With legendary quarterback Tom Brady officially retiring (yes, we really mean it now), the accolades are pouring in. There are, um, a lot: The former QB of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots had an unbelievable career stuffed with nearly every possible accomplishment — both at the team and individual level. He was so good that each half of his career was Hall of Fame-worthy by itself. (Maybe each third was, too!) As a result, Brady is widely regarded as the greatest QB in NFL history. But to put his greatness in true perspective, we might have to zoom out from football and compare Brady to the greats from other sports.
So let’s put Brady up against three icons who are usually held up as the GOATs of the other “Big Four” men’s North American team sports leagues, with apologies to the GOATS of the WNBA and MLS/NWSL, and also to Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Simone Biles and other GOATs from individual sports.1 We’ll focus on Michael Jordan (NBA), Babe Ruth (MLB) and Wayne Gretzky (NHL) — and render our head-to-head judgments of Brady against each.
There’s obviously no cross-sport metric to distill each player into a single number. But we don’t need that for this analysis. For each comparison, we’ll be looking at career stats and rate stats (including both traditional and advanced metrics) as well as winning — because, let’s face it, ring-counting does matter in these debates – relative to each player’s peers within their sport. May the best GOAT win …
Brady vs. Jordan
Career stats: As we noted Tuesday, Brady is the all-time career leader in numerous traditional statistics, including the most cherished of all passing categories: yards and touchdowns. (He passed No. 2 Drew Brees in yards last season and in TDs two seasons ago.) By comparison, Jordan is neither the all-time NBA leader in points — he ranks fifth — nor assists, rebounds or any other major counting stat. By the advanced numbers, Jordan fares better; he ranks third in career RAPTOR wins above replacement, second in value over replacement player and fifth in win shares. But Brady is No. 1 in career Approximate Value and career QB value over replacement (based on our QB Elo value metric, representing the number of yards a QB generated relative to an undrafted backup),2 defeating all of his peers in total value added. There are good reasons why Jordan lags behind in the raw totals, but in terms of overall numbers, this skirmish belongs to Brady.
Rate stats: Whatever Jordan lacks in counting stats, he makes up for in per-game and per-minute production. MJ remains the NBA’s all-time leader in points per game (by a fraction of a point over Wilt Chamberlain), and he dominates the advanced leaderboards. He ranks No. 1 in player efficiency rating, win shares per 48 minutes, Box Plus/Minus and RAPTOR plus/minus. By comparison, Brady is “only” eighth in both yards per game and passer rating — and on the advanced side, he’s eighth in QB Elo (relative to average) per start and eighth in adjusted net yards per attempt index. (Brady does rank third in career Total Quarterback Rating, but that metric can be computed going back to only 2006.) Compared with the entire scope of each league’s history, Jordan owns the battle of rate statistics with Brady.
Winning: If there is a winning-based category in the NFL, Brady is likely No. 1 in it. He ranks first in regular-season QB wins (as a starter), with a 31 percent cushion over Nos. 2 Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, and first in playoff wins, with 119 percent (!) more than No. 2 Joe Montana. Brady is the only player in NFL history with seven Super Bowl titles; nobody else can claim more than five. The only other pro football player who can contend with Brady’s rings is Otto Graham, whose Cleveland Browns won seven championships during his career — though four of them were in the AAFC, before the Browns joined the NFL. Jordan is no slouch in the winning department either, of course, but he started in far fewer victories (regular season and postseason) than all-time NBA leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did and is tied for 10th in NBA history in championships won (with six). Jordan did win a ring in 40 percent of his seasons played, while Brady won in only 35 percent of his seasons as starter,3 though the NBA is also known for producing dynasties and having the least parity of any major pro league, so Brady’s success rate is arguably more impressive. In the end, Brady was slightly more prolific than Jordan when it came to earning rings, and he lapped the field of his NFL peers in terms of winning games.
Brady vs. Ruth
Career stats: The Sultan of Swat played his first game in 1914, just a couple years before Tom Brady made his NFL debut. (I’m kidding! Or am I?) After several seasons spent as a pitcher and pinch-hitter, Ruth switched to full-time batting and proceeded to demolish the record books in even more impressive fashion than Brady has. (There were seasons when Ruth outhomered entire teams, for instance.) When Ruth retired, he owned, among other categories, the all-time home run and runs batted in records — holding the HR mark by an astonishing 89 percent margin over then-No. 2 Lou Gehrig. With the passage of time, however, those records were surpassed — both by Henry Aaron and later, in the home run department, by Barry Bonds. That leaves Ruth slightly below No. 1 in the most important traditional counting stats, though his career advanced stats remain as impressive as ever. Ruth ranks first in position-player wins above replacement according to FanGraphs and second (behind Bonds) in Baseball-Reference.com’s version of the stat. Not surprisingly, he is No. 1 all-time in our JEFFBAGWELL metric (which blends the two versions of WAR), and that helps put Ruth hot on Brady’s heels in the career-stats category.
Rate stats: As imposing as Ruth’s totals are, his rate stats might be even better. Yes, The Babe ranks just 13th in career batting average, but he is No. 2 in on-base percentage, No. 1 in slugging — by a nearly 9 percent margin over Ted Williams — and No. 1 in OPS. In advanced stats, Ruth is also the all-time leader in adjusted OPS+ and weighted runs created plus. According to Bill James’s Runs Created formula, a lineup of nine Babe Ruths would score 12.9 runs per game, which also ranks No. 1 in MLB history. Compare that with Brady’s great-but-not-the-greatest per-game and per-attempt metrics, and it’s clear Ruth wins this battle of rate statistics.
Winning: Ruth’s New York Yankees are generally regarded as the canonical example of an unbeatable baseball team, with a silly number of Hall of Famers spread across the roster. And even among that star-studded group, Ruth was the star of stars. It translated into 1,455 wins for games Ruth started as a batter during the regular season, which ranks 20th all-time (in part because schedules were shorter in Ruth’s era, and in part because Ruth pitched early on). Ruth is also tied for seventh all-time in most championships, with a Brady-esque seven rings, and he would rise to a tie for third if we require players to appear in the World Series for their rings to “count.” Those championships are comparable to Brady’s tally, particularly when we consider that MLB tends to have more parity than the NFL — although the Yankees’ dynasties of the pre-expansion era were probably exceptions to that overall rule. (Yogi Berra is the MLB leader in titles won with 10, which surpasses even Brady’s ring count.) Since Ruth won a lot but was not the clear-cut biggest winner in his sport, we have to give Brady the nod here.
Brady vs. Gretzky
Career stats: If anyone’s raw output can compete with Brady’s, it’s the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Remember Brady’s top billing in yards and TD passes? His edge over No. 2 Brees is 5.2 percent in the former and 9.3 percent in the latter. Meanwhile, Gretzky’s edge over No. 2 Gordie Howe in goals is 11.6 percent and his lead over Jaromír Jágr in points is an astonishing 48.7 percent. The oft-repeated stat that Gretzky would be the all-time NHL leader in points if he never scored a single goal, on the strength of his assists alone, is too jaw-dropping to even become a cliché. (Gretzky leads in assists over No. 2 Ron Francis by a margin of 57.2 percent!) That is far more dominant relative to the competition than Brady’s career tallies are. And Gretzky’s more advanced totals are nothing to sneeze at, either. He would still be the No. 1 point-scorer in history even after adjusting for the offensive era in which he played. Gretzky is also the most valuable player in NHL history according to both Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares and the WAR derived from position-relative Game Score.4 Even more so than Ruth’s, Gretzky’s statistical resume not only stands up to Brady’s but surpasses it, particularly in terms of dominating the next-best challenger on several important lists.
Rate stats: Rate stats in hockey are generally measured on a per-game basis, particularly for Gretzky’s era (before possession estimates such as Corsi were really available). And by that standard, Gretzky still ranks as one of the most prolific players in the sport: He is No. 1 in career points per game, No. 1 in assists per game (no surprise) and No. 8 in goals per game. Those ranks drop some if we use stats that adjust for position and era, however. Among skaters with at least 500 games played, Gretzky ranks sixth in Point Shares per game, and relative to position average, Gretzky’s Game Score of +1.05 is slightly behind Bobby Orr (+1.08) and Mario Lemieux (+1.06). That probably places Gretzky somewhere below Jordan and Ruth’s utter domination of the rate-statistic leaderboards, but it still leaves him above Brady.
Winning: Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers were a bona fide dynasty in the 1980s, winning four Stanley Cups in a five-year period from 1984 to 1988. Gretzky went on to lead his next team, the Los Angeles Kings, to another Cup final appearance in 1993 (though the Kings lost to the Montreal Canadiens), and he was on a few more competitive teams with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers down the stretch of his career. All told, Gretzky played in 855 wins during his career, which ranks 20th among all NHL players, and his four Stanley Cups put him in a multi-way tie for 51st all-time. As amazing as Gretzky’s individual accomplishments are, and as much respect as four championships deserve, the Great One probably falls behind not only Brady but also the other two GOATs in the winning department.
Who is the GOAT of the GOATs?
Career ranks (relative to their sport) in counting, rate and winning stats for Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky
|Brady 🏈||Jordan 🏀||Ruth ⚾||Gretzky 🏒|
|AV||1||Win shares||5||rWAR||2||Point Shares||1|
|QB VAR||1||RAPTOR WAR||3||fWAR||1||GmSc WAR||1|
|QB wins||1||Wins started||15||Wins started||20||Wins played||20|
So, what is the final verdict? Brady beats Jordan in at least one category (career stats) and probably in winning, too — as hard as that judgment is to render against MJ, the most maniacal winner in sports history. Brady also has the upper hand over Ruth as a winner, and probably in terms of career stats as well (though it’s close). The only adversary against whom Brady does not defeat in either career or rate statistics is Gretzky, though Brady has the largest edge of the competition over the Great One in the category of team success. In the end, the lack of a major weakness in any of the areas we examined means Brady has a very strong case for being the GOAT of GOATs. But we all know this debate will never be settled — nor should it be, as arguments like these are the lifeblood of the very sports that Brady, Jordan, Ruth and Gretzky all excelled in.