We have ceded almost all platitudes. Tom Brady is the best quarterback and greatest football player ever. Better than Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, Lawrence Taylor, or Jim Brown.
He is chiseled on our New England Rushmore alongside Ted Williams, Bobby Orr, and Bill Russell. Nobody else is close. Sorry, Larry Bird. And please don’t bring David Ortiz into the conversation (”Ooh, but Papi has three rings and Williams has zero.” Curtis Leskanic has a ring. Was he better than Carl Yastrzemski?).
Events of Sunday night have brought us to a predictable place. And now we wonder if Brady has supplanted Russell as the greatest of all the greats. Is Brady the greatest winner in sports history? Better than Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, and LeBron James? Better than Jim Thorpe and Serena Williams? Better than Tiger and Jack? Better than Ali? Better than Secretariat?
I’m saying no. Let’s not rush to judgment based on Sunday night’s sugar high.
Brady is closing the gap, but this debate still starts and ends with Russell, the man who won two NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal, and 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. At the age of 43, Brady just won his seventh Super Bowl in his 21st season. It’s truly unbelievable, especially in an age of parity, salary caps, four rounds of playoffs, and a 32-team league. But it does not make him a greater winner than Russell.
You think it’s a big deal that Bruce Arians let Brady help coach the Buccaneers? Swell. Russell actually coached the Celtics to two championships while he was busy being their best player.
I called around to make sure this is not just me. I spoke with four people who have seen a lot.
1. Ernie Accorsi: Former general manager of the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and New York Giants. Accorsi gave Bill Belichick his first head coaching job with the Browns and later hired Tom Coughlin with the Giants. Accorsi was a reporter who covered the Wilt Chamberlain 76ers. He also drafted Eli Manning.
2. Bob Cousy: 92 years old, Cousy is a former NBA MVP who was Russell’s teammate for seven seasons.
3. Bob Ryan: Retired Globe sports columnist and Basketball Hall of Famer who covered the first 12 seasons of Brady’s career.
4. Richard Johnson: Curator of the New England Sports Museum.
Ryan is ever-ready with the math, explaining that Russell went 21-0 in “winner-take-all games.” Russell never lost a seventh game.
Regarding the sudden surge to anoint Brady, Ryan says, “I’ve gotten a lot of this the last couple of days. The only argument against Russell is that the NBA was an eight-team league when he started (1956-57). It was 14 teams when he finished (1968-69). What people seem to dismiss is that the smaller the league, the more concentrated the talent. There was a better concentration of talent when you only had eight teams.”
Not surprisingly, Cousy agrees.
“Having fewer teams is exactly what made it more difficult to do,” says the Cooz. “The talent was much more concentrated at that time. The differences between first-place teams and last-place teams was not that much. If you didn’t come to play, anybody could kick your ass.
“Today football and baseball have 30-some-odd teams, but there’s really only a half-dozen that are any good and the rest all suck. The good teams can sit on their ass. We couldn’t do that in the 1950s and ’60s, and I think that adds to Russ’s accomplishment.”
“I still say Russell is the pinnacle, but Tom’s right there,” says our football guy, Accorsi. “We react to every little thing today in the sports world, but what just happened with Tom and the Bucs will stand the test of history. This is not going to go away.
“When I came into the NFL 50 years ago, if you told me some quarterback was going to win seven Super Bowls, I would have said that was not possible.”
Johnson, keeper of all New England sports history, says, “Brady has earned his rightful place on Boston’s Mount Rushmore, while Russell warrants his own mountain. In his prime, he battled the likes of Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, and Chamberlain roughly twice a month and on a seemingly annual basis in the playoffs.
“In an eight-team league, he faced the 100 best players on the planet, night in, night out. Add this to his off-court role as a tireless civil rights advocate and you have a multidimensional sportsman of the highest magnitude. A sort of Emperor.”
“This is a fair and fun argument,” says Ryan. “It’s why we are sports fans. I could be a defense attorney for either Russell or Brady, but I am sticking with Russell.
“The trump card for Russell is the championships. He was beat fair and square only once (1967). The other year he was hurt. Brady’s argument is that he did it with two different teams, and that’s a damn good one.
“I totally concede that it’s a different world today, but Russell’s combination of brain power and competitiveness and adaptability and sense of the moment hasn’t changed. It’s 52 years since his last game, and nobody has surpassed him in these areas.”
“Russ is No. 1 as far as I’m concerned,” adds Cousy. “But I’ll admit that Brady is as close as you can get. And doing it at 43 is just incredible.
“I know. I momentarily came out of retirement at 41 — my GM talked me into it. Thank God I was coach of the team, because after I played myself for 11 minutes, I took myself out of the game and never played again.
“That’s what makes Brady phenomenal. At that level of competition, every weakness is exploited to the fullest, and yet he was still able to win a championship.”
“I do think Tom belongs in the conversation,” says Accorsi. “He’s taught the Bucs how to win, and that’s the most underrated aspect of sports. It’s something you can’t define. Brady walked into their room and brought instant respect.
“Then you have to prove yourself, and he did it every day. It’s authentic. He’s going to go down in history. But in this argument, I still say it’s Russell.”
Still the one.