By: Dan Grant
This has been a wild and crazy NFL season and it’s only been two weeks. Several well documented off-field incidents involving marijuana, DWI’s, domestic violence and alleged child abuse have overshadowed what is supposed to be a fun time of year. While all that peripheral garbage is going on, there has also been a typical amount of early season on-field craziness, which is why we like the NFL in the first place. So let’s talk about that! Favourites are busting, dark horses are emerging and things are delightfully murky after two weeks of NFL football.
More than any other major sports league, NFL fans seem to have unbridled faith in their teams. Unless those teams are the Cowboys or Bills, eh? Nailed it! Anyway, on that note, a couple times during early season preview podcasts, Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons referred to his beloved New England Patriots as ‘The Spurs’ of the NFL, referring to the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. This is a huge compliment to the Patriots and one that I feel is whole-heartedly undeserved. I mean, Simmons is a self-admitted homer and I completely respect that. But if you’re going to be a homer, you have to expect people to rebutt your homer-osity. So allow me to retort.
To put this comparison in context, he was generally referring to the fact that despite changing personnel, the core of both teams remain the same year to year and they’re both consistently able to put together a winning record. It initially seems hard to argue with his reasoning – the Patriots have won the AFC East in 10 of the past 12 seasons, accumulating five Super Bowl appearances and three wins. The Spurs have won their division 10 times since 1999, haven’t missed the playoffs in that time and have 5 titles in 6 Finals appearances. They also have never had lower than a .610 winning percentage since they drafted their centrepiece, the Big Fundamental, Tim Duncan.
Speaking of centrepieces, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been two-time league MVP, two time Super Bowl MVP and held the single-season record for touchdown passes until Peyton Manning reclaimed it last season. Duncan has two league MVP’s of his own, as well as three Finals MVP’s and is widely regarded as the best power forward ever to play the game of basketball. Two all-time greats in their respective sports, no argument there.
Coach Bill Belichick has been hailed for years as a genius, often seeming to manipulate game plans and drafts in his favour, making moves that seem like he’s playing chess, while everyone is else is at the checker board. Spurs bench boss Gregg Popovich elicits much of the same praise from critics, milking seemingly washed up veterans and raw rookies for all their worth, all in the name of Spurs basketball.
All these things are why the Patriots-Spurs comparison is easy. It’s also dead wrong.
The biggest difference between the Spurs and the Patriots is a distinct one – the Spurs have kept winning at the highest level. They’ve won five championships with Duncan and Popovich at the helm, over the course of 15 years. Such consistent excellence is unprecedented in any sport, to say nothing of the modern salary cap era. They’ve done this by evolving – from the Twin Towers of the late 90’s and early 2000’s to a run and gun three point shooting offense to a lock down ‘three and D’ style team, the Spurs are never a team to stagnate. Even with their latest six season break between championships, you never forgot they were around. They won five division titles in those six seasons and suffered their only Finals loss in 2012-13 before redeeming themselves this past season.
You never forgot about the Patriots either. As I mentioned earlier, they’ve dominated their division, missing the playoffs only twice since 2001, one of those being when Brady suffered a season-ending injury on opening day. However unlike the Spurs championships, which were spread out, the Patriots titles occurred in 2002, 2004 and 2005. Since then, the Pats have made the big game twice, in 2007 and 2011 but blew it both times to the New York Giants, despite being huge favourites. That means that for all their organizational excellence, the Brady-Belichick tandem hasn’t won a title in nine full seasons. This is the tenth.
That brings us another massive difference- Tim Duncan has always been the Spurs best player, since his first day on the team. When Duncan was in his prime, the Spurs won championships in ’03, ’05 and ’07. He was the unquestioned focal point of the team with everything running through him at all times, offense and defense. When the Patriots won their Super Bowls, Tom Brady was mostly an overqualified game manager. He made huge plays, he was becoming a star but he wasn’t TOM BRADY, as we know him today. Now obviously football is a bit different in that Brady doesn’t play on both sides of the ball, but the point is that when he was at his personal best, the Patriots haven’t been able to win it all. He won league MVP’s in 2007, when they lost to the Giants and again in 2010, when they lost in their first playoff game (after a bye) to the Mark Sanchez-led New York Jets. Woof.
If you doubt the claim about Brady, take a look at his stats from those Super Bowl years. His first year you can throw out entirely. He threw 18 TD’s with 12 interceptions as a 24 year old thrust into the limelight after franchise QB Drew Bledsoe went down to injury. He was a 6th round pick and performed way above expectations. The team also had the NFL’s 6th ranked defense and went on a Cinderella playoff run, culminating in the Pats first ever Super Bowl win over the heavily favoured St Louis Rams. The next year, the Patriots decided to lean hard on Brady and he upped his game, leading the NFL with a 28/14 (TD’s vs interceptions) and throwing for 3764 yards. However the defense fell to 17th in points allowed, and the team went 9-7, missing the playoffs.
In 2003 and 2004, the Pats upgraded that defense. The team finished first in points allowed in 2003 and second in 2004 and generally terrorized their opponents. Brady’s stats remained nearly identical, as he went for 23/12 with 3620 yards the first year and 28/14 with 3692 the second- outside the top 5 quarterbacks in TD’s and passing yards both seasons. The team won the Super Bowl both years, the last NFL franchise that managed to repeat as champion, and actually something the Spurs have never accomplished in the NBA. But that team was predicated on the defense – Brady was the cherry on top, not the sundae.
After that, the team began to be structured around Brady. He led the NFL in passing yards in 2005 and 2007 and in TD passes in 2007 and 2010. The Patriots enjoyed excellent regular season success and fielded one of the NFL’s best offenses ever in 2007. Despite being the only team to win their first 18 straight contests, the ‘undefeated’ Patriots will be best remembered for losing the Super Bowl on the famous ‘Helmet Catch’. Brady became one of only four QB’s to throw for 5,000 yards in an NFL season in 2011, at age 34. It’s an impressive Hall of Fame career and he’s without question one of the top 6 or 7 quarterbacks of all time.
But Tim Duncan he ain’t.
The Spurs are still built around Duncan, who turned 38 during this past championship run. While his offensive game has tailed off slightly and his minutes are now limited, he’s still the anchor of their defense and without a doubt the highest pedigreed player on their team. When the Spurs need a huge game, Duncan is there, as he has been for 17 seasons. Without Duncan, the Spurs are nothing. Coach Popovich has openly spoken of retiring when Duncan does. Duncan won’t even talk about it because he’s a weirdo. But also, more importantly, because he’s not done yet.
A good parallel is the Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant argument. Many Jordan supporters often mention that Kobe can’t be better than Jordan because he spent a large portion of his career where he wasn’t even the best player on his own team. For me, Duncan vs. Brady plays out in much the same fashion.
Brady recently gave an interview where he said ‘when I suck, I’ll retire‘ and that time may be rapidly approaching. At age 37, he’s approaching the age where most quarterbacks lose it. Joe Montana, Dan Marino – we’ve seen it before, from better players. He was godawful in the first half of last season, though it seemed hard to blame him, given Rob Gronkowski’s injuries and Aaron Hernandez’s… well, we said weren’t going to talk about that stuff. The Pats were thin on offense and his play was much improved once Gronkowski and Shane Vereen returned in the second half of the season. Heck, the Patriots made it all the way to the AFC title game.
But this season hasn’t started any better. Through two games (an admittedly small sample size) Brady looks, well, old. His accuracy is diminished and his decision making seems slow. The Patriots were hammered on the road by Miami in Week 1, with Brady submitting one of the worst halves of football in his career – 10 of 27 passes for an anemic 62 yards. He has only 398 yards passing and two TD’s through two weeks. The Pats managed to beat an Adrian Peterson-less Vikings team last week on the back of their running game and special teams play. The best thing you could say about Brady was that you didn’t really notice him. Not a compliment.
Look, the Patriots have their haters out there. With Spy Gate and the vendetta-ish way they ran up points in 2007, Bill Belichick’s surly demeanour and Brady’s sometimes odd off-field behaviour, they’re an easy target. I have no hate for them – just mild annoyance at times. I respect the fact that they don’t whatever they want and seem to give zero shits about what anyone else thinks.
But Belichick isn’t Popovich. Brady isn’t Duncan. And the Patriots aren’t the Spurs, Bill Simmons.
They’re not on the same level in terms of longevity or excellence.
And that’s ok, because nobody is.