How many more good years does Tom Brady have left?
That’s the big question for New England Patriots fans as the 2012 season begins. How long can he be effective? How long will his Super Bowl window remain open?
The short, sad answer is this: that window is already closed. Tom Brady will not win another Super Bowl in New England. It’s over.
I hate to write those words. I’m a fan. I moved to Boston and started watching the Patriots in 1998; two years later, Brady was drafted and started his unexpected rise. Brady’s my guy, the one I’ll talk about in my old age the way other guys talk about Y.A. Tittle or John Brodie or Bart Starr.
He’s been more than a great quarterback. Brady has delighted fans by staying more or less the same aw-shucks guy he was when he was a rookie. He’s the superstar who still works like he’s still a sixth-round draft pick trying to make the team. That’s how he won Super Bowls after the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons. Amazing run.
Then he married a superstar model and took it all to another level. I’d love to see him win three more Super Bowls in the next four years.
But it ain’t going to happen.
You could find several reasons say this. Brady’s age. His knee, which he blew out in 2008, and don’t even try to tell me it’s back at full strength. His (laudable) focus on his wife and family (she’s pregnant again) over 24-hour football. You could even blame Bill Belichick’s focus on fielding a contender every year, which creates a roster full of middle-talent overachievers who can go 12-4 in the regular season but lack the transcendent talent to dominate the big game.
But the real reason to say “it’s over” is that Brady showed us himself. He showed it quite plainly in three throws at the end of last season. Let’s look ’em over.
Bad Throw One
The situation: the AFC Conference Championship. 7:22 left in the 4th quarter. New England 23, Baltimore 20. Brandon Spikes has just made a lovely interception to give the Patriots the ball at just about the 50 yard line, first and 10. The Patriots are suddenly in the driver’s seat.
Brady play-action fakes and goes back to pass. He looks downfield, steps up and throws a bomb toward Matthew Slater, who is streaking down the middle of the turf. Slater actually has the inside position on the defensive back, and if Brady hits him it’s six points. The ball flies 55 yards through the air…
…But Brady’s pass is bad: both slightly over Slater’s head and slightly to the outside of the field. It’s just a bad pass. Safety Bernard Pollard of the Ravens jumps in and tips the ball to his teammate Jimmy Smith, who runs it out of the end zone to the Ravens 37. Patriot momentum killed. Ravens have new life. Just a bummer all around.
It was a fantastic play by Pollard, for sure. But that play was only possible because of Brady’s terrible throw.
What happened to the smart field general who was so careful with the ball? Here Brady is guilty of a reckless play, or of a bad throw, or both. What could have been a killer touchdown turned into a huge boost for the opponent.
Luckily, the Pats were saved by the shaky right foot of the Ravens’ Billy Cundiff, who utterly blew a 32-yarder and sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Bad Throw Two
The Super Bowl. 14:32 left in the 4th quarter. New England 17, NY Giants 15. Patriots on their own 42. Terribly close game, but the ball is in the hands of Mr. Reliable, Tom Brady.
Brady goes back to pass, makes a wonderful bob-and-weave move to avoid being sacked, rolls to his right, and spots giant tight end Rob Gronkowski down the field. He’s being covered by Chase Blackburn, an undrafted 2005 free agent known as a special teams guy.
Brady’s bob-and-weave has let Gronkowski get behind Blackburn, the two of them alone way downfield. Replays show that Gronkowski actually waves a hand — “I’m open.” Brady sees him and lets it fly…
…but underthrows Gronkowski terribly. The ball falls into the arms of Blackburn for an interception.
It is only the third interception of Blackburn’s seven-year career.
Bad Throw Three
The Super Bowl, again. Now 4:06 left in the 4th quarter. Patriots lead 17-15 and are driving down the field. The Giants have only one time out left.
Before we talk about this last bad throw, a little background.
The mantra on Tom Brady used to be that he doesn’t play favorites, that he “just hits the open man,” as Rob Gronkowski said as recently as last November. He wasn’t like those surly quarterbacks who only threw to veterans or to their favorite guys. Brady was a results guy, an egalitarian. Get open and he’d get you the ball.
But somewhere in the last 10 years, that equation changed a little. In order to play with Brady, it is now no longer enough to get open. You have to get open the right way — in exactly the place Brady wants you to be. You have to read the defense the same way he does, then run the exact right route in response, and then when both receiver and quarterback are together in the perfect mind-meld, the receiver will be at the desired correct open spot to get the correct throw.
Receivers who couldn’t be at the perfect spot every time — who “couldn’t handle the playbook” — were jettisoned right and left over the years. Some were famous veterans like Chad Ochocinco. Some were youngsters, like 3rd-round draft pick Taylor Price, who never really got a chance on the field at all. Sorry, he “couldn’t handle the playbook.” This year, new receiver Brandon Lloyd has come to the Patriots because he has played in the system elsewhere and everyone knows he can handle the playbook.
But floating head and shoulders above all other receivers in handling the playbook is the slot receiver Wes Welker. He is Brady’s “security blanket.” He always reads Brady’s mind, always gets open the right way in the correct spot.
So this, then, was the perfect Patriot moment — the perfect Tom Brady moment. The game is the Super Bowl, as high as stakes can be. It’s the fourth quarter and the Patriots have a slim lead.
The receiver whom Brady trusts most, the receiver who is telepathically linked with him, comes to the line of scrimmage. And it happens! The Giants have blundered into the wrong defensive set! Welker and Brady see it at the same time!
“I think they got a little mixed up,” Welker later said. “I think the man over me was playing ‘high look’ and then the safety went to ‘one high.’ That’s why it opened up for me when it did.”
So Welker ran the perfect route for the read. And: “Yeah, [Tom] saw it and he threw me the ball.”
But — alas! — it was a bad throw. Brady just flat out missed Welker, throwing it behind and one side, forcing Welker to make a twisting, flailing attempt. Welker got his hands on it but couldn’t hold on.
Let the excuses begin! Sure, Brady threw it left to keep it away from the safety rushing in from the center of the field. And yes, Welker might have caught it with a perfect effort. But Brady threw it over Welker’s left shoulder when Welker was looking over his right. And Brady’s throw was more than just slightly high and away.
As Rich Eisen later said:
“2nd and 11, 4:06 left in the game… Giants have one timeout left. If that was a completion, the ball would have been right in the red zone, they could have taken this thing right down to the two-minute warning and… just one first down away from winning Super Bowl 46 if this is a connection.”
Skip Bayless was a lot more direct: “On the play of the game for the New England Patriots, the one that ices the game in my opinion, Tom Brady made a poor throw to a wide-open Wes Welker… He threw it over the wrong shoulder a little high and a little outside, to a five-foot nine-inch slot receiver not known for his leaping ability.”
A bad throw, dropped. Instead of a first down (or a touchdown), the Patriots miss out. They have to punt.
And then comes the coup de grace: A few minutes later, Giants quarterback Eli Manning makes the throw that Brady didn’t make: a fabulous spiral down the left sideline that drops into a space the size of a shoebox where only reciever Mario Manningham can catch it and tap his toes before two diving defenders shove him out of bounds. The Giants drive, they score, and they win the Super Bowl 22-17.
And it was Brady’s fault. He just wasn’t Mr. Clutch. In fact, quite the opposite: with the game on the line, with the perfect moment to throw his pass in the system he demands, he blew it.
Well, it’s not the end of the world. Anyone can make a mistake. And sure, maybe Brady over-thought things. Maybe he was being extra-careful with the safety. Maybe Brady was spooked by the Giants pass-rushers who had batted down a few passes earlier in the game. Maybe Welker was so wide-open that Brady tried to get a little extra air under this one, just to be safe.
But that’s also the point: Why are we even in a position to be discussing it? If Brady makes a good throw — not even a great throw, just a good one — the Patriots win the Super Bowl. A great quarterback makes the game-winning throw that Manning made.
But Brady, alas, doesn’t make those throws now with the game on the line. Even malt liquor-swilling Giants fans can see that. One bad throw is nothing, but three is a trend. He can’t throw the long ball accurately now, and he’s not even so sharp on the mid-range. He’s just not himself any more.
After the game, something even worse happened. Wes Welker said all the right things and took the blame on himself. “It’s right there, it hits me right in the hands,” he said, even though it clearly was NOT right there.
But when it was Brady’s turn to say all the right things, here’s what he said:
Yeah, Wes was running down the field. It looks like they messed up the coverage a little bit, and [I] threw it to him. Wes went up to try to make it as he always does, and we just, you know, couldn’t connect. He’s a hell of a player, I’ll keep throwing the ball to him as long for as I possibly can. He’s a phenomal player and teammate and I love that guy.”
Brady sounds like he’s being supportive, but you don’t have to read between the lines much to see how he’s subtly putting the blame on Welker. You don’t say you’ll keep throwing the ball to a guy if your throw was bad. You say that if he drops the ball.
So maybe Brady isn’t even the same aw-shucks nice guy he once was. Which would be sad.
In any case, he isn’t the same quarterback. Yes, he’s been a great one. Yes, he gets 15 pages in the 2012 Patriots media guide. Yes, he will be the Patriots’ quarterback for several years to come. But he won’t seal the deal on another Super Bowl.