Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and playing with a chip
The NFL is filled with highly skilled athletes who, along with their teams, are really not separated by much in terms of skill and talent. Most players are pretty good at this level, it is said, so preparedness and emotional intensity can often mean the difference between winning and losing. Therefore, in order to gain an edge, players often grab at anything they can find that will get them up emotionally for a game.
It can work. We have often seen a lesser-ranked team beat a favorite “on any given Sunday” because the underdog came to the game fired up and ready to play. We have certainly seen what happens when a team is not ready to play (i.e. the Vikings getting drilled by the 49ers on opening weekend, or more recently the 1-4 Saints’ win over the then-undefeated Falcons last Thursday). Emotional readiness and proper motivation can be just as powerful a tool for victory as a dominant game plan.
So players try to find a chip to put on their shoulder. They look for bulletin board material, comments in the press, old grudges, draft-day oversights, playing against a former team or just about anything that gets their blood boiling when the bullets are flying.
Randy Moss famously made it his own personal mission to ensure every team that passed him over in the draft (the Vikings selected him 21st in the 1998 draft) knew what a mistake they made. Moss was under the impression that the Dallas Cowboys would select him, so he took a special vengeance on them—with seven catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns (on the way to a 27-15 victory) against the ‘Boys at Texas Stadium on a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game.
Two players who are currently masters at playing with a chip are two quarterbacks, who may be on a collision course in this season’s title game. Aaron Rodgers still bristles at being passed over by countless teams in the 2005 draft, when he watched Alex Smith go number one and then spent an agonizing day in the green room waiting to be selected 24th.
When Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers and Smith’s Kansas City Chiefs met at Lambeau Field earlier this season, the NFL and media wonks made the game a rematch of the first Super Bowl. But for Rodgers it was the opportunity to show the world that mistakes were made in the 2005 draft.
Never short of emotional material, Rodgers also used a comment uttered by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson after last season’s NFC Championship game—in which Wilson claimed that God was with them in the improbable victory—and referred to it with a quote of his own in his post-game press conference after the Packers dispatched the Seahawks this season.
“I think God was a Packers fan tonight, so he was taking care of us,” Rodgers said.
The intent or veracity of Rodgers’ comments aside, I would say that taking the field thinking you are playing for God must certainly provide some emotional motivation. No one wants to let God down.
Perhaps the player with the biggest chip on his shoulder this season, however, is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who, this offseason, was wound through the ringer with DeflateGate and has turned it into a torrid start to the 2015 season. The emotion he exhibits on the sidelines demonstrates just how close to the surface all his anger over this situation resides.
On Sunday, the Patriots played the Colts, the team who blew the whistle on the deflated footballs after their playoff game. Brady came into the game with 11 touchdown passes and zero picks, while the 3-2 Colts hadn’t fared so well since that fateful game. The game created plenty of hype, although the Patriots refused to take the bait before or after the game.
“I’m always pretty motivated,” Brady said when asked if the game provided some extra motivation due to the madness during the offseason.
The Colts, who were on a three-game win-streak, were getting an injured Andrew Luck back and were at home, gave a valiant effort. They even tried an onside kick in the first half after picking off Brady for a touchdown, and then later attempted the strangest fake punt ever conceived (we’re just going to call it a “funt”) that demonstrated just how desperate they were to forestall the inevitable.
Brady didn’t let the pick-six bother him much, throwing three touchdown passes in the game and leading his undefeated team to a 34-27 win that was worse than the final score indicated. The postgame quotes all came from the same New England script: “Happy to get the win. Just another game. On to the Jets,” all the players said. But when the clock ran out, the typically undemonstrative, low-key, monotone Pats head coach Bill Belichick turned to his team on the sideline and gave a fist-pump. Just another game, indeed.
The Patriots will now have to gin up some angst against the New York Jets (which was never a problem when Rex Ryan was there), but Brady is likely going to ride his “inflated” emotions all season (DeflateGate rulings and appeals are still not complete). Belichick used to be a Jets coach, so they always have that in their back pocket.
Meanwhile, Rodgers has a couple games with the Vikings ahead on the schedule. And if the close proximity of the two fan bases isn’t enough to fuel this rivalry (it always is), the Vikings were one of two teams (Cincinnati was the other) who passed on Rodgers twice in the 2005 draft. That’s a slight that never goes away.
The more important date to look ahead to on the schedule, however, is the Super Bowl, where, if mid-season “power rankings” determined the championship participants, these two would be headed. The 5-0 Patriots and 6-0 Packers are 1 and 2 in most power rankings. Their quarterbacks, Brady and Rodgers, are at or near the top in QB production—Rodgers has 15 touchdown passes to just two picks, while Brady is 14 and 1.
As we said, they are headed on a collision course, and there are plenty of football fans who would like to see it happen—the reigning league MVP vs. the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Certainly a lot has to happen (and a lot can happen) before that comes to fruition, but both teams’ leader and most pivotal player knows how to get up for a game each week.
Rodgers knows how to create more slights to use to his advantage than he has created “discount double check” commercials. He knows how to act in front of a camera—news camera as well as broadcast commercial production camera. And he has the chops to back it up.
And Brady likes to play it closer to the vest, where he keeps, in his heart, all the anger and resentment for the league and legion of fans who insist he is a cheater. He doesn’t say much. He doesn’t have to—someone is going to bring it up before every game, causing a slow burn until kickoff.
Brady knows winning is the ultimate answer. He and Rodgers both know that, and they know how to play with a chip. We may just see who gets to cash those chips in at Super Bowl 50 come Feb. 7.
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