THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The greatest quarterback of all time? Brady's win in Tampa, his seventh, in his tenth championship game in 19 years as a start pretty much cemented it. For a long time I held out for Otto Graham, whose ten year career (in both the AAFC and the NFL) also boasted ten championship games (and six wins), but given how much more difficult it is nowadays, because of free agency and salary caps, to keep good teams together, I was already sold on Brady in his seasons with New England. To now win with another team, in his first season, would be like Graham in 1957 somehow coming back with, say, the Colts or Niners or even the Giants and taking them to a title.
Is he the greatest player of all time? That's a harder question. If you asked me who's the greatest football player I ever saw I would probably say Lawrence Taylor, maybe Jim Brown, or Bobby Bell. But Jim Brown joined the Browns in the second season after Graham retired, and they won one championship in his nine years. The quarterback is the most important player in team sports. Yes, a hot goalie can propel a hockey team to the Stanley Cup, and a brilliant one can keep even mediocre teams in contention (it pains me to say this, but Carey Price in Montreal?). But the game doesn't pass through the goalie, he can't control it. You can win a Super Bowl without a great QB, it's been done many times, but you'd better have a team that's pretty much outstanding in every other area, or dominant in one (like Tampa with Brad Johnson or Baltimore with Trent Dilfer).
Brady has won Super Bowls in three decades. This is usually a gimmicky sort of stat, favoring players who start their careers at the end of a decade and end them at the start of another: Ted Williams played four decades in Boston because he started in 1939 and ended in 1960 (though he lost five seasons to war). Some quarterbacks have just missed: Norm Van Brocklin's Rams played in an NFL championship game in 1949 (losing to the Eagles), won one in 1951 (though both times he split signal-calling with Bob Waterfield), then won for the Eagles in 1961. John Unitas won two NFL titles in ‘58 and ‘59, but the Colts got to Super Bowl III in 1969 with Earl Morral, though Unitas relieved him in the loss to the Jets. When the Colts won Super Bowl V in ‘71, it was Morral who relieved Unitas and led the Colts to the win over Dallas.
As near as I can see the only player close to Brady is Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard with the Raiders, who lost in 1968 in Super Bowl II, won Super Bowl XI in 1977 and then Super Bowl XV in ‘81. Upshaw started 10 AFL/AFC championship games at left guard, which may be an accomplishment close to Brady's given the wear and tear in the interior line in a league whose average career in three and a half years. But longevity in this violent sport is a sign of quality in and of itself. Sure the rules have been changed to protect the quarterbacks, to help offensive linemen protect them, to give receivers more freedom, but still, Brady's longevity, whatever you put it down to, is remarkable: he has invested time, money and energy into keeping himself match ready.
Brady was the Super Bowl MVP, and that was probably inevitable, but it was really the Bucs' D who won the game for them, executing Todd Bowles' game plan very well. The problem for teams trying to contain the Chiefs is that you inevitably concentrate on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and they inevitably get enough of theirs to help others beat you. But the Patriots had slowed the Chiefs down even when Brian Hoyer was their QB this year; the Raiders beat them once and nearly did a second time. Hill destroyed the Bucs when they met in the season, which was probably the reason Bowles' decided to concentrate on him. The Bucs were in a two-deep zone virtually all of the time, and their corners played receivers to the outside, trying to deny them the crossing or slanting routes that generate the big yardage - Hill had only one such catch. The game might have been different had he come down with the ball that him in the face mask (or “face cage” if you happened to be watching on Sky) and that was one of the few times in the game he was being man-covered. It would have been an amazing catch to make, in fact it was amazing that Patrick Mahomes got the ball to him to allow him a chance at a play! But it was also a great bit of ball skill by Sean Murphy-Bunting - or Murphy-Holding as I called him against Green Bay - as well.
Otherwise, the Bucs depended on a four-man rush, without blitzing, and I don't think Vita Vea in the middle of the line got enough credit for pushing the interior back. Obviously the edge guys, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, were playing against back-up tackles, and having seen what they did to Aaron Rodgers I was amazed Andy Reid did not adjust to help them out. Use a fullback, use two tight ends, motion a tight end for a chip: none of that. He also didn't run many screens over the edge, no deeper wheel routes by backs, no Tyreek Hill lined up as a back. They didn't run until the third quarter, by which time it was almost too late, as their inability to contain the Bucs meant they didn't have enough time to do what Tampa was daring them to do: march downfield with a series of short plays rather than a couple of chunk plays.
This was the opposite of what Tampa did: even their backup line starter, Aaron Stinnie at guard, held up well enough against Chris Jones, with a little help, but when Brady was sacked on each of their first two possessions you see what they did: they ran the ball, they threw screens, they threw quick passes that didn't require Brady to set. They took over the rhythm of the game and Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo couldn't afford the blitzing he ran well on the first two possessions. The interior rush which had dominated Brady in 2007, when Spags was the defensive coordinator for the Giants, never materialized.
The biggest difference in the game was the linebackers. Lavonte David, who survived years of being overlooked on bad Buc teams, and Devin White, a younger faster version of David, managed to both limit Travis Kelce and cover the outside areas. The Chiefs' two ex-Cowboys, Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson (who made an amazing stop on the fourth and goal in the second quarter) simply couldn't cover as much ground, and Tyrann Matthieu, who in effect is like a third backer for them, was basically a non-factor; he got caught by formation either in bad matchups or out of the play.
So it was a convincing team effort by Tampa, by no means a one-man show.
But this was why 'Tompa Bay' was such a good fit. People didn't realize it, but the Bucs were a playoff team in 2019, when they finished 7-9. If you saw them at White Hart Lane in London that year you saw a game they gave away when Jameis Winston made a couple of bad throws and suffered a gruesome fumble because he was oblivious to the pass rush. Todd Bowles, as he had done with Bruce Arians in Arizona, put together a versatile defense, and they had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, two legitimate number one type receivers. What they needed was someone to put it all together. Enter Brady.
Brady talked Gronk out of retirement, and talked Tampa into signing Antonio Brown. Part of Brady's frustration in New England in 2019 was when they let Brown go after his first off-field false step. It was no small one either, a threatening text to one of the women suing him. But Brady took Brown in to live with him in Tampa, probably guaranteeing the time Tom would keep AB focused.
When the Bucs came to the bye week at 7-5, having lost three in a row to good teams, it was easy to write them off as the kind of team that couldn't rise to the occasion. But it was then that Brady got from Arians the adjustments to the offense he needed. Arians' career has seen him risk drop-back passers throwing slow-developing deep patterns (Mike Martz was something similar) without extra protection. Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and many lesser names suffered under his system. But now Gronk became primarily a pass/run blocker. Leonard Fournette, signed after the Jags released him, was inserted more into the run game. Scotty Miller became an excellent fourth option behind Brown. This created the kind of matchup nightmare defenses hated: you could ill-afford to man cover the Bucs, cause you couldn't double everyone. Then, when it mattered, Brady went to the receivers he knew and trusted: two touchdowns to Gronk and one to Brown, the last looking like Pats plays. The Bucs tried to shut down Mike Evans, who caught only one pass in the Super Bowl, but it was a 31 yarder and he added an even longer pass interference penalty.
The Zebras had “let them play” in the Divisional and Conference playoffs: no penalties at all in the first half of the Chiefs/Bills game. But as I pointed out on BBC before the game, Carl Cheffers was the referee: his crew led the NFL in penalties during the season, and in his two games with the Chiefs they'd flagged them 11 times in each. So KC should not have been surprised at the holding calls - none of which I'd call bad, though in today's NFL you get away with a lot. What you have to be able to do is adjust to what the officials are telling you and hope they remain consistent. Remember the DPI jersey pull at the end of the Green Bay/Tampa conference championship? The howl was not because it wasn't a legitimate call; it was because it was first DPI of the game, when more egregious fouls had been allowed. And the Chiefs had only themselves to blame for those silly personal fouls: “Don't get mad, get even” is one of the first things football coaches pound into your head: it's the retaliation that usually gets flagged.
But Chiefs fans who were moaning should have been looking back to last year's Super Bowl. The blatant hold of Emmanuel Sanders (which we allowed as San Francisco scored on the next play)? The bogus OPI call against George Kittle at the end of the first half? The non-call on KPass' offsides on 3rd and 13? The helmet to helmet by Ben Niemann on Jimmy G, which left Garoppollo staggered and probably should have seen him removed from the game? Or worst of all, the blatant hold by Eric Fisher on Nick Bosa on the balloon pass from Mahomes to Hill that was the game-changing play. Face it, if you moan about this year's holds and interference in the secondary, be grateful the refs didn't start calling holding on the Chiefs' line until the game got ugly. Mahomes could have been killed if they didn't allow it.
Michael Lopez, a professor at Skidmore, did an amazing chart of the movement of Brady and Mahomes in the pocket. It produced a diagram that looked like a delicate piece of modern art. Brady's path looked like a tear-drop diamond, tightly drawn together; he traveled a total of 37 yards during the game – although this didn't count his chasing after Tyrann Matthieu to get in Honey Badger's face. Mahomes' path looked like someone on acid had been handed an etch-a-sketch: long arcs, up, down and all around, fine lines extended to the edges of the field. Mahomes traveled 468 yards escaping Tampa's pass rush, and I really wish this became a stat people kept using this graphic to illustrate it.
I don't believe anything that happened this season erased or changed the legacy of these two over the previous two decades. There was a time when people accused Brady of being a “system quarterback” and yes, he was. Only the Belichick system was a constantly changing thing. When they were a run team, Brady played like he did in the Super Bowl. When they had Randy Moss and Wes Welker, he was a bomber. When they had Gronk and Aaron Hernandez they mixed it up; then they moved to dink and dunk. It didn't matter, and Brady proved that this season.
But the Pats' 7-9 season may have been a good job by Belichick the coach, if less good by Belichick the GM. Bill the GM knew the only way to keep winning in today's NFL was to play moneyball, and for a long time Brady bought into that, giving the Pats a home-team discount because he knew Bill would put him in a position to do the most important thing in team sports, which is not to accumulate stats, but to win.
In 2018 and 2019 Brady got frustrated, primarily with his receiving corps, and Bill's astute moves to bring in Josh Gordon and Brown ultimately failed, as did his gamble on N'Keal Harry as a first-round receiver. In 2018 Brady was at his best in the miracle comeback against Atlanta, helped by a miracle catch by Julian Edelman which at least partly undid the David Tyree helmet grab. In 2019, with Gronk retired and Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan gone, he threw to Edelman whenever possible and rode them to a 12-4 season including a tough 23-16 loss to KC which, given a break or two from the officials (especially Harry's one good TD of the season mistakenly called back), they might have won. They were surprised by the Titans in the playoffs, and Brady's frustration was evident.
This year Belichick took a lot of fire for saying quite honestly that the Pats had over-extended to maintain a dynasty, and paid the price in 2020. Bill was accused of making excuses but he was telling the truth, and GM Bill couldn't rescue Coach Bill. Even so, despite free agency departures and Covid opt out of three key veteran starters, they were competitive, and had Covid not seemed to affect Cam Newton as much as it did, they might have done better than 7-9. Think of them, potentially, as a team like the 2019 Bucs, waiting for a Tom Brady (and a Gronk). Brady and Belichick were a perfect pair, able together to dissect opponents with a ruthless brilliance and able to capitalize on the idiosyncrasies of each season's team. That Brady could move to Tampa and win in his first season cements his legacy. It doesn't erase Belichick's.
The odds-makers like KC to win the 2022 Super Bowl more than Tampa, and I said the same thing after the game. Repeating is difficult for three main reasons. You have to hold the core of the team together when a Super Bowl win makes your free agents more attractive to other teams: Gronk, Fournette, Godwin, Brown, Barrett, Ndamukong Suh and David are all free agents; a couple of those guys will be hard to replace. Second, your schedule gets tougher as the Super Bowl winner. Third, and probably the most important but least quantifiable, lots of things that went right for you aren't guaranteed to go right the following year: injuries being the most obvious, but also the kind of breaks that turn games around, and it doesn't take many to turn an 11-5 Super Bowl year into a 10-6 year where you just miss the playoffs or a 12-4 year where you get upset in your first playoff game.
I looked at this game as a sort of Last Stand for an old school form of offense: the classic dropback passer in a downfield system; something that goes back to the Van Brocklin Rams under Clark Shaughnessy, via Sid Gillman right up to the modern day. It was like a two-dimensional system giving way to a 3-D multi-leveled offense, run by a QB more like a deep-throwing basketball point guard than anything else.
It used to be the Madden game tried to look more like the NFL; today the NFL tries to look more like Madden. Mahomes is the evolutionary QB, and though pocket passers are not dead, they are evolving too (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert). Brady said he wants to play until he's 45? He isn't going to evolve much, and Mahomes is, of course, his heir apparent. Of course Brady may always be one injury away from retirement, but most guys his age would take the opportunity to go out on a Super Bowl high, their reputation secure for almost ever. But I don't think that's what appeals to Tom Brady. I think Brady is the ultimate carrier of a chip under his shoulder pads. He will always be the guy who kept getting passed by at Michigan. Who got passed by in the draft. Who got identified as a pawn in chessmaster Bill Belichick's game.
I think all Brady really wants is to keep proving people wrong, and to do that by winning. That's why he plays the game, to win, and as long as he can, he'll probably want to keep playing.