Tom Brady's best season? It might've been 2007, when NFL passing changed forever
For a man who won seven Super Bowls, it's strange to say a season when Tom Brady didn't win one is perhaps the high-water mark of his career.
It's also strange to think that Brady hadn't yet become Tom Effin Brady at that point, despite already having won three Super Bowls.
But that is how Brady's 2007 should be remembered: the season when he broke through and changed the game.
The New England Patriots' loss in Super Bowl XLII sullies that team's legacy a bit when comparing it to some of the league's all-time, titanic clubs.
Despite the Patriots' still-unprecedented 18-0 start, the 17-14 loss to the New York Giants is probably the only thing keeping that club from being widely recognized as the best of the best ever. (And don't forget Brady's 72-yard launch to Randy Moss that day in the waning seconds, inches away from being the most legendary completion of both of their careers.)
Yet Brady's accomplishments that season cannot go overlooked, in spite of all the individual and team successes he had before then and since. In many ways, 2007 spring-boarded him into the GOAT conversation — and changed the entire game in his wake.
Tom Brady's 2007 season was a trojan horse
Brady admitted in ESPN's "Man in the Arena" documentary that had the Patriots won that game, perhaps "the desire is a little bit different." He suggested that "maybe I would have been fulfilled — not to stop playing at that time, but I don't know, maybe I play another seven or eight years and I'm fulfilled."
Instead, he played another 15. He won another four Super Bowls and two MVPs. Perhaps Brady's 2007 season was the Trojan Horse no one, not even he, saw coming.
Now that Brady has called it a career, it's easy to forget how much of an out-of-body experience that season was. The pass-happy era was already in full swing by then, but that season raised the bar to previously unseen heights.
Some of his and the 2007 Patriots' records have been surpassed since then. But like Dan Marino in 1984, Joe Montana in 1989, Kurt Warner in 1999, Patrick Mahomes in 2018 or Lamar Jackson in 2019, some QB seasons will forever hold a permanent bookmark in the league's annals.
When Brady and the try-hard Patriots played David to Warner and the Rams' Goliath in Super Bowl XXXVI, Brady was largely tasked with playing smart, safe football and turning the game over to Bill Belichick and the New England defense.
His game-winning drive — when many, including John Madden, implored New England to play for overtime — launched Brady into a new stratosphere. Despite coming up short in the Super Bowl six years later, Brady's superpowers had been fully realized.
And the league likely wouldn't look the way it does today without Brady, Belichick and the Patriots reimagining what the passing game could be.
Tom Brady, Patriots tried to 'kill' every team they faced
Following their loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC championship, one of the strangest and all-time best non-Super Bowl games ever played, the Patriots were not about to run it back the next season with Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and a broken-down Troy Brown at receiver.
The first move was trading for Wes Welker (from their division rival Miami, no less). Then came landing Randy Moss for a pittance (a fourth-round draft pick that became the immortal John Bowie). After that was signing Donté Stallworth for a mere $3.5 million guaranteed.
Brady was now armed and ready. The league had no idea what was going to happen next.
Moss didn't play in the preseason. Local media assumed it was just Randy being Randy and the Patriots had just flushed the 110th pick down the toilet.
Week 1, Moss showed up. Nine catches, 183 yards and a 51-yard bomb — splitting double coverage — later, the NFL got a taste of what was to come.
Week 2 brought another big storyline: Spygate. The Patriots and Belichick were fined (Belichick reportedly wrote Roger Goodell a personal check for the $500,000 he was docked), and the team was stripped of its first-round draft pick in 2008.
The illegal videotape the Patriots made of the Jets' sideline calls that day was destroyed. The cheating stigma stuck with them for years.
That's when Belichick unleashed his vendetta on the league, or so the story goes. He couldn't have taken that approach without a quarterback he trusted. Brady was at the early peak of his powers, and the Patriots went from one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL to one of the best.
The launch codes were released. The goal, Brady admitted that season, was to go out and "kill teams." For a fairly buttoned-up guy, that's a boastful statement.
They backed it up. The Patriots scored 331 points in their first eight games. Twelve NFL teams failed to score that many all season. New England scored 314 points ... on the road. The Patriots scored 41 more touchdowns than their opponents. In their 16-0 season, 10 victories were by 21 or more points.
It was a sight to behold. Perhaps the best indication of their early season greatness was the Week 6 win in Dallas over the previously 5-0 Cowboys. Dallas took a 24-21 lead early in the third quarter after a Brady strip sack. The Patriots blowtorched them in the final 20 minutes of the game, winning 48-27 with Belichick running up the score with two late touchdowns.
It felt like the roof was blown off old Texas Stadium on that hot, humid day. Unprompted, Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips shook his head and started his postgame news conference looking like a man who didn't know what had just steamrolled him.
"I guess they are that good," Phillips said, the best he could come up with in the moment.
It was the most unstoppable offense the NFL had seen to that point — better than the 1998 Vikings and "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams of 1999 or 2001, take your pick.
The one-year leap Brady took — in his eighth season, at age 30 — defied explanation. He led the NFL in completion percentage (68.9), pass yards, (4,806), touchdown passes (50) and yards per attempt (8.3). All while throwing only eight interceptions and being sacked 21 times.
The year prior, Brady threw for three-quarters of the yards and less than half that number of TDs, while throwing more picks, on only 62 fewer passes. It was like watching Luke Skywalker go from boy to man between "Empire" and "Return."
Credit the Giants for finding a way to slow Brady and the Patriots, and truthfully, the Chargers pretty much did the same thing two weeks earlier in the AFC title game. But the imprint Brady and the Patriots left on the league that season was indelible.
Reshaping the NFL's modern passing game
Suddenly, even with the Patriots losing the Super Bowl, everyone seemingly went to wide-open passing attacks. They wanted a deep threat like Moss. They wanted the Welker-esque slot receiver. They wanted big, athletic tight ends to go with a rock-solid offensive line.
The groundswell was tangible, even if results didn't immediately bear fruit elsewhere. After all, you needed a Brady-level talent at quarterback to make it fully work. It's hard to say the Patriots didn't change the way teams thought about the passing game.
Prior to 2007, NFL teams averaged more than 214.3 pass yards per game (the league average that year) only once, back in 1995. In 13 of the next 14 seasons, the league averaged surpassed that mark, peaking at 243.8 in 2015.
The Patriots set what was then a record for points scored with 589 that year (since bested by Peyton Manning and the 2013 Denver Broncos). Since that time, 14 of the 22 highest-scoring teams of all time have recorded their marks.
It wasn't just the passing game that Brady helped change; it was the score-every-drive mentality. The Patriots were successful on 15 of 21 fourth downs in 2007. Only five teams had more attempts that season, four of them by teams with losing records.
Those franchises went for it out of necessity. The Patriots went for it because they could; if they smelled blood, they went for the kill. They might have gone for it even more had their offense not been so prolific on first, second and third downs.
It took time for the league to come around on that one. Analytics was in its adolescence, at best. Suspicion toward fourth-down aggressiveness was still at an apex two years later when Belichick famously called for Brady to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line with Manning on the other sideline.
As Brady walks away, perhaps so does the idea of ever seeing anything like what happened in 2007. Quarterbacks are bred differently now, with dual-threat talents populating the position like never before. He might have been the last vestige for the true pocket-passing legend, at least of this generation.
Manning later broke Brady's 2007 TD mark. Brady's 4,806 passing yards now sit 31st all time — behind the likes of Jameis Winston and Kirk Cousins. Even Brady surpassed that number three separate times.
The magic and significance of Brady's 2007 can't be taken away. If we're doing it right, we must judge players against their contemporaries, versus the time and place in which they performed. And in that season, Super Bowl loss notwithstanding, no quarterback had played at that level before.
That many were inspired to chase that level of greatness speaks to just how historic and revolutionary Brady's 2007 season truly was.