The State of the NFL

Is Tom Brady a Great Quarterback?
The stadium scene.
Nov. 8 2006 7:41 AM

The State of the NFL

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Charles:

I just finished reading your new book, Tom: Athletic Learnings of Football for Make Benefit Glorious Team of New England. Let me logroll straight off, and feel free to quote extensively from these next few sentences in your flackery. Not that anyone familiar with your work will be surprised, but this is one of the most literate jock bios ever committed. The X's and O's are there, because they need to be, but what makes Tom so compelling—OK, OK, it's really called Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything—is how the three-ring career of an extraordinarily centered athlete was shaped by an intellectually complex family background. Yours surely will be the only book to analyze both the second half of Super Bowl XXXVI and the Second Vatican Council of Pope John XXIII. Wish I could be there when the Gillette Stadium lunch buckets get to the part where you tackle "that Irish Catholic Jansenistic fear of the body."

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Now to the present. Your boy didn't look so good on Football Night in America on Sunday. In fact, the bio-worthy one was the dynastic Indianapolis Colts passer whose ubiquitous Sprint commercial was booed on the Foxborough JumboTron. Peyton Manning carved up New England's overmatched secondary as he did Denver's more-competent one the previous week, completing 20 of 36 passes for 326 yards. Brady, meanwhile, threw four interceptions, three of which, I know, were tipped by players wearing the same uniform as he. But the Joe Cool quarterback who amassed 257 passing yards in the first half against the (admittedly pathetic) Minnesota Vikings two Mondays ago was a no-show. The final score was 27-20, Indy, but it didn't feel that close.

Still, Manning (zero Super Bowl appearances) gets doubt while Brady (three, all wins) gets the benefit of it. But I really have no interest in instigating a Brady-Manning debate; there are plenty of places to partake of that babble. As these guys march up and down the field and into the Hall of Fame, the more relevant issue is: What makes a great quarterback? We're infatuated with the position for obvious reasons. On the patchwork quilt of chaos that is the football field, the quarterback is the focal point, the only player, as you neatly observe, "whose job specifically requires him to stand still." What makes Manning and Brady so clearly superior seems to have less to do with their identifiable football qualities (stand tall in pocket, throw tight spirals, blah blah blah) than with their hidden ones (eyeballs, cerebellums) and the teammates paid to complement them. Can football laymen find a rational way to parse all that?

As you know, I spent this summer as a place-kicker for (well, with) the Denver Broncos. I dressed a few lockers away from four quarterbacks. One was the NFL equivalent of The Fantasticks: around for years and seen by millions but inevitably dissed, regardless of the quality of the performance. (Full disclosure: I like Jake Plummer, who, by the way, is improving by the week.) QB No. 2 was a rookie, Jay Cutler, who has been made wealthy by virtue of his draft position—first round, 11th pick. In training camp, he appeared physically and emotionally equipped to bear the Atlas burden of throwing a football before a populace whose collective torso is tattooed with a John Elway jersey. The third was the demoted backup, Bradlee Van Pelt, an NFL legacy with a rock-hard bod and good on-field freelancing skills but also a tendency to overthink in midplay. (He was cut.) Last on the depth chart was a guy with the build of a multidimensional QB—a bit shorter and broader than Brady—and a strong arm, a confident but not immodest mien, and the ability to absorb the OED of information dumped on the modern pro signal-caller.

But you've never heard of Preston Parsons, and he's never played a down in a regular-season game. Why not? Is it politics? He was a late bloomer from a Division I-AA school who wasn't drafted, so no team had a financial or reputational stake in his development. Is it talent? He's played for three teams as a backup, or backup to the backup. (He made the Broncos' practice squad.) Swearing to objectivity, he believes he's been as good as or better than most of the fellows for whom he's understudied. Or is it something unobvious and internal, "the quantity x itself," to quote Salinger? I mean, couldn't Tom Brady just as easily be studying for the bar exam as scoring babes, enduring 60 Minutes, and appearing in cartoons?

Brady's career arc lays waste to the clinical approach that dominates personnel evaluation in our most bureaucratic and CW-driven sport. Your book demonstrates that old sporting tropes like "character" and "perseverance" actually can matter—if the athlete applies them to himself. What surprised me is how much material you found in the short life of a suburban kid whose toughest choice growing up was whether to hit a 3-iron or a 5-wood. This isn't an indictment of your portrait of the athlete as a young man, but I kept waiting for Brady to race into a burning building to rescue a litter of kittens. You report that he took a course in "academic organization" the summer before his freshman year—of high school. By the end of the book, I wanted Brady to at least drop a gum wrapper on the sidewalk or something. You're no Pollyanna. Is Tom Brady that rare human utterly devoid of cynicism and condescension? Or did he simply recognize that his personal success depended on his ability to make his teammates better, and then made sure that happened?

Let's get these matters out of the way so we can move on to football's most important players: the kickers.

In Cover Two,
Stefan

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at sfatsis9@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.