Lucky and Good: How Tom Brady Became the Greatest

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This is less about Tom Brady and more about greatness in general. Or what it takes to be the greatest. In other words, we’re rounding Take Mountain today and heading straight for Think Piece Junction. If you’re not up for that, feel free to bail out now.

I had to blink for about five minutes after it happened. It was like I’d just seen the Sopranos finale. The last 30 seconds of the Super Bowl might have been the craziest ending I’ve ever seen in sports, and definitely in football. Even if the game had finished with the Jermaine Kearse catch and a game-winning Marshawn Lynch touchdown, it would have been on equal footing with the end of Game 6 of Heat-Spurs two years ago. But the Malcolm Butler interception made it twice as surreal.

That ending was something like the David Tyree catch and the Ray Allen 3 combined. Legacies swung 180 degrees — twice — and none of the major characters involved had control over what was happening. And it all took place in 30 seconds.

If not for an undrafted cornerback making an outrageous play on the ball — after one of the best coaching staffs in football decided not to use the best running back alive — there’s no way half the world would have been declaring Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time this week. And it’s perfect that this is how Brady will go down as the greatest quarterback of all time.

Brady’s career is full of these moments. He has existed on the razor’s edge of the best and worst luck since the day he arrived in New England in 2000. Let’s go down the list.

1. He Goes to the Patriots With the 199th Pick

For some perspective, Cleveland took QB Spergon Wynn 16 picks earlier. Can you imagine how much worse Brady’s life would have been had he ended up in Cleveland? Brady on the Browns would be like if Ben Affleck had been best friends with Matt Dillon instead of Matt Damon. And that’s probably the best-case scenario.

Tom BradyJamie Squire /Allsport

But instead of the Browns, Jets, Redskins, or any other team that would have found a way to ruin him, Brady wound up with the most brilliant coach in the league, a great defense, and a team that built one of the best offensive lines in football through the first half of his career (which kept him healthy). Then …

2. The Tuck Rule

New England Patriots  quarterback Tom Brady (C) taMATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images

One of the shadiest — technically correct! — calls in NFL history saved the Patriots from a game-losing fumble in January 2002, and helped set up a game-tying kick in the biggest game of Brady’s life. Speaking of which …

3. Adam Vinatieri

Adam Vinatieri nailed that 45-yard kick against the Raiders in the middle of a snowstorm, which to this day is the most impressive field goal I’ve ever seen in real time. He also added the game-winning field goal in overtime, plus the Super Bowl–winning 48-yard field goal against the Rams a few weeks later. Two seasons later, Vinatieri helped save the Patriots in a divisional game against the Titans with a game-winning 46-yard field goal while the temperature was in single digits. Winning all of these games helped cement Brady as a winner, built up his confidence, and set him on the invincibility track that continues to this day. If any of those Vinatieri kicks had missed, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

4. John Kasay’s Kickoff

In Brady’s second Super Bowl, against Carolina in 2004, the Panthers tied it up with under two minutes to play. Then Carolina’s John Kasay kicked it out of bounds to set up the Patriots on their own 40-yard line for a game-winning drive. To his credit, Brady and the passing game had been unstoppable that day. Kasay’s mistake meant Brady just needed to be adequate. The Patriots offense moved 37 yards in six plays, and Vinatieri kicked the game winner.

5. Reche Caldwell

The first bad luck of Brady’s career came three years after the win over the Panthers. New England was up three on the Colts in the AFC title game. The winner would get the chance to go beat the crap out of Rex Grossman’s Bears. Brady found Reche Caldwell, completely unguarded by Indy — and Caldwell dropped a pass that would have earned a first-down conversion and ended the game. Instead, the drop set up the Peyton Manning drive that would put the Colts over the top, 38-34.

6. The David Tyree Catch

The Tyree catch cost the Patriots a Super Bowl win they probably deserved in 2008. But let’s also remember that before that reception even happened, Asante Samuel dropped an attempted interception that would have ended the game. The Samuel drop is commemorated here, with one of the great Masshole YouTube videos of all time.

7. Lee Evans Drops That Touchdown Pass

Remember when Lee Evans had a game-winning touchdown go right through his hands in 2012? That would have sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Instead, the drop set up a game-tying field goal attempt that the Ravens missed, gifting Brady and Bill Belichick a trip to Indianapolis for a rematch with the Giants.

8. Mario Manningham and Eli Manning

Eli Manning’s pass to Tyree was lucky. Manning’s pass to Manningham — and the catch on the other end — was just amazing. The Patriots lost to the better team in 2012.

But if you want to talk Brady luck: Wes Welker dropped a pass that could have sealed the game, and Rob Gronkowski’s injury in the AFC Championship Game more or less swung this Super Bowl before it happened.

9. Joe Flacco Falls Apart

A month ago in Foxborough, the Ravens were driving for a game-winning score. It was shaping up to be another heartbreaking loss for the Patriots. I’m not saying Baltimore definitely would have scored if Joe Flacco hadn’t lost his mind and gone for it all in one play, but the Ravens had been moving the ball the entire game and the Patriots offense was marooned on the sideline. Flacco just had to keep the drive going.

10. The Kearse Catch and the Butler Interception

The worst luck imaginable, especially considering the history in Glendale. And then the best luck imaginable.

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle SeahawksTom Pennington/Getty Images

Only two entries on this list (the Tyree catch and Caldwell in the AFC title game) were definitely unlucky, and at least six were moments that clearly changed Brady’s career for the better. I mention all of this because his entire career is an extended inquiry into the “lucky or good?” question. And it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

First of all, there’s the obvious point: Whether it was driving down the field to set up Vinatieri against the Rams in 2002 or scoring 14 unanswered points against Seattle on Sunday, Brady had to put his team in position to be the beneficiary of a great kick or a legendary pick. None of it would have happened had he fallen apart in crunch time.

Also, Brady has plenty of the standard credentials to put him in the conversation for the greatest ever. Four Super Bowl wins, two league MVPs, an undefeated regular season, an endless collection of AFC East titles, an era of dominance that started when Bush took over and might outlast Obama, and a fourth-quarter comeback against one of the best defenses ever on Sunday. He’s done everything.

And most important: Ignoring all the obvious luck along the way shortchanges what makes Brady’s career so incredible.

Here’s what gets lost when people go to great lengths to defend Peyton Manning’s playoff history and blame all the bounces that could’ve gone a different way: Anyone who’s ever been the greatest at anything has gotten outrageously lucky.

Luck is supposed to matter. A charmed existence is part of the myth behind any regular person who gets turned into a folk hero.

Michael Jordan was fortunate enough to spend most of his career playing next to Scottie Pippen, the sidekick who complemented everything Jordan did well, and Jordan played for one of the best coaches of all time. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich found each other. Magic Johnson got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and then lucked into James Worthy as a no. 1 pick. Kobe Bryant got Shaquille O’Neal, and then Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Joe Montana got Bill Walsh and Jerry Rice. Bill Belichick, the greatest football coach ever, wouldn’t have come close to four Super Bowl victories had he not stumbled into a sixth-round pick who turned into the greatest quarterback of all time.

This is how sports work, and it’s actually how life works. We worship greatness and all the qualities that give birth to it, but we forget how arbitrary this can be. Think about your own life. How random were the occurrences and intersections that got you to exactly where you are? How many different things had to break just right to put you on the path you’re on?

I have never loved the Patriots, but I will always love Brady’s career because all of his breaks force us to admit something that’s as true for him as it is for Jordan or Montana or any billionaire CEO: Hard work and talent are crucial to success, and intangible qualities like heart and clutch are generally real — but luck is just as important. Nobody gets to the top by accident, but nobody’s on top without some pretty phenomenal accidents of fate.

That was Brady on Sunday. He put himself in a position to win, with one of the most incredible fourth quarters we’ve ever seen in the Super Bowl … and then he needed one of the luckiest breaks in Super Bowl history to actually get there.

So, whenever someone mentions luck with Brady, or credits Belichick and the perfect system in New England, or goes back to the tuck rule, don’t even bother fighting back. That’s the best part of the story for anyone who lived through this. Any part of it could have gone the other way.

Which makes it that much crazier that none of it did.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, NFL, New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Super Bowl XLIX, Malcolm Butler, Adam Vinatieri, Tuck Rule, Andrew Sharp, Bill Belichick, Seattle Seahawks, 2015 Super Bowl, jERMAINE kEARSE

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp