Two Collegian staff members debate the merits of Brady and the title “Greatest of All Time.”
As Super Bowl LIII draws closer, new claims about Tom Brady are being made. Some say that with his five Super Bowl titles and his upcoming sixth attempt, he’s the greatest of all time (GOAT), but I don’t believe he is. Why don’t I believe this despite the Patriots’ dominance providing what many believe is overwhelming evidence? Simple. Tom Brady can’t be the GOAT because there is no GOAT.
Before we can get into why I believe there are no GOATs, let’s take a look at the term. GOAT entered the popular vernacular with the title for LL Cool J’s 2000 album, which played off a popular name of Muhammad Ali. From there, it picked up some popularity online, earning an Urban Dictionary entry in 2003. Its popularity in sports is more recent, with the “GOAT Index” for NBA players coming out as recently as 2016. That is a mathematical formula that averages just about every statistic in basketball you can think of (rebounds, assists, free throw percentage, steals, blocks, etc.) and comes up with the best player overall based purely on statistics.
When the term first came into usage in comparing NFL players, ESPN decided the best way to quantify the GOAT was to have 10 coaches/talking heads/knowledgeable NFL fans vote on the top 10 quarterbacks from 1978 on, the most empirical methodology ever used. In ESPN’s “GOAT Index,” Brady came out on top, with Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and John Elway close behind. The flaw in this index is that ESPN’s methodology betrays what most usages of GOAT in sports imply: the title is completely subjective.
There is no way to accurately compare quarterbacks from different eras, let alone different teams. A quarterback is not like a figure skater; they are only as good as their running backs and lineman. You can try for all the big plays you want, but if you keep getting sacked because your offensive line can’t keep it together, it doesn’t matter.
Extrapolate that for quarterbacks in different eras. The rules of the NFL are always changing. Between Montana’s start and Brady’s, two-point conversions were added, chop blocks were banned and two additional wild cards entered the playoffs. In addition, passing attempts overall are increasing, and as the strategy changes, so do the stats. If overall passing attempts increase, so should the average yards per quarterback, leading to inflated statistics.
If the stats are changing and the trends are changing so what was once less common is now the de facto coaching strategy, those statistics that show current NFL quarterbacks leading the lifetime statistics don’t hold as much value. If you can’t compare quarterbacks throughout different eras, then there is no way to definitively state Brady is the greatest of all time. The greatest of our time could be argued, but a quarterback is still only as good as his team. Sure, Tom Brady might be a good quarterback, a great one even considering his five Super Bowl rings, but he sure isn’t the greatest of all time.
Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl, and that means it’s almost time for everyone’s favorite annual senseless sports debate: is number 12 the GOAT? I maintain that the answer is an obvious “yes” because I’m not a hater or contrarian, but inevitably you’ll encounter some doofus over the coming weeks who will scream in your face about Peyton Manning having more MVPs, or Drew Brees more 5,000-yard seasons or Aaron Rodgers a higher passer rating.
Even worse will be if Brady and the Pats lose in the Super Bowl, which shouldn’t affect his legacy one iota but will surely queue your drunk uncle into his favorite argument that “Joe Montana never lost in a Super Bowl!” Never mind that Brady would still have two more wins and three times Montana’s appearances in this scenario, because apparently losing before the championship game is much worse than losing in it.
But I don’t want to rehash these discussions, because they are the sports equivalent of arguing with a flat-Earther. More interesting is debating the concept of the GOAT (Greatest of All Time, for those who spent the first paragraph wondering why I was comparing a bunch of quarterbacks to a capitalized farm animal). Is there such a thing? How do we determine it? Is it possible to judge players from different eras?
Obviously there is no objective way to determine if somebody is the best that ever played, but if that’s your argument against the existence of the concept of the GOAT, you’re just being pedantic. Discussion and debate is as much a part of sports fandom (arguably more) than watching the games, and as long as we love sports, we’re going to want to rank our favorite players and teams. Trying to prevent people from doing that is about as fruitless as attempting to stop the sun from rising.
Of course, not everybody is always going to have the same criteria for what constitutes the “greatest,” and that’s part of the fun! For some, it might be the athlete who reached the highest peak, for others the one who was able to maintain a consistent level of excellence over the longest period of time. Most people (like me) have some sort of ill-defined mental formula that weighs these factors in addition to accomplishments, impact on team success and possession of an iron jaw of justice. But just because it’s ultimately a subjective endeavor, that doesn’t mean the concept itself is moot.
My all-time least favorite argument against the GOAT is the “can’t compare across eras” thing. Anybody with a rudimentary understanding of athletic history knows that humans have become more accomplished as training, competition and the games themselves have evolved. Babe Ruth couldn’t handle a modern slider or triple-digit heat. Bob Cousy couldn’t shoot or dribble well enough for today’s NBA. That’s fine! Can’t we just base our arguments on how good athletes were compared to the ones they played against?
What this comes down to is that talking about the GOAT is fun. Why on Earth would you want to take the wind out of everybody’s sails just because there’s no definitive answer? Subjectivity isn’t a bad thing. Except when it comes to Brady. Brady is the GOAT.