We’re running out of meaningful things to say. I can remember when Tom Brady was derided as a “system quarterback” that benefited from the excellent schemes of the legendary coach Bill Belichick. Now, his place at the top of the NFL mountain is assured. He became the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had not even qualified for the playoffs for some half-dozen years, and they are now the champions of the NFL. Brady now has more Super Bowl rings than all NFL franchises. His 10 appearances in the Super Bowl, to go along with the seven victories, is unfathomable.
I can remember when the debate about the greatest quarterback of all time was between Joe Montana, and Terry Bradshaw, who had each won four Super Bowls. What do you say about seven? And by all rights, the count should be eight, if not for David Tyree, and his legendary helmet catch to enable the New York Giants to win the Super Bowl against the Patriots, which ruined an undefeated season.
I can remember when it was difficult to place the great Brett Favre in the pantheon of quarterbacks, because, for all his acknowledged accomplishments, his unparalleled longevity, he had only won one Super Bowl, in 1996. I can also tell you that before Brady came along, and even after, Brett Favre was my favorite quarterback to watch.
In any case, the debate at this position is now over: Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play the position. He’s now even surpassed Favre in the age department, with no apparent sign that he will leave anytime soon, either voluntarily, or not. A 43-year-old man was just named the Super Bowl MVP for the fifth time. You probably couldn’t argue that he’s still at the peak of his powers, but what would that mean? He’s still the champion, and he just took a team that couldn’t even find the postseason all the way to the championship. Tampa Bay was 7-5 going into December. They didn’t lose at all after that.
In any case, let’s talk about the game we witnessed earlier this month. My sense was that Tampa Bay would be able to get pressure on the young phenom quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes. More than this, the key was to get pressure without blitzing. For the uninitiated, to “blitz” means to send extra defensive players to rush the opposing quarterback, either to disrupt him or to sack him behind the line of scrimmage. The problem with blitzing is that if the offensive team is able to stop the blitz, less defensive players remain to cover those players whose job it is to catch passes from the quarterback. We tend to call it “picking up” a blitz. If a blitz is picked up, the receivers should be wide open. If you can get pressure on the opposing quarterback without blitzing, you can leave your players in your defensive backfield to cover the receivers.
Passing in the NFL today is so commonplace that a team who runs offensive plays roughly balanced equally between runs and passes is a rarity. I can recall in my youth when 3000 passing yards in a season by a quarterback was considered elite. Tom Brady just finished the most recent season with over 4600 passing yards. He was not the passing yards leader. In any case, disrupting the timing of something as brutally delicate as a pass play in the NFL is job number one for an opposing defense. Patrick Mahomes is the reigning NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion from last season. Tampa Bay’s defense made him look like a scared rookie, thrown to the wolves in his first NFL game.
Mahomes is noted for his ability to run, to extend plays to give his receivers time to get open. He did all he could, but they harried him, and harried his receivers. The last line of defense are the safeties, and Tampa Bay left their safeties deep, to prevent the game-breaking wide receiver Tyreek Hill from altering the game in Kansas City’s favor. The Chiefs couldn’t really run the ball against the Tampa defense, and they were behind significantly by the second quarter. Sometimes, you can stick with the running game if your team is not too far behind, in the hopes of wearing down the opposing defense in the fourth quarter. A worn down defense trying to stop the run will bring another defender forward to plug the running holes, which would open up passing plays for the offense. This never happened. The Chiefs never even scored a touchdown.
The great tight end Travis Kelce was able to find some open space to catch passes from Patrick Mahomes, because he could get in front of the safeties, and behind the linebackers. Nevertheless, the pressure on Patrick Mahomes made it difficult to do this often enough to win the game, or frankly, to make it competitive. The Chiefs also were flagged for significant and crucial penalties on defense, which extended drives for Tampa Bay, and led to touchdowns. One feature of Tom Brady’s greatness is that he does not leave mistakes unpunished, or gifts unopened. His own tight end, Rob Gronkowski, had come out of retirement to join Brady in Tampa Bay, after the better part of a decade as the tight end for Brady’s Patriots. He also was— as usual—uncoverable, too fast for linebackers, and too big for the defensive backs of Kansas City.
It also seemed to me that the passing routes of Kansas City’s wide receivers were too long, and Patrick Mahomes held the ball too long, trying to find open receivers. Kansas City’s offensive line— charged with blocking Tampa Bay’s defensive players from getting to Mahomes— had some injuries to starters going into the Super Bowl. In the end, this is an excuse. With the exception of Harrison Butker, who made three field goals, Kansas City didn’t play very well. And if you play poorly against the greatest quarterback and leader of all time, you’re going to get destroyed. The game itself ended up essentially as a coronation for Tom Brady.
Critics often remind us that football is a team game, usually to tamp down the accolades that Brady receives. But after leading his team to the postseason, winning three games to get to the Super Bowl— including beating celebrated quarterbacks and legends Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers — the time for downplaying Brady’s accomplishments is at an end.
I do want to take a moment to celebrate Drew Brees, who played his last NFL game, when Brady’s Buccaneers beat his Saints in the divisional round. The 42-year-old Brees is the NFL’s all-time passing yards leader, and had thrown the most touchdown passes all-time, until Brady passed him this season. Brees found his receiver in the end zone 571 times, 63 more than the great Brett Favre. He revitalized pro football in New Orleans, and was a leader in community service, especially after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though he did not begin his career in New Orleans, he is synonymous with the Saints, and he led them to victory in the Super Bowl in 2006.
I think that is what’s most interesting about Tom Brady: he unintentionally underlines the greatness of his fellow competitors. It may be time to put aside the fervent passions about Brady, and celebrate the game he has so surprisingly come to dominate for so long.