Tom Brady is retiring after 22 years. The New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is widely celebrated as the greatest quarterback of all time.
Sports in general doesn't allow for much nuance.
The golfer who wins the most majors is the greatest golfer of all time. Similar, the tennis player who wins the most majors is the best ever. It makes some sense in those sports. They are individual sports where it's one-versus-one in every match. While there may be elements of luck, both of those sports also are played out over very large samples over time.
Problems emerge when this lack of nuance is transferred to team sports. Especially team sports played over small samples.
Tom Brady is retiring after 22 years in the NFL. He played 365 games in his career, one for each day of the calendar year. In those games, he doesn't play on defence or special teams. So he's immediately not involved in more than half of the actual game. And since there are 22 players on the field for each play, his impact on the outcome of the game is larger than most players but still in a severe minority.
If the quarterback position has 10% of the impact on the result of each game, it's a lot.
Compare this to the NBA, where there are only five players on the field, the best players can play more than 75% of the minutes on the court and they play more than 82 games per season. Lebron James had played more than 400 NBA games by the time he was 23 years old.
James is at 1,346 games in his career. Games where he has a greater impact on the outcome of the game than any quarterback. So while it's still crazy to just count rings in the NBA, it's at least more logical than in the NFL. Brady is the GOAT in NFL because of his rings. And while he's clearly one of the best quarterbacks ever, the context of those wins makes it hard to call him the best ever because of them.
Brady's initial success in the NFL was as a young, game manager. Bill Belichick built some of the best defences in NFL history and rode them to success. During his prime, the identity of the Patriots shifted so Brady became a greater focal point of the team's identity.
This was when he proved himself as one of the league's great quarterbacks. He put up huge numbers with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Rob Gronkowski then came in as his next hall of fame supporting cast member. The Patriots were consistently the most talented and best coached team in the AFC, so reaching Super Bowls was a minimum expectation.
Part of the argument for Brady being great is that he never had a great supporting cast. That's a self-fulfilling argument because Brady was always given the credit for their performances. But even without arguing the different details of the receivers and tight ends he played with over the years, Brady had two things no quarterback outside of him ever had.
Dante Scarnecchia isn't a name anyone outside of hardcore football fans know. Scarnecchia was the New England Patriots offensive line coach for more than a decade. He repeatedly took unknown names and turned them into stars. Scarnecchia is the rare offensive line coach who was so good at his job he became a household name for football media.
Most quarterbacks are lucky to have a top-five offensive line once or maybe twice in their careers. Brady essentially had one every single year because of Scarnecchia.
But what about that year the Broncos ate him alive in the playoffs?
Scarnecchia retired before that season. Bill Belichick talked him into returning after seeing how far his linemen dropped off without him. It immediately had an impact as the Patriots won the Super Bowl the following season. In that infamous Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl where the Atlanta Falcons imploded, James White scored touchdown after touchdown while Brady made mistake after mistake that ultimately went unpunished.
Finding offensive linemen is incredibly difficult. Teams spend very high draft picks and huge money on them in free agency. And they still often fail. With Scarnecchia, the Patriots could spend less and gain more on their line.
The offensive line as a unit is the foundation of your offence. It plays a huge role in the running game and determines how often your quarterback has to play against pressure. Most quarterbacks are effective against no pressure, it takes a great quarterback to be consistently good against constant pressure.
Behind a great offensive line, you can wait for your receivers to come fully open before releasing the ball. You can run whatever type of play that you want.
Having that offensive line with a great quarterback like Brady elevated everyone on the Patriots offence. Then, defensively, the Patriots have the greatest coach ever. A coach who developed himself on the defensive side of the ball and excels at game-planning against the best offences in the league.
Brady individually is still a superstar player and one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. But whenever he faced a Peyton Manning or an Aaron Rodgers, he more often than not had the most important advantages in his supporting casts. Both of those quarterbacks were essentially carrying kettlebells while racing a weight-free Brady up a hill.
If you were to swap Rodgers or Manning in for Brady, rather than have them work with the likes of Tony Dungy and Mike McCarthy, you wouldn't be able to immediately assume they'd win fewer rings than him.
And that's ultimately the problem. The rings argument just dilutes all the detail of the individual performance. With such small samples each season, and since this is one of the more interdependent sports in the world, there are far too many factors to actually have the debate.
Regardless of whether he's the greatest quarterback ever or not, Brady will be a deserved first-ballot hall-of-fame inductee and most likely the most famous NFL player of all time.