You can frame Tom Brady’s career in numbers, and there are so many from which to choose. Start with four Super Bowl titles, tied for the most in NFL history. Or seven Super Bowl appearances, more than any other quarterback. Or 456, the number of touchdown passes he’s thrown, more than all but three others.
But we pause here, now that Brady has continued his relentless assault on just about every statistical accomplishment that a quarterback can produce, to frame his spectacularly long-lasting run in terms of people. Specifically, the people he has played with and against since emerging as a star in the 2001 season.
Most of those people are no longer in the NFL, and most of the ones who are left are nearing the end of their careers.
When Brady won his first Super Bowl at the end of his first season as a starter, the opposing quarterback was the Rams’ Kurt Warner, now 45 and a broadcaster for the NFL Network.
Jake Delhomme, now 42, was his second victim two years later. He hasn’t played in five years.
Donovan McNabb was the third to be beaten in a Super Bowl by Brady. He’s 40 and last played in 2011.
Eli Manning, the only man to beat Brady in a Super Bowl, is 36, and the Giants are talking about finding his successor.
And how about all the people Brady has played alongside? Troy Brown and David Patten were his receivers in his first Super Bowl. So many other names, too. Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest. Deion Branch. Troy Brown. Randy Moss. Corey Dillon. And don’t forget the immortal receivers Bethel Johnson and Jabbar Gaffney. They’re all long gone from the NFL, with Bruschi, Moss and McGinest now covering the NFL as television analysts and the rest either in their late 30s or early 40s.
Brady has outlasted them all.
Now he prepares to face another great quarterback, perhaps the best he’s faced since Manning beat him in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Matt Ryan is in the midst of what likely will be his first MVP season. He’s as hot as any quarterback in any season, having just conquered the great Aaron Rodgers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Perhaps this is the best way to appreciate just how long and how dominant Brady has been: He won his first Super Bowl title when Ryan — now 31 — was 16.
Brady has been through just about everything imaginable in his career, celebrated for his athletic achievement, vilified for his alleged role in the infamous Deflategate scandal, which began in the last AFC Championship Game played at Gillette Stadium before Sunday night’s 36-17 beatdown of the Steelers.
After being suspended for the first four games this season, he returned with a singular focus and put together one of his most magnificent years with 28 TD passes and two interceptions. And now he’s within one win of becoming the first quarterback to win five Super Bowl titles.
He insists vindication is not on his mind, even though he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t think just a little bit about what it would be like to deliver a figurative shove to Roger Goodell by winning Super Bowl LI.
Goodell himself was conspicuous by his absence Sunday, deciding to attend the NFC title game instead. But the fans didn’t forget, and they serenaded the commissioner late in the game with chants of “Ro-ger! Ro-ger!” and “Where is Ro-ger?’’
Brady insisted he didn’t hear it. And he insists there’s no extra motivation to win it all, especially in the same season as his suspension.
“No, this is my motivation, all these fellas in front of me and all these fans who got to see it today,” Brady said at a podium on the field after the game. “The boys showed up and played today. We’ve got to do that in two weeks.”
Another Super Bowl title would be the ultimate conclusion to yet another great season.
“We won a lot of different ways under a lot of different circumstances,” he said of this year’s team. “It’s mental toughness. This team’s got it. We’ll see if we can write the perfect ending in a couple of weeks. It’s going to be a hell of a game.”
When Tom Brady steps on the NRG Stadium field on Feb. 5, he will stand alone as the player with the most Super Bowl appearances. Here are the quarterbacks with the most appearances:
7 Tom Brady
5 John Elway
4 Terry Bradshaw