Let me preface the rude things I am about to say concerning the 40-year-old cyborg who has appeared in roughly 15 percent of all Super Bowls by admitting the truth: Tom Brady is a very talented athlete, one of the greatest in the history of his sport, a future Hall of Famer, and possibly the nicest man ever to own a MAGA hat.
The New England Patriots quarterback is also easily the least appealing major figure in the history of organized American sports.
This is a man whose every day is a marathon session in something called "oral hydration therapy." Brady is obsessed with pumping electrolytes into every liquid he consumes. His eating mainly consists of things most adult males his age consider lawn maintenance obstacles, like dandelions. He refuses to eat bread or potatoes. He is so enthusiastic about his diet that he recently wrote a book on the subject, a strange volume that reads like a parody of the lives of one of those obscure hermit saints of the early third century.
I wish I could say that I believed in Deflategate or Spygate or that I could see more than the discipline which comes from good coaching (plus a certain amount of luck) in the Patriots' long record of minimal penalties and crucial game-saving interventions from referees. If Bills lineman Jerry Hughes were right that "somebody in Boston got the refs on the payroll," it would be a better world. But the truth is that Brady and the Patriots are not cheaters. Cheating is something humans do. Robots would never attempt it because it's not part of their programming. The refs, even the ones who give Brady "nice job, man" chest pats on the field, are as in awe of their inhuman dedication as the rest of us.
Like all great players, Brady is great by the standards of his era. Endless arguments about whether he is the greatest of all time are pointless. Just imagine what Terry Bradshaw might have been able to accomplish if his evenings had been spent crouched over a yoga mat fresh from a plate of brussels sprouts instead of getting drunk. When Bart Starr was declared the MVP of Super Bowl I, his team had just won a game in which he completed only 17 passes. Everything about professional football is different even by the standards of 20 years ago. The NFL is an offensive league now. Passing the football has never been easier; tough defense has never been more difficult to play without running the risk of costly penalties. There are good arguments to be made that many of the changes have been necessary for the safety of players. And many football fans like seeing a lot of touchdowns the same way that a certain kind of baseball fan envisions that game as a full-dress home run derby. Players who are smart and careful and patient enough to give fans what they want consistently are not ordinary human beings; they are billion-dollar electronic ball delivery systems. Brady's meticulous approach to everything from play calling to the percentage of "acidifying foods" he allows in his diet makes him the most representative quarterback of our era.
The question is not whether Brady is great but why his particular brand of greatness is appealing to anyone who is not a New England fan. For me, watching the Patriots on television has all the thrill of Deep Blue versus Kasparov. Which is why so many of us were hoping that despite their home field advantage, the Pats would fall to Jacksonville in the AFC championship game two weeks ago. Who wouldn't love to watch a scrappy team from a market with no money fresh from a 3-13 season, one that distinguished itself by consistently fielding the best defense of any team in decades, make it to their first Super Bowl?
It didn't happen, though. Why? Because in real life the appealing underdog almost never wins. The bland technocrats with their kale smoothies are always willing to work harder than the rest of us in order to win a game that is played on their terms.
On Sunday, Brady will probably beat the hard-luck Eagles and claim sole possesion of the all-time record for Super Bowl victories (with six), probably following some kind of conspiracy-inspiring come-from-behind fourth quarter scenario that involves his application of ruthless vegetable-inspired logic to a rowdy boys' game. Hurray, I guess?