Could Deflategate Take The Air Out Of Brady’s Legacy?
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady secured his place as one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks more than a decade ago. By age 27, the former sixth-round draft pick had already become the NFL’s quintessential “rags to riches” story, with three Super Bowl titles, a pair of Super Bowl Most Valuable Player awards and the obligatory off-field endorsement deals to go along with it.
And yet, in a twist of football fate, Brady and the Patriots’ status as perennial contenders has not translated into additional Super Bowl success. Brady lost both of his Super Bowl appearances since 2007. Now 37, Brady’s latest — and possibly final — Super Bowl game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday will occur under the specter of unanswered questions regarding his alleged participation in the Patriots’ “Deflategate” scandal. For critics, Brady needs a win to cement both his on-field legacy and his longterm business brand.
“You want to be remembered for positive things — for achievement, for excellence, for discipline,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Illinois. “I think for Tom Brady, the importance of the Super Bowl has gone up dramatically because if he wins, he can put a lot of this behind him and he can ensure that his brand is very well entrenched. If they lose, he’s going to miss that opportunity.”
The Patriots have been accused of deliberate attempts to gain an unfair competitive edge before. The NFL stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick and fined head coach Bill Belichick an unprecedented $500,000 in 2008 after the league found New England guilty of secretly videotaping an opposing team’s defensive signals. “Spygate” caused irreparable damage to Belichick’s legacy, with critics noting as recently as this month that the Patriots had not won a Super Bowl since the videotape scandal was uncovered.
Brady’s legacy and brand escaped “Spygate” mostly unscathed, aside from general associations given his proximity to Belichick. “Deflategate” is different — Brady is at the center of the NFL’s ongoing bid to determine how 11 of the 12 game balls the Patriots supplied for use in the 2015 AFC Championship were inflated below league standards. Brady categorically denied any wrongdoing during a lengthy Jan. 22 press conference.
“I feel like I have always played within the rules,” Brady said, according to ESPN. “I would never break the rules.”
But detractors questioned Brady’s claim of innocence, particularly after several retired NFL quarterbacks admitted game ball alteration was a routine occurrence within the league. Speculation on the potential impact to Brady’s brand began almost immediately. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio suggested Brady’s denials were merely an attempt to counteract damage to his image in light of his partnership with Ugg boots.
“Women don’t like cheaters. And what’s the number one demographic that Tom Brady tries to sell UGG boots to? Women,” Paolantonio said. “This was clearly motivated because Tom Brady knows, and the people around him know, that his brand is damaged by this. Not only on the football field, but what he sells off the football field.”
Brady’s contemporaries have also expressed suspicion about his story. Former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who lost to the Patriots on a last-second field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI, said he now has a “sliver of doubt” as to whether New England did something to gain an unfair advantage during their victory. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who has twice defeated Brady-led teams in the Super Bowl, said it “seemed kind of strange” that Brady knew so much about ball pressure amid “Deflategate.”
The “Deflategate” scandal only compounds nearly a decade’s worth of criticism Brady has faced during his Super Bowl drought. The questions began after Super Bowl XLII in 2007, when the Brady-led 16–0 Patriots lost the title game and an undefeated season to the Giants. Four years later, the Patriots returned to the Super Bowl only to lose to the Giants once again. The 2012 and 2013 NFL seasons featured back-to-back Patriot losses in the AFC Championship game. Suddenly, the three-time champion couldn’t win the big game.
Yet critics who point out Brady’s recent failings in the playoffs also fail to note the historic nature of his career accomplishments. Aside from his three Super Bowl rings, Brady is a two-time NFL MVP, a two-time NFL offensive player of the year and the league’s all-time leader in postseason passing yards and touchdowns.
As of this year, his six Super Bowl appearance are more than any other quarterback in NFL history. A win would allow Brady to join immortals Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks ever to win four Super Bowls. But regardless of whether he wins or loses against the Seahawks, Brady’s on-field resume is virtually unassailable.
“I don’t think whether he wins on Sunday or not has any impact at all. Once you’re a champion, it’s kind of like being president of the United States. That title never goes away,” said Joe Favorito, a longtime strategic communications professional and instructor at Columbia University in New York City.