What's left for Tom Brady? Taking aim at Michael Jordan as the American GOAT

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

In the wake of one of the lowest-scoring Super Bowls of all time, I’ve come to realize that The Patriot Fatigue that has gripped America (outside of the upper Northeast, of course) has led us, as Americans, to collectively overlook one amazing, indisputable fact:

Not only is what Tom Brady is doing right now completely and utterly unprecedented in football, it should also be appreciated.

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Now listen, I don’t expect this to be the most popular column I’ve ever written, especially in my neck of the woods. I live in Kansas City, Missouri, and thanks to the Chiefs’ passive defensive gameplan, the Patriots eliminated the Chiefs in the AFC championship game just a few weeks ago.

But while Chiefs fans’ depression over the loss hardly came as a surprise — many of them were calling for the firing of the primary culprit, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, as far back as two years ago — what did surprise me was how the Patriots’ ninth Super Bowl appearance in 18 seasons was greeted with everything ranging from a collective yawn to outright anger across America.

As I’ve traveled throughout the South the last few weeks — first for the Senior Bowl and then the Super Bowl — I cannot tell you how many people, when told what I do for a living and where I live, have mentioned how badly they wanted the Chiefs to win. The Patriots have been good for so long — their fans so accustomed to success while everyone else prays to just make a single Super Bowl — that everyone these guys face in the playoffs basically becomes America’s Team.

New England Patriots’ Tom Brady raises the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Atlanta Falcons in overtime at Super Bowl 51. (AP file photo)
New England Patriots’ Tom Brady raises the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Atlanta Falcons in overtime at Super Bowl 51. (AP file photo)

On Sunday, it was the Los Angeles Rams. Three weeks ago, it was the Chiefs. A month ago, it was the Los Angeles Chargers. In last year’s Super Bowl, it was the Philadelphia Eagles. And so on, and so on.

But to me, I think we should examine that fact more. Because honestly, the ability to inspire that type of distaste — or outright weariness — from fans is the best indicator possible of greatness.

Think about it. No one talks about it now (and even fewer fess up to it) but back in 1998, how many of you were really rooting for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls? How many of you really wanted to see Jordan complete his second three-peat? I know plenty of writers didn’t; how the hell else do you explain Karl Malone winning MVP in 1996-1997, M.J.’s second-to-last season with the Bulls? Hell, I’m sure somewhere deep in my 13-year-old brain, I was ready to see someone else win, too (even though I still had the latest Js).

But one thing that comes with age and experience in sports journalism — at least if you’re reasonable — is appreciation, both for how hard it is to win and how hard these guys work to achieve it. There’s nothing easy about being an athlete; sure, guys are physically gifted, but to make it as a professional, you also need to be skilled, and there’s no shortcut for hard work.

And if that goes doubly so in basketball, where you may be able to cover the entire court in seven steps due to genetics but can only shoot a basketball well with thousands and thousands of reps, then that goes triply so in football for quarterbacks, who touch the ball nearly every play and are required to study like law students to do their job effectively.

But honestly, it even goes deeper than that. The best quarterbacks, the true alpha dogs of the bunch, are looked at to lead other grown men, many of whom have money and fame and egos as big as their bank accounts. The only way to gain the respect of men like that is to be more than a quarterback, to set a good example by making good decisions, both on and off the field.

That’s why, when I’ve watched how Tom Brady carries himself, both on the field and off, over the last few years, I’ve come away with nothing but an appreciation for what he’s done. And his teammates have, too. Just listen to the way they talk about him.

For example, if you watched the “America’s Game” episode on the 2016 Patriots, you probably remember the moment where — with the Patriots needing to go 91 yards to tie the game late in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowl win over the Falcons — the mics caught teammate LeGarrette Blount reassuring himself from the bench as Brady started walking to the huddle.

“We got Tom Brady, we got Tom Brady,” Blount said. “He the best of all time, bro. Hands down, bro.”

You already know what happened in that game, as Brady calmly directed the Patriots on a scoring drive and ultimately, victory.

Michael Jordan holds the Larry O’Brien championship trophy after defeating the Seattle Super Sonics in the 1996 NBA Finals at The United Center on June 16, 1996 in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty)
Michael Jordan holds the Larry O’Brien championship trophy after defeating the Seattle Super Sonics in the 1996 NBA Finals at The United Center on June 16, 1996 in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty)

So in the AFC championship game, when the Patriots got the ball to start overtime against an overmatched defense, it was no surprise to see Brady cooly convert three consecutive third-and-10s on the way to the game-winning score, just like it was no surprise in the fourth quarter of this year’s Super Bowl when — with the Patriots needing a scoring drive to take the lead — Brady completed four straight passes for 67 yards (including two ridiculous, gorgeous passes to Gronk) to guide New England to the end zone.

A few minutes after that, the Patriots and Brady had picked up their six Super Bowl victory, and afterward, the calm Brady displayed during interviews with reporters — just the satisfied, I’ve-been-here-before vibe he gave off — showed his command of the moment. It was reminiscent of the same vibe Jordan gave following his sixth championship, which is appropriate, because at this point, Brady is fighting it out with Jordan to be The Greatest Modern American Athlete of All Time.

I don’t want to get too into the weeds here — because this is a highly subjective (but fun) topic to debate — but Brady currently has the same number of rings as Jordan and only two fewer playoff MVPs. If Brady finds a way to win another Super Bowl — and be named MVP of it — he will have one more Super Bowl win than Jordan and one fewer playoff MVP, which at the very least draws him even, in my opinion.

Heck, if you add in the fact that Brady already has two more Super Bowl titles and one more Super Bowl MVP than any other quarterback ever — at the most important position in sports, remember — you could make an argument that he’s already up there with Jordan.

But look, regardless of how you feel about comparing Brady to M.J., the fact that Brady is the unquestioned GOAT when it comes to football quarterbacks — and probably football, in general — is proof enough of how amazing his run has been. Brady is 41 years old, and when he returns next season, it will be year No. 20, which is unprecedented for an All-Pro quarterback playing at his current level.

At some point, Patriot Fatigue will give way to begrudging respect in America, much like M.J. fatigue among some gave way to the universal respect that comes with being known as the greatest winner of all time. In 20 years, we’ll all be comparing every quarterback to Brady. His consistency and accomplishments in an era designed for parity will be the standard for all quarterbacks, much like Jordan is for shooting guards and great basketball players, in general.

To me, it would be a small shame if more people didn’t take a second to appreciate that in the moment with Brady, for however long it ends up lasting.

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