When it comes to ranking the greatest athletes of all time, everyone has their own definition of what constitutes true greatness. Some define it by a player's individual achievements, others swear by stats, and some base it on how many rings grace an athlete's fingers.
For me, true greatness is winning championships at different phases of your career.
Case in point, the three greatest basketball players of all time: Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Russell won 11 world championships, dominating the tail end of the 1950s and ruling the 1960s with an iron fist. Jordan won six world championships, which spanned the 1990s from beginning to end. Bryant did the same thing, peppering his five championships throughout the 2000s from start to finish.
All three players accomplished these feats with different rosters, thereby creating unique team identities while they evolved as individual athletes. In doing so, they displayed their ability to defy the physical and intangible limitations of space and time that forced most other athletes to deteriorate. It's the ultimate definition of maturity, wisdom and poise.
So, where does Tom Brady fit into all of this? So glad you asked.
Brady won three world championships between 2001 and 2004, thereby establishing a modern football dynasty and defining a specific era of the game. The guy had three Super Bowl rings before he turned 28.
To put that in context, Aaron Rodgers is currently 28 and has one ring. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning also have one ring apiece, and they're 33 and 36, respectively. John Elway retired with two rings, Brett Favre retired with one, and Dan Marino retired with none.
If Brady's career was a three-act play, you could absolutely make the case that his first act qualified him as the Jordan or Bryant of football—or at least qualified him as someone who was well on his way to being the No. 1 quarterback in NFL history.
But his lack of hardware since 2004 has somewhat derailed his sole ownership of history's top spot. This is where the conversation gets tricky.
You see, it's all about how you define greatness. With the right definition, you could easily slide any of several quarterbacks into the top spot. Brady can own the No. 1 spot if you tailor your definition of greatness to meet that which you wish to put forward as your thesis.
I believe Brady is the best quarterback of all time. Problem is, my definition of greatness runs in stark contrast to that statement. It's a tricky loophole to dissect.
If Brady had a fourth ring, there wouldn't be a loophole to analyze. My biggest hangup with Brady is that he hasn't won championships at multiple phases of his career. He established a dynasty in the first act of his career then spent his second and third acts becoming arguably the greatest individual player of all time without winning more rings. His career path was strange, to say the least.
Let's step back and examine Brady's career accomplishments: Five Super Bowl appearances in 10 years, three Lombardi trophies in his first four seasons as a starter, two Super Bowl MVP awards, a record-setting 21-game winning streak which spanned 2003 and 2004, two league MVP awards, 50 touchdowns in 2007 that led to a perfect 16-0 record, three seasons of throwing over 4,000 yards and one season in which he tossed a whopping 5,235 yards.
Plus, Brady basically invented football in Boston. He wandered into town on horseback with a sheriff's badge on his lapel and laid down the law that Boston would henceforth be known as Patriots country. In the history of New England sports, Brady is the only one who challenges Bobby Orr as the region's most defining athlete.
Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. After that, the rest is up to your definition of greatness—or, in my case, the human error and quirks that accompany that definition.
Either way, is it so important for your favorite athlete to have complete ownership of the No. 1 spot in history?
Well, sort of.
See, Brady's too great to be ambiguously hurled into the all-time quarterback discussions as "one of the best." If your best is being "one of the best," then fine, that's your best. But his best is better. He should've had this thing locked down by now.
This is where Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI begin to get on my nerves. Had Brady just won one of those games, the facts would speak for themselves.
As of now, the facts only slightly speak for themselves. Just as my peculiar definition of greatness continues to muddle matters, Joe Montana continues to complicate this entire discussion.
Like Russell, Jordan and Bryant, Montana owned an entire decade. He appeared in four Super Bowls that spanned the 1980s. He won all of them. He did it with different rosters, too. In those four games, he racked up 1,142 yards, 11 touchdowns and didn't record a single interception.
Brady's Super Bowl record is 3-2. In those five games, he collected 1,277 yards, nine touchdowns and threw two picks.
When it comes to Super Bowl dominance, Montana has the edge over Brady. Why? Because Montana played his best football in the biggest games of his life. Brady hasn't done that in two straight Super Bowls.
It might sound insane to boil Brady's illustrious career down to a few games, but those in Montana's corner could argue that a player's Super Bowl performances are the only stats worth acknowledging in this conversation. It's a solid argument, given the fact that just one more Super Bowl win would've had this thing signed, sealed and delivered in Brady's favor. Tough to have it both ways.
Last February, the Patriots were seemingly blindsided by the Giants. But how? Nothing about this adversary was a secret. This is an enemy New England should've known pretty well. They lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, then again during the 2011 regular season.
Those losses should've given birth to a fresh game plan for the Patriots heading into Super Bowl XLVI.
Instead, Super Bowl XLVI played out in identical fashion. Even when the Patriots had the lead, the Giants were always controlling the tempo of the game. Super Bowl XLII, the 2011 regular season game and Super Bowl XLVI were all played entirely on New York's terms.
It's gotten to the point where I'm not sure if the Patriots can ever beat the Giants in the Brady era. It has less to do with physical football and more to do with mental football. I'm not convinced that another encounter would produce different results.
Conjecture? Sure. But the discussion calls into question the ice that flows through Brady's veins, while Montana is still sitting pretty as history's ultimate football assassin.
But, then again, the ultimate football assassin wasn't perfect. As fate would have it, the Giants crashed a few of Montana's parties, too. The 49ers lost to the Giants in two consecutive postseason games, right in the middle of Montana's decade of brilliance. The universe is funny, isn't it?
Odd, then, what a fine line this boils down to. Both Brady and Montana had dynasties, both had mishaps along the way, both are legends. But Brady's path is so peculiar and so mind-boggling, I can't help but lean in his direction. A dynasty followed by a series of seasons in which he elevated his individual greatness through the ranks of history. There's something very special about that trajectory.
That's why, despite the hiccup in my definition of greatness, and despite the Super Bowl stats that tip in Montana's favor, I feel confident in proclaiming Brady as the greatest of all time. That, plus the fact that Brady still has another few years to keep demolishing the history books.
So really, there's no right or wrong answer here. Between Brady and Montana, you're talking about interchangeable guys in the top two spots. Like I said, it depends upon how you dictate the terms of the scale. Objective greatness hangs on the balance of totally subjective elements.
Among Russell, Jordan and Bryant, you could make a solid case for each as having ownership of the No. 1 spot. Truth is, they each deserve it in their own way. The same can be said for Brady and Montana.
But while I give the top spot to Brady, the truth is that he doesn't definitively own it. Why doesn't he own it by now? He should. I'm being hard on him because I want that fourth banner in Gillette Stadium before he retires. I don't want him hanging up his jersey with unfinished business left on the table.
Truthfully, there's no way to know exactly what goes on in Brady's head when he falls asleep at night or when he sits in silence and ponders his legacy. He's a family man now, and he already has three rings; perhaps he's achieved everything he ever wanted. No one can say for sure.
But I hope that somewhere, deep down inside him, he feels a little frustrated. With any luck, that frustration will turn into anger, which will then turn into motivation.
We need Brady to stand up one day and say, "Enough."
Screw the regular season and screw the first-round bye. Don't give me 16-0 or 13-3 with a heartbreaking playoff loss and then tell me we had a hell of a season.
I can feel a 14-2 season coming in 2012. You know what? Keep your 14-2 season. I don't want it. Give me 9-7 or 10-6 with a wild card berth and go dominate when it matters most.
I couldn't care less if we have a great season.
You know who has great seasons? Teams that come up short in the end.
The Cowboys have a great season every year, and they still find new and fabulous ways to screw it up.
The Giants had a terrible season in 2011 and won the world championship.
LeBron James has an MVP-caliber season every year. Know how many rings he has? Zero.
The greatest players win championships, and they keep winning championships. That's why Michael Jordan has a statue.
But, then again, Bobby Orr also has a statue, even though he only has a fraction of Jordan's rings.
There's that pesky loophole again. Rings usually mean everything. But sometimes, once in a blue moon, you'll find that special athlete who defies everything that we hold as truth. That's the little loophole-themed universe which Brady and Orr have carved out for themselves.
It's not math; it's sports. In other words: Expect a Brady statue outside Gillette Stadium.