Beyond the obvious essentials of accuracy and smarts and competitiveness and quick decision-making, what makes a great quarterback in the modern game? Five things, I think:
- Mastery of the thousand little things the position demands, and actual enjoyment in the road to that mastery.
- Total unselfishness. As Bo Schembechler once said, “The team, the team, the team.”
- Treating your body and your brain like a temple. Those Ken Stabler drink-all-night-and-play days are dead forever.
- Embracing continuing education about the position and the game.
- Being a beacon for the position and the game, and wanting to leave it in a better place than you found it.
Tom Brady, five for five.
There will be those who won’t want another hagiography on Brady in the wake of his retirement, maybe because they’re just sick of him, maybe because they’ll always view him with suspicion after he was suspended for four games for his alleged role in deflating footballs in 2015. Deflategate’s a part of Brady’s legacy. Everything counts. But there is so much unproven in that investigation, and I’ve never felt that a series of “more probable than not” findings should put a scarlet letter “D” on Brady’s legacy. So on with it.
The Brady ethos surfaced just weeks after he was drafted 199th overall in 2000. Then-Patriots personnel czar Scott Pioli saw the lights on in the team’s indoor workout facility around 9 one spring night. In the place was Brady, then totally unknown, throwing footballs into target-nets. Pioli said hi. Brady said, “Don’t tell anyone you saw me.”
The ethos never stopped. Through big losses (Giants, Giants), through personal strife (his mother’s cancer battle), through marital strife (the Gisele divorce) perhaps brought on by his insatiable desire to play football, Brady kept up the precedent-setting unique care and feeding of the best quarterback in the world. When I met him for an interview in 2017, twice he emptied TB12 electrolyte packets into his bottles of Vitamin Water Zero—he did it almost without noticing. I asked him if he missed going out with his buddies and having nine beers one night in the off-season. “I’ve done that before,” he said, “and this [winning Super Bowls] is a lot more fun.”
The work showed up in games, and in playing till 45: In his last 14 seasons as a football player, from age 32 to age 45, he played 258 football games and missed none due to injury. John Elway played 256—in his NFL career.
As for my list of five things, let’s look at number one. I’m going to tell you a story I’ve told before, but it’s the perfect explanation for why Brady became the best to ever do it.
Brady doesn’t think this, but I’ll always think his greatest game was the comeback from 28-3 against Atlanta in the Super Bowl. “I don’t really consider playing a good quarter-and-a-half plus overtime as one of the ‘best games ever,’” he said.
Putting up 31 points in 28 minutes, playing the most snaps in a game (99) in his career, getting tattooed all game by Grady Jarrett and the Falcons’ front, and using Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell as his most trusted wide receivers late in the game. Coming back from a crap start in the biggest game of the year. That’s what the greats do, in the biggest games they play.
The thing about that game that’s never gotten the attention it deserved was Brady iso-ing two bottom-of-the-roster guys to win a Super Bowl. On the third play of overtime, Hogan, a spare piece in bits of 10 NFL seasons, was singled left on a second-round corner, Jalen Collins. Brady, standing at his 37-yard line, saw Hogan and Collins running together at the Atlanta 45. Brady threw to a spot about 23 yards downfield, to the left, with Hogan not looking. Hogan dug his foot into the ground at the Atlanta 37- and boomeranged back, not seeing the ball till it was two-thirds of the way to him, Collins a step behind him. The ball hit Hogan in the hands at the 40-, and he efforted ahead to the Atlanta 37-.
No one remembers those plays. No one remember Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell in the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. But there’s no more perfect way to remember Brady’s career than late comeback-route completions of 12, 16, 11 and 18 yards to players who aren’t household names in their own households.
I wondered about those anticipation throws. I said if you throw it 20 or 25 yards and your guy doesn’t get the perfect break, that easily could be an interception.
“That’s a lot of throws,’’ Brady said. “That’s 111 practices that we had. That’s however many games. Films, meetings. It’s got to be like clockwork. The trust has to be built over a long time.”
That’s the essence of Brady. Give him trustworthy workers, protect him okay, and you’ll win.
The little things. “Other than playing football, the other thing I love to do is prepare to play football,” he told me in 2017. “It doesn’t ever feel like a sacrifice to me. Football’s a job, but it’s never felt like a job to me.”
Unselfishness. Brady was never a pig at the salary-cap trough. Coming off that Atlanta Super Bowl win, in 2017, Brady’s salary was 8.3 percent of the team’s cap. The year New England went 16-0 in the regular season, Brady was 6.7 percent of the cap. Just spend to the cap every year, and I’ll be reasonable, he’d tell Pioli and his successors with the keys to the Patriots’ vault. When Brady won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 2005, magazine editor Terry McDonell referenced Brady’s contractual unselfishness as part of the reason for the award.
Fitness. Brady on football fitness, and thinking for yourself, and not just buying into the you-gotta-lift-more-weights drill that lords over football training: “Strength is very important to your job. But how much strength do you need? You only need the strength to withstand the hits and throw the ball and make your movements of being a quarterback. You need conditioning because you need to be able to do that over a period of time, certainly a season. You need muscle pliability—long, soft, muscles in order to be durable. How do you work on durability? That’s what I’ve figured out. It’s hard for me to get hurt, knock on wood. Anything can happen in football. But I want to put myself in a position to be able to withstand the car crash before I get the car crash. It’s going to be really hard for me to have a muscle injury, based off the health of my muscle tissue and the way that I try to take care of it. Your muscle and your body allow you to play this great sport.’’
Continuing education. How possibly could Brady have thrown 150,000 passes in his professional life—that’s being conservative; he threw 13,971 in games, and at bare minimum, 10 times that in practices—and never suffer a significant arm injury? Pliability, for one thing, and the tutelage of throwing mentors Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, who he worked with every off-season in California, and the body work of longtime trainer Alex Guerrero. As someone close to Brady told me the other day, “He’s not retiring because he can’t throw anymore. His arm doesn’t hurt.” As Brady said to me a few years ago, “I’ve got the answers to the test now.” That’s not just the mental parts of the test. It’s everything.
Lastly, leaving the game better than he found it. After one of the most exhilarating wins of his life—New England 37, Kansas City 31, a whoever-has-the-ball-last-wins duel with Patrick Mahomes in the 2018 AFC title game—Brady left the celebration in the cramped visitors’ locker room at Arrowhead Stadium and said, “I want to see Patrick” to a team official. By my watch, he was gone for 12 minutes. I would know. I was working the locker room, but waiting for Brady, all the while with one eye on his wooden stool stamped with the Chiefs’ logo. Empty.
When Brady came back, he spent the first of our seven minutes together raving about Mahomes. The leadership, the poise, the will. At the time, Brady was 41 and Mahomes 23. “He didn’t have to do that,” Andy Reid said. “There was nobody there to see it. It was one veteran competitor lifting up one young competitor.” The message had a big impact on Mahomes. Keep doing what you’re doing, keep putting in the work, you’ll have a lot more of these chances. Brady reached out again after Mahomes sprained his ankle and hobbled through the playoff win over Jacksonville. Brady’s message: That’s what I’m talking about! That’s what champions do!
Mahomes, 27, enters his third Super Bowl this week against Philadelphia, buoyed by one of the great coaches in the game, Reid, who’s not going anywhere. Brady was 27 when he played in his third, with one of the best coaches ever, Bill Belichick, ensuring they’d stay near the top. I’m not saying Mahomes will do what Brady did and play in 10 of them and win seven. I sincerely doubt he will; Brady had only Peyton Manning among premier AFC passers to beat every year, while Mahomes has Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson if he stays in Baltimore. But of all the quarterbacks playing today, which one has the ethos closest to Brady? It’s Mahomes—with a mental assist from Brady.
Brady will always be there for Mahomes—that’s how much he respects him. He’ll be there for others too, now that he’s done. Brady will find something else to do now, but he’ll always have a line out to the players he respects. He’s done, but he’s not done contributing to football.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column