Tom Brady is, indeed and at long last, retiring from football. Three days after ESPN reported on that eventuality and set off a furious wave of confusion and denials, Brady confirmed on Tuesday that his 22nd NFL season was his last one. In a statement he published on Twitter, in a thread beginning with a heart emoji, Brady said that he lacked “a 100% competitive commitment” to play at his requisite level.
Brady’s accomplishments were many and will be repeated ad nauseam for years, as they probably should be: seven Super Bowl wins, three more appearances in that game, a 2007 season that came a whisker away from a 19–0 record, an all-time-most 84,520 passing yards, and whatever else. Take your pick.
Brady lifted a lot of boats. The New England Patriots had zero Super Bowls when he arrived and six when he left. Bill Belichick rose to “greatest coach ever” status with Brady’s help. Michigan fans got to lord their former QB over Ohio State at a time when there wasn’t much else for them to brag about. Wes Welker made almost $30 million after Brady helped him go from “tiny slot receiver from the Miami Dolphins” to “the most productive tiny slot receiver ever.” Brady’s personal fitness guy, a man who has been sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission and whose Wikipedia page has “(alternative medicine)” in the title, became a key business partner.
The list of winners from Brady’s reign is long, but it is also boring. A much more fun and illustrative way to examine Brady’s greatness is to note how much he took away from so many others—athletes, teams, and fan bases who nearly realized success beyond their wildest dreams but found themselves thwarted time and again by this handsome cryptocurrency shill, a guy who also happened to be the most accomplished football player ever. The truest way to appreciate the scale of Brady’s dominance is to note how many hopes he shattered.
So, so many quarterbacks saw Brady rob them of the greatest successes they would have ever experienced, or of stacking more atop what they already had. In playoff games alone, he faced 32 separate starting QBs, an entire NFL’s worth. Only seven of them beat him even once. Six lost to him multiple times. Philip Rivers, one of the best QBs of his era, lost to Brady three times in the playoffs and never beat him. If there is one reason Rivers never won a Super Bowl, it is tempting to say it’s that he played for the Chargers. If there is another, it’s that he ran into Brady time and again, and Brady was inevitable. (Rivers was a combined 0–8 against Brady in the regular season and playoffs.) Brady was around long enough to have a playoff win against Kordell Stewart, the early-aughts Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback who never got enough chances to flash his running skill along with his throwing, and Jalen Hurts, the early-2020s Philadelphia Eagles quarterback whose career exists because football teams now view it as essential to have quarterbacks who can do damage on the ground as well as in the air.
The (other) best QBs of Brady’s time got no mercy. Counting the playoffs, Ben Roethlisberger played Brady 12 times and won three. Peyton Manning played him 17 times and won six. Roethlisberger and Manning won two Super Bowls each. How many would they have won without Brady? At least a combined six or seven, right? Aaron Rodgers beat Brady once. Drew Brees was 5–3 against Brady, but Brady still ended Brees’ career when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat Brees’ Saints in the 2020 playoffs. Russell Wilson was 2–1, but the “one” was that Super Bowl, when the Patriots defense stole a ring from Wilson in the game’s last minute. Nobody escaped Brady’s run without significant scarring, not even the best. Brady’s last act against this cohort was to announce his retirement almost immediately after Roethlisberger, turning the Steelers QB’s 2027 Hall of Fame induction into an event secondary to Brady’s.
More painful was what Brady did to the less prestigious opponents of his time, players who had moments of sunshine that Brady abruptly ended. That doesn’t just mean Drew Bledsoe, the former Patriots starter who had an excellent NFL career but will eternally be known first and foremost as the guy Brady unseated during a run to the Super Bowl in 2001. The Jacksonville Jaguars almost made the Super Bowl in 2017 with Blake Bortles at quarterback, and would’ve if Brady’s Patriots hadn’t come back to beat them in the AFC Championship. In 2007, Jags QB David Garrard had a 278-yard, two-touchdown outing against Brady in the divisional round and lost by 11. The Houston Texans, four years apart, got to the divisional playoff round with Matt Schaub and then Brock Osweiler at quarterback. The Patriots ended those magic carpet rides, too. Any of these QBs could have been Super Bowl winners. In a Brady reality, none is.
None of that compares to what Brady and Belichick did to the Atlanta Falcons to close the 2016 season. Atlanta’s 28–3 lead in that Super Bowl became a meme after the New England defense stormed to life in the second half and Brady went into god mode to win, 34–28, in overtime. The starkest representation of Brady’s impact on the NFL is that in a world without him, Falcons fans would have gotten to feel joy. Thank heavens many of them have enjoyed other recent titles.
Other good players, and good stories, died sad deaths at Brady’s hands in his early career. Donovan McNabb, an excellent 2000s QB, is largely known for a string of losses late in the playoffs. Brady took a Super Bowl out of his and the Eagles’ grasp to end the 2004 season, ensuring that reputation would persist. A year earlier in the big game, Brady conducted a title-winning drive in the fourth quarter to beat the Jake Delhomme–quarterbacked Carolina Panthers, reducing Delhomme to a trivia answer. Not everyone Brady beat on a big stage faded after that, but he carried a darkness around with him. Brady’s first Super Bowl ended the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” era, even as the QB on that team, Kurt Warner, went on to more years of good play with the Arizona Cardinals. There was always a finality about losing to Brady.
It wasn’t just the quarterbacks and teams whom he robbed. So many others put forth what might’ve gone down as historically great games had Brady not buried them. The Panthers’ Muhsin Muhammad had 140 receiving yards in that Super Bowl, and Brady made sure it didn’t matter. The Chargers’ Nate Kaeding went 4-for-4 on field goals in frigid New England in the 2007 season’s AFC Championship, but it didn’t matter because the Chargers scored no other points, and Brady won by 9. His teammate Drayton Florence picked off Brady in two different playoff games and lost both. The Texans’ Danieal Manning had kickoff returns of 94 and 69 yards in the same playoff game against the Patriots, but Brady’s team scored 41 points that day. Manning won’t even go down as the Manning that Brady most abused in the postseason.
Some competitors were more fortunate, in that they produced herculean efforts against Brady on the occasions when he couldn’t muster enough to beat them. Eli Manning beat him in two Super Bowls, each highlighted by absurd throws and catches that Manning could not regularly pull off. Joe Flacco lost to Brady twice in the playoffs but also beat him twice, once en route to his own Super Bowl win. And Brady was not the sole architect of his own success. In fact, he played plenty of mediocre playoff games that his teams won anyway. It paid to spend his career playing for the best defensive mind of his time, Belichick, and to finish it off with another tremendous defense in Tampa. That Brady alone destroyed so many foundations of possible success for others is not quite right, though it’s close enough in a narratively driven sports world.
Brady’s exit opens up a world where any number of other quarterbacks could take his place. That probably won’t happen, though, at least not exactly. Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert will all share the AFC for the foreseeable future. They’ll all win a lot, and football’s increasing orientation toward the passing game means some of them might have better numbers than Brady. One thing they will not do, though, is steal as many souls as the greatest quarterback who ever lived. You may choose to judge Brady on the football world he planted, but I will remember him by what he tore out at the roots.