Sometimes the thing we are most reluctant to give to the greats is the thing they deserve the most. Respect. Look at players like Derek Jeter (“Overrated”), Shaquille O’Neal (“Just a big guy who can’t shoot free throws”) and even the most successful football player in NFL history: Tom Brady.
Last Saturday, Brady’s New England Patriots beat the Houston Texans and advanced to the AFC Championship game once again. At this point, Brady in the AFC Championship is as good of an indication of a new year as the ball dropping in Times Square. Since taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe two weeks into the 2001 season, Brady has advanced to the AFC Championship 11 times in his 15 healthy seasons as the starter. Consider how difficult it is to make the conference championship game as a franchise even once, let alone for a single player.
The Kansas City Chiefs, losers on Sunday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brady’s opponent for the right to go to his seventh Super Bowl, have been just three times and their last win in the AFC Championship was in 1969. The Cincinnati Bengals have made it twice, and their last appearance was 28 years ago. The Detroit Lions have made it once, making it that far in 1991 and losing. The team the Patriots just beat, the Texans, have never been. In fact, Brady has made it to the conference championship game more times than the Chiefs, Bengals, Lions, Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints combined.
Brady has now played in 32 postseason games, the equivalent of two full seasons. He has thrown 58 touchdowns in the playoffs alone, the same number of touchdowns that Byron Leftwich and Chad Henne have in their entire regular season careers, respectively. And now he’s doing it at a time when no human is supposed to be the best football player in the world, defying age as he looks to match Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks aged 39 or older to make the Super Bowl.
The difference being that Manning was practically rolled into the game by a nurse and Brady is playing the best football of his career. Despite being suspended for the first four games of the season, which at least put Deflategate to bed once and for all, Brady has as strong of a case for MVP as ever: 67.4 percent completions, 28 touchdowns, 112.2 passer rating, 8.2 yards per attempt, as well as making the fewest mistakes of any full-time starter in history, throwing only two interceptions on 432 attempts.
Is it because of his strong supporting cast? Starting tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed the entire season, Rob Gronkowski missed eight games, division round superstar Dion Lewis missed nine, and players like LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, would or have been unremarkable role players for other teams. Even Martellus Bennett, a Pro Bowl tight end for the Chicago Bears, had perhaps the best season of his career while playing with Brady, posting career-highs in touchdowns, catch rate and his highest yards per catch since his rookie season in 2008 on a lot fewer targets.
Which brings up another case for Brady being the greatest of all-time, which is that the players and coaches around him change so much every year but the constants are Brady, Bill Belichick, and winning more football games than any other team.
Say what you will about the AFC East, Belichick, and the fact that New England went 11-5 without Brady in 2008, but the reality of that lost season is that the Patriots won five fewer games than they did in 2007 and scored 179 fewer points with Matt Cassel at quarterback. The only time that Brady missed the playoffs when he was healthy was in 2002, his second year on the job. The only times he hasn’t won 12 games are his first season (in which he went 11-3 in 14 starts), his second season, 2005 (he led the NFL in passing yards that year) and 2009, when returning from a torn ACL. He also failed to win 12 games this season, but he only appeared in 12, going 11-1.
In 14 trips to the postseason, Brady has won at least one playoff games 12 times. In that time period, five franchises haven’t won a single playoff game, and the Buffalo Bills haven’t even been to the postseason since 1999, the year before Brady entered the league as a sixth round pick. Brady has transformed himself a number of times in the last 15 years, as all of the greats do, going from “game manager” to “high volume passer” to the type of guy who could match throw-for-throw with Drew Brees after he posted fairly conservative stats during his first six seasons, but he’s always been a special player.
Recently, the NFL posted the full version of the game that set Brady and Belichick’s careers in motion and proved to be a pivotal turning point in league history. It instantly became known as “The Tuck Rule” game. Brady’s Patriots were facing off against the Oakland Raiders, a franchise that revitalized itself after numerous coaching changes and a move from Los Angeles to the Bay Area seven years earlier. If New England lost that game, and they would have if not for the tuck rule, then perhaps the Raiders win the Super Bowl and Jon Gruden doesn’t get traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the season. And how impatient does Patriots brass get with Brady and Belichick if they lose that game and then go 9-7 and miss the playoffs the following year, as they did?
Those are interesting scenarios to ponder, but I would just encourage you to watch some of that game and focus on how Brady, 24-years-old, in his first ever postseason, in some of the worst conditions you’ll ever see for a pro football game, is as cool, calm, accurate, decisive and in command as you would think of him today. That is as much of the “Tom Brady: Hall of Famer” as you will see in him when he plays in his 11th AFC Championship game on Sunday. That’s impressive.
You can’t help but respect someone like that. There are no caveats for why Brady is great. He just is.