The entry point of Tom Brady’s professional football career made sense late Sunday night, as he stood on the podium, confetti falling on his shoulders, and cradled another Lombardi Trophy, the totem of his fifth Super Bowl title. NFL teams passed on Brady 198 times in the 2000 draft. Everybody knows that by now, but on this occasion it warrants repeating. They didn’t overlook him because every NFL team is run by idiots. There was no readily available reason to want him. He was scrawny, he couldn’t throw much of a deep ball, and he ran like a gawky teenager.
How can you blame someone for not seeing something that’s invisible? What made Brady a viable NFL player, and then a starting quarterback, and then a Super Bowl champion, and then the greatest of all time, is the same thing that landed him on that podium Sunday night. Brady is a product of intelligence and diligence, but those qualities would be rendered useless without the best of Brady. What makes Brady, and what won him another Super Bowl, is his competitive will.
Brady had no business celebrating the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory in Super Bowl LI, just like he had no business becoming an NFL quarterback 17 years earlier. The Atlanta Falcons’ pass rush harassed him and battered him. He threw a back-breaking pick-six in the second quarter. He trailed by 25 points in the middle of the third.
No football player is going to roll over in the Super Bowl, and the NFL does not permit teams to concede anyway. But there is a difference between playing and believing, between not laying down and knowing how to crawl in the right direction. A lot of people can try hard in the face of grim odds. Very few can summon the requisite poise and competence to take the measure of an impossible task and decide that, no, it can be done.
Sunday, Brady played the greatest game of football the sport has seen. Not the most perfect, nor the most artistic, nor even the most excellent. But the greatest nonetheless. He led the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit on a stage that had never seen anything better than a 10-point comeback. He passed for 466 yards, a Super Bowl record, and completed 43 of 62 passes. He led a 91-yard drive touchdown in the final four minutes, capped with a two-point conversion.
The numbers are stupefying, and they would not have been attainable if not for Brady’s central feature. He would not let anything that happened Sunday night make him anything less than whole. The Falcons slammed him and knocked him to the turf, and he betrayed no physical diminution. He threw an inexcusable pass that swung the game in Atlanta’s favor by three touchdowns, and he showed no mental weariness. He knew how to fix the problem, and he knew he could do it. He kept coming.
The Falcons pushed Brady to the limit with a fearsome pass-rush, the only reliable way to threaten him. They almost never blitzed, mixing coverages with quicksilver linebackers and a fleet of defensive backs. He hung tough long enough to decipher the Falcons’ scheme, and as the pass-rush tired, he picked them apart.
In the fourth quarter and overtime, Brady completed 21 of 34 passes for 234 yards. Mostly, he shredded Atlanta’s secondary with short passes, advancing the chains with little resistance. Once the Patriots fell behind by 25 points midway through the third quarter, Brady only faced six plays that would either kill a drive or keep it alive: one fourth down and five third downs.
He took a sack on one of them, keeping the Patriots in line for a field goal rather than risking an interception. On the other five, Brady passed for 17 yards on fourth and three; ran for 15 yards on third and eight; passed for 25 yards on third and one; passed for 12 yards on third and 11; and passed for 16 yards on third and 10 from his own 9-yard line.
On those five conversions, he scrambled once and passed to five different receivers for first downs. In the most crucial moments of the game, over and over, Brady diagnosed what he needed to do and had the nerve and skill to do it.
Brady, like the rest of us, has his flaws. He can be teased for underinflating footballs, dogged for evading questions about his pal Donald Trump and doubted for decisions in his personal life made when he was younger. But he is an impregnable competitor. He took a beating Sunday night and faced certain doom and, at that moment, at age 39, played quarterback at a level rarely attained before.
“We’re all going to remember this for the rest of our life,” Brady said.
So will everybody else.
More from Super Bowl LI:
Couch Slouch: Patriots’ comeback darkens a nation’s already dark hour