There is no question that the most influential player on most football teams is the quarterback. That is to say, the player at that position has the greatest effect on the outcome of the game. As a consequence, people talk about QB wins and losses, much as they talk about pitching wins and losses in baseball. There are some very big differences, however. Namely, that there are even more players on the team in football, pitchers rarely play the whole game even on one side of the offense/defense divide, and baseball fans are the first ones to figure out that credit for wins and losses resting on the shoulders of their most important player is rather less than accurate.
Let’s take Tom Brady as an example of what I mean. He’s a great quarterback. I’d argue he’s maybe not quite as good as Manning and Brees. I think reasonable people can differ on this point. But the most common retort I hear has nothing to do with his passing ability, reading defenses, or anything else quarterbacky. No, it’s all “but muh superbowlz!” The true measure of Brady’s greatness is given to me as the fact he’s “won” 6 Super Bowls. The problem with this argument is it both over- and under-values what he does as a quarterback.
The over-valuation is the obvious part. Yes, he was on 6 Super Bowl-winning teams. Yes, he contributed largely to their success both in reaching and winning said Super Bowls. The problem is that he could easily have done nothing different and become the record-holder for losing the most Super Bowls. In which case, I’d still be having this argument, but with a different set of people and trying to explain that he was really a lot better than they thought.
To show you what I mean, let’s consider the 9 championship games Brady has played in. He was the starting QB in Super Bowls 36, 38, 39, 42, 46, 49, 51, 52, and 53. He was the “winning QB” in 36, 38, 39, 49, 51, and 53. We’ll assume nothing different about Brady and keep the 3 losses in 42, 46 and 52. (14-17 and 17-21 to the Giants and 33-41 to the Eagles respectively.) He didn’t play badly in the losses. He threw over 1,000 yards in three games (averaging almost 350; and over 500 against the Eagles alone), at a 63% clip, with 6 TDs, only 1 INT and 2 fumbles and 8 sacks (5 in the first loss to the Giants). Against a conference champion team, those aren’t bad numbers at all, at all.
In the games the Patriots won, he was better in some ways, worse in others. 67.5% completion, 12 TDs, but 5 INTs and 2 fumbles and under 300 YD/G. Only 10 sacks, though. Still, against the competition, not bad numbers. But, even if Brady did just that well, things might have turned out very, very differently.
Super Bowl 36 ended 20-17 in the Patriots favor. The margin of victory was a single field goal that Adam Vinatieri kicked from 48 yards out as time expired. It wasn’t a sure thing, either. Vinatieri was good that year, but only 9 for 12 from beyond 40 yards having missed from 42, 43, and 51. It wouldn’t be a stretch then, to guess that if he had missed, the Rams might have won the toss, driven down field, and kept Brady from ever getting his hands on the ball again. No diminishment of his abilities or achievements, but he starts 0-1 in championship games entirely through factors beyond his control.
It’s possible that Super Bowl 39 could have been different too, and in the exact same fashion I posited for 36. The kick was a bit shorter, and Vinatieri was a little better beyond 40 that year, but it’s not a stretch. Missed FG, lost toss, successful drive, and Brady goes to 0-2 and hasn’t done any worse in this alternate universe than he did here.
The Pats win for the first time against the Eagles, snuffing their final chance in the last minute by intercepting McNabb to preserve a 3 point victory. Brady gets the monkey off his back and shows he can win the big one after all to get to 1-2. You should probably already see the point I’m making, but in for a penny, in for a pound.
The next two times Brady leads the Pats to the Big Game, the Eli and the Giants are waiting and Brady falls to 1-4 joining Jim Kelly as the only other QB to manage to lose 4 Super Bowls.
2015 rolls around and in this alternate timeline, Beast Mode is unleashed in the last 20 seconds and Seattle scores the go ahead touchdown with only 15 seconds left on the clock. Brady heaves the ball downfield a couple times, but with 10 seconds, he and the Patriots lose their 5th Super Bowl.
Folks all over the sports talk shows are calling for Brady to be dethroned as starter, but Belichick is no fool. Brady leads them back for another crack at it 2 years later, but the Falcons jump out to a big lead. Brady comes storming back, ties the game and we go to OT for the 3rd time in Patriot Super Bowls, but their bad luck holds. The Falcons win the toss, drive down and score keeping Brady from continuing his heroics and Brady has now lost more Super Bowls than any other quarterback has even managed to start.
Brady gets them back again the next year, but this time the Eagles take their revenge and beat the Pats soundly dropping him to 1-7. If his Super Bowls were a regular season, he’d have been out of playoff contention for several weeks. He’s still elite though, and the Pats are still good. He brings them back for the third year in a row and the Pats get their own revenge on the Rams for starting their run of bad luck 17 years earlier. Brady has finally caught up with his rival Manning and won his second championship.
In this alternate universe, Brady has very nearly the exact same stats (we’ve only taken away a couple desperation heaves against the Seahawks and his OT drive against the Falcons because we’re supposing they lose the toss), he’s the very same QB, but his SB record is a mere 2-7. He’s the same as he is today, but the haters will tell you he’s the worst of the best, can’t win the big one, etc., etc.
My alternate universe doppelganger gets more and more annoyed, and sits down to compose a post about how, with a bit better luck, instead of being constantly underrated, Brady would be overrated and hailed as the greatest of all time without hardly a change in his stats. He’d be 6-3 on the biggest stage and all the fanboys would be…