Last week, my friend Pete asked me a sports question that I’ve never been asked.  In fact, it was a question that I’ve never heard get asked before.

“Is Tom Brady really that good?”

Intriguing, right?  But Pete didn’t stop there.  He articulated his concerns further:

“How much of his success is attributable to Randy Moss and his other receivers? How much of it is attributable to his offensive line, his coach, the rest of his team, etc.?

“Is he really the best offensive player in the game, or is he just a really good player who happens to be tremendously lucky to be in this place and this time, and who also happens to be charismatic, attractive, just the right sort of personable, and, above all else, white?

“It has often seemed to me that, in the NFL, the value of a good quarterback is consistently overrated. Like executives, quarterbacks are frequently praised and blamed (and compensated) in ways that have little to do with their own play. Maybe the most important thing for a quarterback seems to be getting out of the way and lets the rest of the team win – younger, taller, stronger players with more athletic ability and creativity are consistently outshined by slower, more expensive,veteran QBs who know how to drop back into the pocket, ground the ball
if nobody’s open, and take a hit rather than do something risky. Certainly there’s skill there, but is it (and throwing) really the most important skill on the football field?

“Or is it just part of the lifecycle of the team — that a team needs to play together for a while to get good, and because quarterbacks tend to get injured the least and play for the longest (well, other than kickers), the best teams are more likely to have veteran quarterbacks than veterans at other positions, creating correlation without causation.

“Shouldn’t any competent college QB be able to hit an open receiver consistently? Isn’t getting open harder than throwing the ball? And how hard is it really to read the field when all the plays are set up in advance by seasoned professionals who have a radio linkup to your helmet? Hard certainly, but really the hardest thing on the football field?

“It seems to me that quarterbacks are far less important to football teams than pitchers are to baseball teams, and yet quarterbacks and pitchers seem to be treated with the same level of relative importance — if anything, quarterbacks seem to come out ahead, especially the ones on the best teams (no other player on the Pats is beloved nearly as much as Brady, while hurlers like Schilling have had to compete with a variety of sluggers for the spotlight even when they haven’t had much impact on a given game).

“Is it because we want the quarterback to be truly great — that the quarterback is a symbol that has become decoupled from the position and the tasks it entails (sort of like a Head Coach in the era of the General Manager)? Is there a cultural sense there that has resonances across thinks like race and charisma, irrelevant on the gridiron on any given Sunday? And is that sense inflating our opinion of Tom Brady? Or is there substance behind the supermodel?”

My gut instinct was to disregard this admittedly well reasoned question as rabble-rousing and respond with a hasty “Yeah, man.  Fifty touchdowns equals good.”  But Pete did his work in putting together such a thought and I needed to do the same.  I sat down and really got to thinking.   After a couple of minutes of deep reflection and ESPN fact confirmation, I penned a response:

“In short, yes, Tom Brady really is that good.  He’s one of the best that has played in the past twenty years, and may well be standing shoulder to shoulder with the best when his career is over.  Over the seven seasons he’s been a starter, he’s won three Superbowls and thrown 197 TDs (to only 86 INTs).  By the numbers alone, he’s incredible. 

“Every great quarterback has had an amazing receiver. 

“Montana had Rice.  Young had Rice too.  Peyton had Harrison (and Wayne).  Aikman had Irvin.  Tom Brady is held in the same esteem and over his career he’s never had that guy.  Deion Branch was close but they shipped him out.  Same with Givens.  But Brady has still been able to pile up regular season wins and gaudy numbers without a marquee backboard.  Look at last year.  With Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney (both no better than #3 receivers), he threw 24 TDs (and only 12 INTs) and completed nearly 62% of his passes.  With Caldwell and Gaffney.  He hit them in stride, and used the passes to direct their bodies for yards after the catch.  The 24 touchdowns with the equivalent of a decent college receiving corps was, for me, just as impressive as the record 50 touchdowns he had with Randy Moss and Wes Welker.  In other words, Brady was considered by many to be great even before he got his weapons.  Now, with them, the Patriots have set records.  “Regarding his offensive line, think of one really good quarterback that has had a terrible line.  Every solid starter just so happened to be behind a trench of good blockers, usually anchored by a future Hall of Famer.  Granted, the play of the o-line isn’t in the control of a quarterback, but think about it this way – Brady has an exceptional line and hasn’t squandered it.  There are plenty of quarterbacks that have had a good line this year that haven’t been able to make things happen.  Look at the Giants and Titans. “Sure, Brady looks like a model, excels in interview and is an extremely marketable white quarterback, but none of those things translate to a gaudy passer rating except what he does on the field.  If Jon Kitna, who looks like a troll and terrifies reporters, threw fifty touchdowns, he’d be getting the same attention. 

“The quarterback position is the most scrutinized in football, and likely in all of sports.  That’s nothing new.  It was true in Unitas’ time and it’ll be true when our kids play Pop Warner.  Some of that scrutity is warranted – the QB sees the ball on nearly every offensive snap, he calls audibles at the line and he is interviewed after every game – and some of it isn’t.  But regardless, it’s nothing new.  Brady put up a better year than any quarterback on record under the same level of scrutiny as every other quarterback had to deal with.  Probably more, since the Patriots completed an undefeated regular season. 

“While the scrutiny hasn’t changed, the general athleticism on the field has.  Quarterbacks that can “take a hit rather than do something risky” don’t last terribly long anymore.  Not when defensive ends can bench press four hundred pounds and run 4.6 40s.  It is a very different game than the time when football players were simply big guys that did push-ups and learned the plays.  If a quarterback is not tall, strong and mobile (or at least two of the three), they simply can’t hold up under top tier pass rushes.  They’ll either get hurt or get picked off.  Either way, they’re out of a job.  So we’re finding a lot of guys who are 6’5″ with a rocket arm or 6’1″ and can move the pocket.  It is as vital an evolution in the game as the two tight end set was. 

“Hitting an open receiver is pretty much the general objective of any college quarterback, but it is obscenely difficult to do.  Most quarterbacks in college can throw a ball with touch that can get to someone running down the field.  If they couldn’t, they wouldn’t be getting a free education.  What most quarterbacks can’t do is find an open receiver in the presence of a pass rush when his top two choices are covered.  Tom Brady can do that.  He does do that.  And often. 

“So yes, Tom Brady is really that good.  The quarterback position really is the most important one on the football field (not unlike a pitcher in that regard).  The fact that he excelled in an age of media scrutiny, and is extremely good looking and likeable is nice, but that doesn’t add to or subtract from what he does on the field as he’s been doing it on the field.  The guy is the best, and if we’re lucky we’ll see it for another seven seasons.”

In short, “Yes, I think he is.”

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  • What most quarterbacks can’t do is find an open receiver in the presence of a pass rush when his top two choices are covered.

    … after calling an audible, while ducking from a sack that a human could not possibly see, after faking a bobbled snap.

    Every year, it’s like I fall in love with him all over again.

  • Fish

    If your friend Pete really thinks the value of a good quarterback is overrated, direct him immediately to Bill Simmons’ column “Our National Arms Crisis” at http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/071221 . If after reading that he doesn’t realize how ridiculous he sounds when he says the position is overrated, then he needs a doofslap to the head.

  • Pete

    So, I’m the friend Pete, and I’ll admit, I was playing devil’s advocate, but I was also trying not to take something for granted. I’ve never played football at anything higher than the pickup level, and the way color commentary works these days, you could watch a heckuva lot of games and learn nothing.

    I looked at the article, and the article seems to say that quarterbacks are worse now because defensive players are better. This lets certain stars shine out but makes quarterbacks who would have been “good enough” in previous eras not good enough for successful teams in the current NFL.

    If it’s the quality of the defense that has made the skills of the great QBs so much more precious than they use to be, shouldn’t the defensive players get some credit for the sea change? And what I don’t understand is how to compare the value of the skills across positions. How many sacks does a defensive lineman have to make in order to balance out a touchdown from a quarterback in terms of measuring quality statistically?

    Yeah, I sound dumb about it, but it’s because I don’t know, and I don’t just want to follow blindly.

  • Excellent breakdown. You made all of the points that I would have, and Perich just topped it with a little syrup.

  • Joe

    – What most quarterbacks can’t do is find an open receiver in the presence of a pass rush when his top two choices are covered. –

    Tom Brady’s third and fourth options are “lesser” quarterbacks’ first and second options. It’s not too hard to find those open receivers when your line gives you 12 minutes in the pocket.

  • Michelle

    Joe said that Brady’s three and four options are other QBs main go-to-guys. This year is the only year that is the case… in past years, his one and two guys have been other QBs fifth guys!

    This was a great piece. Quality break-down!

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