This Sunday, Patrick Mahomes will be the best quarterback on the field for Super Bowl 55. That’s why the Kansas City star just earned a 10-year contract extension just south of Jeff Bezos. That said, the 25-year-old defending Super Bowl champion is not the quarterback that’s getting the most attention right now. That honor would go to 43-year-old Tom Brady, who has led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl berth in his first year outside of New England, something that seemed almost inconceivable if it weren’t actually happening right now. This will be Brady’s 10th Super Bowl. He’s won six so far, which puts him far beyond anyone’s stratosphere. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana both went to and won four. John Elway played in five and won two. As more contemporary example, where dynasties are nearly impossible and parity is the rule, Peyton Manning went 2-2. So this isn’t like Federer and Rafa, two athletes playing king of the mountain. This is more like Brady climbed Mount Everest, and everyone else is in the Catskills.
By all accounts, Tom Brady’s accomplishments at arguably the most difficult position in all of sports place him in rarified air of sports history. While comparing people from different sports and time periods is difficult, if not foolish, you can only imagine a handful of humans who have performed as well for as long at the peak of their sport – a sport where the competition comes fast and furious and the physical risk and toll is exponential by the season. You can decide who might fall in Brady’s elite neighborhood – Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, dare I say Lance Armstrong – and I know that’s not widely accepted. Point is, we are watching something quite rare in sports – historical greatness. In other words, as much as it may pain some people to recognize, we’ve likely never seen an NFL quarterback as good as Tom Brady. And depending on your age, you may never see one again. That’s with full acknowledgment that on Sunday, Patrick Mahomes, not Tom Brady, is the best on the field.
Figuring a calculus for sports greatness is a fairly futile exercise. In some regards, especially in a sport like football, a whole lot falls out of an individual’s purview. Like how good was Dan Marino, who never won a Super Bowl. Or say in basketball, try to contextualize Charles Barkley or Karl Malone – or really any athlete that played during the height of the Jordan era. In individual sports, its perhaps a bit easier, although Mike Tyson is often criticized for not having a Joe Frazier or George Foreman. And obviously, having a long career can depend on things outside your control. Like financial incentives, how smart did your coach manage your playing time, and so on. So rating excellence is at best a qualitative exercise, and imprecise one at that.
Like a lot of people, I’ve spent a fair amount of time not rooting for Tom Brady. There’s a whole lot of reasons for that – some completely unfair, and some perhaps of his own doing. And to be clear, I never had any particular grievance with the Patriots. I’m not a Jets fan, I never cared much about the AFC East, and I don’t naturally root against people who win all the time. And oddly enough, my NFL team has always been the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to the extent that I still have a rooting interest. But they were my childhood team, so I will be cheering for the Bucs on Sunday, Tom Brady included. I suppose his success is my success, as is the law of sports fandom.
I wouldn’t expect everyone to suddenly start rooting for Tom Brady, even if his team is the underdog this weekend. The Chiefs and certainly Mahomes are far more likable, and there’s a few questionable decisions made by the Bucs franchise. I would encourage everyone who enjoys football, which is a decent number of people, to at least take a moment to put Tom Brady’s career in context, and appreciate it for what it still is. If there’s joy to be had in sport, and I believe there is, it should include the chance to enjoy being witness to greatness – to steal from LeBron James. It can be a hard place to come to for some folks – just ask pretty much every Knicks fan what they think of Michael Jordan. But I’d suggest that it’s worth the effort.
And if you need solace, just remember, on Sunday, Patrick Mahomes, not Tom Brady, will be the best quarterback on the field.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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