The story is infamous. In the 2000 National Football League Draft, the Patriots selected Tom Brady in the sixth round at 199th overall. His first season would be spent riding the bench behind then-star quarterback Drew Bledsoe. His opportunity came in the second game of his second season when Jets’ linebacker Mo Lewis drilled Bledsoe, injuring him for the foreseeable future. The rest is history.
Seven Super Bowl wins. Five Super Bowl MVPs. Three regular season MVPs. The all-time league leader in passing yards (89,214), touchdowns (649), and wins (251).
The raw data does an excellent job of showing just how incredible his career was, but to put his accomplishments in perspective, it helps to split it into two parts. In his first eleven years in the league, he won three Super Bowls in four years, passed for 45,264 yards, threw 338 touchdowns, and even managed a perfect 16-0 season. In the second half of his career—from 2012 to 2021—he passed for 52,305 yards, 372 touchdowns, and won four Super Bowls. Both of these halves are hall of fame level resumes, and surpass many of great quarterbacks in league history on their own.
His longevity and dedication to the sport were also second to none; he managed to play until forty-five years old. While most athletes playing to this age would stumble over the finish line, Brady was still among the league’s best throughout his forties. In fact, at the ripe old age of forty-two, he changed teams for the first time and won the Super Bowl in his first year with the Buccaneers. He would become the league leader in passing yards above the age of forty with 23,055: over seven times second place in this category.
Perhaps his greatest achievement is what he managed to do for the Patriots organization as a whole. Before Brady arrived, New England was a franchise with little national recognition, and was seen as a perennial loser within the NFL. There were brief moments in which the Patriots gave New England fans hope, but this was always a fleeting sensation. The high point for the franchise before Brady was probably their 1986 Super Bowl appearance in which they were obliterated by the Bears, who fielded the best defense the NFL had ever seen. A little over a decade later they returned to feature in Super Bowl XXXI where they fell to the Brett Farve-led Packers.
These Super Bowl appearances were nothing but a brief distraction from how truly awful the Patriots were before Brady. In the forty year span from 1960 to 2000, they only made the playoffs a total of ten times, six of which they were out in the first round. Four of these came under the stewardship of Bledsoe, meaning the pre-1994 Patriots only ever made it to the postseason six times. Division titles seemed to elude the Patriots during this forty year stretch as well, as they only managed to rack up a grand total of five. Putting together a winning season was troublesome for New England as only nineteen of these forty seasons yielded a win rate above fifty percent. This was a team lumped in with the likes of the Browns or Bengals as franchises who occasionally had good seasons, but would ultimately never amount to anything.
After Brady came along, this narrative was flipped on its head. From 2001 to 2019, the Patriots appeared in the playoffs seventeen times and made the Super Bowl on nine of these runs. This would also include thirteen trips to the conference championship, making the entire AFC run through New England. The Patriots claimed the division title 17 times, including an eleven year stretch from 2009 to 2019 where they won it every single year, and in that same nineteen year stretch, they never had a losing season.
Every Super Bowl victory is hard-fought and well earned. However, there is another level of difficulty in being able to drag a losing franchise to the ultimate prize. Brady managed to do this in his first year as a starter and never looked back. While much of the credit needs to be given to owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichek, Tom Brady was able to turn a backwater team into the winningest franchise in all of professional sports for twenty years. He changed both the narrative and culture around the Patriots, allowing them to be seen in the same light as the most well respected of franchises in the NFL.
As a Boston sports fan, I will forever be grateful for what Tom Brady has done for the Patriots, and the NFL as a whole. After twenty-three seasons of excellence, his retirement will be bittersweet for many, but I hope he can move on and enjoy all the benefits retirement has to offer.