The stats will tell you Geno Smith outplayed Tom Brady Sunday, and the scoreboard very nearly told the same story, but your eyeballs know better. Brady wasn’t great, and at times he wasn’t even good, but the Patriots eked out an ugly win over the hapless Jets to earn a first-round playoff bye thanks in large part to the mistakes their superstar quarterback didn’t make.
After a rocky start, Smith bounced back to have a fairly solid game. He moved well in and out of the pocket, he waited for his receivers to get open, and he generally threw to the right guy at the right time. But he doomed the Jets with the atrocious interception he floated to Jamie Collins late in the 3rd quarter and the sack he took to knock his gimpy kicker out of field goal range midway through the 4th. These two crucial mistakes were reminders that most NFL games are decided not by which quarterback makes more great plays, but which one makes fewer horrible ones.
As the regular season winds down, the league MVP debate is ramping up, and this is the rare year with no clear-cut favorite. Brady and the usual cast of quarterbacks are having their customary success on the stat sheets and in the win column, but neither he nor Peyton Manning (especially Peyton Manning), Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, or Tony Romo are having the sort of transcendently dominant years that demand the trophy. This means we can engage in the fun fiction of pretending that a non-quarterback might be the most valuable player in the league.
Houston’s J.J. Watt has 17.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 10 passes defended, an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown, and 3 touchdown receptions (which is as many as Danny Amendola in his two years as a Patriot; Amendola has not recorded any sacks over this period). Watt is terrifying and excellent, and he might be the best player in the league. Or for a more traditional pick, how about Dallas’s DeMarco Murray, who leads the NFL in rushing by a remarkable 400 yards and played Sunday less than a week after having surgery to repair a broken hand?
Or, veering back outside the box, maybe this is the year we give the MVP to whoever the best punter is, or the employees of Market Basket or something. Anything to mix it up. Quarterbacks have won it six of the last seven years, and with the NFL becoming more of a passing league each season—and the concurrent de-emphasis on the workhorse running back—that trend is probably going to continue. This is boring, and also completely appropriate. Quarterbacks have an outsized impact on pro football games; as we saw Sunday, if you’ve got one of the shaky ones, it’s almost impossible to win.
Darelle Revis has been better than advertised in shutting down half of the field on passing plays, and Rob Gronkowski is arguably the best tight end of all time. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins have both far exceeded expectations, and the Pats would be screwed without either of them. But Tom Brady is the most valuable Patriot, just as he has been for over a decade now. And an overlooked part of his mundane brilliance lies in the plays he doesn’t make.
I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise; Brady is certainly no mere game manager. But be honest: Is he any better at throwing a football down the field than your garden-variety Ryan Tannehill is? What he is definitely better at is not losing his mind twice a week and throwing the ball directly into a linebacker’s chest at the worst possible time. He’s better at not burning a timeout because he can’t get a play off in time. He’s better at not letting defenses trick him into audibling to screen passes that lose yards.
I can’t begin to imagine the mental stress involved in playing NFL quarterback. It takes me 45 minutes to decide what to have for lunch every day, and even with all that preparation I still end up eating lentil soup at least twice a week. I have no idea how anyone makes prudent decisions about what to do with a football when he’s being chased by several gigantic, angry men who get paid to hurt him. Geno Smith’s occasional terrible choices make much more sense to me than Tom Brady’s stubborn refusal to melt down under duress.
Brady’s arm makes him good, but his borderline creepy poise makes him great. I don’t know if he’s the most valuable player in the NFL—Aaron Rogers looked pretty invincible in beating the Pats three weeks ago—but he’s far and away the most important Patriot, and he will remain so until he retires.