On Sunday night, even before he’d notched his seventh Super Bowl victory in an emphatic win against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tom Brady had done the thing all true GOATs must in marking themselves as the greatest of their respective sports: He redefined the very way we calculate all-time greatness.
And in doing so, Brady didn’t just further cement his own standing as the NFL‘s greatest ever quarterback. He also opened up another lane for LeBron James to traverse in his own path to finishing his career, in his own sport, as the best of all time.
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That’s because Brady’s stunning run hasn’t just spanned 20 years, two teams, 10 Super Bowl appearances and seven Super Bowl wins. It’s also obliterated the notion, crafted by now-surpassed GOAT Joe Montana and likely-to-be-surpassed GOAT Michael Jordan, that perfection is required for this top-of-the-mountain status.
Yes, Brady’s seven rings are an absurdity of excellence, and alone make his case. But had he lost Sunday night — had he, in some alternate Kansas City-friendly universe, watched Patrick Mahomes pull off a win — how could you nonetheless doubt Brady’s Greatest Of All Time resume?
His run of 10 Super Bowl appearances, and the way in which he has defined two decades of football dominance, are enough. There’s no longer a legitimate argument that losing three Super Bowls taints him. They do the opposite — they are reminders of the brutal difficulty of even arriving in those games, and the rare genius that goes again and again and again. There’s no case that defeat to inferior competition — we’re talking about you, Eli Manning and Nick Foles — somehow diminishes Brady’s star. His shines alone, at least in his sport.
Brady, like true all-time greats, has shattered whatever narrative of perfection Joe Montana and his 4-for-4 Super Bowl record created two decades ago. In doing so, he’s also recalibrated how fans, including those beyond football, regard the assessments we make over time that puts one all-time player ahead of another.
The parallels here between Brady and LeBron run deep. Both had to pass, in reality and in the mind’s eye of all of us who together form the sports zeitgeist, a GOAT who had never failed in the Big One.
Montana was perfect in his Super Bowls. Jordan was 6 for 6 in his NBA Finals appearances, a mark of perfection often held up as the reason LeBron can never pass him. The notion is wrong, but deeply held.
Brady and LeBron also have had to fight the natural nostalgia of one generation not wanting to release to the next a newer star who outshines their own. Each has had 10 appearances — and counting — in a Super Bowl and NBA Finals, respectively. Brady just wrapped up another one at age 43. LeBron is very, very likely to win another championship this summer, at age 36.
Each also engenders a deep well of hatred from many fans in their respective sports, the kind that can blind us to reality and leave us clawing for any excuse not to award those we loathe the status they still deserve.
We could spend hundreds of thousands of words dissecting the tactical brilliance of both players. But each has also forged a new requirement for GOAT status, something that cannot be measured by an individual game, or season, or championship moment: durability.
Each player has maintained their palace atop the game, regardless of their coach, their organization, their mental fatigue or the young guns rising up around them. Brady was on full display Sunday night, with the entire sports world solely focused on him. But his moment echoed LeBron’s low-key and similar situation a few days ago, when Draymond Green spoke for all of us — as it relates to both GOATs — when he tweeted, “Yo why is (he) still getting better… how?”
Brady has surpassed Montana with little legitimate argument. LeBron has not done the same with Jordan, yet. But, again, Brady’s example of durability and the mental toughness it takes to keep at this level so long make the case compellingly in favor of LeBron.
The idea of perfection for our GOATs was always a lie. Brady’s mental toughness is sports’ most glaring rebuttal.
That’s because we know now, from Jordan himself in “The Last Dance,” that he simply could not take the mental toll of what it took to win, and to obsess over winning, year after year after year. He needed a break. He needed a retirement. Then he needed another retirement. He was tired. That’s OK.
But that is not perfection. It is a natural shortcoming of even the most stunning stars in a different, more narrative-friendly form. It is, on closer inspection, its own kind of defeat. It takes a certain fortitude to go on, as Brady did, nearly a decade without a ring — and then to push through that fact, through his advancing age, and win several more. Just as, with LeBron James, it is not a mark against him that he has lost in the Finals. Unlike Jordan, he has stayed for the fight.
If LeBron and the Lakers do this season what Brady and the Bucs did last night, the King will have five championships in 11 Finals appearances. And with what Brady has wrought — a world where GOATs play beyond the bounds of what was once possible, and championship failure is not final in a man’s legacy — there’s no telling where his own story will end.