ranked pass defense, Brady found himself largely frustrated for the first three quarters. Right before halftime, his favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, left the game with a concussion and did not return. (His other favorite target, Julian Edelman, had missed the whole season with a torn ACL.) In the fourth quarter, however, Brady converted a huge third-down pass — on third and 18 — and then threw a pair of touchdown passes to help New England turn a 20–10 deficit into a 24–20 victory.
In each of those games, Brady showed the resilience, fortitude, leadership, and “clutch gene” that people now expect from the greatest quarterback of all time.
And yes, he really is the greatest of all time — the “GOAT” — despite what certain TV sports pundits and Internet trolls would have you believe.
Please note that “greatest” does not mean “most physically talented.” Brady has never boasted the arm strength of a Dan Marino, a Brett Favre, or an Aaron Rodgers, nor the athleticism of a Rodgers, a John Elway, or a Steve Young. Indeed, if you were ranking quarterbacks based on physical talent alone, Brady would trail all the QBs just mentioned. So would his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, an undersized quarterback with a good-but-not-great arm who nevertheless became a four-time Super Bowl winner, three-time Super Bowl MVP, and two-time regular-season MVP.
When Montana retired in 1995, analysts and fans widely considered him the GOAT. Many still do. Like Brady, Montana built his legend on pinpoint accuracy, ruthless efficiency, game-winning drives, post-season heroics, a high football IQ, and all-around clutch play. Unlike Brady — who has been remarkably durable apart from the year he missed with a torn ACL — Montana suffered frequent injuries, including a nearly career-ending back injury in 1986.
Comparing Brady and Montana by the numbers demonstrates just how much the game has evolved since the 1980s. Montana put up hugely impressive stats for his era, but he never threw more than 31 touchdown passes in a single season. Brady has eclipsed that threshold seven times. In 2007, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 50 touchdowns in a season. Similarly, Montana never reached 4,000 passing yards in a season. Brady has done so ten times. In 2011, he threw for more than 5,200 yards.
It’s no knock on Brady — or Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, or any other star quarterback of the past two decades — to acknowledge that the NFL is far more passer-friendly today than it was in the Montana-Marino-Elway era. Since the mid 1990s, the league has repeatedly changed or adjusted its rules to make it easier for quarterbacks and receivers to rack up yards and points while avoiding serious injuries.
Just ask Dan Marino. In 1984, Marino shattered NFL records by throwing for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdown passes — astonishing achievements for that era. His touchdown mark stood for 20 years, until Peyton Manning threw 49 TD passes in 2004. Since then, three quarterbacks having thrown more than 49 in a season, including Brady in 2007 (50), Manning in 2013 (55), and Patrick Mahomes in 2018 (50). Marino’s passing-yardage record stood for 27 years, until Drew Brees and Brady each surpassed it in 2011. All told, quarterbacks had zero 5,000-yard passing seasons between 1985 and 2007, but they’ve now posted ten such seasons since 2008. One can only imagine how many additional touchdowns and yards Marino — and Montana, Elway, et al. — would’ve thrown for in today’s NFL.
In other words, quarterback stats must all be kept in perspective. The NFL is a much different league from what it was even 15 years ago, to say nothing of 30 or 40 years ago. Moreover, raw stats and traditional passer ratings do not control for the quality of the opposing defenses that quarterbacks face.
To help fix that, the data-crunchers at Football Outsiders developed a pair of advanced metrics that they call “defense-adjusted yards above replacement,” or DYAR, and “defense-adjusted value over average,” or DVOA. As their website explains, DYAR “gives the value of the quarterback’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage,” while DVOA “represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations.” Both metrics account for things like sacks, fumbles, and yards gained via pass-interference penalties.
The standard narrative about Brady’s career is that he won his first three Super Bowls as a “game manager” quarterback — someone who relied on a strong defense and running game to be successful — and didn’t start putting up monster numbers until 2007, when the Patriots acquired receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker and completed the only 16–0 regular season in NFL history.
There’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t give Brady enough credit for his pre-2007 accomplishments. For example, he led the league in touchdown passes in 2002 and in passing yards in 2005. He also ranked among the top five quarterbacks in DYAR from 2004 through 2006, while placing among the top five in DVOA in 2004 and 2005.
Yes, Brady had only modest stats in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, but he also led a 53-yard scoring drive during the game’s final 81 seconds, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s walk-off field goal. Brady was no game manager in Super Bowl XXXVIII against Carolina, when he passed for 354 yards and three touchdowns and set up yet another title-clinching Vinatieri kick.
The following year, New England traveled to Pittsburgh for the 2004–05 AFC championship game. Despite feeling brutally sick the night before — according to Sports Illustrated, he had a 103-degree temperature and an IV in his arm — Brady threw a pair of touchdown passes, including a gorgeous 60-yard bomb to receiver Deion Branch, and posted a 130.5 QB rating. He did all that while playing against the league’s top-ranked defense in eleven-degree weather with a wind chill of minus-one. “He’s amazing,” then–Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson told SI after the game. “He’s a winner with such poise and calmness, he almost makes it look effortless.”
A few weeks later, Brady posted a passer rating of 110.2 — throwing for 236 yards and two touchdowns — as he led New England to a 24–21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Since 2007, of course, Brady’s numbers have exploded, making his 2001–06 stats look relatively pedestrian by comparison. During the ten full seasons he played from 2007 through 2017, he led all qualified passers — i.e., those with a minimum number of pass attempts — in DYAR five times (2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2017) while finishing second in 2015 and third in 2011. For that matter, between 2004 and 2017, he never once ranked outside the top six in DYAR when playing a complete season.
Over that same period, Brady led all qualified passers in DVOA three times (2007, 2010, and 2012), finished second in 2009, 2016, and 2017, and placed third in 2011. His 2007 and 2010 numbers represent, respectively, the second- and fourth-best DVOA seasons ever recorded. (The Football Outsiders data go back to 1986.) Not surprisingly, Brady was named league MVP both years.
Journalist Dave D’Onofrio argues that, even if Brady’s entire career consisted only of his post-injury years — i.e., the ten seasons from 2009 through 2018 — he would still deserve strong consideration as the GOAT. His quarterback rating over that period would rank him second among all qualified passers, behind only Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, Brady would still have more playoff wins as a starting quarterback than any other QB besides Joe Montana; he would be tied with John Elway for the most game-winning playoff drives; and he would still lead all QBs in fourth-quarter playoff comebacks and overall playoff touchdown passes.
Again: All of this would be true even if we excluded the many playoff victories, game-winning drives, fourth-quarter comebacks, and touchdown passes that Brady racked up during his first seven years as a starter. His playoff record in those years was 14–3.
For that matter, even if we look only at the period since Belichick’s “We’re on to Cincinnati” press conference, Brady has won two Super Bowl MVPs and one regular-season MVP, set a new single-season record for touchdown-to-interception ratio, and posted the lowest interception percentage among qualified passers two years in a row (2015 and 2016). He also led the NFL in touchdown passes in 2015 and in passing yards in 2017.
And yet, even after all these years, many Brady skeptics still attribute his success to Bill Belichick and/or the Patriots’ “system” and/or the persistent weakness of their division, the AFC East.
There’s no question that Belichick is on a very short list of the greatest coaches in NFL history, and may well be the GOAT himself. Yet he’s always been known as a defensive specialist rather than an offensive guru. It’s also worth noting that Belichick had a losing record when he coached the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s and went 5–11 during his first year as head coach of the Patriots in 2000. New England started the 2001 season 0–2, and then went 11–3 after Brady took over as starting quarterback following Drew Bledsoe’s injury.
In any case, the Brady–Belichick partnership has clearly made both player and coach more successful than they otherwise would’ve been. But that was also true of Joe Montana and his longtime head coach in San Francisco, the late Bill Walsh, who pioneered the “West Coast offense” in which Montana excelled. The strategic brilliance of Belichick and Walsh does not diminish the on-field achievements of their quarterbacks.
What about the claim that Brady is a “system” quarterback? The problem with this argument is that New England’s system has constantly changed, and Brady has always adapted his game to fit the team’s needs and maximize its advantages. He’s also thrown touchdown passes to more than 70 different players — an NFL record — the vast majority of whom are not, or were not, top-tier offensive weapons. Indeed, apart from Randy Moss, Brady has never played with a truly elite deep-ball threat.
As for the much-maligned AFC East division, ESPN’s Field Yates recently pointed out that, since 2001, New England has by far the league’s best record against (1) non-division opponents, (2) teams that won their division that season, (3) teams that made the playoffs that season, and (4) teams that finished with a winning record that season.
In the end, football is the ultimate team sport, and Tom Brady is, in the words of James Harrison, “the ultimate teammate.” Harrison spent years trying to sack Brady as a linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last season, he came out of retirement to join the Patriots for their final regular-season game and playoff run. Speaking about Brady on FS1 a few weeks ago, Harrison said, “I wanted to hate this dude, like, with a passion. I get there and I’m like, ‘Dude, he’s the ultimate teammate.’”
That’s been the overwhelming consensus among Brady’s fellow Patriots ever since he first entered the league. While it’s impossible to quantify the value of his leadership skills, work ethic, humility, and generosity, they’re inseparable from the culture New England has built and the success it has achieved.
“I don’t think I can say enough about how good or cool of a guy he is,” Patriots left tackle Trent Brown told ESPN recently. “That’s cool to me, because he doesn’t have to be that way, like a lot of other superstars out there. But he doesn’t even think of himself as a superstar, which may be why he treats everyone the way he does.”
For all these reasons — and many more — Brady deserves to be celebrated as one of the greatest leaders and clutchest players in the history of North American team sports. Super Bowl LIII won’t change that, even if the Los Angeles Rams emerge victorious. Win or lose, Tom Brady has cemented his status as the GOAT.
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