Phoenix – Malcolm Butler made the play. Tom Brady will benefit. That’s how NFL legacies are made.
Because of one play, on Monday Bill Belichick and Brady took a podium at the Phoenix Convention Center and spoke, or tried to avoid speaking, of their places in NFL history.
Because of one play, Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell were transformed from the smartest guys on the sideline into punchlines of jokes delivered with thick Boston accents.
One play decided the fate of a very big game on Sunday, and altered the reputations of two or more tremendous coaches, and it has always been thus in a sport where tipped passes and special teams foibles can determine outcomes as surely as a beautifully thrown fade.
The Seahawks faced second-down and goal. The ball was inside the Patriots’ 1-yard-line. Seattle passed, calling the riskiest of goal-line plays — a throw that would need to navigate the raised arms of a defensive line, to an uncelebrated receiver at a crowded goal line.
An undrafted rookie cornerback jumped the route as if he had been preparing for that play his entire life, and the Patriots won the Super Bowl.
That play meant Brady tied Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with four Super Bowl victories. It positioned Brady to be celebrated as the greatest quarterback ever.
That play meant that Belichick has won four Super Bowls, tying him with Chuck Noll.
Had the Seahawks scored, Carroll would have become the first coach ever to win two national titles in college and two Super Bowls, and Russell Wilson would have become the first quarterback ever to win two Super Bowls in his first three seasons.
This is how it works in conversations across America: People remember the outcome, not the whim.
Kurt Warner was not elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. Had James Harrison not picked off a pass at the goal line and somehow returned it for a touchdown as time ran out in the first half — or if Santonio Holmes hadn’t toe-tapped for a touchdown in the waning seconds — Warner would have won Super Bowls with two previously hapless teams. He probably would have made it on the first ballot.
Had Jackie Smith not dropped a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII, Tom Landry might have tied Noll with three Super Bowl victories.
Had Titans receiver Kevin Dyson been able to stretch the football across the end zone at the end of Super Bowl XXXIV, Jeff Fisher may have won a Super Bowl and the Greatest Show on Turf — the Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz Rams — may not have.
Pick a close Super Bowl. One play, often a play made by a player who would have to buy a ticket to get into the Hall, probably altered the outcome of the game, and the reputation of a coach or quarterback.
Isn’t that too simplistic?
Would Brady be any less admirable if the Seahawks had scored?
Is Wilson less of a quarterback because the accurate pass he threw on the goal line probably shouldn’t have been called in the first place, and his receiver got knocked out of the way by a cornerback who made a spectacular play?
Was Roger Staubach a lesser quarterback than Bradshaw because Smith dropped that pass, or because Bradshaw had the benefit of an even better defense than Doomsday?
Discussions about ‘‘legacies’’ neglect what often produced them: a play or series of plays that often involved luck or fate as much as genius.
In this postseason alone, the difference between winners and losers was often the width of a yellow flag or the length of a fingernail.
The Cowboys beat the Lions in part because of a poor official’s call. The Packers beat the Cowboys in part because of a bad official’s call. The Seahawks beat the Packers in part because a special-teams player tried to catch an onside kick after being instructed not to do it.
The Patriots beat the Seahawks in part because a strange play call led to a spectacular play by an unknown player.
The line between coaches and players talking about legacies, and coaches and players talking about losing, is about as thin as Butler’s résumé.
Brady, Wilson and Belichick shouldn’t be viewed any differently today than if that last play had produced a touchdown.
For Carroll and Bevell, the sting should linger.
Because, unlike the others, they were in control.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at souhanunfiltered.com. On