Monday, February 8, 2021

Some Thoughts on Tom Brady

I grew up in the outer Boston suburbs. In my first twenty years, the Pats were perennially hapless. Even when they managed, twice, to reach the Super Bowl, everyone knew they didn't deserve to be there. Their performance confirmed it. 

That all changed with Tom Brady took over in the 2001 season. You know the rest.

A little more than a year ago, when Brady threw a pick six to lose against the Titans, coached by his former teammate, it seemed like he should have retired at the end of the previous season, when he'd won his final Super Bowl with the Patriots. 

At that time, many wondered whether Brady was simply the luckiest system quarterback ever. After all, the story goes, he was coached by the brilliant Bill Belichick, probably the greatest football coach ever, a coach who always managed to design games to win with whatever tools he had. Brady's chief virtue, many wondered, was his adaptability in fitting into Belichick's plan. 

This year, Belichick went 7-9 with the broken Pats team. Sure, lots of his best players opted out. 

In contrast, Arians explicitly stated he wanted to build the team around Brady and give Brady what he wants. He let Brady loose and had Brady coach the players to meet his expectations. 

Brady just won his seventh Super Bowl in his tenth appearance out of nineteen seasons where he was a starter full time for most of the season. (He played his rookie season as a backup and sat out one season due to an injury.) To get there, Brady had to beat teams led by two aging greats, Brees and Rodgers, and then stop the unstoppable Chiefs.

Sure, every time Brady has had help, including last night the heroic efforts of the Buccaneers' defense. They disarmed the mighty Mahomes, who spent half the night scrambling and could barely find a target. Sure, Mahomes didn't have his o-line intact and had to play with backups. But this kind of thing happens all the time in football, and the Chiefs team we saw last night was still, in terms of talent and skill, a championship team that would have railroaded almost anyone. It should have been a shoot-out and a nail-biter. I still spent the first three quarters and even a few minutes into the fourth quarter waiting for Mahomes to wake up and make something happen. He never did. Mahomes had the worst game of his professional career. 

Sure, every time Brady has had help because this is a genuine team sport. Even in basketball, a transcendent player can carry a team. In baseball, on a given night, most players won't get a hit, but a single player can earn a run with a single swing. A single pitcher can silence an entire offense. Football is a genuine team sport. It is always a team effort, though one part of the team can make up for the deficiencies on the other parts. 

Brady of course has natural talent. You and I would not have matched his football success even if we followed his training regime, took coaching advice as seriously as he does, or had his grit. But his victories are not the result of that natural talent. Every year, we see quarterbacks with more innate ability. They are faster on their feet, have stronger arms, are physically tougher, and more agile. There are other quarterbacks--including Peyton Manning, Brees, Rodgers, and Mahomes--who possess the same kind of game intelligence and pocket awareness. 

What sets Tom apart are his grit, determination, willingness to change, and willingness to work hard. For you luck egalitarians, he's the guy you ought to root for. His high school, college, and early NFL careers involved him being the overlooked, second-guessed, not-quite-good-enough guy who did what it takes to earn his spot and prove himself. He deserves your admiration, indeed, to the point where disliking Tom Brady is arguably a mark of moral vice.

What also sets Tom apart is his clutch playing. The higher the stakes, the bigger the deficit, the better he plays. You might remember back in 2017 that an already old man Brady was down 28-3 with 17:02 to go. The Pats won that Super Bowl.  

Every time Brady wins, people make excuses and offer rationalizations about why it doesn't really count. They are already doing so today. The easiest refutation of these excuses and rationalizations is how many damn times the rationalizers get stuck having to rationalize. 

It's just a game. He has not cured cancer, invented a vaccine, or solved the P versus NP problem. He excels in a contrived activity in which a ball is moved around inefficiently. People who have never played sports--which includes many academics--especially have a hard time seeing the point, and often revel in displaying their own superiority by denigrating what is, after all, just a game. Nevertheless, and especially if you've played football, you know what it means to run through a human wall trying to crush you. It creates opportunities to practice and display genuine excellence. We should admire human excellence where we see it.

It's just a game, sure. But how many philosophy problems actually matter? (Would it be worth $100,000 to know whether unrestricted mereology is true?) Of the few that actually matter, how many can we confidently say we've solved? We're in no position to look down on football players. 

Some people billed last night's game as the current GOAT versus the future GOAT. Mahomes is a virtuoso, sure. He is excellent at everything. The Chiefs have the best shot of winning next year despite losing last night. But Mahomes has a long way to go. Even if he'd won last night, he'd have a long way to go. But remember this: In his three years as a starter, Mahomes has twice been denied a championship because of Old Man Brady. In Tom Brady's first three years as a starter, he won two Super Bowls. Indeed, Brady won three Super Bowls before he ever lost a playoff game. Tom wins when on paper he should lose; Mahomes has lost when on paper he should win.