Earning his fifth ring in this month’s jaw-dropping Super Bowl, Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady is thought by many to have secured his position as football’s “Greatest of All Time” (GOAT). Yet, the GOAT title is far from objective; the players who qualify and the measure by which they should be judged for this ad hoc honor is fervently debated across many professional sports.
Because of his career that boasts 456 touchdowns, seven Super Bowl appearances, five Super Bowl victories, and two all-league Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, Brady is a definite contender for football’s GOAT. Even other football legends stand in awe of his accomplishments.
Packers quarterback Brett Farve, who is the second-highest ranking touchdown pass leader, gave Brady high praise. “I think if Tom wins [the 2017 Super Bowl], and I never thought I’d say this, he surpasses Joe Montana as the greatest ever,” Farve said. Before this month, Joe Montana, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers through the 1980s, had held the record for most Super Bowl triumphs.
If the GOAT title requires overcoming odds and exceeding expectations, Brady fits the bill. In 2000, Brady was drafted in the NFL’s sixth round—a round often seen as an afterthought. Many teams saw Brady as a gangly college student; his 40-yard dash was considerably slower than other quarterbacks’.
“It’s not that we said we wanted to draft a tall, lanky quarterback that ran a 5.3 [time in the] 40 [yard dash],” said the Patriots’ then-personnel staff member, Jason Licht. “Those weren’t the traits we were looking for…We were looking for the mental makeup … Watching [Brady’s] tape, he was the guy that would go in and lead [the University of Michigan] back to victory.” The Patriots coveted Brady’s leadership skills after suffering significant losses in their late 1999 season. The Patriots’ undervalued pick paid off: all the Patriots’ Super Bowl victories have occurred under Brady’s watch.
Yet, if one determines a GOAT by individual accomplishments rather than team accomplishments, former quarterback Peyton Manning is in the running for the GOAT in football. Though Manning has only won two Super Bowl rings, he remains the clear leader in touchdown passes, with a career total of 539.
Discrepancies between personal and team achievements permeate the NBA’s GOAT debate as well. Michael Jordan has sported the crown as basketball’s king for some time. Jordan scored 32,292 points, won six NBA championships, and never lost a single finals game during his career. However, Jordan earned these six NBA titles during a time of NBA expansion, when new, inexperienced teams were entering the league. Some argue that the lack of seasoned competition and the overall strength of the Chicago Bulls diminishes Jordan’s legacy. After Jordan retired, the Bulls lost only two more games in the subsequent season than they had under Jordan’s leadership, raising questions about the significance of Jordan as a single player.
On the other hand, in 2016, LeBron James earned his third championship title when he led his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to their first victory in the team’s franchise history after a 52-year slump. Akin to the Patriot’s record-breaking comeback in this year’s Super Bowl, the Cavaliers came back from 3-1 down to beat the Golden State Warriors—a first in NBA finals’ history. Though James has not won as many championships as Jordan, his personal leadership and his ability to transform his team on the court may make him basketball’s GOAT.
An outstanding team player and an upstanding athlete inside as well as outside the arena may be overlooked standards for GOAT. Michael Jordan was by many accounts a ball-hog; while his miraculous scoring often made up for this, critics say his aversion to passing the ball contributed to his inability to break through the first round of the playoffs during his first three seasons in the NBA. If GOATs are determined by the greatest team players, John Stockton, holding the record for the most assists in NBA history, would come in the lead.
Likewise, in baseball, Babe Ruth is widely considered the GOAT, maintaining the third-highest number of home runs and preserving the leading slugging average of .690. Yet, using the team-player measure, Hank Aaron would need to be in contention for the GOAT since he holds the record for the most RBIs in MLB history.
Poor ethical conduct may weaken athletes’ claims to GOAT status. In the “deflategate” scandal, Tom Brady in particular and the Patriots as a whole were accused of using underinflated footballs in the 2014-2015 playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts. Consequently, Brady was suspended for the start of the 2016 season. Similarly, steroid scandals may obscure the accomplishments of potential baseball GOATs such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez.
Yet, retired quarterback Boomer Esiason disagrees, claiming that fans and sports analysts should judge players based purely on their accomplishments—even amidst controversy.
“[Brady’s] the greatest of all time. I don’t care what anyone says,” Esiason said. “I don’t care about Deflategate…I don’t care about any of that stuff. I just look at what a guy does on the field when he’s on the field.”