The script was set, and Aaron Sorkin could not have written it any better himself.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots avenge epic Super Bowl XLII loss to Eli Manning, New York Giants. Brady cements legacy as greatest quarterback to ever play the game. Bill Belichick reaches summit of career, leaves no doubt as to identity of greatest head coach in NFL history.
We had been hearing it from Bristol—not that they had any rooting interest, of course—all week. From every major media outlet, actually. This was it. This was the moment where everyone else lost their claim to the throne of NFL history, where we could no longer argue that anyone else did it better.
Yes, it was the moment. Until a desperation Hail Mary from Brady to a hobbled Rob Gronkowski bounced off the turf, a hollow thud declaring the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI victory.
And then, after so much promise, after the moment had passed, there were nothing but critics.
It's an unfortunate reality we deal with in the media. Overreaction. And it has its purpose, really. People identify with stances. The dramatic elements of sports promote stances. Because really, the Super Bowl is just the world's largest stage play, down to the musical numbers.
But in our haste to react, our unrelenting need to react, we forget one very important fact, one essentially erased when we so easily embrace the extremes.
Winning a Super Bowl is hard. Really hard.
Provided a team even survives the playoffs, where a bad call or bad bounce can easily silence stadiums and send the home favorites back to the bus studying their shoelaces, how many times has the Super Bowl come down to a Hail Mary heave that fell just short, or a game-clinching pass sailing just inches over a defensive player's fingertips?
It isn't just about talent, or skill, or matchups. Those things matter. But—as much as we hate to admit it—luck matters, too. The luck of recovering your own fumble, or an opposing receiver dropping a critical pass. The luck of a coin toss or penalty. These things matter, too.
It's a bit perplexing, and perhaps a troubling indictment of a larger reactionary mentality, then, when columnists such as Boston.com's Eric Wilbur proclaim a Super Bowl loss as "embarrassing for [Tom Brady's] coach, teammates and fans".
Wilbur's shots at Brady and the Patriots didn't stop there. Quote the Boston scribe:
What an embarrassment for the Patriots organization and Bob Kraft. So now the Giants have taken Lombardi from you twice, and you haven't looked this bad in a playoff game since...well, two weeks ago against the Ravens. Maybe that moment will actually hit you as you're whittling down water slides in South America looking like Prince Valiant this spring. The Patriots haven't won a title in seven years, but even worse, they're now turning into the Buffalo Bills, with the Giants being their Cowboy daddy.
Opinion is fine. Reaction is fine. It's an essential element to the ongoing drama of sports. But when did we discount reality, as Wilbur did? When did it become assumed that championships were mere birthrights for Brady, that anything less than a Super Bowl ring for a Patriots squad featuring the league's 31st-ranked defense was absolute failure?
Lost in all of this overreaction, this arms race to lay blame on Brady or Belichick or Wes Welker or Aaron Hernandez, is the simple reality that winning a Super Bowl is really damn hard.
Look at the past 10 Super Bowl champions. Can we honestly say that these were the best teams in the NFL that year? On paper?
2011-12: New York Giants
2010-11: Green Bay Packers
|2009-10: New Orleans Saints|
|2008-09: Pittsburgh Steelers|
|2007-08: New York Giants|
|2006-07: Indianapolis Colts|
|2005-06: Pittsburgh Steelers|
|2004-05: New England Patriots|
|2003-04: New England Patriots|
|2002-03: Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
Of those teams, ask yourself, how many could you argue should have won? How many were the most talented in the NFL, the absolutely undisputed best team in the league? How many were top seeds in January?
Then ask yourself: how many got the benefit of at least one extremely lucky play, call or bounce to put themselves in a position to hoist the Lombardi Trophy?
The Tuck Rule. The controversial Ben Roethlisberger touchdown call in Super Bowl XL. A Jeff Saturday recovery of a Dominic Rhodes goal-line fumble in the 2007 AFC Championship game.
All game-changing plays. All plays that could have gone either way, and may in fact have gone the wrong way.
We don't like to admit that luck factors into this game, of course, because it effectively flies in the face of all the pregame analysis and roundtables and breakdowns and playbook sessions we draw up to define a simple roll of the dice into a tangible truth. But it does. And even if you can get past the gauntlet of January football, the grueling trench wars fought down to the last crooked index finger, so many NFL seasons still come down to an odd bounce, an untimely injury or busted coverage.
Maybe we need to acknowledge this reality. Maybe the ultimate message of a championship game is less about who choked or who came through in the clutch, and more a testament to the survival instincts of the victor.
It's easy to simplify the game into extremes, to paint Brady as the hero or villain. And often times, it makes for a compelling read. But it's just not honest, not to the larger Lombardi truth at least, whose theory surely states that even Eden spots a raincloud every so often.
It takes a lot to win a Super Bowl. A lot more than can be objectively measured.
And while it may take the fun out of cinematic sports writing, we would do well to remember that even the best scripts require re-writes.