Don’t ask us. That’s my stock answer to The Tom Brady Question. True, he played college ball right down the road at Michigan. And true, when someone becomes the greatest NFL quarterback of all time — and if Brady leads the New England Patriots to a sixth Super Bowl win tonight, who can argue? — you figure you’d spot it by college, right? LeBron James, they spotted in high school. Tiger Woods, they spotted when he was 2.
But Tom Brady? Don’t ask us. Because sportswriters in Michigan have, for years, combed their old files and reviewed their VHS tapes trying to figure how Wolverine Tom became Patriot Tom. Everyone wants to know the roots of his greatness. And we, the locals, are supposed to know where they are planted.
Eleven years ago, during Super Bowl week in Scottsdale, Arizona, I stood up at a press conference to ask Brady a question. There had to be a few hundred people in the room. When they handed me the mike, Brady said, “Hi, Mitch,” and I said “Hi” back, and then I asked my question.
And for the rest of that weekend, I was stopped by journalists doing feature stories.
“You obviously know Brady well,” they would start. “So when did you see this coming? …”
Well. I never saw it coming. And I don’t know him well. Not too many of us, besides the Michigan beat writers, got to know him well, largely because he didn’t really play until his junior and senior seasons, and he split time with Drew Henson. In hindsight, not digging deeper was a mistake, because charting Brady’s Michigan ascension would have made as good a story as his rise from sixth-round draft pick to the GOAT status he enjoys now.
For example, as early as his sophomore year in Ann Arbor, he was going to transfer.
“He came to me, sat in my office, leaned forward and said, ‘Coach, I think I’m gonna leave,’ ” Lloyd Carr, the former Michigan coach, recalled last week. “I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I just don’t see me playing here. I don’t think I’m getting a fair chance.’
“I said, ‘Well, talk to your dad tonight. But I’ll tell you this. If you leave, you’re gonna make the biggest mistake of your life. You gotta stay and fight through this.’
“He came back the next day, sat in the same chair, leaned forward — and he wasn’t a happy guy — but he said exactly this: “Coach, I’ve decided I’m gonna stay at Michigan. And I’m gonna prove to you that I’m a great quarterback.”
He eventually achieved that goal — proving it to Carr — but the rest of the world didn’t take such notice.
Here are the facts: Brady played two years as a Michigan starter, platooning most of his senior season with Henson. Neither of those teams competed for a national championship or won an outright Big Ten Title (the 1998 team finished in a three-way tie). Brady as a starter completed around 62 percent of his passes, averaged 7.5 yards a completion. He threw 16 interceptions against 30 touchdowns (and that’s not great.)
His career stats were impressive when compared to previous Michigan quarterbacks, but not compared to top passers around the nation. He was never named a consensus All-American. The closest he came was an honorable mention All-Big Ten.
So it’s easy for us to say, “Hey, it’s not our fault we didn’t see him coming. Look at those numbers!’’
In truth, we should have been looking at something else.
Patriot Tom was always there
“Watch the last three games of his senior year,” Carr said. “Starting with the fourth quarter against Penn State. The previous possession Tom had thrown an interception that gave Penn State a 10-point lead. But after that, those last six minutes? Hey, if you want to see how a guy handles pressure, how smart he is, how focused he is, watch that.”
So I did. And Carr is dead right. After his interception, you see a change in Brady. His eyes set. His jaw barely moves. Every successful play, he doesn’t celebrate, doesn’t get jumpy, he just gets the signal for the next play, executes it, perfect throws, scrambles. On the final touchdown he reads the defense, seeing a strong safety on a wide receiver. He waits for the mismatch to play out, and zings a ball into the receiver’s hands in the corner of the end zone.
The following week, Brady threw two touchdowns as Michigan came from behind to beat Ohio State (remember when that used to happen?).
And a month later, at the Orange Bowl, in what, in hindsight, should have been the only tape NFL teams needed to watch, Brady led Michigan back twice from 14-point deficits against Alabama, threw four touchdown passes and competed 34 of 46 passes for 369 yards, and won in overtime.
Sound like the NFL version?
“I don’t think there’s any quarterback at Michigan who has played better than he played that day,” Carr said. “And against the top competition. What he did that night was special.”
Even the experts were wrong
The problem is, NFL teams don’t draft on games. They prefer analytics, measurables, combine scores. And Tom Brady at the NFL Scouting Combine was like Elvis Presley in a library. Wrong place to judge him.
Have you ever seen the footage from that 2000 NFL combine? Brady looks like the “before” picture for a vitamin supplement. His 40-yard dash was an exercise in mediocrity. (He ran a 5.28.) The rest of his drills were equally unimpressive.
A few years ago, Brady shared his original combine report on Instagram. It read, in part:
”Poor build, Skinny, Lacks great physical stature and strength, Lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush, Lacks a really strong arm, Can’t drive the ball downfield, Does not throw a really tight spiral… can get exposed if forced to ad lib.“
So don’t ask us.
But don’t ask the experts either.
Here’s why Brady’s the greatest
Which brings us to tonight, and Brady once again under a microscope of historic proportions. If the Patriots beat the L.A. Rams, he will have six Super Bowl championships, more than any player ever. If greatness is judged by winning, there’s not even a discussion about him being the best ever.
On the other hand, if the Pats lose, Brady will be 5-4 in Super Bowls, tying Jim Kelly for the most defeats in the big game. Does that change the narrative? Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw both won all four of their appearances, never losing. Does that make a difference?
Not to me.
There are mountains of statistics that suggest Brady is the best — and his three NFL MVP awards and 14 Pro Bowl selections don’t hurt — but you can argue statistics (and awards) don’t measure everything.
There are all the wins he’s piled up in his 19 regular seasons — 207, versus 60 losses — but you could argue that many of those are against his perennially weak AFC East rivals, who seem to assure Brady and the Patriots a home playoff game every season.
There are the freak moments that have helped Brady get to where he is — the mindless interception Seattle threw to give the Pats the 2015 Super Bowl. The coin toss two weeks ago that gave New England the ball in overtime, which they converted into their ticket to tonight’s championship.
You can stack these things to argue against Brady’s GOAT status. But for me, his insurmountable defense is how long he has done it, with how many different players, against how many different teams, in how many big moments. Do you realize if Brady goes all the way again next year, he and Bill Belichick will have played in the Super Bowl 10 OF THEIR 20 YEARS TOGETHER?
That doesn’t just happen. That’s not luck. That, plain and simple, is astonishing.
Adversity in Ann Arbor a turning point
True, you’re not the GOAT strictly on numbers, or Wilt Chamberlain might win that argument in basketball. You’re not the GOAT solely on championship rings, or linebacker Charles Haley, with five, would be the GOAT of NFL defenses (and he’s not even close).
For me, you win the title if you are consistently excellent throughout your career, not just in the early years. And if you do things in pressure situations that others simply can’t.
No matter how Brady gets to those situations — AFC East, coin flip, great coaching, amazing offensive lines — he still has to execute when it matters most, often on critical third downs. And he does.
The fact that he continues to do it at age 41 just widens the distance between him and anyone else.
Here is what Brady said in 1999, during a TV piece that ran the day after his last game at the Big House:
“There’s a lot of times when you question who you are as a person … I think there were times when I questioned if this (Michigan) were the place for me. It took some time talking with my parents and Coach Carr and my friends (to see that) this was the place for me. And because those were the first difficult times that I ever had to face as an athlete and as a person, to get through those and succeed no doubt has made me a stronger person.”
Or, as Carr said last week, “The film doesn’t lie. Tom Brady, as a senior, was a sensational quarterback.”
So maybe we should have seen it. Maybe we should have looked harder. Or maybe certain tapestries can’t be read until they are unrolled. Remember that 32 NFL teams didn’t just pass on Brady once in the draft, they passed on him at least five times!
So now he gets the last pass. Or the last laugh. I don’t know if this is Brady’s final Super Bowl, or if there’s another four to go. I don’t know if he’s fading physically, or if he comes back stronger next year.
All I know is, for how he’s done it, for how long he’s done it, and for how well he‘s done it, the greatest ever is a question that already has been decided.
As for the “When did you see this coming?” We didn’t. Mea culpa. Because sometimes in sports you just can’t see the future until it happens.
“To be honest,” Carr said, when I asked him how high he thought Brady would go in that draft, “I thought he’d be a third- or fourth-round pick.”
See? It’s not just us.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his latest best-selling book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” available online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.