The New England Patriots offense was famously neutered in gruesome public fashion during the 2013 offseason.
Injuries, management decision and the long arm of the law all conspired to tear the team away from 88 percent of its receiving production from 2012. Most organizations in any sport would wilt under that kind of attrition.
But the old-look Patriots, playing yet again like the ugly slugfest championship teams of a decade ago, beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday 23-3.
The Patriots, riddled understandably with doubt throughout the off-season, are one of just five teams at 3-0, pending the outcome of the Week 3 primetime games (Chicago and Denver are each 2-0).
Styles and rules change. Players and coaches come and go. Scores of quarterbacks have started NFL games over the past decade-plus. But one thing about the New England Patriots remains as constant today as it was in 2001: they find a way to win with Tom Brady at quarterback.
The Patriots are now an incredible 139-39 in games started by Brady. Sunday's victory marks a milestone in the history of pro football.
Brady is now the first quarterback with 100 more wins than losses on his resume.
No team in the entire history of pro football has ever won games at such an incredible clip over such a long period. Not the dynastic Packers, Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys. None of them. The 1950s Browns came closest: they won at a higher clip, but over a much shorter time in the NFL.
In fact, no other quarterback, not even the legends of the position, is close to Brady's +100 win-loss margin.
Here's a look at how Brady's string of victories compare to a collection of the greatest, winningest, most prolific and most legendary long-term quarterbacks in the history of football. The players are listed in order of the difference between number of wins and losses (regular season only).
- Tom Brady – 139-39 (+100)
- Peyton Manning – 156-70 (+86)
- Brett Favre – 186-112 (+74)
- Joe Montana – 117-47 (+70)
- John Elway – 148-82-1 (+66)
- Terry Bradshaw – 107-51 (+56)
- Roger Staubach – 85-29 (+56)
- Johnny Unitas – 118-64-4 (+54)
- Dan Marino – 147-93 (+54)
- Daryle Lamonica – 66-16-6 (+50)
- Ken Stabler – 96-49-1 (+47)
- Bart Starr – 94-47-6 (+47)
- Steve Young – 94-49 (+45)
- Jim Kelly – 101-59 (+42)
- Otto Graham – 57-13-1 (+44) (NFL only)
- Len Dawson – 94-57-8 (+37)
- Drew Brees – 102-70 (+32)
- Troy Aikman – 94-71 (+23)
- Frank Tarkenton – 124-109-6 (+15)
- Warren Moon – 102-101 (+1)
- Joe Namath – 62-63-4 (-1)
Look at it this way: if the Patriots win 12 games this season (far from a sure thing given the team's tender condition right now), Brady will have won as many regular-season games as the legendary John Elway -- with about half as many losses.
Joe Montana helped make the 49ers of the 1980s and 90s one of the great dynasties in history and with Bill Walsh they re-invented the concept of the passing game. Montana won 22 fewer games than Brady, with eight more losses.
Throw in the postseason, which includes a record 17 victories, and Brady’s Patriots are +110 in the win column: 156-46.
Now, clearly, one player does not win games alone, as certain ex-players point out in various online and broadcast temper tantrums.
Nobody ever said that quarterbacks do win alone. And, certainly, Brady was not responsible for holding the 0-3 Bucs to 3 points Sunday.
He was marginally effective at best, completing 25 of 36 passes for 225 yards, 2 TD and 1 INT. His 6.25 YPA was below mediocre. And his 92.9 passer rating was unimpressive by today's standards.
And, clearly, we’re the first to point out that the early 2013 schedule has been quite kind to the Patriots. They started out the season with games against a pair of rookie quarterbacks (EJ Manuel, Geno Smith) and embattled Tampa QB Josh Freeman.
But the reality is that the outcomes of NFL games are almost always decided by the performance of one player and one player only: the quarterback (even if so many other factors on the field influence that performance).
NFL teams win almost 90 percent of the time when their quarterback outplays the other quarterback, a figure proven by our statistically awe-inspiring indicator called Real Quarterback Rating.
Brady against the Bucs looked for the first time all year like he's building a rapport with his painfully young and inexperienced receiving corps. Undrafted rookie WR Kenbrell Thompkins caught two touchdown passes, the first two of his career.
Here's the other reality: whether playing on teams with solid defenses and third-rate receiving crews, as Brady did in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 and now again in 2013; on teams with bad defenses and bad receiving crews, as Brady did in 2005; or playing with talented offensive teams with questionable defenses, the way Brady did from from 2009 to 2012, there is one constant: the Patriots win at a greater clip than any team in the history of football.
The one constant has been the quarterback, the most important position in all of sports, the one with the greatest singular impact on wins and losses.
Brady’s impact was immediate and dramatic early in his career. The 5-11 Patriots of 2000 began the 2001 season 0-2. That’s 5-13 over the course of 18 games, for those of you keeping score at home.
Then Brady stepped on the field. Scoring production immediately shot up by 50 percent over the previous 18 games. The team suddenly looked smarter, the defense suddenly looked better. And remember, he didn't take over for a slouch: former Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe was a Pro Bowl performer who still ranks No. 10 all time in passing yards (44,611), one spot behind Brady.
That struggling 5-13 team suddenly ripped off 14 wins in their next 17 games and ended the year hoisting the franchise’s Lombardi Trophy after the first and only walk-off scoring drive in NFL history.
The victories have continued to come at a record rate, even if the championships have dried up in recent years.
Football is the ultimate team game. Nobody does it alone. Quarterbacks need help in so many areas to play well. But at the end of the day, the team with the better quarterback almost always beats the team with the inferior quarterback.
And 139 times in the last 178 games, a rate unprecedented in the history of football, Brady was almost always the best quarterback on the field, no matter the circumstances and no matter the names of the players around him.