Here’s a challenge: Imagine the NFL without Tom Brady.
Seriously. Put aside, for a moment, any anti-Goliath sentiments you might bear. And think.
Think about the Patriots with somebody else under center. No, you can’t plug in Peyton Manning or Brett Favre or Tony Romo. For purposes of this exercise, let’s go with Matt Cassel. Just like Bill Belichick would.
Back to the Patriots, a 14-0 team in the real world.
Think that happens with Cassel? Nothing against the guy, by all accounts a fine young man who has made some nice throws among his 39 career attempts. But Brady had 39 touchdown passes after 11 games.
OK, to be fair, Cassel hasn’t seen much of the field in his three seasons. Put him behind New England’s line and surround him with the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte’ Stallworth and Benjamin Watson and he’d have some nice numbers, too.
But, remember, we’re imagining an NFL without Tom Brady, which means we’re left with “nice numbers,” not out-of-this-freakin’-world numbers.
And so there’s no way we’d be looking at a quarterback with 45 touchdown passes—the third-best season total ever—with two games to go. We wouldn’t be anticipating the imminent fall of Manning’s league record of 49, a total that was hard enough to comprehend only three years ago.
We wouldn’t be watching the meter spin to the tune of 4,235 passing yards, a 69.2 percent completion figure, a mere six interceptions and a passer rating of 119.7 that would, if the season ended today, be second-best all-time.
New England’s opponents wouldn’t mind an NFL without Brady, that’s for sure. Remove him from the equation and you’re probably not gasping at the whuppins inflicted on the likes of Miami, Buffalo and Washington. The utter domination was a sight to behold—or, depending on your point of view, a massacre from which to avert one’s eyes. But you couldn’t help but admire Brady—his poise in the pocket, field vision, perfect form, quick release, rocket arm, pinpoint accuracy. And, above all, his complete command of the offense.
Quite simply, Brady was toying with opponents.
Now let’s be honest: New England would have won those games with Cassel. But what about the occasional game that wasn’t a blowout? Do the Patriots overcome a 20-10 fourth quarter deficit to defeat the Colts without two Brady bombs that lead to 14 points? Do they beat the Eagles on another fourth quarter drive, this time with Brady accounting for 66 of 69 yards through the air?
And what about the game against the Ravens, a team that hounded Brady all night? Say what you will about Baltimore’s ill-timed timeout and a fortuitous false start when the Ravens had the Patriots stuffed twice on fourth down, but it was Brady who converted on fourth-and-6 with a rare but effective scramble. And the TD pass to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left was a beaut.
Fewell tells a story of a play in Buffalo’s 56-10 loss to New England last month. In preparing for the game, he noticed that no opponent had ever put nine defenders in coverage against Brady. Fewell figured he’d disguise the coverage and give it a try, once, in the hope that covering all the zones would force Brady to run or at least rattle him enough to make a mistake.
“When he saw the nine defenders drop, he was cool as a cucumber,” Fewell says. “He didn’t panic. He just said, ‘Oh, I have time.’ He looked around, he moved in the pocket a little bit, and he just waited for somebody to clear. And he hit Randy Moss for like a 40-yard touchdown pass. ... That was classic Brady.”
OK, maybe the Patriots aren’t your favorite team. Maybe you don’t like all those rings. Maybe those lopsided scores grate on your nerves. Maybe Spygate soured you.
Whatever. Don’t hold that against Brady. All he does is execute the offense he’s told to execute. And he does so as flawlessly and spectacularly as any quarterback ever has over the course of a season. Without great fanfare. Without saying a lot. Without any apparent desire for attention or acclaim.
“He is a nicer and better human being than people see or imagine,” says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “He’s a great leader, and everybody respects him. I would say every woman in New England between the ages of 2 and 80 is nice to me so they can meet him.”
“He doesn’t like being in the limelight,” says Browns linebacker Willie McGinest, who played with Brady on all three Patriots Super Bowl championship teams. “He’s a great guy. He’s humble. He works hard. He’s quick to say his success comes from ‘these guys.’ Even though a lot of it has to do with him, he’s not selfish. At all.”
Think of the water cooler discussions you wouldn’t be having because Brady wouldn’t be doing something every week that absolutely blew you away.
Think of Randy Moss in continued decline, his amazing skills going to waste yet again.
Think of the ‘72 Dolphins, long ago having uncorked the champagne. Think of the final two weeks of the regular season and the impending playoffs with no talk of perfection, no speculation about this Patriots team being perhaps the greatest the NFL has ever seen.
Think of how ordinary the 2007 season would seem by comparison.
We’d rather not.
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