Tom Brady retires from NFL again: What’s QB’s fantasy football legacy?

Most of the world recognizes Groundhog Day on Feb. 2. But for Tom Brady retirements, the key date is Feb. 1.

On Wednesday, for the second time in as many years, Brady announced his retirement. This time it looks like it’s going to stick. So for the second time in as many years, we’ll take a swing at unpacking Brady’s remarkable career.

We’ll get to Brady's fantasy football impact in a moment. First, we have to run through a history lesson.

Patriots were an afterthought before Brady

This might be difficult for younger NFL fans to comprehend, but at one point the New England Patriots were the joke franchise of the NFL.

The early Patriots played in a lousy stadium, a cement oval surrounded by an infrastructure nightmare. The Patriots suffered 10 straight overtime losses in the 70s and 80s. A 1978 playoff berth was sullied when the head coach — Chuck Fairbanks — accepted a college job before the home game against Houston. Even when the Patriots made a championship run in 1985 and landed in Super Bowl XX, it was marred by a 46-10 drubbing to the Shuffling Chicago Bears. Shortly after that game, a handful of Patriots were named in a drug scandal.

Ownership was a constant problem, too. The Sullivan Family somehow lost boatloads of money bankrolling The Victory Tour in 1984 — how do you lose money betting on the Jackson Family at the peak of its powers? Subsequent owner Victor Kiam was a debacle, with the low point being how he reacted to a sexual harassment scandal that rocked the team.

On two different occasions, the Patriots almost left Massachusetts completely. Once, they were headed for Hartford; once, they were ticketed to St. Louis.

Eventually, the franchise took positive steps in the mid-90s — the hiring of Bill Parcells restored credibility, and Drew Bledsoe emerged as a face-of-franchise player and steered the team to another Super Bowl. But the franchise didn’t truly flip the script until the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady pair came along.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady change the image for the New England Patriots forever. (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady change the image for the New England Patriots forever. (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s hard to fathom an NFL without Brady, even as he’s 45 and we all knew his permanent retirement was coming at some point. The NFL is the ultimate short-window game. It’s astounding that someone could play as long and as well as Brady did.

For a franchise that was generally an underdog — and depending on your point of view, a lovable or unlovable underdog — Brady’s emergence turned the Patriots into overdogs. They’re one of the most disliked NFL franchises in the league these days, the price you pay when you win too much and when you skirt a rule or two in the process. That’s the historical legacy Brady — and more primarily, Bill Belichick — has to navigate.

Brady wasn't an immediate a fantasy star

Brady’s fantasy career had plenty of ebbs and flows to it. For his first four years as a starter, he was just a guy, a secondary option, at times maybe even a streamer: QB20, QB10 (he did lead the league in touchdown passes), QB13, QB11. The Patriots won three titles in those four years, but it was more about coaching, team depth, and defense than it was about Brady. He was a good player, not a primary MVP contender, in those early seasons.

The supporting cast played into that, of course. Troy Brown, Deion Branch and David Givens were Brady’s best receivers in those days. All solid players — Brown probably should have been MVP of Super Bowl XVI — but no one who’s ever been a Hall of Fame candidate.

Brady’s game took a step forward in 2005, when he led the NFL in passing yards (despite the team not having a 1,000-yard receiver) and finished second in the All-Pro balloting at quarterback. He was fantasy’s No. 2 quarterback in 2005 and the No. 6 man in 2006. With his age-30 season approaching, he had made the jump from a good player to a legitimate star.

The Brady season we'll never forget

And then 2007 happened, the year the Patriots broke football (and put on a villain’s hat). New England shrewdly added Randy Moss, a frustrated star coming off two disappointing years in Oakland. The Patriots blew out the Jets on opening day, 38-14, but the Jets quickly countered with an illegal-videotaping charge. The Spygate scandal was born. And while New England was dodging accusations of what it did or didn’t do with the cameras, the offense decided to take dead aim on the league and put up a fireworks show.

For two months, Vegas couldn’t set the point spread high enough. The Patriots won and covered eight straight games, scoring at least 34 points every week. They arrogantly threw the ball late in games, unapologetically running up the score. Washington fell in Week 8, 52-7; Buffalo allowed 56 points two weeks later. When the Patriots hosted the Eagles in Week 11, Philly was a 24.5-point underdog.

You know how the 2007 story ended. Brady set a new record with 50 touchdown passes (Moss caught 23 of them, also a record). Brady was the top-scoring fantasy quarterback and fantasy player — the first and only time he stood at the top of either list. It was his Sgt. Pepper season, even as the Giants wrecked the story in the Super Bowl.

Nobody had a clue then that Brady would play another 15 seasons.

Tom Brady and Randy Moss had plenty to celebrate during their historic 2007 season. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images)
Tom Brady and Randy Moss had plenty to celebrate during their historic 2007 season. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images)

Brady remains a fantasy fixture

A Week 1 injury wiped out Brady’s 2008 campaign, but otherwise, he was fantasy royalty for the second half of his career. He never got back to the QB1 pole, but he was inside the top five in six different seasons and had nine years as a top-10 quarterback. Even as the league started to embrace more athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks, Brady showed that a slow-footed pocket passer could still score with the new kids.

To be fair, Brady’s help was much stronger in the second phase of his career. The Patriots stole Rob Gronkowski in the 2010 NFL Draft, slot receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman turned into stars, and Brady’s three-year Tampa Bay run was supported by a collection of star wide receivers (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, occasional glimpses of Antonio Brown and another lap with Gronkowski).

No one ever felt sorry for Tom Brady during his 30s and 40s.

I don’t take much joy in discussing the GOAT-or-not part of Brady’s legacy. He retires as the most accomplished QB in history if we judge solely by cumulative accomplishments. He won seven championships. He went to 10 Super Bowls. He completed the most passes, threw for the most yards, clicked for the most passing touchdowns and obviously scored the most cumulative fantasy points. No matter how football evolves in the coming decades, his career totals will be hard to top.

No one was as great for as long as Tom Brady was. That’s how I’d prefer to frame it.

Is Brady the GOAT among fantasy QBs?

My editors want me to address if Brady was the best fantasy QB of all time. The devil is in the framing, but I’d have to lean no. Aaron Rodgers, for example, graded as the No. 1 or No. 2 fantasy quarterback in eight different seasons; I think his peak was an eyelash higher than Brady’s. Peyton Manning logged 13 seasons in the top 5; Brady retires with eight seasons in the top 5. Brady’s watershed 2007 season only stands as the 10th-best fantasy QB season in the Super Bowl era. Josh Allen has already beaten it three times, Patrick Mahomes has beaten it twice.

But all of this feels like nitpicking. Brady was one of one, sui generis. Brady is a poster boy for wanting to be great, someone obsessed with maximizing everything out of his ability. He regularly took team-friendly or restructured contracts to aid his teams in building deep rosters; although Brady surely didn’t live the life of a pauper, he wasn’t someone obsessed with maxing out financially.

There’s a dignity in leaving it all on the field. There’s a nobility in working harder than anyone, especially when no one’s watching. Forty-something quarterbacks are supposed to be in the announcing booth (where Brady presumably will go next) or on the golf course. Tom Brady was a Super Bowl champion at 43, the QB3 at 44, and a respectable QB12 this past year. Sure, he looked compromised at several points in 2022. But he was still capable of filling up the stat sheet on any afternoon.

Tom Brady headshot
Tom Brady
QB - TB - #0
2022 - 2023 season
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If only we all could age so gracefully. If only we could all go out on our own terms, walk away elegantly while we still can play.

There’s more I could say, but football is a finite game. Sometimes you run out of space, out of words, out of time. I’m going to miss Tom Brady (I'll always wonder what he might have done in San Francisco next season). And I think even those who rooted against Brady are going to miss him, too.

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