Tom Brady Could’ve Gone Out Perfectly On Top in 2020. Even 2021 Would’ve Been Okay. Instead, we Got 2022.

Tom Brady had a chance to go out on top after winning Super Bowl LV, but played two more seasons and struggled mightily in his final campaign in 2022.

It’s over. Finally, it’s over (or so he says). Tom Brady, after 23 years in the NFL, is retiring. After perhaps the most storied career in the history of the NFL, Brady is stepping away — but is he really going out on top, as they say? In short, the answer is no. That ship sailed after 2020, and even after 2021. What we witnessed in 2022 was a sad ending to a magical ride.

I write this piece not to criticize Brady in any way. It’s easy for us as fans and media members to say a player should do this or that, but only that athlete gets to make that decision for himself. Brady’s undying passion for football kept him playing into his mid-40s, an incredible feat that we may never see again. But when we witness a career like Brady’s, it’s natural for us to want to see its ending mirror its storybook beginning. And no one’s career beginning — or middle, or almost-end — was or will ever be as storybook as Brady’s.

But, had Brady called it quits after 2020, it would have been the perfect ending for so many reasons, the most obvious of course which is winning the Super Bowl. But as we get into the numbers momentarily, it would have been the perfect closure to every possible statistical angle you could take. Brady himself long spoke of not caring about “legacy,” and 2022 proved that. Even when Brady returned for 2021 and lost in the divisional round, he would have left us all with the memory of a nearly-improbable comeback on the heels of a 13-4 season, which included a wild card win.

But Tom Brady and football are joined at the top. Brady chose to come back, clearly risking his marriage and his own health given that the Bucs’ offensive line was decimated by injuries. The run came to an end with Brady’s first losing season — ever, at any level — and an even uglier playoff loss to the Cowboys, whom Brady had never lost to in his career.

Oh, Tom. Why couldn’t you leave on a high note?

Let’s dive into every cool statistical anomaly that Brady could have walked away with had he just left well enough alone:

The obvious

Brady’s 2020 Super Bowl win, which was the first-ever “home” Super Bowl to boot, gave him seven, more than any other franchise in the NFL — including the Patriots, whom he captained to the first six of those. Brady also became the first QB to win a Super Bowl in both conferences, and joined Peyton Manning as the only QBs to win Super Bowls for two different teams period. Brady could have joined a short but elite list of QBs who won Super Bowls in their final season: John Elway and Peyton Manning. At that point, of course, Brady had never had a losing season and missed the postseason just once in full seasons he played (2002). Brady’s 2020 season ended with a long winning streak (eight games), much like his first Super Bowl winning season (nine games).

The rally

Every post-Super Bowl year for Brady was different — literally. If you think about it, there are six scenarios in which a team’s season can end: 1) Miss the postseason; 2) Lose in the Wild Card round; 3) Lose in the Divisional Round; 4) Lose in the Championship Game; 5) Lose in the Super Bowl; 6) Win the Super Bowl. Brady encapsulated the whole enchilada, experiencing each result after each of his first six Super Bowl wins. As it turns out, there is actually a scenario No. 7 that Brady could have experienced that would have kept the list fresh: Retirement. Instead, he and the Bucs lost in that aforementioned divisional round almost-comeback to the Rams.

Realignment, Expanded Seasons

Brady was the last QB to win the Super Bowl in the 31-team NFL that existed from 1999-2001. He could have also been the last QB to win the Super Bowl in the 16-game era, as the league expanded to 17 games beginning in 2021 — something Brady himself called out as a foolish maneuver.

Owning multiple franchises

How about playing 23 years in the NFL and still being able to say you were undefeated against not one, not two, three, or four, but five NFL franchises? Brady could have retired (even after 2021) unbeaten against the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. Instead, he stuck around long enough to lose to Atlanta in a meaningless Week 18 game, then lost his only career postseason matchup with the Cowboys. So, Brady was 7-0 against Dallas, but ended 0-1 in elimination games. Brady also went undefeated against the Vikings (6-0), Buccaneers (4-0), and Patriots (1-0). Obviously he would not have gotten the opportunity to face the Patriots had he retired after 2020, but perhaps that wouldn’t have been a bad thing to leave a little mystery behind.

Owning the legends

Had Super Bowl LV been Brady’s career swan song, it would have made him 3-2 in his career against Patrick Mahomes, and 2-0 in the postseason (not to mention 3-0 in the postseason against the Chiefs, winning in three different rounds, and 4-0 against Andy Reid, whose Eagles Brady beat in 2004). Though he ended with a losing career postseason record against Peyton Manning (2-3, and 2-5 overall against the Manning brothers), Brady’s potential final campaign included wins in his lone career playoff matchups with Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, and culminated with a resounding victory of Mahomes. The Bucs faced the Chiefs in 2022 in the “17th game” (the matchup added to the rotation when the season expanded), and the Bucs had to practice all week in Miami due to Hurricane Ian. The Bucs lost, 41-31, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. Mahomes ended his career 3-3 overall against Brady.

Bookending the Greats

Brady’s first career start was a 44-13 win over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in 2001. His last start could have been a 31-9 win over Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Defeating future Hall of Fame, multiple-Super-Bowl-winning quarterbacks to start and end his career would have been absolutely perfect.

Keeping the rookies in check

Had Brady ended his time in the NFL after 2020, he would have remained perfect (6-0) against QBs making their first NFL start. Instead, he lost to the 49ers in blowout fashion, 35-7, in the NFL starting debut of 2022’s Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy. While the list of QBs is incredibly underwhelming (Luke McCown, Matt Flynn, Tyler Palko, Jake Locker, E.J. Manuel, and Luke Falk), perfection is perfection. Peyton Manning, having lost to Brady in TB12’s NFL debut, could not say the same in that regard.

And even more ownage

Though Brady did get a small measure of revenge in the 2021 wild card round by beating the Eagles after having lost the Super Bowl to them four years prior, the script was flipped on Brady a week later when the Rams finally took down Tom Terrific. Brady had been 2-0 against the Rams in postseason play, winning his first and sixth Super Bowls exactly 17 years apart (to the day).

Working overtime

One thing that defined Brady’s early-career success was his dominance in overtime. Brady, fresh off an OT win in the 2000 Orange Bowl with Michigan against Alabama prior to being drafted, began his NFL career 7-0 in extra time, starting a win in the infamous Tuck Rule game in his postseason debut. Brady was a perfect 3-0 in the playoffs and a nice, tidy 12-4 overall (his most common regular-season record in his career, accomplished six times) through 2020, and ended his OT career 14-5. However, when he lost to the Ohio teams in 2022 it ruined a couple more Brady gems: his OT loss in Cleveland made him 218-1 when leading by 7+ points in the final two minutes of regulation, and his 17-point blown lead to the Bengals in Week 15 marked the first time Brady had lost to an entire division (the AFC North) in the same season.

21 and done

There’s a strange phenomenon for Brady’s career involving 21-game streaks. In 2003-04, when the first part of the Patriots dynasty was at its peak, New England won 21 straight games overall before falling to the Steelers on Halloween (they would later get their revenge on the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game). From 2002-05, the Patriots won 21 straight home games before dropping a contest to the Chargers. And from 2006-08, the Patriots won 21 straight regular-season games before falling to the Dolphins in Week 3 (although Brady was injured in Week 1 and Matt Cassel started the remainder of the games). So perhaps it would have been fitting if 2021 arrived, and Brady was, in fact, done.

Postseason brilliance, continued

Had Brady’s career ended after 2020, he still had more than twice as many playoff wins as the next-closest QB (his childhood idol Joe Montana) with 34, as Brady was 34-11 overall. He finally did something in 2020 he had yet to do in his illustrious career: win four games in a single postseason, including three on the road. He had only ever lost playoff games to seven different QBs: the Manning brothers, Jake Plummer, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles, and Ryan Tannehill (he would lose to Matthew Stafford in 2021 and Dak Prescott in 2022). Brady would have finished 20-4 at home, 7-4 on the road, and 7-3 in Super Bowls. By losing his final two playoff games at home, Brady finished with two more home playoff losses than road losses, though of course he played 16 more postseason games at home than away. Brady managed to defeat 17 different franchises in at least one playoff game, which is more franchises than Montana had playoff wins.

Brady Miscellany

Brady’s would-be final record (after Super Bowl LV): 230-69 regular season, 34-11 postseason, 264-80 overall

Brady’s final record (after the 2022 season): 251-82 regular season, 35-13 postseason, 286-95 overall

Brady’s first career completion (2000 preseason): Sean Morey

Brady’s first career TD pass (2000 preseason): Dane Looker

Brady’s first career completion (2000 regular season): Rod Rutledge

Brady’s first career TD pass (2001 regular season): Terry Glenn

Brady’s first career postseason TD pass (Super Bowl XXXVI): David Patten

Brady’s would-be last career completion (Super Bowl LV): Cameron Brate

Brady’s last career TD pass (2022 wild card round): Cameron Brate

Brady’s last career completion (2022 wild card round): Julio Jones

2 Comments on "Tom Brady Could’ve Gone Out Perfectly On Top in 2020. Even 2021 Would’ve Been Okay. Instead, we Got 2022."

  1. Great points. Tom Brady was able to become bigger than the NFL and it shows. Brady was the golden boy for many many years. The league benefitted from his domination because he is so good looking. The scenarios created by the NFL allowed Brady to “make” miracles happen on the field. Tom Brady deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    • Thanks Mark. Yes, you’re right, Brady became larger than life, and often seemed to come out on top. I think that Walk of Fame Star will be coming any day, followed by a gold jacket in Canton.

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