If you’re the kind of person who wonders what it takes to win in the NFL, you can look for the answer by doing what a lot of people who are looking for answers do these days: You can hop on Amazon.com and buy something. More specifically, you can buy one or more of the many books that purport to explain what it takes to win in the NFL.
You can buy Fearless, for instance, by Doug Pederson, who, after winning the Super Bowl, had only enough answers to last three more years as the Eagles’ coach. You can buy Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level, by former league executive Mike Lombardi. I have not read Gridiron Genius, but I probably should, because the title implies that Lombardi either is a genius or has spent enough time around geniuses – Bill Walsh, Al Davis, Bill Belichick – to know a genius when he sees one. Which would explain why the Cleveland Browns went 4-12 in Lombardi’s only season as their general manager, which was his only season as an NFL general manager. Or you can buy Earn the Right to Win, by former Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who beat Belichick in two Super Bowls, which must make him the greatest gridiron genius of all, even if the Giants’ punter did kick the ball to DeSean Jackson that one time.
There are other places to look for the answer, too. You can read books about the NFL salary cap. Or you can listen to Russell Wilson’s TED talk about the value of neutral thinking. Or, if you have time to spare, you can listen to Jeffrey Lurie’s opening remarks from Nick Sirianni’s introductory press conference. (Seriously: If you’re going to do that, you need to set aside some time. When Lurie gets to the line about having “a coach who literally cares every single day,” he’s only three-quarters of the way home.)
The odd part about all of these explanations, though, is that none of them provides the easiest, most direct answer. If they did, each of the books would be less than a page long, and each of the speeches would last less than five minutes.
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to my lecture about how to achieve greatness in the National Football League.
Make sure Tom Brady is your quarterback.
Thank you. I’ll be taking no questions, because no questions are necessary. Enjoy the rest of your day.
History and tidbits
Look, I’m kidding. You know this. But I’m kidding only so much. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV on Sunday night, throttling the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9, it marked the seventh time Brady had won a Super Bowl and the fifth time he had been named the game’s MVP. Was Todd Bowles’ defense and its ability to harass Patrick Mahomes and shut down the Chiefs’ offense the primary reason that the Bucs won Sunday? Yes, but there’s a bigger, broader picture here.
Bowles’ defense was excellent last season, too, and the Bucs went 7-9. Then they got Brady, and the franchise with the NFL’s worst all-time winning percentage, a franchise that hadn’t won a playoff game since its last Super Bowl, in 2003, went 11-5 and tore through Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Mahomes in the playoffs. That turnaround wasn’t happening with Jameis Winston.
There are all kinds of fun statistical and historical tidbits related to Brady that will come up over the next few days, as those of us who get paid to put such things in perspective try to do so. (Two favorite tidbits: 1. In Brady’s 19 seasons as a full-time starter, none of his teams has ever lost more than seven games; 2. If Brady’s career postseason passer rating, 90.4, were his regular-season passer rating, it would still be the 20th-best in league history, higher than Dan Marino’s and Brett Favre’s, among others.)
Still, the fact that, after all these years, stands above all the others in defining Brady and his era – and this is his era, make no mistake about it – is the one that even casual observers of his career can repeat from memory: He was a sixth-round pick, and the 199th overall selection, in the 2000 draft. I’m not sure if enough people, particularly people who work in or cover or fancy themselves experts about the NFL, appreciate the implications of that fact.
Brady vs. the ‘system’
Brady is certainly the most influential NFL player of the last quarter-century and arguably the greatest NFL player ever. Take whatever “system” a team might implement in the name of chasing championships – this team-building philosophy or that play-calling scheme – and Brady has neutralized it. No matter what machine an opponent designs, Brady gums up the works.
Yet, if the New England Patriots really knew what they would have in Brady, the caliber of quarterback he was and would turn out to be, you can be damn sure they would have picked him a hell of a lot sooner. Consider, too, that Belichick himself was ready to transition from Brady to Jimmy Garappolo four years ago, after the Patriots had won Super Bowl LI. Only the intercession of owner Robert Kraft stopped him, and all Brady has done since is appear in three more Super Bowls, win two, and leave everyone asking how, at 43, he still does it.
There’s a lesson in Brady’s career for those who care to learn it. He came out of nowhere. There was no grand plan. There was no bold prediction or projection. He just showed up one day and made the Patriots and the Buccaneers great. Any institution, be it a sports franchise, another business, a church, or a government, would do well to act with enough intellectual humility to be open to such possibilities. It’s tempting to think that you have all the answers, and it’s easy to cash in on the assertion that you do, and it’s only on those rare occasions when a Tom Brady comes along that you are reminded how little you really know.