A month ago, the Seattle Seahawks were the team to beat in the NFL, and the Arizona Cardinals were just another wild card contender. A month ago, Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers were legitimate rivals to the Denver Broncos in the AFC West. A month ago, Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t in the midst of the single greatest quarterback scoring tear in league history.
Most importantly, a month ago, the surging Cincinnati Bengals were going to crush the struggling 3-2 New England Patriots, and Tom Brady was supposed to be looking over his shoulder at backup Jimmy Garoppolo the same way Drew Bledsoe should have been doing when Brady was his understudy. Instead, the Patriots, despite coming into the game following a 41-14 loss to a mediocre Kansas City Chiefs team, rebounded with a resounding 43-17 win against Cincinnati. Tom Brady was officially back.
A lot can change in a month, but sometimes, it’s the things that never change that remind us why we should never overreact to short-run trends. In spite of the adulation and accolades that Tom Brady has received over the years, the fuel to his greatness has always come from a time when he was never expected to hold a place among the elite.
How quickly we forget that long before Tom Brady was synonymous with success in the eyes of the football world, he alone expected such greatness from himself. To everyone else he was just another passable talent, occupying a spot in the lineup until a truly elite talent was ready to handle the load.
That was what the name “Tom Brady” meant at Michigan, when young Drew Henson was supposed to be the all-world talent. Even after Brady won 80 percent of the games he started, a share of the Big Ten and two bowl games (including the Orange Bowl in his final game), people still expected an improvement at quarterback when Brady left Ann Arbor. He had come into Michigan at seventh on the depth chart, rose to the top of the pile by his junior year, won consistently and on the biggest stage and yet everybody saw him as a lesser cog in a great machine.
A lesser competitor would have let such disrespect get to them, but Brady’s belief in himself — a skill that surpasses even his impressive on-field talents — overpowered his frustration, even after he fell to the sixth round of the NFL Draft. As much as people wanted to see a parallel between the current quarterback situation in New England and the dynamic present when Brady first joined the team, Garoppolo is not the reincarnation of Brady anymore than present-day Brady is the old Drew Bledsoe.
Brady may not have the receiving talent of the Denver Broncos that Peyton Manning enjoys, but he showed on Sunday that, armed with Head Coach Bill Belichick’s game plan, he can elevate anyone on his team to a star.
The continued return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski — the one true star of the New England Patriots receiving corps — has certainly aided Brady and the Patriots, just as Belichick’s unrivalled coaching mind has always been an important asset to Brady. But even with these two on his side, Brady did not have the embarrassment of riches provided to his chief rival in their matchup this weekend.
Denver tight end Julius Thomas is every bit the red zone nightmare that Gronkowski is, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is an unquestioned All-Pro, and fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders has rendered teammate Wes Welker — the most prolific target Brady ever had — surplus to requirements.
But these dynamic aerial threats were bested by Brady’s ragtag team of journeyman and role players.
Julian Edelman certainly put in a good performance independent of Brady’s help as the diminutive receiver scored on a game-changing punt return, but there is no denying that his rise to prominence since Welker’s departure can be highly attributed to Brady. Brandon LaFell was an average talent at best coming into the year, but he has improved dramatically since the beginning of the season thanks to extra time practicing his routes with Brady. And Shane Vereen has been and remains an average rusher, but Brady’s ability to play to his strengths by getting him the ball in the flats — where he can use his open field elusiveness – has allowed him to be an elite pass-catching back.
With a strong defense, a resurgent offense, and arguably the best coach in the game, the 7-2 Patriots have gone from stagnant AFC East also-rans to conference favorites in one month. One can suspect that Brady never had any doubts in himself, even as members of the media questioned his abilities as he enters the twilight of his career. But Brady, now 37, once again proved that he performs best when surrounded by doubters.
Darius Majd is a senior in the College. The Sporting Life appears every Tuesday.