Mr. Perfect remains transcendent.
There’s a breed of economist who constantly predicts recessions and depressions. When a severe economic downturn eventually occurs, as it inevitably will, he expects you will reward the great foresight with a financial newsletter subscription, ignoring all the times the predictions of gloom and doom failed to pan out.
So it is with predictions about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, for whom it is always the beginning of the end. He is in decline, they say. Can’t hold on much longer. “Myth and the legend of his career has clouded our perspective, but it’s possible that Brady’s decline has already begun,” wrote one analyst. “Every star fades at some point.”
Those words were written in 2013 — his worst season, another sports number-cruncher warned, one the same site publishing the prediction “The Patriots Will Never Win Another Super Bowl With Tom Brady As Quarterback” — before Brady led New England to two more Super Bowl titles in the next three seasons. “Cheaters never win!” James Harrison cheered after the Patriots’ second Super Bowl loss of the Brady era in 2012. Harrison has since gone to revive his football career as a member of the Patriots.
Like the doomsday financial forecasts, the annual assertions that it is time to send Brady off to the glue factory will one day be correct. Father Time is undefeated and all that. But the eagerness to bury one of the all-time greats is downright bizarre, and once again on display in ESPN’s latest “bombshell” report.
The story purports to be about a power struggle between Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and team owner Robert Kraft, suggesting without any direct evidence that the rift could prompt Belichick to end his storied career. Yes, the 76-year-old owner, 65-year-old coach, and 40-year-old quarterback are closer to the end than the beginning.
But the real implication is that Kraft is a sentimental old fool for opting to keep Brady over young star Jimmy Garoppolo, since traded to the San Francisco 49ers, and Belichick would therefore be justified in taking his marbles and going home.
Assuming the facts of Kraft/Belichick/Brady/Garoppolo situation are roughly as ESPN scribe Seth Wickersham describes them (Kraft has denied he told Belichick to trade Jimmy), what is so crazy about betting on Brady even at this late date? The Patriots’ incumbent quarterback is the frontrunner for league MVP and has just helped his team, the defending Super Bowl champions, to the AFC’s top playoff seed.
The day this story broke, Brady won first team All-Pro honors. He has already been named a starting quarterback for the 2018 Pro Bowl. He is coming off a regular season in which he threw for 4,577 yards, 32 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions for a 102.8 passer rating at age 40.
Even with the end-of-season slump that spawned the latest Brady death watch (during which he lost only one game), he managed to guide the Patriots to a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots haven’t missed an AFC Championship Game since the 2010 season. Brady and Stephen Gostkowski are the only two players left on the team from the undefeated regular season a decade ago. He is quietly threatening to overtake Drew Brees for third most touchdown passes (they are presently tied, though Brady inched ahead at one point in the season).
It would have been ideal if Garoppolo had come along just a little bit later. He was one of the three quarterbacks the Patriots drafted high in the last eight years in the event Brady’s skills waned and he looked like the worthiest successor. But he was due to enter free agency in the 2018 season and he wanted to start, not carry a clipboard. Ask Brandon Wedeen what happens to quarterbacks who launch their starting careers at 28.
The Patriots had a choice: go with a quarterback who is more likely to be playing at a high level five years from now or stick with the MVP candidate who gives them the best chance to win Super Bowls now.
It is reasonable to want the guy who will go 12-4 in 2021. If the number of times I wake up happy because my team won exceeds the number of times I wake up angry they lost, I consider that a successful season even without a Super Bowl victory.
But any franchise is only going to win a finite number of championships. Plenty of very good quarterbacks never win any. Look how long it took Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to even get to a Super Bowl despite years of exemplary play.
Brady is currently the only elite quarterback left in the AFC. The gap between him and the next best signal-caller with a championship-caliber supporting cast, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, is substantial. Peyton Manning is retired, Andrew Luck is injured, Philip Rivers doesn’t have the special teams help, Andy Dalton has never taken the next step.
Yes, the NFC remains a murderer’s row of talented quarterbacks. And Brady’s status alone at the top of the AFC could end anytime. Until that window closes, however, the Patriots have an excellent chance to reach the Super Bowl every year.
The return of a healthy Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell to a line-up including Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks and hopefully a re-signed Dion Lewis means the offense has the potential to be even better next season.
If Kraft’s gamble doesn’t pay off and Brady collapses, like Brett Favre did after his stellar age-40 season, so what? Brady has structured his contract in a way that has allowed the Patriots to put together a Super Bowl roster rather than taking maximum value for himself. For all the talk of Belichick’s system, which will be magnified if Garoppolo continues to soar, the coach is a defensive genius who was never known as a quarterback whisperer pre-Brady. Belichick’s quarterback success stories are Brady and Brady backups.
Brady has made Belichick’s GM philosophy sustainable. Otherwise, the Patriots’ would have fluctuated much more as Belichick jettisoned talented players when their free agency demands became too rich. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt at this point, it is Brady.
Belichick is right that it is better to move on from a player one year too early than one year too late. But transcendent quarterbacks are an exception to this rule.
May Brady continue to be worth the risk, no matter how many ghouls are circling him.
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