Aught Lang Syne: Athletes of the Decade, Part II

Aught Lang Syne mercifully comes to a close today, 33 days after it started so grandiloquently with that maudlin eulogy to the Aughts. We finish by counting down our top three athletes of the decade. You can find Part I of the countdown here.


5. Torry Holt (157 G, 868 rec, 12,504 yds, 68 TD, 7 Pro Bowls)

4. Tony Gonzalez (158 G, 828 rec, 9,939 yds, 67 TD, 9 Pro Bowls)

3. LaDainian Tomlinson (140 G, 2,878 att, 12,489 yds, 138 TD, 5 Pro Bowls, 1 MVP)

2. Peyton Manning (159 G, 65.9% comp, 42,159 yds, 314 TD, 9 Pro Bowls, 3 MVPs, 1 SB MVP)

1. Tom Brady (128 G, 63.3% comp, 30,658 yds, 225 TD, 5 Pro Bowls, 1 MVP, 2 SB MVPs)

By far the toughest choice on the board is between Brady and Manning. Manning’s stats add up to the greatest single decade by a quarterback in NFL history; he may very well go down as the greatest to ever play the position. But when we think about the Aughts, we think about the Patriots and Tom Brady. We think about Brady leading two game-winning drives in the last minute of a Super Bowl. We think about Brady throwing 50 TD passes during a 16-0 regular season. We think about Brady winning his first 10 playoff games as a starter and never losing a playoff game at home. We think about what Brady might have done had he played with two All-Pro wide receivers in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne inside a dome for 10 years. We think about Brady coming up with the big drive time after time in the postseason. If we had one game to win this decade, we’d want Tom Brady to start it.

Brady is the Montana to Manning’s Marino or Elway, and any conversation about Peyton Manning’s legacy must include an aside about Tom Brady.


5. Steve Nash (753 G, 16.2 ppg, 9.1 apg)

4. LeBron James (472 G, 27.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.7 apg)

3. Shaquille O’Neal (658 G, 23.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg)

2. Tim Duncan (766 G, 21.5 ppg, 11.7 rpg)

1. Kobe Bryant (743 G, 28.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg)

This is the only sport, I think, with three players who can legitimately claims to be the Player of the Decade. Shaq was the most dominant post presence since the days of Wilt in the first part of the decade (I mean, 30 and 15 in back-to-back playoffs?), Duncan was the decade’s most consistent contributor and winner, and Kobe was its highest scorer and four-time champion.

Of course, I wanted to give it to Duncan, whose team never missed the playoffs, won four titles, and who will almost certainly go down as the single greatest power forward in NBA history. But the rub is that as far as superstars go, Tim Duncan is about as uniconic as they get; it’s hard for a power forward—especially one with a propensity to use the glass and who has earned the terrible nickname “The Big Fundamental”—to really capture our imagination. I can honestly say that I have never seen someone wearing a Tim Duncan jersey outside of the context of a San Antonio Spurs’ game. And for better or worse, the guy that has been at the center of the NBA narrative in the Aughts is Kobe Bryant. He started as the begrudging sidekick on a three-peat champion, became the “callous hired gun,” was accused of rape, and re-emerged as the league’s most vicious competitor and the lead dog of another champion and, perhaps, another dynasty. He has gone 30-5-5 in three different playoff years (btw, best postseason belongs to LeBron in ’09, when he went 35-9-7 and still couldn’t get the Cavs to the Finals), and he became the unquestioned leader of the Redeem Team. He is, without doubt, the most competitive player in the NBA today.

Bryant is not the next Michael Jordan, but he’s come far closer to approximating MJ in the Aughts than most expected him to. And when he does finally hang them up, he won’t go down as the best at his position, but one of the best at any position.


5. Martin Brodeur

4. Michael Phelps

3. Usain Bolt

2. Roger Federer

1. Tiger Woods

Forget every little thing about what’s transpired in Tiger Woods’ life over the last month and a half and focus instead on what Woods did on the course and how he transcended his sport more than any other athlete since Muhammad Ali.

Heading into the last major of the 1999 season, Tiger Woods was something of a disappointment. He had yet to follow up his earth-shattering 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters with another major, and there were some (12-year-old Tim leading the charge) wondering if he would ever amount to what had been promised.

Woods won that 1999 PGA Championship, and then four of the first five majors of the Aughts, including the Tiger Slam in 2000-01. He set the scoring record in three of the four majors—he already held the one at The Masters. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots in the single most dominating athletic performance of the Aughts (and it isn’t close). He won nine tournaments that year alone by a combined 46 strokes. He made 142 consecutive cuts and won six straight tournaments at the turn of the century. He was PGA Player of the Year eight times in 10 years. He dominated his sport so thoroughly that the idea of a serious rival became more or less laughable.

In doing all that, though, Tiger Woods kept golf in the headlines. Every major tournament this decade was built around Woods: Tiger v. The Field seemed a 50/50 proposition. By taking over Michael Jordan’s role as the key sponsor for Nike, Woods became the face of sports to a whole new generation. “Be Like Mike” was replaced by “I Am Tiger Woods.” He won ESPN’s “Who’s Now?” contest in 2007, and it’s hard to reasonably say he wouldn’t have won in almost every other year this decade. He also replaced Jordan as the surest thing in sports; until the Aughts’ final major, Woods had never blown a 54-hole lead in a major championship. It was typically a moral victory if his playing partner could remain in contention. Woods became the most psychologically intimidating athlete in recent memory.

In the next decade, he will almost certainly pass Jack Nicklaus and become golf’s all-time leader in major championships; he will probably shatter Nicklaus’ current mark of 18. It’s not out of the question that Woods will reach 30 by the time he retires.

Tiger Woods is the Athlete of the Aughts.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on January 2, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    Tim, I think part of the problem, in Parts I and II and even throughout your Sports of the Aughts posts, has been your odd mixture of evaluating things based on achievement and how “iconic” they are. You acknowledged that you tend towards the latter, but this leads to a lot subjective, not-really-justifiable assertions. In your franchises of the decade post, for example, you went with the Red Sox over NYY, despite your admission that the Yankees were better overall, because “when we think back on the Aughts, we will think back on the Boston Red Sox.” Similarly, in your argument with Wey about Jason White, you bring in things like the Heisman and how many title games he was in, even though Larry Fitzgerald, Darren McFadden, and Sam Bradford were almost certainly better players.

    Here, you give Tom Brady the nod over Peyton Manning even though you admit that Manning may end up being the best to ever play QB. Again, your rationale is “when we think about the Aughts, we will think about the Patriots and Tom Brady.” So Brady wins because, for most of the decade, his team had a better defense? That seems a little unfair. You also say that any conversation about Manning has to include a mention of Brady. Can’t you flip that? Can you reasonably evaluate Brady’s career arc without mentioning Manning?

    The rest of your justifications for Tom Brady are just as specious. We wonder how Brady would play with All-Pro receivers? I think adding Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, and Wes Welker helped answer that. Plus, saying Manning benefitted from Harrison and Wayne is unfair: Is there any indication that those receivers would be held in such esteem if they hadn’t played with Manning for the better parts of their careers. Before Manning blossomed, Harrison’s numbers aren’t exactly stunning. Manning has also had his share of big drives in big games, and you yourself admitted in an early season Unabated to the QB that you’d rather have him than Brady lead a final drive.

    You can make a very respectable argument that Brady is, overall, a better QB than Manning. But you didn’t do that. You admitted that Manning is probably better, but gave Brady the nod because of “what we’ll think about when we think of the Aughts.” And while that standard is worth considering, it’s probably fair to assume that when we think of the Aughts, we’ll probably think of more than a single individual. Who we’ll remember as THE BEST is a more interesting question.

    I think part of why iconicity is a bad standard, other than the obvious subjectiveness, is revealed in your Tiger Woods section. While I agree that Woods is the Athlete of the Aughts, I think it’s interesting to consider why. You say Woods “transcended his sport more than other athlete since Muhammed Ali,” which is technically true but still misleading. Ali transcended his sport because he was politically and culturally provocative. He was flamboyant and polarizing and unrefined. Woods transcended his sport because, until recently, he had a lot of very lucrative endorsement deals. In other words, how iconic someone is comes down to things like how photogenic, polished, marketable, etc., he is. If you were actually being consistent, Michael Phelps would be ahead of Usain Bolt. He’s certainly more “iconic” because he’s white and American, but that’s an admittedly absurd standard. Athletes should be evaluated based on their performances as athletes.


    • Posted by Tim on January 6, 2010 at 8:25 PM


      My goal with these posts wasn’t to determine who the best player of the decade was; just about every sports publication was doing that in some form, and in the end, the debate is meaningless because so much will depend on what happens in the next few years. (For instance, you can right now make a case that Brady has had a better career than Manning or vice versa, but your conclusion may very well change depending on what transpires in the early Teens. Who defines this decade, however, is less subject to alteration.)

      My goal was to figure out who was the most memorable, who best represented the decade, who, in the phrase I used so often, we would think about when we thought about the Aughts. This led me to include the admittedly subjective criterion of Iconicity, which entails the idea of legacy and of coming up big in defining moments. I don’t mean to use it as a synonym for marketability, although marketability doesn’t hurt. Iconicity also includes, of course, being really, really good. The two criteria are not antagonistic but rather complementary, and the line between them can be a semantic one. But to me, trying to predict how the future will remember the present was more interesting than creating a mathematical formula that quantified statistical measures of performance. I acknowledge I should have made this clearer from the start.

      I stand by my choice of Tom Brady over Peyton Manning as the decade’s defining player. I maintain that Manning has a greater chance than Brady of going down as the greatest quarterback ever, largely because of his gaudy statistics (he’s already thrown for 10,000 more yards than Joe Montana in one fewer game) and my concerns about Brady’s future performance on a surgically repaired knee. But statistics clearly don’t tell the whole story for an NFL quarterback; nobody really cares that Montana never threw for 4,000 yards in a season even though he had Jerry Rice on his team and the ‘80s equivalent of Marshall Faulk in his backfield (Roger Craig). And Brady’s on-field performance, particularly when we factor in his backs and receivers and his cold-weather, outdoor home field, is comparable to Manning’s. After all, the year Brady was blessed with All-Pros at wideout, he turned in the greatest statistical season ever by a QB.

      (To argue that Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are byproducts of Manning is, in my opinion, ignorant. Harrison had very good numbers in his first two seasons—similar to what Percy Harvin did this season in winning Offensive Rookie of the Year—before Manning got there despite uncertainty at the quarterback position. Wayne, like Wes Welker, would likely be an All-Pro on any team. I was not arguing that Manning has better receivers right now; I was arguing that he had better receivers until 2007, which is true.)

      What gives Brady the edge is that Brady has been far and away a better quarterback when it matters in the postseason. He completes a higher percentage of his passes with more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than Manning. The Patriots have averaged more points in Brady’s 17 playoff games than the Colts in Manning’s 15 despite playing a fewer number of Wild Card games against pedestrian playoff foes. They don’t win just because they have a better defense, John. They win because Brady almost always outplays the other quarterback, which cannot be said of Peyton Manning. I did imply in Week 2 that I’d take Manning over Brady for one drive (while saying I’d take Eli over both); I’d probably change that if it’s a drive in the postseason. Manning’s career is full of great regular-season drives while only his last one in the 2006 AFC Championship stands out on his playoff ledger (perhaps you can refresh my memory).

      As for some of your other points, I think Usain Bolt is more iconic than Michael Phelps because the 100-meter dash has more relevance than eight somewhat related swimming events. Casual sports fans often know and care about who wins the 100m gold at the Olympics; no event or accumulation of events in swimming carry that weight.

      And I’d say you have to look at why Tiger Woods had all those very lucrative endorsement deals. There was an “IT” factor surrounding Woods’ amateur days the same way there was one around LeBron James in high school: Even at nine, I recognized what a huge upset it would have been if Steve Scott had held on to beat Woods at the ’96 U.S. Amateur. A lot of it was racial: Golf had never had a black star, let alone superstar. But he was also freakishly good. Woods was on TV twice as a toddler. He won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1996—the year he turned pro in August. Sure, he signed deals with Nike and Titleist worth a combined $60 million practically the day he turned pro, but that’s because he was THAT good. I didn’t mean to suggest he was iconic for the same reasons as Ali; it’s somewhat hard to see (well, now it’s impossible to see) Woods lighting the torch at an American Olympic games the way Ali did in Atlanta. I just don’t want you to boil Woods down to a photogenic face and, until now, a pristine image.


      • Posted by John S on January 7, 2010 at 12:09 AM


        I have no problem with you factoring in things like “what we’ll remember” and iconicity. I just think that too often your arguments come down to just stating that X is more memorable or iconic than Y, when those things are obvs different for different people.

        Also, as I implied and you seem to accept, relying on memory and “icons” often perverts our understanding of the game. Joe Namath is one of the five most iconic players in football history, but any objective consideration of his numbers shows that he doesn’t really deserve it. Obviously that is not the case with the Manning/Brady debate, since both of those QBs deserve consideration in Greatest Ever discussions, but it’s a similar effect: Giving Brady the edge SIMPLY because he won more in the postseason is absurd.

        Now, you did make the argument that Brady has come up bigger in bigger in bigger moments, which is totally legitimate. You probably should have just said so in the first place. I still disagree, but this comes back to our differences on the concept of “clutch”: It seems inane to me that the person you would want to lead your team in the regular season is not the person you’d want in the postseason.

        I think Manning’s failures in the postseason are underscored because for so long that offense, and really the whole team, was so dependent on Manning. Brady, on the other hand, was not asked to shoulder the whole burden (Brady’s thrown fewer than 30 passes 6 times playoff games, Manning’s done that once, and he still threw 5 TDs in that game). Comparing their playoff gamelogs is pretty startling actually. Brady is shockingly consistent, whereas Manning has had some great games (usually against Denver) and some spectacular failures. Manning has thrown for 300+ years twice as many times as Brady in the playoffs. Is this an argument in Manning’s favor? No, it’s a function of the different styles of offense. As are, to some degree, Brady’s better overall numbers.

        But I can certainly buy your argument. Brady has never blown a playoff by himself, and Manning has on a number of occasions. I think it’s an open debate, but at least it’s not some blanket assertion about what I’m going to remember.

        And finally, I still think you’re dead wrong about Usain Bolt. In general, running is more popular than swimming, but Phelps was the most popular athlete on the planet for a few weeks. Do you really think more people remember Bolt than Phelps? Did Bolt host Saturday Night Live? (And that may be irrelevant to a discussion of sports, but you’re the one who brought in Iconicity.)


  2. Posted by doc on January 2, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    Tim, I think John is on target with his criticism except for the part about Ali. I say that with best of intentions. Ali, like Tiger Woods, was an athlete par excellence in a sport that was not necessarily known for its athleticism. I think Ali and Tiger both transcended their sports because their talent, skill, athleticism,and determination put them on a level far above anyone before or since. To this day, I have never seen a boxer Ali’s size that was so quick, so athletic, so smart (and actually quite refined), and so ferociously determined.

    Check out this clip:

    Howard Cosell, who was a big time boxing announcer, used to say all the time that Ali would be a great linebacker or tight end, point being he was a great athlete. At his peak, Ali truly was “The Greatest”.


  3. Posted by Douglas on January 3, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    I’m not sure this omission is unjustified, but I’m curious (especially with regards to being iconic and transcending one’s sport): why not Lance Armstrong? His accomplishments are stacked in the earlier part of the decade, but as far as being an icon he would certainly get the edge over Martin Brodeur and probably Usain Bolt as well. I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough to debate whether or not he’s a better athlete relative to his sport, but the fact that he is a world record holder should be enough to at least entertain a discussion.


    • Posted by Tim on January 6, 2010 at 8:26 PM

      I knew I was forgetting someone. Yeah, Lance would probably rank third behind only Woods and Federer on that list, as uninteresting as I find the “sport” of cycling.


  4. Posted by Tim on January 8, 2010 at 1:07 AM

    To get to John’s second comment (stupid nesting rules):

    –I admitted the what we’ll remember part is subjective; that said, I think it’s safe to say a lot more people will remember the 2004 postseason in a way they won’t remember the 2000 or 2009 one (hence choice of the Red Sox).

    –It’s possible Namath is one of the five most iconic players in the NFL (not to me, but maybe to some). Those that have him ranked that highly would surely cite the fact that he guaranteed and won arguably the most significant game in NFL history over things like he threw more INTs than TDs in his career.

    –The Colts were totally dependent on Manning even throughout those years when they had the NFL rushing leader and one of the best backs of the decade in Edgerrin James? Or when they had the Defensive Player of the Year in Bob Sanders?

    –By your Bolt/Phelps logic, Taylor Lautner = more iconic than Robert Pattinson.

    –“Giving Brady the edge SIMPLY because he won more in the postseason is absurd.” I didn’t give Brady the edge SIMPLY because he won more in the postseason. He plays better in the postseason, and he plays comparably in the regular season (most years).


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