Parallel Universes And Our Perceptions Of Tom Brady

Is he really the greatest quarterback ever?
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Tom Brady looks on from the sideline during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51.
Tom Brady looks on from the sideline during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51.
Elsa via Getty Images

The idea of a parallel universe is popular in science fiction and given some credence by scientists. As Elizabeth Howell noted at “From science fiction to science fact, there is a proposal out there that suggests that there could be other universes besides our own, where all the choices you made in this life played out in alternate realities.”

In this universe – given all the choices made ― many consider Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time. And this seems like an easy argument to make. Brady has won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback. He also just completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. So he must be the greatest, right?

Maybe not. At least, if different choices result in an alternative reality, then there is a parallel universe where the perceptions of Tom Brady are probably quite different.

For example, consider the choices of Kyle Shanahan (the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons). Shanahan made some very interesting – and odd ― choices in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl.

With 4:40 left in the 4th quarter the Falcons led 28-20. And thanks to an amazing catch by Julio Jones, the Falcons had a first down on the New England Patriots 22-yard line. From there the Falcons were facing a 39-yard field goal. From 30-49 yards this year, Matt Bryant – the Falcons kicker – had only missed once all year. So if the Falcons didn’t gain any more yards – or even lost two or three – the Falcons seemed likely to go up two scores. Plus they would also likely run the clock down to under three minutes (and/or use up the Patriots’ timeouts). If the Patriots were down two scores it was highly unlikely they could come back in so little time.

So clearly the Falcons had to choose to run the ball. And on first down, they did. But after losing one yard, the Falcons decided – despite still having the ball on the 23-yard line – to pass. And then they did it again and again. Those three pass plays resulted in a sack, an offensive holding call, and an incomplete pass. Suddenly the Falcons were out of field goal range and still just one score ahead. After a punt the Brady and the Patriots marched down the field and scored. And then New England won the game in overtime.

But let’s go back to the idea of a parallel universes. Imagine a world where Shanahan knows and understands he only needs a field goal to essentially clinch the game. Imagine a world where Shanahan chooses to call for two more runs and Bryant kicks a field goal. Now the Falcons are up 31-20. And yes, Brady could have scored a touchdown to make it close. But a touchdown and field goal in three minutes? Very unlikely.

And that means Brady loses. If that happens, do you still think he is the greatest ever today?

A similar story played out two years ago. The Patriots played the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 49. With a little over two minutes remaining, Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to put the Patriots up 28-24. But the Seahawks didn’t look like they were finished. Russell Wilson quickly drove the Seahawks down the field. And with 1:06 left Seattle had a first and goal from the Patriots five-yard line. On first down the Seahawks gave the ball to star running back Marshawn Lynch and he got down to the one yard line.

Now the Seahawks had a 2nd down from the one-yard line with 26 seconds left. Most people thought the Seahawks would just go back to Lynch. But they didn’t. Like the Falcons on Sunday night, the Seahawks abandoned the run and threw a pass. The result was an interception and again Brady was a hero.

But again, imagine a parallel universe. In this one the Seahawks choose to give the ball to Lynch and he scores the winning touchdown. If that happens, Brady is not a hero.

“Brady didn’t tell Kyle Shanahan to abandon the run and try and pass against that Patriots defense. And he didn’t tell Seattle to pass while Marshawn Lynch was just standing there ready to go in the end zone.”

In fact, if Seattle and Atlanta both made different choices we would be living in a parallel universe where a very different story would be told about Brady. We would now be wondering how a quarterback who won three Super Bowls when he was younger suddenly became a quarterback who lost four Super Bowls across 12 seasons.

It is important to emphasize that this parallel universe is not created by the choices Brady made. This parallel universe was created by different choices made the opposing team’s offenses in the Super Bowl. Because these other teams chose poorly, Brady has morphed from an older quarterback who can’t win anymore into a quarterback that many consider the greatest ever. In both universes, Brady is the same player. But in one universe (the one you and I live in) Brady played opponents who apparently didn’t make great choices. And in the parallel universe, Brady’s opponents were slightly smarter.

Once we think about this, are we sure Brady should be thought of as the greatest ever in this universe? Brady had nothing to do with the decisions made by the offensive coordinators of Seattle and Atlanta. Brady didn’t tell Kyle Shanahan to abandon the run and try and pass against that Patriots defense. And he didn’t tell Seattle to pass while Marshawn Lynch was just standing there ready to go in the end zone.

But Brady definitely benefits from these choices. And it is those choices that lead us today to consider Brady the greatest ever.

So is Brady really the greatest ever?

Let me close by noting I have no idea if Brady is the greatest ever. Football is a game where the performance of any player depends on his teammates and coaches. And separating a player from all those around him seems like an impossible task. So if you want to believe that Brady is the greatest ever, I am not sure I have a problem with that.

After all, I suspect there is an alternative universe where you just read this argument and choose to believe that maybe this isn’t true.

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