Super Bowl XLVI threw a monkey wrench in our obsession with ordering and qualifying greatness. With a win -- and a Super Bowl MVP, for good measure -- Tom Brady would have had legitimate claim to a perch in the rarified air of Joe Montana. Instead, for the second time in five seasons, the clock ran out with the ball in Brady’s hand, and confetti rained on Eli Manning.
The first half of Brady’s career was marked by dominance over Eli’s brother Peyton. While No. 18 piled up Dan Marino-like stats, the less flashy Brady racked up rings. Now, after his four best statistical seasons -- each of which ended with a postseason loss -- Brady’s under a Manning’s thumb, and it's the one not assured of a call from Canton.
For those keeping track at home -- we’re sure Tom Brady’s better than Peyton Manning, but we’re not sure he’s up there with Eli Manning, whom we knew wasn’t as good as his brother as recently as ... a month and a half ago.
But losses came by three points in Glendale in 2008 and four points in Indy on Sunday, and suddenly Brady is Roger Federer to Eli’s Rafael Nadal. In a world where quarterbacks get too much credit and blame, it’s fair to ask how Brady could be the greatest of his generation when, effectively, one of his peers owns him. This, after playing no worse than Manning and marching down the field late in the fourth quarter to seemingly put the Patriots' lead out of reach, just as he did in Super Bowl XLII, only to see the Giants make a legendary catch on the way to victory.
It’s enough to make you wonder the point of trying to keep all this straight. Brady's better than ever, but somehow looks worse. When he put up pedestrian numbers and had some of the greatest defenses ever behind him, he was a winner who simply found a way to get it done. Now Brady’s scary good -- his touchdown-interception ratio the last two seasons was 75-16; for reference, demigod Aaron Rodgers' was 73-17 -- but he can’t seem to win the big one. New England won two Super Bowls on last-second field goals, and now has lost twice with Brady securing a fourth-quarter lead for his team.
Maybe we gave Brady too much credit early. He won his first Super Bowl MVP with a pedestrian stat line, throwing for 145 yards and one touchdown in a game where his team was outgained by 160 yards. He was spectacular against the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, a great duel between him and the great Jake Delhomme. The following year, he was steady while Donovan McNabb threw up and threw the game away with three interceptions.
In those three Super Bowl wins, the Patriots forced seven turnovers. In their last two Super Bowl losses, the Patriots forced four fumbles, recovering none, and intercepted one pass. Those stats have everything to do with winning, and nothing to do with Tom Brady.
The Pats won their three Super Bowls by a combined nine points. They lost their last two by a combined seven points. Brady was nearly as close to being the Otto Graham of his generation as he was to having a Tarkentonian legacy. This is the confusion wrought from our need to deify quarterbacks.
We call football "the ultimate team game," then treat passers like starting pitchers, even though baseball is barely a team game at all and wins, the be-all and end-all for QBs, have been overrated on the diamond for a while. We almost arbitrarily determine who is better through some combination of individual skill and achievement and team success, rarely asking why a team is truly successful. For the second time, we’ve heaped praise on Eli Manning’s ascent toward the elite while ignoring the cozy timing of becoming great just as his defense and running game have gotten on track. We did the same for Peyton when the 2006 Colts defense suddenly turned stout and won the Super Bowl while Manning threw for 247 yards, a touchdown and a pick in a triumph over ... Rex Grossman and the Bears.
The tricky part is figuring out what to say about Brady now. His stats have been anything but empty. The last two seasons, he put up 9,135 passing yards without a vertical threat. After winning rings with defenses that gave up 16 points per game on average, he carried the 31st-ranked defense this season and the 25th-ranked unit in 2010 to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The only 1,000-yard rusher behind him since Corey Dillon in 2004, the last time New England won a Super Bowl, was BenJarvus Green-Ellis with 1,008 in 2010.
Brady’s much better than he was in 2004. He hasn’t lost his fastball, unless "fastball" is what the kids are calling great defenses these days. He’s still better than Eli, no matter how enraptured observers are by what’s current (Manning's fantastic streak of fourth quarter play in 2011) and head-to-head success (Eli: 3, Brady: 1) as a potent binary variable. Don’t forget: the Patriots nearly won Sunday night with their best receiver, a tight end, so hobbled that he was barely an effective decoy.
That’s not to say Brady was blameless: known for unflappability before his game caught up to his demeanor, he started his evening with a mental mistake that cost his team two points. It forced the Pats to go for a touchdown instead of a field goal in the closing seconds, and while Brady had ample time to lead his team to a win on the final drive, he did not.
The Super Bowl ended again with the ball in his hands, but not in victory formation. Tom Terrific, once more, was Mighty Casey of the gridiron. With a 3-2 record in Super Bowls, he looks a lot less like Montana and more like ... John Elway, I guess? Who may have been better than Montana?
But Montana might not be as good as Brady ... and Brady can’t find a way to beat Eli Manning ... who's probably not as good as his brother ... whom Tom Brady once dominated.
This isn’t even weird. Weird works better when this stuff makes sense.