Proving once again that it is more about teams than individual players, the NFL did just fine this past season even with perhaps its brightest star out of action.
Imagine what the NBA would have been like in 2008-09 had LeBron James blown out an Achilles on opening night and spent the next 81 games on the Cleveland bench in a $5,000 Armani suit. What little interest there is in the NHL these days – granted, I found myself tuning in for every Blackhawks postseason game and was greatly entertained – would have come to a screeching halt had Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin been shelved way back in November because of a broken ankle. MLB doesn't have quite the same problem and kept chugging along with Alex Rodriguez rehabbing his hip and Manny Ramirez serving his suspension, although the dark cloud of steroids has made most every fan of the national pastime a George Carlin-level cynic.
Brady has already won three Super Bowl titles.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
But when Tom Brady, fresh off a year in which he led the Patriots to the first 16-0 regular season in league history and threw a record 50 touchdown passes along the way, blew out his knee Week 1 against Kansas City and missed the rest of the campaign on injured reserve, the NFL didn't skip a beat. Kurt Warner became an MVP candidate again and led the Cardinals to a conference crown. Adrian Peterson solidified himself as the best tailback in football and won the first of what could be many rushing titles in Minnesota. Andre Johnson finally put it all together and proved to be uncoverable in an up-and-coming Texans offense. And then on the brightest stage in the sporting world, Pittsburgh topped Arizona for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in a contest that featured the greatest fourth quarter the Super Bowl has ever seen.
But with the golden boy back under center and in influx of young defensive talent added this past April in the NFL Draft, plenty of pigskin pundits apparently think Brady and Co. are ready to romp through 2009 just like they did in '07.
|"If there were any real reason to be concerned, Bill Belichick wouldn't have traded Matt Cassel to Kansas City."|
– Peter King
"Until further notice, a team coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady is a legitimate Super Bowl contender."
– Tim Graham
"My gut instinct tells me there's no way a repeat of 2007 can happen, but after looking at the roster on paper, it feels like a better overall team talent-wise."
– Jon Scott
Peter King of Sports Illustrated put the Patriots at No. 1 in his offseason power rankings, correctly pointing out that Brady's knee should be fine after surgery: "If there were any real reason to be concerned, Bill Belichick wouldn't have traded Matt Cassel to Kansas City." According to a panel of NFL writers at ESPN.com, and championed by AFC East blogger Tim Graham, New England is No. 2 behind the Steelers: "Until further notice, a team coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady is a legitimate Super Bowl contender." Jon Scott, a senior writer at PatriotsInsider.com, sees a deeper squad from top to bottom even if Brady isn't back to 100 percent: "My gut instinct tells me there's no way a repeat of 2007 can happen, but after looking at the roster on paper, it feels like a better overall team talent-wise."
While there is no denying that quarterback is the game's most important position and arguably the most important in all of sports, let's not forget that Cassel was pretty good subbing for Brady this past year – especially considering he hadn't started a game since before his senior prom. Matt Leinart's former backup at USC had the 10th best passer rating in the league at 89.4, put together a commendable TD-to-INT ratio of 21-to-11, and led New England to an 11-5 record. Cassel was especially strong down the stretch, winning five of his last six and posting a triple-digit rating in four of those victories.
Brady and Giselle make quite a power couple.
The Pats may not have qualified for the postseason, largely because they didn't get the help they needed in Week 17, but that sure wasn't Cassel's fault.
Though the sum of New England's sixth-ranked running game in 2008 was greater than the value of its individual parts, leading rusher Sammy Morris is a career backup, youngster Laurence Maroney looks more and more like a first-round bust, and free-agent addition Fred Taylor averaged a career-low 3.9 yards per carry last year in Jacksonville. The offensive line doesn't appear to be as good as it's been in the past, with four of the five projected starters on the wrong side of 30 and none of them coming off Pro Bowl berths – left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, and center Dan Koppen all went to Hawaii after '07. On the other side of the ball, while Richard Seymour still gets it done up front and Jerod Mayo is a star in the making, this D was pretty average in most every statistical category.
And even if Brady returns to form and suffers no ill effects from his torn knee, the odds of him coming anywhere near the 50 TDs he tossed two years ago are astronomical. Dan Marino set the all-time record with 48 in 1984, but he "only" registered 30 in '85. Peyton Manning went for 49 in 2004, yet he dipped way down to 28 in '05. Yes, Randy Moss is still a physical freak and Wes Welker is the best possession target in the game, but that undefeated charge to Super Bowl XLII – you know, the one that ended with an upset defeat to the Giants – was a perfect storm of offensive wizardry that will, in all likelihood, never be seen again.
While it would be silly to put anything past a future Hall of Famer who has also hosted Saturday Night Live, been on the cover of GQ, and married a Victoria's Secret model, Brady never made the Patriots invincible before. And he never will.
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