Forget those comparisons to Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.
The athletes Tom Brady deserves mention with are names like John Havlicek, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, yes, Babe Ruth -- Hall of Famers who won championships not just years apart but over the span of more than a decade.
Brady’s longevity as an NFL championship quarterback is unprecedented. Before Sunday, no starting QB in the Super Bowl era had ever won championships more than eight years apart. Brady’s run now covers 13 seasons, from his first title in 2001 to his fourth in Super Bowl XLIX.
The only previous quarterback to win NFL championships more than a decade apart was Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas, who won his first two titles in 1958 and ’59 and was the starting quarterback in Super Bowl V at the end of the ‘70 season. But whereas Brady threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns against the Seattle Seahawks, Unitas was injured against the Dallas Cowboys, and finished the afternoon on the bench, having completed only 3-of-9 passes for 88 yards, one TD and two interceptions.
In NFL history, the only player with a longer championship run than Brady’s was the Cleveland Browns’ Lou Groza, who won league titles 14 years apart (1950-64) as a placekicker, a position where lengthy careers are common.
Among championship quarterbacks, Brady’s longevity laps the field. Sid Luckman won four titles for the Chicago Bears six years apart. Cleveland’s Otto Graham picked up three NFL titles over six seasons. Bart Starr’s record five NFL crowns for the Green Bay Packers (including the first two Super Bowls) came over seven seasons. Bradshaw won four Super Bowls in six years, Montana four in nine, and Dallas’ Troy Aikman three in four.
Brady’s 13-year championship span is more than double what Luckman, Graham, Bradshaw achieved and more than three times Aikman’s run.
The rough and tumble world of professional football doesn’t breed long careers, certainly not at a championship level. To get a better appreciation of Brady’s achievement, it might be better to look at other sports.
The Montreal Canadiens’ duo of Henri Richard and Beliveau won Stanley Cups 17 and 15 years apart, respectively, from the mid-1950s to the early ‘70s. Havlicek, the Celtics Hall of Famer, won his first NBA title in 1963 and his final one 13 years later in ‘76. Another Celtic, Robert Parish, won four NBA crowns over a 16-year period (1981-97). But “The Chief’s” final title in ’97 was as a third-string center for the Chicago Bulls, a far cry from his days as a member of the potent Boston front court with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.
The longest current NBA title span belongs to Duncan, whose five NBA crowns with the San Antonio Spurs were won during a 15-year stretch (1999-2014).
The NBA record-holder for championship longevity is Abdul-Jabbar who won his first title as a Milwaukee Buck in 1971 with Oscar Robertson, and his sixth and final crown 17 years later in ‘88 with the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson.
Seventeen years is also the length between George Herman Ruth’s first and final championships. When the Babe won his first World Series in 1915, he was an up-and-coming pitcher (18-8, 2.44 ERA) with the Boston Red Sox. By time he won his seventh Fall Classic in 1932 with the New York Yankees, the Sultan of Swat was the nation’s most famous athlete. His “called shot” home run in Game 3 of the ’32 Series against the Chicago Cubs is one of baseball’s iconic moments.
Another Hall of Famer to capture World Series titles 17 seasons apart was Baltimore Orioles ace Jim Palmer. As a 19-year-old, Palmer won Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, besting the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax in Koufax’s final major league appearance. One day shy of his 38th birthday, in Game 3 of the 1983 Series, Palmer came out of the bullpen to top another future Hall of Fame lefty, Philadelphia’s Steve Carlton.
Tom Brady, 37, isn’t finished. He talks of playing football into his 40s and adding more Super Bowl titles to his record total of 21 playoff wins.
If Brady could add another championship, it would set an NFL precedent. Unlike baseball, basketball and hockey, where the Yankees, Celtics and Canadiens built championship runs that spanned decades, football dynasties are not portable. Since the start of the NFL’s playoff era in 1933, no franchise has ever won multiple championships in consecutive decades.
After ruling the 1940s, the Bears were shut out in the ‘50s. The Packers, who lorded over the ‘60s, didn’t win a single playoff game in the ‘70s. The Steelers, dominant in the ‘70s, didn’t win another Super Bowl until the next century, and the 49ers have claimed only one championship since winning four in the ‘80s. The three-time champion Cowboys of the ‘90s are still looking for their next Lombardi Trophy.
Brady’s Patriots, having won three Super Bowls in the 2000s and another in the 2010s have another goal to shoot at: becoming the NFL’s first multi-decade dynasty.