Last month, a football analytics article took the Boston Sports Media by storm… in July. I was personally caught off guard, as I was still focused on NBA and NHL free agency, and immersed in the heart of baseball season, but the NFL has a way of dominating the local and national sports culture at will.
The article, by Cian Fahey of presnapreads.com, was about the challenges aging quarterbacks face, highlighted by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning, and provided detailed breakdowns of their performances in 2016.
The parts about Brady were the highlight of the discussion on Boston radio, of course. Over the course of a week, I heard at least three different pronunciations of Fahey’s first name as hosts and callers reacted to Fahey’s analysis. Brady has won five Super Bowls and played in seven, and just came off the best age 39 season by a quarterback in NFL history. The article was presented as a hot take, that Brady might already be in decline, and Patriots fans have heard people in the national media proclaiming Brady’s decline for nearly a decade now. It still has not happened.
Tom Brady turns 40 today (and I encourage everyone to read the stories Mike Reiss of ESPN compiled to celebrate the milestone), but, without sounding like too much of a homer, I need to see Brady decline before I believe he is actually declining at this point. I have counted him out personally too many times, and I have scoffed at too many pundits and analysts who counted him out even if deep down I had my doubts–with Super Bowl LI being the most obvious and recent example–to go down that road before Bill Belichick starts Jimmy Garoppolo over a healthy Brady in a meaningful game.
The point about arm strength is a fair concern, and missing the first four games of the season had to help him hold up, as outraged about the Deflategate nightmare as Patriots fans were. But arm strength is less of a concern for Brady than a lot of other quarterbacks because of the way he plays and the way Josh McDaniels orchestrates the New England offense to play to Brady’s strengths. He doesn’t rely on the deep ball. He’s not the Justin Verlander of QBs. That’s Aaron Rodgers. Brady is Dallas Keuchel. If arm strength were everything, Jay Cutler (who I guess would be Aroldis Chapman if we’re going to keep comparing quarterbacks to pitchers) would still be in the NFL and not in the Fox broadcast booth.
Even if his skills have declined, there are only a handful of teams that could take advantage of this 40 year old superstar. Houston’s defense gave the Patriots fits in the playoffs for sure, but their quarterback was Brock Osweiler. This year, Osweiler is out of the picture and the effectiveness of Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson remains to be seen. Derek Carr and the Exiting Oakland Raiders could make a formidable foe, but their defense was nowhere near Houston’s last year and has a lot of room for improvement. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos have historically given Brady trouble, but Denver’s quarterback situation is unproven at best, and the injury to Joe Flacco could leave the Baltimore with more uncertainty than a team that has only made the playoffs once since winning the Super Bowl in 2013 would like.
The Falcons are clearly a team that can hang with the Patriots on both sides of the ball, but they are in the NFC, where the road to the Super Bowl is much tougher year in and year out. Also, given the way they imploded in a game they were so sure they had won that owner Arthur Blank was standing on the sideline preparing to celebrate as he instead watched his team lose, they might be damaged for 2017. The Pats had their share of struggles in the years that followed their 18-1 2008 campaign, and the decision to throw instead of hand off to Marshawn Lynch still haunts the Seattle Seahawks two and a half years later.
The best thing Brady has going for him late in his prime is a league that mostly does not have an answer for him, much like LeBron James in basketball. The only difference is there is no juggernaut on par with the Warriors that are definitively better than Brady’s team. Not only is Brady the greatest QB, but Bill Belichick is the greatest coach, and Rob Gronkowski is the greatest tight end. It’s like if LeBron was on the Warriors. Okay, maybe I am a homer.
My belief in Brady at 40 is as much about the results on the field as the stories Reiss highlighted about his insane level of competitiveness at every stage in his adult life. From pickup basketball games when he was at Michigan to chugging beer at a bar in Rochester to refusing to give an inch to any backup, even if he knew he wasn’t going to start the September games in 2016, Brady is as dialed in now as he was when he was taken 199th by a team that already had a franchise QB. If Jimmy Garoppolo’s entire career as an NFL starter is just those six magnificent quarters last fall, he will go down as one of the greatest draft picks in the Belichick Era because of the level his presence made Brady reach late in his career. Then again, that narrative might not be entirely fair to Brady.
Tom Brady’s career has been a joy to watch. It wasn’t all great, but the struggles in 2009 and 2010 only made what he accomplished these last few seasons even more impressive. At 40 one would think he is nearing the end, but Brady keeps moving the figurative goal posts for himself as efficiently as he moves the literal chains on the field. Take that for data!
I haven’t written a blog post that was just about the NFL since the Patriots traded offensive guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the preseason. After that, I went back to school, and one scandal after another got me less and less interested in the NFL. I love football, and I love the Patriots, but it had finally gotten to the point where the incompetence of the commissioner and the moral depravity of the league took me out of it. It’s a league that doesn’t care about the health of its players. Junior Seau gave twenty years of his life to the NFL, but killed himself before he could get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The NFL is willing to overlook its concussion epidemic just as easily as its willing to overlook security footage in a casino elevator. It’s a miracle Roger Goodell didn’t make Seau’s family hold a press conference to apologize for tarnishing the NFL’s reputation, the way the Baltimore Ravens did with Jenae Rice. Then, the NFL found a scandal they could get behind because it was a scandal about nothing and they knew people are comfortable enough with the Patriots being villains.
The last two weeks for Patriots fans had been awful. Just hours after the Pats booked a trip to their seventh Super Bowl in my lifetime, accusations started swirling about the footballs being under-inflated in New England’s rout of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. All of a sudden, the Patriots were cheaters again, with no hard evidence, and a narrative led by leaks to the media. Through all of it, Roger Goodell was hard to find, and when he did get in front of TV cameras, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to say nothing. If it wasn’t the Patriots, this would not have been a story. People love to hate the Patriots because of the success they have experienced since Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick away from the AFC East division rival New York Jets in 2000. People love to hate the ones who always succeed. For all the problems the NFL had on and off the field this year, there could not have been a better ending, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Patriots fan.
I wrote over the summer questioning how much Tom Brady had left in the tank. He’s an all time great, and in the discussion for Greatest of All Time, but when it goes, it goes. In Kansas City during the fourth week of the season, it looked like it went. I was at work and listening on the radio as the Patriots looked like a college team playing an NFL team (or at least a terrible team like the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Jets) when they were manhandled in every facet of the game in Arrowhead Stadium by the Kansas City Chiefs. The offensive line looked porous. The team missed Mankins and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia more than anyone realized, and Brady looked like a washed up has-been standing in the way of the future. Drafting Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois last spring opened the door to discussing life after Brady, and with that loss in Kansas City, it looked like that day would come sooner than expected. In hindsight, it was foolish to think that was the end. The most Garoppolo would contribute after that game was playing like Russell Wilson in practice in preparation for the Super Bowl, but after Kansas City, it seemed outrageous to even think about the playoffs. We just hoped we could win a game.
Bill Belichick elected not to channel Jim Mora in his presser after the loss to the Chiefs, and instead put out the most memorable quote of his illustrious career of saying as little as possible to the assembled media. “We’re on to Cincinnati.” They were ready for Cincinnati. Then they were ready for Buffalo. Then they were ready for the Jets. Then they were ready for Chicago. Then they were ready for Denver. Then they were ready for Indianapolis. Then they were ready for Detroit. Then they lost a close one in Green Bay, but by then they had established themselves as the top team in the AFC as the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning were coming undone. They won in San Diego, and avenged their season opening loss to the Miami Dolphins before beating the Jets a second time and losing to the Buffalo Bills in the completely meaningless season finale. The Patriots seemed poised for another deep playoff run, but their Divisional Round opponent would be no easy task.
The Patriots always seem to have trouble with the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore had their share of struggles this season, having to release Ray Rice after his domestic violence incident became a viral video that the NFL had apparently never seen before TMZ showed it to everyone, and it took all sixteen games to make the playoffs. So much for getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Broncos got an easier game in the form of the Indianapolis Colts, and the Pats had to play the resilient Ravens. They were down by 14 points and things looked bad, but that’s when the Patriots got creative. The play of the decade came when Brady threw a lateral pass to wide receiver and former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman. The split second when every Pats fan realized Edelman was going to throw it changed the tone of that game and the tone of the playoffs. Edelman’s first NFL pass was a completion to Danny Amendola for a touchdown, and the crowd at Gillette Stadium erupted. The Patriots did their job, even if their job included receivers throwing to receivers, and running backs lining up as linemen to confuse the defense. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh cried to the media, and Tom Brady told him to read the rule book. The creative ineligible receiver formations were not a Belichick invention. Chip Kelly has used them at the University of Oregon as well as with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Nick Saban used formations like that with the University of Alabama this season.
Where New England did their job, Denver did not. The Broncos lost their home playoff game to the Colts is what may have been Peyton Manning’s last real shot at winning a Super Bowl. The personal rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, which began with Brady’s first NFL start, may be ending for good, and while both are great and both were champions, Brady put himself ahead of Manning with this year’s playoff run. It’s clear that Brady intends to go out with a bang, not to say he is finished at the age of 37, but whether Manning retired now or hangs on another year, he is much more likely to go out with a whimper. Manning is a great regular season player and maybe the best pure passer in the history of the game, but Brady has a little more of the old fashioned gunslinger in his makeup, pumping his fist after every big first down like the young kid who stunned the Oakland Raiders in the snow in 2002. When Peyton Manning fell apart against his former team, the Patriots were ready for a rematch with the Colts. Deflated balls or not, Andrew Luck had replaced Manning in Indy, but he was still out of Tom Brady’s league.
After two weeks of accusation, leaks, and scientific lectures from both sides of the issue, we finally had a football game, and it more than lived up to the hype. We had the Patriots, a perennial contender with an all time great coach and an all time great quarterback who had not won a title in a decade, and the Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions with a fun-loving coach (an unusual characteristic in the NFL or college football, two levels where Pete Carroll has thrived), an all time great defense, and a great young quarterback who is only getting better. In two decades as an NFL owner, Robert Kraft has only hired two head coaches: Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. While Carroll did not work out with New England, he ad a great run at USC before making a triumphant return to the professional level with Seattle. It was a scoreless first quarter, and tied at the half. The Patriots moved the ball well, but Brady threw a bad interception. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks had a slow start on offense, but found a way to score quickly at the end of the second quarter. Halftime of Super Bowl XLIV was the tensest moment set to a Katy Perry soundtrack since the battle scene from The Interview.
The second half got off to a slow start for the Patriots, and the Seahawks played the third quarter like champions, but the Patriots stayed in it. While Richard Sherman was gloating on the sideline, the Pats chipped away. Brady and the offense came alive in the fourth quarter, with touchdowns from Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and then the Seahawks got the ball back down by four points.
“I’ve seen this movie before.” I said aloud. Super Bowls XLII and XLVI ended with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning marching down the field. When 19-0 was on the line, David Tyree made a nearly impossible catch off his helmet. In 2012, Mario Manningham made a catch just as impressive on the sideline to get the drive going. Both of those Super Bowls ended with the the Giants raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy instead of the Patriots. When Jermaine Kearse kicked up the ball that undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler knocked away, it was happening all over again. Seattle was going to score. There was no way they wouldn’t. All I could hope for was enough time for Brady to launch another score. For all the success Boston teams have had since 2002, we have had out share of devastation as well. In addition to David Tyree and Mario Manningham, we have had Aaron Boone’s home run off Tim Wakefield, Ron Artest’s shooting in the 2010 NBA Finals, and the 17 second period of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final that I still refuse to watch. Another ne of those moments was happening. It was just a matter of time.
It’s a bit of a blur now. The way it ended was so surreal. Dont’a Hightower made a great tackle to keep Marshawn Lynch out of the end zone, and the broadcast team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth both thought Belichick should let the Seahawks score to give Brady more time for the comeback attempts. Instead, Belichick let the clock run down and Pete Carroll put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands. Malcolm Butler, who bobbled the ball into Kearse’s hands moments before made an incredible interceptions to seal the game for the Patriots. I think I saw it when it happened, but it did not register right away. Then I was standing up and laughing and screaming. It had happened. They survived. The Patriots were champions again.
With the 2015 playoffs, Tom Brady did more than pass Peyton Manning as the greatest quarterback of his generation. He also passed John Elway by starting his sixth career Super Bowl, tied Joe Montana as a three time Super Bowl MVP, and tied Montana and Terry Bradshaw as a four time Super Bowl champion as a starting QB. Brady and Belichick reestablished themselves as the Duncan and Popovich of football, continuing the success that began fifteen years ago. With all due respect to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots will never have a better quarterback than Tom Brady. The best we can hope for with Jimmy G is that he becomes the Ray Bourque to Brady’s Bobby Orr, the Steve Young to his Joe Montana, the Larry Bird to his Bill Russell, or the Carl Yastrziemski to Brady’s Ted Williams. There is still a chance for greatness in the future, but nothing like what we are seeing now. Enjoy it. We don’t know how much longer it will last.
The best part of the night was the trophy presentation where Kurt Warner, who the Patriots beat to start this run of dominance walking through a gauntlet of newly crowned champions with their trophy, and then Robert Kraft refusing to acknowledge Roger Goodell on the podium. Everyone hates the Patriots, and the Patriots don’t care.The conversation about deflated footballs was dominated by sports pundits who have a reason to hate the Pats: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, Tony Dungy, Bill Polian, and the list goes on. They just hate us ’cause they ain’t us. It’s the fourth Super Bowl victory by the Patriots in this century, and then ninth Boston championship in that span, and it still hasn’t gotten old. They did their job. On to the parade!