Tom Brady is more than the greatest football player of all time. He is a feeling. The feeling that no deficit is too big to overcome. The feeling that you’re never out of it. The feeling that you’re ultimately going to prevail because you have No. 12 at quarterback, and they don’t.
Brady accumulated an avalanche of accolades during his unprecedented 22-year career, headlined by seven Super Bowl rings, 10 Super Bowl appearances, and more touchdown passes than anyone in NFL history (710, including the postseason). But his ageless oeuvre isn’t defined by numbers or accomplishments. It’s defined by this: His surname became synonymous with another word, belief.
His teams possessed the belief they were going to find a way to win because Brady was on their side. The other team, even if they didn’t admit it, believed deep down that if they gave Brady a chance with the game on the line they were probably going to lose.
In the ultimate team sport, players on both sides believed one man was capable of tipping the balance between winning and losing, between elation and agony. That’s the essence of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady. No player in NFL history has been as synonymous with winning or more directly impacted its outcome. That’s his legacy.
No game ever felt out of reach and no opponent ever felt out of the woods with Brady practicing his craft. You were more surprised when he didn’t find a way to pull out a victory than when he did because you just expected the latter. That’s how I’ll remember Brady.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the chief beneficiaries of that Brady Belief, hit the nail on the head while saluting his former franchise quarterback.
“In a team sport like football, it is rare to see an individual have such a dominant impact on a team’s success,” said Kraft in a statement after Brady made his retirement official Tuesday.
“You didn’t have to be a Patriots fan to respect and appreciate his competitiveness, determination and will to win that fueled his success. As a fan of football, it was a privilege to watch. As a Patriots fan, it was a dream come true.”
I first felt this Tom-conquers-all feeling as a fan during the 2003 season, when Brady led memorable comebacks at Miami and Denver, and it clicked in my head watching see-saw Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers.
Later, it was a privilege to be able to witness it and chronicle it journalistically.
Like Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Brady felt inevitable. It felt like he could snap his fingers and change a game’s reality.
Of course, the apogee of Brady Belief is Super Bowl LI, one of the greatest comebacks in sports history and Brady’s pièce de résistance of rallies. The Patriots trailed, 21-3, at the half, in part due to a Brady pick-6, and were down, 28-3, with 8:31 left in the third quarter.
Finishing with 62 pass attempts, Brady led the Patriots to points on their final five drives, discounting a kneel-down with three seconds left in regulation, helping them secure the first overtime Super Bowl in NFL history.
Then Patriots safety Duron Harmon said after that comeback, “When you have the greatest player ever on your team, you know anything is possible. We knew it. We just had to get the ball back to him.”
It was Harmon who famously and defiantly pronounced to his teammates in the locker room at halftime that the Patriots would win. Former Patriots defensive end Chris Long told that story on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Zolak and Bertrand” in 2020.
“I always remember Duron Harmon went, ‘We’re going to win this game,’ " he remembered. “And I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Let’s just get a stop. What are you talking about?’
“But guys in that locker room believed it. I think that’s the effect of being on a winner long enough…You think you can come out of anything. And that’s what having the GOAT on your side is.”
Few athletes have ever inspired this feeling so regularly and so deep-rooted in North American team professional sports. They are The Difference.
It’s rarefied air.
Babe Ruth, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana — who was Brady’s boyhood idol growing up in San Mateo, Calif.: None of them sustained it for as long as Brady. In my lifetime, only Jordan made ripping an opponent’s heart out his métier like Brady.
The 44-year-old Brady’s final NFL game was fitting, even if it wasn’t a storybook ending.
On a day when he didn’t have his best pass protection, was missing key weapons, and wasn’t at his best, he rallied the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a 27-3 third-quarter deficit to tie their divisional playoff game with the Super Bowl-bound Los Angeles Rams at 27 with 42 seconds left.
The Buccaneers defense self-destructed to allow the game-winning field goal without Brady ever touching the ball again. It was the only surefire way to beat him — don’t give him a chance.
To his very last snap, Brady made teammates believe any win was possible. It’s too bad he wasn’t able to orchestrate his retirement with the effectiveness or flair of his comebacks. He deserved that instead of the farewell false start.
However he departed, Brady leaves as an unmatched combination of consummate winner, clutch performer, and prolific passer.
“Brady in Decline” was a talk radio show refrain back in 2009. Unlike him, it never came to pass.
In Brady’s final two seasons with Tampa, he sherpaed the Buccaneers to becoming the first team to lift the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium, and then set a career high in passing yards (5,316) on his way to leading the league in attempts (719), completions (485), touchdown passes (43), and passing yards this season.
History will judge the football cognoscenti harshly if Aaron Rodgers beats Brady for a fourth MVP award. The idea that Rodgers has more MVP awards than Brady is akin to Steve Nash (two) having twice as many MVPs as Kobe Bryant. It’s a disservice to and a distortion of the historical record and hierarchy of the sport.
Brady walks away as the NFL’s all-time leader in a category you can’t measure in integers or trophies – instilling belief. That’s the real TB12 Method.
That’s his lasting football fingerprint, and why Brady was one of a kind.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.