It is an unassailable fact that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time. That was true before last Sunday, when he played in his 14th Conference Championship game, and it is true today as he prepares for his 10th Super Bowl. Even the sentence “Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time” feels silly to write, as it implies there might be a debate. The debate was settled, oh, around two Vince Lombardi trophies ago.
So why even bring it up? Well, it brings us to a far more interesting debate, one that started among my Slate colleagues this week: What is the most exciting play of Tom Brady’s career? Does one exist?
I’m not asking this to be obnoxious. (All that stuff about Brady’s greatness right at the top? It’s called “hedging,” and it’s all over the news right now.) As the GOAT, Brady has accumulated multiple lifetimes’ worth of accolades and achievements, but will a singular thrilling highlight come to mind when people hear the name “Tom Brady” 30 years from now (one year after his retirement)? I don’t think so.
New England Patriots fans will surely disagree with this premise. They can and will rattle off magical Brady moments from the past two decades, even if you politely ask them to stop. But the connection between fan and team is an emotional one, and it cannot be trusted. I’m a Bears fan, and I can point to a few indelible Rex Grossman highlights that take up once-valuable real estate inside my brain.
This lack of legendarily, instantly memorable plays is pretty weird for the best to ever do it. Joe Montana, Brady’s closest peer in the NFL’s pantheon, has “The Catch” and “The Drive.” For John Elway, it’s the helicopter dive in Super Bowl XXXII. Patrick Mahomes, Brady’s heir apparent, has compiled a catalogue of physics-defying passes to choose from (though I’m partial to his run against the Tennessee Titans in last year’s AFC Championship Game). Brady has played in and won more big games than all of those guys, but when I close my eyes and try to picture a defining moment, I just see him standing in the pocket with perfect posture and calmly completing an out route to Kevin Faulk.
With six Super Bowl wins, you’d think that Brady would have to have at least one made-for-NFL-Films moment of immortality. But go back through his biggest triumphs and you’ll find a lot of Brady-adjacent highlights. Take his introduction to the national stage during the 2001 postseason, which is best remembered for his apparent fumble against the Oakland Raiders and the referees’ subsequent reversal of their call. When we enter our mind’s editing suite, the “tuck rule game” cuts straight from that nonfumble to Adam Vinatieri’s game-tying field goal in the snow.
What about those six Super Bowl wins? All of them came in close games. None of them turned on a single indelible Brady-centric moment.
•Super Bowl XXXVI: Vinatieri kicks a game-winner.
•Super Bowl XXXVIII: Vinatieri kicks another game-winner.
•Super Bowl XXXIX: Donovan McNabb vomits (allegedly).
•Super Bowl XLIX: Malcolm Butler intercepts Russell Wilson.
•Super Bowl LI: The Atlanta Falcons blow a 28-3 lead. Now, this might be the finest comeback in sports history, but all I can see is Matt Ryan trying to throw the ball and getting sacked when Atlanta should have been running time off the clock. For the Patriots, the biggest highlight was an amazing Julian Edelman catch that was nearly a Brady interception.
•Super Bowl LIII: A game that might not have actually happened, though Wikipedia says it did. The Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams, apparently. The play of the game: a Brady pass to Rob Gronkowski when the score was tied 3-3 in the fourth quarter. As I said, let’s all agree that none of this ever happened.
It’s tempting to blame the Patriots for this lack of magical moments. Bill Belichick created the most efficient winning machine of the 21st century, and his brand of mistake-free football relies heavily on defense and special teams. But it’s not like Brady was forced to play with an ankle monitor. In 2007, he and Randy Moss—the most exciting wide receiver of all time—combined to create the most explosive passing offense in NFL history. They went 16-0 during the regular season, you may recall, and you’ll certainly remember the most famous play of that magical run … which was made by the New York Giants’ Eli Manning and David Tyree.
Am I being unfair? Probably! A quick YouTube search will yield tons of video evidence of all the amazing, clutch plays Brady has made during his long and storied career. Dare I say that he even executed a good number of them with style.
Few players are as football-smart as Tom Brady, and examples abound of him manipulating defenders with a genius-level pump fake, like when he threw a last-minute, game-winning touchdown against the Houston Texans in 2017.
And while he is famously immobile (statues are described as “Brady-esque”), his knack for avoiding rushers verges on supernatural and makes for an entertaining shell game inside the pocket. And, very occasionally, outside of it—just ask Brian Urlacher.
So yeah, Brady’s highlight reel is extensive. But after 20 years of picking defenses apart, so many of his highlights blend together. How am I supposed to remember a game-winning overtime touchdown pass to Troy Brown against Miami during the 2003 regular season? The man has won 33 playoff games, for goodness sake. Where’s his miraculous playoff Hail Mary, like that one by Aaron Rodgers, or that other one by Aaron Rodgers?
Or perhaps the answer is that Brady is so good that he is literally incapable of being exciting. We expect him to win, ergo there is nothing he can do en route to winning that will fit the definition of “excitement.” If you’re any kind of NFL fan, I bet you can perfectly describe Tim Tebow’s most famous (OK, only famous) playoff play, and you probably know exactly where you were when you watched it. That’s because Tebow isn’t supposed to throw game-winning touchdowns on the road in the postseason against real NFL players. But he did, and we have no choice but to remember it forever.
Based on this logic, Brady has to do something supremely surprising to sear a singular exciting highlight onto the surface of our brains. If there is one play I’ll always remember from Brady’s career, it’s his pass in the last seconds of the Patriots’ first Super Bowl loss to the Giants, a heave that flew 75 yards in the air and bounced off Moss’ hands. In terms of pure athletic skill, the incompletion may be the greatest play of Brady’s career. That it came in a loss means it was shocking enough to imprint in my brain forever.