Is Tom Brady the GOAT? Or did we just witness history’s greatest fit between a unique quarterback skill set and a transcendent football system?
Join us as I interview my father on one of the most discussed topics in sports today – where does Tom Brady sit on the greatest quarterback of all-time list? For most pundits, he’s the undisputed GOAT, and for good reason. There’s no question that TB12 is the most accomplished quarterback in history, and for many that is synonymous with being the GOAT. But should it be? My dad, who claims he’s been studying the Patriots for years, offers his take in this extensive interview.
Ash: This whole debate about whether or not Tom Brady is the GOAT. I think everybody is approaching it all wrong.
Aidan: Agree. He’s been to nine Super Bowls and won six. I think he’s won every division title since I was born. There shouldn’t be a debate.
Ash: Let’s look deeper. Consider that he’s four fluke plays away from having only won two Super Bowls. Take away the crazy tuck rule call. A bonehead play call by Seattle. An even bigger bonehead play call by Atlanta, and a guy lining up offsides for Kansas City, and he’s left with two rings and we’d be having a very different conversation about Brady. Vinatieri shanks a couple of kicks and he might not have any Super Bowl wins.
Aidan: Weak. He’s also two miracle catches by the Giants and a Wes Welker drop pass away from having eight Super Bowl wins, and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. By your logic, I bet you could find a similar set of key plays that would redefine the perception of any quarterback’s career. Or an NBA career. That’s why you’ve gotta’ look at the body of work over a period of time to wash away all the noise.
Ash: I agree, in order to have a real debate about the GOAT, you must look deeper than the numbers and stats, and consider all the context, not just the outcome.
Aidan: Okay, let’s get into this. You’ve been ‘studying’ the Patriots for years. Is it because you’re a big fan?
Ash: In full disclosure, I’m a life-long Dolphin fan, so no, quite the contrary.
Aidan: So why have you been studying the Pats for years, and what does that exactly mean – to study them?
Ash: For me it’s like running a company and then studying the competition to learn from them because they repeatedly kick your ass. Maybe it’s my McKinsey DNA, but I just needed to understand why the Pats have been consistently dominant for nearly two decades, and more importantly, why nobody has been able to close the gap. In business, I get it. It’s a free market built to create winners and losers. I can understand why companies like Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, Disney, Google, and Walmart win. I can deduce their strategy and mission and culture, even their investment philosophy – heck, they often put it out there. I can make sense of why some of these companies have crushed their competition for years. But the NFL is constructed to drive parity. The salary cap, draft, free agency – all in place to level the playing field. Those underlying principles should not allow for one team to dominate for decades. Maybe for a few years, but not for decades.
Aidan: You’ve told me that to truly answer the TB12 question, you need to start with understanding the Belichick and the Patriots system. Why?
Ash: Analogues are never perfect but let me try one on you that might answer that question. Let’s say you’re the owner of a NASCAR team and your engineers develop a Next Gen stock car – also known as a Gen 7 stock car – that is an engineering breakthrough. It’s a fully legal car, but if driven correctly, it will win nearly every race – it’s just that much better of a machine. But here’s the rub. It turns out that finding a driver to drive it “correctly” is a lot harder than your team anticipated. To achieve the car’s potential, the driver needs to have a certain skill set that many might even consider antithetical to the ‘prototypical’ driver. However, if your team can find that one driver, odds are, the combination will make history. So, I think you know where I am going with this. It’s my contention that the Patriots have created the NFL version of a superior race car and Tom Brady is the one driver, with a unique skill set, that can get the most out of it, making that combination lethal. And the results speak for themselves.
Aidan: Okay, I do see where you’re going, and there’s quite a bit to unpack there, but let me start with the biggest issue I have with your analogy. I’ve heard you argue, quite convincingly, that of the four major sports, football was the most subject to randomness and that statistically it’s probably the most challenging sport to effectively apply analytics to win-loss outcomes. But in this analogy, you literally compare football to a race car – quite possibly the most precisely engineered machines in the world. There’s a contradiction there, don’t you think?
Ash: You’re absolutely right, and it’s why I believe that all these sports talk show debates about whether it’s more Brady or more Belichick are missing the point. The question we should all be asking is this: How have the Patriots built a better football machine? Or put another way, what is the secret sauce to this ‘system’ that they’ve built and why has nobody, even all of Belichick’s disciples, not been able to replicate it? Which then naturally leads to questions about how and why is Tom Brady the perfect quarterback to run the machine? Could anyone else run it… etc… etc?
Aidan: I’m calling BS on that because now you are already operating from the paradigm that it’s the system and not Tom Brady, which you have yet to effectively argue, let alone convince me.
Ash: Fair enough, but let me ask you this. When is the last time a great quarterback won a Super Bowl with a bad team, or even an average team? I think the answer is never. Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls, and not all the teams he’s won with have been great. So, is he simply that much better than every quarterback in history? Or is it more feasible that he is simply driving a better car? What does Occam’s razor tell us?
Aidan: Fine, let’s talk about this alleged machine. I want to start with your assertion about football being the major sport that’s outcome can be least determine by analytics. I think a lot of people would completely disagree with that.
Ash: Let me make one thing clear, I think football is by far, by a mile, the most complicated and intellectually demanding sport on the planet. So, let me explain what I mean. In my opinion, there’s a reason why there’s no version of “MoneyBall” for football. Baseball is ripe for statistical modeling that can be correlated to win-loss outcomes for two overarching reasons. First, the number of variables is relatively small versus any other sport. Second, there are so many games that over time predictive analytics tend to work, as well as providing tons of data. Anything can happen in 10 games, but over the course of 162 games, the law of averages, or statistical modeling, will probably play out.
Aidan: What do you mean when you say the relative number of variables is small?
Ash: In baseball, the number of situations and outcomes is miniscule compared to any other major sport. Let me give you just a few examples. Every game has 54 outs and nine innings. There is no clock. There is only one unit of score – a run. Every ‘play’ is an at bat with a finite set of outcomes, and those outcomes are not usually dependent on multiple other players doing their job. Relative to any other sport, umpires rarely play a key role in the outcome of a game. Injuries are the exception rather than the rule. Weather rarely plays a factor. There are 162 games. And most importantly, there are so few errors that you can practically eliminate that from any statistical modeling. There are dozens of other reasons, but I think you get the point.
Aidan: Okay, I’ll buy that. And it makes sense that MoneyBall wouldn’t necessarily hold up in the playoffs because there are so few games so more random factors play a bigger role.
Exactly. Now let’s look at Football. Almost the opposite end of the spectrum on every one of those variables. There are an infinite combination of situations and outcomes just by combining three variables such as the clock, down and distance, and field position. Nearly every play in football has multiple dependencies on several players on both sides of the ball. There are multiple units of scoring. Referees seem to impact the outcome of nearly every game. Injuries are the rule not the exception. Weather can play a big role. And most importantly, there are usually multiple ‘errors’ on every play. Think about the number of things that can constitute an error in football. It’s not just about turnovers, but what about a missed block, a bad pass, a missed kick, a dropped pass, a misread, a slip, a missed hole, a bad route, the list goes on and on. You can literally have a dozen ‘errors’ on a single play. And then there’s the fact that there are only 16 games, which means randomness can ruin your season and the law of probability will not always play out. I could go on and on. It’s funny because this plays out in fantasy football as well. I know it’s not a solid analogue but think about how infuriatingly random it can be. You can draft a killer looking team that doesn’t make the playoffs. Last year my team had the most points and tied for the worst record – what does that tell you? A few years ago, your mom nearly won the league when we forced her to play – she has not watched a football game in her life. These kinds of things rarely happen in fantasy baseball, or even fantasy basketball.
Aidan: Okay, let’s say you convinced me that football has the highest degree of randomness, or luck, or whatever you want to call it that makes it hard to accurately use predictive analytics to win. Despite all of this, you’re asserting that the Patriots cracked the code and figured out the football version of MoneyBall?
Ash: Well, it’s only my hypothesis or course, but yes, I believe they have. I think they’ve cracked the code whether you believe my assertion about football analytics or not. To be clear, a lot of people think Belichick’s system has made him the best coach in history – football or otherwise. But what I’m particularly focused on is the aspect of the Patriot system which supports my assertion that we shouldn’t rush to anoint Brady the GOAT.
Aidan: So, you’ve figured out the system?
No. Sorry. I mis-spoke. I don’t really purport to know what Belichick’s system is, and I am not talking about the ‘do your job’ mantra which is the thesis of his book. I’m talking about what I believe to be the overarching Patriot strategy or philosophy on which his system is built – the DNA, if you will. It’s an important distinction. By the way, I’ve mostly looked at offense because it addressed the Brady question directly. I have some thoughts on defense, but I haven’t studied that as much, so it’s pretty high level.
Aidan: Alright, time for the big reveal. Walk me through what you believe to be the philosophy.
Ash: Okay, this is the best way I’ve come up with to describe it. If my assertion about randomness is correct, then any winning strategy must start with reducing randomness, otherwise what’s the point? To that end, I would strive for predictability, consistency, and repeatability – in other words, I’d build the equivalent of a programmable football machine. The program would have a singular task: to optimize for the highest probability of consistently gaining positive yardage on every play, with a minimum of gaining 10 yards within three downs. The machine would need to be dispassionate and objective. It does not care about convention. It does not care about a balanced run-pass attack. It has no ego, nor does it respond to ego. I would program it so that each eligible player has ‘ordinary’ versus extraordinary capabilities. That would result in a program that does not require extraordinary feats in order to be successful – all that does is lower the probability of success. Which in turn means it does not require superstars in order to succeed. At a minimum, it requires every player to be able to make basic football plays. Which means every eligible player is completely fungible. By the way, the last point explains why the Patriots ‘miraculously’ overcome nearly every injury to seemingly “key” offensive players.
Aidan: That sounds incredibly boring.
Ash: Not only is it boring, but it is antithetical that everything football stands for. The machine is not built around playmakers that want the ball. If the machine determines it should throw a 7-yard slant to a sure handed slow slot receiver on every play, then it will. Or a dump pass to a running back at nauseum. And because it does not require extraordinary effort to succeed, a secondary benefit is less interceptions and incomplete passes because there is no need for low probability passes; as well as less fumbles while trying to get that one extra yard. The machine does not waste plays or take plays off. Every play matters. The machine doesn’t run the ball for no gain on 2nd and 3, like so many teams do because they are following their play chart. Or how about this scenario: on 3rd and 10, a team gains nine-and-a-half-yards to the opponents 40-yard line. The quarterback looks over to the coach, who in turn wonders if there will be a measurement, then hesitates, then has burn a timeout, which then gives the defense a chance to reset, and they subsequently get stuffed at the line and turn the ball over on downs. Infuriating. A machine does not pause to assess the situation. The machine hustles everyone to the line of scrimmage and runs an easy QB sneak or forces the defense to burn a timeout. These plays make big differences in outcomes of games. The machine knows that.
Here’s what I’m saying. We’ve all heard the expression ‘take what the defense gives you.’ But how many teams have the discipline to do that on every play of every game no matter what the circumstances? Think about it, if an offense truly had the discipline and ability to find the highest probability option on every play and execute it, over time, it will probably beat any defense more often than not. But it’s simply not in the DNA of most teams or how most players are wired.
Aidan: So, you’re saying that every player is just a 1 or a 0 in the Patriots football ‘program’ and the machine does not differentiate between them?
Aidan: I have a problem with that. What about when the machine has Gronkowski or Randy Moss? It does not seem like they were programmed as a 1 or 0. When the Patriots had Moss, I think he broke lots of records, and Gronk breaks records regularly. How does your theory account for that?
Ash: That’s a great point. Let me refine my description of the program. If the machine has a component that is truly extraordinary, then that can be built into the program. Just like in a video game. The higher the players rating, the more likely they are to catch a pass or break a tackle or whatever. The machine takes that into account when determining probabilities of the most optimal outcome. A 50-yard post to a double covered Randy Moss might still be a smarter play than a slant to an open Wes Welker when all scenarios are considered, which might not be the case if it was someone else running the post. The point is, when there is no Moss, the machine adjusts the program accordingly to still win.
Aidan: Any other aspects to the program?
Ash. Yes. The machine does not beat itself. The machine does not mismanage the clock – ever. Over the last decade, I’ve seen the Patriots win at least seven games because the other team mis-managed the clock, and they probably won another dozen because of how brilliantly they managed it. Don’t even get me started on this topic. Besides a couple of Super Bowls, it’s remarkable how few times the Patriots have lost on a last second play. And it’s not just clock management. The machine will not stop until it can kneel on the ball. The machine will not run it three times and punt it to Aaron Rodgers when it has a four-point lead and a minute on the clock, and then wonder how they let it slip away when he scores. I remember a game a couple of years ago against the Saints where the Patriots were up by 23 points with a few minutes to go and Brady throws a bomb downfield. Why? Because the play was there – the receiver was wide open. The machine has no conscience, it just calculates probability of a binary outcome – success or failure.
Aidan: What if the pass against the Saints would have been intercepted and then Brees rallied them late in the fourth quarter for a win, would you think differently about that play?
Ash: From my observations, I think the Patriots have programmed their machine not to run a ‘what if’ scenario but rather, they operate from a ‘most probably outcome’ paradigm. For example, if they have a slim lead against a good offensive team, they play out the entire scenario. Is winning more likely if you try to complete a safe pass against a team stacked to stop the run for a first down that locks the game, or running it three times, punting, and then hoping your defense holds? How often have you heard coaches justify ‘trusting my defense’ because they’ve been playing well all game, but then blow it in the end? Last season, last game of the season, the Packers were playing the Lions. Important game for Green Bay, they needed the win to get a bye. Detroit played them tough, and even had a nice lead in the fourth quarter. Of course, Rodgers gets on a roll and they tie the game, but Detroit has the ball with 1:40 to go and Green Bay has two time-outs left. There was no doubt in my mind that if they gave the ball back to Rodgers with any timeouts then Detroit would lose. What did Detroit do? They run 20 seconds off the clock and punt. Rodgers proceeds to drive them down the field and win the game on a last second field goal. I know that is a random example, but it happens all the time – all the time. The Patriot machine would never let that scenario play out. The machine knows that the last 2-minutes of every game hardly ever play out like the rest of the game up to that point. How in the world do other coaches not know that? I’ve seen the Patriots win by avoiding this scenario to their benefit again and again and again.
Aidan: Are you saying that the Patriot machine does not adjust based on the game situation? That the size of the lead and the time left in the game are not factors that impact the way the machine is programmed?
Ash: Not exactly. I think there is sort of a dial that they can turn that adjusts in extreme situations with big deficits or big leads, like a risk level-reward level dial for lack of a better term. But because the machine is always running to optimize for the highest probability of a positive outcome, they touch the dial significantly less when compared to how quickly other teams abandon their game plan under similar circumstances. The Patriots don’t sit on a lead or panic too early. The same concept applies when defenses adjust to whatever has been working for the Patriots. The machine will simply adjust to find the new highest probability outcome based on whatever the defense does differently.
Aidan: Okay, you’ve presented a compelling conceptual argument. The reason I say ‘conceptual’ is because I have one major problem with your theory. The way you describe the Patriot machine reminds me of a computer program, with one major difference. In a game, a lot of what you descried happens in real time. You can’t pre-program the machine to find the highest probability outcome when it doesn’t know what the defense is “giving it” to exploit.
Ash: You are absolutely right. The machine – the car, needs a driver. Enter Tom Brady (dramatic pause). To drive this magnificent football machine, as I said earlier, you need a driver – a quarterback, to quote Liam Neeson, with ‘a particular set of skills.’ Don’t get me wrong, Brady checks all the boxes on the prerequisite skills needed for being a great quarterback. But to run this machine, Brady must actually be a machine, almost embody it. Here’s where his unique skill-set comes into play. Brady’s ability and speed to read, react, and execute is literally off the chart. Equally important is Brady’s unique psychological makeup on the field. He’s unflappable and calm, and acts without responding to ego or preference, but rather on probability and outcome. There is no such thing as monotony to Brady – machines don’t get bored. He’ll hit slants and dump passes all day long. Tom’s ego doesn’t require him to make big plays or show off his arm, just like the system itself doesn’t require it either. When I think about all the highlight reels of amazing catches and throws, rarely do you see Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Patriots trademark is high probability passes to open receivers. Machines don’t panic, and neither does Brady. Machines don’t get frustrated, or try to do too much, or care about anybody’s stat line – including their own. Neither does Brady.
Aidan: You make him sound like a robot.
Ash: A robot programmed to get first downs in the most efficient and highly probabilistic way, whether that means two five-yard slants or a long throw downfield, depending solely on what he calculates in real time.
Aidan: And a hot wife.
Ash: That too.
Aidan: Let’s bring this back full circle then to your initial argument that we should not rush to anoint Tom Brady the GOAT because, while there is no denying his greatness, he might not have had the same level of success if he played within a different system – or to use your analogy – if he was driving a different car.
Ash: I know this seem evasive, but I think I can make an argument both for and against Brady being the GOAT. The against argument is that the car is just so much better than any other car that I simply must diminish, even a little, the amount of credit that goes to the driver. I’m in awe of the Patriots, who have built the perfect combination of culture, philosophy, strategy, and execution. They’ve created a beautifully egoless culture where players are valued, but mostly fungible because extra-ordinary results can come from ordinary talent if you’re smart and willing to consistently ‘do your job.’ They eschew tradition and convention because they are irrelevant when you are innovating a new way to win. When it comes to execution, they’ve built a methodical and relentless football machine that ensures the Patriots never beat themselves through masterful preparation, game planning, adaptability, play calling, and clock management. They installed a quarterback who can operate the machine in real time in a systematic, relentless, adapt and learn, no-waste, probability-driven manner. It’s like machine learning artificial intelligence applied to football. It’s amazing and infuriating at the same time.
Aidan: So, what’s the argument that he is the GOAT?
Ash: First, we can’t punish Brady because he was given an amazing car. Every team in the NFL has a different system, so do we need to consider the system every time we assess the greatness of a quarterback? And how would we even objectively do that? Brady has driven his car into history. The only data point we have right now is Brady with the Patriots, and the results make him the unquestionable GOAT. Second, perhaps all of Brady’s unique skills should be the skills on which we measure a quarterback’s greatness. All he’s done is win with them. Even to this day we really haven’t found an objective, universal way in which to truly determine how to measure a quarterback’s greatness. QBR? Really? And lastly, it shouldn’t matter how Brady would or would not perform in a different system. It’s flawed logic. If, and when, he plays for new team – the Bucs it would seem – it isn’t clear if he will have to adjust to them or they will adapt to his skills. Everyone is speculating but it’s just fodder for sports talk shows. Again, keep in mind, this is how I would ‘argue’ for him being the GOAT, although I’m not saying I agree with it.
Aidan: Okay, moment of truth. Is it the man or the machine? Is Brady the GOAT?
Ash: It’s incredibly close in my mind, but my gut says that it is slightly more machine, and that Brady is the BOAT, but not the undisputed GOAT. In the end, there are two reasons for landing here. Right or wrong, I believe that Belichick has a better chance to recreate this dynasty from scratch than Tom Brady would from scratch. I have no evidence for this obviously. But I guess we will find out. Personally, I simply think the better team will do better until Belichick can re-create the car-driver combination, which is likely Tampa – a Super Bowl ready team in need of a great quarterback. But if Tom Brady wins the Super Bowl with the Bucs, then we have to seriously entertain the reality that he is the machine. While it’s not a perfect A-B test, it will provide a key data point for this debate. Second, if I’m being intellectually honest, and I had to choose any quarterback in history during their prime, he would not be the first quarterback I would take if I were starting a new team and did not know the system or the coach. Top five, yes. But not first. And for the record, I would take Belichick before I would take any player.
Aidan: Fair enough. You said you had a quick thought on the defensive side of the machine?
This is going to be a lot less scientific. To me, Belichick is just that much smarter than everyone because he knows that in the end, teams stick to convention and their strengths, and he punishes them for it. He knows teams will eventually force it to their playmakers, and he’ll make you pay. He’ll neutralize their strengths and scheme against their tendencies. Without a disciplined machine to lean on, opponents have no choice but to go to the well, and he knows it. Sadly, his opponents will invariably mismanage the clock, and over the course of a season, I bet it probably nets the Patriots an average of three points per game. But most importantly, all the cultural and philosophical aspects of the Patriots organization still apply on defense – patience, discipline, methodical, poised, no glaring weaknesses, no taking plays off, no mental errors, do your job. On defense, Belichick is the master of football aikido. He takes what the offense gives him.
Aidan: You make them seem unbeatable. Although I won’t grill you on why they didn’t win the Super Bowl this year, out of curiosity, how in the world would you beat this football machine? I mean, what would your game plan be against the Patriots?
To beat a machine, I’d try to disrupt the program and confuse the decision-making process. Easier said than done. That means pressuring Brady of course, which isn’t easy because the machine does not need him to extend plays, but it has proven to work – think Denver in the Super Bowl. I’d be incredibly physical with their receivers to disrupt the machine’s timing and try to force their eligible players to become playmakers. I’d be equally relentless and aggressive the entire game – think Eagles in the Super Bowl. I wouldn’t waste a single play. I’d assume they are going to score at the end of every half if they have more than 45 seconds and not let them have the ball. I’d be completely unpredictable. I would try to confuse the machine with a game plan that went against all my tendencies. I’d prepare as if my best player is injured. I’d accept the fact that Belichick will out-coach me and adjust to anything I was doing, so I would fundamentally change my strategy every quarter. It’s funny, because I think if teams had two weeks to prepare for the Patriots, they’d have a much better chance to beat them. That’s my theory of why the Patriots have only really dominated one Super Bowl, because with only a week to prepare, most teams simply cannot pivot and adjust properly, so the machine just rolls them. In the end, my strategy would be to force the Patriots to have to play extraordinary football to beat me.
Aidan: Fair enough. Last question. Early on you said that the NFL is not like the free market where companies can dominate other companies for years in that the CBA is constructed with a level playing field being an underlying principle. And let’s say you’re right and the Patriots have figured out the secret sauce. Every team has been watching them do it for decades. Belichick has dozens of disciples that have had the opportunity to copy the machine. So, the obvious question is, why has nobody been able to replicate it?
Ash: That might be the easiest question of the day! Three reasons. First, finding the perfect fit between man and machine is not easy. But believe it or not, I don’t think that is the main reason. I happen to believe that there are other quarterbacks on the planet that could drive the Patriot machine. Second, the difference between executing this strategy perfectly versus getting close to executing it perfectly is the difference between 14-2 and 2-14. It’s not a linear relationship. It’s highly binary, just like most computer programs – they must be flawless, or the results are fundamentally wrong. For that to happen, the entire organization, top to bottom, must be 100% bought into every aspect, every belief, every decision, no matter how antithetical it seems to modern day NFL thinking. Think about how hard that is to create in an established organization. Lastly, and this will be highly controversial, so I hate to end on it, but I strongly believe in this approach for every major sport. I don’t see the Patriots as a ‘player centric’ organization, which I think is smart. They run their organization like a well-oiled business. Great companies have a clear vision and develop a winning strategy to achieve it. I think sports teams should be run the same way. Their first job is the beat the competition, not make players or ‘employees’ happy. Don’t get me wrong, if you treat your employees like crap, they won’t execute for you, but you get my point. The job of most employees is to execute against a strategy with operating excellence, and it’s not a democracy. Great companies are not built around catering to superstars, past or present. Which means you should be careful of how many former players you employ in key leadership positions. In sports, I believe that the organizations that operate that way build enduring, winning cultures. I know this sounds cold, but if you get caught up in the ‘romance’ of the game – tradition, loyalty, rewarding sacrifice, and all that stuff – it might feel good but, in the end, it’s not a winning formula. From the outside looking in, I think the Patriots run their team like a business that answers to its shareholders, the fans, not the players.
Aidan: I have a lot of questions about your last point, but why don’t we save that for a separate interview, because I think there is enough controversy there to warrant it. But for now, let’s bring this interview to a close. I’ll conclude by saying that while you made a compelling argument of why it’s more machine than man, in the end, I’m not fully convinced and still consider Brady the GOAT. But I will leave the door open depending on what I see next year from him and the Patriots.