Tom Brady is having a season that's straight out of Tecmo Super Bowl: 2,421 yards (304 per game), 30 touchdowns, 2 intereptions. Brady's quarterback rating is currently 136.2. To put this into perspective, a perfect quarterback rating is 158.3, for which a quarterback must complete greater than 77.5% of his passes, 12.5 yards or more per attempt, and fewer than 8.42 attempts per touchdown, and zero interceptions. The highest quarterback rating of all-time is Peyton Manning's 121.1, which he set during the 2004 season, when he completed 67.6 percent of his passes, 4,557 yards on 497 attempts (for an average of 9.2 yards per attempt), 49 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. As of today, Brady is bettering Manning's 2004 numbers in every category except for yards per attempt, where he trails by the slimmest of margins, 9.2 to 9.1.
How much of this success is due to Tom Brady's excellence, and how much is due to the excellence of his teammates and coaching staff?
Michael Lewis' The Blind Side: Evolution of A Game details the rise of the modern passing offense. Before Bill Walsh's rhythm-based passing offense (quick drops, short passes, plays designed to get the receier and the ball to meet at a particular spot at the same time, instead of waiting to see if the receiver was open before throwing the ball to him directly), NFL offenses were based on the run. Approximately 60% of plays were runs, and passes tended to be down the field, as a means of stretching the defense. Today, about 60% of all plays are passes, and offenses prefer short, accurate passes to high-risk, high-stakes throws downfield. In fact, something like 30 out of the 32 teams in today's NFL employ some variation of Bill Walsh's rhythm passing offense. Bill Walsh, the long-time head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is credited with inventing the "West Coast offense," (though Walsh personally disliked that term). In 1968, Bill Walsh was hired to be the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, then an AFL expansion team. In 1971, their quarterback was Virgil Carter, an NFL cast-off with a notoriously weak arm - he had difficulty throwing a spiral more than 20 yards downfield. He had never completed as many as 50% of his passes in any season, and his previous career-high yards per attempt was 5.9. In Walsh's new rhythm offense, Carter let the NFL in completion percentage, at 62.2, and increased his yards per attempt to 7.3. The next year, the Bengals drafted Ken Anderson, who had not completed even half of his passes in college. In his third year in the league, Anderson led the NFL in completion percentage, total yards, and yards per attempt, at 8.13.
Walsh left the Cincinnati Bengals to become the head coach at Stanford University. He coached there for two seasons, 1977 and 1978. In 1977, Stanford quarterback Guy Benjamin led the nation in passing and won the Sammy Baugh award. In 1978, Stanford's Steve Dils also the nation in passing and won the Sammy Baugh award.
Walsh was then hired to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The quarterback he inherited, Steve DeBerg, was a tenth-round draft pick. In 1978, he had completed 45.4% of his passes, and thrown 22 interceptions to only 8 touchdowns. More than 7.3% of his passes were intercepted. The next season, Deberg completed 60% of his passes, and threw 21 interceptions on only 3.6% of his passes. Joe Montana took over in 1980, and became perhaps the greatest quarterback of all-time. When Montana grew old, Steve Young replaced him, and went on to have one of the greatest statistical careers in NFL history, despite the fact that he did not take over the team's reigns until he was thirty years old. Furthermore, quarterbacks who had to fill in for the injured Montana and Young, such as Jeff Kemp, Mike Moroski, and Elvis Grbac, all played at a level similar to that of the quarterbacks they had to replace.
The similarities between Joe Montana and Tom Brady have been well-documented: both were mid-round draft picks whose professional careers were far more successful than their college ones, and who both won three Super Bowls despite having less than ideal physical attributes for the job. The conventional wisdom is that both players won on intelligence and their courage and cool-headedness under pressure. Everybody assumes they are both 'born leaders' who always had the innate sense of poise required to win championships in the NFL; few credit the systems that made them stars.
But prior to this season, Tom Brady's best season was probably 2005, when he passed for 4,110 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. That's a good season - his rating was 92.3, good for sixth-best in the NFL. His best season might have been 2004, when Brady had a marginally higher passer rating (92.6) and the Patriots won the Super Bowl, though he passed for far fewer yards. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that season, but Brady was basically regarded as a good quarterback on an excellent team. Brady's passer rating was below 90 for four of the six seasons he has played in the NFL.
What happened between now and then to make Brady perform so much better? A big part of it is that he now has three excellent receivers in Randy Moss (probably the best receiver in the NFL), Wes Welker and Dante Stallworth. He has an offensive line that's been together for years, and which affords him almost unlimited time in which to pass the ball. He has been sacked on eight times all season, and was sacked only five times during his team's first seven games. His head coach, Bill Belichick, is widely regarded as the best in the NFL, and one of the greatest of all-time. Is Brady benefiting from a winning system, in the way that all of Walsh's quarterbacks did? What would other above-average quarterbacks do if they were given that much time, those receivers, and, for what its worth, a defense that strong? Really, there's no way to know, but the improvement in Brady's passing this season is too great to be a mere coincidence - he is on track to have a passer rating 48.3 points higher than it was last season.
The media has been showering Brady with praise all season long, and its difficult to argue that he doesn't deserve it. Having said that, its entire possible that Tom Brady is our generation Steve Garvey.
Like Brady, Steve Garvey was a star performer who played a marquee position on a winning team. Like Brady, Garvey was ridiculously handsome, and a staple of magazine covers and fawning television interviews. Like Brady, Garvey was widely regarded as a gentleman, and had a smiling, game show host-type personality, where he always smiled and said the right, PR-approved thing to reporters. He showered his teammates and opponents with praise, and seeming to deflect attention away from himself, comfortable in his belief that the cameras would always be there, and, like Brady, Garvey spoke in the cliches never seemed to express any meaningful information, but which passed for insight among old people and journalists.
Eventually, it turned out that Steve Garvey had feet of clay. His great Dodgers team was broken up, and he never played as well anywhere else. Later, when advanced statistical analysis was applied to baseball, it turned out that many of Garvey's less handsome, less well-spoken, less supermodel-nailing teammates, such as Jimmy Wynn, Reggie Smith, Ron Cey, and Davey Lopes were in truth much better players than they were given credit for at the time. In fact, baseball writer Bill James has shown that Smith and Wynn are two of the most under-appreciated baseball players ever - it turns out that less of the Dodgers' success was due to Garvey than people thought. Like Tom Brady (apparently), Garvey sought to have a political career after his playing days were over. When he retired from baseball, he was immediately hit with two paternity suits; it turned out that he had fathered children by two different women. Brady, we know, has already fathered one.
Its possible that Tom Brady is a great quarterback, and its possible that Tom Brady is a great human being. But its possible he's neither. Only after years of hindsight, once the media blitz has quited down, will we know for certain.