By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — No matter the profession and no matter the industry, spending 20 years in the same job is quite the achievement.
Holding on to a quarterback job for the same team in the NFL for 20 years? That’s simply unheard of.
Nevertheless, Tom Brady — as he does in many aspects of his profession — is doing the unthinkable, embarking on Year 20 as a quarterback for the Patriots. And if you believe his stated goals, he doesn’t have any plans on slowing down.
Over the course of those decades under center for New England, Brady has authored a memorable pass or two. Maybe even three. It’s hard to keep track at this point.
While the body of work for arguably the best quarterback of all time is quite substantial, it’s worth taking some time in these dog days of summer to try narrow down exactly which 10 of Brady’s 10,964 career pass attempts in the NFL are his best. That may be a bit of an aggressive mission, and there’s sure to be some disagreement. Yet, it’s worth a shot.
Just like a great pass on a football field, so much of life is about great timing. In the case of this little project, finding the right timing was tough to pin down exactly. Yet, after Brady was asked this week on his weekly radio interview to rank some of his best throws, the topic was thrown somewhat to the forefront of the Boston sports conversation. (That may be a slight exaggeration, but it has inspired some discussion and some tweets and videos, thus making this a proper time to go live with this here project. It was coming out anyway, so why not now?)
To reiterate, when distilling the massive list of available passes down to just 10, some are naturally going to be overlooked. Nevertheless, here’s one attempt at condensing the 20-year Hall of Fame career down to the 10 best, most memorable throws.
10. Brady’s Back
2009, Week 1 vs. Bills
Imagine, if you can, a world where Tom Brady missed the 2008 season due to a torn ACL and upon returning to the field was never quite the same. That is indeed a very dark timeline to explore.
Of course, ever since that cursed 2008 season, Brady has built himself a second Hall of Fame career to stack on top of the Hall of Fame career he built from 2001-07. (When he gets enshrined in Canton, perhaps he should get two busts. Or you know what, just to be safe, why don’t you go ahead and give him his own wing in the building?)
That second act began on Monday Night Football, in Week 1, at home, against the Bills. The Patriots trailed by 11 points with 5:25 left to play.
Brady went 9-for-11 for 81 yards, capping the drive with an 18-yard bullet to Ben Watson.
After a tremendous biff by Leodis McKelvin, the Patriots immediately took over at the Buffalo 31-yard line. Brady hit Randy Moss for six yards, then he hit Wes Welker for nine yards. Brady then fired another bullet — this one from 16 yards out — to Watson in the end zone. Touchdown.
In the final three Patriots drives of the night, Brady went 18-for-21 for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
A decade has passed and the Bills still haven’t recovered.
Brady’s entire career was established on being great late in close games. This return to football let the league know that nothing would be changing.
(Yes, we’re starting this list off with two throws counting for one spot. Deal with it.)
9. Super Bowl Winner To Gronk
2018, Super Bowl LIII vs. Rams
For most every quarterback, throwing just one pass to win one Super Bowl would serve as the iconic moment that defines the player’s career.
For Tom Brady, this one’s just sort of like, “Oh, yeah. That one was all right. Neat.”
Indeed, Brady has authored many better throws. But this one was still pretty spectacular.
It moved the Patriots from the Rams’ 31-yard line down to the 2-yard line; Sony Michel plunged into the end zone on the next snap to give New England a 10-3 and provide all the points needed to secure a sixth Super Bowl win for Brady and the Patriots.
Gronkowski was covered tightly by the linebacker, but Brady knew he couldn’t wait to throw the pass, given where the safety was playing. So Brady threw the ball to a spot where he knew only his hulking tight end could get it. Magic ensued.
Apropos of nothing … this was a pretty nice throw to win a Super Bowl. pic.twitter.com/WBqSpQCfop
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) August 13, 2019
8. The Record-Setter
2007, Week 17 @ New York Giants
(2007) Randy Moss breaks Jerry Rice's single season TD record (23) and Brady breaks Peyton Manning's single season passing TD record (50). pic.twitter.com/7tfayD7qaJ
— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) July 30, 2017
Sure, the 2007 has lost a lot of its luster because of its ending, but man, those days were simply fun to watch. Tom Brady and Randy Moss — two of the greatest athletes to ever play their respective positions — treating the NFL like an intramural flag football league every week was a sight to behold.
And they capped it off in style, too, with Brady hitting Moss for a 65-yard bomb up the right sideline, giving Brady his record 50th touchdown pass on the season and Moss his record 23rd touchdown. (Brady’s record would be beaten by Peyton Manning a few years later, while Moss’ record still stands.)
There are two things that are great about this play. One, the Patriots had just run Moss on a go route up the right sideline one snap earlier, but the connection didn’t work. Rather than give Moss a breather, the Patriots sent Moss right back up the sideline. Moss toasted his man, and Brady threw a perfect strike to his Moss in stride.
The other great part is that, after allowing himself to celebrate for maybe 4 seconds, Brady immediately got back into game mode, jogging up to the line while getting his teammates into a huddle for a two-point conversion. (That conversion was successful.)
Brady later had a chance to throw touchdown No. 51, but he ended up handing the ball to Laurence Maroney from the 5-yard line for the putaway touchdown. Boo!
7. The Greatest Game In Gillette Stadium History
2014, Divisional Playoffs vs. Ravens
Arguably the best throw of Brady's career. Pats were down 14 twice that night but still managed to top the Ravens 35-31 in this Divisional Round game played in 2015. pic.twitter.com/i3qOkhLzCQ
— LB (@LB_NFL) July 9, 2019
The greatest game in the history of Gillette Stadium was won with one of the greatest passes of Tom Brady’s career.
Kind of perfect, no?
The Patriots rallied from a 14-0 hole and then a 28-14 deficit in this one, yet they still trailed 31-28 in the fourth quarter. And with a first-and-10 at the Baltimore 23-yard line, the Patriots were in position to at the very least kick a field goal to tie the game. But given the seesaw nature of the game to that point, a field goal probably would not have gotten it done.
So, Brady casually took a shotgun snap and quickly lobbed a floater to a spot on the goal line. LaFell pinned it to his midsection to secure the catch that proved to be the game-winner.
(To be fair, this probably wasn’t even Brady’s best pass to LaFell from that season. The touchdown pass in Green Bay was similar but more absurd. But, you know, moment, stakes, etc.)
To add to the moment, the touchdown to LaFell was Brady’s 46th career playoff touchdown, which moved him past Joe Montana for most all time. It also set franchise records for most yards and receptions in a single playoff games, with Brady beating his own records.
6. A Legend Is Born
2001, Super Bowl XXXVI vs. Rams
Fun fact of the day:
My cousin David Patten caught Tom Brady's first ever super bowl touchdown pass pic.twitter.com/TyZCuSddpa
— Dark Lord Iro (@Boss_pliskin) January 17, 2019
To be quite honest, I wanted to include the simple little 5-yard completion to J.R. Redmond that kick-started that game-winning drive as the Super Bowl XXXVI representative for this list, because I’ve got this longstanding belief that if Brady hadn’t escaped the near-sack by Leonard Little or if he had thrown the ball away or spiked it into the ground, then that drive would have been killed before it even started. Without that tiny gain, who knows how differently Super Bowl XXXVI would be remembered?
Still, that was a little dump-off, so it only gets a mention, rather than an entry.
Instead, we’ll highlight Brady’s lone touchdown pass of that first Super Bowl, a picture-perfect lob to the back of the end zone after a subtle little pump-fake that cleared the passing lane. Patten, just as he did a week earlier in Pittsburgh on a pass from Drew Bledsoe, made a tremendous catch, this time giving the Patriots a 14-3 lead over the Rams and putting the football world on alert that yes, the Patriots might actually win the football game.
BONUS THROW: The Tuck Rule
2001, Divisional Playoffs vs. Raiders
While we’re on the subject of the 2001 season, and while we’re exploring what-ifs … we have to at least give Brady credit for the most important incompletion of his career. Right?
Great throw, Tom. Way to keep the season alive.
BONUS THROW: Game-Winner To Patten
2002, Week 10 @ Chicago
One of the many reasons why I love this team: 2002 vs Bears, Brady hits Patten for a game-winning TD and whole team hugs him. goosebumps. pic.twitter.com/I6tSRNAURw
— Brent Schwartz (@BrentSchwartzz) June 16, 2017
In keeping with the theme, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention this near-walkoff TD to Patten the following season.
What a pass.
The 2002 team obviously underachieved, but earning this win in Champaign, after they trailed 27-6 late in the third quarter, has to stand as one of the more outrageous victories in Patriots history.
5. OT Winner To Troy Brown
2003, Week 7 @ Miami
Brady's 82 yard GW TD to Troy Brown vs Miami in OT (2003)
— '04 Rabih Abdullah (@ftbeard_17) December 7, 2018
I mean, would you come on with this one? The fake pitch and the quick pump fake created a bit of an odd start to this play, but it didn’t matter much a few seconds later when Brady casually backed up to the 12-yard line and nonchalantly chucked an absolute bomb up the field to Troy Brown.
Perfect pass, perfect catch, perfect play to cap off an unforgettable midseason win in a place where victories have never come easy for the Patriots.
This was the third straight win for the Patriots, as they kicked off an unprecedented streak of 21 consecutive victories. Brady’s overall numbers in this game don’t jump out, but as is usually the case, he made the biggest play in the biggest moment of the game.
(Special assist to Olindo Mare for making it possible, of course.)
BONUS THROW: Bullet To Patterson
2018, Week 14 @ Miami
This came in a game the Patriots lost in ridiculous fashion, and it wasn’t a particularly noteworthy day otherwise. But this pass was just pure. It was so pure. It was a missile. It was perfectly placed. And it came at a time when all sorts of analysts who wanted to sound smart were saying that Brady’s arm strength was cooked.
Those people are bozos. Look at that pass.
BONUS PASS: More Lasers From The Old Man
2018, Divisional Playoffs, vs. Chargers
If we’re going to highlight fastballs from 2018, we can’t exclude this puppy. Woof.
Are 41-year-olds with reported “noodle arm” even allowed to throw passes like that?
4. Third-Down Laser
2014, Super Bowl XLIX vs. Seahawks
A play that was remembered most for the thunderous hit laid by Kam Chancellor on Julian Edelman was preceded by a brilliant game of chicken played by Tom Brady and Bobby Wagner.
The Seahawks’ linebacker had picked off a Brady pass over the middle earlier in the game, which no doubt reminded Brady to be particularly careful of the linebacker’s presence. And on this play — a gotta-have-it third-and-14, backed up on his own 28-yard line while trailing by 10 points with 11 minutes left to play — Brady had the sense to wait, and wait, and wait, doing just enough to look Wagner off and get him to bite, thus clearing the narrowest of passing lanes for a long completion to Edelman on a deep in-cut.
Exploring some old things and enjoyed watching the All-Pro game of chicken between Brady and Bobby Wagner on the famous 3rd/14 to Edelman in SB49. Wagner had gotten Brady earlier with a pick over the middle. Brady won this round. pic.twitter.com/vg4suCibXL
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) August 14, 2019
Only a perfect strike would have worked here, and well, you know by now that the perfect strike was delivered.
That was one completion (for 21 yards) in a stretch where Brady went 13-for-15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns against a historically great defense in the fourth quarter to win a Super Bowl. Pretty special.
BONUS THROW: Stitched Up
2017, AFC Championship Game vs. Jaguars
The fact that he played as well as he did kind of overshadowed the fact that playing quarterback with stitches in your throwing hand is actually really difficult to do. it didn’t look difficult though when Brady was buzzing completions to Danny Amendola to convert third-and-17’s against the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense.
3. Staying Alive
2015, AFC Championship Game at Denver
In the 2015 AFC title game, Tom Brady was under attack. The Denver pass rush teed off on the offensive line and Brady for 60 minutes, recording four sacks and a preposterous 17 quarterback hits. Seventeen.
This was also a game where Patriots running backs gained just 31 yards total for the entire game.
Yet somehow, the Patriots still had a chance to win the game. That was largely because of the work of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, two of the best to ever play their positions.
Facing a fourth-and-10 at midfield with 1:34 left on the clock, after he had been taken down by DeMarcus Ware on each of the previous two plays, Brady took a shotgun snap and dropped back before arching a rainbow up the right seam to a double-covered Gronkowski. As is a theme on this list, a perfect pass was required for a completion to be made. A perfect pass, of course, was what came.
Four plays later (and one snap after getting hit by three Broncos at the same time), Brady hit Gronkowski for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal to cut the Denver lead to two points, but the two-point conversion was unsuccessful. (Gronkowski was open on the play, but Brady went to Edelman. Go figure.)
The Patriots lost the game, and the Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl. That hurts. But Brady and Gronkowski got absolutely pummeled all game long, yet they never quit. Their titanic effort on that final drive should never got lost to history.
BONUS THROW: Perfection
2016, Super Bowl LI vs. Falcons
For three quarters, Tom Brady did not look like Tom Brady in Super Bowl LI. But then, well, he remembered who he is. And he did things like this:
Just watching some football. pic.twitter.com/5QTkfEib6y
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) August 13, 2019
BONUS THROW: Branch For 52
Super Bowl XXXVIII vs. Panthers
No matter how you remember the Deion Branch era … it was a lot more fun than you might remember. He and Brady made plays like this look routine.
Hey, speaking of which …
2. Deep Ball To Branch
2004 AFC Championship Game In Pittsburgh
The craziest part about the 14-2 Patriots getting to the Super Bowl in 2004 is that they had to go through the 15-1 Steelers in order to get there — a 15-1 Steelers team that had beaten the Patriots and ended their 21-game winning streak earlier that season, no less. That’s some rotten luck for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
But the early 2000s Patriots didn’t put much stock in luck, and so they went out and absolutely whooped the Steelers 41-27. Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions. Meanwhile Brady, playing with a fever that reportedly reached 103 degrees, did all that he needed to do.
That included an absolute beauty of a deep ball to Deion Branch, a pass that went for 60 yards and put the Patriots up 10-0 in the first quarter. (The result of the play was almost identical to one that Brady and Branch executed in Denver earlier that season.)
Brady threw the ball from his own 33-yard line and dropped it in the bucket at the Pittsburgh 15-yard line. Branch made an over-the-shoulder catch after the ball had traveled over 50 yards, right over a helpless Deshea Townsend.
With that, the Steelers’ Super Bowl dreams were crushed, and the Patriots took one giant leap toward establishing their dominance.
1. A Desperation Heave In Super Bowl XLII
“WHAT?!” you may be screaming, apoplectic at the sight of the celebration of anything from Super Bowl XLII, aka The Darkest Timeline Come To Life. “How on earth could anything — anything — be considered a positive from a Patriots perspective from that evening? HOW, MICHAEL? HOW?”
Listen. I get it. This was the night that perfection died. This was the night that the historic offense that scored 37 points per game during the regular season and scored 38 points against the Giants outdoors and on the road in Week 17 was somehow held to just 14 measly points. This was the evening that The Great And Powerful Tom Brady was sacked five times and thus kept in check.
This was, quite simply, a heartbreaking night.
You’re right about that.
But all of that heartache has led to the scrubbing of some memories of that game. Surely, if not for a helmet catch, Brady-to-Moss for the game-winning touchdown would have its own mural somewhere in Patriot Place.
But that’s not the pass that’s getting the spotlight today. No, this spotlight belongs to a ball that wasn’t even completed. This spotlight will be shining directly on a pass with a result that actually played a big role in the Patriots losing the game. This spotlight will go to a play call that probably wasn’t the best idea from a football sense.
Nevertheless, the throw that Brady uncorked on a third-and-20 from his own 16-yard line was — in one sports man’s opinion — the single greatest athletic feat of his career.
That’s up for debate, but consider the following:
–Tom Brady had just been piledriven into the turf by 280-pound defensive lineman Jay Alford.
–Brady released the ball from his own 13-yard line, a few yards outside of the right hash marks. The ball came down at the Giants’ 21-yard line, right on the numbers. In strict terms of yardage, the ball was thrown 66 yards. But accounting for the distance it traveled across the field, the ball traveled over 80 yards in the air.
–Despite all of that and despite Randy Moss running at full speed into double coverage … Brady managed to hit Moss directly in the hands.
You have to understand: That is impossible.
Giants cornerback Corey Webster was able to get his fingertip on the football, changing the trajectory just enough to prevent arguably the greatest pass and catch in Super Bowl history from being completed. That’s the shame of it.
But go back up and watch that pass again. There was Brady, in the absolute peak of his powers, throwing to the best weapon he’s ever been given, in the world’s biggest sports stage, with more on the line than any team has ever experienced before. And there was Brady throwing a pass that wouldn’t have been possible to even make on a video game.
The result was obviously a historic bummer. But athletically, it simply does not get better than that. Period.