Skip Bayless: How Tom Brady won me over completely
By Skip Bayless
I doubted Tom Brady one time 20 years ago. Just once. Even scoffed at him the way so many still do, to their detriment.
Now, as I’ve said on "Undisputed" again and again over the past four years: There is one man in sports I do not bet against.
Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., the no-doubt GOAT who sometimes looks no more impressive than your basic barnyard tin-can-eater. Tom Brady is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. Tom Brady is so spectacularly unspectacular that many NFL fans still underestimate and underappreciate the greatest body of work in sports history.
Allow me to explain why I have come to admire Brady the on-field performer more than I have any other athlete ever. If that statement just made you gag, please let me enlighten you as to why you wrongly hate Brady. If you condemn him as a phony and a cheater, please hang on.
Early on, I had no use for him, either. I mean, I’VE BEEN A DALLAS COWBOYS FAN SINCE THEY WERE BORN IN 1960. My guy was always Roger Staubach, Captain America, Roger the Dodger, who scrambled out of burning buildings, saving babies and games, hurled Hail Marys and just oozed clutch charisma.
Brady, who ran the ugliest 40-yard dash in the history of the NFL combine, has none of that. Ever heard him called Captain Clutch? Some in the media tried Tom Terrific, but the nickname never stuck. He’s just plain ol’ Brady, who speaks publicly in nothing but aw-shucks, gee-whiz clichés, often ducking questions the way Staubach once did pass-rushers.
I had no love for Brady’s Patriots – Bill Belichick always had too much smug scoundrel in him for my taste. And I certainly have no special affection for Brady’s Buccaneers.
I’ve never so much as met Tom Brady. So understand, I have no rooting interest when I stand back, give in and declare: No superstar has ever been as consistently clutch on the big stage as Tom Brady ... not even Michael Jordan.
You will not find a bigger Jordan fan than I am. I wear his sneakers — and only his — every day on "Undisputed." It’s impossible for me to type words that say Brady has been more clutch at any given moment than MJ was. One play for my life – one shot, one pass – give me Jordan. But one game for my life, even one fourth quarter ... forgive me, Michael.
The truth is Brady has been clutch far more often than MJ was. Six Super Bowl rings with six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime?! Impossibly clutch. Three straight third-and-10 conversions with clutch throws of 20 yards, 15 and 15 on a game-winning drive in overtime of an AFC Championship against Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City?! Absurdly clutch. Throwing for 138 yards in the fourth quarter while facing a 20-10 deficit in an AFC Championship against "Sacks-onville" ... with 12 stitches in the palm of his throwing hand?! Sorry, Michael.
Those things actually happened. Real-life fairytale finishes again and again and AGAIN. Yet most sports fans don’t really care or can’t really remember any of that Brady magic.
Of course, Jordan ended that "Last Dance" 1998 season in Chicago with the ultimate do-or-die exclamation point: stealing the ball from Karl Malone with the Bulls down one, dribbling all the way up the floor, ignoring Scottie Pippen wide-open on the wing at the 3-point line, rising up over Bryon Russell and holding the pose as the shot ripped out Utah’s heart and won that closeout Game 6 by one point. Now that was all-time, walk-off clutch. That was very possibly the greatest signature play ever.
Brady doesn’t have a single signature play. No internet-breaking walk-off pass. No everlasting Memorable Moment.
Brady is long-drive clutch. Subtle, steady clutch. Extended clutch. Monotonously, efficiently, effortlessly clutch. Boringly clutch.
Just to appease the many Brady Haters sick and tired of No. 12, I’ll even describe Brady’s clutchness this way: The devil is in the details.
Covering Jordan for the Chicago Tribune, I called him "a supremely talented overachiever." Brady obviously isn’t supremely talented. So Brady just might be the greatest overachiever ever.
GREATNESS HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
That first night I saw him live, in his first playoff game as a first-year starter, no way I envisioned Tom Brady leading teams to 10 Super Bowls – or five more than any other QB (John Elway).
I was there that night in Foxboro, Jan. 19, 2002, sitting up in the press box as the snow fell on that Raiders-Patriots game in the divisional round of the playoffs, watching without seeing.
At first glance, I saw an ordinary looking sixth-rounder, tall but somewhat gawky, entirely immobile, vaguely unathletic with an average arm, no real presence or star quality. Former Patriots coach Bill Parcells coined the term JAG, "Just Another Guy." Here, I figured, was a JAG QB -- here today, gone tomorrow. Brady threw for a forgettable 74 yards in the first half, and the Patriots trailed the Raiders 7-0.
That year I was covering Jon Gruden’s Raiders. I thought they were Super Bowl-bound – they would be the following season. I thought they’d have very little trouble with this Brady kid – though I neglected to notice Brady had gone 11-3 as the starter after taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe with the Patriots 0-2 after going 5-11 the previous season. Key detail.
But of course, the Raiders should’ve won that game. They got robbed, snow-jobbed. Brady clearly fumbled, and the Raiders recovered with 1:50 left and Oakland leading 13-10. But after a suspiciously lengthy review, the Tuck Rule was wrongly applied, and the call was reversed. Brady had clearly started to throw, then stopped – had finished "tucking" and reset to throw again when he was hit by the blitzing Charles Woodson.
Up in the press box, I was so outraged, so fixated on the fate of the team I covered, that I completely overlooked what Brady did in the second half and overtime before and after that reversal robbery. The sixth-rounder from Michigan threw for 238 yards in the second half and overtime. The play after the Tuck Reversal, Brady hit David Patten for 13 yards, setting up a 45-yard field goal for Adam Vinatieri with 32 seconds left. What a season-saving throw in a virtual blizzard that was. But who noticed? Vinatieri made it. Overtime.
All Tom Brady did in overtime was go 8-for-8 for 45 yards. On third-and-5 at the Raiders’ 40, he hit Jermaine Wiggins for 6 yards. On fourth-and-4 at the Raiders’ 28, he hit Patten for 6. Yes, with treacherous footing, receivers had the edge over defenders because receivers knew where they were going. But throwing accurate passes in the blowing snow? Advantage, defense.
Brady was previewing his all-time clutchness as if this were a trailer for "Gone With the Wind." But the "Breaking News" was all about how the Raiders got, well, tucked. Brady moved the Patriots all the way down to the Raiders’ 5-yard line, setting up the game-winning chip shot for Vinatieri. But Brady made it all look so methodically routine that nobody really noticed.
Against that nasty, veteran Raiders D in brutal conditions, Brady threw zero interceptions in the second half or OT. Then again, he also threw no touchdown passes. The scoring plays that saved and won the game were field goals.
Ah, another precursor, the back story of Brady’s 20 years as an NFL QB: NO SIGNATURE PLAY. No great escapes. No no-look passes. No left-handed throws. No Favre. No Rodgers. No Mahomes.
Just relentless precision under fire. From the start, Brady has been too good for his own good. Too perfect. Too mechanically brilliant. The man has the sweetest pocket feet ever. His ability to feel the rush without taking his eyes off receivers and deftly slide left or right to buy a split second might be his greatest strength. But subtle movements don’t lead highlight shows or win GOAT debates.
The greatest genius is imperceptible genius. Brady’s greatness often isn’t readily apparent to the untrained eye. So it doesn’t WOW or SELL. It’s easily seen only on the final scoreboard.
The greater the stakes, the easier Brady has always made it look. Yet who is awestruck by poise? By speed-reading? By invariably finding the most open receiver and delivering a supremely catchable pass? Brady executes plays down the stretch as routinely as he executes opponents.
The Tuck Reversal didn’t so much launch a Patriots dynasty as it quietly detonated the greatest clutch career in sports history. I have always given Brady 75% of the credit for the Patriots dynasty and Belichick 25%. I’ve probably underestimated Brady’s contribution.
In his first year out from under Belichick, at age 43, Brady just took a team that went 7-9 a season ago to the first ever home-team Super Bowl by beating Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers on the road. Without Brady, Belichick just went 7-9.
As former Brady teammate Danny Amendola said Monday on "First Things First": "When you see Patriot Way in the dictionary, it’s going to have Tom Brady’s name next to it. None of those coaches threw any passes … made any tackles … Tom Brady is the Patriot Way, and that’s the reason Tom Brady is in the Super Bowl right now and the Patriots aren’t."
Belichick forced Brady out so HE could prove HE was the driving force behind those six championships. Instead, Belichick is getting exposed. On the fly, with no preseason games, Brady has instilled and installed the Patriot Way in "Tompa Bay."
LEARNING TO NEVER DOUBT
That January of 2002, Brady turned his ankle in the AFC Championship Game the next week, and Bledsoe returned to save the day. So ahead of that Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams were favored by 14 points. An iffy Brady versus "The Greatest Show on Turf"? I called the matchup a joke.
And I made my first and last Super Bowl mistake when it has involved Tom Brady. I scoffed. I picked the Rams by a landslide. And he made me look like a fool.
He and Belichick. I will give the GOAT coach this: That game plan was a masterpiece. Brady threw for only 145 yards in a shockingly low-scoring battle. Yet with John Madden up in the TV booth calling for the Patriots to keep Brady out of harm’s way on the final drive, to shut it down, run the ball and the clock and play for overtime, here Brady came, completing passes of 5, 8, 11, 23 and 6 yards to set up the game-winning, 48-yard field goal.
The 23-yarder to Troy Brown (the Patriots’ lone Pro Bowl selection on offense, other than Brady) came with 29 seconds left. That set up a 54-yarder at the edge of Vinatieri’s indoor range. So what did Brady do? Hit Wiggins for 6 more yards to give his kicker a more comfortable distance. Game over.
Brady was the MVP but Belichick was the story.
Once again, Brady’s clutchness was hiding in plain sight.
Two Super Bowls later, in what had turned into a shootout with Carolina, Brady threw for 136 yards in the fourth quarter – 47 of those coming on the game-winning drive. With 14 seconds left, facing third-and-3 at the Panthers’ 40, Brady hit Deion Branch for 17 yards to set up a 41-yard field goal. How clutch was that? Nobody really noticed.
Ahead of the 2007 season, Belichick finally acquired the first (and last) bona fide wide receiver Brady would have in New England: Randy Moss, who had quit on the Raiders. Records (and opponents) fell like Foxboro snow. It's amazing how troubled receivers become model citizens in Brady’s company (see Antonio Brown this season). Imagine the damage Brady would’ve done in New England if he’d had some semblance of a Moss (a Tyreek Hill, a Davante Adams) for all 19 seasons.
The Patriots rolled into that Super Bowl 18-0, merely having to face Eli Manning and the wild-card Giants. Yes, Brady struggled against a four-man Giants rush led by Michael Strahan. BUT: Late in the fourth quarter, here Brady came from under the radar. 75 yards, 12 plays, 6 yards to Moss to put the Patriots ahead 14-10 with 2:42 left. ANOTHER GAME-WINNING DRIVE!
Uh, no. Belichick’s defense allowed Eli to cover 83 yards in 12 plays, capped by the 13-yard pass to Plaxico Burress for the game winner with 35 seconds left. Why did Belichick get a pass for that? Because the Brady Haters made that game about the Giants roughing up and shutting down Brady.
Against Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary, Brady trailed 24-14 in the fourth quarter but threw for 124 yards and two touchdowns to rally New England to a stunning victory. But of course, the story of the game became a little-used rookie from West Alabama named Malcolm Butler intercepting a 1-yard pass from Russell Wilson at the goal line to save the game. "WHY DIDN’T PETE CARROLL LET MARSHAWN LYNCH RUN THE BALL FOR THE TOUCHDOWN?" was pretty much all you heard throughout the offseason.
Conversely, in Super Bowl LII, Brady threw for a playoff-record 505 yards and put up 33 points ... but Belichick’s defense allowed Eagles backup QB Nick Foles to score 41. That was in part because Belichick mysteriously benched Butler for that game – I’ve still not heard a plausible explanation for dog-housing the cornerback who played the most snaps of any Patriot defender that season. How does the GOAT coach get a pass for that? In large part because the Brady Haters wanted to lay all the blame on the QB who couldn’t hang on to a trick-play pass and got strip-sacked late in the game trying to make a desperate play.
Yes, Brady got game-saving breaks on the Tuck Reversal and Butler’s interception. But Belichick’s defense cost him the first Eli Super Bowl, and Belichick’s decision to bench Butler cost Brady the Foles Super Bowl. Brady performed well enough in both games to have eight rings.
So how did the Brady Haters dismiss his 246 yards passing in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Atlanta Super Bowl as the Patriots fought back from 28-3 down? Brady’s pick-six put them in a 21-0 hole. And all I heard the next day (and week and month) was, "WHY DIDN’T THE FALCONS JUST RUN THE BALL TO KILL THE CLOCK IN THE FOURTH QUARTER?"
Two hundred forty-six yards in the fourth quarter and overtime?!?
In Super Bowl LIII, the Rams made it as hard on Brady as Strahan’s Giants had. YET: Mid-fourth quarter, tied 3-3, Brady went 4-for-4 on a game-winning drive, exclamation-pointed by a 29-yarder to Rob Gronkowski that set up the 2-yard run that made it 10-3. So clutch. So overlooked. The Brady Haters gave Belichick all the credit. For shutting down Jared Goff?
Brady’s biggest credit problem has always been perception. He doesn’t look or act the part of the Jordanesque cold-blooded clutch killer. Jordan’s haughty glare and swagger always said, "Ain’t nobody out here can guard me." Jordan always just LOOKED like he was about to rip your heart out. Brady might as well be quarterbacking Switzerland.
Then again, I have never seen a quarterback show more childlike emotion than Brady before kickoffs and after TD passes. He will run all the way to the end zone to helmet-butt or hug receivers. But such behavior is shared. No "look-at-me" fist-throwing or chest-beating in solo celebration. Nothing in postgame interviews about "I" or "me." It’s always about team, ad nauseum.
On the sideline, Brady will sometimes unleash on receivers or linemen for obvious mental lapses or lack of effort. This is the alter ego I call "Psycho Tom." When "Psycho Tom" comes out, look out, opposition. Like Jordan, "Psycho Tom" is always looking for the slightest slight to send him into a controlled competitive rage. Kyler Murray was selected as the third and final NFC Pro Bowl quarterback over Brady? Look out, playoff foes.
Yet off the field, on social media, Brady undercuts any "assassin" comparison to Jordan by posting what often come across as corny videos and messages. Sometimes I think he tries to be uncool just so younger, hipper defenders underestimate him. Still, off-the-field Brady often belongs in those Progressive Insurance commercials in which the seminar instructor tries to save young adults from turning into their parents.
Brady and Jordan intersect in GOAT approach only this way: Neither has wanted anything to do publicly with politics or religion or social causes. Both have been monomaniacally driven to dominate their sport. To a degree this has been brand protection, especially for Air Jordan, but in the end, neither has wanted to engage in any issues that might split the locker room or distract from total focus and detract from winning.
Yes, a "Make America Great Again" hat was spotted by the media in Brady’s locker ahead of the 2016 election. Brady said he was given it by Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of Donald Trump’s closest friends. Belichick also has been friends with Trump, who recently announced he would award Belichick the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the honor was declined by Belichick because of the Capitol riots). Was Brady just being a good company man?
Brady acknowledged having occasionally played golf with Trump, starting in 2002. He said, "All I know is he’s a hell of a lot of fun to play golf with." Brady’s wife, Gisele, according to the Washington Post, said ahead of that 2016 election that neither she nor her husband supported Trump.
Now understand this about me: I don’t have any idea what Brady believes politically or spiritually, and in this context, I don’t care. I’m strictly evaluating him as a quarterback and team leader. I’ve never spoken or texted or emailed a single word to Brady, or vice versa. I know him only through the eyes of the many ex-Patriots I’ve worked with in TV over many years.
Here’s the truth: Not one time on or off the record have I ever heard an ex-teammate say a single negative word about him. Not once. No untold stories.
"Undisputed" contributor James Harrison ended his career playing for New England at the end of the 2017 season, including the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. James says he entered the Patriots’ locker room on high alert, thinking he might find a Brady nobody sees. Nope, James says: "He’s exactly what he appears to be."
Not one ex-teammate I’ve spoken to believed Brady ever did anything but request his game balls be inflated to the low end of legal. The great Peter King of "Monday Morning Quarterback" finally concluded: "Shaky evidence, shady science and a total lack of interest in learning the truth are grounds for Roger Goodell to admit he erred in docking New England draft picks for Deflategate."
Belichick I cannot defend. He got nailed for Spygate.
But if Brady seems too good to be true, it’s because he is. Players have always loved playing with and for Brady. The Bucs gush about the GOAT who’s as humble and regular-guy as a third-string QB.
Like Jordan, Brady has never fought for what he’s worth in open-market salary. The Bucs will pay him only $25 million this season and next, half as much as he’s worth. Yes, his supermodel wife has been able to make even more money than her husband – far more – so the family will eat. But Brady’s sacrifices have expanded the salary cap (and improved his supporting cast) in New England and Tampa ... while decreasing any jealousy in the locker room.
For years in New England, Brady was the buffer between Belichick and the team, the good cop. How did Belichick get away with being the heartless tyrant all those years? Brady’s leadership. How did Belichick survive all those poor personnel decisions and draft picks? Brady’s performances.
Tom Brady is also the greatest leader in sports history.
That’s the final reason Brady has always been so big-stage clutch. Football is far more of a team game than basketball. With Super Bowls on the line, Brady’s teammates have always believed in and trusted No. 12 on the deepest level. They’ve made plays with and for him because they love him.
Seriously, how can you hate that?
Skip Bayless is an award-winning journalist and the co-host of "Undisputed," which airs weekdays at 9:30 a.m. ET on FS1.