In the NFL, teams are defined by their ability to evaluate top-tier talent at quarterback. At the “combine,” the league’s annual physical evaluation of incoming prospects, the distance between a QB’s thumb and pinky finger can cost him millions of dollars. His speed in the 40-yard dash—a distance he will run perhaps once in his career, and even then in fear for his life—can make the difference between the first round and the fifth. The teams have not yet started checking the prospects’ teeth, but it’s really just a matter of time.
Yet for all the scrutiny, a QB’s success is still largely unpredictable. Even when a quarterback is successful, we cannot really adequately explain why. Experts on ESPN will point to a quarterback’s statistics—passing yards, high completion percentage, high TD to INT ratio, etc. But this is question-begging; statistics are only a numeric representation of success; they do not explain how it comes about. That task is much more difficult. It involves what used to be known as “intangibles.” That was until there was a book by Michael Lewis called Moneyball, which explains the smarter use of statistics in baseball. The book became a bestseller, then a feel-good movie starring Brad Pitt. So now you can’t use that word anymore, though intangible is still exactly what intangibles are. This is because football is a much more complex game than baseball, with many more moving parts, and because whatever statistics are out there to measure the intangibles, we haven’t found them yet. It will be a long time before bespectacled Ivy League graduates are able to push old football veterans around with only the power of their fancy charts. But we can imagine.
In the meantime, the story of football intangibles goes something like this: By the time a player reaches the NFL, he either has or does not have intangibles. He owns them but cannot develop them much further. They are innate and they are especially important at the quarterback position, where athletic ability is most complexly related to a player’s success. Tom Brady serves as the most recent evidence. No one knew he was going to be Tom Brady until he stepped on the field and became Tom Brady. Perhaps Brady himself knew. But he couldn’t have known for sure.
Brady is the most celebrated quarterback of his era and a lock for the Hall of Fame, but this was not always so. After a high school career in San Mateo, California, he was a highly sought-after prospect and chose Michigan, where he ran into some stiff competition for playing time. Ahead of him on the depth chart was future NFL QB Brian Griese and beside him was one of the most decorated recruits in the history of Michigan, Drew Henson, who was such a good athlete that the Yankees drafted him with their third round pick in 1998. Brady sat for two years behind Griese and then platooned with Henson for significant parts of his Junior and Senior seasons. Whenever given the chance, though, Brady performed admirably, often bringing Michigan back into the game after Henson had let the team get behind. In his final collegiate game, Brady threw for 369 yards and 4 TDs to beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
Brady finished his Michigan career on a strong note, but NFL coaches were still skittish of him. The logic was pretty simple, even if flawed. If he couldn’t be a convincing starter in college, how could he be a starter in the NFL? At the combine, Brady only confirmed his critics’ suspicions as he turned in one of the worst combine performances in historical memory, running a 5.3 second 40-yard dash and demonstrating a 24.5-inch vertical leap–about as good as your average high school tight end. The 2000 draft was also a pretty decent year for quarterbacks—Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, and Spergon Wynn would all go before Brady.
The 49ers were one of the few teams to show strong interest in Brady before the draft, but when their turn to pick arrived in the third round, Gino Carmazzi was still on the board. He had just spent four years demolishing the record books at Hofstra, then tested off the charts at the combine. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds and jumped 36 inches into the air from a standing position. Gino could do it all—heck, you could probably put him at linebacker, maybe, if you really needed to—whereas Brady, no matter how hard he tried, would never be able to outrun his fastest lineman. The 49ers went with Carmazzi; Brady wasn’t drafted until three rounds later, behind six quarterbacks who all outperformed him at the combine. These days, Gino’s a professional yogi and Brady is considered one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game, but the 49ers did what almost all NFL teams would do—they opted for the complete player.
In any case, Brady’s big, slow foot was in the door and it was exactly the right door to be in. To this day, Brady cannot do a lot of things that other QBs can do—he doesn’t evade pressure well and doesn’t always wow you with his arm—but you would never know it watching Brady play, because it is rare that Brady finds himself in situations that ask him to do anything other than what he does exceptionally well. The Patriots have developed a team—even a system—that allows Brady to be the best version of himself.
What Brady does better than other quarterbacks is, 1) reads defenses; 2) makes quick, accurate passes consistently; 3) never gets rattled. His consistency derives from his excellent mechanics. Brady is a natural thrower. He holds the ball lightly like an afterthought in his hands, and his shoulders almost always square fluidly to his intended target. The difficulty of making this motion fluid can be seen in Tim Tebow’s sticky mechanics. Even when Tebow is able to square his lead shoulder it appears unnatural. He has to think about it. Not Brady.
Brady says the key to his success is his long time throwing coach, Tom Martinez. Martinez’s instruction is simple but effective. He emphasizes a high-throwing angle, a closed front, and a short stride. Like a good golf stroke, the trick to throwing is to find consistency in motion and Brady has done that. From short throws to long, his motion is mechanically the same. Martinez believes that any quarterback can achieve this, what he calls “good mechanics,” (even Tebow) and Martinez’ tutelage is apparent in almost every throw Brady makes and even the ones he does not make. When Brady misses it is often because his stride is too short, causing the ball to sail over the target.
Watching football on television makes the process of finding out what’s actually going on in a football game very difficult. While you can often see the grimace on the QB’s face when he is sacked, you can rarely see the important part of the game—what he sees. While watching games I sometimes wish that my TV would expand just two inches on either side so that I could see the secondary defense, but then again, this is probably the last thing we need.
Some people who have only witnessed football through the TV do not understand that they are not watching actual football. They are watching the football, that is to say literally the ball itself. Watching the game live, I have the feeling that the QB throws the ball to the only possible place. The final effect is that we get more feeling but less knowledge. Some of the best commentators take this into consideration during the instant replay sections of the telecast and are able to highlight various ways the play could have gone had the quarterback chose differently.
Watching Brady against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game two weeks ago, one could see his fluid throwing motion and most of his usual accuracy. As usual, Brady was seldom hurried when making his throws. The obvious reason for this is that the Patriots have invested heavily as an organization in their offensive line, and it’s paid off: their pass protection is excellent. A slightly less obvious reason is that the “blitz,” where a defensive player from the secondary—either a linebacker or safety—comes up and rushes at the quarterback, is mostly ineffective against Brady, for two reasons: He is probably the best reader of defenses in the NFL, a skill both learned through study and instinctual (being able to sense when a slight lean forward by a safety indicates that he’s about to blitz), and, more important, the Patriots passing offense is very much focused on the short and short-intermediate pass. If a blitz is coming, Brady always has the option of a short outlet to Wes Welker, a small, dynamic receiver who tends to hang out near the line of scrimmage, catch anything thrown near him, and then dart forward for seven or eight yards after the catch. Brady would probably have thrown to him anyway; a blitz just means there will be one less person around to tackle Welker in the secondary.
Who has the advantage in football, the offense or the defense? In baseball, we know that a pitcher gets a batter out more often than not. In professional football, a good offense will score on about half of its possessions. But some of those scores, when they are field goals, may in a sense be victories for the defense. Let’s think of it another way: On offense, in a standard pro set, there is the quarterback, five offensive linemen, a tailback, a tight end, and three wide receivers. (Or two tight ends and two receivers; or two running backs and two receivers.) That means five players can catch the ball. The receivers are fast and are covered by cornerbacks; the tight ends are big and are covered by linebackers; running backs coming out of the backfield, being neither too big nor too fast, can be covered by a safety or a linebacker. In a standard pro 4-3-4 defensive scheme, there are four down linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs. In other words, there are seven players in potential pass coverage to the offense’s five potential receivers. If the defense wants to put more pressure on the quarterback, they can run a 5-2-4—but they will still have six people in coverage to the offense’s five. In terms of passing, therefore, the defense continues to outnumber the offense by one player. But the offense has the advantage of surprise. In addition, by being in charge of where the ball is going to go, the offense can choose to focus on personnel: a weaknesses in a defense (an inexperienced cornerback, for example) or strengths in their offense: in the Patriots’ case an uncommonly tall, powerful tight end in Ron Gronkowski, who is too tall for most linebackers to cover one-on-one, and an uncommonly agile tight end in Aaron Hernandez, who is too fast for most linebackers. The final offensive advantage is simply the advantage of space: Wide receivers have the entire field in which to run around and, with a professional quarterback throwing, they only need to be open momentarily for him to deliver the ball to them.
No offensive team is more cognizant of the possibilities of space than the New England Patriots. Instead of attacking between the tackles or down the field vertically, the Patriots rely on playing underneath the defense and across the field. Brady will occasionally hit one of his tight ends for a thirty-yard strike down the middle of the field (the “seam” in between the linebacker and the safety), but the Patriots’ more typical pass play involves Brady stepping back from center, turning right, and whipping the ball twenty yards along the line of scrimmage to tiny, diminutive Wes Welker, and then letting Welker slide and tumble and slip forward for eight or nine yards. The remarkable success of Welker–who is not fast by NFL standards but is quick, agile, and very difficult to tackle within a box–has led the Patriots to start looking for Welker clones. One is Edelman; another is Woodhead. It is difficult to imagine any of these players experiencing a similar level of success with another team. The Patriots’ celebrated tight ends are also in the Welker mode: they are flexible, multi-dimensional players rather than players who dominate at one aspect of the game. This flexibility is perhaps the one necessary complement to their immobile quarterback.
When Brady and the Patriots faced the Baltimore Ravens, one of the best defensive teams in football, the defense they saw most often was the Cover 1, where all secondary players and linebackers have man-to-man responsibilities except for the safety, who in the case of the Ravens is the talented Ed Reed. It is a great defense if the linebackers are athletic enough to cover the tight ends and wide receivers, and while the Ravens’ linebackers are talented, it was the play of Reed, with his knack for jumping down in the seam just when the Patriots receivers looked like they might be coming open, that caused much of the turmoil for the Patriots. The Ravens’ linebackers, while not agile enough to cover Gronkowski and Hernandez across the field or underneath were fast enough in tandem with the Ravens’ secondary to create a tight window in the seam and a largely frustrating day for Brady. Sometimes, the Ravens even dropped a defensive end into pass coverage, indicative of their commitment to making Brady complete passes in front of them. The Patriots didn’t necessarily mind. The space in the short distance meant the basics of their offense could be executed with relative ease but the more difficult aspects would become even more difficult. The Patriots like to get the ball to their receivers in space against a 1-on-1 defender. They are allowed so many 1-on-1 opportunities because Brady throws to so many receivers and is good at making pre-snap reads as to which receiver will likely receive 1-on-1 coverage. Their main receivers—Welker, Edelman, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Branch—are quick but not fast by NFL standards. Relying on the intermediate passing attack where Brady thrives, the Patriots found themselves often in the red zone, but the strategy that got them there is also the one that made it difficult for them to score. The Patriots seemed constantly to run out of space. They scored two touchdowns but had to kick three easy field goals, a ratio they no doubt wish could have been reversed.
As for Brady, he wasn’t particularly good. He missed a wide-open Gronkowski in the first quarter on what would have been an easy touchdown, and threw behind several receivers. He threw one interception directly into the chest of a Ravens safety, and another into double coverage deep down the field–an almost hopeless pass. What was remarkable about Brady’s performance against the Ravens was his stubborn consistency despite all this. He peppered the short hitch routes and underneath crossing patterns with the ease of playing front-yard catch. After several drives stalled and Brady threw an interception by forcing the ball vertically into the seam, the quarterback refused to change his game plan. He continued throwing the ball where he thought it ought to go until, finally, it did.
On Brady’s best drive of the day, he executed the seam pass that troubled him all day, finding Gronkowski for a long gain on second down. On this play, he threw the ball deftly into the soft spot of the Ravens’ defense, sailing it inches over the defender’s outstretched hands. This throw is sometimes called “the one inch throw,” because to be successful, the ball should travel one inch over the linebacker’s hands. This ensures that the linebacker does not knock the ball down and also that the safety does not knock the receiver’s head off. It requires both finesse and confidence. Given his previous ineptitude with the throw, Brady had no reason to be confident–except that Brady always throws with confidence. The one-inch throw to Gronkowski put the ball into Ravens territory. The drive ended when Brady scored a touchdown on a QB sneak on 4 & Goal inside the Ravens’ one yard line. Taking a quick snap, he jumped up and over the Ravens’ defensive line, and interestingly, the play did not look to be from design, but Brady saw something and sent his gangly limbs flailing into the air. The play was his only touchdown of the day and the highlight of his performance. 23-20 New England.
With the Patriots’ receiving core structured how it is, the Patriots offense requires a more patient Brady than ever before. In the intermediate passing game, there are few ways to stop Brady because he is so accurate, but without a true deep threat, the Patriots run a lot of plays and this creates more room for error. Brady’s two interceptions show what can happen when defenses successfully play a bend-but-don’t-break style against the Patriots and cause Brady to become impatient.
In the AFC championship, Brady was just good enough to win. While achieving victory, Brady never established comfort against the Ravens’ defense, but it is also hard to see what he could have done differently. The Ravens allowed Brady to play like Brady. The quarterback completed all of the passes that he usually completes, but the Ravens’ defense forced him to do what is difficult for him this year—running with the football and scoring quickly without a significant deep threat.
Brady’s game is accuracy, quick decision-making, controlling the ball and throwing few interceptions. For Eli Manning, interceptions are a mark of his authenticity.
The last time the Giants faced the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Manning was a figure of frustration for Giants fans. During the 2007 regular season, he’d led the league in interceptions, despite the advantage of a strong running game, and New Yorkers were aching to run the whiny, flakey quarterback out of town. Then he led the Giants on an improbable playoff run, threw an impossible fourth-down bomb late in the Superbowl that became known as “The Catch,” leading to the the Giants’ upset of the unbeaten Pats—and suddenly Eli was the MVP of Super Bowl XLII.
And yet he still seemed on shaky ground. It wasn’t until this year that Eli established himself as a no-doubt top-flight quarterback. While he still throws plenty of interceptions, the Giants, and their fans, have come to rely on him as their offense’s main provider. This season, he was third in the league with 308 passing yards per game—a hundred yards more than in 2007.
Eli’s progress reflects a much broader trend in the league, in which league-wide passing numbers are up, way up. And while passing has been made easier by athletic receivers, rules to protect QBs, stricter calls against defensive backs, and so on, this is only part of the story. Manly NFL coaches would prefer to run the ball—they would prefer to jam it down the throats of their opponents. But with the increased size and agility of defensive linemen, the running game in recent years has become much more difficult. Innovations here have consisted of entertaining wrinkles (the Dolphins’ Wildcat, the Broncos’ Tebow), not legitimate, sustainable commitments to running the ball. The Giants look like a team molded to run the football, and have historically been so, but in fact they have increasingly relied on Eli to put up large numbers. In the NFC Championship game gainst San Francisco, the league’s best defense, he threw a team record fifty-two passes. And that was in the rain.
The quarterback Eli may most resemble is the legendary recent retiree Brett Favre. Eli is not a gunslinger in the way of Favre, but like Favre he is not afraid to throw the ball into traffic, having led the league in picks as recently as 2010. Though he has played almost scot-free football in this year’s playoffs (1 INT thus far), he still can’t fight his urge to throw the ball up for grabs from time to time.
Eli’s mishaps are of a particular sort. He’s too savvy for defensive secondaries to take him by surprise and so his mistakes are miscalculations; but he is always calculating. Where Favre was overconfident in his arm strength, Eli is overconfident in his predictive abilities. Statistically, the late Eli is very similar to Favre—both are elite quarterbacks who throw a lot of interceptions. However, their playing styles are vastly different. Where Favre was an immediate fan favorite, Eli is more of an acquired taste.
Much time has passed since the 2004 draft, when Eli refused to play for the Chargers, who drafted him with the first pick, effectively forcing a trade to New York. Before taking a snap in the NFL, he willfully encouraged fans to think of him as entitled and whiny. Very few players’ reputations are determined by what happens off the field; on the field, though, Eli did not quickly win over Giants’ fans, because he was still kind of whiny. It was the look on his face more than anything, really, as if he were always about to cry. The fact that he was the younger, physically smaller brother of Peyton Manning, the statistically dominant Colts’ quarterback, didn’t help. If he had blood on his jersey, it looked out place—like a school bully had just snapped his bifocals. That being said, his sometimes languid, sometimes bratty style of play had a way of disguising one of his best qualities, which were on ample display against the 49ers: he’s a tough son-of-a-bitch. His ability to withstand hit after hit was exactly the attribute that propelled the Giants to victory. And the sole reason he did not want to go to San Diego? He wanted to win. Good move.
While Eli increased his stock throughout the NFC championship game, the most endearing Eli-play of all came on second and eight at midfield with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter. Facing heavy pressure, Eli turned almost 360 degrees and contorted his body awkwardly to get a pass to Ahmad Bradshaw in the flat, just as the Niners’ Aldon Smith leveled him. It would be rare to see Brady make a play like this, but Eli makes a living of it. Smith’s vicious hit left Eli’s chinstrap somewhere around his forehead and his shoulder pads sticking out of his jersey, up by his helmet. His head had apparently been pushed down into his neck, and yet he stayed cogent and composed enough to be aware of clock management and signal a timeout. Eli’s toughness is somehow akin to his aloofness—it’s as if his game were too cerebral to even admit the notion of physical pain.
In overtime, the game ended with a Kyle Williams fumble that set up Lawrence Tynes for the winning field goal, but it was because of Eli that the Giants won the game. He diversified his targets (thirty-two completions to eight receivers), made deep throws, and bought time with his feet.
Today, the two QBs will play. Brady looks for his fourth Superbowl ring. Eli looks for his second, and perhaps once again, a momentary usurpation of Brady’s throne.
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