Greg Cote

Greg Cote: History will determine legacies of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady holds up Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady holds up Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. AP

It may have been the greatest Super Bowl of all 49 for a confluence of reasons.

Few before have matched the drama of the pedigreed Patriots rallying in the fourth quarter to beat the defending champion Seahawks 28-24 in the final minute Sunday night. The excitement was reflected in a record TV rating of 49.7 that broke a mark that had stood 33 years – the latest indication that no amount of scandal or controversy dents the popularity of the colossus NFL.

The ancillary stuff all worked, too.

The halftime show by Katy Perry was a consensus winner without malfunction.

Many of the ballyhooed commercials lived up to expectations as well, including the top-rated Budweiser ad starring the adorable puppy. (Aside to the Clydesdales, equine kings of Super Bowl Sundays: Hire an agent. Demand air-conditioned stalls, limitless carrots and double the hay).

The only real complaint heard come Monday was the manner in which the Seahawks somehow managed to not win, and the vitriolic second-guessing of coach Pete Carroll’s decision to not hand Marshawn Lynch the football on second-and-goal from the 1 with 26 seconds to play and one timeout left.

It is being labeled the worst call in Super Bowl history as fans of Seattle and know-it-all sports media predictably play the result with perfect hindsight. I think Cris Collinsworth is somewhere right now still shaking his head and incredulously muttering, “I can’t BELIEVE the call!”

Should Lynch have gotten the ball? Yes, probably. But just as true, Carroll would be lauded today as the unpredictable, daring genius had Russell Wilson completed that typically low-risk pass rather than see it intercepted.

How close Seattle was to winning 31-28 and reigning as the first back-to-back champion since 2003-04 reminds us again of the nearly nonexistent line in sports separating the championship parade from painful failure. Remember Ray Allen’s playoff 3-pointer for the Heat that changed everything in 2013? How about Steve Bartman reaching for that foul ball at Wrigley Field and how that helped alter Marlins history?

What-ifs are an endless fascination of sports. The team with more talent and skill usually wins. But sometimes good bounces and bad luck and calls not made trump everything.

New England was one play — perhaps a handoff to Lynch — from being the team that had just lost its third Super Bowl in a row since last winning one. Tom Brady’s performance that earned him the MVP award would not have changed, but Seattle winning would have changed the storyline to the degree Brady would now be the doubted 37-year-old fading star of dubious future instead of the reaffirmed champion who regally silenced all the doubters.

The controversy over Carroll’s ill-fated last call is part of what makes this Super Bowl so interesting. Argument is part of the lifeblood of sports, and debating a coaching decision is a lot more fun than when, say, an officiating mistake decides a game.

The controversy shadowing the Patriots, of course, is larger and will last longer than Carroll’s late play-call.

History will take its time and decide whether to affix an asterisk to Brady and coach Bill Belichick’s accomplishment of four Super Bowl championships, a record for a coach/QB combo. It won’t be a literal asterisk in a record book, it will be the kind assigned by consensus of public opinion. It will be what Barry Bonds wears on his forehead like a scarlet letter.

Are the Belichick/Brady Patriots cheaters?

They were in the 2007 “Spygate” incident, found guilty by the NFL, which socked Belichick with a $500,000 fine and made the club forfeit a first-round draft pick. They may or may not be in the “Deflategate” matter involving under-inflated footballs.

Brady and Belichick’s excellence and Hall of Fame careers stand bigger than any corner they have cut. But the questions of fairness, sportsmanship, competitive balance and integrity do complicate the legacy of both men and what they have accomplished.

Just as any fair story of Pete Rose’s life would mention his record for most hits first but surely not ignore the lifetime ban for gambling, the story of Belichick and Brady must start with the record four Super Bowl rings, but cannot ignore the more dissonant, off-key ring of rules-finagling.

The idea that some would decry the Patriots as undeserving cheaters even as others would admire them as historic champions – that is just one more reason why this Super Bowl will endure as memorable.

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