In the week leading up to Super Bowl LI, one strange similarity has surfaced that exists between the two Super Bowl quarterbacks: both have been compared to former Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter.
A New York Post article compared Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s many championships, model wife, loyal fan base and Hall of Fame coach to the likes of Derek Jeter, citing the deified status both share in their respective geographical territories.
Citing fewer similarities but using the label nonetheless, NFL.com asked if Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan could be “the NFL’s Derek Jeter” in reference to Ryan’s jersey number, which happens to be No. 2. The story illustrates how rare it is for a successful quarterback to wear No. 2, but otherwise had nothing else to say to compare the two athletes.
For how unique of a role model and talented of an athlete Jeter is, he gets tied to other athletes very often. Even Kobe Bryant, one of the best basketball players of all time — but certainly not one of the most morally upstanding athletes — was compared to Jeter on the eve of his retirement.
Clearly, all of these athletes have certain things in common with The Captain — but the Jeter comparison seems to be getting out of hand. Just because most sports fans understand Jeter’s general reputation does not mean that he should be referenced in every sports analysis.
In the first place, implying that Matt Ryan could ever be “the NFL’s Derek Jeter” simply because he is a talented athlete who wears number two is significantly downplaying Jeter’s legacy. Not many people are like Jeter — in fact, most athletes are not Derek Jeter.
This is not to say that Jeter is the pillar of athletic prowess; his legacy is just as much about his upstanding citizenship and his leadership on the field as it is about his on-base percentage. But he is a unique athlete, especially nowadays when “flawless” role models are rare.
And while two athletes — or two people for that matter — do not have to be perfectly similar to be compared to each other, throwing Jeter next to both Ryan and Brady, for any reason, illustrates that the phenomenon is becoming a little ridiculous. Just think of how different in reputation Ryan and Brady are. How much sense could it really make that these two very distinct athletes are compared to the same person?
Regardless of the debate concerning whether it is warranted to compare an athlete to Derek Jeter, the phenomenon illustrates a key aspect of professional sports analysis: the inherent need to connect a successful person to a legend.
Hardly a day goes by without the clichéd debate concerning whether or not a contemporary athlete could be comparable to a legend — especially during high profile weeks such as the one leading up to the Super Bowl, when appeals to historical greatness are always common.
The competitive aspect of all sports drives measuring talent through comparison. Rarely can an athlete stand alone in his own legacy — even Jeter himself could not escape as he was often compared to Pete Rose for statistical reasons and popularity-related ones.
In a way, all these comparisons — especially those that traverse sports — increase athletes’ accessibility to the rest of the population, as comparison implies understanding.
At this point, however, these comparisons may be taken a little too far. Tom Brady is obviously not Derek Jeter — he is a more celebrated athlete because of his skills and a less celebrated athlete because of his many off-the-field controversies. Matt Ryan is even less of a Jeter — he is underappreciated and less popular, and still has much more to prove, regardless of the number on his jersey.
Tom Brady, at least, should be big enough to live in his own legacy. It is understandable why we may tie younger, lesser-known players to more legendary counterparts in an effort to describe their style of play or potential, but comparing legend to legend is a largely fruitless practice. Legends should stand-alone.
After this Super Bowl, Matt Ryan could very well carve out his own legendary status. Years down the line, people could very well be comparing the latest underappreciated, high-scoring rookie quarterback to Matt Ryan.
It really is difficult to be an athlete with your own name, especially in the nostalgic post-Jeter era. But it is time for fans and critics to operate on a more in-the-moment basis, drawing comparisons from history more as a point of understanding rather than a badge of honor.
After all, we are approaching Super Bowl LI. Let the athletes make their own legacies.