He keeps defying age, and reverence keeps defying moderation. For his most passionate worshipers, it’s not sufficient to consider him the greatest quarterback ever or to lay out his case as the greatest football player ever. It’s not sufficient to look at his six (and counting) championship rings or his soon-to-be 10 Super Bowl appearances or the overflowing list of star-studded quarterbacking peers whose spirit his teams have shattered. It’s not sufficient to chart all the coveted records he owns or will own, and it’s not sufficient to make the prediction that the game might never see a quarterback master it so thoroughly again.
Why stop there when you can flail in celebration like a dancing Rob Gronkowski? Why not transfer the Greatest of All Time designation from Brady’s position to his entire sport to all sports? That’s a conversation now, fueled by the haste of social media reaction.
Is Brady the best athlete ever? No matter your position, it leads to an unwinnable debate, which I guess is better than arguing to attrition about societal issues that truly matter. But this incessant need to corral soaring greatness in real time — to overstate what’s already spectacular — can have a diminishing effect.
Brady doesn’t need the loftiest title imaginable. Just the same, LeBron James doesn’t need to win a mythical GOAT election over Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or any other NBA legend to cement his immortality. Such a distinction is an empty honorific; our sponsorship or rejection of the superlative is intended more to validate our own tastes than to quantify greatness. We won’t take the time to lay out the criteria for any of these GOAT discussions, yet we’re eager to scream at whomever we perceive as wrong.
It can be fun for a time, but it inhibits the opportunity to appreciate the most important characteristic of these legends: their singularity. In all sports, the record books are so thick and the histories are so fascinating that it’s hard to achieve true transcendence. We have seen it all before. Most prototypes have long been established. Innovators are more like creative revisionists now. When an athlete comes along and does something new — or concocts a way to freshen up the familiar — it should be considered lazy and unsatisfying to resort to GOAT tripe. It’s a generic accolade that puts the player in a box rather than celebrate the exclusivity of his greatness.
There are 346 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, all of whom made an indelible impact and built the sport to the multibillion-dollar behemoth it has become. And they’re all watching in awe as Brady builds a luxurious new home in their neighborhood. It doesn’t matter how his palace looks in relation Jerry Rice’s or Walter Payton’s or Reggie White’s. They are all extravagant. The fascination should be with the fact that Brady obtained such a sizable plot of land to build something different when it seemed as if there was only space for duplication.
Context is valuable, and that’s why we compare greats. But the very best don’t need to be centered too much. The joy is that they’re outliers. Leave them out of oversimplified nonsense.
My biggest problem with James is that he comes across as too obsessed with this imaginary ranking. He admits to chasing the Jordan ghost. His supporters try to lift him up with their shouts, and in his most triumphant moments, James fuels the campaign with his bravado. But in trying to make his case, he misses the chance to embrace his originality. What separates James is that no player, at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, has combined size, athleticism and skill in such a marvelous way. Now, at 36 and still the NBA’s best player in his 18th season, he is on the verge of reaching a new level of hoops longevity.
On a basketball court, James can do it all, and he appears determined to set a new basketball standard for superstar endurance. This is what distinguishes his excellence from the others. He cannot definitively outpace Jordan or someone else’s GOAT, but there’s no denying that he has blessed the sport with groundbreaking versatility.
In sports, greatness is not simply an accumulation of merits that inspire the masses to tweet emoji of an animal with horns that curve backward. And sustained genius is not simply about vexing Father Time. Their egos won’t allow them to talk too much about it, but all ageless wonders have relied on persistence and adaptability as much as exceptional genes.
In Brady’s case, he left New England for Tampa Bay after 20 seasons, and he had to learn a different way to play. Precision, economy and perfectly calculated risks defined his success with the Patriots. Because he eventually will retire with all the most coveted passing records, Brady has enjoyed historic productivity, but few manage situations as well as he does. With the Buccaneers, Coach Bruce Arians runs an aggressive offense with a focus on a deep, vertical passing attack. It took time for the meticulous 43-year-old quarterback and the 68-year-old coach who likes to say “No risk it, no biscuit” to develop the proper chemistry. They’re still working on it, but they’re meeting in the middle.
We shouldn’t whitewash the difficulty of the process. In an offseason shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brady was tasked with gaining comfort with the terminology and concepts of a new offense. He needed to build trust with a talented array of receiving options who weren’t accustomed to winning and required more freedom than some of the system receivers he had throughout his years in New England. Early in the season, Brady was erratic from game to game. Arians criticized him publicly. He seemed to lose track of the downs at a key moment in a loss to Chicago. He ended up throwing for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns, but the transition was not seamless.
Arians’s system has throws that Brady cannot make consistently anymore. But he also is completing throws we forgot he could make. We have seen him in full, from the effects of aging to the struggles with change to the flabbergasting amount of talent still left in his tank.
He must be the greatest.
Okay, so braggadocio worked only for Muhammad Ali.
Brady must be Brady, incomparable, in a category he made on his own. He is not the best of all, because no one can win that title. And we all know Brady doesn’t tolerate losing.