The constant question about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady used to focus on how he compared to his longtime rival, Peyton Manning. Later, it became a worthwhile debate as to where he ranked in NFL history. It was a given that Brady should be included among the top five to ever play the position. This year, with the way he's been playing, he's left little doubt about who deserves to be considered the best of the best.
Many people suspected the 38-year-old Brady would be more driven than ever to terrorize the league after being forced to defend his integrity in the "Deflategate" controversy. He's already gone above and beyond what many of us could've imagined. Along with generating ridiculous numbers -- Brady has thrown 16 touchdown passes against one interception heading into Thursday's night game against the Miami Dolphins -- he's adding to his legend with each passing week. The New York Jets learned as much on Sunday, when Brady torched the league's top defense for 355 yards and two touchdowns through the air (plus an additional rushing score) in a 30-23 New England win.
That performance proved, once again, that Brady's greatness isn't merely about statistics. It's about being more clutch than any quarterback in history and most effective when doubters sense weakness in him. Hell, he even led the Patriots with 15 rushing yards that afternoon. As Jets outside linebacker Calvin Pace said after the Pats' win on Sunday, "It's frustrating. That's why, one day, that guy will be in Canton."
The case for Brady's enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was made a decade ago, when the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years. The argument for his place atop the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks only emerged more recently. It became a real conversation when he claimed his fourth Lombardi trophy last season and people began realizing there's little he hasn't accomplished in this league. Let's face it: Legends like John Elway, Dan Marino, Brett Favre and Joe Montana all have to be admiring where Brady has taken his game.
This season alone could end up being the most brilliant of Brady's career. At his current pace, he'll amass 5,477 passing yards with 42 touchdowns and three interceptions. If he produces that much yardage, he'll tie Manning's single-season NFL record. The total for touchdown passes would be eight below Brady's career-high of 50, which was a league record when he achieved that feat in 2007 (and one that Manning broke in 2013).
What's most impressive about Brady this season is that he's once again shredding opponents without a dominant supporting cast. Yes, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is a phenomenal weapon, but New England's offense isn't stacked with difference makers. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell would all be lesser players if they worked elsewhere. And let's not even talk about what the Patriots have in their backfield or along the offensive line these days.
Brady's brilliance this year is best summed up by how much better he makes everyone else. The Patriots have been on such a role that their lowest offensive output was the 28 points they scored in a season-opening win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brady also has posted a passer rating of at least 104 in all but one of his games, including a sick 143.8 in that Steelers victory. Jets safety Dion Bailey had this to say when asked what makes Brady so great: "Anticipation and knowing where guys are going to be. He [makes] guys open. Guys aren't always open."
"He's playing at a high level," Miami Dolphins interim head coach Dan Campbell said. "He's been playing at a high level for a number of years now and you know offensively they're doing everything right. You talk about being efficient, moving the chains, not turning the ball over, finding mismatches. I mean, they're potent, and with him behind center, he makes it tough, challenging."
Brady still downplays his success for the good of the team -- "I just think there's got to be different ways to win every week, and I think that our team has always tried to figure out ways to attack teams," he said on Sunday -- but it's obvious that he's on a mission. That fact can be traced back to the private emails that emerged during the NFL Players Association's lawsuit to appeal Brady's four-game suspension for his alleged role in Deflategate. Brady made it clear in a message to a childhood friend that he was going to play much longer than Peyton Manning and leave no doubt as to his place in history.
The reality is that Brady began pulling away in this race a long time ago. Manning may have more NFL records, but his body has betrayed him to the point that it's hard to see him playing beyond this season. Brady, on the other hand, has only had one major injury in his entire career: The torn ACL and MCL in his left knee that ended his 2008 season in the first game. There's no reason to think he won't be healthy enough to play well into his early 40s, as he indicated in that private email.
Brady actually doesn't even need that additional time to secure his standing as the best ever. However, you can rest assured that he is well aware of the NFL records that are well within his reach if he plays long enough. He already has the most playoff wins of any quarterback in NFL history (21), but he also ranks fifth in career passing yards (55,312), fourth in career touchdown passes (408) and third in regular-season victories (166). Three or four more good years would result in him toppling all those marks.
What Brady has proven is that nothing can stop him. Not being a sixth-round pick (No. 199 overall) in the 2000 NFL Draft. Not sitting behind Drew Bledsoe. Not Spygate, a devastating knee injury or the charges that he played a major role in the Patriots deflating footballs for a competitive advantage. Every time Brady has found himself in the middle of some type of adversity, he's emerged stronger, tougher and more determined to show he's more than people expected.
That's what this season seems to be all about for Brady: reminding everyone of what happens when you poke a bear. We've marveled at the brilliance of Montana, the prolific production of Marino and the sheer longevity of Favre. Now it's time to really savor what we have in Brady. It's time to take a stance that long has been popular throughout the region of New England.
There are quarterbacks who have had bigger numbers and there are those old-timers who will always have their fans (like Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham). Please remember this isn't meant to be a knock on them. It's just that, at some point, somebody new was destined to come along and claim his place as the best of the best. That honor now belongs Tom Brady, who is making it quite difficult for the next aspiring legend to ever supplant him.