Tom Brady was a system quarterback and also the greatest of all time

FILE — New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after his AFC championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Foxboro, Mass. on Jan. 18, 2015. Brady announced his retirement on Instagram on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.  (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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FILE — New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after his AFC championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Foxboro, Mass. on Jan. 18, 2015. Brady announced his retirement on Instagram on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Tom Brady was a system quarterback. He’s also the greatest quarterback of all time. That’s only a contradiction if you consider “system quarterback” to be an insult. I don’t see it that way with Brady because he is the system. Brady is a machine that seemingly will never, ever stop operating at peak efficiency.

The machine finally shut down Tuesday. That’s only because Brady turned off the switch himself. He has plenty left. What Brady no longer has is the desire to continue with what he calls the “‘all-in proposition” of playing championship-level football.

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That’s why Brady, 44, said he’s retiring after 22 seasons in the NFL, 20 of them with the Patriots. He posted the announcement to his Instagram account:

“This is difficult for me to write, but here it goes: I am not going to make that competitive commitment anymore. I have loved my NFL career, and now it is time to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.”

Brady won seven Super Bowls, more than any NFL franchise. He was the AP MVP three times and set career records for passing yards (84,520) and touchdowns (624). Brady didn’t post meaningless numbers after he was over the hill. He won last year’s Super Bowl and this season’s NFC South title with the Buccaneers.

Brady could have kept going. But what’s the point if his heart isn’t in it? He had nothing left to prove. Brady already is the greatest quarterback of all-time. Others may see it differently. There’s no right answer to a subjective question. That can make G.O.A.T. debates tiresome. All anyone can do is offer their perspective.

Here’s mine: I always side with modern players because, over time, athletes have gotten bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled. The competition increased as pro sports leagues stopped protecting white athletes from facing all comers and the amateur feeder systems improved. The greatest player of the latest generation is the greatest of all time and, for NFL quarterbacks, that’s Brady.

It’s impossible to say what the greats of yesteryear could do today. What makes Brady’s case stronger is that he spanned eras. His longevity means that we can make direct comparisons with the great quarterbacks who were still going when he came into the league and with those who seek to be the G.O.A.T. now.

When Brady entered the NFL the top QBs were future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. Brady surpassed all of them. Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers would join Brady in the top tier. He’s better than both. Patrick Mahomes might be the best QB of the new generation. He’s finding out that winning multiple Super Bowls is a lot harder than Brady made it look.

Brady is the best of the quarterbacks from the era immediately preceding him, those who challenged him throughout his career and those still on the rise.

“A generation of football fans have grown up knowing only an NFL in which Tom Brady dominated,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement.

Not bad for a system quarterback. That tag stuck to Brady because of his style of play. Dink-and-dunk is what critics called it. I call it evidence that we should reconsider the most important traits for a winning quarterback.

Brady wasn’t a big-armed QB throwing bombs. He did it mostly with surgical, short passes to receivers with perfect timing. Arm strength obviously is an asset. It doesn’t mean much without the ability to diagnose defenses, pick the best target and put the ball in the right place.

Brady wasn’t running away from the pass rush and improvising plays. Instead, he sidestepped the pressure or passed just before defenders arrived. Brady didn’t need to run because his pocket feel was so good and his release so quick.

Brady didn’t have the strongest arm or the fastest feet. It’s all the other positive attributes that made him great: decision-making, accuracy, toughness, leadership, smarts. NFL teams missed on that when they all passed on Brady multiple times in the 2000 draft. That includes the Patriots, who didn’t draft him until the 199th pick.

Anyway, Brady proved during his final chapter with the Buccaneers that he could throw long if needed. It turned out that he just needed a better supporting cast in his later years.

The NFL started recording air yards for the 2018 season. Brady ranked 18th in intended air yards per attempt that season and 23rd in 2019. Brady signed with the Bucs in 2020 and jumped to No. 1 in the NFL for intended air yards per attempt. He ranked ninth this season.

Brady’s best wide receivers during his final two seasons with the Pats: Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett. There’s not a great talent or consistent deep threat among them. Brady still won the 2019 Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium because that’s just what he does.

Brady had a better group of wide receivers with the Bucs: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. Brady won his seventh Super Bowl. No one could say he dinked-and-dunked his way to that title.

Brady’s run with the Bucs capped an already legendary career. He wasn’t the first quarterback to play into his 40s. Brady is the only 40-plus QB with multiple Pro Bowls (three) and the only one to be voted first-team All-Pro. Brady is the only QB in that age group to win a Super Bowl. Brady then added another championship to break his own record for oldest quarterback to win it all.

There are some asterisks on Brady’s resume. All of them involve the rules. The episodes are so well-known that they have nicknames: Tuck Rule Game, Spygate and Deflategate. Spygate is the only one that should stick to Brady.

The tuck rule was dumb, but officials interpreted it correctly during the 2001 season divisional playoff game. The NFL’s evidence against Brady in Deflategate was shaky. Bill Belichick’s years-long cheating scheme should have resulted in harsher punishment. The NFL’s franchise owners let the issue drop because they care more about raking in cash than fair competition.

In the long run, it’s doubtful that any of those events will tarnish Brady’s legacy. Cheating can leave a permanent stain on a baseball player’s record. Football is more forgiving. Whether Brady cheated is secondary to his greatness as a player.

No one associated with the Falcons will be sad to see Brady go. Everyone knows why. Brady was 9-0 against the Falcons in the regular season. He was 1-0 in the playoffs. That was the Super Bowl in which Brady played a central role in the most devastating loss in the history of the franchise.

In that game, like so many others, Brady showed that when he’s the system quarterback, then that system can be unstoppable. That’s why Brady retires as the greatest NFL quarterback of all time.