By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- We won't be able to properly comprehend or digest or understand Tom Brady's career for a very, very long time. It's impossible to wrap your head around 22 years in the league, 20 seasons as a starter, 10 Super Bowl appearances, seven Super Bowl wins, 744 total touchdowns, over 97,000 passing yards, 278 victories, 67 game-winning drives, and 51 fourth-quarter comebacks.
It's impossible. And those are just the statistics.
Brady's intangible impact on the game is incalculable. The rapid rise from sixth-round draft pick and fourth quarterback on the depth chart to becoming the Super Bowl MVP in less than two years' time laid the foundation for the most improbable rise to greatness the sports world has ever seen. Along with Bill Belichick on the sideline and Robert Kraft in the owner's box, Brady drove a franchise that previously had never tasted champagne in February into one of the most successful franchises in the history of the sport.
As a kid, he idolized Joe Montana, a winner of four Super Bowls. His peers -- Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers -- were all great in their own right. But Brady was just more -- more than anyone had ever been before, and likely more than anyone will be again.
Early in his career, he had the wins, but not the stats. In the middle of his career, he got the stats, but didn't quite have the same level of winning in the playoffs. By the end of his career, he had it all.
While Brady's spot atop the NFL's all-time leaderboards in passing statistics are the result of his unmatched longevity, the man's career length did not happen by accident. At an age when most every quarterback in history has rapidly declined in ability, Brady managed to get better. He was the MVP of the league at age 40, a year when he set a Super Bowl record with 505 passing yards. He won the Super Bowl a year later at 41, won another Super Bowl at age 43, and led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns at the age of 44, while winning 13 games. His fitness and diet spiels may have been excessive, but there's no denying the results.
The fact that he could retire at age 44 and still provide a level of shock and surprise in doing so says more about Brady than words ever could.
And while Brady has always been a lightning rod for debate among sports fans, and while he has been the target of a whole lot of hatred from fans outside of New England (and then Tampa Bay), the reality is that the entire sport is about to feel a loss that's never been felt before. The football world hasn't existed without Tom Brady since September of 2001. He went head-to-head with Peyton Manning on the final day of September that year, picking up a victory and etching his name in the NFL record books for the first time. He simply never stopped.
Children who were born after Brady's first Super Bowl are now adults. A football fan born in the mid-90s has never experienced a Tom Brady-less NFL for the entirety of their viewing lives. Five presidents have sat in the White House since Brady was drafted. Brady leaving the game is the end of an era and then some.
But through all of it ... Brady has generated some headlines and discussions and debates and dissections. Once or twice, Brady has been in the news. As a result, it's been challenging for most people to zoom out and take a broader view on the full scope of his football career. Seeing everything in proper context has been a challenge.
Granted, there have been times where it hasn't been difficult at all, like this graphic that ran during a game late in the 2021 regular season:
You could also say that Brady has played in 18.2 percent of Super Bowls in NFL history -- and he's won 12.7 percent of them. Combining the regular season and playoffs, he won 78 games more than anyone else and threw 102 more touchdowns than anybody else. Already a Hall of Famer at the age of 30, he authored the best single season ever for a 39-year-old, 40-year-old, 41-year-old, 42-year-old, 43-year-old and 44-year-old. Outside of the torn knee in 2008, he didn't miss a single game in his career due to injury. He played the equivalent of nearly three regular seasons in the playoffs, going 35-12 with 86 touchdowns, 39 interceptions, and a 90.4 passer rating against the best teams in the league, year after year after year after year.
He played in twice as many Super Bowls as any other quarterback, and he's played in and won more Super Bowls than any other franchise.
Forget Super Bowls, though: There are numerous franchises that have simply participated in fewer playoff games than Tom Brady has won.
He was the youngest QB to ever win a Super Bowl when he did it in 2001, and he was the oldest QB to ever win a Super Bowl when he hoisted the Lombardi a year ago.
In a league dedicated to achieving parity by any means necessary, Brady defied those designs in a relentless and unmatched pursuit of winning. That drive created a magnetism, and it generated a sense of belief that permeated locker rooms and made every single one of his teammates know without a doubt that no matter the situation, no matter the challenge, their team had a chance. That -- beyond the numbers and records -- is the lasting mark of Tom Brady.
But really, the totality of Brady's impact and accomplishments won't be processed until many years down the line.
When Patrick Mahomes -- the beloved next "GOAT" of football -- fails to win half as many Super Bowls as Brady, the preposterousness that was Brady's achievements will be better understood. The same will go for the "GOAT" after that, and the "GOAT" after that as well.
There can, obviously, be only one GOAT. That GOAT is the Greatest Of All Time, a singular person whose greatness cannot be matched. It's a term that has certainly lost its weight in recent years, being thrown around without regard for its meaning.
Fortunately, the sports world will always have the rare few -- the actual GOATs of their respective crafts -- to serve as reference points. And for the sport of football, for as long as any of us share this planet, the GOAT will always remain Tom Brady. It's a truth that will only become more evident in time.
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