The Other Super Bowl Story
Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ’98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.
NATHAN: So, it has been decided: this Sunday, a quarterback who has never won a Super Bowl will win one, and one of the Harbaugh brothers will, too. These seem like major, cannot-be-overblown story lines, and they and others have been treated that way since the conference championship games, with the usual excessiveness the Super Bowl demands (those Ray Lewis murder trial/PED stories were totally out of nowhere!).
The moment the game ends, however, ESPN will run a scientific poll asking America if the winning QB will repeat next year, and Tom Jackson and Mike Ditka will aggressively argue if the loser will ever have “what it takes” to win a Super Bowl. Then the network will go to a drooling Mel Kiper, who can finally explain which college player each team will draft. In a few months, the draft will arrive, Roger Goodell will be booed, and Todd McShay will show us how each team graded out. Then we forget about football.
In August, when football returns, no one in the NFL will care who won the Super Bowl. Every coach will say his team’s “not even thinking about last year” while stating that “last year’s champion doesn’t matter.” His players will nod, and then they’ll reiterate that nothing is more important than winning the Super Bowl. Which is the paradox of winning the Super Bowl: it’s such an impossible task, but even when you accomplish it, you go to Disneyworld, and then you give it over to history. The most accurate statement about the Super Bowl comes from Duane Thomas, the running back from the early ’70s, who, when asked how it felt to play in the “ultimate game,” said, “If it’s the ultimate game, how come they’re playing it again next year?”
This is my least favorite time of the season, and not because my team isn’t playing. I love watching NFL games, and it’s not fair that at the allegedly biggest moment of the season, we get just one game on in two weeks. (I’m already nostalgic for November Sundays, when any team really can win the Super Bowl.) I am overjoyed, however, that I won’t have to suffer through another Patriots game on CBS; Jim Nantz-Phil Simms-Tom Brady-Bill Belichick is the most unbalanced foursome ever. And yet, I can’t think of a more interesting subplot than the one where the aging quarterback handles losing by building a house with a moat.
(Houses with moats, literal or figurative, are the residences of kings, people who exert real power. There’s something badass about the president bumming around the Oval Office flipping through classified documents and drunk dialing Putin while Secret Service secures the perimeter. There’s something sad about the fading superstar athlete with golden hair and pearly teeth chasing his toddler and supermodel wife around an empty 22,000-square-foot house. How could the house possibly feel like a home? Is it filled with maids and guests at all times? In a year, is he going to discover a hallway he never knew existed, open a mysterious door, and walk into a room full of people he’s never seen before? What is the purpose of this house? Surely it can’t be for actual residing.)
Every winter since 2008, when the Giants wrecked the Patriots perfect season, we’ve questioned whether or not the Brady-Belichick era is over. Each time we conclude that it is, the Patriots storm back, only to fail, dramatically, to capture the ultimate prize. So, this time, is it really over? We could easily end up posing this question for five more years. But the fact that we might not is enough to bring it up now.
Months ago, I asked boxer and Pats fan John Ambrose for some perspective on his team, and he responded by going public with his crush on Brady. (Actually, he argued that Brady’s magic lamp was empty.) I’ve brought him back to see if his assessment has changed. But, in an effort to keep potential Boston homerism to a low, I am going to begin with one of those annoying pseudo existential sports questions. John, if Brady loses, thus condemning New Englanders to a winter of misery while he gets to enact every one of his fans’ dreams by retreating to a California fortress, what’s the point in investing emotion in how well he plays football?
JOHN: Sports are a mortality play. Youth fades, and along with it strength and speed, agility and reflex. Mike Tyson gets knocked out by Kevin McBride, Michael Jordan’s game goes from sublime to ordinary (though his sneaker sales stay stratospheric). But what about those qualities that aren’t supposed to fade with age, those that are more characteristics than skills, that Hemingway would call “grace under fire”? What happens when the athlete whose reputation was built on coming through if the clutch doesn’t?
As a Patriots fan—one who’s never called sports radio or painted his body or posted on a website or had more than one dream involving Tom Brady—I conclude that Brady’s magic is gone. Brady could never throw deep like Manning or scramble like Vick, but when the game was on the line, he would win. It was that simple.
When he started losing in the playoffs, he was considered to be an innocent bystander. In the Denver debacle (2006), the defense was a mess and the special teams was a disaster. Brady lost none of his luster. In the loss at Indy (2007), the defense, using a wide receiver in the secondary, collapsed, and then Reche Caldwell dropped a perfectly thrown first-down pass that hit him right in his cursed hands. In reaction to that game, the Patriots signed Randy Moss, and he and Brady had the greatest offensive season in NFL history, 16-0, winning their first two playoff games, which is all that matters, so nothing more to discuss here.
In that year’s Super Bowl, something happened. We lost, and Brady was complicit—he was ordinary. Everyone defended him, of course—Asante Samuel’s dropped interception! The Helmet Catch! the no-calls on Eli Manning’s 15-minute scramble! Brady’s ankle was hurt!—partly because he almost won the game on a last-second heave to Moss.
The next season, ax murderer Bernard Pollard injured Brady in the first game of the year, and I turned my TV off for six months. The season after that, the Ravens torched us in the wild card round. The next season, we secured home field advantage and lost to the Jets in the divisional round. Finally, last season, my team returned to the Super Bowl to exact revenge on Eli Manning. Even with an injured Rob Gronkowski, our frat boy weapon, we still had Tom Brady, the most clutch Super Bowl quarterback in NFL history. Only, once again, we lost. And this time, there were no drops. There was a stupid safety in the beginning, there was a bad pass in the end. To make matters worse, there was an opposing quarterback who stayed cool and efficient when Brady didn’t.
NATHAN: I like how your response started as a take on sports as a morality play, before quickly devolving into a Tom Brady retrospective. I do sense an emerging point, though. Please tell me you have a point.
JOHN: Absolutely. Filtering Brady’s career in the way I did is the only way to bring us to the conference championship game against the Ravens. Here’s Brady’s stat line from the game: 28 of 54 for 320 yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs. His quarterback rating was 62.3. But stats are to sports what biology is to sex—they help explain the whole enterprise, but if you’re focusing too much on the numbers, you’re missing the fun. As a fan, I saw something that couldn’t have been more obvious: Brady was devoid of all clutchness.
Every game contains a million little moments that determine whether or not you’ll win. Sometimes you sense them as they are happening; other times you need hindsight. In the Baltimore game, there were plenty of the former. With time running out in the first half and the Patriots in the red zone, Brady tried to save his last time out by hustling to the line and spiking the ball. He failed to do either. In the fourth quarter, with the Patriots still scoreless in the half, Brady had a chance to run for an easy and vital first down. He stutter-stepped like he’d seen Drew Bledsoe’s ghost and flicked an incomplete pass. Those were dumb plays in big moments.
The only athlete I’ve ever rooted for who was as great as Tom Brady was Pedro Martinez. His talent and mastery of pitching were such that he could accomplish any feat (20Ks, perfect game) at any time (random Tuesday in July, World Series Game 7). Then his body wore down, and his stats and performances worsened. But Pedro’s performance in the ’99 playoffs against the Indians is no less sublime because of his middling work against the Yankees in the ’04 ALCS, though. As he aged, what made him great faded. That’s natural and normal.
The same can’t be said of Brady. He hasn’t lost all these playoff games because he’s no longer fast or strong or agile enough. He’s lost them because he’s no longer clutch enough. But is being clutch a manifestation of physical ability? And does it fade, or just run out like luck?
NATHAN: I just want to let you know that you’re making a delightful case against Brady’s career. If we complete the Pedro analogy, you seem almost to be suggesting that Brady’s early Super Bowl wins should be reevaluated, since you think he won them not with superior ability but by being superiorly clutch, which you say might be similar to luck. (Important distinction: luck is not the same as chance. According to Aristotle (who was really smart), luck springs from rational choices—it’s very coincidental—while chance is a function that occurs pointlessly.) Maybe Brady built the behemoth house to cover his insecurities over having lost the only transcendent skill he ever possessed. It’d certainly be interesting if he said, “It’s true, I no longer have my clutchness,” the way older athletes admit that their speed has diminished.
JOHN: Like any dynasty, the Patriots’ was built on a shaky base of innumerable precarious moments where a gust of wind or a tip or a bounce could’ve changed entire outcomes. We were only able to beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI because of a nonsensical fluke rule that set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-tying and -winning kicks against Oakland in the divisional round. Brady’s inability to now win a Super Bowl when presented with the opportunity is certainly not chance but luck—nothing more than the ball bouncing the other way, than the other team making absurd helmet catches and sideline grabs. Maybe he is the AAA prospect who hit .400 through June whom the law of averages commands will hit .230 the rest of the way. If so, what does that say about the Patriots’ Super Bowls? In fact, what does it say about sports if nine times out of 10 Michael Jordan puts a Newton too much on his buzzer-beater against the Blazers, Franco Harris runs a split second slower to the ball, and Bobby Thompson swings his bat a centimeter lower and pops out to short?
The one-in-a-million is, and always will be, why we care about sports. Just like life, there are enough losses and disappointments, enough wrathful odds to bemoan, that we might as well be thrilled when our team has everything go its way for an hour, a drive, or even just a second.
NATHAN: Fandom is merely our relationship to our team’s regression to the mean. Like a coin-flip, sports offer us one of two outcomes: win or lose. Flipped an infinite amount of times, the coin will be 50 percent heads and 50 percent tails. Whichever one comes next is not luck; it’s chance. Is sports just chance? In the larger picture, yes. The daily grind of the athletic competition, which involves real people with an obvious pecking order of their own, provides the illusion that we can control the environment and force the outcome. In a theoretical reality, though, everything evens out in the end. This might not matter for players, who rarely have lifetime allegiance to a team, but it’s everything for the fans that take losses to the grave. Yet rather than accept that our fandom is beholden to chance, we believe in things like “controlling our own destiny.” That belief is preferable to the cynicism of pointlessness, even if it’s inaccurate. Since their last Super Bowl victory, the Patriots have been coming down from an improbable orbit away from the mean. They’ll back up again; remember, for years they were a lost franchise. Every team will eventually win. We just don’t know when. It’s comforting, but it’s also nerve wracking and anxiety inducing and incredibly frustrating.
JOHN: If Tom Brady had alternated Super Bowl wins and losses, there’d be no question about his makeup or ability. And next year, maybe his passes don’t hit something as small and unimposing as a finger, maybe they don’t flutter into the exact spot where a defender is randomly positioned. Maybe his last-second heave doesn’t travel five inches too far and is caught by a healthy Gronkowski who spikes it in the endzone and later celebrates by dancing shirtless with spray-tanned porn stars (also shirtless). Or maybe the Patriots miss the playoffs. I suppose the Ravens had to win eventually.
NATHAN: As a Steelers fan signing off for the season, I concur regretfully. Go Niners, I guess.