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.
“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.”