As you watched Tom Brady run off the field after his touchdown pass to Randy Moss that gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead with 2:42 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII, you were witnessing a man at the absolute peak of his greatness.
He was minutes away from his fourth Super Bowl (and most likely his third MVP in the big game) and a perfect 19-0 season. Finally given a pair of weapons to work with in Moss and Wes Welker, he had just finished the best regular season ever authored by a quarterback.
Now both an unquestioned winner and statistical standout, his spot on the Mount Rushmore of signal-callers was secure. The only question left was this: Is Tom Brady the greatest ever at his position?
Cut to nearly two years later and I’m pretty sure that question was asked by not a single person in attendance at Gillette Stadium on Sunday (56,000 or so of whom were pounding their horns on Route 1 with a lot of the fourth quarter left — not really a criticism, but it was startling).
Look, there was no shortage of problems in the “wiping out whatever shred of mystique was left” blowout loss to the Ravens. Turns out that just putting Vince Wilfork back on the line doesn’t mean an instant solution to stopping the running game of Baltimore (a pause as Ray Rice just ran for another 12 yards). And the Patriots' own running game isn’t going to confused with the 1963 Browns anytime soon (anyone taking bets that the one and only carry by Laurence Maroney was the last one he’ll ever have as a Patriot?).
And sorry, Dan Dierdorf, this can now officially be called the worst year of Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England. Derrick Burgess/Joey Galloway/Fred Taylor, fourth-and-2, losing Welker in a meaningless game AND coming out completely flat in a home playoff game?
Put it this way: I don’t think you’ll be seeing a flood of books examining BB’s genius coming out over the next few months. In fact, I submit that if you get taken to the shed by John Harbaugh in a playoff game, there should be at least an 18-month ban on the word “genius” when describing your coaching acumen.
But the headliner has to be Brady. I understand that his numbers for the 2009 season (4,398 yards, 28/13 TD/INT and a 96.2 rating) were plenty healthy. But something always seemed a little off, right? Hard to define, I think, but something changed this year.
In past seasons, you would always think Brady was going to convert on a third-and-8, or move the ball 75 yards down the field to score the game-winning touchdown. This year it just never felt that way, did it? And even though you played the “As long as we have Bill and Tom we have a chance” card all week, the idea that Brady might finally throw up a full-fledged playoff stinker was at least kicking around, wasn’t it?
The shaky 3-1/2 quarters vs. Buffalo in Week 1 ... The loss to the Jets in Week 2 ... Game-ending picks thrown against Indy and Miami ... Another blown lead against the Texans ... Sure, a four-TD game still seemed more likely, but a four-turnover game wasn’t the impossibility that it would have been even two years ago.
Well, it finally happened. The numbers, while brutal (23-of-42, 154 yards, three picks and a fumble) don’t really tell the story. The Ravens defense got in Brady’s head from the start. (How about these first four plays from scrimmage for the Pats: Maroney 2-yard rush, Julian Edelman -3 yard-catch, the sack and strip from Terrell Suggs and the sack by Ray Lewis. At that point the score was 14-0 and the game was over.) Brady was never within 50 miles of comfortable after that.
Panicked. That’s the word I would use to describe Brady on Sunday. I wrote last week that his fourth-quarter interception against the Texans was “the worst of his career.” (His falling-down pick against the Dolphins on Monday Night Football in 2004 was close. Remember how shocked we all were at that pass, how out of character it seemed? If he had made that same exact play against Baltimore, would you have even blinked?) That has now been eclipsed by Chris Carr’s first-quarter pilfer from yesterday.
That was straight out of the Brett Favre “throw it and hope” playbook. I’m not sure Brady even looked before he let go of the ball. What I am sure of is that he was intimidated by a defense and basically bullied into that turnover. You know what that pick most reminded me of? The kind of pass the Patriots used to force Peyton Manning to make.
Now, is it Brady’s fault that the offensive line (and coaching staff) couldn’t figure out how to slow down the endless blitzing from the Ravens? Nope, but Brady was always the guy that made plays with pressure in his face, wasn’t he? I think I could count on one hand the number of times before this season that I can remember Brady looking truly flustered on the field.
Remember, he was the anti-Bledsoe when he arrived in 2001, always looking downfield, never worried about what was happening in the pocket. Brady was always a picture of calm as thousands and thousands of pounds collided around him. Did that end with Bernard Pollard? Or is it the ribs and the finger? Or just age? Don’t know, but I suspect that if the 2001 Tom Brady could have watched Sunday’s game he would have recognized the Patriots QB — not as himself, but as the guy he replaced.
To be fair, Brady still is one of the six or seven best quarterbacks in the league. Right now he’s sort of where Matt Hasslbeck was three, four years ago — not the end of the world, but nowhere near the standard (and if the Colts win another Super Bowl, there is no question that Manning is easily ahead of Brady from a historical perspective).
Maybe Brady will bounce back next year. Another season removed from the knee injury, fully healed from the ribs, maybe a new toy or two on offense — all that stuff. Could happen.
But here are two things that I know for sure. Tom Brady will be 33 years old when the 2010 season starts. And Wes Welker will not be on the field. Not a great place to start.
And Brady is about problem No. 4,288 for the Patriots. They’d love to have a player as good as even the 2009 Brady at each position. Maybe all the years of trading out of drafts has finally caught up with them. (Though I still stand by the Richard Seymour trade as a great move. Does anyone think this team wins the Super Bowl with Seymour? And Al Davis is committed to another season of JaMarcus Russell, which should equal 2011 draft gold.)
All I know is that in a playoff game played in 2010 you could make a serious case that the two best Patriots on the field were Kevin Faulk and Junior Seau. Not good.
But maybe things get better. All you need is a couple of free agent signings to stick and really hit on a draft pick or two. You see a team that went 4-12 the season before make the playoffs almost every year, so why can’t a 10-6 team improve to 13-3? Seems possible, I guess. (A lot more possible than Adalius Thomas being in New England next year, anyway. There’s a better chance of Belichick catching the 10:45 showing of “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” with Eric Mangini than there is of Thomas ever playing a down for the Pats again.)
But then the Brady question comes back.
I still maintain that the best game he has ever played was that Super Bowl game against the Giants. The numbers (29-of-48, 266 yards and that TD to Moss) look pedestrian — especially in the context of that season — but the pressure he faced from New York that night was worse than he saw Sunday. To throw 48 passes in that game and not have a pick was truly remarkable, twice as cool as Joe Montana on his best day.
I can’t think of another quarterback who wouldn’t have had at least three picks in that game, facing that constant pressure, and that includes Manning. Plenty of guys can throw four touchdowns against a helpless Jaguars defense in December, but Brady is the only QB I have ever seen who could have played that kind of game against the Giants.
And if the Patriots are going to stick with their current offensive philosophy, they need that kind of quarterback to win in the playoffs.
Can Tom Brady be that player again?
Right now, that is the only question that needs to be asked about him. Only time will offer an answer.