Tom Brady is underrated. Markedly, possibly exceedingly, underrated.
Yes, I wrote the above sentence of my own free will and volition. No, this is not a hot take or faux content spewed out by some algorithm designed to obtain the maximum exposure on a google search. And by the end of this exercise you too may come to the same conclusions I have about precisely how astonishing Brady's career has been, and why it far surpasses anything else we have ever seen in this sport in its totality of regular-season and playoff success.
No one at this position has ever done more with less. No one. The always-revolving supporting cast around Brady has included few very truly special players or Hall of Famers on either side of the ball – and even fewer Hall of Famers in their prime in New England for any extended period of time on the offensive side of the ball. He's enjoyed none of the luxuries that quarterbacking luminaries like Peyton Manning, Joe Montana or even Johnny Unitas enjoyed in terms of dominant tackles and outside receivers and stellar running backs, save for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is certainly on a trajectory for Canton.
The reality is, Brady's one true advantage, outside of those he creates for the Patriots virtually every game he plays, is his coupling with football savant Bill Belichick as his head coach. That consistency and continuity cannot be overstated – only Charlie Weis, Bill O'Brien and Josh McDaniels have held the title of offensive coordinator in New England since Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001 – but it's coupled with the reality that every year Brady is asked to do more with less in terms of the talent around him. He routinely turns castoffs and undrafted slot guys into stars, goes deep into the playoffs in seasons in which Reche Caldwell, Brandon Lloyd and Brandon LeFell have been too targets, and he's managed to reach eight Super Bowls and win five despite being mired, by-and-large, with skill players who more closely resembled the limited units that we'd associate with the offensive rosters that held back guys like Dan Marino and John Elway (until the very end) from achieving postseason greatness.
When you begin to go back through the Patriots rosters during Brady's tenure there, and compile how much he has accomplished and who he has accomplished it with, it's staggering. It's part of why I consider him right there with Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky/Gordie Howe, Jerry Rice/Jim Brown, and Michael Jordan on the Mount Rushmore of American professional team-sport athletes (go ahead and throw Pele/Maradona/Messi up there as well if you want to go global with this argument). He is on the cusp of unseating Peyton Manning for all-time passing yards in regular season/playoffs combined next season, as well as total touchdown passes, while destroying Manning in postseason production, and doing so without going from Marshall Faulk to Edgerrin James or from Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne.
He's had no triplets to speak of – again, aside from three years with Randy Moss and the assorted slot guys Brady has created who the rest of the league passed on (Wes Welker, Julian Edelman). And when you compare him to others who have embraced the Lombardi with regularity (Joe Montana had Rice, Roger Craig and Dwight Clark; Troy Aikman had Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek; Terry Bradshaw had Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth) or routinely reached the Super Bowl (don't even get me started on Jim Kelly's supporting group in Buffalo, for instance), there is no comparison.
As it stands, Brady is about 6,000 yards behind Manning's career mark in the regular season, and he's 51 touchdowns back. Two healthy seasons away. Include the playoffs, Brady is less than 3,000 yards behind Manning in passing yards and on pace to become the first ever to hit 80,000 all-time passing yards in the 2018 season. Manning has 579 all-time touchdowns (playoffs included) to Brady's 559. Currently, the only qualified quarterbacks with a higher career rating than Brady's 96.6 (regular and postseason combined) in NFL history are Aaron Rodgers (103.3), Drew Brees (97.0) and Tony Romo (97.0), and Brady's 1.9 interception percentage in the regular and postseason is second only to Rodgers (1.6) for anyone who has attempted at least 3,000 passes.
But let's take a deeper look at how Brady reached this point, and who he reached it with. Here is the Patriots' leading pass catcher in each season since he took over as starter in 2001:
NOTE: Although Moss never led the Pats in number of receptions, he did lead them in yards (1,493 on 98 catches) in 2007, and followed that with seasons of 69-1,008 and 83-1,264. Gronkowski led the team in yards (82-1,124) in 2014, and had 1,327 yards on 98 catches in 2011.
So in those 17 seasons, the Patriots have had a total of 14 seasons with a 1,000-yard pass catcher. In six of those seasons no one reached the 1,000-yard mark (a moderate goal in the modern passing game). Only eight times has a Patriot caught 10 touchdown passes in a season since Brady became the starter; Gronkowski has done it five times and Randy Moss did it three (the only Pats receiver to do so during Brady's entire career). In these 17 seasons, seven different players were the team's leading pass catcher, and the bulk of the work was done by small slot guys, because rarely if ever has Brady had a legit impact deep guy on the outside.
Brown was listed at 5-foot-10, 196 (this is generous) and was an 8th round pick. Branch was 5-9, 195, and taken in the second round (he flamed out quickly after getting big money in Seattle). Givens was listed at 6-0, 215 and was as seventh-round pick. Caldwell (6-0, 210) was a bust as a second-round pick of the Chargers and this was his biggest season in a brief career. Welker (5-9, 185) was undrafted and unwanted before getting with Brady. Edelman (5-10, 200) was a college QB drafted in the seventh round. Notice any trends here?
Even if you dissect the defensive rosters during Brady's incredible, dynastic run with New England, it's slim pickings in terms of truly transcendent talent. Moss and Gronk are Hall of Famers, but no Pats offensive lineman will even be seriously considered, and as a slot guy who didn't score many touchdowns, Welker was limited as well. Save for the three years with Moss, Brady has never been paired with an outside receiver making anywhere close to top dollar. And no running back from this Patriots era will ever even be a Hall of Fame finalist; consider that Coery Dillon, who spent just three seasons in New England and last played in 2006, is the Pats leading rusher during the Brady era with 753 carries for 3,180 yards (a modest 4.2 per carry) and 37 TDs. LeGarrette Blount is second with 677 rushes for 2,917 yards (4.3 per carry) with 34 TDs.
The only Pats running back to last more than four seasons in New England during Brady's 17-year run is Brandon Bolden, a special teams guy. Only 10 Patriots have more rushing yards than Brady during his career in New England, and we all know he can barely move and basically just runs QB sneaks (557 carries for 968 yards, a whopping 1.74 per attempt!). It's a one-man show, people, in a way that is almost incomprehensible. As for true standouts/potential Hall of Famers or guys already in the Hall who have played with Brady on the other side of the ball, it's a short list, too – kicker Adam Vinatieri (five years with Brady), corner Darrelle Revis (one year), end Richard Seymour (eight years), linebacker Junior Seau (three years at end of his career), linebacker Willie McGinest (five years), safety Rodney Harrison (six years), safety Ty Law (four years) and tackle Vince Wilfork (11 years). It's Brady and Belichick, folks.
Here are the 10 leading pass catchers for the Patriots since Brady took over as a starter in 2001:
Quite a group! One outside receiver, a bunch of tiny slot guys, three tight ends (including one has been gone since 2009 and another who lasted just three seasons) and a running back. The turnover remains staggering, and to think that during Brady's entire career only three teammates have even 25 touchdowns receptions from him speaks to the nature of what he's been operating with (Edelman would become the fourth when he returns from injury next season). Faulk is the only one on the list to last even half as long in New England as Brady's 18-year career; Gronk next season would become the second. Only two of these players could stretch the field – Moss and Gronk, the two exceptions to this rule.
Then consider that Brady won a Super Bowl a year ago without Gronkowski and did everything within his power to win one this week without Edelman. And he's coming off an MVP year at age 40. We will never see anything like this again. Ever. The salary cap era has broken up the Patriots roster time and time again – as it does to all good teams – and the pieces around him continue to rotate and nothing changes, because Brady won't let it.
Hate him if you like, but to fail to appreciate him is to deny history and overlook the facts. He is the greatest ever, and it isn't even really close anymore.