Romilly Evans assesses the reputation of Tom Brady as darkening "Deflate Gate" and recent Super Bowl failures continues to haunt him...
"Brady keeps believing. Trouble is, others are stopping believing in him"
A few years ago, Tom Brady was on the threshold of completing one of the unlikeliest transformations in Super Bowl history. A mere sixth-string afterthought as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, Brady rose rapidly to pull the strings of the New England Patriots with three Super Bowl rings.
Inside a decade, his place in the pantheon seemed secure. And for most commentators, it was only a matter of time before his eclipsed his boyhood idle, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers, as the greatest quarterback of all-time.
However, since lifting the Pats' last Lombardi trophy in 2005, Brady's status hasn't changed. Indeed, recent years have perhaps outed him as a not-so-great being iced in the cold on the foothills of greatness. Montana still sits on high as the four-time Super Bowl champ and three-time Most Valuable Player. Brady is still a fag paper shy of his hero in each category and has blown his past two gilt-edged opportunities to level the scales against Eli Manning and his New York Giants (2007 and 2011).
Manning, not even the best quarterback in his family (a distant second to his older brother Peyton), blew holes in Brady's play-off preeminence (20-8 in the postseason). However, now here Brady is back at the league's end game, at the steps of greatness and on its door once more. Will it open for him at last after Super Bowl XLIX where he's 3.02/1 to back to become MVP?
Well, if the past week is anything to go by, its security system has just been upgraded to prevent the 37-year-old's consistent assault. That, of course, is largely due to the "Deflate Gate" revelations and ensuing allegations which followed New England's home rout of Indianapolis last Sunday in the AFC Conference Championship.
No fewer than 11 of the 12 match balls were revealed to have been juiced with meaningfully less pressure than the NFL rules (between 12.5 and 13.5 psi) require. And after head coach Bill Belichick, a man who's operated on the margins of fairness his entire career, revealed that he'd never once inquired as to ball-pressure specifications, Brady found himself tied to the tracks with the juggernaut of media scrutiny bearing down on him.
Despite Brady's repeated denials and his best befuddled Who?-Me?-I'm-Richie-Cunningham routine, his happy days appear over. Esteemed scribes and former signal-callers have been falling over themselves to doubt the authenticity of his supposed ignorance and condemn him.
Hall of Famer and lead analyst Troy Aikman said on his radio show: "it's obvious that Tom Brady had something to do with this tampering." Veteran QB Mark Brunell added, "I simply do not believe him... and no equipment manager would dare alter pressures under their own initiative." While the Voice of American Football, John Madden, succinctly surmised: "that's the quarterback's doing."
While there isn't enough evidence in the public domain to convict or acquit Brady (who incidentally connected with 35 passes against Indy), that hasn't silenced growing calls for the Patriots to be ejected from the greatest show on turf, or at least have Brady benched. Alarmist reaction maybe, but those who bravely take to Twitter and the message boards to voice their discontent have cornered the market for hysteria.
Nevertheless, the groundswell of informed opinion suggests that for the first half of the Indy game (before the correction was made) Brady had to know he was using illegal balls. Consequently, in search of a positive narrative to combat the conspiracy theories, Seattle's white knight Russell Wilson has emerged as the young signal-caller to root for on Super Bowl Sunday.
Wilson has played Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader before, of course, breaking through against the overlord Peyton Manning at last year's Bowl. Despite a slow start to this campaign, Wilson has again found his feet, albeit at the head of a Seahawks offense which is reliant on those of Marshawn Lynch.
Nevertheless, Wilson has some pacy paws of his own (only the third QB of all-time to rush for 100-plus yards in at least three games in a season) and can scythe his way headlong through opposing Ds should they dare to bring the blitz. His improbable comeback against Green Bay in the semis showcased his improved mental strength and facility to make the big plays even when the tide is running against him. Indeed, this ability to rebound was eloquently demonstrated when, having dished up four interceptions trying to connect with Jermaine Kearse, Wilson finally found his man for the game-winning touchdown. In short, this kid keeps believing.
So, too, does Brady. Trouble is, others are stopping believing in him. Recent Super Bowl failures (including when a 14-point favourite) and a sliding touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (52-24 in the play-offs) only give the doubters more reservations.
Time was when Tom Brady just needed one more championship to be mentioned in the same breath as Joe Montana. Yet now, even if he claims that fourth ring, people may not want to waste any more breath on him.