Why you should care
Because greatness is a learned trait.
Back in 2007, before watching David Tyree’s iconic “helmet catch” and his own ascension to NFL stardom, Matt Ryan was just another New England college kid witnessing a run at history. Then the starting quarterback for Boston College, Ryan tuned in from his dorm room every Sunday to watch Tom Brady guide this era’s most notorious sports franchise to a perfect 16–0 record and a Super Bowl XLII appearance. But while most everyone outside of Gillette Stadium sat awestruck at Brady’s brilliance, Ryan noticed something: He’d been running the same plays all season.
Later today — nine seasons in the making — Ryan and Brady will meet in Super Bowl LI. Brady — what with his 4–2 career Super Bowl record — is widely considered the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Ryan has traversed a rockier professional path, but one that finds him on the verge of greatness nonetheless.
Sunday, the two gunslingers find themselves on even ground. Really, though, they’ve been on par all season. Ryan’s and Brady’s QBR ratings, 83.3 and 83.0, respectively, lead the league. And:
This is just the second time that regular-season QBR leaders will meet in the Super Bowl.
According to ESPN, the only other time this has happened was in 2010, when future Hall of Famers Drew Brees (84.2 QBR) and Peyton Manning (82.8 QBR) squared off in Super Bowl XLIV. This year, the margin is even slimmer. QBR, or “Total Quarterback Rating,” as it’s known, is a statistic designed by ESPN to measure a passer’s meaningful impact on a given game. While a score of 100 is the unachievable mark of perfection, 50 denotes league average play.
Typically, at least one Super Bowl contender is carried by a dominant defense — the old adage “Defense wins championships” exists for a reason. Plenty of championship teams — think Trent Dilfer with Baltimore or Brad Johnson and the Buccaneers — make do with effective human handoffs under center. Rarely, if ever, are two Super Bowl squads so closely paired at quarterback; rarer, still, is what’s taking place this season. On top of each quarterback’s season-long dominance, the Patriots enter Sunday with the NFL’s top-ranked defense, while Atlanta sports the league’s top offense.
Ryan’s offensive coordinator at Boston College was a man named Steve Logan. Before Logan helped Ryan lead the Eagles to a No. 2 ranking and top-10 finish in the Heisman Trophy race, he served as QB coach for NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder. As part of the NFL’s global expansion effort, teams like the Patriots would open their playbooks for European coaches. A few years later, Logan was sharing Bill Belichick’s offensive innovations with Ryan at BC. Which is to say: The connection between these two quarterbacks goes so much deeper than a shared city and mutual respect. There is no known equivalent of two gunslingers, connected through numerous coaching-tree generations, who have met on the game’s biggest stage.
On Media Night in Houston this week, crowds of reporters swarmed each quarterback. Fans at Minute Maid Park cheered for the two franchise leaders, two men who could pass as brothers if we were unaware. And according to Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn, Ryan’s 2016 QBR is not the only measurable that mirrors Brady. Quinn says that, like Brady, Ryan’s work ethic and internal fortitude make him a standout. “It’s come full circle for Matt this season,” Quinn tells OZY. “Year-two understanding of [offensive coordinator] Kyle Shanahan’s offense has really set him apart.”
But as exceptional as Ryan and the Falcons offense has been this season — Atlanta averaged 4.5 points per game more than New Orleans, the next closest team — there’s no denying that, in the playoffs, Brady has been king. Brady’s four Super Bowl wins are the most all time; a fifth would unequivocally etch his name in stone. His 24 playoff victories are also the most ever. And few are forgetting that old adage about defense. “How is the Atlanta defense going to perform when they’re tested?” asks Hall of Fame Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, rhetorically. “They have led in so many games that they’ve essentially sat in prevent defense.”
But while Super Bowl LI might not come down to quarterback play, they’ll damn sure be judged by the outcome.