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In the case of Tom Brady, winning shouldn't determine the G.O.A.T

Howard Balzer Avatar
February 2, 2023

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard at least a thousand times. And there’s nothing that makes me cringe more than hearing those singular words cascade out of someone’s mouth.

Heck, I sometimes catch myself saying it when the subject is a quarterback, and it results in an immediate mea culpa.

You know what I’m talking about . . . I hope.

It’s this: “He won” or “he lost” as if said quarterback was on the field alone and there were no other reasons why his team won or lost.

So, here we all are extolling the remarkable career of Tom Brady since he announced his retirement Wednesday. All deserved.

Yet, it’s not enough to simply chronicle the achievements. There has to be a debate, or in the minds of some, claim there is no debate that Brady is the G.O.A.T; the greatest of all time.

One that made the latter claim last year after his supposed retirement was Barrett Media columnist and Orlando, Fla., sports-talk host Brandon Kravitz, who will presumably admonish me for challenging what is so automatically asserted about the former New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers signal-caller.

The headline on Kravitz’s story proclaimed, “Tom Brady Quieted an Age-Old Sports Talk Radio Debate.”

Kravitz wrote, “Brady shut us up, and he did so in glorious fashion. Tom Brady doesn’t just have some records; he basically owns all of them.”

I’ll get to that last claim momentarily.

His column concluded with this: “Tom Brady has done something that really shouldn’t be possible these days, given all the platforms, personalities, and division amongst people who cover sports. Think about it: In today’s day and age, is there anything that we can’t debate? Yet somehow, we have found something we can all agree on: Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback who has ever lived.

“Very few are willing to debate it and for good reason. The debate would be short-lived. You would sound ridiculous making a claim for anyone else. It’s nearly impossible to make a reasonable argument for any other quarterback as the greatest of all time, and that’s why you won’t hear it on sports-talk shows after his retirement becomes official, whenever that might be. You may hear discussions about Brady as the GOAT of all athletes, but not a whisper about him vs. any other NFL legends.”

Never mind that he contradicted himself by first saying “we have found something we can all agree on” and then one sentence later, adding that “very few are willing to debate it.”

Sorry, Brandon, and many more out there. I will debate it and I believe it won’t “sound ridiculous.”

While Brady has surely accumulated numerous records in this era of NFL passing, he didn’t jump ahead of Drew Brees until the 2021 season for regular-season passing yards. Many have breathlessly noted that Brady passed for more than 80,000 yards in his career (89,214). Well, so did Brees (80,538), and Brady equaled Brees in 2021 with his second season of at least 5,000 yards.

This won’t get bogged down in numbers here because there is a larger point to be made, but bear with me. Brady is ninth all-time in passing yards per game, tied for 27th in touchdown percentage and is tied for 39th in yards per attempt.

Arguing who is the best at anything is hardly scientific. Many running backs have passed Jim Brown’s career totals, but even 57 years after his retirement many proclaim him the best ever. Brown still owns one significant record: He averaged 104.3 yards per game and no other runner ended his career at 100 or more.

But, all those numbers aren’t the meat of this argument. The reality is that the G.O.A.T. label gets so quickly placed on Brady because of the winning.

Clearly, he was a large part of seven Super Bowl championships in 10 tries. But he was hardly alone. Football isn’t tennis or golf. Teams win or lose, not individuals. And while the quarterback is crucial to that success, he’s not the only reason.

Archie Manning might have been the best of the Manning quarterbacks, but he played on dreadful teams.

Brady played for head coach Bill Belichick, who built teams to win, with excellent offensive lines, defense and special teams. Aside from Belichick on the coaching side, Brady’s true best friend was offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who routinely took whatever he was given and molded it into a group that helped keep Brady upright most of the time.

Another reality is that Brady wasn’t consistently great in the postseason. His passer rating is 89.8 and there were six playoff seasons when his rating was under 80.

The Patriots won for a lot of reasons in addition to Brady’s presence. Even when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl three years ago 31-9, a big reason was that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was running for his life all game thanks to the team being without both their starting tackles.

However, the litmus test for everyone is this: If you had the pick of any quarterback in history to build a team around, would that choice automatically be Brady with no consideration of anyone else? Brady might be the best, but are there better (or at least just as good) passers and competitors?

Or could that pick be, in no particular order, Dan Marino … or John Elway … or Johnny Unitas … or Peyton Manning … or Dan Fouts … or Joe Namath … or Jim Kelly … or Steve Young … or Joe Montana … or Brett Favre … or Terry Bradshaw … or Brees? You get the picture. It’s not a stretch to say many NFL general managers would pick one of the others instead of Brady.

I won’t go too far back to Sid Luckman or Y.A. Tittle or Norm Van Brocklin or to contemporaries who have many years still to play.

But there is one “old-timer” worth mentioning: Otto Graham. Yes, it was a different time and there weren’t as many teams in the NFL.

However, Graham played 10 seasons with the Cleveland Browns and was in the championship game every season and the team won seven. If that sounds familiar, it should. Brady’s teams also won seven in 10 tries.

In those categories mentioned earlier, Graham is first all-time in yards per attempt and fourth in touchdown percentage while being 85th in passing yards per game in an era where there weren’t many passing attempts.

Graham’s career began when the Browns were in the All-America Football Conference from 1946-1949 and continued in 1950 when the Browns, San Francisco and Baltimore were merged into the NFL.

Viewed as inferior by the NFL, all Graham and the Browns did was win the NFL championship in 1950 and then two more before Graham retired after the 1955 season. Cleveland had the best record in the league that year at 9-2-1 and won the league championship.

The next season, without Graham, they were 5-7 and then were back in the title game in 1957. Coincidentally, the Patriots were two games away from .500 in their first year without Brady, back in the playoffs in 2021 and then on the out of the playoffs this past season.

Surely, this all provides some food for thought . . . and, yes, debate.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me:

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