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Ex-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady forever changed the NFL

Brady’s legacy is more than just numbers. He transformed pro football.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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This story was originally published on Feb. 1, 2022, when Tom Brady announced his short-lived first retirement. It has been slightly modified.

Through his 23-year career with the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady rewrote the record books time and again to eventually retire the owner of dozens of records. Records, of course, are being set every season by all kinds of different players.

What truly made Brady special was his ability to impact the game and the league on a fundamental level. He had a lasting impact on the NFL that goes beyond his statistics or him winning seven Super Bowl rings with two franchises.

The NFL you know and (mostly) love? Yeah, it wouldn’t look like it does today without Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.

Brady had a transcendental impact that forever transformed the league. His story will be told for generations — a sixth-round draft pick that grew to become the greatest quarterback to ever play the game — but it would not be complete without acknowledging that he is among only a handful of players to change the way pro football is organized, played and consumed throughout the United States and beyond.

There are three main areas that saw Brady impact the game.

Tom Brady changed the NFL because he redefined what a franchise quarterback is

Since the introduction of the salary cap in the mid-1990s, the NFL is designed to promote parity. The worst teams get the best draft picks, while the spending cap limits a club’s ability to keep championship rosters intact.

Promising teams have come and gone, without being able to establish themselves as true dynasties. The Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers, for example, or the Seattle Seahawks of the early 2010s. The present-day Kansas City Chiefs may or may not be on their way down that road as well; it is still too early to tell at this point in time.

One team defied all of this: the Patriots of the 2000s and 2010s became the first and thus far only dynasty since the introduction of the cap. One of the men responsible for this unrivaled run of success was head coach Bill Belichick, the other was Tom Brady.

Having an elite quarterback has proven itself as a tool helping to navigate the difficulties presented by the league’s parity-driven structure. It is why clubs such as the Packers, Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning at the helm regularly found themselves in postseason contention. The Belichick/Brady Patriots were the same, but they were more successful than all the other clubs.

Belichick’s role in this cannot be denied; he built those championship rosters and remained the best coach in league throughout. Having him on the sideline proved to be a massive advantage to those New England teams.

As Belichick himself said, however, football is a “players’ game.” And no player was better, or more consistent, than Brady.

For 20 years with the Patriots and three more as a Buccaneer, he set the bar higher and higher — reaching a level few thought would ever be reached. The numbers, as noted above, speak for themselves. The legacy, however, is something entirely different: Brady redefined what it meant to be a franchise quarterback.

Teams are no longer looking to find the next Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana, who are themselves among the greatest QBs to ever play the game; they are looking to find the next Tom Brady. That task, of course, is a near-impossible one because Brady’s combination of drive, skill, motivation and favorable circumstances may never be matched again.

The new generation of quarterbacks taking the league by storm these last few years — from Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to Justin Herbert — is spectacular in its own right. When all is said and done it might look favorably compared to a lot of other all-timers. As far as Brady is concerned, however, reaching him will be nearly impossible.

Jeff Howe of The Athletic made a good comparison, when Brady announced his first retirement from pro football in February 2022:

Brady’s credentials are unparalleled. He has more Super Bowl victories than any franchise. His 35 playoff wins are more than Montana’s (16) and Young’s (14) combined. Brady’s record 84,520 passing yards are 4,162 clear of Drew Brees and nearly 25,000 more than the next active player (Matt Ryan). He had 624 touchdown passes — 53 more than Brees and 174 more than the next active player (Aaron Rodgers). To put those numbers in further perspective, if Mahomes avoids injuries, slumps and roster reconstructions to maintain his career averages, he still wouldn’t eclipse Brady’s pair of celebrated passing records until 2036 at the age of 41.

Brady was the ultimate winner and, fairly or not, every great quarterback to emerge will inevitably be compared to him. He changed how franchise players are seen, and in doing so altered expectation throughout the league.

Brady proved that it is possible to win seven Super Bowls and play at the highest of levels for two decades. Now, every fan and executive wants that instead of what the standard was before he smashed it and built it anew.

Tom Brady changed the NFL because he became the face of its unprecedented growth

When Brady entered the NFL in 2000, the series finale of M*A*S*H stood as the most watched television broadcast ever in the United States. Over the next 23 years, it slid down to the ninth spot. The eight broadcasts drawing more viewers? Eight different Super Bowls, three of which featuring the Brady-era Patriots.

Obviously, the nation’s demographics played a major role in this development — there are a lot more people and television sets in the country nowadays than there were in 1983 — but the fact remains that the NFL as a whole grew dramatically over the last two decades. Due to his status as the game’s ultimate winner during that period, Brady became as closely associated with that growth as anybody.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said so himself in his first farewell statement to Brady last year:

A generation of football fans have grown up knowing only an NFL in which Tom Brady dominated. ... You didn’t have to be a Patriots fan to respect and appreciate his competitiveness, determination and will to win that fueled his success. As a fan of football, it was a privilege to watch. As a Patriots fan, it was a dream come true.

When Brady and the Patriots began their run of success, the internet was still in its infancy compared to what it is now. Google? A small company. Amazon? A rainforest and river, primarily. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram? What, now?

Through the years, the internet grew and with it ways to consume the game of football. The NFL took advantage and as its reach expanded, Brady was there. When it left the United States to go international, Brady was there. When millions of people around the globe first got in touch with the game, Brady was there.

Take one of his former teammates, Jakob Johnson, as an example of this process.

Growing up in Germany, Johnson watched his first game as a 13-year-old back in 2008. It featured Tom Brady and the Patriots, going against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

Despite losing that particular game, Brady was already the biggest star the league had to offer at that point in time — a three-time Super Bowl champion and one-time league MVP, who was at the height of his powers and had just been rewriting the record books during his historic 2007 campaign. He only kept adding to his accolades over the next 15 years.

Johnson eventually began playing himself, and he entered the league through its International Pathway Program. He possibly would have found a way into the NFL regardless of Brady hovering above all things pro football, but his status as a larger-than-life figure certainly helped the league sell its product in markets it had only marginally explored throughout previous years.

In the coming years, the NFL will play games in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Germany. Other countries will follow. Brady was not directly involved in any of this — he was a player, not an executive — but one does have to wonder whether the rapid expansion would have been possible without his presence.

Tom Brady changed the NFL because he helped usher in a passing game revolution

In the summer of 2005, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was looking for ways to improve an offense that had helped New England win three Super Bowls. He also was looking for ways to fully take advantage of a favorable set of rule changes favoring the passing game. He found inspiration from Dan Mullen, who had successfully implemented a spread attack as offensive coordinator at the University of Florida.

McDaniels was trying to use some of the concepts and ideas run by Mullen’s teams and bring them to the NFL. Back then, the league was still static as far as its offensive rituals were concerned. All offenses kind of looked the same, with only minor variations between the fundamentals of the scheme.

The 2007 Patriots changed everything. They spread the field, introduced three-receiver sets as their preferred personnel grouping, and went head-first into passing as the mode of transportation.

The league had seen pass-heavy teams before. The “Air Coryell” of the late 70s and early 80s; the “K-Gun” that helped the Buffalo Bills reach four straight Super Bowls; the Colts under Peyton Manning (who were the driving force behind those aforementioned rule changes).

The ‘07 Patriots, however, took it one step further. They did nothing new, they just perfected everything.

“They forced us to where we are today as a league,” long-time NFL head coach Ron Rivera told The Ringer back in 2017.

The 2007 Patriots were able to usher in a passing game revolution in large part because they had the perfect quarterback to do just that: Tom Brady had been good — elite, even — between 2001 and 2006. In 2007, he elevated his game and the quarterback position as a whole to another level.

Running McDaniels’ revolutionary attack, he threw for a then-record 50 touchdown passes while leading an offense that set a new record for points at the time (589). The Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season. They played a “scorched earth”-type of offensive football that overwhelmed their opponents.

Brady won his first MVP award that year, rightfully so. He also helped open a lot of eyes: that is what a team can do with the passing game. Sure, not everybody has a Randy Moss in his prime, or a Wes Welker and elite offensive line. But the concepts and the ideas to put the quarterback and his skill position players in favorable positions, those could be copied.

The NFL, of course, is a copy-cat league. It never was able to copy Tom Brady, but it was able to take what the Patriots did in 2007 and find ways to adapt to it. That New England team blew the doors open, and the rest of the league has since walked through.

None of that would have been possible without the most important player on the field, though.

None of that would have been possible without Tom Brady.

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