Tom Brady’s success could be a valuable NFL draft lesson for the Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Congratulations on your Super Bowl LV victory, Tom Brady.

Now that you’ve won your seventh championship and you’ve caught some of the greatest stars in the pantheon of American sports like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Robert Horry, you deserve every accolade that comes your way.

So crack open a Sam Adams and have one on me. Oops! Sorry. (Too soon, Pats fans?) OK, what pairs well with those regal repasts found in Tampa Waffle Houses anyway?

I’ll come clean. I used to be a Brady hater. I mean, if you weren’t a Patriots fan, how could you root for a guy who does nothing but win, has hundreds of millions of dollars and married a supermodel?

I’m convinced Brady made some sort of Faustian deal and at some point, he will be condemned to an eternity of being a Gorilla Glue hairspray salesman.

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But I’ve changed. I’m a Brady fan because he has become the ultimate NFL disruptor. He’s the guy who proved every coach and personnel genius wrong. For every talent evaluator holding a stopwatch, measuring a vertical jump and timing a three-cone drill, Brady proved a player’s immeasurable spirit is perhaps the most important metric.

We should never forget that Brady was the forgotten man. He’s the player who never should have played. He never should never won a championship, let alone seven. And even after six of them, he dared to strike out on his own and start over by fearlessly pursuing excellence with a team that had missed the playoffs for 12 straight years. Even with Brady and Rob Gronkowski and a good defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t considered serious Super Bowl contenders before the season.

But let’s go back even further than this season, because there are two very valuable lessons any NFL team — and especially for one like the Detroit Lions that have a top-10 pick — can learn from Brady’s journey.

The first lesson concerns the NFL draft. And it’s a big one.

Brady and Kurt Warner are the ultimate outlier underdogs. I wouldn’t expect any NFL team to strike gold and find hidden treasure like these two players, who were get-struck-by-lightning-while-winning-the-lottery accidents. And I certainly wouldn’t expect any sensible team to try to find another Brady by doing something laughably silly like drafting a quarterback in the sixth round in consecutive years.

But I would expect teams to learn a lesson about the problem with drafting a quarterback really high. I hate to go full nerd, but we have to do a little match to break down the recent success of highly drafted quarterbacks.

First, let’s look at how those quarterbacks did in the Super Bowl. And I’m even taking Brady out of the equation. If you look at the past 10 champions that didn’t have Brady on the roster — which takes us back to Super Bowl XLII — only four quarterbacks taken in the top 10 have won the Super Bowl: Patrick Mahomes (No. 10 overall), Peyton Manning (No. 1 overall) and Eli Manning (No. 1 overall) twice.

The other six Super Bowl winners — the majority — were led by six players taken after the top 10 picks: two third-round picks (Nick Foles and Russell Wilson), a second-round pick (Drew Brees), the 24th overall pick (Aaron Rodgers), the 18th overall pick (Joe Flacco) and the 11th overall pick (Ben Roethlisberger).

Again, I’m not even counting the four Super Bowls the sixth-rounder from Michigan won during that time.

Since the Super Bowl is a high bar, let’s set it a little lower and just look at the personal success of quarterbacks taken in the top 10. I’ll go back 13 years instead of 10; the QBs taken from 2018-20 don’t have enough of a track record. That goes all the way back to 2008, when Matt Ryan was picked No. 3 overall.

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To be clear, I’m talking about quarterbacks who have been truly great, which means guys who’ve been consistently excellent and have won big in the playoffs. In the 10 drafts from 2008-17, 17 quarterbacks were selected in the top 10; of those, only four qualify as great: Ryan, Cam Newton (No. 1 overall in 2011), Andrew Luck (No. 1 overall in 2012) and Mahomes.

Four out of 17. That’s it. That’s a 23.5% success rate.

I admit, the idea of greatness is subjective — but I think it’s reasonable, as those four each have at least three Pro Bowl nods and have made a conference championship game. And yes, there have been nine QBs taken in the past three drafts; of those, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert are promising — but it’s way too early to call them great. But I’m definitely not including Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff, two No. 1 picks who’ve shown promise but just got traded for each other like broken toys in a sandbox.

Again, sorry for all the math. My head hurts, too. But my point is that the odds of true, sustained excellence at quarterback are low, even when picking in the top 10.

And this brings me to my second point bought out by Brady’s low pick status: The only reason Brady was allowed to become the greatest quarterback of all time was because Bill Belichick made the bold choice of sticking with him and trading Drew Bledsoe, a nine-year vet who was still only 30 in 2002 and had made three Pro Bowls and taken the Pats to the Super Bowl in 1996. . Bledsoe was one year into a 10-year, $103 million deal (although the contract was built on approximately $30 million in guaranteed money). 

The easy thing to do for Belichick would have been to trade Brady as a hot commodity after his Super Bowl win following the 2001 season. Remember, Brady was good but not great during the regular season and Super Bowl run. But Belichick knew what he had and was willing to be patient and develop Brady’s greatness.

Belichick is an extreme example of doing the right thing by showing the unsentimental discipline to pursue what he believed was right, rather than what might have been more convenient and less risky.

The Lions might find themselves in a similar situation in the near future if they draft a young quarterback while figuring out how long to stick with Goff, a high-priced young veteran with two Pro Bowl nods, a Super Bowl start and a strong tie to the general manager.

It’s hard to imagine the Lions, who stuck with Stafford way too long, being as unsentimental as the Patriots were when they launched their dynasty nearly 20 years ago. But hey, it’s also hard to imagine a Super Bowl celebration in a Waffle House.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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