One of the many themes of Super Bowl LI is the legacy of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Just like it was the past few times Brady has been in a Super Bowl, but this one has extra meaning.
Before Sunday, it will be debated a thousand times if Brady will be the greatest quarterback ever with a fifth ring. No other starting quarterback has ever won five times. Only one other player, Hall of Fame defensive end Charles Haley, has five rings.
That debate is missing a key point. Brady became the greatest quarterback ever a couple years ago.
“I think he’s the greatest quarterback ever,” Patriots cornerback Duron Harmon said.
“We are going against Tom Brady, he is a G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) let’s keep it real,” Falcons defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman said.
“It’s just a blessing to be able to play on the same field as him,” Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley said.
The argument for Brady as the best quarterback ever – and as such, he has a good argument for the greatest player period – would become stronger with another win. Do you measure quarterbacks on wins? Win or lose, no quarterback has more rings than Brady’s four, and Sunday he’ll set a record with his seventh Super Bowl appearance. Individual awards? He has 12 Pro Bowls, second to Peyton Manning’s 14. He has two MVPs. What about stats? Brady is one of two players with a 50-touchdown season, and one of five players with a 5,000-yard season. He’s fourth all-time in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
The players with better numbers, like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Drew Brees, can’t match up with his championship success. Those three players have four combined Super Bowl rings, as many as Brady already has. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana can match Brady’s four championship rings (for at least a few more days) but not his extended statistical success. Montana and Bradshaw had 68,540 yards and 485 touchdowns combined; Brady has 61,582 yards, 456 touchdowns and looks like he can play at a high level another few years. He’s coming off a season in which he had 28 touchdowns and two interceptions, the greatest ratio for a single season in NFL history. Debating Brady’s legacy at age 39 might be foolish anyway because he’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
And if the Patriots lose to a talented Atlanta Falcons team on Sunday, it doesn’t diminish what he has already done.
“Well Tom said he’s going to play another 4-5 years, so one game is not going to cement it,” ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter said. “Tom could stop now and still be arguably the best quarterback. When people say he’s been to six Super Bowls, he’s lost two of them … well if you’re an Olympian and you win a silver medal, you’d be like, ‘Man, he has four golds and two silvers.’ Joe [Montana] has four golds.
“We act like losing in the championship is a bad thing, like that cancels it out. He’s going to be still taking his team to seven Super Bowls, regardless of whether it’s 5-2 or 4-3. I try not to get into one game to build his whole career identity. He’s got so many records, one game isn’t going to change that.”
Brady might want to win a fifth title to erase any doubt. Brady has never wanted to speak about his legacy or what another Super Bowl win might mean to it. He has avoided the talk again, just focusing on Sunday’s game without putting it in a big picture context.
“I think it’s special just because it’s special,” Brady said about this Super Bowl. “It’s hard to do. The fact that I’ve been able to do it before, it just means I’ve been a part of some really great teams.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who can also answer a lot of legacy questions with a win Sunday, was effusive in his praise of Brady when asked Tuesday.
“He’s very smart and has a lot of experience,” Belichick said. “In our system he has a lot of experience against defensive coordinators, different players, and different situations. He’s able to put it all together better than any player that I’ve ever coached. Putting all that together at once in just a couple of seconds of time, he has to process it once he gets the calls and gets to the line of scrimmage. I think his preparation allows him to in part do that. He has the football instincts as well. He’s a great role model for all of us. Any player and any coach. All of us.”
Brady’s signature moment came in his last Super Bowl. Against the Seattle Seahawks and their amazing secondary, he was 13-of-15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone as he led the Patriots to a comeback win in perhaps the greatest game in NFL history. At that point he took a step forward, ahead of Manning, Montana, John Elway, Johnny Unitas and anyone else. Nobody else could match his résumé. He has added two great seasons to it since.
You’ll hear a lot this week about what a fifth Super Bowl would mean for Brady. The truth is, it would just be a bonus. His legacy as the greatest quarterback ever has already been set.
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