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A beautiful mind: Tom Brady has mastered the art of quarterbacking

Tom Brady directed the Buccaneers offense before a December game against the Lions.Leon Halip/Getty

TAMPA — Tom Brady’s first game as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer was a flop.

It was an impossible situation, of course — his first game with a new team and a new cast of teammates, without the benefit of an offseason program, preseason games, or a traditional training camp.

But it was a flop nonetheless, a 34-23 loss to the Saints that wasn’t really that close. Brady threw two interceptions that day, including a pick-6.

“We played really, really bad,” Clyde Christensen, the Buccaneers’ quarterbacks coach, said by telephone this past week. “And he gets on the bus, and the first thing he says to me is, ‘I know exactly what we’ve got to do.’ ”


What they had to do wouldn’t be easy. It took Brady and the Buccaneers about 12 games to start clicking on offense. Even then, Christensen thinks Brady still needs “another four to six games” to truly master his new offense.

But here Brady is again. His 10th Super Bowl, Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. In his first season in Tampa.

Brady isn’t the greatest quarterback in NFL history because he has the strongest arm or the fastest legs or eats the most avocados. Playing quarterback is about making decisions, and Brady has the quickest mind in the NFL. The highest football IQ. The most firsthand knowledge of any quarterback to ever play the game. The quickest recall of exactly what to do at any given moment.

“I’ve learned way more from him than he’s learned from me,” said Christensen, a coach since 1979 who previously worked with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.

Brady has dropped back to pass more than 13,000 times in his 21-year career. He has, by any measure imaginable, mastered the art of quarterbacking.

“The number to be perfect at something, or an expert or exceptional, is 10,000 hours,” said CBS analyst and former Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo. “Well, 13,000 attempts is probably 10,000 hours. And you don’t realize that there’s 100,000 other throws that he’s done before that. You’re seeing a guy who knows the game at a master-class level. It would be like a grandmaster in chess. He knows the chess moves so cold. You’re never going to beat Brady with trying to come up with a new chess move.”


Brady isn’t a natural, born to become a football savant. He’s not a coach’s son or a Pop Warner legend. Not a Manning, to put it another way. Brady didn’t play football until ninth grade, and baseball was his first true love.

But Brady worked his way into being a football genius, building on traits that have served him well since childhood, in many walks of life.

“He was very diligent, very hard working, and very disciplined in basically everything that he did,” said his father, Tom Brady Sr.

Brady certainly isn’t the most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL. Staying healthy with a strict diet and training regimen has enabled him to play for 21 years. But it’s his meticulous preparation and acute dissecting of NFL defenses that has kept Brady on top of the NFL for more than two decades.

“Some people have fast-twitch reactions with their brains. All the great quarterbacks have it,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said. “He has sharpened that tool to the highest degree. He’s an intense worker, unbelievable preparation. He is a very, very smart quarterback on Sunday because of his preparation.”


Brady obsesses over his craft. Brady’s wife and children left town on vacation two weeks ago, giving him an empty house for 12 days to prepare for the Super Bowl.

“That’s the most prep I’ve ever had,” Brady said this past week. “Could really focus on what I need to do from a football standpoint.”

Brady has thrown 12,333 career passes in the regular season and playoffs. That’s 1,061 more passes than any other quarterback in NFL history, and doesn’t count the other plays he’s learned from over his career, the sacks and scrambles, the artful fakes, the trademark sneaks for short yardage that have been uncannily effective. Brady has seen it all.

“It’s tough to give him a new look,” said Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who used to go up against Brady twice a year when he was head coach of the Jets. “His knowledge of the game, his understanding of the game, and, more importantly, his work ethic of the game separates him from a lot of quarterbacks that I’ve been around.”

Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said when he watches game film, he sometimes gets caught up in how smart Brady’s in-the-moment decisions are.

“Half of it is me being in awe of just the art — it’s almost like poetry in motion,” Mathieu said. “And the other half is, ‘How do I stop this and prepare for this?’ He always knows where to go with the football. And I think you have to credit a lot of that to his study habits.”


One of the hallmarks of Tom Brady's success is his ability to make quick decisions on the field.Doug Murray/Associated Press

Brady isn’t unique as a quarterback who is playing well at an older age. Manning and Drew Brees succeeded into their late 30s and early 40s despite injuries and other physical limitations. Aaron Rodgers is about to win an MVP at 37. Rich Gannon, Matt Hasselbeck, and Warren Moon thrived until their late 30s, as well.

Gannon compared quarterbacking to driving a car. A 16-year-old has tunnel vision, focused solely on the road directly in front of him. A 35-year-old notices what’s happening six cars ahead, six cars behind, and on both sides.

A young quarterback is concerned just with remembering the play and knowing where everyone is going to be. A veteran hears a play and is already thinking about the three audibles he could make, or how the play will change based on the positioning of the cornerback or the safety.

“When I got to that point in my career, that’s when the game was fun, because that’s when I could see so much,” said Gannon, who won his first and only MVP at age 37. “But the preparation with Brady, he’s taken it to another level. The stuff that he and Bill [Belichick] did in New England — the meetings they had early in the week, the attention to detail that they had going into games and how they would be able to make adjustments on Saturday and Sunday — not a lot of teams feel comfortable doing that. That has a lot to do with Brady’s ability to handle the volume of information and process the information so quickly.”


Brady’s new teammates speak reverentially about his study habits and mental recall.

“There have been situations where he’s talked about plays that they ran seven years ago in New England,” receiver Chris Godwin said. “He still remembers all of those plays, and how effective they were against certain defenses.”

And Godwin is in awe when he sees Brady make changes at the line of scrimmage.

“He’ll see something specific, and he’ll be, ‘Hey Mike,’ or, ‘Hey Gronk, run a “go” here,’ ” Godwin said. “And then seeing those plays work, it’s like, man, clearly this guy knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Brady’s special gift isn’t just in his ability to process and make the right decisions. He’s also an excellent teacher.

“He just simplifies the game for us,” receiver Mike Evans said. “He makes it so easy to communicate. This year we’ve had the lowest amount of mental errors that I’ve ever been a part of in an offense, and that’s a testament to him and his knowledge. He puts us in situations to make the game simple for us.”

But getting to this point with the Buccaneers’ offense, and reaching this year’s Super Bowl, did not come easily. Christensen, Manning’s longtime coach in Indianapolis, noted that Manning took his playbook with him to Denver in 2012. Brady, though, had to learn the Buccaneers’ offensive system, which had different terminology from what he used for 20 years in New England.

“I think it’s French and English,” Christensen said. “Your tendency with Tom Brady is it all comes easy. He strained and wrestled and spent a ton of time on football and it was a slow process.”

But Brady worked at it. And worked.

“He’s been extremely patient, but I think he did it right,” Christensen said. “He came in and he learned the system, then he started putting his touch on it. It’s not that it’s mistake-free, but mistakes get fixed and he’s got a depth of resources to draw from that’s unbelievable.”

Brady and the Buccaneers feel like they are still a work in progress. Yet Brady has figured it out well enough to get them one win away from their dream — a Lombardi Trophy. It would be No. 12′s seventh — the most all time.

“I would love to see Tom win it. He took a risk and jumped out of his comfort zone and came and took on a big challenge,” Christensen said. “I remember telling him when he first came in, ‘This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, but I think it may be the most rewarding, too.’ And I think that is the case.”

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.