In a way, Tom Brady’s performance in Super Bowl LIII was vintage stuff from the New England star. The 41-year-old quarterback has defied age (and perhaps good sense) to play 19 NFL seasons, and he obtained his sixth championship ring in a similar manner as his first: against the Rams and on the back of a dominant defensive performance from his teammates. The Patriots’ 13-3 win over Los Angeles on Sunday was yeoman’s work, and Brady put in the kind of shift that’s earned him his half-dozen Super Bowl wins and a deserved reputation as the greatest quarterback of all time.
In the hours after yet another title, it feels as if we’re in a repetitive era of greatness, one filled with nothing but Patriots glory and success. But take a closer look, and it’s difficult to conceptualize Brady’s nearly two-decade career as a cohesive arc. Brady has been, in effect, at least three different quarterbacks since New England drafted him with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft. There was his stint as a “game manager,” when he emerged from the bench to guide New England to its first-ever Super Bowl win during his second season. With a whole bag of chips on his shoulder, Brady then spent the middle third of his career piling up superlative statistical achievements, proving he could sling the ball around just as well as Peyton Manning. This mini-era eventually faded, gracefully, into the Cocoon epilogue that Brady is enjoying right now, if there was a part in Cocoon in which Roger Goodell suspended Wilford Brimley for underinflating something.
If Deflategate isn’t confusing enough legacy-wise, consider that the longest stretch of Brady’s career without a Super Bowl came during his presumptive prime. Brady won his third ring in 2005, at the age of 28. He wouldn’t win his next one until he turned 37. The bulk of his success came both before and after he should have been expected to achieve it.
The Patriots’ most barren period of the 21st century coincided with many of Brady’s best statistical seasons. He threw 50 touchdowns and led New England to an undefeated regular season in 2007, but that winning streak was infamously halted by Eli Manning and the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. His career-high mark for passing yards came in 2011 (5,235 yards), but that season, too, ended in defeat to Manning and the Giants. (And feel free to chalk it up to coincidence, but his third Super Bowl loss, against the Eagles last year, came in the greatest single-game performance of his career.) It would seem as if the wrong Bradys were the ones who won all those Super Bowls.
Football games are trapeze acts, and one illustrious performance can be rendered moot by an infinite list of possible mistakes and misfortunes. It’s how a 505-yard, 3-touchdown night against the Eagles results in a loss but a 262-yard, one interception effort winds up being enough to beat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. The brilliance of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick comes in his ability to keep New England’s window open long enough to give Brady shot after after shot. Chance has dictated that the quarterback has taken advantage of his opportunities on either side of his prime. If anything, the anomalousness of Brady’s victories makes New England’s historic run even more impressive. Imagine if Brady would have won when he was supposed to?