Like most megastar athletes, Tom Brady cares more about his historical standing in his sport than he publicly admits. This was clear in the emails that surfaced in the Deflategate back-and-forth, including one featuring Brady's forecast to a friend that he would play another seven or eight years to Peyton Manning's two.
"That's the final chapter," Brady wrote. "Game on."
He was believed to be referring to his rival's final chapter, not his own. But even if the 38-year-old Brady appears healthier and stronger than the 39-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback, Thursday night's opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers represents the beginning of a different end for the four-time champ who just earned his "one for the thumb" at Roger Goodell's expense.
Whether he plays three more seasons or eight, Brady's post-Deflategate years will stand as his last act. Having already vanquished Manning as a credible generational threat -- Peyton can't possibly get enough postseason wins between now and his retirement to measure up -- Brady will play out his New England endgame trying to answer two questions in the affirmative:
Will he supplant Joe Montana as the presumed greatest quarterback of all time?
Will he supplant Jim Brown as the presumed greatest player of all time?
If nothing else, Brady is in better position to nail down the undisputed title of GOAT than the fellow male titans of his era (Serena Williams is already safely aboard). LeBron James, with two NBA titles, will need to end up with at least five to seriously challenge the case Michael Jordan built for himself with six. Tiger Woods, stuck on 14 majors for more than seven years, might someday win a magical 15th, but he isn't catching Jack Nicklaus at 18.
Roger Federer has won the most men's Grand Slam titles (17) but has been so thoroughly dominated by his chief rival, Rafael Nadal (14 Slams, 23-10 record vs. Federer), that his GOAT claim is forever tethered to that maddening "Yeah, but ...." Alex Rodriguez passed Willie Mays on the home run list and has a chance to finish his career with more homers and RBIs than Babe Ruth had, but, well, you know the performance-enhancing score on that one.
Brady doesn't have a PED problem, even though Goodell helped lose the case against him by comparing his alleged integrity-of-the-game violation to that of a steroid user. And even if the NFL wins on appeal, those who believed in Brady's innocence won't be moved off their position any more than those who didn't were moved by Judge Richard M. Berman's decision to vacate the four-game suspension.
But if lingering Deflategate suspicions, coupled with covert Spygate-era operations, are used as tiebreakers in Montana's favor, Brady still has time to do something about that. He could win the fifth Super Bowl title his idol couldn't and add to the statistical advantages he already owns.
Brady and Montana have the same 47 regular-season losses to their names, but Brady has 43 more regular-season victories and 119 more touchdown passes (at the cost of only four more interceptions). Brady is 21-8 in the postseason with six victories in conference championship games; Montana was 16-7 with four.
Not bad for a California kid who once dressed up in Montana's 49ers uniform for Halloween.
Not bad for the 199th pick in the 2000 draft.
"Twenty years from now," predicted Dick Rehbein, the late Patriots assistant who had lobbied Bill Belichick to draft the non-prospect out of Michigan, "people will know the name Tom Brady."
They came to know the name long before that. Once a gangly sixth-rounder driving around in a yellow Jeep Wrangler, Brady quickly grew into one of the most recognizable men in America. He replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe on the first Sunday of pro football after the 9/11 attacks, won three championships in his first four seasons as a starter and, after a pair of gutting losses to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, finally seized title No. 4 in February, when he beat the Seattle Seahawks team that had blown out Peyton Manning the year before.
Brady didn't face the healthy, top-of-its-game Seahawks defense that Manning had to deal with, and he still needed the mother of all breaks -- Pete Carroll's decision to introduce Malcolm Butler to the world -- to avoid leaving Glendale, Arizona, with a 3-3 career record in the Super Bowl. But he matched Montana with a third MVP award all the same, and then spent the offseason dodging Goodell's all-out blitz.
Brady beat the commissioner in the courtroom, so he'll begin his 16th season in the league before an emotionally charged Gillette Stadium crowd fully expecting the quarterback to vent his offseason frustrations on the Pittsburgh defense. Truth is, win or lose against the Steelers, Brady has nothing left to prove against his contemporaries. Even the most ardent hater would concede what was obvious in the second half of the AFC Championship Game beatdown of the Indianapolis Colts: Brady knows what to do with a properly inflated football.
"It's time for me to do my job," Brady said the other day on a conference call with the Pittsburgh media. "Anything that's happened over the last seven months really wasn't my job. This is what my job is, to go out there and try to be a great leader for our team."
Brady's the best leader of his time in the NFL. So he plays against history now, against the legends from all eras, and if it seems inevitable that he'll surpass Montana as the sport's signature quarterback, it also seems likely Brady will challenge Brown (or perhaps Jerry Rice) as its signature player. Brown was a devastating force, but he played only nine seasons in Cleveland and was out of the league and pursuing his acting career before his 30th birthday. The length of Brady's NFL career will likely be at least double that of Brown's, and his position clearly helps his cause.
Quarterbacks are everything in today's NFL. J.J. Watt might have more talent than anyone, but no general manager in his right mind would pick him ahead of, say, Aaron Rodgers in an open draft of current players. Or ahead of Tom Brady, for that matter, even at age 38.
Of course, these are all sports-bar arguments that are never officially won or lost by the fans who debate them. Who can say definitively that today's quarterback is better than yesterday's quarterback, never mind yesterday's running back? And who gets to decide how much the Patriots' 'Gate scandals should count against Brady, or if they should count against him at all?
Perhaps the greatest team-sport athlete of all, Michael Jordan, was twice investigated by the NBA over allegations of high-stakes gambling, and twice cleared of violating league rules. All these years later, fans outside of Chicago talk more about the favorable calls Jordan got on the court (see Bryon Russell, Game 6, 1998) than they do about those not-so-probing probes.
Maybe football fans outside of New England will someday return to cursing the tuck rule and forget about the good bounce the quarterback got on Judge Berman's field. Maybe not. Either way, with the conquests of Manning (and Goodell) behind him, Brady knows he has one more end zone to reach.
Starting Thursday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on the first night of the rest of his NFL life, Brady competes exclusively against Montana and Brown and the greatest of the great.
That's the final chapter. Game on.