In February 2002, the New England Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and a 24-year-old Tom Brady was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. With the country still reeling from the September 11 attacks a few months earlier, the game itself was staged as a tribute to a nation in crisis, determined to hold together against an unprecedented threat to democracy. The Patriots, in their red-white-and-blue uniforms, took the field as a team all at once rather than be introduced individually, as was the tradition in Super Bowls. This led the Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter to refer to the Patriots as the “United Team of America.”
Nineteen years later, as Brady, now 43, achieved his seventh Super Bowl victory—thereby cementing his position as the most successful quarterback in football history—much of the nation looked upon him with contempt. Never mind that many of those people couldn’t quite explain why; never mind that, as Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon suggested, Brady might be the last thing left in America that still works. Over nearly two decades, Brady’s Patriots became one of the most reviled sports franchises in every city southwest of Hartford. Even as Brady defected to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, his agelessness, his air of superiority, his infuriating brilliance in pressure situations, his famously spartan diet, his enduring marriage to a supermodel, and his political sensibilities all evoked a sense of utter weariness. Him again?
Yes, him again: Brady was named the MVP of Tampa Bay’s 31–9 dismantling of the Kansas City Chiefs, whose outstanding quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, was 6 years old when Brady won his first Super Bowl. Yesterday’s game was not good at all; it was a throwback, in fact, to the 1980s and ’90s, when Super Bowls regularly turned into ugly blowouts that allowed us to focus more on the commercials and the halftime show. Mahomes played perhaps the worst game of his career. Brady made hardly any mistakes. In a way, there was something fitting about that sense of Brady-induced fatigue: This was the most exhausting football season of them all, a complex slog through one of the darkest periods in American history. Super Bowl LV was the 269th and final game of a campaign that often felt more like the fulfillment of an obligation than the embrace of a pleasurable distraction.
The NFL took great pride in the fact that it did not have to cancel a single game all year long—even if it did have to contort its schedule in unprecedented ways to keep things moving amid the COVID-19 outbreaks that threatened to derail the season. This has long been the ethos of pro football, even before the Super Bowl came to exist: It is a jumble of clichés about fighting through pain and persisting in the face of adversity. (It is also a league with the massive profits to ramp up COVID-19 testing and compile data in ways that the rest of the nation hasn’t benefited from.) “So many doubters never believed we’d get to this night,” the CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz said during the Super Bowl broadcast. A few days earlier, his boss, the CBS Sports chairman, Sean McManus, told The New York Times, “I think America needs this Super Bowl.”
And so the NFL went in hard on those clichés that have built football into America’s most popular sport. One of the final pregame preludes was delivered by a holographic image of the famed (and long-deceased) Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who launched into the sort of rousing pregame speech that once elevated him to the Platonic ideal of a professional football coach. Some 54 years after Lombardi’s Packers won the first Super Bowl, the NFL was attempting to amplify Lombardi’s words into a pep talk for the entire nation, at a moment when it was natural to wonder whether the biggest spectacle in American sports should be held at all. You could argue, of course, that McManus was right—that just having a Super Bowl, let alone one with 25,000 fans in attendance, including thousands of vaccinated first responders, was a victory for a nation that’s in a pretty dark place. But mostly, it just felt like a relief—the season was over.
Brady has made noise about playing until he’s at least 45, and he could be back in this game again next year, when it will hopefully be freighted with a sense of normalcy. That would be yet another remarkable Brady achievement, if he gets there—20 years between Super Bowls, in a sport that tends to physically grind its heroes to dust over time. Maybe we’ll appreciate all of this more when his career is finally finished. But for now, it is hard not to be worn out by Brady’s apparent perfection (even his juiciest scandal seems retrospectively ridiculous), by his utter singularity, by his exasperating excellence in a nation that’s been forced, during the past year, to confront the price of both its fractiousness and its organizational incompetence. There is no more United Team of America. There is only Tom Brady, standing above us all. Of course it’s him again. Who else could it be?