Can you easily define a legend? Well, if you want the easy answer, yes. Our legends in sports and pop culture go by one name: Montana, Favre, Woods, “Sweetness” … Brady. Hear one or more of these names uttered and you understand at least a context for the legacy that travels with them. But even Jon Snow knows that to be a legend etched indelibly, you have to leave them wanting more. Enter Tom Brady, who has most likely retired after 22 years of service in the NFL. There’s something missing in this sentence, doesn’t make sense. Like many of the league’s most bombastic, game-changing figures, Brady did so much more than play quarterback. Oh, he played quarterback. Very well. Elite, you might say. Between his time with the Patriots and Bucs, TB12 racked up over 84,000 passing yards and 624 touchdown passes. His gaudy numbers are only rivaled by his gaudy celebrity: making iconic SNL appearances and cameos on daytime talk shows Hell, Brady, a man who socially distances himself from carbs, is a spokesperson for Subway. That is, as the kids say, fire. He has it all and does it all. Even for other starting quarterbacks in the league.
Now I can’t say that Brady did much for newly minted Super Bowl Champion Matthew Stafford. Their matchups came when Stafford played in Detroit: a franchise which pulls so much from New England except for winning. But, Brady elevated other elite QBs to god-status. Take Peyton Manning. Through the years, the Manning/Brady rivalry ascended to the level of a Celtics/Lakers, Yankee/Red Sox, and even a Kanye/Taylor Swift echelon. Now sitting here, in a post-Brady NFL, I think it’s the highest compliment you could pay Tom Brady, to say that he made the other players around him better.
So let’s look back on the Brady/Manning rivalry, what it meant to the NFL, and dissect a couple of the new rivalries it breathed life into. Every headliner starts as an opening act. And the Brady/Manning rivalry had its opening act back in the Fall of 2000, just months after Brady was drafted 199th overall in the 2000 NFL Draft. At the time, Manning, the former Tennessee star, was the established star quarterback, still unaware of what he and his counterpart in New England would do for an already immensely popular league. The Brady/Manning rivalry reached appointment status the way few other forms of entertainment do. Watching them play was the same as watching Jordan take on the Pistons, the same as the release of a new Paul McCartney album. In other words, when they took the stage, the whole world was watching.
But it wasn’t just that Brady, an elite quarterback, raised the level of play of his rival in Indianapolis, it was the story he wrote in the process. Brady became elite by winning, but he became a legend by how he won. All seven of his championships tell a story, perhaps one in particular you might agree stands out from the rest. After September 11th, 2001, America was in search of a hero, enter Brady and Belichik to step in and defeat the then Saint Louis Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI. Five years later, Manning led his Colts to a victory in Super Bowl XLI. From there on, the two quarterbacks traded blows in marquee regular season matchups that always seemed to carry a bit more weight than tilts with other opponents. All the way up to 2016, when Brady and Manning squared off one final time, with Manning in a Denver Broncos uniform, and Brady still in a Patriots kit. The rivalry has been about more than just a game, but an era. Brady and Manning faced off seventeen times: Brady took 11 wins, Manning 6. But in the process, they created a permanent legacy.
We’re in a new era. The next guys up, namely Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, will be the next Brady and Manning. A big statement I know, but the ingredients are there. For one, the two of them are fiercely competitive while still respectful of both the game and each other. They’ve only notched three head-to-head matchups thus far, two of which went to Mahomes and the Chiefs. But if what we saw back in late January is any indication, the NFL has its next Must-See TV QB rivalry. The way these two traded blows, unwilling to flinch in their playoff matchup, was every bit as exciting and enticing as anything offered up by their predecessors. At its best, football is an exercise in grit and determination. Brady knew that more than anyone, sacrificing his mind and body for the right to be called a champion. Seven times over. But what was more impressive was his understanding of preserving the health and well-being of the game. As the legends grew, so too did the understanding that the game needs great rivalries to keep it great. Rivalries ready to be inherited by future generations. The nascent of any great legend starts with potential. From there, it’s a matter of dreaming big enough to align with that potential. Brady had it. Manning had it. So does this new generation. Hell, even in watching it unfold, we’ve got some of it too.