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Rodgers, Brees MVP frontrunners, but don't dismiss Brady

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Aaron Rodgers will win this season's MVP award, and he should. I can't imagine where Green Bay would be without him. But there's someone as deserving who won't get the attention, the votes or the hardware, and not because he's done something wrong but because he almost always does something right.

And that's New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Brady is such a superb quarterback that he's become a victim of his own success. Basically, we don't appreciate him for what he is because he's been that way for years. So he wins a zillion games, throws for a slew of yards and touchdowns, leads New England to another division title, and we yawn. He's done it so often that we're inured to it, forgetting how good he really is.

And he's so good now that despite playing with the league's worst defense ... despite playing with its most porous secondary ... despite having no outside threat to launch a vertical passing game ... despite having no franchise running back ... despite losing his starting center ... he still has the Patriots on track to be the AFC's top seed for the upcoming playoffs.

That's not just an accomplishment; it's a coup.

"I think Tom Brady is appreciated," said former head coach Brian Billick, now an analyst with Fox and the NFL Network. "But there's no denying that Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are having phenomenal years, and you'd have to say they're having better years. But from the standpoint of supporting casts? Green Bay is probably first, New Orleans second and New England a distant third."

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That's an understatement. Yet instead of marveling at how Brady does so much with so little, we spend our time debating who's having the better season -- Rodgers or the Saints' Drew Brees -- and, believe me, I understand. Rodgers can't lose, hasn't had a passer rating lower than 106.2 and is performing so adroitly he could become the league's second unanimous MVP in two years.

Brees, meanwhile, keeps piling up touchdowns, is on target to break Dan Marino's yardage record and is closing in on John Unitas' mark for consecutive games with a TD pass. If Rodgers is numero uno at quarterback, Brees is 1-A, pushed to the second chair only by Rodgers' near-flawless play.

But what about Brady? Well, he just keeps doing what he's always done, which is winning, only now he's doing it with the league's 32nd-ranked defense. Nevertheless, that's not enough to gain him the attention he deserves.

But I'd argue that if there's anyone out there who should press Rodgers for MVP -- if there's anyone who is most valuable in the truest sense of the award -- it's Tom Brady. He doesn't have the receivers Rodgers and Brees have. His offensive line is nothing special. His running backs aren't as proficient. And his defense stinks. Yet somehow, some way, New England continues to win.

Yeah, I know, the Packers aren't scintillating on defense, either, especially against the pass -- and I'm being kind. But they have playmakers on that side of the ball. I'm talking about people like Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Tramon Williams. Woodson was the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. Matthews was the runner-up one year later. And Williams was the defensive star of last year's playoffs.

Now, tell me what difference maker New England has, especially in its secondary. Julian Edelman? Nope, the Patriots keep winning because of Tom Brady, which means this year is no different than the year before ... or the year before that ... or the year before that.

"He makes everything look so easy," said former coach Eric Mangini, now with ESPN, "that you forget how good he is. He makes the exceptional look commonplace, and it's not. It's special, but he does it so often it's just another day at the office. We've become spoiled."

So Brady wins, the Patriots are the AFC's top seed and we barely notice. It happens. Heck, Chuck Noll never was the league's Coach of the Year, and Phil Jackson won the NBA's award just once. The more they won the more we started thinking they were successful because ... well, because they had more talent than everyone else ... so, we figured, that put them at an advantage.

But that's my point with Brady: He wins without as much talent as everyone else. And it's been that way for years.

With the exception of Randy Moss, Brady never had an elite wide receiver. In fact, the Patriots haven't drafted a wide receiver in the first round on coach Bill Belichick's watch. So Brady makes the best of what he has, and in 2006 what he had was Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney as go-to receivers. Nevertheless, he came this close to advancing to another Super Bowl.

"The difference between Tom Brady and other quarterbacks," said one AFC coach, "is that with Tom Brady it's never a matter of who he plays with. They all get better."

Wes Welker is Exhibit A. Welker annually leads the league in catches, but was rarely a starter in Miami before he was teamed with Brady. Now he's a Pro Bowl regular. Welker and Deion Branch are Brady's favorite outside targets, and both are 30 or older, under 5-10 and without top-end speed. No problem. Brady turns to tight end Rob Gronkowski, makes him a red zone weapon and the Patriots keep pushing forward.

Connect the dots, people. Other than the head coach, there's one constant in the Patriots' decade of success, and it's the quarterback. No club in NFL history has reached a Super Bowl with the league's 32nd-ranked defense, but New England will try -- and it has a chance because of Brady.

"It's Tom Brady's offense where, with Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, you have to say they're playing in Sean Payton's and Mike McCarthy's offenses," Billick said. "But Tom Brady is just like Peyton Manning. They are the offensive coordinators."

I was on a Milwaukee radio station recently when the host asked if I ever witnessed a season like the one Rodgers is having. I said, yes, as a matter of fact, I had: Tom Brady in 2007. When he challenged me, questioning if Brady didn't make the mistakes that Rodgers avoids now, I told him to look it up. And he did.

Through his first 12 starts this season Rodgers has completed 70.6 percent of his passes for 3,844 yards, with 37 touchdowns and five interceptions. Now look at Brady in 2007: Through his first 12 games he completed 70.2 of his passes for 3,696 yards, with 41 touchdowns and five interceptions.

But here's the number I like most: .774. That's Brady's career winning percentage. No other quarterback in the Super Bowl era is higher. He wins passing titles. He wins division championships. He wins conference championships. He wins league MVPs. Most important, he wins Super Bowls. He's been to four, winning three, and tell me what quarterback in today's game can say that.

People keep telling me he's not having a stellar season and that an elbow injury may be responsible. I don't know about that. Brady threw for a franchise-record 517 yards in the season opener, then followed with a 400-yard effort. Like Brees, he's on schedule to break Marino's single-season yardage record. He's also on schedule to throw 40 touchdowns, joining Marino as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to get there. He has touchdown passes in 28 straight starts. He hasn't thrown an interception in his last four. And his passer rating is 100 or better in nine of 12 games.

All I know is that the Patriots were non-factors until Brady showed up. Then they went to four Super Bowls, and draw your own conclusions. I have. A writer I respect once told me you could make the case each year for Tom Brady as league MVP. Now, more than ever, I understand what he meant.

"I don't like getting in this debate," said Billick, "but when you talk about the greatest quarterbacks of all time, clearly, he's in the discussion -- and his three Super Bowls are the 'screw-you' part of the argument."

I'll second that.

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