Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Relevant Question Is, Who Will Be the Greatest Player of All the Time from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m Tomorrow?

Tom Brady is now called the Greatest of All Time as a routine honorific, like Sir Nick Faldo or how Bruce Springsteen inherited the title "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" from James Brown. People say it and don't think about its implications. It is not denigrating Brady in any way to say that this title is as much about how people view history as it is about his two decades of sustained excellence. It's even more revealing about how we see pro football in 2019 as opposed to how it was seen in 2009, let alone in 1969.

Perhaps the best way to make this point is through a series of questions and attempted answers, with questions in increasing degrees of complexity.

Is Brady the greatest quarterback of his time, a very long time now? Sure. Hell, yes. Nobody argues this point, not even his peers who're also gonna be Hall of Famers, like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

Is Brady the greatest quarterback of all time? He certainly has a very strong case, but so do previous contenders for this mythical and pernicious distinction. Joe Montana never lost a Super Bowl nor threw an interception in one, and played under rules that exposed the QB to much more physical mayhem than today. Johnny Unitas was commonly regarded as the greatest when he played under rules allowing even more mayhem, where receivers where subject to hits on every play that'd earn a DB a suspension today. Otto Graham played 10 seasons and started 10 championship games. He went 7-3 and each loss was to another Hall of Fame QB (Norm Van Brocklin and twice to Bobby Layne).

Then there was Sammy Baugh, the first passing QB, who threw a ball that more resembled a cantaloupe than the regulation Duke of today. Baugh's era also had all players, even the biggest stars, going both ways for the full 60 minutes. One year he led the league in passing, interceptions as a defensive back, and in punting. Could Brady do the same? We'll never know, because neither he nor we are going back to 1943, thank goodness.

The only sane way to weigh the evidence of the preceding three paragraphs is to acknowledge that pro football has changed so much from era to era that cross-era comparisons just aren't possible. Brady himself said earlier this season that the sport had changed dramatically just from the early years of his career. "It's more of a skills competition now," he said.

Just so. Bit by bit, year by year, NFL rules continue to change to favor scoring, passing, and well, playing quarterback. There has never been a higher value placed on Brady's skills, accurate passing, nimble footwork and instantaneous recognition of defenses. Could Baugh or Unitas have done the same. Again, we'll never know. Therefore, we shouldn't care.

Is Brady the greatest NFL player of all time? We're now into the realm of the unknowable, of the actually impossible to discuss, let alone know. There are more than 25 (counting special teams) different positions on a football team, and there have been some chaps who've been as or more dominant at their jobs as Brady has been at his.

Is Brady better than was Jerry Rice? Jim Brown? Lawrence Taylor? Joe Greene? Deion Sanders? John Hannah? He's a quarterback, and quarterbacks have been the most important players on a team since Baugh came along, but "most important" isn't the same as "best." Without Bart Starr at quarterback, the 1960s Packers aren't a dynasty, but Vince Lombardi called tackle Forrest Gregg the "best" player he'd ever coached.

Back in 2010, midway through Brady's career to date, NFL Films assembled a board of experts and ranked the top 100 players of all time. Brady wasn't number one (he came in at about 20th, give or take a few spots). Neither was any other quarterback. At number four Montana was the highest rated at that position. Rice got number one, an error, since Brown, number two, was the obvious "right" answer to an unanswerable question. Yes, that's 14-year old me writing that last sentence.

Those rankings reflect one of pro football's hidden but very real in-house biases. Quarterbacks are football players, except they're not quite seen as total players. It's not the same disdain given kickers, but it's the same principle. Quarterbacks are protected. Most players aren't. They are given special exemptions from the game's unending violence, both by rule and custom. There's no "roughing the guard" penalty. If a running back or tight end slid to avoid contact on a play (to do it to maintain possession is kosher) they'd be blackballed as surely as Colin Kaepernick.

 It is very notable that non-QB players have much esteem for how a QB can accept the physical punishment he does get, which is still considerable whatever Rodney Harrison tells you. Brady scores highly among his peers in this area due to his longevity (his ability to duck and cover never gets enough credit). He's a tough guy and respected for it. But somewhere in the back of every lineman's mind is the thought, "we never hear about a dead quarterback's skull being cut open in a CTE study."

That attitude is unfair. Quarterbacks don't make the rules. Nasty old billionaires do. But if there's such a thing as a just bias, this is one. In a game of horrendous physical risk, those protected from that risk must work to be seen as part of the gang. Why do you think quarterbacks buy Rolexes and such for their offensive lines?

The outside world has the exact opposite bias. We are quarterback centric, translating "most important" as "therefore must be the best." The very first time they let fans vote for Super Bowl MVP was Brady's first victory against the Rams. He was MVP, and spent his entire postgame press conference accurately arguing he didn't deserve it.

The outsiders bias has only gotten more intense as football has changed in the 21st century. One of the first lessons to learn about history is that our thoughts on the past are shaped by the present we live in.  Quarterbacks have never been more important in the NFL than they are today. They might as well name the MVP award that'll go to Patrick Mahomes tonight the MVQ, because no other position gets it. So many jump Brady, the best QB of his time, to the head of the best player of all time queue not because he's great, which he is, but because he's a great Q.

Bill Belichick will go to his grave without answering the question, which was the best player you coached, Brady or Taylor. Some reasons for that are obvious, but I like to think that Belichick wouldn't answer because his deep knowledge of football history lets him know the question is irrelevant, not really a question at all.

Been a tough quiz so far, so I'll close it with an easy question, the only question at issue in the here and now that won't be history for a long time to come. Is Tom Brady a great enough QB to be on the winning team in Super Bowl 53?

Sounds as if the ayes have it.


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