HOUSTON -- During the buildup to Super Bowl LI, someone asked Tom Brady what he thought a fifth Super Bowl ring might mean to his personal legacy. He listened politely, making eye contact to convey he was taking the question seriously, then scoffed at the request to mull such a nebulous thing.
"I don't think anything about a personal legacy," the New England Patriots quarterback said. "I mean, those words would never come out of my mouth unless I just repeated them. Those things have never been important to me."
Brady might not have any interest in the argument, but before we put the 2016 NFL season behind us, allow us to make one on his behalf:
He's the greatest of all time. Period. Full stop.
Not just the greatest quarterback, but the greatest player in NFL history. Jim Brown was transcendent, Jerry Rice put up numbers that may never be broken and Joe Montana never lost on the game's biggest stage. Peyton Manning might finish with more yards or touchdowns, Aaron Rodgers with more jaw-dropping moments. But after Sunday's 34-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons, the greatest magic trick Brady has pulled off in a career full of them, the imaginary GOAT crown sits on Brady's head for the foreseeable future. Maybe forever.
"If it's possible to be humble and be the greatest of all time, he does it," Patriots defensive lineman Chris Long said. "He's the GOAT. He's the king of the petting zoo. There are other GOATs and other farm animals, but he's like the biggest GOAT. The GOAT that runs the whole petting zoo."
"He's the king of the petting zoo. There are other GOATs and other farm animals, but he's like the biggest GOAT." Patriots defensive lineman Chris Long
You might find Brady smug, or his milquetoast loyalty to a certain polarizing politician borderline infuriating. You might still be convinced his team repeatedly skirted NFL rules. You might even point to a spreadsheet that insists other quarterbacks are better, or could have been with the right coach or the right kicker. But you can't say you'd rather put the football in someone else's hands if the goal is to win a Super Bowl. He has given his team a chance to win all seven of the Super Bowls he has played in. That's astounding when you think about it.
"The guy is the greatest of all time, and this is what he deserves," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "He's shown time and time again, you follow his lead, he'll get us to the promised land."
When Brady held up the Lombardi trophy inside NRG Stadium on Sunday and screamed "LET'S GO!" with a mixture of euphoria and rage -- confetti raining down on him and sticking to his face -- it was the exclamation point on arguably his greatest second-half performance. Yes, the Falcons imploded with a turnover and some boneheaded playcalls, but Brady threw for 466 yards during the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. The GOAT debate has no credible counterargument, and several of his teammates were happy to remind him of as much.
After the final seconds ticked off the clock, New England running back LeGarrette Blount hugged Brady at midfield and pounded on his quarterback's chest with a fist. "You are the f---ing greatest, bro!" Blount yelled.
Later, in the champagne-soaked locker room, as Patriots owner Robert Kraft was handing out victory cigars, one teammate after the next came by Brady's locker to pay homage to the only quarterback in NFL history to win five Super Bowl rings.
"I know we talk about legacy a lot. We get caught up in that in our society," said Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater, who has been Brady's teammate for nine years. "But come on. He's the best quarterback in history. You put him up against anybody, he's still the best. Someday I'll tell my kids I had the opportunity to share the field with one of the finest men, [the] finest leader of football players, that ever lived."
We've seen so much of Brady's personality over the years, it felt like, prior to this Super Bowl, he'd shown us every aspect of it. Any of the following could accurately describe him: Earnest. Driven. Proud. Arrogant. Defiant. Whiny. Charming. Humble. Bland. He contains multitudes.
But during this Super Bowl run, Brady's seventh, he offered us something unexpected. He let himself be emotionally vulnerable in public. After spending more than a decade constructing a force field, demanding privacy and letting little more than banalities escape, he lowered his shields a bit.
"He's shown time and time again, you follow his lead, he'll get us to the promised land." Patriots safety Devin McCourty
It wasn't Deflategate that did it, and it wasn't the desire to stick it to the people who questioned his integrity. It turned out, instead, to be something much more personal. It was his parents.
His dad, Tom Brady Sr., whom Brady referred to as his hero, but in particular, his mom, Galynn, who has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Brady choked back tears twice in the lead-up to the game when asked about his parents. He mentioned how difficult his mom's illness had been on his family, and how much it meant to him for her to be at one of his games for the first time this season. When he sprinted onto the field for pregame introductions, he tried to point to her in the stands, knowing she was somewhere in the blur of red, white and blue jerseys. He dedicated the game to her and posted pictures of his parents on Instagram throughout the week.
"I had my wife, my kids, my parents, my sisters, my brothers-in-law and one of my sisters-in-law [at the game]," Brady said. "A lot of friends. It was a full contingent of support."
As devilishly fun as it might have been to watch Brady rub this Lombardi trophy in Roger Goodell's face, almost as a direct rebuke to the Deflategate allegations, his awkward handshake with the commissioner was instead a moment of grace. As Kraft was speaking to the stadium during the trophy presentation, hinting at all the drama of the past two seasons, Goodell tapped Brady lightly on the arm and extended his hand. Brady took it with no visible reluctance, holding the commissioner's grip for an extra beat even as Goodell gently tried to pull away.
If there was any lingering bitterness on Brady's end, it didn't show. He thanked Goodell for the gesture. The two men nodded, then parted. The final chapter of the ridiculous Deflategate saga was finally behind us.
Brady then scooped up his daughter, Vivian, and tenderly paraded her around the celebration, just as he did with his son Benjamin two years ago after beating the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
"He is one of my best friends, and we've been together for a long time," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "When we first started, neither one of us was married. Now we're both married, have kids, and we talk about things like being a dad and all the rest of it. I couldn't be more happy for an individual to come through this year the way he did, never complain about anything. He's a special person. He's a great player, but he's a better human being."
"I couldn't be more happy for an individual to come through this year the way he did, never complain about anything." Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels
After Brady showered and put a suit on Sunday night, he walked into the long corridor of NRG Stadium and made his way toward the team bus. His close friend and personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, the man who helped remake Brady's body, walked with him. Every few feet, someone tried to get a picture of Brady with a phone or offer up a congratulatory fist bump, and for the most part he obliged. Everyone, including a camera crew frantically trailing him, wanted the moment to slow down, but Brady kept moving. He will turn 40 in August and has vowed to play another five years, but it was impossible to avoid wondering, in that moment: What if this is peak Brady? What if this is the last time we see him reach the summit?
As he neared the exit, someone asked him what happened to his game jersey. He reluctantly said it had disappeared, likely stolen out of his bag while he was getting dressed. "It will be on eBay soon, I guess," Brady said.
When he reached the team bus, he bear-hugged McDaniels, seeing his coach and close friend for the first time since the game ended, and plopped down in a seat by himself near the front. He pulled out his phone, the glow of the screen illuminating his face. He didn't say much, even as teammates climbed aboard. Eventually he put his phone away and looked out the window. Even in the darkness, you could tell the GOAT was smiling.