We were spoiled last weekend, between Paris and Minneapolis. One event offered up a great finish; the other, a great match, from start to end. Combined, they produced three quarterback displays for the ages, in the heroics of Tom Brady, Nick Foles, and Johnny Sexton.
There is no other team sport that is more reliant on one position consistently throughout a contest as a gridiron team is on its quarterback.
The point guard spot in basketball doesn’t quite carry the same responsibility. Although they’re often described as the coach’s extension on the floor, the team’s best decision-maker, in practice they’re not quite the fulcrum of the team as they’re made out. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James won multiple NBA championships with guys called BJ Armstrong, Derek Fisher, and Mario Chalmers at the guard spot. None of the latter trio will be joining the previous trio in the Hall of Fame.
Likewise in soccer there is no fixed position that so much hinges on. Although they say a top goalkeeper can be worth up to 20 points a season — a Schmeichel in ’95-96 — and an elite striker can be worth even more — a Shearer the season before that — the team doesn’t revolve around them.
The one sport and spot that most approximates the quarterback in significance is the rugby out-half. While their duties of running an offence are shared with a scrum-half, they are hardly a junior partner in that relationship. They have to be a playmaker. They have to be a piano player, as much as they owe to all the piano lifters around them, willing to break their ribs and noses and necks in service of their team and leader. And, unlike the quarterback, invariably the out-half is the team’s goalkicker too. Add it all up and it amounts to much the same as a quarterback. It’s the top spot, kid. Leading that team downfield, standing over that kick, you have to make them believe.
Johnny Sexton’s play last Saturday in Paris won’t just be remembered because of The Kick. Before The Kick there was The Drive, as magnificent and magical as John Elway’s immortal play in the AFC Championship final or any time Brady led the Patriots from one endzone to the other.
The other morning, Brian O’Driscoll spoke on Off The Ball how Sexton would have perceived last Saturday’s situation as less pressure and more opportunity. “It’s those moments that he literally lives for. He wants as much pressure [as possible] — he wants the onus to be put on him. In that regards, he’s very Johnny Wilkinson-eque and ROG [Ronan O’Gara]
A lot of players will shy away from those moments but not them. That’s why they’ve done all that practice.”
To that list O’Driscoll could have added Michael Jordan. Listening to him speak about his former club and international teammate, it was strikingly similar to how the former Philadelphia 76ers coach Jim Lynam once spoke about Michael Jordan’s willingness to take the last shot.
“He loves that challenge,” Lynam would say. “I mean, literally, if he could play 82 close games where he had the ball with the game on the line, that would be his dream season.”
Larry Tompkins had the same outlook. Six years ago in this paper Donal O’Grady identified Tompkins’ equalising free with the last kick of the 1987 All Ireland semi-final as the greatest clutch play he had seen to that point. The ball had been outside the 45-metre line. Miss and Cork’s season was over. Only Tompkins didn’t look at it like that.
“To me there was no pressure,” he’d once tell this column. “I was just glad to get that free. It wasn’t a case of it being a big deal, it was what I wanted, what I had dreamed about, to be in a position like that. When I was down kicking all those frees down in the Mardyke, I didn’t want my only audience to be the birds down there and never get to do it in front of a crowd. It was the ideal situation for me. When I looked up, it was as if the goals were right next to me, I was so sure from all the practice it was going over.”
Like Sexton, he had pictured it, he had practised for it, and because of that, he wanted it.
Back in 2000, the same year that Sexton’s old friend and foe Ronan O’Gara missed four kicks in the Heineken Cup final, a group of psychologists called Blascovich and Mendes identified there were two responses to what O’Driscoll described “the most horrific of pressurised situations” in sport.
Some athletes entered what they termed a Threat State, where their tendency was to shy away from the moment. The more successful athletes in contrast experienced a Challenge State. By looking at the situation as an opportunity and one they could achieve, their body reacted appropriately: blood was delivered to the brain efficiently, allowing for proper decision-making, while the necessary energy and oxygen was supplied to the muscles too, facilitating the necessary physical movement and skill execution.
Four years ago a study by Drs Martin Turner and Jamie Baker came to a similar conclusion. Cricketers who responded to a pressured batting test in a challenge state scored significantly more runs and were dismissed significantly less often than those stuck in a threat state. But the irony of entering the challenge state is that while you’ve prepared to succeed, you’re also prepared to live with failure.
It was a realisation that O’Gara came to in the wake of Twickenham. His last miss that day he would refer to as The Kick, which obviously didn’t go as well as Sexton’s the last day.
“I knew I was going to spend some time living with The Kick,” he’d reflect. “When people thought of me they were going to think of it. Whatever I did in rugby or in life that kick was part of my story. How big a part? That was up to me. I was tormented for weeks but sport does that to you... You get on with it. I couldn’t ever take that kick again. I had to believe there would be other big days and other big kicks.”
So there would. Three years later in Cardiff he’d produce a dramatic long-range drop-goal with the last kick of the game though everyone now seems to forget it, because The Kick against Wales would be another one in 2009.
Sexton also understands what sport does to you. Especially if you’re the quarterback. In his debut Six Nations campaign of 2010 he missed a series of kicks against Scotland that cost Ireland the Triple Crown. Then there was The Miss against the All Blacks. That day he cost the team a famous win. Last Saturday he bailed out the team, giving them a famous win.
The following night Brady similarly rolled the dice. The greatest football player ever produced possibly his greatest performance ever — and still lost. Some commentators have argued his legacy is diminished for losing — and reaching — another Super Bowl but to Brady such
an argument from the cold, timid souls is irrelevant.
“If you’re not in the game you don’t have the chance to win,” he’d reason after his side’s epic loss to the Foles-inspired Philadelphia Eagles. “If you want to be world champions, you have to play in this game. I’ve played in eight of them [and lost three] and they’re all good games.
“Losing sucks. You try to win and sometimes you lose. That’s the way it goes.”
As O’Gara might say and Sexton can testify, sport does that to you.
But as they and Brady know, you can only win by standing up. And be willing again to take the fall.