On Subjective Legacies and Gray Areas


Tom Brady’s legacy may or may not be written in stone, depending on who you ask       (credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times

“I went from the favorite to the most hated, but would you rather be underpaid or overrated?” – Jay-Z

– Jim Bearor

Legacy is such a heavy concept. It is everything you leave behind and how you’re remembered. It’s also a little subjective. The image you’ve formed in your head about someone is influenced by your own experiences and memories. Your emotions tint legacy as well. The way you felt when somebody did something, and how you feel now as you look back on it, this all plays into how you view them.

Did Tony Romo lose you money? Are you proud of your quarterback? Do you remember the party you were at when you saw so-and-so lead their team back?

This is all the stuff under the surface that subtly helps form narratives and how we identify players in the NFL, especially quarterbacks. There’s no denying that objective success, statistics, and facts make up most of the story, but that’s not as interesting to me, for the most part. I lean in when some Dallas fan unfairly lays all the team’s recent failures at the feet of Romo, but his buddy right next to him in a Witten jersey isn’t so quick to judge good ol’ Tony. Even when the ink has dried, like in the case of Peyton Manning, you can still fire up a hearty debate about whether or not he was overrated. Some people believe in Carson Palmer, and some do not. Andy Dalton. Matt Ryan. Joe Flacco. The list goes on.

It would be oversimplifying things to say it can all be boiled down to on-field accomplishments and emotions though, their environment also has to be taken into consideration. Even though he gets to chill by the beaches of San Diego and father a new child every year, poor Phillip Rivers has been stuck with the Chargers from the jump. The Saints neglect the defensive side of the ball. As a Giants fan, I realized how Gilbride’s offense and the talent on the roster played into how people perceived Eli.

There’s so much information to draw from to try and paint an accurate picture of someone that you can’t help but focus more on certain parts. Even if we were given an all-inclusive, fair summary of someone that touches on personality, surroundings, and performance in ways proportionate to their importance (which is something that doesn’t exist), we would invariably dwell on some aspects more than others. Some storylines are just juicier, or resonate more with different crowds.

Sometimes when you can gain perspective by looking at things in a different light, and the blind stat comparison is one of my favorite ways of doing that. Take it from The Hard Foul’s own Bill Annechino:

Bill: NFL quarterback is not only the most important position in sports, it’s also the most unfairly-judged.  When it comes to things like legacies and the public’s opinion of a quarterback, an insane amount of that perception relies on things that are out of their control like the team success and their surrounding talent.  One of my favorite examples of this can be seen beautifully in this blind quarterback comparison of the first 6 seasons of two well-known quarterbacks’ careers (6 seasons seems like an arbitrary number, but I’ll explain after the comparison).

Player A:  Total:  1,895 completions, 3,061 attempts, 21,558 yards, 147 TD, 78 INT

Average Season:  316/510 comp/att, 3,593 yards, 24 TD, 13 INT

Player B:  Total:  1,837 completions, 3,135 attempts, 21,603 yards, 150 TD, 104 INT

Average Season:  306/522 comp/att, 3,600 yards, 25 TD, 17 INT

Player A was a little more careful with the ball and Player B averaged an extra touchdown and a few more yards per season, but these two quarterbacks are almost statistically identical.  In this example, Player A is Tom Brady and Player B is Eli Manning.  I used the first 6 seasons as a starter because that was the cutoff before Brady’s team added Wes Welker and Randy Moss and he rewrote the NFL record books.  People forget this now, but Brady started his career as something of a game manager, although he had 3 rings by 2007 so he was pretty much unassailable.  Eli is the great mystery because, through his first 6 seasons as a starter, he had won 1 ring (and would win his second the following season), but you would never hear anyone say he was in the same class as Brady, even though they were essentially statistically identical quarterbacks who had both won Super Bowl rings.

I love this angle. Strip away the feelings that you associate with the Patriots, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning, and you see things differently. Of course things like Super Bowl victories, Spygate, and Tiki Barber’s barbs offer context that shouldn’t be ignored when assembling the legacy of these players, but narratives often take on a life of their own and warp the lens we view these players through for years afterward.

When Romo botched the hold in the playoff game against Seattle at the end of his first season as the Cowboys quarterback, it left an indelible mark on his career. This set the groundwork for him as the team scapegoat, and although there are many Romo-defenders, there are fans  whose unfavorable opinion of him can be traced back to that fateful PAT attempt in 2006.

On the other side of it, the stain of success doesn’t wash off either. Winning a Super Bowl does wonders for legacy. It can’t be taken away (nor should it be), but it also creates a weird, probably unfair gap between say, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. Or Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers, as weird as that is for me to write. I would still rather have Manning than Rivers, but the glint of the Super Bowl rings can be a little blinding. It’s like comparing two musicians with similar careers, only one of them landed an award that changed their life. It’s essentially impossible to separate the player and the accomplishments.

Hell, it’s even an issue sometimes divvying up the pie of success. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady go together like Emperor Palpatine and Anakin Skywalker. Anakin’s out there winning clone wars (and killing younglings), being the chosen one and all, but Palpatine was the guys working the strings. I’m not insisting that Anakin or Brady are “system quarterbacks” but you see what I’m getting at here. Usually nobody’s legacy takes a hit for winning Super Bowls (or building Death Stars), but that level of success does raise the question of how the glory should be divided. What Jim Harbaugh managed to accomplish in San Francisco looks even more impressive now that Kaepernick’s stock as a player has taken a hit. Where do you draw the line between Drew Brees and Sean Payton?

What I suppose I’m getting at is there’s more gray area than you’d expect when it comes to a player’s legacy. There’s not a ton of wiggle room in statistics,  but when you consider all the other factors that muddy up the water like coaching and the talent around the player, you can get pretty creative with your hot takes and judgements of them. These are like the special cards from UNO. When everyone around you is dropping numbers, all you have to do is reverse it or drop a wild card like “yeah, but doesn’t it hurt Brady’s legacy that the Patriots are playing like this without him?” and watch things shift. I’m a believer in the eyeball tests, and numbers usually don’t lie, but there’s so much to every story, you can’t help but pick and choose your favorite parts.


jimbearor – Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)



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