I was fortunate enough to spend some time around Michael Jordan during his final Bulls run. Got to know him a little off camera. Got to see what makes him tick, like a bomb, under late-game pressure.
Greatest player -- and clutch performer -- ever. In any sport. End of argument.
I often get kidded on "First Take" that I hold MJ too much in awe, almost like those Chicago Guys in the "Discount Double Check" commercials idolize Mike Ditka.
MJ vs. Alien and Predator? MJ!
So you can appreciate it when I say Tom Brady is the closest I've seen to Michael Jordan under pressure. Yes, the same Brady who, while running his 40 at the combine, looked more like Michael Cera than Michael Jordan. Yes, the same Brady who does commercials for Uggs instead of Air Jordans -- the shrugging, impossibly humble, married-to-Gisele pretty boy who rivals the Dallas Cowboys as a love/hate lightning rod.
Brady shares only this with MJ: The longer the odds and higher the pressure, the more Mr. Nice Guy turns into the sports equivalent of a psycho killer.
This season, at age 36, Brady has been positively Jordanesque, pulling off comeback after astonishingly clutch comeback, against Buffalo and New Orleans and Denver and Houston and Cleveland and even this past Sunday at Miami -- which should have ended in yet another great Brady escape.
Tom Brady has turned what easily could be a 4-10 team into a 10-4 team that easily could be 13-1.
Equally astonishing: Brady has gone MJ this year while losing all his Scottie Pippens and quite a few Steve Kerrs … losing his two-headed monster at tight end ( Rob Gronkowski to injury and Aaron Hernandez to jail) … losing the anchor of his defensive line ( Vince Wilfork), his best linebacker ( Jerod Mayo) and, for stretches, his best cornerback ( Aqib Talib) … losing various offensive tackles and rookie receivers and even the new Wes Welker ( Danny Amendola) and a wide receiver of a running back ( Shane Vereen) for what should've been killer stretches.
Further astonishing: Brady keeps beating the late-game odds with Patriot Resentment at an all-time high, among opponents and perhaps even referees. Is it possible that six years later, Spygate still haunts the Pats -- still lurks in the subconscious of officiating crews still prone to stick it to New England? Although Brady did get a break on a 50-50 pass interference call late against the Browns, he was robbed of chances to win at the Jets and at Carolina and at Miami by highly questionable referee decisions.
Ultimately astonishing: Tom Brady isn't getting nearly the credit he deserves outside Patriot Nation.
Are those who follow or cover the NFL now so spoiled by or sick of Brady that they're numb to his achievements?
If the season ended today, Tom Brady should be MVP. Yes, the same Brady whose 23 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions scream "off year" compared with his record-setting MVP numbers of 2007 (50 to 8, often going deep to Randy Moss) or his MVP numbers of 2010 (36 to 4). Although Peyton Manning almost certainly will break Brady's single-season TD-pass record of 50 as he caps off the greatest regular season ever by a QB, Brady has been more valuable to his team.
When the pressure is greatest, my money is still on the Uggs lover.
Sunday at Miami, all Brady did in the fourth quarter was throw for 195 yards -- that should've been 209. Brady's primary targets were a former undrafted free agent (5-11, 195-pound Amendola) and a former college quarterback drafted in the last round (5-10, 198-pound Julian Edelman). Not exactly Randy Mosses.
Brady's two best deep threats -- undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and rookie second-rounder Aaron Dobson -- were out injured. With 1:15 remaining, needing a touchdown to win, Brady passed the Patriots from his 20 to Miami's 19, even converting a fourth-and-8, then whipped a sweet, shades-of-Marino strike to Amendola breaking open at the goal line.
Amendola bobbled it just long enough for a recent Dolphins pickup, Michael Thomas, to catch up and dislodge the ball. It should've been caught. The Patriots would've been 11-3.
Two plays later, Brady threw to backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, subbing for Gronkowski, who managed only seven games this season before being lost again, to a knee injury. Hoomanawanui clearly was interfered with by Dannell Ellerbe. No flag. Should've been first-and-goal at the 1. Shades of the flag picked up in the end zone late at Carolina, when Luke Kuechly clearly interfered with Gronkowski.
But yes, on fourth down, an obviously frustrated Brady tried to force one last pass to yet another smallish receiver, 6-foot Austin Collie. Apparently Brady didn't see that new guy, Thomas, lurking underneath the route. Game-ending interception.
But do not forget what Michael Jordan once said in a Nike commercial: "Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. That's why I succeed."
Like Jordan, Brady isn't afraid to fail because he has beaten the clock so many other times. It wasn't Brady's fault his 18-0 Pats lost to the Giants, costing him a fourth Super Bowl ring. With 2:42 left in the game, Brady hit Moss for the 14-10 TD. It took David Tyree catching an Eli Manning prayer in his face mask to cancel Brady's heroics.
But I still give Brady 55 percent of the blame for the pass a wide-open Welker failed to catch that almost certainly would have beaten Eli's Giants two Super Bowls ago. Most Pats fans hold Welker responsible. But Brady's pass was shockingly high and outside.
This just in: Brady isn't perfect.
I don't know Brady, but, from a distance, his on-field versus off-field personas are as jarring as any QB's since Roger Staubach -- whom I did know when he played for the Cowboys. In interviews, Staubach was the nicest, kindest do-unto-others father and husband -- but in fourth quarters, he went to some crazy place that scared (and inspired) teammates. Staubach could play an uninspired, out-of-sync first three quarters, then flip that psycho-killer switch. He didn't get nervous as the pressure mounted. He got mad.
The miracles that man made remain, foremost the Hail Mary in Minnesota from which longtime Vikings fans have never quite recovered.
In interviews, Brady comes across as far more gee-whiz, aw-shucks than Staubach did -- more of a super-nice, overly polite, somewhat naive Richie Cunningham compared with Staubach's more genuine Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." Brady's interview persona seems a bit forced, almost as a way to deflect and defuse tough questions.
But after Sunday's loss, Brady couldn't switch off the crazed competitor before taking the interview stand. He uttered two sentences, the second referring to poor Patriot plays with a word he knew wasn't suitable for the airwaves, then left. That's surely closer to the real Brady.
The great Christian Bale could capture Brady on film -- the Bale who played Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho." Nice guy by day, psycho killer by night. That's Brady, in a football context. If you're rooting for the Patriots, you know you have a chance when Brady celebrates a fourth-quarter TD pass by running to the end zone and screaming his approval in the face of the receiver who caught it.
No NFL QB lets his emotions spill over more than Brady, on the field or sideline. And no QB more successfully channels his rage to win.
• Down 21-20 with 4:31 left in the opener at Buffalo, Brady went 7-for-7, setting up the winning field goal with five seconds left.
• Down four at home against New Orleans, 70 yards away with 1:13 left, here came Brady -- zing-zing-zing. The winner was delivered to Thompkins with 15 seconds left.
• Down 17-7 at halftime in Houston, Brady threw for 263 the second half, leaving defensive end Antonio Smith wondering out loud whether the Pats had somehow spied on the Texans. Pats 34-31.
• Down 24-0 at the half at home to Peyton & Co., Brady threw for 263 in the second half and overtime. Pats 34-31.
• Down 26-14 at home to Cleveland, Brady produced two TDs in the final 61 seconds. Pats 27-26 as Brady threw for 323 second-half yards, most by any QB in a second half this season.
In four comeback wins this season, the Pats were outscored 64-10 in the first half -- a true picture of how bad they should be. But in those four second halves, Brady & Co. outscored opponents 112-41.
Brady: a beast in Uggs.
Now it's on to Baltimore to face the Ravens, who long have tormented Brady's Patriots. The 2009 playoff humiliation in Foxborough -- Ravens 33-14 … the AFC title game the Ravens should've won two years ago at New England … the one they did win there last year, when they also beat the Patriots in Baltimore in the regular season (31-30 on a last-second Justin Tucker field goal called good by a replacement ref when it sure looked wide right).
The Ravens' Terrell Suggs is a proud Brady-hater, saying he doesn't like Brady's smug attitude, his hair or "the way everybody just seems to worship the guy."
The Ravens have won four straight. The decimated Patriots should have little chance. But they still have Michael Jordan Brady.