My first New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to take a step back and look at the big picture more,  to not get caught up in the moment but also to take stock of things as they are and not as I’ve believed them to be my whole life.

Naturally, the first thing I’ve applied this new guiding principle to is sports, and it has led me to reach a conclusion that I never thought I would utter in my lifetime:

Tom Brady has passed Larry Bird as the greatest player in Boston in the last 35 years.

Note that I didn’t say athlete. Both are/were great athletes. They wouldn’t have dominated their sports if they weren’t. But better athletes have donned Boston-area uniforms in the last 35 years. Clearly, Brady vs. Bird would make for a long, awkward footrace, no?

For the last 25 years, around the time Bird picked up MVP No. 3 and championship No. 3, Boston’s sports Mount Rushmore has consisted of Bird, Bobby Orr, Bill Russell and Ted Williams. But Brady has bumped Bird off the rock. And sorry, until someone chisels the visage of Gerald Ford on the actual Mount Rushmore, we only have room for four faces on any hypothetical facsimile.

Bird was the king of Boston sports in the 1980s and well beyond when he retired in 1992. Roger Clemens, Ray Bourque and Drew Bledsoe made runs at him during that time, but until Pedro Martinez arrived in Boston in 1998, no one was as revered and respected.

Bird played in 12 All-Star games, won the Rookie of the Year and three straight MVP (and two Finals MVP) awards and played in five Finals, winning three. He and Magic Johnson were the faces of the NBA until Michael Jordan came along. They are credited with first rescuing the league from its drug-addled 1970s, then taking it to unprecedented heights of popularity.

Bird is considered by many to be the greatest forward who ever lived, and those who don’t put him at No. 1 usually at least have them in their all-time starting five.

But what made Bird so beloved in New England was he outworked everyone else to become a great player, one who could take over a game any time he wanted, yet focused much of his energy on making the team better.

Brady is on his way to his second Most Valuable Player Award. His team is favored to reach its fifth Super Bowl and win its fourth. He set a record this season for most consecutive pass attempts without an interception and holds numerous other individual records, including most touchdowns in a single season.

Like Bird, Brady outworked everyone to become the best. He, too, has shared the distinction of being the face of his sport, in his case with Manning. Their rivalry, like the Bird/Magic rivalry, is among the greatest their sport has ever had to offer. While the NFL was thriving when they became pros, it is more popular and profitable than ever (making it the perfect time for a work stoppage, I suppose), in part because of their dominance.

Brady has also elevated his teammates to unexpected levels. The ones who were already very good or great, such as Randy Moss and Corey Dillon, had their best seasons playing with Brady. Countless other guys, guys no one outside of New England would have heard of otherwise, went to the Pro Bowl, or at least had the best years of their career, playing with No. 12. Troy Brown, as justifiable as the love he receives from Patriots fans is, is Exhibit A.

The 2010 Patriots have a couple of Troy Browns in Wes Welker and Deion Branch. They also have two rookie tight ends and two undrafted free agent running backs playing major roles in the offense. Yet they go into today’s game ranked first in the NFL scoring 32 points per game and will go down as one of the highest-scoring and most efficient offenses in league history.

If Brady wins a championship with this supporting cast, if he even gets to the Super Bowl with it, the Bird equivalent would be if he led the 1989-90 Celtics to the Finals. Bird’s supporting cast that year were Reggie Lewis in his second year as a starter, an aging Robert Parish, an over-the-hill Dennis Johnson and Jim Paxson, a broken down Kevin McHale, plus John Bagley, Kevin Gamble, Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney.

That team was dismissed from the first round of the playoffs by the New York Knicks.

Over the course of his career, Bird played with seven Hall-of-Famers. Four had already claimed their tickets to Springfield before playing with Bird — Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich and Bill Walton. One other, McHale, was so dominant he probably could have made it on his own. Parish and Johnson, great as they were, don’t get in without a certain hick from French Lick’s assistance.

In Brady’s 10-year tenure (his rookie year doesn’t count), he’s played with three sure-fire Hall-of-Famers. One is a kicker (Adam Vinatieri). One already was headed to Canton before he got to Foxboro (Junior Seau). And one may have severely hindered his chances with his immature antics this season (Randy Moss).

A few other guys that played with Brady may make it, too, most notably Dillon, Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison. Maybe Logan Mankins makes it if he has a long career. And I’m on the verge of leading grassroots campaigns on behalf of Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty.

But even if all of those guys make it, considering that half of them played defense or special teams and considering that Brady has as many different teammates in one season as Bird would have had in six or seven, there is no question who was surrounded by more talent, man for man, during their career — Bird.

Granted, Brady is not (yet) considered the best or one of the two best to play his position. Incredibly, when the NFL Network recently revealed its top 100 players of all time, Brady was ranked one spot behind Brett Favre and 13 (13?!!!!) spots behind Peyton Manning. Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas also got the nod over Brady.

Who knows where Brady will rank when he retires? I suspect he gets knocked down a few pegs by the raging Patriots/Bill Belichick hatred that grips the nation. Hopefully in 50 years when the NFL Network does another list and the hate has subsided, history judges him correctly and he moves up.

But even here in New England, where Flying Elvi and hoodies are adored, I’m not sure Brady will ever replace Bird in the hearts, top 10 lists or on the imaginary granite-faced mountains of those of us who saw both play.

Most of us identify with Bird more. We perceive him as more blue collar. He didn’t marry a super model, become an Uggs endorser or pose for a picture with a goat in his arms. Brady seems untouchable. Bird is a guy we can all imagine having a beer with or running into at some greasy spoon.

That is understandable. But may I humbly suggest we all take a step back, look at the big picture and think about what it will be like when Brady’s gone, or even what the last decade would have been like if the Patriots hadn’t ever drafted him.


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