It’s the ones he didn’t make

It’s the ones he didn’t make

What sets Tom Brady apart from the other star QBs in the league?
Image: Getty Images

This probably won’t apply if Tom Brady is doing all this for the attention and doesn’t actually retire. Quarterbacks have a habit of doing that. Brett Favre. Aaron Rodgers. Or maybe it’s just a Packers thing. Still, when you’re the centerpiece of a league that’s the centerpiece of the sporting consciousness of this country, it probably leads to a big head. What can you do?


If this was the weekend that Brady’s retirement first became known, and if we don’t see him again on the field (we’ll see plenty of him in other places which will be thoroughly annoying), it was pretty illustrative what made him what he is, and why everyone chases him. And probably will chase him for the sport’s history.

Brady wasn’t the first quarterback to warp how we view the position and what they mean. It was Montana long ago, and he was the ghost that Steve Young could never corral, even if Young was far more entertaining to watch. We don’t really think of Aikman that way, but he does have three rings. Favre had his career, but we view it differently now because of how the link between QBs and championships has come into such relief.

The Super Bowl matchup will be some sort of referendum on Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford. Is this the beginning of Burrow redefining what the word “Bengals” means to football fans? Is Stafford ready to completely wash off the Lions-ness from himself? We won’t really know for years in either case, but that will be the build to the game in two weeks.

The next few days will be about what their opponents weren’t, at least on Sunday. Patrick Mahomes throwing an INT in overtime instead of charging through to a walk-off score against a defense that was more drying sheet on the line in the wind than a resistance. Or Jimmy Garoppolo proving to be what most everyone thought he was, incapable of winning a playoff game for a team when they needed it, with an objectionable interception ending the NFC Championship Game, likely his 49ers career. It’s the INT he should have thrown against Green Bay, but on that night he found Packers defenders facing the wrong way. With everything the Niners had in place, 53 points over three games is going to make a lot wonder what might have been. These shots are never guaranteed, and Trey Lance may never find himself this far.

Mahomes still has time on his side, and by every individual measure, is a better QB than Brady. As far as his skills, and even most of his numbers. And yet Chiefs fans must be terrified they’ll look back on this four-year window and wonder if the one triumph was really enough. I’m a Bears fan, I know.

Look at the ledger: Coughed up an AFC title game at home to Brady. Never adjusted to not really having an O-line in last year’s Super Bowl. Andy Reid getting awfully cute at the end of the first half yesterday. On such margins…

And that’s the thing. We never remember those plays with Brady, because they don’t exist. He didn’t throw an the INT in overtime. He didn’t miss the guy wide open down the middle on third down. He didn’t make that throw with three seconds left in the first half. It’s a small difference, in any tangible way. It’s a canyon in the intangible ones.

Mahomes still has many years. He could relegate this to a footnote. One or two more Lombardi trophies should do it. Burrow has even more time. Stafford, should he get one more win, can officially pin it all on the Lions. But Stafford tried to Lions it, but found Jacquiski Tartt forgot how his hands work.

The only misplay we remember about Brady is the ball he didn’t catch against the Eagles. Which isn’t in his job description. And no matter how good the rest are, and they have been, are, and will be, that’s the difference. That throw, that decision, never got made by No. 12. It’s a tiny thing, seemingly, and yet it’s the difference from forcing Super Bowl wins and just having them sort of land on you. 

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.