Tom Brady vs. Michael Jordan for greatest GOAT: The scorecard
Who is the greatest American male athlete of all time? It is an awfully silly thing to ask on one hand, but an important question on the other. Sports fans cannot get enough of these debates, even if there is no discernible way to win them.
How do you compare team-sport athletes to individuals? Athletes who competed before integration to those who played afterward? Olympic champions to non-Olympians?
A current New England Patriots quarterback to a retired Chicago Bulls 2-guard?
You need to have fun with it. Last spring, after a phone conversation with Tom Brady about his future, I posited Michael Jordans legacy was Bradys final frontier. I thought he had surpassed all NFL players before him, not merely quarterbacks, and figured if he was as serious about playing into his mid-to-late 40s as he said he was, the ultimate in unofficial titles -- GOAT of GOATs -- would be well within his reach.
Eight months later, a 40-year-old Brady is back in the Super Bowl as the likely league MVP and on the cusp of a sixth championship and a possible fifth Super Bowl MVP. He just won his eighth conference title in a dozen attempts with a dozen stitches in his throwing hand. So, yeah, Brady is very much in a conversation that needs some ground rules.
First, were sticking to on-field impact (Jackie Robinson has retired the trophy for off-field impact) and team sports, which place a heavier burden on superstars to deliver for the people around them. So Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and Michael Phelps are eliminated from contention. (Yes, we understand the Olympic legends competed for their country at major international events, and on relay teams, but their accomplishments were mostly as individuals.)
Were also eliminating athletes like Babe Ruth, who dominated in segregated times. Jim Brown gets knocked out by Brady on career length; he played nine seasons to Bradys 18, though at a more physically taxing position. Willie Mays gets knocked out by Jordan on regular-season MVP awards in their respective sports (5-2 in favor of MJ), and Barry Bonds (7 MVPs) gets knocked out by ... well, you know why he gets knocked out.
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That leaves Brady, the best football player, to confront Jordan, the best basketball player. Measured against the conventional interpretation of athleticism (foot speed and leaping ability), Jordan and Brady do not belong in the same sentence, paragraph, column or ballpark. Jordan was a beautiful bald eagle in majestic flight, and Brady is a dimpled penguin waddling from place to place.
Bradys staggering accomplishments have challenged the conventional interpretation of athleticism. If a young man can be drafted by a pro baseball team (the Montreal Expos in 1995) and a pro football team (the Patriots in 2000) and spend a lifetime throwing 20-yard outs on a dime while large and angry opponents are trying to cut him in half, how unathletic can he be?
So Brady vs. Jordan is a tough debate on every level. We need some fun in the mix to settle this one, and we need some categories. So here are some fun categories:
Dean Smiths selfless system at North Carolina: The old joke was that Smith was the only man able to stop Jordan from scoring 20-30 points every night in college. But Smiths team-centric approach on offense made him a Hall of Famer and Jordan a national champ.
Lloyd Carrs preference for Drew Henson at Michigan: Brady had to hold off local wonder boy recruit Henson, whom coaches, students and alums wanted on the field. Carr tried a weird rotation of QBs before eventually relenting and giving Brady the ball.
Jordans flu game in the 1997 NBA Finals: Jordan was a staggering mess, sick and dehydrated, with the series tied at 2-2 in Utah. Somehow he scored 38 points before Scottie Pippen all but dragged Jordans limp body off the floor.
Bradys stitches game in the 2017 AFC Championship Game: Brady had 12 stitches in the worst possible spot on the worst possible body part before taking the field against Jacksonville and still threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to advance to his eighth Super Bowl. It was great and almost Jordan-esque.
Jordans 55-point game at Madison Square Garden after he unretired: I was sitting next to Bernard King that unforgettable night at MSG in 1995, and he was worried MJ was going to break his new-Garden record of 60. Jordan was only five games deep into his first comeback from retirement. He had 49 points after three quarters, and he won the game on a pass to Bill Wennington in the final seconds. Ive never seen New York fans appreciate and embrace a visiting athlete more than they did that night.
Bradys comeback from 28-3 down to beat Atlanta in Super Bowl LI: Brady was down 25 points with 18 minutes to play, and he had thrown a devastating pick-six. He ended up with 466 passing yards and the two touchdowns needed to complete the record-breaking rally while his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year, watched from the crowd. No regular-season NBA game could touch that.