The greatest to ever do it has retired - again.
Tom Brady's retirement leaves the NFL with a hole. His success is unparalleled. His longevity is unrivaled - he has spent more days in his life playing in the NFL than he has out of it. The game's greats finish with a Hall of Fame career, Brady put together three. As measuring sticks go, there's Brady, a cliff drop, and then everyone else.
Brady is measured not by the standards of other NFL stars but by those of athletes across sports. The one namers: Jordan, Ali, Gretzky, Williams, Schumacher. He symbolized winning and longevity and leaves behind a legacy - and story - unlikely to be matched. "I don't believe in the 100-year-old history of the NFL, there's been a quarterback of Tom's ilk," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told ESPN. "I would have trouble ever believing there would be another one."
Kraft is right. We will probably never see another Brady, an overlooked draft pick who goes on to overwhelm the league for two decades. But can anyone get close to matching his individual dominance at their chosen position?
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes has reached the LeBron zone. His excellence - his all-time greatness - is so clear, so obvious, so early that it's in danger of being overlooked - or passed off as hyperbole.
Mahomes is outpacing other all-timers to such an extent that it borders on the absurd. The site RBSDM tracks a figure called EPA/play, a measure of down-to-down value. Isolate the downs when the defense 'knows' a pass is coming based on the situation or team tendencies, and Mahomes dunks on the field. In such situations, he is twice as valuable as the next five current QBs combined. Seriously! Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, all MVP-caliber players, take an understandable dip when the defense 'knows' they're going to pass; Mahomes gets better.
That individual excellence has already led to team success.
In five seasons as a starter, Mahomes has played in five AFC championship games and is heading to his third Super Bowl, having already one won. Clinch a second before he turns 28, and he will be one behind Brady at the same point in their careers. But whereas Brady lent on the Pats' defense early in his career, KC's success flows as Mahomes' arm rolls. He is shattering the record for passing yards and keeping pace with Dan Marino for passing touchdowns through his 80-odd game career.
Even on one leg, Mahomes has proven he's the most talented player at the position - perhaps ever.
And that's the thing with Mahomes. It's not just the raw output. It's the style. It's the side-arm throws. The off-platform deliveries. The slinky release. The no-look passes. The field-warping creativity. He has redefined what is expected of quarterbacks before he's hit 30. The Mahomesification of the league has led to franchises searching for their own player who is just as good out of the structure of the offense as they are within it. Before, in the Brady times, it was considered a nice add-on. Now, it's essential.
Mahomes is the only active player who has a shot to create a legacy that outlasts Brady: Brady had the story; Mahomes has the style. Brady was the scientist; Mahomes is the artist.
Brady will forever be the ultimate winner, but Mahomes' claim to revolutionizing the position, with a shot to outpace Brady in the major statistical categories, will form an interesting/nauseating (delete as applicable) debate about how we define career success for athletes.
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Burrow has already carried a good-but-not-great Bengals roster further than many thought possible. They've reached back-to-back championship games and were one throw short of winning the Super Bowl in just Burrow's second season in the league. In some ways, Burrow is Brady 2.0. He has the quick-strike, play-from-the-pocket style that Brady made his own. But the 26-year-old has just enough wiggle and pace that he can take off with his legs in critical situations - something Brady lacked.
Limitations along the offensive line have detonated any chance the Bengals had at winning a championship in back-to-back seasons. But Burrow continues to improve. Each year, he unlocks new aspects of his game - elements that were flawed early in his career are now strengths. There are no holes in his game. And he's surrounded by enough young talent that the Bengals will be among the Super Bowl favorites every year that he's upright.
Tack on the off-the-field swagger - the TikToks; the cigars; the coats; the charisma - and you have a star tailor-made for the modern age.
Micah Parsons, edge rusher, Dallas Cowboys
Defensive stars rarely become the face of the league - unless they carry an American flag on to the field, play the part of the All-American Superhero and live in a fake cabin. Or they just so happen to be the most charismatic person to have played in the league. Or they wear a star on the side of their helmet.
Parsons fits the latter criterion. Two years into the league, he is already among its most dominant defensive forces. Swooping in from the edge, playing off the ball, it doesn't matter. He's consistently the most impactful player on the field regardless of where the Cowboys line him up. He's already pacing with Aaron Donald in terms of production early in his career. But, unlike Donald, at this stage of his career he has the luxury of playing on the edge, with the most valuable team in the world, rather than doing all the nuanced things along the interior while playing in St Louis.
Parsons finished tops in the NFL in total pressures (sacks, hits, hurries) this season - he wracked up 74 total pressures, seven more than Nick Bosa in second place and 18 ahead of a cohort of players on 55.
A reminder: Parsons is 23. He was originally drafted to play as an off-ball linebacker. Dallas, somehow, stumbled into the second coming of Lawrence Taylor. He's already fully formed as a pass-rusher, but, given his age, there's still the tantalizing prospect that there's more to come.
Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
As a collection of skills go, Josh Allen's is unmatched. He has the size. He has the arm talent. He has the mobility. He can rip throws 60 yards downfield across his body and run over linebackers … sometimes on the same play. If aliens descended today and asked Earth to play a one-off game to decide the fate of humanity, Allen would be the first pick in the draft - and not necessarily for Team Humankind.
But there is a nagging sense that Allen and the Bills may have missed their winning window. Not to win one title (or maybe two), but to put together the kind of dynastic streak that Mahomes and the Chiefs have already kickstarted.
Another postseason disappointment this year was compounded by the win-all outlook they took last offseason - signing Von Miller to a giant contract on defense and adding pieces on offense to help in the present, rather than looking long-term. They pushed a bunch of chips into 2022 in order to make up for the disappointment of losing the season before. That was a bust, and it leaves the Bills staring down what could be a painful offseason.
Allen's cap hit will jump to $40m next year, which is right up on the threshold of the figure where teams remain competitive. They will probably have to sacrifice the backbone of a talented defense in order to supplement Allen on offense.
Allen is a stud. The Bills roster is still loaded. But it's tough to picture the team threading the needle of maximizing what's left of this run and regenerating the roster before elements of Allen's game begin to decline. In many ways, his arc projects more like Aaron Rodgers' than Brady's: the immensely talented gunslinger consistently undercut by the roster around him rather than the relentless perfectionist who landed in the ideal situation.
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore Ravens
If we're talking GOAT candidates, you cannot leave out Tucker. The gulf in excellence from Brady to the tier-two (yes, it feels rude to write that) quarterbacks - Manning, Montana, et al - is the same as the gulf from Tucker to everyone else who plays his position.
An undrafted rookie a decade ago, Tucker has since earned a Super Bowl title, five first-team All-Pro selections, and respect from around the league - no small feat for a kicker.
Tucker's 91.1% accuracy on field-goal attempts is the best in NFL history. And he's not only the most accurate, but he's also the best in high-pressure situations. Tucker has a 95.4% field goal conversion rate in the second half/overtime (165 of 173) - the best in NFL history. He recently hit a streak of converting 59 straight field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime, the longest in league history. It included an NFL-record 66-yarder in 2021 in the closing moments of a 19-17 win in Detroit.
"I equate him to Mariano Rivera, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods," Ravens special teams coach Randy Brown told ESPN last year. "They're the guys who want the ball at the end of the game and the end of their tournament.
There are few players in the history of the game that you can say had a mastery of their craft that matched up with Brady's over his. Tucker is one of them. And at just 33 years old, he can play for another 10 years, minimum. He already tops or is encroaching on the top spot of every statistical category at his position - and has the clutch kicks to boot. That leaves him plenty of time to lap the field.