Tom Brady slumping? Surely you jest.
It may be a sign of how far things have come for the Patriots that in the midst of a season in which he has led his team to a 12-1 record, clinched the AFC East for the second straight year by Dec. 12, and set a course for a third Super Bowl in his fourth year as a starter, bickering has begun in New England concerning whether Tom Brady is "slumping".
It's barely more than a whisper (and, in some cases, a few shouts in the proverbial empty forest of talk radio)--but here and there, you can pick it out. Something about his completion percentage going down. Something about his total passing yards plummeting. I couldn't give you details--I've been trying desperately not to pay attention.
Since Mo Lewis slammed Tom Brady into the spotlight in 2001, "experts" have constantly been searching for reasons to doubt him. The 2001 miracle Super Bowl? Beginner's luck. The 2002 season was a feast of snarking for Brady's detractors, though the plain fact of the matter that in many years, a 9-7 record would have been plenty to get the Patriots into the playoffs. Then, in 2003, while most of New England jumped on the Bradywagon with unbridled exuberance, the few boo-birds could still be heard chirping around the edges. Brady can't throw the long ball. Brady's just Belichik's 6'4", 220-pound puppet.
A second Super Bowl. A second Super Bowl MVP, putting himself in a category with Joe Montana and Phil Simms. Twin last-minute drives to put his team in a position to take the trophy--what more infallible proof is there than a replicated experiment under the same conditions?
And yet, still. Brady doesn't put up the numbers of Peyton Manning. Brady's completion percentage has dropped--and the acquisition of a running game for the Patriots isn't enough to explain it.
Brady has proven he can win repeatedly; he has proven he can throw the long ball; he has proven he can lead the team and the offense; he has proven he can bounce back from the "sophomore slump", that he can handle the fame and the pressure and the spotlight.
And yet, still. Plug any stiff off the street into Belichik's system, and he'd have the rings, too.
But I'm not so sure.
Today I sat, bundled in a paycheck's worth of gear from EMS, high above the field on the third deck of Gillette Stadium and had the privelege, once again, of watching Brady in action.
Today, it was the vaunted Patriots' defense's turn to slump. They gave up 460 yards and 28 points to the Cincinnati Bengals. But on the other side of the ball, Brady scored 35.
In fact, look back over the whole season and you'll see a pattern emerging: the Patriots have allowed more points than ever before during Belichik's tenure. This season, the Patriots' defense are ranked 15th against the pass, having allowed 40-yard completions in five games and 30-yard completions in three more.
But Brady has almost always managed to score just a few more points. Today was no different--Brady's final numbers showed 260 yards and 2 touchdowns on 18 of 26 passing.
Brady can't throw the long ball? Witness the completion, terrible in its beauty, to David Patten for 48 yards on a three-play scoring drive to quickly answer the Bengals' tying touchdown in the first half. On the radio, Gino Cappelletti was heard to remark, "That is just the kind of play the Patriots can make that will just break your heart, if you're a Bengals player or fan."
If you'll notice, Brady doesn't make these plays in garbage time--he makes them when they matter, when, with surgical precision, he can use them to cut out the other team's heart.
Witness also the play that is sure to make Sportscenter: At the opening of the second half, Brady fumbled the snap, and then tripped over his own feet, falling right on his ass for a seven-yard loss.
Or, actually, he sat up and lobbed the ball to Patrick Pass near the left sideline, making it a seven-yard gain instead, and then, shrugging and laughing, drove down to score on the Patriots' first possession.
Name another quarterback who could ever--ever--do that. Make such a jaw-dropping play and get up chuckling...perform such effortless magic.
But magic can't be quantified. It can't be analyzed or broken down on talk radio. If there's anything to be learned from Brady, it's that there will always be those who refuse to believe what's happening before their very eyes.
As part of his nomination for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year a few weeks ago (a recognition for which he might have been a strong contender if not overshadowed by the miraculous Red Sox), Bill Belichik and teammates, along with Brady himself, were interviewed for a FOX sports special announcing the nominees and the winner. One segment for each nominee asked colleagues to describe them in a single word.
Bill Belichik looked directly into the camera. He thought for a moment, as is his habit. Then, finally, he said decisively, "tough."
Sounds simple enough. Brady is precisely the quarterback for Belichik's system--namely one that can take a punishing hit, first and foremost, and not only find his way back to the correct sideline but also leave it again with the correct play call for the next snap. It takes a tough man to do that.
But if you think about it for a moment, there are many more meanings, many more statements about Brady in that single word. He's physically resilient, but don't forget the mental side. Forget pressure. Forget hype. Brady covers his ears in a roaring away stadium, and calmly makes the call.
It goes further. Brady's tough to beat. He's tough on his opponents. He's tough for the haters to trap in one criticism.
Brady can't throw the long ball. Brady can't function without brainwashing from Belichik. Brady can't remain consistent. Brady can't handle the hype. Brady can't run. Brady can't possibly be who he appears to be.
Brady looks up from the seat of his pants on the field, while Patrick Pass sprints away with the ball several yards down. He looks up with a bemused expression, as if to his critics, as if to say, "Tough."