Comment: Miracle man Tom Brady still surpasses them all
Two weeks ago Tom Brady was in trouble. A whole heap of trouble. The New England Patriots trailed the Jacksonville Jaguars 20-10 with just over 12 minutes left in the final quarter of the AFC title game. They had been outplayed for most of the match, Brady had been pressured, buffeted and virtually shut down by a magnificent Jaguars defence, his best receiver, tight end Rob Gronkowski, was out of the game with concussion and he was playing with 12 stitches in his hand after sustaining an injury in practice four days earlier.
He got the ball on his own 15-yard line and immediately completed an 18-yard pass to wide receiver Brandin Cooks. But then the drive seemed to stall and he faced a third and 18 from his own 28 yard line. It seemed an impossibly tall order, yet Brady picked out a 21-yard pass to Danny Amendola. In that moment you sensed the momentum shifting. Soon afterwards Brady was finding Amendola for a touchdown, having driven his team 85 yards in just over three minutes. The same duo then combined for another touchdown to give the Patriots a 24-20 victory.
A surprising thing about this comeback was how unsurprising it seemed. Once Brady got to work there was a grim inevitability about it all. A remarkable thing was that it wasn't even the most remarkable thing he'd done in the last 12 months. It was, after all, only last February when he brought his team back from a 28-3 deficit midway through the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons to win the Super Bowl 34-28 in overtime. It wasn't just the biggest comeback in play-off history, it may have been the greatest comeback in any sport, anytime, anywhere.
Brady dominates the talk about tonight's Super Bowl because he dominates American football. Like Michael Jordan, Roger Federer or Tiger Woods he functions on a different plane to even the greatest of his peers. Like them, Brady's excellence is apparent even to those with a limited knowledge of the technicalities of his chosen field. He is, perhaps more than any other sportsman I've ever seen, the competitive spirit made flesh. Brady is the ultimate example of what the Americans call a 'clutch player', the type of performer GAA fans refer to when using the phrase, 'the right man has it'. He thrives on those situations when the need is greatest and where even the finest players are wont to falter. He is the sportsman as winning machine.
Tonight he bids to become the first player to win six Super Bowls. The Patriots will be trying to become only the third team to win three Super Bowls in four years, emulating the Dallas Cowboys (1993, 1994, 1996) and themselves (2002, 2004, 2005). Brady was at the helm of those Patriots teams too. Each of those Super Bowls was won by a three-point margin. The last two have been won by four and six points. On every occasion the game has been in doubt up to the final play. Brady, manning the most important position on the pitch, has had to maintain concentration all the way through in the knowledge that victory rested in his hands. There have been no blowouts during which he could relax, no enjoying the light relief of watching Gatorade being dumped on a coach's head with several minutes left to play.
What has transformed Brady's career from outstanding to unparalleled has been the second coming of the past four years. After 2005 he went ten years without a Super Bowl victory. Brady played superbly in those years but knew frustration. In 2008 perhaps the best team he ever played on went to the Super Bowl as raging hot favourites to beat the New York Giants and become only the second team in history to go through an entire season undefeated. They lost 17-14.
Favourites again versus the same opposition four years later, they lost again thanks to the dropped passes which prompted the memorable response from Brady's wife, the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, "You have to catch the ball when you're supposed to catch the ball. My husband cannot throw the fucking ball and catch the ball at the same time."
It's hard to credit now but when the Patriots faced the Seattle Seahawks this night three years ago most people thought it would be a last hurrah for Brady and a painful one at that. At 37 he was one of the oldest quarterbacks to play in a Super Bowl and was coming up against Seattle's fearsome 'Legion of Boom' defence. Instead he became the first quarterback in Super Bowl history to overcome a ten-point fourth-quarter deficit, completing 13 of 15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Hailed at the time as a comeback for the ages, it now seems like a mere warm-up for last year's miracle.
Tonight Brady will become the first 40-year-old quarterback to play in the biggest game of all, yet there seems to be no sign of time catching up on him. His completion percentage in the regular season just gone was the third highest of his career and he's currently enjoying his second highest play-off passer rating. He defies logic as only the very greatest can.
Most illogical of all is that the Patriots' spells of dominance have occurred in a sport which is set up expressly to prevent such things happening. Take them out of the equation and the last team to win back-to-back Super Bowls was the Denver Broncos in 1999. The system whereby the weaker teams get first pick of the best players in the annual draft favours rags-to-riches stories like that of the Jaguars, who hadn't had a winning season since 2007 before this term, or the Philadelphia Eagles whose Super Bowl appearance tonight is their first in 13 years.
In American football you must, by and large, play the hand you've been dealt, elite players almost always spend their careers with one club. A cheque book operation like Manchester City's would be unthinkable in the NFL.
Denied outstanding new talent, the Patriots must rely on the guile of Bill Belichick, the coaching equivalent of Brady, and a master at finding gems overlooked by other clubs. That's what he did after the 2000 draft with a quarterback who'd been selected in 199th position and who, as he watched player after player being selected ahead of him, left his parents' house in California and cried, convinced he was destined for a life selling insurance. Two years later he was leading the Patriots to their first Super Bowl victory. Belichick had seen something special in Tom Brady.
Belichick continues to see things no-one else does. The Jaguars' hopes finally came to an end when quarterback Blake Bortles took a big hit from James Harrison, a 39-year-old linebacker released by the Pittsburgh Steelers in December. Gronkowski, perhaps the greatest tight end in history, was a 42nd pick in the 2010 draft, their defensive star Malcolm Butler wasn't drafted at all when he graduated from the obscure division two University of Western Alabama in 2014, their main running back Dion Lewis couldn't get a game at either Indianapolis or Cleveland. The receivers Brady has to throw to are, Gronkowski aside, not in the top bracket, although Brandin Cooks is on the verge of breaking into this category and could have a big game tonight.
That's why the Patriots endure so many close shaves. Unlike the '90s Cowboys whose Super Bowls were won by an average of 20 points, the champions have enough shortcomings to give the other team a chance. The Eagles team they face tonight have a stronger offensive and defensive line, quicker receivers and a superior running game. They may well take an early lead against the Patriots, who incredibly have not scored a single point in the first quarter of any of their Super Bowl victories.
What Belichick and Brady do is work things out as the game goes along. Brady sits on the sideline wrapped up in what looks like a giant fur coat, looking as blithely unconcerned as a suburban dad listening to his car radio as he waits for the family to finish shopping at the mall. Once an emotional and even tetchy figure, these days Brady is almost preternaturally calm. Yet to opposition fans he must seem as ominous as the Grim Reaper. He gives the impression, as the very greatest do, of having worked out exactly how his game needs to be played.
Neither he nor Belichick are lovable figures and neither will command much support from neutrals. Controversies over the illegal videoing of other teams' signals and the deflation of match balls suggest an organisation not unduly troubled by ethical scruple. Yet there is something enormously compelling about Brady, a man who should be too old driving a team which should not be strong enough to win games they should have lost, a man blessed with the physical beauty of an old style Hollywood matinee idol, the ferocious desire of a ghetto streetfighter and a magician's ability to bend games his way by force of will. If you can't appreciate the wonder of Tom Brady, the central point of competitive sport is lost on you.
Maybe time will catch up with him tonight. But it's more likely that in the early hours of tomorrow morning our time, the Philadelphia Eagles will be the latest team to wish that many years ago an Irishman named Brady had said, "Do you know what? I think we'll give things another go here. Let's not go to the States after all."
Sunday Indo Sport