Wednesday, September 30, 2015
The day we buried Brady
By Kevin Van Valkenberg
You may not realize it -- and frankly there are plenty of us who would prefer it go unnoticed -- but today represents an important moment in the history of modern sports punditry. It's the one-year anniversary of what is turning out to be the dumbest declaration, and the most inaccurate prediction, most of us have ever made.
And plenty of us made it.
Three hundred and sixty five days ago, a lot of people who write or talk about sports for a living thought it was prudent to declare Tom Brady's football career, at least as an elite player, essentially finished. The Patriots had just been thoroughly whipped by the Kansas City Chiefs 41-14 on Monday Night Football, and Brady looked miserable and played like it as well. He was sacked, battered and eventually relieved of his duties amid the blowout. Afterward, Bill Belichick was asked if it was time to "evaluate" the QB situation. The 2-2 Patriots were in trouble, and Brady was, in the opinion of many: weak, washed-up, scared, soft and done.
And that is not a hyperbolic reflection or misleading summary of the general sentiment from a year ago. Those are things people actually said or wrote for mass consumption. Mind you, this wasn't just the national media kicking football's bullies while they were down. This was a Boston story as much as anything. The Boston Globe declared "everything should be on the table" for the Patriots -- including trading Brady -- and that the "end game" between star quarterback and franchise had "become apparent."
And the national media was all over it.
Rodney Harrison stated that Brady looked "scared to death" in the pocket. Colin Cowherd cracked that Brady was "softer than a down comforter." Pro Football Focus declared: "we've seen the best of Brady, and the only question remaining is how steep the drop off will be." Donovan McNabb suggested Jimmy Garoppolo might be more effective, and that Brady might have played his final year in New England. The Sporting News hinted that it was time for the Patriots to mull an exit strategy.
And yes, the biggest megaphone of them all had its say. ESPN showed as much skepticism regarding Brady's future as any outlet. Maybe more.
Viewers woke up to Stephen A. Smith saying the Patriots were "in a world of trouble," while his "First Take" co-host, Skip Bayless, took a jab at Brady.
Ray Lewis asked if we should "feel sorry" for Brady. Right after the game, Trent Dilfer called the Patriots a "weak team" -- a phrase repeated into the next day and beyond.
There have been less subtle jabs than this...
Brady was not quite washed up, scared or done at age 37. A reluctant but brave scribe asked Belichick if "the quarterback position would be evaluated" as New England prepared for Cincinnati, and Belichick responded with a snort like someone had just asked him if he could name every Kardashian. That moment will almost certainly live in infamy.
Once, in a simpler time, it was possible in punditry to fire off a scalding hot take about an athlete -- a take that would later prove to be hastily crafted and perhaps completely, shockingly wrong -- and watch it disappear, more or less, into the ether. In order for it to come back and haunt you (say, a year later), it would require a local busybody marching down to the public library and digging through microfilm for an hour until your foolishness was dragged, mercilessly, back into the light. But even then, there was no way to widely disseminate it, no opportunity to point out to others just how badly that prediction went awry, other than perhaps standing on a street corner, braying like a madman. But now?
The Internet, well ... the Internet is where the game done changed, as kids like to say. And 365 days later, there is much we wish we could erase but can't.
Brady wasn't without support, of course. Chris Gasper of the Boston Globe saddled up to ride in support of Tom Terrific, pointing out that it wasn't Brady who traded Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers and it wasn't Brady who signed Brandon LaFell and Kenbrell Thompkins to serve as deep threats. Steve Young made a pretty good call when he guaranteed that Brady was "still capable of taking any team that's really good to the Super Bowl." There were a few other brave souls as well. But their voices were essentially drowned out by the pundit mob.
In the 15 regular-season games Brady has played since that ugly Kansas City loss, he has arguably been the best quarterback on planet Earth not named Aaron Rodgers. (You can make a decent case that he has been even better than Rodgers, but this column has been designated #HotTakeFreeZone, so we won't attempt one.) All Brady has done since we stuck a fork in his shoulder pads is complete 67 percent of his passes, throw for 4,430 yards and toss 38 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. That run even includes a meaningless 2014 regular-season finale against Buffalo where Brady was pulled at halftime because New England had already clinched the AFC's top seed in the playoffs. (It doesn't include, by the way, three terrific postseason games, including a Super Bowl where he set a record with 37 completions, but you get the point.) Regardless of where you stand (or who you blame) for the drawn-out offseason circus that was Deflategate (an opinion we're confident you'll be eager to share in the comments section of this column!), 2015 is shaping up to be one of the great, defiant revenge tours in the history of sports.
Brady might throw for 60 TDs, 6,000 yards, win a fifth Super Bowl just up the road from where he grew up and put an exclamation point on this season by snapping a selfie with Roger Goodell during the awkward presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, then hand the commissioner his iPhone. Mr. Goodell, I'd love for you to have this phone as a reminder of our time together.
Brady's current run is a nice reminder that, sometimes, all the boring clichés athletes and coaches recite such as "it's just one bad game" and "we just need some time to jell as a team" and "we're on to Cincinnati" might actually be close to the truth. It doesn't make for great theater, but that doesn't make it wrong. A bad game might just be a bad game. A quarterback running for his life behind a dreadful offensive line might struggle to hit open receivers, but if he points this out in a less-than-artful way, no matter how accurate he might be, he'll be forced to swim through an ocean of criticism regarding his leadership just to make it to Sunday.
All Tom Brady has done since we declared his career over is throw for 38 TDs and 7 INTs in 15 regular-season games.
The sports media landscape has become such a cacophony of strong opinions that, in order for your thoughts to stand out, you cannot come lightly to the microphone or keyboard. In a rush to sound definitive, we often lose the ability to listen to nuance, similar to the way the human ear loses its ability to hear a certain kind of pitch as we age. This is especially true in the NFL, where we whip ourselves into a frenzy in anticipation of Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), and we fill the next six days with analysis to feed our next frenzy.
There is something to console ourselves with about burying Brady. Usually, when a 37-year-old QB looks like he's toast, it's because he either is or is pretty close to being charred by the flame. History shows it to be true far more often than it isn't. And so Drew Brees might actually be finished as a great quarterback. The only thing holding Peyton Manning's body together at this point might be a bundle of yarn and the motherboard from a Commodore 64. But Brady reminds us they might also just be fighting through a difficult stretch that doesn't foreshadow an ending right around the corner. Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant would nod in agreement if they hadn't stopped giving a damn what we think more than a decade ago.
If nothing else, we ought to take a second and let it marinate just how incredible this late-career run by Brady has been. Ignore for a moment all the squabbling over the ideal gas law, a destroyed cellphone, a leak gone wrong and the third and fourth homes Ted Wells can now likely afford to purchase after two investigations that cost the NFL $45 million.
Brady still throws a beautiful football. He can still carve up a defense like he's slicing a turkey, and when we wrote him off a year ago, it turned out the turkey was us.