The G.O.A.T. is moving on.
The “greatest of all time” tag gets thrown around quite a bit these days, but it truly fits for Tom Brady and what he’s accomplished at the quarterback position for the New England Patriots. And while football is the ultimate team game, nothing moves the needle like the quarterback, and Brady's 20-year run with the Patriots is now over after dominating like no team has dominated in the history of football.
It’s certainly not a one-man show, and Brady’s pairing with head coach Bill Belichick is legendary, as the duo was capable of winning championships in slightly different eras as the league evolved and Brady/Belichick evolved with it. They had defense-centric teams, high-powered offenses, spectacular comebacks and also numerous disappointments along the way. But through it all, the Patriots established a level of consistency that is unmatched in the history of the NFL and perhaps in all of sports.
Let’s look at Brady’s evolution and how he changed with the times during the 20-year opus that ended on St. Paddy’s Day 2020.
The Early Years 2001-06
It’s hard to believe now, but the 2001 Patriots were the pesky underdog that America loved. Star quarterback Drew Bledsoe got hurt, sixth-round unknown Tom Brady took over and they hit hard on defense with a group laden with veterans. When Brady took the reins of an 0-2 team in Week 3, something did look different, and the Patriots went on to win the AFC East, earn a bye in the playoffs and defeat the St. Louis Rams in the playoffs for their first Super Bowl championship.
They followed suit with Super Bowl titles in both 2003 and 2004 behind a similar nucleus of players and Brady’s penchant for making clutch plays along the way. Even though those Patriots teams were known for their defense, they also had chameleon-like adaptability, as they were just as comfortable winning 12-0 games in the snow as they were winning 32-29 shootouts in the Super Bowl.
Brady’s performance against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII is one of the best playoff performances of his career, as the great New England defense was not on their game that day and Brady showed that he was capable of carrying a team despite his mediocre weapons in the passing game.
After three titles in four years, the 2005 version of the Patriots took a step back, while the 2006 version was an AFC Championship collapse away from another Super Bowl, but that season is known for Brady having the worst group of playmakers he has had during his career (they earned the NFL's 26th-best team receiving grade during the regular season).
Then, the Patriots evolved.
The Moss Years: 2007-09
New England made two power moves leading up to the 2007 season, trading a fourth-round pick for WR Randy Moss and trading a second-rounder for little-known slot receiver Wes Welker.
The 2007 Patriots were one of the best teams in NFL history, becoming just the second team to go undefeated during the regular season before disappointing in the Super Bowl against the Giants. Brady graded at 94.9 during the regular season as he set the touchdown record that year with 50, which coincided with Moss setting the receiving touchdown record with 23.
New England set a trend that year with Moss stretching the field while Welker dominated the underneath route tree while using a spread-heavy system that the NFL was just not ready to defend. This was the first year they truly put the ball in Brady’s hands to dictate the action, and he delivered with one of the best seasons of all time while accelerating the NFL’s evolution into more of a pass-heavy league.
Brady missed most of the 2008 season due to a knee injury, and he wasn’t quite the same for 2009. New England’s 2009 team was a shell of its former self, and young talent was needed to revive the program. Brady showed he was ready to carry the squad, but another overhaul was coming.
The Rebuild: 2010-12
The 2010 NFL Draft was one of the most important in franchise history. The Patriots drafted Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second round and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round to go with CB/S Devin McCourty in the first round. Obviously, the Hernandez story ended in tragedy, but there was a three-year period in which New England went from spread-heavy to a two-tight end approach that kept defenses off balance once again.
Gronkowski and Brady went on to dominate for nine years, while McCourty became one of the critical cogs in Part II of the Patriots’ dynasty. For Brady, we saw him win an MVP award in 2010 despite being forced to throw to Deion Branch and the two rookie tight ends that season after the Patriots traded away Randy Moss.
Brady continued to dominate with elite grades in 2011 and 2012, but the fourth Super Bowl proved elusive, as they lost to the New York Giants once again in 2011 and lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship in 2012. The 2010-12 stretch turned the Patriots’ franchise around and featured three of the best offenses of all time with Brady at the helm. However, the Patriots still had to take one more step back before moving forward.
The Downturn: 2013
Prior to the 2013 season, Hernandez was jailed and Welker left to go to the Denver Broncos. Gronkowski battled injuries throughout 2013, and Brady was throwing to the emerging college-quarterback-turned-wide-receiver Julian Edelman and a group of rookie receivers who played only a handful of downs elsewhere after their short run in New England.
Brady posted his lowest grade in years at 79.3 overall, and it appeared as though late-career regression was upon us. The Patriots still made it to the AFC Championship that season, but they were overmatched by the Broncos and they went back to the drawing board for the 2014 season.
The Rejuvenation: 2014
The downturn continued early in the 2014 season, and many people, including our own Sam Monson, expected this to be the beginning of the end for Brady. Even the Patriots hedged their bets by drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The Patriots started 2-2 with the second loss being a disastrous Monday night effort against the Kansas City Chiefs, after which the declarations that the dynasty was over were stronger than ever. This was the famous “on to Cincinnati” game that sparked the next chapter in the Patriots’ run.
Brady had to evolve one more time, and he did.
Brady’s Evolution 2014-17
For years, Brady was known for his incredible decision-making, pocket presence and short and intermediate accuracy. Those traits defined his game for years, but if we were to list his shortcomings, one would have pointed to inconsistency on the deep ball and a lack of plays being made outside the pocket.
During the 2014 season, however, Brady made a concerted effort to make more plays outside the structure of the offense, and he successfully turned that weakness into a strength.
In 2013, Brady ranked 30th in passer rating on plays lasting 2.5 seconds or longer and he struggled late in the down or on plays outside of structure. But from 2014 to 2017, Brady had the No. 3 passing grade on plays outside the pocket (83.4) and that was a big reason for his domination during this period.
Brady evolved his downfield passing as well, finishing with the third-highest passing grade on deep (20-plus yard) throws during that period, turning yet another part of his game into a strength. Brady added these two components to his repertoire while still maintaining his usual pocket presence, decision-making and short-area accuracy.
When you add it all up, the 2014-17 stretch was one of the best stretches of play by any quarterback in NFL history. Brady’s 96.7 grade during that time dwarfed the rest of the league, and he posted the two best grades of his career with a 94.9 mark in 2016 and a 94.1 grade during his 2017 MVP season.
The Patriots responded with Super Bowl wins in 2014 and 2016 and a loss in 2017 that saw Brady and the Patriots lose in a shootout against the Philadelphia Eagles. And even with the six rings on his resume, that 2017 playoff run that ended in defeat may have been the best run of his career, as he finished with a 90.7 passing grade while averaging 377.3 passing yards per game to go with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
Among the highlights during this period:
- Posted the highest PFF grade in each season from 2015 to 2017
- Led a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX
- Led 25-point comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LVI
- Posted 90.7 passing grade during the 2017 three-game playoff run that culminated in 38-33 loss to the Eagles
Even though the 2014 to 2017 stretch ended in a Super Bowl loss, it was one of the best displays of quarterbacking in NFL history.
One Last Hurrah: 2018
After analysts had been searching for any hint of a Brady decline in previous seasons, the 2018 campaign is when we first saw things look a little different.
It wasn’t the expected cliff dive that many have anticipated, but Brady’s penchant for winning outside of structure took a step back and he missed a few more throws than he had in the 2014-17 run. However, Brady still finished with the No. 5 grade among quarterbacks (90.7) during the regular season, and he had strong games against the Chargers and Chiefs on the way to Super Bowl LIII.
He didn’t play his best game against the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl that year, but he still led the game-winning drive and hit Rob Gronkowski in-stride to set up the game-winning touchdown. Even in a season in which the Patriots’ offense showed some fallibility, Brady stepped up in overtime in the AFC Championship and the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
It was the sixth and last time that Brady, Belichick and the New England Patriots would win a Super Bowl together.
The Final Chapter: 2019
While 2018 was the start of something different in New England, last season was a 180-degree change from the norm.
It started in a similar fashion, as Brady was the top-graded quarterback in the league after three weeks, but his play had clearly taken a step back, and this was made all the more noticeable by the lack of offensive firepower. Even so, the 2019 Patriots rode an easy schedule to an 8-0 start.
The offense then struggled to move the ball, and the defense ran into a stretch of good quarterbacks. Perhaps the day the dynasty truly ended was Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins when Brady threw an uncharacteristic pick-six and the Patriots were unable to stave off a fourth-quarter comeback from Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. The loss forced the Patriots to play in a wild-card game for the first time in a decade, and they eventually lost to the Tennessee Titans in a similarly storied poor effort by the offense.
For Brady, the 2019 stats look nothing like the rest of his career. And while his play did drop off after Week 3, he still finished the season as the No. 12 quarterback in PFF grading, which suggests that there’s still enough left in the tank for one more run with a good supporting cast.
It’s extremely difficult to sum up the Brady/Belichick run in just 2,000 words, and there will no doubt be plenty of books that will get into the nuts and bolts of the relationship hitting the shelves in the coming months.
But as both Hall of Famers move onto the next chapter, it’s amazing to look back at the 20 years of dominance that may never be duplicated. From Brady’s perspective, he landed in an incredible situation with a bold coach who believed in him from the get-go. And while wins are often more than just the result of good quarterback play, the position is the clear needle-mover on the field, and Brady and the Patriots won at a high level regardless of the situation.
Whether it was in games where the defense gave up 21-plus points, or in games where Brady threw the ball 50-plus times or in situations where a fourth-quarter comeback was needed, Brady has no peer in the history of the game.
Regardless of what happens in the future, Brady and Belichick have cemented their legacies as the greatest of all time, but it will be fascinating to see what happens when the G.O.A.T.s are separated for the first time in 20 years.