One of the most popular opinions that I've seen coming out of Super Bowl 51 is that Tom Brady can become better than Michael Jordan by winning two more Super Bowls in the next 3-4 years. That his legacy can finally go down as the greatest athlete of all time. As though there are more rings to chase, more hills to climb, and more achievements to rack up.
Is that truly the case?
First, Tom is about to be on the wrong side of 40. Now, some may say that shouldn't be a problem; plenty of other great QB's did play into their 40's. What's often forgotten, however, is that most of the players that do are chasing their elusive championships. Mark Brunell only won his championship as a backup to Drew Brees in 2010; it was his 17th year in the league, and far past his prime of play. Earl Morrall, after a long career with minimal post-season success, bouncing from team to team, lucked into being on one of the greatest teams of all time in Miami and retired after finding ring number 3 (at age 42). Doug Flutie and Vinnie Testaverde both played forever but neither ever grabbed the elusive brass ring (hell, for Flutie, even as a backup to Brady.) Maybe the only player who carried a long legacy into his late 40's was George Blanda, a player of a completely different generation (keep in mind; he was playing in the freaking 1940's.)
On top of that, there truly are no guarantees for health in the NFL. Even one of the QB's often seen as the most durable in the NFL today, Ben Roethlisberger, was mulling over retirement this year. All it takes is one weird roll on a leg, one unseen tackle, and, giving consideration to Brady's age, it could be an unfortunate and painful end to his career.
Those, however, are semantics. There's nothing physically stopping the normally extremely durable and reliable Brady from playing into the 2020's. Yet I must ask: why?
What is left for Tom? He stands on his own right now as the only QB in NFL history to win 5 Super Bowl rings. He has been the picture of success, setting both records and becoming the standard bearer for consistency with one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports, dominating the game for a decade and a half without reprieve. Think about that; since Super Bowl XXXVI, nearly half of the Super Bowls that have taken place (7 out of the last 16 Super Bowls) have featured Tom Brady; and over a quarter of the games (5/16) were won by Tom Brady.
The difficulty of this is not to be understated. Keep in mind that since Tom Brady's Super Bowl win, only three other quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Peyton Manning) have won two super bowl rings. Currently in the NFL, there are only 6 active starting quarterbacks (Roethlisberger, E. Manning, Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers) who even have Super Bowl rings at all, and how much longer do we really think that Ben, Brees, or Eli will continue to play? And even if all three do, is there any guarantee that any of those 3 (or even Flacco, Wilson, or Rodgers) can get enough Super Bowl wins to tie, let alone eclipse, what Brady has achieved?
It is insanely hard to get to a Super Bowl. What we have seen the past 16 seasons doesn't just happen. And if you don't believe that, ask the NFC; they've sent a staggering 12 different teams during that time (for reference, the Rams, Buccaneers, Panthers, Eagles, Seahawks, Bears, Giants, Cardinals, Saints, Packers, 49ers, and Falcons). In fact, for 10 straight Super Bowls, the NFC failed to send a repeat team! And that's not even to discount the great (or at least, good) QB's in the league today who have never even gotten to a Super Bowl; a list that includes Phillip Rivers, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo.
Tom Brady has nobody even in the ballpark to him right now. Maybe someday a Derek Carr or Jameis Winston or Dak Prescott will lap him, but that is a long while away. There may never be another QB as good as Tom Brady, that also has as much success as Tom Brady, for a whole generation of football in the NFL. He has silenced the doubters, he's forced people to respect him (as much as it even sickens me) for his accomplishments. It would take a true force of nature for anyone in today's NFL to catch him, and an even more perfect situation for anyone in the NFL's future to even come close to 5 wins and 7 appearances in Super Bowls.
Just try, right now, to name a current team that is built to even make multiple Super Bowls in the next 5 seasons, for sure, no doubts, no flukes. Even the only one that comes to mind (Seattle) has caveats, and Russell Wilson may not be built to have a career of over 15 years.
So could Brady stay and win another Super Bowl or two? It is possible. It's unfortunately also possible that an errant tackle could break a rib, that he could get concussed, or tear an ACL, and for what? What is left for him at this point to put his body on the line? Age and health are non-negotiable; Brady (like him or hate him) is his own brand and has already basically told the NFL to personally stick it. He's been the villain and the conquering hero, he's dominated and made the greatest comeback of all time, he's already got massive media deals in hand (even being featured in a damn commercial for the Super Bowl he played in, which unless you already signed your soul to the Papa John's Devil, you really don't get to do).
I don't see another dragon left to slay. To me, it's almost poetic; walk away from the game of football after winning the Super Bowl that cemented you as the greatest of all time. There will be spots in front offices, on coaching staffs, in the booths, or pretty much anywhere Brady would want. He's been fortunate to be both extremely successfully and extremely healthy; his legacy is essentially untouchable. In a sport where one play can end your career and possibly leave you with long-term pain in retirement, you don't get handed a much better time to walk away from the game.
And I think it's time.