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Keith Strudler: The GOAT

Calling any athlete the greatest of all time, or GOAT as it’s called, puts you in a bit of a corner. The single greatest leaves no margin for error and also calls into question things like recency effect and personal bias. It’s much safer, and probably more accurate, to call an athlete one of the best ever, or even to build some guiderails, like top 10 of all time.

That said, a whole lot of sports professionals are now referring to New England Quarterback Tom Brady as the greatest quarterback of all time. It’s often followed with a qualifier, like “without question,” or “it’s not even close anymore.” That’s the certainty that many now regard Tom Brady’s standing at the pinnacle of perhaps the most ego-centric position in all of American team sports. This consensus comes after Brady led his Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl win of his tenure, the most of any football player in history, quarterback or not. He’s also lost three Super Bowls, making his presence in the championship something of regular appointment. That, along with an endless list of statistical accomplishments and the fact that he’s won with a revolving door of teammates make him an easy pick at the top of the depth chart. An assumption is that he’s taken that post from former San Francisco great Joe Montana, although I’m sure that’s up for debate.

Picking a greatest ever, especially in a sport like football, is almost categorically impossible – at least with any degree of validity. To start with, the sport of football today is very different than the sport of even, say, 20 years ago, which oddly was right before Brady entered the league. Each generation and sporting incarnation brings an evolving set of rules, norms, and practices. Which means that the position Tom Brady plays now may be quite different than the one Roger Staubach played in the 70’s, even if they are fundamentally the same. Today’s NFL is more offensively focused, making a pass first QB far more essential and effective than ever. Athletes can also play for longer if they so choose – although I’m not sure that continues in the CTE era. So comparing pass yardage over the years is fraught with incompatibility.

On top of that, the efficacy of any one position player in football is highly dependent on both the people around him and, to some degree, the people across from him. Obviously, a quarterback with a good offensive line and receivers is going to win more than one who lack that luxury. And having a stiff defense makes it easier for a QB to stack up wins – like the Patriots defense did to the Rams offense on Sunday. And I suppose to some degree, the epitaph of any quarterback may be determined by their competition. I’m sure Peyton Manning would have won more titles if not for Brady.

There’s also a question of what best ever actually means – and I’m not simply talking about the importance of championships. See, for my money, Earl Campbell was the best running back ever. And that’s not just because I grew up in Houston. It’s because for a short window of time, it was nearly impossible to bring him down, which is why he got ball like 1000 times a game. Not surprisingly, that may have shorted his lifespan in the league, and more likely his ability to walk. So his career stats aren’t all that special, at least compared to Emmitt Smith or Walter Payton. But for one game at his peak, I’d take Campbell over anyone. So even if Brady is the GOAT, there may have been a brief window when I’d take an unstoppable Michael Vick for one game and one game only.

But of course, the hardest thing about naming a greatest of all time is one thing we can’t change – evolution. I firmly believe that today’s athletes are better than yesterday’s, assuming yesterday’s weren’t jacked up on steroids. Tom Brady would have been a freak of nature in Super Bowl I, just like Usain Bolt might have appeared super human in the 1924 Olympic Games. Let’s face it, he seems super human now. So any conversation about best ever has to consider time and evolution. Which is why current pitcher Adam Ottavino was absolutely correct when he said he’d strike out Babe Ruth. So would most everyone throwing in the majors.

Which gets back to the issue at hand. As painful as it is to say, considering all these criteria and caveats, yes, Tom Brady is very likely the greatest quarterback of all time. At least for now.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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