Tom Brady was drafted 199th in 2000. He ran a 5.28-second 40-yard dash at that year’s NFL combine, and he also looked like this when he showed up there. You know all of this already, though. And not just because Brady’s story is a key piece of the NFL canon, but because it gets jammed down your throat every year during draft season. Brady is constantly held up as a lesson to scouts and evaluators who fall for prospects with eye-popping physical traits but none of the intangibles. Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell could throw the ball a million yards, but they didn’t have what it takes in here (I’m vigorously tapping on my chest right now, just so you know).
This is all nonsense, of course. This idea that Brady was some moderately talented college quarterback who pulled himself up by his Ugg bootstraps is laughable. Sure, he was skinny and slow, but he had a strong arm and his trademark pocket awareness was on full display during his two seasons as a starter at Michigan.
Even still, those traits aren’t what made Brady, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, as great as he was. Nor was it his dedication to not eating delicious fruits, or whatever. What made him the GOAT was a trait that is just as unattainable as Patrick Mahomes’s arm or Josh Allen’s size: His ability to process time and space in an instant and react accordingly. That may sound like a skill anyone can develop through hard work and practice, but it isn’t. You could spend the next decade of your life working on your jump shot and you’d never become Steph Curry. And you’ll never become Wayne Gretzky no matter how much time you spend—ummm … I don’t really know how hockey works, to be honest with you.
But you get the point!
These abilities may not be innate—Brady, Curry, and every other professional athlete has to work very hard to hone their craft—but the capacity to attain them certainly is. Teams around the NFL have spent the past 22 years trying to find and develop the next Brady. But in doing so, they’ve been chasing a ghost.
This wouldn’t be a proper Brady legacy piece if I didn’t bring up Peyton Manning. These two will always be linked because of their rivalry, and because of the idea that they belong in the same genre of quarterbacking. Yes, they were both pocket passers who could dissect a defense with both their arms and their minds. And that’s a convenient way to bucket them. But it’s a bit reductive. Brady and Manning were both geniuses in their own right, but Manning’s genius was more proactive, while Brady’s was more reactive.
Close your eyes and think about Manning playing football. You’re probably picturing him frantically orchestrating the offense before the snap, making the necessary changes to exploit whatever the defense had called. And Peyton always knew what the defense was doing, so he rarely had to adjust after the snap. It was as if he could see the future.
Counterintuitively, the offenses Manning led during his NFL career were always simplistic in nature. The playbook wasn’t very thick, as Grantland’s Chris Brown observed in 2013:
Despite having one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time under center, the Colts eschewed the conventional wisdom of continually adding volume to their offense in the form of countless formations and shifts … [it] drew its strength from its simplicity. By using a small number of personnel groups—typically either three wide receivers and a tight end, or two wide receivers and two tight ends—it limited the number of possible responses from the defense and made it easier for Manning to diagnose its weak spots.
The countless formations and shifts that the Colts threw aside became part of the foundation of Brady’s Patriots offenses. Those tactics were designed to aid his presnap read, and while I’m sure the greatest quarterback to ever play would have been fine without those hints, they certainly made his job easier. (It was also Brady’s ability to adapt on the fly that allowed the Pats to carry such a thick playbook. The system was notoriously difficult for younger receivers to pick up because of the mid-play route conversions—dictated by the defensive coverage—baked into every design.)
But what made Brady special was his uncanny ability to adjust in an instant. While Manning rarely had to go through a progression, Brady did it as well as it could be done. Most starting quarterbacks can get to their second or third read on a play—the good ones, anyway—but it’s not something that happens very often. There just isn’t enough time in the pocket. But Brady was so good at buying time and quickly diagnosing whether a receiver was open (which is harder than it sounds) that all eligible targets had a chance to catch the ball on any given play.
It may not sound all that rare, but back when Brady was first starting to cement himself as a truly elite quarterback, that was not how passing games operated. Former Pats receiver Donte’ Stallworth quickly learned that Brady was not like other quarterbacks during his first training camp with the team in 2007. Stallworth told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark in 2017 that New England was practicing a play that had Stallworth as a last-resort option. The veteran receiver jogged his way through the play and was caught off guard when the ball was thrown his way, leading to an interception. Brady was not pleased with his new receiver, but it was a learning experience for Stallworth, as Clark writes:
Josh McDaniels, the team’s young offensive coordinator, found Stallworth on the sideline, looked him in the eye, and said, “Big guy, I know you’ve played in different offenses, but there will be no dead routes in this offense. Everything is live. You have to stay alive because 12 is going to get you the ball if you’re open even a little bit.”
Everything is live. There isn’t a better way to sum up what made Brady unique. Here’s a visual representation of what McDaniels is saying there, narrated by Manning himself during an episode of his ESPN series Detail:
Brady getting to the FIFTH read in his progression would be wild on its own, but, in this particular example, it happens after a bad snap, and he does it while navigating a deteriorating pocket. It’s a superhuman effort, even if it doesn’t necessarily look like it to an untrained eye.
As out-there as it seems to say this about a no. 1 draft pick who was raised by an NFL quarterback, Peyton’s path to the NFL is a more realistic one for aspiring young quarterbacks to follow. Manning was obviously blessed with certain physical attributes—you can’t train to be 6-foot-5 or replicate Archie Manning’s DNA—but his greatness was the product of relentless tape study and an undying obsession with improving his throwing mechanics. In that way, his success seemed a bit more processed. Brady did all of that work, too, but on the field, his greatness always came across as natural.
If NFL teams insist on searching for the next Brady, they need to start looking in a different spot. Thanks to Brady and Manning, the mental aspects of playing the position carry more value in today’s league, so those guys are going higher in the draft. Mac Jones, for instance, would not have been a first-round pick in 2000, but he was in 2021. And as much as we fawn over the arm talent of Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, what makes them truly special is that Brady-like ability to react to stimuli. They’re not doing it at the same level—nobody is—but that’s where being able to throw the ball 80 yards downfield helps.
To find an elite quarterback in 2022, you have to find someone who can do both—make all of the throws, and consistently make the right reads. The Brady model just isn’t feasible. And now the one man who could make it work just called it a career.
An earlier version of this piece misspelled Wayne Gretzky’s last name.