Subjective and fun. Every time.
The Beatles were the best band. “Casablanca” was the best movie. Shakespeare was the best poet and Michelangelo the best artist.
Unless, of course, you like the Rolling Stones, “Gone With The Wind,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Professional sports loves “best” debates. Here in New England, where the best local franchise will play the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough on Sunday night with a ticket to Super Bowl XLVII at stake, we have been graced by several bests.
Ted Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived. Bill Russell is the most prolific winner (11 championships) in the history of team sports. Bobby Orr is mentioned (alongside Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky) any time puckheads argue about the best hockey player of all time.
And then there is the Patriots’ Tom Brady — the fourth horseman of our sports Mount Rushmore and perhaps the greatest quarterback of all-time.
Our Tom has vaulted over career-long rival Peyton Manning. Like any great quarterback, he is going to be measured against John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, and Slingin’ Sammy Baugh.
But Brady is in the discussion now and forever. He is almost, without argument, the greatest football player of the 21st century, and if he can deliver two more victories in the next two games, he is going to ascend to the top shelf of the quarterback’s trophy den.
Twelve years ago, he was an anonymous sixth-round draft pick (No. 199 overall) backing up Drew Bledsoe for Bill Belichick’s inaugural 5-11 Patriots team. Today he is a sports star and global celebrity inching toward the Muhammad Ali/Michael Jordan pantheon. Winning championships, selling Ugg boots, married to the wealthiest supermodel on the planet, Brady is our new millennium’s Jock Kennedy, a Camelot Quarterback with a chance to lead his team to a sixth Super Bowl. No quarterback has led a team to six Super Bowls.
Brady threw three touchdown passes in last Sunday’s playoff win over the Houston Texans. He has thrown 41 career TD passes in playoff games, third on the all-time list behind Montana (45) and glory hog Brett Favre (44). Favre, Montana, and Manning are the only quarterbacks with more postseason passing yards, and Brady needs only 227 yards today to move to the top of the heap.
Brady already has more postseason completions and victories (17) than any other quarterback in the history of the league. Among quarterbacks with 15 playoff starts, he has the highest winning percentage of all-time (17-6, .739).
The regular-season numbers deliver the same message. Brady’s lifetime winning percentage is .777 (136-39), easily the best of the Super Bowl era. He ranks fifth in career touchdown passes and probably has enough seasons left to threaten all of the leaders except Favre.
What separates Brady from Favre and other gunslingers is his extraordinary protection of the football. Last week’s zero turnover performance against Houston is typical of what we’ve come to expect from Brady. In 2010-11, Brady set an NFL record with 358 pass attempts between interceptions.
In 2012, Brady threw for 34 touchdowns with 8 interceptions. In 2010, it was 36 and 4. In 2007, Brady threw 50 touchdown passes with only 8 interceptions.
This is taking care of the football. It is what usually separates winners from losers in the NFL.
There is not much chest-thumping about any of this in Foxborough. Bill Belichick is not a man given to public introspection. In the moments after last Sunday’s easy win over Houston, when the Hoodie was asked about his 12-year playoff ride with Brady, the coach answered, “I don’t know. I think right now the focus is just happy to win this game and get on to Baltimore. We can reflect back on some other years some other time.’’
This is not simply Belichick being typically obtuse. The coach is clever and careful. He knows it’s a mistake to put a ribbon on a package that is not ready to be wrapped. He also knows that you are only as good as your last championship. The Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since beating the Philadelphia Eagles in Jacksonville eight years ago.
After starting his playoff career with a 10-0 record and three Super Bowl championships, Brady is a rather pedestrian 7-6 in playoff games and 0-2 in Super Bowls.
QB-12 has also struggled against the Ravens in playoff games. Brady has five interceptions and only two touchdown passes in the two playoff games against Baltimore (a 33-14 loss in 2010 and a 23-20 victory last year).
“It’s never easy,’’ Brady said when asked about the Ravens. “There’s not an easy throw and there won’t be an easy throw this weekend. I think they really challenge you.’’
A lot of things are unspoken in Foxborough. But anyone who knows Brady and Belichick knows what is at stake regarding their respective legacies. Losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants in Glendale, Ariz., shocked the undefeated Patriots in 2008. The Patriots succumbed to another late-game rally by the Giants in last year’s Super Bowl.
“Believe me, I have thought a lot about that myself,’’ Brady said Friday.
Bitter defeats make it easy to stay humble. Now there is a chance to get back, a chance for redemption, a chance to join Montana and Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls. It starts Sunday night when Brady has a chance to win his sixth AFC Championship.
Meanwhile, he will continue to dodge the “legacy” question.
“To tell you the truth, I really don’t think about any of that,’’ Brady said this past week. “I’m just trying to win a football game this week.
“I really love playing football, so I think a lot of my time and energy is spent focused on trying to help this team win and trying to be a good teammate and a good leader. I take those things very seriously.
“I try not to buy into what people say or think. I just live my life and certainly enjoy being the quarterback of this team.’’
Maybe the best quarterback.