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Jerry Sullivan: Brady a great athlete, by any definition

The question was simple and direct. Is Tom Brady a great athlete? Lorenzo Alexander laughed out loud and eyed me suspiciously, as if I were some New England infiltrator looking to get motivational fodder for the enemy.

"Why do you want to ask me that before we play him?" the Bills veteran linebacker said Friday afternoon. But you know 'Zo, he's a straight-up guy who doesn't back away from the tough ones.

"On paper, no," Alexander said. "He'd probably tell you the same thing. But he has mastered the athleticism you need to be a pocket quarterback. He has great feet, great awareness, he moves around the pocket very well. That's really all you need."

It's a pretty standard answer. Quarterbacks are the most important players in football, maybe in all of sports. You hear them described as leaders, masterminds, field generals. But great athletes, rarely.

"No way," said guard Richie Incognito, who claims he's never wrong on any issue. "He's really not a great athlete. I mean, Tyrod's a better athlete. LeBron James is a better athlete than Tom Brady."

They didn't mean it as disrespect. It's not as if Brady, the best ever to play the position, needs any further motivation. As Alexander said, Brady might not even regard himself as a great athlete in the strictest sense.

But that's where I have an issue. What exactly qualifies someone as a great athlete? I've had arguments for years about the subject, often when it came to my favorite sport of pro basketball. The word is too narrowly defined in the modern sporting conversation.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were two of the greatest basketball players of all time (Magic is No. 1 in my book), but they were dismissed as athletes because they didn't run fast or jump particularly high.

Johnson and Bird were characterized as geniuses on the court, as if the cerebral part of the game were a separate distinction with an athlete, apart from the raw natural gifts of foot speed, quickness and leaping.

My contention has been that vision, touch, hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, durability and competitive will were all vital parts of being an athlete, complementing the raw physical skills inherent to the sport.

Merriam-Webster, which has been at the word game since 1828, defines an athlete as "a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina."

That sounds broader than the more narrowly defined "athleticism" we hear in the modern lexicon. A common synonym is "sportsman," which might explain why Sports Illustrated picks a sportsman (or sportswoman) of the year. Maybe SI wants to avoid the complicated athlete argument.

"I think athleticism is something that's God-given," Alexander said. "What we're talking about is skill set, those things you can work on and develop over time. Being smart, understanding the game and how it's played. Nobody's asking Brady to run 4.4 or jump out of the gym, because those are not the measurables you need to be a great quarterback.

"So, is he a great athlete? No, but he's a great quarterback and uses his athleticism to extend plays and do things that make him great."

We can debate this all day. That's what makes it fun, like arguing about what it means to be a most valuable player. Value is hard to define, which makes the debate so endlessly fascinating and infuriating.

Maybe the clearest distinction to make is between team sports, like baseball and football, and those that require a singular physical skill, like running or swimming. But what about tennis or golf? Is Tiger Woods not a great athlete because he doesn't run the ball into the hole?

And back to the locker room, we're talking about one NFL player vs. another. I don't care if Taylor can beat Brady in a sprint. Brady is a far better athlete. His ability to make those subtle slide moves in the pocket, reading the defense while impossibly large and swift players are chasing him with mayhem in their hearts, is an amazing athletic skill.

OK, it's hard to compare Brady with, say, Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, perhaps the two greatest Olympic athletes ever. Maybe we should limit it to team sports, where a player lifts the team around him. Mainly, it comes down to winning. That's why Incognito is partial to Michael Jordan.

That's where Brady rises above the rest. I've considered him the greatest quarterback of all time for more than a decade. Many of the skeptics came into the tent after last year's Super Bowl. Now I'm ready to suggest that Brady is making a case for the greatest male athlete -- sorry, team sports player -- of all time.

During Brady's career, we've become even more cognizant of the importance of quarterback play. Bills fans have learned the hard way, by watching their team miss the playoffs for 17 years while Brady and the Patriots enjoy an unprecedented run of success.

Brady has the NFL record for regular-season and playoff wins by a quarterback. He has won five Super Bowls and within two plays of seven. The Pats have appeared in a staggering 11 AFC championship games in the 16 years in which he played a full season.

The remarkable thing is, he's gotten better with age. Brady has played 39 regular-season games since the DeflateGate scandal broke after the 2015 title game. In those games, he has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 11,698 yards, with 90 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.

That's exactly 300 yards passing a game with an 0.8 interception rate. Taylor's career interception rate is 1.5 percent, which would be the NFL record if he had the minimum 1,500 pass attempts.

Brady's numbers since DeflateGate were compiled at age 37 or older, when most quarterbacks have hung it up or fallen into decline — and they're better than his career numbers in every category.

Oh, lest we forget, he also engineered the two greatest Super Bowl comebacks against Seattle and Atlanta after his 37th birthday, throwing 50 times in one game and a record 62 in the other.

Today at New Era Field, Brady will attempt to beat the Bills for the 27th time, which would be an NFL record for a quarterback against a single opponent. He's 54-10 (84.4 percent) in December, second among QBs in the Super Bowl era to Roger Staubach, who was 17-3.

The Patriots have won their last five games in Buffalo, averaging 38 points a game. Brady has averaged 354 yards passing in those games. He set the record for a visiting QB when he threw for 466 here in 2015.

Not bad for an ordinary athlete. Bills fans can take hope in the fact that Brady has thrown more than two picks in a game once in 10 years — when he threw four against the Bills in a 34-31 loss in 2011. He had 387 passing yards and four TDs, but a couple of bounces went the Bills' way.

So hope for a few bounces and root against him. Brady is an easy guy to hate; he ripped the Buffalo hotels once, remember? But appreciate that, by any definition, you're watching one of the best athletes who ever lived. When he's done, you'll never seen anyone like him again.

Try not to dwell on the fact that he might be doing it for another five years.

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