The system is football

Gangly. Weak. Too slow. Unanimous Super Bowl MVP. The greatest of all time. It’s the story of one Tom Brady, a man who retired, for the second time, this past week. In all honesty, he requires no introduction. He’s one of the most recognizable and iconic athletes in the US. Even if you don’t know football, you know Tom Brady. And yet, he began his career overlooked and forgotten. For the greatest player in football, Brady might have been the most undervalued.

But to talk about all that, we have to start at the beginning. Tom Brady was recruited by the University of Michigan in 1995 and didn’t see significant playing until his fourth and fifth years, spending most of his first three buried in the depth chart. His big seasons in 1998 and 1999 left him with a 20-5 record and two big wins in the Citrus and Orange bowls. He was, by all accounts, an excellent quarterback.

Except, he wasn’t. Not by the so-called "measurables," a physical examination given by the NFL prior to draft day. Brady, on all reports, was considered a late or ignored draft pick: too slow to make good passes, and too scrawny to take hits. He’d get shredded by the big defenders of the NFL, and few teams considered him to be a good pick.

And on draft day, Tom Brady dropped to the sixth round, being picked 199th overall. 199th. The man was never supposed to succeed. He was picked by the New England Patriots, a team that had little success historically, and sat down behind number one overall pick Drew Bledsoe. Brady was just an afterthought, in the off chance Bledsoe couldn’t play.

As luck would have it, Bledsoe went down in 2001 in an injury, leaving the door open. And with that crack, Brady turned it into dominance. That gangly quarterback won the Super Bowl over the Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams.

Two years later, he would do it again, and then, he’d go back to back. In four years, Tom Brady won the Super Bowl three times and cemented his legacy as an amazing player. If he’d retired then, he’d have gone to the Hall of Fame.

But he didn’t. He kept playing, and for the next ten years, he put on some masterful performances. In 2007, Brady went 16-0, with the first perfect regular season record of the 16-game era. In 2010, he won a unanimous MVP, the first to ever do so. He was great. He was in the conversations of the greatest of all time.

Except, in those 10 years the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl twice, losing each time to the New York Giants. That perfect regular season in 2007 ended with a heartbreak loss, and that 2010 MVP didn’t even see him sniff the Super Bowl. And a few people started wondering, what if Tom Brady was cooked? Maybe it was his coach, Bill Belichick. What if it was the defense, really, and not Brady himself? Maybe he was a system QB, someone who could play really well under a set of rules a coach came up with, but not in any given situation.

And then, the Patriots won another Super Bowl, taking down one of the greatest NFL defenses in history. Two years later, they did it again, in a game so infamous it still haunts their opponents, the Atlanta Falcons. With less than half the game remaining, the Falcons were up 28-3. A 25-point lead, a blowout, by all definitions.

But Tom Brady brought the Patriots back, scoring 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. And in overtime, the NFL’s Comeback Kid won his fifth Super Bowl Ring, cementing the biggest comeback in the big game. It was perhaps his best argument for his position as the greatest of all time. With five rings, he had more than any QB in history, and tied for the most for any player. He had done the impossible.

Then, two years later, he did the impossible again, winning a sixth ring. He’d brought the Patriots six Super Bowl wins, and, in 20 years, turned them from a perennial NFL bottom dweller to one of the greatest franchises in the league. He hung up his hat a year later, quitting the Patriots after two decades of success.

And then he won another Super Bowl. He took his talents to Tampa Bay, a new team, a new coach, a new environment, and within his first year, brought them to success they hadn’t seen in 20 years. It was without any of the resources that people attributed his success to. There was no Belichick. There was no system that he had been slotted into. The system was the sport itself. Tom Brady had won at football.

The greatest football player in history retired this week. He left a legacy defined by records broken, standards set, and excellent production. He’s the new benchmark, the QB every QB will be compared to. He left New England fans with 20 years of great memories. He left Tampa Bay fans a few seasons of exhilarating victory. He left us all with a record of amazing, incredible games. An era of football is over. The specter of Brady has left the NFL. And for the first time since those autumn days of 2001, the NFL is on a new path.