Debating Brady and the G.O.A.T. question

by Gary Shelton on February 11, 2021

in general

Brady has won more than anyone in his sport/(Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers via AP)

Thursday, 4 a.m.

There have been faster football players. Barry Sanders comes to mind. Walter Payton, too. Jerry Rice.

There have been stronger players. Reggie White. Bruce Smith. Anthony Munoz.

There have been players who were more fierce. Lawrence Taylor. Dick Butkus. Bruce Smith.

None of them, however, have had the career success that Tom Brady has had. Bring on your stats. Bring on your memories. Bring on whatever category you wish.

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When it comes to accomplishment, yes, Brady is the greatest of all time. Any other arguments are about the things that don't matter as much. Money doesn't matter. Numbers don't matter. Thousand-yard seasons don't matter. Personal feats of athleticism don't matter. Stop watches don't matter. Highlight films don't matter.

Winning matters. Isn't that why they keep score?

And if winning is the ultimate goal for every athlete, shouldn't it be the ultimate arbiter in the greatest-ever discussion?

Since Brady was taking a knee to win his seventh Super Bowl -- and his fifth MVP -- the debate has raged. Is Brady the best of all-time, and if not, who is? And if Brady is indeed the G.O.A.T., is he the goatiest goat of them all?

His latest championship, you know, was a very big deal. He took a team that hadn't dented the playoffs in 13 years, who hadn't won a playoff game in 18, and guided his team to victories over New Orleans, Green Bay and Kansas City, as formidable a post-season schedule as anyone has had to play. It was more than coming from behind; it was coming from nowhere.

Brady, of course, doesn't want to discuss this greatness stuff. In the book of Brady, all championships are special, so why rank them? Still, this year, the year when he brought his team back from 25 points down to the Falcons, the first one ... all of those were historic.

Hey, winning is the greatest thing in sports. It's why we watch, and it's why they play. And other great accomplishments are primarily to achieve that moment of greatness.

So is Brady the greatest? The thing is, we can all do our own rankings, based on our own criteria, and if someone who once gave a soda to Joe Greene wants to say Greene is the greatest player of all time, well, that's a personal choice. Shrug and move on.

That said, seven championships.


Again, football is a game of blended skills, of ballet artists and strongmen, of the shrewd and the mean, of the focused and the hungry. No, Brady could not dance in the hole like Sanders, and he could not go downfield like Jerry Rice, and he could not chase down quarterbacks like Derrick Brooks, and he could not tear an offense apart like Ray Lewis.

But how many Super Bowls did those guys win?

No, it wasn't seven.

This is what Brady does. He wills his team to win. He makes little guys believe they are big guys. He intensifies an everyday practice. And in the end, he grins in the confetti. He isn't the most glib speaker. He isn't filled with razzle-dazzle. But he finishes first much of the time.

Yeah, there is greatness to that.

Look, being the greatest ever is not a skills competition. It's not a 40-yard dash, and it's not reps on the bench press machine. The scoreboard is the ultimate judge, and the scoreboard loves Brady more than anyone a lot.

I'll be honest. If I rank all the football players I have seen, I'd have Brady first. Because if you rate speed, well, where are you going to put John Ross, the bust of the Bengals? If you rate strength, what do you do with Tony Mandarich? I value athleticism, but only if it comes with accomplishment. Gale Sayers was terrific, but his team didn't win.

Brady's team does.

Now, if you go to all sports, well, you've got a closer debate. Michael Jordan, Willie Mays and Wayne Gretzky had to play defense. Muhammad Ali had no teammates to rely on. Michael Phelps was superb, but he could win eight championships a single Olympics. Bjorn Borg (or Roger Federer) could collect four Grand Slams a year. No one ever put a pass rush on Jack Nicklaus.

Still, Brady would not be my all-sports G.O.A.T. But he'd be in the conversation. I'd put him up on the winners' Mount Rushmore with Ali, Tiger Woods and Gretzky.

I know, I know. Your opinion might be different. When I grew up, Johnny Unitas and Mickey Mantle were my heroes. But they weren't the greatest of all time. Throughout my writing career, I covered Dan Marino, Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp. But they weren't the greatest ever, either. There were moments that each of them did things that mortal men did not do.

Look, it isn't an insult to suggest that someone isn't the greatest player in the history of his sport. It's a complement to be in the discussion. There are a lot of correct answers here.

Russell won 11 titles. Henri Richard and Yogi Berra won 10. Joe DiMaggio won nine. Jordan won six. Magic Johnson won five. All were great, and all were accomplished. You can debate which sport is harder, or which feat is greater, or which era was more challenging. Still, the candidates are a select few.

The greatest of all time? It's up to you. To me, athletes play (or should play) for championships. Everything else is noise.

When your guy gets to seven titles or more, call me.

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