Yesterday we learned that Tom Brady and the Patriots worked out a deal extending Brady’s contract with the club for what is, by NFL standards, a pittance: ¬†3 years, $27 million for a franchise quarterback. ¬†The move frees up millions of dollars in cap space for the Patriots, giving them the financial flexibility that few teams enjoy. ¬†It allows them to retain their own key free agents with money left over to improve the team elsewhere. ¬†By any measure, it was a team-first move by Brady that ensures they have the best chance possible of winning as he enters his final years in the league.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/nfl/news/20130225/tom-brady-new-england-patriots-contract/#ixzz2M0goIX6s)said of the deal, “For the second time in his illustrious career, Brady is doing something players in this day and age simply do not do: As he did in 2005, Brady, a league source told SI.com, is signing a contract with New England that will pay him significantly less money than the market will bear, in large part to help the Patriots stay competitive for the next five seasons. ¬†Amazingly, according to the source, the deal is for an eye-poppingly conservative $27 million, which is less than half his worth by any measure.”

It’s a good time to think about just what Tom Brady has meant to the New England Patriots, and, really, New England sports in general. ¬†The answer: ¬†His impact has been nearly unparalleled in the history of New England sports. ¬†Let’s look at the personal statistical resume:

  • 2-time NFL MVP (2007, 2011)
  • 2-time Super Bowl MVP (2002, 2004)
  • Currently #5 all-time in passing TDs (projects to 486 by career’s end, which would be just 22 short of #1)
  • Currently #9 all-time in passing yards (projects to 65,172 by career’s end, which would be #2 of all-time)
  • Currently #8 all-time in completions (projects to 5,524 by career’s end, which would be #2 of all-time)
  • Holds numerous NFL records, including (but not limited to): ¬†Most TDs in a season (50), Most career playoff attempts and completions (887 and 553, respectively), Highest completion % in a postseason game (92.9% vs. Jax in 2007)

His resume when it comes to team success is also off the charts:

  • Most playoff wins as a QB (17)
  • Fastest player ever to 100 wins
  • Most consecutive wins as a team, counting playoffs (21, in 2003-04)
  • Only QB to start in five Super Bowls
  • 3 Super Bowl titles
  • Average season with Brady as starter: ¬†12-4 (actually a little better than that: ¬†12.3 wins, 3.7 losses)

There are other quarterbacks in league history who have done more in individual categories than Brady. ¬†For example, Brett Favre has more TDs, yards, and MVPs. ¬†But he has won just one Super Bowl. ¬†Peyton Manning has a higher career passer rating and has won more league MVPs, but he too has won just one Super Bowl. ¬†Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, conversely, have won more Super Bowls, but never put up the kind of regular season statistics that Brady has. ¬†Other players may have had better individual seasons than Brady’s best, but very few players have excelled at his level for as long.

I looked at a number of objective factors in determining the greatest QB of all time. ¬†I only included seven players in this conversation – all played in the Super Bowl era – because to my knowledge nobody else in this era has been considered in the running for greatest of all time. ¬†The seven are: ¬†Brady, Montana, Elway, Bradshaw, Favre, Marino, and Peyton Manning. ¬†I then used individual statistical measurements, personal achievements (regular season and SB MVP awards), pro-football-reference.com’s AV metric, and team achievements, like regular season and postseason winning percentages, and championships won. ¬†I also looked at both the peak (the best 3 year period in each player’s careers) and the total, long-haul, performance. ¬†I then ranked all seven players in seven categories that sum all this up: ¬†career AV, AV per game, regular season winning percentage, postseason wins, postseason winning percentage, conference championships, Super Bowl titles, MVP awards (either regular season or SB), and 3-year peak determined by AV. ¬†After ranking all the players in these, I came up with an average ranking for all 9 categories. ¬†Here were the final results:

  1. Brady – 2.1
  2. Montana – 3.1
  3. P. Manning – 3.6
  4. Elway – 4.0
  5. Bradshaw – 4.1
  6. Favre – 4.6
  7. Marino – 4.9

Brady excels everywhere. ¬†He has by far the biggest 3-year peak in NFL history, as measured by AV. ¬†He has won lots of awards, and his team success is off the charts in terms of winning percentage and playoff success. ¬†Manning has lots of awards and his AV numbers are excellent, but he is not helped by his poor playoff performance. ¬†Montana has the awards and team success, but his AV numbers pale in comparison to Brady’s. ¬†Bradshaw has excellent playoff success, but his overall individual statistical profile is weak. ¬†Elway has a little bit of everything, but not as much as Brady anywhere except in terms of longevity.

So we can see that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history and the greatest New England Patriot of all time. ¬†But to New England sports fans, he’s not just that; he’s perhaps the greatest athlete in any sport in New England sports history. ¬†The short list of all-time New England greats would include:

  • Baseball: ¬†Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Cy Young
  • Basketball: ¬†Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek
  • Hockey: ¬†Bobby Orr, Eddie Shore, Ray Borque, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk
  • Football: ¬†Tom Brady, Gino Cappelletti, John Hannah, Steve Nelson, Mike Haynes

Of this list, we can ask the question of which athlete was the most dominant in his or her sport, which one led to the most team success, and which one transcended their sport and perhaps impacted other sports.  This, as we all know, is not easy to sort out.

A first run through this list of amazing athletes would shave it down considerably.  Of the hockey players, only Orr makes the cut.  In football, only Brady makes the cut.  In baseball, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez, and Cy Young all qualify.  And all four basketball players make the cut.  That leaves us with this list of candidates:

  • Ted Williams
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Cy Young
  • Bill Russell
  • Larry Bird
  • Bob Cousy
  • John Havlicek
  • Bobby Orr
  • Tom Brady

That’s the list of the 10 greatest athletes in New England sports history. ¬†Now let’s look at each of these players with the three criteria in mind (individual dominance, team success, and transcendence).

Ted Williams – Statistically, he was one of the greatest players in baseball history, which is amazing considering he lost four years to two wars. ¬†He transcends baseball in that people who don’t even follow baseball know who Teddy Ballgame was. ¬†But where he falls short is in the category of team success. ¬†The Red Sox were at times pretty good during his career, but they only went to one World Series, with no World Series championships.

Carl Yastrzemski – His best year (1967) was one of the all-time great seasons in baseball history. ¬†He is known all over as “Yaz” and in that way he transcends baseball. ¬†But, like Williams, he never saw the ultimate team success. ¬†He played in two World Series (1967, 1975), but the Sox could never win it all.

Pedro Martinez – One of the most electrifying players of all-time, Pedro Martinez’ peak seasons from 1997-2003 was the greatest run of pitching the sport has ever seen. ¬†That is not an exaggeration. ¬†When you factor in the era in which he played (look at the offensive numbers put up during that time), it is astounding what he accomplished. ¬†He also helped lead the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years in 2004. ¬†The only thing Pedro does not have going for him is that his career in Boston was not that long.

Cy Young – I included him in this list because (a) he was obviously an all-time great, (b) the Red Sox won several World Series titles with him, and (c) there is a major league baseball award named after him. ¬†Not many guys can boast that resume. ¬†The issue with Young was that it happened so long ago, and he played the majority of his career for other franchises (just 8 of his 22 years were in Boston) that I don’t think he can be given the title of greatest New England athlete.

Bill Russell – He is everything that’s good in sports. ¬†He was a tremendous individual player (5 MVP awards) but also the ultimate team player and winner. ¬†His Celtics won 11 titles in 13 seasons, a mind-boggling number. ¬†He did not put up the statistical profile that other great players did, but he was so good at the little things that it more than made up for it. ¬†He is as elite as they come.

Larry Bird – A 3-time MVP, Bird led the great Celtic resurgence in the 1980′s. ¬†He had eye-popping stats and the Celtics won three NBA championships during his time. ¬†Boston sports was energized by his arrival, and he is one of the most well-known sports names in the country, even long after he’s retired.

Bob Cousy¬†- A great player in his own right that was part of numerous Celtic championship teams, he arrived before Russell and was the engine that made them go. ¬†But I don’t think he ranks quite as highly as these other players.

John Havlicek – Similar to Cousy in that he was an all-time great player and his teams enjoyed success, but I don’t think he quite measures up to some of the others on this list.

Bobby Orr РOrr was the Boston Bruins for many years.  He is among the very best players in NHL history and revolutionized the defenseman position.  He also won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.  His iconic leap after scoring the Cup-winning goal in 1970 is one of the most well-known images in all of sports photography.

Tom Brady РI have made the case above for Brady.  He is the greatest QB in NFL history and has unparalleled individual and team success.

Now, this list boils down to three athletes:  Russell, Orr, and Brady.  The others are great (and Pedro may be my favorite among them all), but the combination of individual dominance, team success, and transcendence puts these three at the top.  A case can be made for all three athletes.  But when you factor everything in, I believe that Tom Brady is at the top of the heap.  Here is why.

First, the individual dominance. ¬†All three players win big here. ¬†Russell’s stats weren’t as impressive as Brady’s or Orr’s, but he did win five league MVP awards in an era when Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest statistical machine in NBA history, played (and won 2 titles, people forget). ¬†Orr was one of the most dominant hockey players of all-time and put up crazy numbers for a defenseman. ¬†And Brady, as we know, holds many NFL records. ¬†It’s very difficult to separate one athlete from the other in this category.

Second, the team success. ¬†Orr won two titles, and Brady has won three. ¬†The Patriots as a whole have been better than the Bruins were during Orr’s time. ¬†But Russell blows them both away in this category. ¬†11 titles in 13 years is beyond phenomenal. ¬†It’s the greatest team run in the history of professional sports. ¬†That said, it was easier to win back then, for a few major reasons: ¬†(1) There was no free agency or salary cap. ¬†Once you had a dominant team, you could run with it for a long time. ¬†(2) The NBA wasn’t a large league at the time, so you didn’t have as much competition. ¬†And (3) By playing in series instead of a one-and-done playoff format, it affords the better teams an opportunity to have a bad game or two and still win. ¬†The Patriots, if they played playoff series instead of a one-and-done format, would almost certainly have won more titles in Brady’s era. ¬†But that’s not how football is played. ¬†Brady also has had to play in an era of free agency and salary caps, which makes it harder for a dominant team to stay together. ¬†Nonetheless, Russell wins here.

Third, transcending the sport.  This is where I believe Tom Brady rises above the other two.  Russell was an iconic figure, and Orr was legendary in hockey.  But neither played in a time where the New England sports psyche was at a low point.  Neither played in an era where every play you made ended up on television.  When Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game, there was a newspaper article about it, but there is no actual footage of that game in existence today.  Everything Brady does these days (vacations with Giselle, shouting at teammates on the sidelines, you name it) is covered by the media.  He is one of the most well-known athletes on the planet, which is amazing considering that NFL football is hardly a global sport.

But consider the New England sports psyche in 2001. ¬†The Celtics hadn’t won a title in 15 years. ¬†The Bruins hadn’t won one in 29 years. ¬†The Red Sox hadn’t won one in 83 years. ¬†And the Patriots had never won one. ¬†This area was in desperate need of a hero, of a champion. ¬†When Bob Kraft bought the team, the Patriots came out of the doldrums of the previous regime and made the Super Bowl in 1996 under Bill Parcells and a hotshot quarterback named Drew Bledsoe. ¬†Things were looking up. ¬†Then Parcells jilted the Patriots for the Jets and took Curtis Martin with him, and the Patriots began a slow decline under Pete Carroll. ¬†The Celtics were enduring their 8th consecutive losing season. ¬†The Red Sox had had moderate success, but suffered some recent heartbreak at the hands of the hated Yankees (1999 ALCS). ¬†The Bruins in 1999-00 and 2000-01 missed the playoffs and there was little hope for the future.

Moreover, the Patriots themselves were in a funk.  They hired Bill Belichick from the Jets, which turned out to be a tremendous move but was not exactly an inspiring hire for most Patriots fans, who only remembered his mediocre record in Cleveland.  In 2000 the Patriots went 5-11 and the Belichick era was not off to a rousing start.

But then Mo Lewis changed everything.

He drilled Bledsoe, knocking him out of the second game of the season, and Tom Brady became the starting QB for the Patriots. ¬†He might have overtaken Bledsoe anyway, but nobody figured it would happen that soon, if at all. ¬†Yet there he was, leading the Patriots to a game-winning field goal to win the Super Bowl over the mighty Rams. ¬†The New England Patriots, as Gil Santos said, are Super Bowl Champions! ¬†He – and the rest of us too – couldn’t believe it. ¬†What in the world was this franchise doing winning a Super Bowl?? ¬†It seemed to open up the possibilities for everyone else. ¬†They won it again in 2003 and then in 2004. ¬†And in 2004, when the Red Sox were down 3 games to 0 against the Yankees, and all hope seemed lost, what did most New England sports fans think? ¬†If the Patriots could beat the Rams, the Red Sox can pull this off.

Now, I’m not saying that Tom Brady led the Red Sox to that dramatic comeback against the Yankees. ¬†But the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Rams changed how New England sports fans thought about their teams. ¬†The impossible suddenly became possible. ¬†There was always hope. ¬†And in an 11-year span, the Patriots won 3 titles, the Red Sox won 2, and the Celtics and Bruins each won a championship. ¬†Seven championships in 11 years for New England sports teams, all starting with the 2001 Patriots.

Now Tom Brady is entering the final phase of his career, and to kick start it, he has decided to sign a contract for less than half his value on the open market, so that the team will have more money to spend on other players that will make the team better.  It is a bold act of a true leader, one who personifies winning.

He is a remarkable athlete, one who was not highly thought of in college or entering the NFL draft, and yet he rose above it all, leading a woebegone franchise to an unlikely championship, ushering in one of the great eras of dominance in football history, uplifting an entire region that was begging for a champion, and transcending the world of sports into global icon status.

One day he will retire, and the golden era of Patriots football will end.  There will be other excellent players that play football or baseball or basketball or hockey in New England.  But there will never be another player like Tom Brady.  We are lucky to have witnessed this first-hand, and we should never forget what this has been like.