In the NFL the legacies of great players are measured by championships. One title can validate a career and multiple titles can put players among the game’s all-time elite. Although some individual games shouldn’t define careers they go a long way in deciding who gets enshrined in Canton.
There are substantial legacies on the line this Sunday for four men, each of whom may never be in this position again.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is undoubtedly going to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame once his career is finished. Regardless of whether he wins and joins Chuck Noll as the only two head coaches to win four Super Bowls or if his team falls short, Belichick will still be considered by most to be the greatest coach not only in the NFL but in all of sports.
There is one elephant in the room when resonating on Belichick’s career….Spygate.
As much as the Patriots and Roger Goodell would like everyone to move on past Belichick and his lackey’s videotaping beginning from Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams all the way through the 2006 season, the simple little fact that New England hasn’t won a championship since still remains.
“We moved on from everything in the past. We are focused on this game. That’s it,” a defiant Bill Belichick said when asked about the scandal earlier in the week.
As important as it is for Belichick to win his fourth title to pull even with Chuck Noll, it’s infinitely more imperative that Belichick and the Patriots officially wash the stink off a scandal which began a decade ago. A championship on Sunday won’t make Spygate go away, but it will prove that Belichick’s most valuable coaching tool in winning a title wasn’t sold by Kodak.
Forever linked with Bill Belichick is his quarterback Tom Brady. The nearly decade-old discussion of which man is more important, Brady or Belichick can be argued both ways and like Belichick, Tom Brady will be enshrined in Canton once his career is over. Also like Belichick, Tom Brady is forever linked to Spygate even though it’s impossible to tell how much he benefited from the “bootleg knowledge.”
With a victory on Sunday Tom Brady moves into a tie with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to ever win four Super Bowls. Unlike both Bradshaw and Montana, Brady has never played with another Hall of Famer on offense during his championship runs and his five Super Bowl appearances are one more than both legends.
“It’s incredible,” Brady said of being in his fifth Super Bowl. “You watch this game; I was a kid growing up, a 49er fan, so I got to watch a lot of Super Bowls.
“You pinch yourself to get this opportunity. I’m privileged to be part of an incredible organization to play with a great group of teammates.”
Brady has showed an ability to be clutch on the world’s grandest stage and dispelled any perceptions of him being a game manager, as he has proven he can beat any defense with his arm and put up statistics as tall as any quarterback in the history of the game.
If Brady falls short on Sunday it’s realistic to believe that he may not ever get back to another Super Bowl. Tom may be terrific but he will also turn 35 years old before the end of training camp. With the league’s 31st ranked defense and ascending teams in the AFC like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston, the window of opportunity for Brady may seal shut very soon. With another Super Bowl loss to the Giants, Brady, along with his boss will have never won a title post-Spygate and the two losses to New York will certainly depreciate a big portion of the luster from the other three titles.
On the opposite sideline, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin went from the hot seat in November to potential supremacy in February. If Coughlin wins his second Super Bowl, his brash, autocratic coaching style will be advocated. Tom would join the dozen NFL head coaches with two or more Super Bowl victories and would ultimately become a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame.
“I have always loved him as a guy,” Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. “He is probably one of the better men I have ever been around. Him and his coaching style, it’s definitely (never) been anything I have ever been a part of which is fine, we are all different people. (But) eventually you are going to get with his program. He is the bossman and we are his soldiers. We got to get with his program and it works. Eventually it works.”
A victory Sunday erases some of Coughlin’s earlier personality conflicts with Tiki Barber and Michael Strahan. It also removes his failures as the Jaguars general manager during the team’s early days and washes away the missed title opportunities in the late 90’s.
At 65 years old, the end of Coughlin’s career is approaching rapidly. With the enormous pressures of coaching in New York and nothing else to prove with a pair of titles, Coughlin can take the path of Bill Walsh and leave on top.
Unlike Belichick, Brady and Coughlin, Eli Manning’s NFL hourglass still has plenty of sand left. At 30 years of age, Manning is just hitting his prime as a quarterback and he’s expected to play at a high level for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean that he will necessarily be back.
“You try to work hard to get to this position,” Manning said about the team being back in the Super Bowl. “Having been in the NFL for eight years, you realize how rare it is to get here, how special it is and what a great opportunity it is.”
With young guns such as Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton ascending and Drew Brees, Jay Cutler and Tony Romo still formidable foes, the Giants aren’t guaranteed any future success. In fact, this is only the second time that New York has made the postseason since their 2007 run.
“Everybody’s in a different circumstance. You want to relay to the young guys that this may be their last one. Whether you’re in your 14th year or you’re in your first year, both of those guys have to treat that the same. In my eighth year, this might be the last one I ever get to. You want to make the most of it and make sure you don’t let it slip away,” Manning explained.
Beating the Patriots on Sunday would give Eli Manning two Super Bowls, one more than the older brother whose shadow he’s resided in for much of his life. More importantly it labels him as the “Tom Brady slayer” and puts him in rarefied air with multiple titles. Two Super Bowls doesn’t guarantee you a spot in Canton, but it gets you very close. Seven of the 10 quarterbacks with two or more Super Bowl titles are in the Hall of Fame. Two of the three others are active in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, leaving just Jim Plunkett as the only eligible signal caller not to get in.
It’s safe to say that Eli Manning is the only Super Bowl winning quarterback ever to be questioned if he’s the best signal caller in his own family. A second ring may not lay that issue to rest for some, but will give him bragging rights and put him well on his way to making his own legacy which doesn’t include being “Peyton’s brother.”
By Sunday night, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady may very welll have washed away some of the pungent odor from Spygate and become NFL legends of the highest stature. With a victory Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning will punch their tickets to Canton and write history of their own. We don’t know which storyline will ring true but we can speculate that this just might be the final time that either of the four men will ever be in this position.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie