NFL 2011

Tom Brady Is No Novak Djokovic
The stadium scene.
Sept. 13 2011 5:11 PM

NFL 2011

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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Click image to expand.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick looks like this even when the Patriots win

That was quite a display of pure athletic supremacy last night, during the Monday Night Football opener. No, not robot Tom Brady executing his passing algorithms to within +/- 5 percentage points of flawless optimality. I kept flipping away from the Patriots-Dolphins game, over to CBS, to see Novak Djokovic play paddle ball with Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open final.

Nothing in the gaudy-yet-lopsided Brady-Chad Henne passing duel—all 933 yards of it—came close. By the fourth set, Djokovic was working Nadal around the court like a speed bag, like a game of nine-ball, like a yo-yo: Nadal, a brilliant tennis player and in his prime, was being shoved this way and that, lunging from one futile angle to the next. Djokovic was pressing forward, driving Nadal back, able to make any shot he wanted.

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And all the while, Djokovic was as ingenuous as he was merciless. He had the attitude of a little boy who had drunk a magic tennis-playing potion, or who had just turned into Captain Marvel for the first time. I can do this! And this! And ... this! It's rare to see an athlete performing on that level, where thought and action become indistinguishable; it's even rarer to see an athlete enjoying it as it happens—not exulting in beating someone, a la Michael Jordan, but delighting in the unfolding possibilities of physics.

That brings us back to the New England Patriots. As good as ever, it seems. Small sample size, one game, yes, sure. But this was what we're used to seeing the Patriots do, and they did it.

Was it fun for them? The defining play of the game, the one that raised Brady's passing totals from impressive to ridiculous, was only a surprise because of how simple it was: The Dolphins, having given the ball over to the Patriots on downs at New England's one-half yard line, brought an obvious and desperate blitz; Brady dumped a short pass to Wes Welker; Welker stiff-armed his lone, already trailing defender at the 35. The next 65 yards were just running.

The record book says it's tied for the longest pass in NFL history, 99.5yards. You can't do any better than that. My own tastes run more to Randall Cunningham-to-Fred Barnett, but there's no arguing with Brady and Welker's results.

Certainly not by the Dolphins, who spent most of the second half just slightly out of striking distance. All they needed was a couple of great plays, but they never quite got even one of them. Henne rolled up yardage throwing medium-long, almost as he pleased—doing his part to make this the most prolific passing weekend in NFL history—but his receivers couldn't get behind the Patriots.

Miami's key play came shortly before the Welker catch-and-run. Henne had just completed a fourth-down pass to bring the Dolphins to New England's 10 yard line, trailing 31-17. On first and goal, he threw short to newly acquired Dolphin Reggie Bush.

The theory behind Reggie Bush, in the NFL, is that while he lacks the skills to play any particular position, there still must be some sort of situations in which his old collegiate brilliance will come through. Maybe in the open field? Heisman legend Herschel Walker had no position and a plodding first step as a pro, but when circumstances got him through the line of scrimmage or into an open kickoff-return late, he could still turn into a runaway locomotive—ohhh, goodness, here he goes!

But Reggie Bush has never even found that kind of a niche, except perhaps when he finds himself trapped by the sideline and takes a flying leap for the pylon. He is a champion pylon-diver. In the middle of the field, though, he has no spatial imagination. He caught the ball at the 7, faked half-assedly in two directions at once, and got knocked heels over head.

None of the Dolphins' ideas were good enough. After Welker's touchdown, the game still wasn't entirely out of reach, in theory. In practice, Henne kept throwing, and the chains kept moving, and Bush even found a pylon to dive for. But Miami squandered timeouts, and the clock bled away.

Patriots football, in other words. Watching the Giants play Washington on Sunday, I wondered if there could possibly be a coaching matchup more curdled and angry than Tom Coughlin against Mike Shanahan. The answer: Bill Belichick, coaching all alone. No sooner had Welker reached the end zone than the camera found Belichick with a look on his face as if someone had just towed his car, at which point the vestigial part of his humanity reminded him to pound his hands together a few times. Then he screwed the scowl on even harder. When the clock hit zero, he jogged in from the sideline, victorious, clenched with loathing. If this is winning, I might prefer losing, or tennis.

But speaking of difficult personalities, college standouts who got drafted too high, and record-tying distances, Sebastian Janikowski of the Raiders kicked a 63-yard field goal in the late game. We're adding a seat to the roundtable for our special kicking correspondent, Stefan Fatsis, to tell us what it means.

—Tom

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