Cosell Talks: “He’s a Winner”

Greg Cosell, Inside the Game

Recently on my weekly Thursday morning appearance with Ross Tucker on “The Morning Kickoff” on Sirius XM radio, Tucker raised an interesting point on Tom Brady, who is now heading into his 13th season in New England.

Tucker broke down Brady’s career into two separate parts:

1. Brady’s first five years as a starter. (He threw a grand total of three passes in his rookie season of 2000.)
2. Brady’s last five years — not including 2008, when he tore his ACL in the opening game of the season.

The CliffsNotes version of Tucker’s take is this: Brady has been a far better player over the last five years, yet he won all three of his Super Bowls in the first five.

I agree with Tucker. In fact, I don’t think the former statement is debatable at all. Yet, for those who believe that playoff success and Super Bowl championships are the best measuring stick of quarterback greatness, it’s a bit of an intellectual challenge.

Tom Brady celebrates winning Super Bowl XXXVIII (AP)

Brady won his first 10 playoff games, including, of course, those three championships. And he only threw three interceptions in the process. Since then, he’s 6-6 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl losses. In those 12 games, he’s thrown 17 interceptions.

Consequently, we’re left with a pair of much larger questions about quarterback evaluation and judgment: Is Brady, celebrated as one of the great “winners” of all time after his third championship in 2004, no longer a winner? How does one reconcile Brady’s clear improvement over the last five years with his inability to replicate the phenomenal playoff success he enjoyed in his first five?

None of this is meant to disparage Brady, who is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Rather, it is designed to focus on a phrase that has become a big part of football lexicon over the years …

“He’s a winner.”

What exactly does that mean? Is it simply an “access to the result” verdict, without much thought given to the process?

Again, let’s relate it to Brady. Think back to his first Super Bowl victory against the St. Louis Rams. New England won that game with an Adam Vinatieri field goal on the final play. Two years later, Vinatieri essentially did the same thing against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. For the sake of discussion, let’s say Vinatieri missed both of those kicks (each was more than 40 yards). Then the Rams and the Panthers, respectively, won the toss in overtime and the Patriots never got the ball back. Would Brady’s performance have been any less impressive in those games? Obviously not. What would be different is our collective perception of his performance. He would not have been acclaimed a “winner.”

Joe Flacco vs the Patriots in the AFC Championship game (AP)

How about last season’s AFC Championship Game? Joe Flacco made one of the best throws you’ll ever see in a critical, game-deciding situation: 27 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Baltimore Ravens trailing Brady’s Patriots by three. We can debate forever whether it was a drop by Lee Evans or a great defensive play by Sterling Moore. That’s irrelevant. It was as good a throw as you will ever see in a pressure moment. It was reminiscent of Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes to win Super Bowl XLIII. The outcome of the game — two plays later, Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal — was not, in any way, a reflection of Flacco’s performance. You could easily argue that Flacco was brilliant on that final drive. The result did not change the process, only the perception of the process. How different would the public perception of Flacco be today if he was a Super Bowl quarterback? Would he be viewed as a “winner?”

Peyton Manning throws a pass in the AFC Championship vs the Patriots (AP)

I remember Peyton Manning talking about the winning touchdown drive in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots back in 2007 when we interviewed him for our “America’s Game” series. To paraphrase, Manning said it was a great series of plays, executed extremely well in a very trying and tense circumstance (with the Super Bowl at stake). He then went on to add that if Brady had followed with a Patriots touchdown in the final 54 seconds, no one would have remembered the Colts drive, as special as it was in Manning’s mind. His outstanding play would have been viewed through the prism of “he’s not a winner.” His performance would not have been any different. Again, perception without context and understanding.

In 2011, one quarterback in particular fostered blind obedience by many observers to the phrase “he’s winner” without much thought as to why it was being said. Tim Tebow won seven of his first eight starts, a number of them in spectacular fashion with late-game heroics. Of course, Matt Prater made two 50-plus yard overtime field goals to defeat the Dolphins and Bears (and the Chicago win also featured a 59-yarder with eight seconds remaining in regulation).

Tim Tebow reacts after scoring a touchdown (AP)

Then came four losses in his last five games, during which Tebow, with the exception of the playoff win against Pittsburgh, played about as poorly as an NFL quarterback can play. In those four losses, he completed 39 percent of his passes. So the question must be asked: Was Tebow a “winner” in some games, but not others? Did he not practice “winning” in the weeks leading up to those four losses?

Let’s not focus on the specific quarterbacks I used as examples. If you do that, you are totally missing the point. My broader objective is to compel a re-thinking of the “winner” concept. When you drill down deeper, it’s really a term that has almost no meaning.

For more thoughts by Greg Cosell, follow him on Twitter.

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