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Tom Brady Remade the NFL in His Image and Changed Football Forever

The story of Brady’s career is the story of the NFL for the past two decades. You cannot tell one without the other.

AP/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: This story was originally published after Tom Brady first announced his retirement last year, but given Brady’s announcement Wednesday that he’s retiring again—this time for good—we’re recirculating it.

So, now what? There’s no way to tell you what football will look like without Tom Brady, because he built so much of it for the past two decades. Brady was the most famous person in the most popular American sport during that span. Watching football is the last thing Americans do en masse anymore, and Brady was the game’s main character. The easiest way, I suppose, to tell the story of Brady’s impact is to tell the stories of those whose legacies he destroyed: The Oakland Raiders would have won another massive playoff game and changed the course of their franchise without Brady. Maybe that keeps them out of the NFL wilderness. Maybe Mike Martz, out of the NFL for the past decade, wins a Super Bowl as a head coach without Brady. The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins look competent for stretches of the last two decades without Brady. Do the Chargers stay in San Diego if they get to the Super Bowl in the 2006 or 2007 seasons? How many rings does Peyton Manning have? The Atlanta Falcons, well, the Atlanta Falcons would be different. The best thing you can say about Tom Brady’s legacy is there is an army of unemployed guys who wish he’d never existed.

Brady and Bill Belichick were a two-man legacy-wrecking crew, making everything worse for any team that had the misfortune not to employ them. The hard part is finding something they didn’t change. (Maybe the Jets.) There is no neat summation of Brady’s impact in the NFL, because he meant so many things to so many different people: He crushed dreams for 30 teams, made them possible for two, got dozens of people better jobs, and served to make everyone else in football look a little worse compared to him. Brady was the perfect football player.

The Brady era is over now, and for the first time since 2000, the NFL will start a season in September without Brady’s presence looming over it, ready to dismantle some hapless franchise that thought it could equal him and his coach. Brady had his losses: Eli Manning got him twice in the Super Bowl. So did Nick Foles. Mark Sanchez got him in a playoff game. But far more often than not, Brady dominated a game specifically built not to be dominated. The NFL has implemented safeguards—a draft, a salary cap, a schedule that makes life easier for worse teams—meant to prevent teams from becoming dominant, and Brady and the Patriots blew right past them.

Brady officially retired on Tuesday at age 44, marking a few things: First, he might be the first 44-year-old pro athlete to cause some shock when he hung it up. Second, he is undoubtedly one of the oldest players ever to be the best player in their sport. Some players have retired after one of their best seasons. Many players have retired in their 40s. Very few have done both. In 2014, Brady said he’d retire when he sucked—then he got tired of waiting around for that to happen.

There’s a litmus test about great players, which is whether you can tell the story of the league without them. Tom Brady is different. Tom Brady was the story. Everything in football for 22 years has more or less flowed through Brady. His wins, his losses, his absence, his offense, his influence. Every small little offensive innovation—save for maybe the read option—was either his doing or became his once it was established by someone else.

I’ve spent a good deal of time reporting on Brady. He is probably the athlete I’ve written the most words about in my life. This is not unusual; my guess is that most national NFL reporters can say the same. But what drew me to stories about Brady was how he won. No one did the little things better in a sport that is about the little things. Every story you heard about Brady’s work ethic was eventually proved true. About his summer workouts in which he’d curse himself for being an inch off his target from 20 yards away, unable to be calmed down by friends who’d tell him it’s, uh, not a real game. Games of catch in the locker room with new teammates when he’d throw as hard as he could to see what they had, eventually forcing the newbie to wonder why he wasn’t warned about this. Warm-ups when Brady would have receivers catch facing the sun because he knew there’d be, at some point over the next 60 minutes, a time when they’d have to do it.

Brady stacked all of these little edges on top of each other until they created a massive gulf between him and any other quarterback. It helped that his head coach, Belichick, was doing the same, and that during their long weekly meetings they’d get together to figure out how to destroy defenses. I once wrote a story about pop quizzes that Belichick gives his team about their opponents’ scheme and personnel. I heard former Patriots, maybe slightly embittered, say that they thought Belichick gave the answers to Brady to make it look like QB1 always had the answers. I checked on that and got a more reasonable answer: Brady simply knew.

Brady was not a perfect athlete—he thought he was, often challenging his backups to races because he thought he could win—but no one thought about the game or could diagnose a defense better. Part of the success of the 2007 Patriots started when then–Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels met with then–Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen about the spread offense. The Patriots started to spread defenses out, and Brady was able to get simplified coverages and then just destroyed the league. “That was the genius of it,” Matt Cassel, the team’s backup quarterback in 2007, told me a few years ago. “Anyone in this league could have run it, but you had Tom Brady, and he’s saying, ‘I know where my matchup is and I know where I’m going with the ball.’ When you have that? Yeah, you’re going to win.”

Brady was an American character who bridged eras and geography to become impossibly famous. Brady entered a league that had an eight-year, $17.6 billion broadcasting deal and left a league that had an 11-year deal worth $110 billion. It is reductive to say Brady is the reason that the NFL’s ratings went up in an era when linear television collapsed—that is unfair to Peyton Manning, Belichick, and now Patrick Mahomes. But Brady played so long and so effectively that he erased his own post-career letdown period.

There’s so much talk of the ratings dip in the NBA after Michael Jordan’s retirement. Or in hockey after Wayne Gretzky’s. There was a time period when the NFL had a severe dearth of great quarterbacks, around 2015, when pro teams were struggling to evaluate spread-offense quarterbacks. Quarterbacks drive the league and it needed more of them. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota going first and second in the draft in 2015 was not particularly fruitful for the league, nor, eventually, was the top of the 2016 draft, with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Brady (and Manning) starred for so long that no one really noticed, and eventually the league repopulated its superstar quarterback ranks with the likes of Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Lamar Jackson, among many others.

We didn’t get to see a post-Brady dip in the NFL because he just kept playing. Brady was good for the league in a way that is hard to quantify. I once heard someone say that perfect television was getting a character in hot water and then spending the rest of the episode getting them out of it. Brady was the football version of this. 28-3. Tied with the Rams late in the fourth quarter. Random games when he’d decide to erase a two-touchdown Saints lead. He entered the football world during the era of AOL keywords and left when Patriots fans were checking Instagram stories to see whether he thanked New England in his retirement announcement.

The reason you can’t imagine football without Brady is because it doesn’t exist. Tomorrow starts something very different, a world in which Brady can make no more changes to football as a player. The changes he’s already made will last a lifetime.