Monday, February 8, 2021 01:00 PM

Maybe Tom Brady is that good after all?

in Sports by MegaBearsFan
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I've been a vocal "hater" of Tom Brady (and the New England Patriots) for many years. In fact, ten years ago, I wrote a post about how seeing the Colts playing without Payton Manning (who had been sidelined with an injury) proved that Manning is a better quarterback (and more valuable asset to the team) than Tom Brady. In the meantime, I've continued to maintain that the Patriots are just a very well-run and well-coached football team that would still be very successful even without Tom Brady. But Brady has now gone on to win four more SuperBowls since then, and yesterday, he did one of the things that we haters said would be one of the few things that would change our mind: he won a SuperBowl for a team other than the New England Patriots.

With his seventh SuperBowl victory yesterday, it's becoming increasingly hard to argue that he isn't the "G.O.A.T." (Greatest of All-Time). He is certainly the most accomplished player in NFL history. That is beyond question. Despite this SuperBowl win, and despite Brady's success and accolades, his career is still loaded with "yeah buts".

Tom Brady has now silenced many of his doubters by winning a SuperBowl with a team other than the Patriots.

The best team in the worst division of football

First and foremost, he spent his entire career playing in the worst division in football. The Jets, Dolphins, and Bills have consistently been among the worst teams in the league through the Patriots' 20-year dynasty. The Jets had a couple years under head coach Rex Ryan in which they were considered SuperBowl contenders, but their failures exposed them as more pretenders than serious contenders. It is only now in 2020 that the Bills are suddenly good, and the Dolphins almost put together a playoff-worthy record. And it just so happens that AFC East teams becoming good is the very year that Brady jumps ship from the Patriots, and we never got to see him play with any real competition in his own division.

Is Brady finally out of Belichick's shadow?

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have had a sort of "John Lennon, Paul McCartney" thing going on, in which people argued about whether they are as good on their own as they are together. Well now we finally got to see Belichick fail miserably at coaching a Brady-less team, and got to see Brady win a championship for a team not coached by Belichick. It's easy to see this as vindication for Brady (and many do see it as exactly that), but I'm still not entirely sold.

First and foremost, I point to 2008, when Brady was sidelined with injury, and Matt Cassel had to start the rest of the year. Cassel played exceptionally well, the Patriots went 11-5, and only missed the playoffs because they lost tie-breakers to the Dolphins (for the division title) and Ravens (for a wildcard spot). Cassel became the hottest free agent in the NFL that following offseason, and largely flopped at every team he played at since. The Patriots without Tom Brady were still playoff contenders.

Matt Cassel looked like an all-star and almost
lead Patriots to the playoffs in 2008.

We also saw the Patriots perform well during Brady's four-game "Deflategate" suspension in the 2016 season. The Patriots won 3 of those 4 games (convincingly) en route to a comeback SuperBowl championship against the Falcons. We've seen the Patriots be god without Tom Brady, multiple times.

We didn't see a Brady-less Patriots team again until 2020, which, of course, was the year of COVID. It's hard to really judge anything that happened this season because the whole thing was so topsy-turvy. The pandemic was disruptive to many teams' training camps, as it limited team activities. Almost every team had players opt-out of playing in the season altogether. Because of these disruptions to activities and rosters, it is very likely that otherwise good teams may have underperformed. One of the hardest-hit teams might have been the New England Patriots, which had to make due with six players opting-out, including two defensive starters and a starter on the offensive line. Furthermore, positive COVID tests for players (including elite defensive back Stephon Gilmore) caused further disruption to the Patriots' game and practice schedules. Despite all those problems, the Patriots were still only a couple games out of wildcard contention!

Yes, despite Cam Newton's stellar start to the 2020 season as a Patriot (I had him on my fantasy team, and was starting him ahead of Lamar Jackson), Cam didn't pan out in long run. But he also had more pressure to carry the tame, since the Patriots' defense wasn't playing the type of supplemental football that the Patriots are used to. Remember, this was an elite defense in 2019. Newton also lacked the offensive weapons that Brady enjoyed for so long. He didn't have a Wes Welker or a Randy Moss or a Rob Gronkowsky to throw to.

Also remember that Belichick had to scramble to find a new quarterback after Brady left, since team management forced him to trade away his hand-picked successor (Jimmy Garoppolo) to the 49ers back in 2017. Had Garoppolo stayed with the Patriots (and stayed injury-free), would he have been a worthy successor to Brady?

So I wouldn't write the Patriots off quite yet. I wouldn't even write Cam Newton off yet, as he may return to the Patriots for the 2021 season with a full depth chart of supporting talent. I fully expect that the Patriots will be better in 2021, and will be competing with the Bills for the division title. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Belichick's Patriots in a couple more SuperBowls without Tom Brady.

Cam Newton started off hot, but struggled as a Patriot, due in part to a lack of supporting talent.

The best "bad team" in the NFL?

Brady also chose possibly the best "bad team" in all of football to sign with. The Buccaneers were not an awful team. In fact, they were a fairly solid, well-rounded team when Brady was signed. They had a stout defense that was already known for suffocating opponent running games. They had a lot of offensive weapons in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate, and Ronald Jones. The only thing this team lacked was consistent quarterback play. Jameis Winston made too many mistakes and lost too many games for the Buccaneers. All they needed was a QB who would play consistently and not lose games for them.

It isn't like Brady took a perennially bad team like the Detroit Lions, or the New York Jets, or the Jacksonville Jaguars to the SuperBowl. Now that would have been impressive! No, instead, he wisely chose a team on which he was the only missing piece needed to make a championship run.

The Buccaneers were already a well-rounded team, and only lacked a consistent QB.

The easiest playoff run I've ever seen

The 2020 / 2021 postseason might have been the easiest path to a SuperBowl championship that Brady has ever faced. Not because his team played particularly well (even though they did play quite well), but rather because every team that the Buccaneers faced in the postseason simply rolled over and died at the Buccaneers' feet. Nobody provided any resistance at all to the Buccaneers, and Brady (along with the rest of the team) coasted to one of (if not the) easiest SuperBowl wins that I've ever seen.

Drew Brees' arm seemed to give out in his final game.

They started by beating the Washington Football Team (a team in such disarray right now, that they don't even have a name). Washington is one of the worst teams to ever make the playoffs, in the worst division of football in 2020. They are one of only 5 teams to win its division (and make the playoffs) despite having a losing record. Washington's best games in 2020 were the ones in which Alex Smith was the quarterback. But Smith was injured for the wildcard playoff game, and 3rd-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke was simply not up to the challenge of leading a crappy team to a playoff win -- especially without having a decent running game to lean on.

The Bucs then beat the division rival Saints who suffered from more COVID-related setbacks. Rotational backup QB (and part-time receiver) Taysom Hill was out due to a positive COVID test, and Drew Brees showed why he is retiring by being unable to get the ball downfield. Brees wasn't the same quarterback we've been used to seeing throughout his stellar career, and the dynamic Hill was not available to lighten Brees' load (as he'd been doing more often late in the season). It also didn't help that social distancing regulations limited the attendance at the stadium, which removed the Saints' home-field advantage. With Brees retiring, the Saints may not be the powerhouse that they used to be moving forward, and the Buccaneers might suddenly become the team-to-beat in the NFC South for the foreseeable future.

Then the Packers laid a dud of a game with a first-half devensive implosion that gave Tampa a borderline insurmountable lead. Rodgers and the Packers almost came back, but lost the game due to one of the dumbest coaching decisions that I've ever seen in the NFL. Head coach Matt LaFleur decided to kick a field goal on 4th and goal late in the 4th quarter, down by 7, instead of going for the touchdown to tie. I'm not one to call for a coach's firing after one bad game -- let alone a single bad decision -- but that decision was a borderline-fireable offense. Of course, LaFleur wouldn't have been in that position if Aaron Rodgers would have simply run in for a touchdown on the previous play instead of throwing into tight double coverage in the endzone. It's like the Packers went out of their way to give the game to the Buccaneers.

Aaron Rodgers should have run in for the TD here, instead of forcing LaFleur to make a game-losing 4th down call.

And then the Chiefs came out and played even worse in the SuperBowl than the Packers had the week before. They had their share of off-field drama prior to the game. The Chief's offense was unable to do anything, and the defense didn't bother to cover the running backs or tight ends at all. This allowed Brady to throw check-downs all game, which were often broken for big gains after the catch. Brady was then given MVP, even though I personally thought that the Bucs' defensive line should've been given co-MVP for so thoroughly owning the Chiefs' blockers and keeping Pat Mahomes in check the whole game.

Yes, it is exceedingly difficult to argue against Tom Brady's apparent greatness given his seventh SuperBowl win, and I must begrudgingly admit that he's pretty damn great at what he does. There is, after all, no arguing against his accomplishments. He is a master of checking-down to open receivers, and he is one of the most consistent and composed players that I've ever seen play the game.

But as you can see, I still have plenty of "yeah, but"s in my bag. At the end of the day, I won't be truly sold that Brady was the better of the Brady-Belichick duo until a few years have gone by, and I get to see how both the Patriots and the Buccaneers continue to perform. If the Patriots come back next year and make a playoff run (especially if the Bills continue to provide tough competition for the Patriots), I'll have another "yeah but" to throw against Tom Brady, in the form of the Patriots continuing to be successful without him.

Maybe I'll be revisiting this topic again in a few years...

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