Tom Brady's Cold War On Football History | Gimme Schalter No. 27





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Gimme Schalter
Tom Brady's Cold War On Football History | Gimme Schalter No. 27
By Ty Schalter • Issue #27 • View online
The sun has set on Tom Brady’s quarterbacking empire. For 22 seasons he was inescapable, inevitable. His utter dominance didn’t just stand out over multiple discrete eras of the game, it erased multiple discrete eras of the game.
He led the league in passing yards again this year; 26 of the next 31 quarterbacks on the list were former first- or second-round draft picks. He out-passed eight former No. 1 overall picks, per StatHead: elite prospects with incredible traits, all between age 22 and 33. At 44, Brady has just broken his and Warren Moon’s shared record as the oldest quarterback ever to make the Pro Bowl.
But Brady’s career started when he, a sixth-round pick who wasn’t even the unquestioned starter at Michigan, was put in the game to relieve an injured former No. 1 overall pick.
What if it had never happened?
While Brady was trying to hold off Drew Henson at Michigan, I was at Michigan State studying Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy. Not quite a decade or so after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were already looking back at the Cold War as a sort of pause button on history: The entire global north (and much of the global south) had, after World War II, quickly aligned with either East or West, Red or Blue, Communism or Democracy. Two global superpowers trying to subsume all resources, all economies, all cultures and point them at the other one.
Just think of all the revolutions never realized, alliances never formed, sociopolitical developments that never developed. All the puppet leaders and governments propped up and/or toppled by the CIA or KGB, all the proxy wars that were fought around the edges. The natural progress of human society and polity, deadlocked from the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
44 years. The same age as Brady.
We can’t just delete him from the record books and know exactly how history would have filled the vacuum. But it’s instructive to think about just how many great players missed out on recognition, show many great teams missed out on hardware, how many fanbases didn’t get to celebrate the way either the Bengals or Rams fanbases are about to celebrate.
Let’s start with an easy one: What if every team that finished second in their division to a Brady-quarterbacked team had finished first?

SOURCES: Pro-Football-Reference
SOURCES: Pro-Football-Reference
Chad Pennington, Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Jets to seven more divisional titles. Jay Fiedler, Gus Frerotte, and Ryan Tannehill picked up six more for the Dolphins. Trent Edwards, Kyle Orton, Tyrod Taylor and Josh Allen won four for the Bills, and this year’s Saints got to the top of what would have been a very short NFC South mountain with four different starting quarterbacks.
Now, the ringz.
With 10 Super Bowl appearances and seven wins, Brady stands alone among NFL quarterbacks. In fact, he stands about two or three times taller than anyone else who might hope to be compared to him. So how would Brady’s contemporaries fare without him hogging all the conference and league championships?
Using FiveThirtyEight’s historical Elo rankings as a guide, I worked out who would have represented Brady’s conference in each of his 10 Super Bowl appearances, and won the resulting matchup:
SOURCES: Pro-Football-Reference, FiveThirtyEight
SOURCES: Pro-Football-Reference, FiveThirtyEight
In a Brady-less alternate timeline, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers got to last year’s Super Bowl–but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, giving the Chiefs three straight AFC titles and two Super Bowl wins.
But not a threepeat, because in 2018 the Chiefs lost to Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams. As The Greatest Show on Turf Rams won a second title under Mike Martz in 2001, the 2018 win gave the franchise their third title since 1999 (If Goff wins that Super Bowl, does he get traded for Matthew Stafford?).
Blake Bortles started a Super Bowl for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Philip Rivers won the ring his career certainly deserved. The Atlanta Falcons cashed in in 2016, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers*.
The Steelers, by the way, made three more Super Bowls and likely won one (Apologies to Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, who were surely expecting to win in a Bradyless 2004). Eli Manning lost one of his two Super Bowls to Joe Flacco, who assumed the “guy we all know was not that great but has two rings” place in Hall of Fame debates.
Eli’s brother Peyton makes and wins three Super Bowls, including 2003–averting a decade worth of overwrought narratives about whether he’s truly a winner, whether he’s better than Eli, and whether he’s as good as Brady (and, again, apologies to Jake Delhomme and the 2003 Carolina Panthers). The post-Manning Colts also hung a better banner than that infamous “2014 AFC Finalist” one, though the Seahawks still beat Andrew Luck & Co. that year.
There were also 15 Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro nods, and three Associated Press MVP awards that went to other players, as well as spots on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-2000s Team and All-2010s Team. Since those aren’t all public votes (and the 2010 MVP was unanimous), we can’t tell who won those honors in the Bradyless timeline. But for the record, Favre got the only non-Brady MVP vote in 2007, Todd Gurley got the second-most votes, eight, in 2014, and judging by the numbers either Rivers or Drew Brees would likely have gotten the nod in 2010.
My colleague at FiveThirtyEight, Neil Paine, once noted that Peyton Manning basically had two Hall of Fame careers back-to-back. Since then, it’s become fashionable to point out that Brady had three. But we haven’t really grappled with how the Cold War between Brady and Manning left almost no room for any other quarterback to have any.
Brady won his first Super Bowl before the 2002 expansion and realignment; at that point he and Peyton were in the same division. Manning has more All-Pro nods (7) and MVP awards (5) than Brady, all earned during the 15 years they directly rivalled each other–but since Manning’s retirement, the one-year-younger Brady has played six more seasons, adding on 26,492 yards, 196 touchdowns, and three Super Bowl wins in four appearances.
Brady started out out-dueling quarterbacks who are already Hall of Famers: Manning, Favre, Kurt Warner. He beat out guys who will make the Hall anyway, like Roethlisberger and Brees. He weakened the resumes of much of the generation behind him, like Rodgers, Rivers, Flacco, and Matt Ryan. He’s even bullied the generation after that, from Allen to Mahomes. And unlike Manning or Favre, he never had an embarrassing final year where his skills had clearly left him.
If Brady entered the league as the scrappy, everyman rebel looking to topple the quarterback aristocracy, he left it as Ivan Drago:
Peyton Manning (left) vs. Tom Brady (right)
Peyton Manning (left) vs. Tom Brady (right)
But unlike the Cold War, of course, Brady is not a bad thing. Football fans who got to see him go out and win and win and win were incredibly lucky. He constantly reinvented himself; 2001 Tom Brady, 2007 Tom Brady, 2014 Tom Brady and 2021 Tom Brady were effectively four different players. But we’re now getting ready to watch a Super Bowl featuring two No. 1 overall picks aged 25 and 33, each from two separate lost generations of NFL passers, and it feels exciting.
None of them or their contemporaries will ever achieve nearly as much. Nobody alive today will likely ever see a comparable run of NFL dominance. But I think the NFL will probably be more fun to watch because of it–and how we talk about quarterback performance will be smarter, too.
Because there’s no point in counting rings when Brady’s already got seven of them, and anyone who wins any rings from next season on will have done it without having to face him.
* Probably. The Falcons were close enough in Elo to the Steelers that Pittsburgh beating their alt-reality AFC title-game opponent might have put them back above Atlanta. I decided to give it to Atlanta, for pity’s sake.
Everything Awesome
I missed this one when it was published in the first issue of Lux, a “new magazine of socialist feminism,” but non-binary author D.E. Anderson pointed it out in a great thread on intersections of sexism and transmisogyny.
Baker explains how Mumsnet, a forum for U.K. moms, became not just a deep well of transphobic sentiment, but the global command center for anti-trans legislation and attacks. Turns out carrying, delivering, and caring for a baby makes it impossible to ignore the fact that our allegedly post-sexist western society still actually has a whole bunch of structural sexism baked in!
But rather than attack the powerful people, mainly men, who keep these structures in place, they blame, scapegoat, attack, and harass trans women–a tiny minority of marginalized people who are just trying to exist in peace. In turn, TERFs reinforce the patriarchal hierarchy they’ve been harmed by. And as Anderson wrote, they end up clinging to exactly the kind of sexist stereotypes of womanhood that feminism is supposed to reject.
I built my fair share of gaming PCs back in the day; I even got a little ambitious (R.I.P. to my Peltier-cooled Guinness-serving PC project; you deserved to live). But this video, via Nvidia’s GeForce Garage, details an absolutely phenomenal build by Mark Celica of Mark’s Fabrication.
Absolutely glorious:
GeForce Garage: The Doom Eternal BFG 10000
GeForce Garage: The Doom Eternal BFG 10000
If you read to the end of all of that Tom Brady stuff, you probably already know Hall of Fame NFL coach Tony Dungy.
It’s wild to read an old-school football coach eloquently make the same point about diversity, inclusion, and representation that online creatives have been making for years: “diversity” and “merit” aren’t in opposition to one another.
Intentionally inclusive hiring practices make teams better, whether they’re trying to win football games or create art.
There is so much happening here, so many bizarre and wonderful confluences of musical wonderment. Danny Carey of TOOL, one of the best drummers on the planet, sits in with the Kansas University pep band to play (and burn down) Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.”
My old band used to play “Fire,” and while I didn’t play drums in that band (shout out to professional voice actor, actor-actor, and homie-for-life Dave Bisson), I do play drums. This is a quintessential drum song–and the combination of Carey nailing it and the band trying to keep up is just so charming to me.
I also can’t stop watching how genuinely delighted Carey is to be there, or wondering what must be going on in the head of the clarinet players directly behind him:
Danny Carey of TOOL plays Fire at KU vs. Missou
Danny Carey of TOOL plays Fire at KU vs. Missou
Yeah…no novel progress this week, either. Still too much football happening right now. Believe me when I say it’s top of mind–but keep holding me accountable!
Did you enjoy this issue?
Ty Schalter

The latest thoughts, hottest takes, and coolest work of Ty Schalter, a professional writer & talker (@FiveThirtyEight, @ThreeOutPod). Lots of sports, geeky stuff, social commentary and more.

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