The power of It

“He’s smart. He works hard. He’s accurate with the ball.”
— Bill Belichick speaks bluntly on what makes Tom Brady special.

“He’s got a tremendous competitive mindset, and he knows how it steps up from the confidence that he feels based on the preparation he puts in. And so he builds towards each game to the point where he trusts what’s going on to get him to that point, knowing that he’s ready for whatever comes up.”
— Pete Carroll speaks mystically on what makes Russell Wilson special.

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PHOENIX – It is a matter of faith in the NFL that to win a Super Bowl you must have a quarterback with “It.” The good thing about It – capital I — is that it is undefined. It is plain. It is mystical. It is nonexistent. It somehow covers great quarterbacks like Joe Montana and very good quarterbacks like Phil Simms and OK quarterbacks like Jim McMahon and not terribly good quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer.  All of them won a Super Bowl.

It spans the wide circle of quarterback talents, from pure passing ability (Peyton Manning) to toughness (Brett Favre) to leadership (Bart Starr) to chutzpah (Joe Namath) to game management (Brad Johnson) to the gambler’s sense of the moment (Ken Stabler). What single quality could connect Roger Staubach to Doug Williams to Drew Brees? Apparently, there’s no word for it. Except It.

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There have been 30 quarterbacks who have led teams to Super Bowl victories – along with a half-dozen or so others like Earl Morrall and Jeff Hostetler who played a complementary role – and even the fundamentalists among It believers would not say that every one of them had an equal amount of It. They would not argue that, for instance, Mark Rypien had as much It as Roger Staubach.

But they might argue that while Jim Plunkett had It – he won two Super Bowls, after all – vastly superior quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Dan Fouts lacked It because their teams never won. They might say that two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning has It and zero-time winner Tony Romo does not – this, even though Romo has been the better statistical quarterback by just about every measure.

It is a complicated topic. It is a difficult question. It isn’t clear.

About the only thing that does seem clear is that New England’s Tom Brady and Seattle’s Russell Wilson both have It. And lots of it.

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“I don’t know anything about that. I can just tell you that Tom’s a smart quarterback. And he’s worked hard to become a great quarterback in all phases.”
— Bill Belichick on Brady’s power of It.

The story of how sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady became one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks is so familiar that, after its 100,000th retelling, the story has lost just about all of its wonder. This is Brady’s sixth Super Bowl, of course, and it has been a long time since people saw him as the skinny kid who split time with Drew Henson at Michigan. He’s now Tom Brady, legend, multiple record-holder, quarterback of the only 16-0 regular season team, husband of Gisele, pop culture icon, host of Saturday Night Live and so on. His back-story has descended into American cliché; it’s like sports muzak.

That doesn’t change the fact that in 2000 nobody outside of Tom Brady’s family saw greatness in him. There were a million roads to football obscurity as he came out of Michigan and only one road to the Hall of Fame. The Patriots reportedly were torn between drafting him in the sixth round or Louisiana Tech’s Tim Rattay. Before the 2001 season, they had so little faith in Brady even as a backup that they brought in Dolphins backup Damon Huard. Brady beat out Huard for the No. 2 spot, and when starter Drew Bledsoe got hurt, well, that’s when it began for Brady.

But it could have gone so many other ways. If Tom Brady had been taken by, say, the Cincinnati Bengals or the Cleveland Browns or Jacksonville Jaguars, what would have been his future? If Bledsoe had stayed healthy, would the Patriots ever have given Brady a fair shot to start? If the Patriots’ defense had not been so good in Brady’s early years – dominant defense, not a Brady-led offense, was the hallmark of New England’s first two Super Bowl teams – would he have been given the time and faith to develop into one of the greatest passers in the history of the NFL?

Obviously, no one knows the answer. But whenever you ask anyone around the Patriots, they say that Brady would have been great no matter what happened. And that’s because (even if they don’t use the word) Tom Brady has It.

“The thing I would say about Tom,” Belichick says, “is that Tom didn’t come into the league as the first pick in the draft or the highest quarterback that was rated out of college. But he worked extremely hard, and he’s very smart. …. He has a great understanding of the game of football, and he can accurately throw the ball. Those are his strengths. I wouldn’t say that they were all in place in 2000.

“I’d say that his success as a quarterback is due, in large part, to his hard work, his diligence and his intelligence to be able to take things that he didn’t do well and be able to improve on them to a very high level.”

What is It? You might say that It is a mythology sportswriters invent to give their stories life and flavor. That’s undoubtedly right. As the patron saint of sportswriters, Red Smith, liked to say, we like to god up those players.

You might say that It is a quirk of timing and conditions and how people work together. That’s right, too. Nobody knows what happens if the Atlanta Falcons draft Joe Montana instead of Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers. Conversely, nobody knows if Walsh’s West Coast offense becomes revolutionary if Guy Benjamin is the quarterback instead of Montana.

You can ask many of those same questions about Belichick and Brady and if they had never come together.

But here is one possible version of It: Tom Brady had a conviction from the very start that he was destined for something big. The exchange has been told many times, but when Brady first met owner Robert Kraft he said: “Drafting me was the best decision this franchise has ever made.” He knew his fate somehow, knew that he would become a great quarterback, knew that he would lead the Patriots to Super Bowls, knew that the doubters were wrong and that they would find that out in due time.

In big and small ways, that conviction is Tom Brady’s most prominent feature as a quarterback. He’s an incredible passer of the football – great arm, accurate, makes all the throws. But what do you think about when you think about Brady? He just knows that in the end the Patriots will win. He knows it. A single moment – even one that looks dire – simply does not shake his belief even in the slightest. Others feed off that belief.

“There’s a common factor,” receiver Julian Edelman says when asked why the Patriots have been so successful. “We have this guy Tom Brady. He’s pretty good.”

“When he’s on your side,” running back LeGarrette Blount says, “you always have a chance, no matter what the score is.”

“You take a lot of pride in protecting him,” tackle Sebastian Vollmer says. “If you protect him, we all know, something good’s going to happen.”

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“I’m not sure what that It thing is, and I think people maybe have different opinions of what It is. Does he give you a better insight into It? He’s showing you the makeup of a player who has that.”
— Pete Carroll on Wilson’s power of It.

Pete Carroll, obviously, is more interested in the hazy world of intangibles than the ultra-literal Bill Belichick. He and the Seahawks more or less drafted Russell Wilson because of It. You don’t want to downplay Wilson’s remarkable physical skills. He’s a fantastic athlete who played minor league baseball, was a terrific high school basketball player and, according to team legend, can just pick up a tennis racket or a golf club and on sheer athletic instinct beat just about anybody.

But he was small for a quarterback at 5-foot-11, there were questions about his arm strength, there were other questions about his ability to throw on time from the pocket (he’d been more of a rollout, running quarterback at Wisconsin). The Seahawks were widely panned for selecting him, especially after they had gone out and signed heralded Green Bay backup Matt Flynn, who had just thrown for 480 yards and six touchdowns when he got a start with the Packers. Even many of those who liked Wilson saw him as a backup who might someday be a competent NFL starter, nothing more.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider, though, saw something great inside Wilson. He convinced Carroll to take a closer look. What they saw was someone who, like Brady, had this clear vision of himself. Like Brady, he didn’t believe in the image other people saw in him.

“He wants to be the best who has ever done it,” Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell says. “And he doesn’t just say it. He goes about it.”

Wilson beat out Flynn for the starting job and, immediately, he was a star. The Seahawks had four straight losing seasons before Wilson took over, their offense had been among the worst in the NFL. Wilson inspired an entirely different look. He was remarkably efficient right from the start – his 100 passer-rating is second among rookie quarterbacks (behind only Robert Griffin III). He was also a devastating runner. The first year, they won 11 games. The second year, they won the Super Bowl. This year, they’re back.

The Seahawks – offensive players, defensive players, coaches, everyone – fed off his energy from the very beginning. How could you not like Russell Wilson? He’s smart. He’s thoughtful. You follow people like that.

“When it gets hard, when it gets tough, nobody is better,” safety Earl Thomas says.

“If there’s a way to make a play, he’s going to find it,” receiver Doug Baldwin says.

“He’s already made the play in his mind,” receiver Jermaine Kearse says. “So he knows he’s going to make it in real time. And we all know it too.”

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“Tom is always prepared.”
— Belichick on why Brady wins.

“I don’t think you could hope an athlete at this level could have a more clear mindset of what it takes to come through.”
— Carroll on why Wilson wins.

Russell Wilson is quite a bit younger than Brady, of course, and in many ways grew up watching him. Wilson instinctively understood to watch for how Brady responded in the biggest moments. What kinds of plays did he try to make when his team was down? How did he carry himself in the huddle when beginning a game-winning drive? How confidently did he stand in the pocket when it was third-and-long and the game was on the line?

And he saw what everyone saw: That Tom Brady never seemed to doubt for even a moment that he would make the play that won the game.

“I tried to figure out the way his mind worked on those clutch plays,” Wilson said. “And I tried to emulate that. I tried to put in my own mind what he was thinking.”

Brady is quite a bit older than Wilson, and in many ways he’s fighting the end of his career just as Wilson is beginning. When the Patriots got off to a rocky start this year, people began dusting off the eulogies for Brady’s career. He played well enough to get everyone to put the eulogies back in the drawer, but they are still there waiting for the day that comes for every great athlete.

And Brady sees the way Wilson responds under pressure and, well, maybe it reminds him of someone.

“Every quarterback has a different way to get things done,” he says. “It’s all your skillset and what your ability is. … I think he’s obviously a great competitor. A couple of those overtime games where they’ve gone right down the field and scored, I think that’s all you really need to know about a guy like that.”

Neither quarterback had much of an opinion about It – what it means, what it involves, whether it even exists. The Seattle Seahawks have the best defense in the NFL and a running back who will not go down. It seems reasonable that other good NFL quarterbacks (Andrew Luck? Matt Stafford?) might lead this team to a few wins. The New England Patriots have one of the great coaches in NFL history and an extraordinary record for drafting and developing talent. Heck, in the one year that Tom Brady was hurt, a backup named Matt Cassell stepped in and the team won 11 games.

So, sure, this It thing when it comes to quarterbacks is probably overblown. But It is a part of the tapestry of professional football. Quarterback is a unique position in sports. He is more central than a baseball pitcher, more scrutinized than a goalie, more criticized than the governor. If he falters, everybody boos and calls for the backup.

But if he leads a team to a Super Bowl victory, no matter the circumstances, he is remembered.  Joe Namath’s guarantee … Terry Bradshaw’s finger-on-the-nose-of-the-ball throwing style … Roger Staubach’s whirling dervish style … Joe Montana throwing those soft but deadly passes that Howie Long called “like getting hit in the face with a pillow” … Troy Aikman standing tall in the pocket as he was about to unleash a long pass … John Elway’s intensity in the final minutes … Tom Brady’s pass just over the fingertips of a defender … Russell Wilson in the open field with a defender helplessly trying to guess what he will do … these stay with us through the years.

Did they have It? Does It even exist? I once asked Len Dawson what It is. They called him Lenny The Cool when he led Kansas City to its Super Bowl victory, and he was cool, he was unflappable, he was the last Chiefs quarterback that his town truly believed in.

Dawson kind of shrugged his shoulders and in his own cool way he simply said: “I can’t tell you. All I can tell you is that some people have It and some people don’t.”

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