Monday, September 29, 2008

As the NFL Turns: Life Without Brady

Is it just me, or does the NFL kind of suck without Tom Brady?

The Golden Boy went down eight minutes into the regular season, and three weeks of football have since passed. Storylines are emerging, as they always do. The ageless wonder that is Brett Favre has been let loose by the Mangenius and partied like it was 1995 against the Cardinals on Sunday, tossing a career-high six touchdowns. T.O. may be on the verge of turning on Tony Romo. The Bills are 4-0 and so are the Titans, led by the great Jeff Fisher. But none of these subplots seem as important as they usually would. Tom Brady is the best player on the league's flagship team, and in the opinion of this writer, his absence is undermining the relevance of the league at large. The games are still hard-fought and spirited and exciting, but overall, this early portion of the '08 season hasn't been as fun. And I think it will remain that way for the duration of the year. To me, the NFL isn't as interesting as it usually is. You can call it the Brady Effect.

It has been a looooooooong time since a team athlete as indispensable to his team and his league as Tom Brady went down for such an extended period of time due to injury. In my sports fandom career (admittedly relatively brief), I can't think of anything that compares. Imagine Kobe breaking his leg in the Lakers' season opener a little over a month from now (actually, don't imagine that - forget I even told you to). Last year Brady threw 50 touchdowns versus only eight interceptions, on a team that came 35 seconds and one miracle play involving Eli "Houdini" Manning and David Tyree's helmet from going a perfect nineteen-and-oh. Already a lock for future "best quarterback ever" roundtable's after winning three Super Bowls while throwing to only slightly above-average receivers, Thomas was handed Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth in '07 and proceeded to level the discussion. Joe Montana, the one-time king, won one more Super Bowl, but he never threw for more than 31 touchdowns in a single season, despite being blessed with Jerry Rice. Brady has four more rings than Dan Marino and three more than Peyton Manning. He is unflappable and technically flawless, and with him under center, the Patriots are the team to beat.

They are also the league's most hated squadron. If the Cowboys are "America's Team," the Pats are the exact opposite. Everyone outside of Boston despises the Patriots, for much the same reason everyone outside of Durham, North Carolina hates the Bluedevils: They win at a startling pace, and nobody wants to see any team have a monopoly on winning. They're also kind of rogue: Their coach is a jerk, they've been called classless, and last year they got caught cheating (although that entire controversy was probably overrated) and then ran up the score against helpless opponents when people questioned the veracity of their dynasty. Through almost all of this, Brady has worn a satisfied smirk as he knocked up actresses and bagged supermodels and dissected defenses. He's the NFL's version of Derek Jeter pumping his fist and incarnating the New York playboy life as jealous fans rail against the Yankees for having an infinite amount of money to spend on acquiring the best players. So when he goes down, everyone rejoices.

Not me.

I don't understand how anyone, from any region of the country, could be happy about not getting to see Tom Brady play football in his prime. Maybe it's because I see things from a different perspective, a nonpartisan position. I live in Los Angeles and have no real diehard rooting interest. I follow the Saints because of Reggie Bush, but while I root for him to do well I could honestly care less if they win or lose. I thought I loved the Patriots, until I realized on Sunday that I didn't care that they got blown out at home against the Dolphins with Matt Cassell at the helm. It turns out that I only like the Pats when they are dominant and unstoppable. Which means that I only like the Patriots when Brady is standing tall and nonchalant in the pocket, lofting long touchdowns to Moss in the most breathtakingly perfect QB-to-receiver combination ever, and carving teams up with stoic, machine-like efficiency in crunch-time. And when that's happening, everything else that's going on around the league takes on more meaning. But when the league is deprived of that, everything else seems a little cheap. The NFL revolves around the Patriots; when they're just an ordinary team, the NFL seems almost like just an ordinary league.

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