By Ryan Croke
Out with the old, and in with the new: Tom Brady, the greatest to ever play the game of football, officially announced his retirement “for good” on February 1, and the new golden boy of the NFL, Patrick Mahomes, led the Kansas City Chiefs to a victory in the Super Bowl less than two weeks later, winning his second title in four years.
Brady’s retirement had been looming over the league for the entire year – after a month-and-a-half-long retirement the year before, he decided he wasn’t done yet, and came back for one last run in the league. His Buccaneers were swiftly eliminated from the playoffs after a brutal season that Brady likely hopes to forget. The question of who would take up his mantle is one that had been on the minds of many in years prior, but with the emergence of a new star with abilities unlike anything seen before, that question has been answered.
The NFL is officially in a new era of quarterback play, and Patrick Mahomes is leading the way. The 27-year-old quarterback, only in his 6th year in the league, already has a résumé worthy of placing him in the Hall of Fame. Winning the NFL MVP in his first year as a starter, leading not one, but now two double-digit comebacks in the Super Bowl, throwing for more yards and touchdowns than anyone else before him in their first five years as a starting quarterback– his accomplishments speak for themselves. He has proven his place at the top of the food chain, this year more than ever. The question has shifted from “who will be the best after Brady’s done?” to “is Mahomes already the best we’ve ever seen?”, and it’s understandable why this has occurred.
Leading a team that many expected to regress dramatically after the loss of a generational talent at wideout in Tyreek Hill to the number one seed in a loaded AFC is already an accolade that speaks volumes. Being able to take that team to the Super Bowl on an injured leg for the duration of the playoffs is nothing short of legendary. No quarterback since Brady himself has experienced such levels of success so early on in his career, but something with Mahomes feels different. Whereas Brady seemed to be the missing piece for an already loaded Patriots team when he won his first three titles (although granted, he was spectacular, and winning three rings in four years is not possible without a stellar quarterback play), Mahomes singlehandedly has turned the Chiefs from a middling franchise to a juggernaut in an incredibly short time, and their success is entirely attributable to him.
There is no denying that Mahomes is a generational talent unlike anything else we have ever seen in football, and his ability to improvise and pull off ridiculous feats of athleticism and accuracy is unparalleled by any quarterback to precede him. His most dangerous weapon (which can also be his greatest weakness) is his knack for making backyard football-type plays at the NFL level, and as long as he has the ball in his hands, no matter the situation, there is always a chance for an otherworldly play.
This is a gift that Brady does not possess, but as previously stated, this trait of Mahomes that strikes terror into defenses across the league has also proven to be something that can cause the mighty Chiefs to falter, and on more than one occasion. Nobody is perfect, and when Mahomes gets a little too ambitious, he often places his team in situations where they are now having to make up for his easily-avoidable mistakes. The NFL is a sport that does not allow for hero ball to have success for too long; the reliance of any player on every single one of their teammates makes trying your hand at such a playstyle a risky one. While his feats of individual excellence often make the highlight reel, when Mahomes gets a little too comfortable with his own talent, his team faces the consequences.
This is what makes Tom Brady the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. He was never the player to turn broken plays into 50-yard touchdown passes through his incredible scrambling and improvisation, nor was he the player to sidearm a pass perfectly in between three defenders to the back of the end zone. Brady was the best because he made the right decision at a higher rate than anyone else. He would never be making a throw off his back foot to a receiver in double coverage; he would have found someone else open in a pocket of space well before he could even find himself in such a scenario. When he got caught by a defensive lineman, he chose to throw it away or take the sack to prevent a turnover. He didn’t make 50-yard bombs look like a cakewalk every single game because he would rather go on a methodical drive with perfectly placed throws that wore down a defense and took time on the clock. When he was called upon, he could make the big plays just like any other quarterback, but with the way he played, his team was typically up by enough points that taking risks like that was no longer necessary.
Brady may not have had the individual ability of Mahomes to make circus throws look easy or to improvise and save broken plays at will. Rather, he possessed something greater: Intelligence. Mahomes is an other-worldly talent, but a football game will never be lost because of Tom Brady alone. The same is not true about Mahomes.
Brady’s technical ability is unmatched, but more than anything else, what makes him the greatest of all time is his savvy under pressure. Nobody was better than Brady in the clutch, and it would take one quite some time to list off each and every occasion on which Brady led a game-winning drive or an unbelievable comeback. But there is one moment that will be talked about for generations, a moment in which Brady cemented himself as the undisputed king of football: In Super Bowl LI, down 28-3 in the third quarter, Tom Brady finds a way to send it to overtime and eventually wins the game. That will never be replicated, and it’s moments like that that make Tom Brady the greatest quarterback to ever play the game of football. Patrick Mahomes may be on that track in the minds of some, but he has a long, arduous way to go before he can even be mentioned in that conversation because, for the foreseeable future, the GOAT conversation is on hold. Brady is untouchable for the time being, and after a 20-year career, retiring as an individual player with more rings than any organization, and as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns, passing yards, playoff wins, and so many more, he has more than earned that luxury.