The doom and gloom are long gone. These days, he is all lightness and smiles and joy, like a Florida version of Sunshine from “Remember the Titans.” Tom Brady is having the time of his football life, carrying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the NFC Championship game on the back of his narrow but pliable frame, a 43-year-old quarterback shaman leading his newest pack of devoted followers.
What a contrast to a year ago.
Brady’s final Patriot days were played out in the specter of an uncertainty that everyone really knew was certain. Brady’s inevitable divorce from New England would come shortly after the season’s end, but as he and his team marched toward the finish, the possibility merely loomed over everything, like its own dark cloud.
Images flash to mind. Brady’s final throw in a Patriots uniform getting picked off by Tennessee’s Logan Ryan and returned for a touchdown. The 20-13 playoff loss to the Titans that sent the Patriots packing. The somber postgame feeling that Brady was on the way out. A long, lonely walk down the exit tunnel for the man behind the six Lombardi Trophies that sit inside Gillette Stadium. The day-after presser to put it all in place, when coach Bill Belichick had to be pressed to even talk about the impending free agent at quarterback, falling back on his usual crutch of the game being barely 12 hours old.
It was an ending that felt every bit that way, all long, drawn out, and sad.
But Brady found his new beginning. He signed with the Buccaneers. He recruited some friends. He learned a new system. He threw more touchdowns. And he won games. He won the final four games of the regular season, securing a wild-card berth for the Bucs. He won a road playoff game in Washington and another in New Orleans. He booked this Sunday’s date in Green Bay, where the Packers and Aaron Rodgers await.
He did it all at the age of 43, cementing everything his unspoken words were telling us last year. He wasn’t done. He wasn’t happy. And he was ready to move on.
“I’m not surprised by any means. Tom always said that he had a lot of game left in him,” said Chris Hogan, the former Patriots wide receiver who had his three best seasons on the other end of Brady’s arm. “When he made the decision to go to Tampa, I was pumped for him, texted him to say congratulations.
“It’s a fun and exciting time for him, with new teammates, a new playbook, a new offense. He’s been doing the same thing and been in the same place for almost 20 years and I think he was super excited about it. To see what he’s been doing it’s … what’d you expect? This is Tom. He went down there as a man on a mission. He’s surrounded by a lot of good talent. His success is no surprise to me.
“I think it’s incredible.”
That it is. Incredible. Inspiring. Impressive. Incomparable.
Think about it. As encores go for NFL quarterbacks, he is peerless. Yes, Peyton Manning won a second championship with Denver after his long, championship career in Indianapolis. But unlike Manning’s second act, when he was carried along by the players around him, Brady is doing the carrying. Young teammates such as Mike Evans have marveled at the effect he’s had on the locker room, the way he plays chess while others play checkers, insisting it’s what makes him the greatest of all time.
Is there any way the Buccaneers are in the NFC title game without Brady in the pocket?
The thrill he is having in sharing his experience with new teammates makes it clear why he wanted to go, why he needed to go. His impact is palpable. He may have been ready to leave the Patriots, but he didn’t leave his work ethic behind. He didn’t leave his memories behind. He used those to teach others.
One remark he made in his customary (and intentionally) bland interview Wednesday stuck out to me, tucked as it was among predictable compliments to his coaching staff, his teammates, and to his upcoming opponent.
“It’s very difficult to get to this point, to be four of 32,” he said.
And yet he keeps on doing it. Fourteen times in 20 NFL seasons.
“It’s such a credit to him,” said Hogan, whose ankle injury ended his Jets season early, but who said he is back in top shape and hoping for an NFL team to call for next season.
“He’s always taken care of his body and always stayed in the best shape he could possibly be in. I’m sure he’s loving playing in December and January in the Florida weather, and he’s been having one of his better seasons he’s ever had. Given the year we had, no OTAs, no minicamps, training camp was weird, that makes it even more of a credit to him and what he’s been able to accomplish.
“He is going to be the best quarterback ever to play the game and I think he’s solidifying that this year.”
Maybe the ride ends on Sunday. Maybe it forges on to the Super Bowl. That would allow Brady to add one more first to his already lengthy list. No franchise has ever played for the title in its home stadium, but with the bunting and banners already up in Tampa, Brady and the Bucs could do it.
He’s not done yet. Remember, this is the man who said he wants to play till he’s 50.
Said Hogan: “I’m not a betting man, but I don’t think you bet against that guy.”