IT'S THAT season again. The near-annual pre-Super Bowl debate about the degree of Tom Brady's greatness, a poll that can split this nation in half like no other – unless of course, it's a poll about Donald Trump.
Adding to that polarizing debate is the perception, endorsed by The Donald himself back in the New Hampshire primary, that Brady is, in fact, a Trump guy. And that his coach, Bill Belichick, is, too. Neither man has quite acknowledged it, but neither has denied it either, and it leads you to wonder just how deep this symbiotic relationship runs, whether their relationship was a meeting of like minds or a gradual mergence during the 17 seasons they have been together.
Deciding whether Tom Brady's greatness reflects Bill Belichick's greatness or the other way around is the reverse debate of what went on in these parts during the 11-season partnering of Andy Reid with Donovan McNabb. Was it Reid's coaching, personnel decisions, time management or play-calling that kept Donovan from obtaining a Super Bowl ring? Or was it McNabb's unending inability to consistently execute the touch passes so integral to the West Coast offense, his lack of playbook mastery, or even an unwillingness to accept blame that doomed even Reid's most promising teams?
You can argue one or the other, neither, or both, find endless amounts of evidence, too. Reid's time-management gaffes late in games have extended far beyond McNabb's career, for example. But he also has won lots more games with all kinds of quarterbacks, with a feared running game and without one.
McNabb never won much anywhere else but here, but by the time he left he was pretty beat up and used up, so you are still free to argue either, or both. You will still need a six-pack to get through it, trust me. But, especially if you work the next day, stop there.
Same goes for the Brady/Belichick debate, especially this time of the year. Generally, a New Englander is more likely to allow you to hate on Belichick or even Patriots owner Robert Kraft than suggest Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas or any other quarterback was better than Tom Terrific. In their view, Deflategate was fake news before the term was even coined, and if they could ever figure out how to get out to Roger Goodell's summer home on Prouts Neck in Maine (Take Route 1 to 77, but you didn't hear it from me), they'd let him know that.
I will always insist that Goodell really didn't want to suspend Brady for his role in Deflategate, that it was simply a gambit to take down the coach that backfired. He thought, foolishly, that Belichick would shield his franchise player, fess up that he ordered the balls deflated, and take the hit – which I believe would have lasted far more than four games.
The endless legal battle that ensued, however, served only to make Goodell more unpopular, even among those who agreed with Brady's suspension. Belichick got to coach the team uninterrupted, making do with the backup as he had done a few times previously, until Brady returned. Both coach and protégé correctly understood that missing the coach for any length of time was likely more devastating to the team's chances than the quarterback's suspension.
And here, having reached their seventh Super Bowl together, is your proof.
Or so it would seem. And a seventh Super Bowl appearance, you would think, win or lose, would solidify the claim of Brady as best-ever . . .
. . . If not for the era he played in, and the hands-off rules that have worked both to help him statistically and to extend his career.
But here's the counter to that, the one New England fans mutter in their sleep. Montana and Bradshaw were buoyed by Hall-of-Fame players on both sides of the ball. Peyton Manning had name brands playing the skill positions around him for much of his career.
Look at the people Brady has had to work with over the years. There ain't a whole lot of Jerry Rices, Marvin Harrisons, Lynn Swanns, etc. in there. He had Randy Moss for a wink and more recently Rob Gronkowski in intervals, but mostly it's been names you need to look up.
Same with running backs.
The salary cap, Belichick's masterful manipulation of it, and Brady's studious precision have allowed Belichick to get tremendous bang for his buck, to find the kind of diamonds in the rough that Gil Brandt of those America's Team Cowboys was so famous for.
Does that make Brady the greatest quarterback ever? Well he has, at age 39, swung my vote. He's a man engaged to his craft, a guy no one ever projected to be the greatest ever. Then again, no one thought of Joe Montana that way at the start, either.
And Johnny Unitas was once cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Terry Bradshaw finished his rookie season as Terry Hanratty's backup.
You can argue until the beer's all gone that Brady isn't better than all of them. You just don't have me with you anymore. 'Cause I'm pretty sure, when all of the above meet for beers someday in the hereafter, they won't need a six-pack to decide that all of us - Goodell, too - were wrong.