The morning-after face of Tom Brady was all smiles and exhaustion, reflecting that unique state of mind with which he is intimately familiar. Seven times now Brady has found himself swirling amid a heady, Super Bowl-winning mixture, more times — by himself — than any NFL franchise has enjoyed in its history.
The NFL is once again Brady’s world, a reality that is overwhelmingly familiar and utterly shocking all at the same time. Familiar for the six times he did it in New England, shocking for the way he did it in his first year in Tampa Bay.
It was never supposed to be this easy. This was an NFL season unlike any the league has experienced, begun in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, conducted amid social unrest roiling the nation, and concluded with a scaled-down Super Bowl inside a half-empty stadium. There were no regular offseason workouts, no deep-dive meetings in training camp, barely any preseason practice, and limited in-season interaction.
Everything was different, yet somehow this much stayed the same: Brady was crowned the champion.
There he was, on the field in Tampa, thrusting the Lombardi Trophy skyward, his full-throated voice hollering, “How ‘bout that!” It was as if he recognized immediately how exceptional the moment was, absorbing just how extraordinary an effort it took to lift this once joke of a franchise to the highest height, reveling in the execution of a plan that perhaps only he and coach Bruce Arians could see was possible and one that only he could actually effect.
That’s how Arians saw it, anyway, joining Brady for one final Zoom call Monday morning and crediting the 43-year-old quarterback not simply for the MVP game he had just turned in but the MVP performance he delivered for teammates all season.
“This was a very, very talented football team but we really didn’t know how to win,” Arians said, “and when you bring a winner in and he’s running the ship, it makes a total difference in your locker room.
“We came from behind two times by 17 points down, the leadership Tom brings and his attitude of ‘let’s go play, it’s never over till it’s over, and we’re going to win this thing some way,’ it permeated through our locker room.
“Knowing he’d been there and done it, our guys believed it. It changed our entire football team.”
And that is what sets this apart. Brady himself deflected every opportunity to rank or compare his many Super Bowl wins, and we get it. No one can choose their favorite child. But what he did Sunday cements his legacy in a way that surpasses even what he accomplished across 20 years in New England, which once seemed unthinkable.
When history writes the full Brady story, this 2020 season will be Example No. 1 of the power of his greatness, illustrating how he was able to transfer all he learned across that dynastic partnership with Bill Belichick and immediately make it work somewhere else. Both men may have many more years in the NFL to write more chapters, but there will never be a way to change the verdict this year delivered.
Brady by a mile.
Why else would Leonard Fournette have shared the stories he did late Sunday night, details of Brady’s influence that spoke to everything Arians described, actions that let someone like Fournette, a former first-round draft pick gone bust and cut loose by Jacksonville, reclaim his reputation and his greatness on this ride?
“All week he made us believe we were going to win this game,” Fournette said. “All week he was texting us at 11 o’clock at night saying, ‘We will win this game.’ We believed in him.”
Imagine getting that nightly text: “We WILL win.”
No wonder the Bucs looked dominant from the kickoff, swarming poor Patrick Mahomes into oblivion, sending him on the run in ways he had never before experienced on an NFL field. No wonder Brady was gleefully targeting Tyrann Mathieu, taking whatever verbal slings and arrows the overmatched Chiefs defensive back had for him and returning them with surgical football precision.
No wonder the QB used every ounce of muscle memory he had, hitting old Patriots friend Rob Gronkowski twice for touchdowns and unexplainable Patriot friend Antonio Brown for another, and every ounce of mental memory too, all but diagramming the Chiefs defensive formations for the guys in his huddle.
“To have a guy like that next to me in the backfield, he has the résumé, understands the game, he’s practically played against every defense you could throw at him, he was on point,” Fournette said. “He was telling us what to expect, he was telling us they weren’t that good at tackling, 31st in the league. ‘You guys can get yards after catches.’ We believed in his game plan and ran with it.”
By Monday morning, Brady was done running, spent from a night celebrating with his family at his Tampa home, lamenting the mere two hours of sleep he got because a gaggle of his nieces and nephews had commandeered his bed, leaving him to crash on his daughter’s.
The year had been so long, his parents Tom Sr. and Galynn battling COVID, his family spread out from coast to coast, his surroundings so new and different. Yet somehow he managed to finish it the same old way, dissolving on the postgame field into a hug with his family, first with his oldest son, then his youngest daughter, then their brother in between, and then with his wife Gisele Bundchen.
He’d beaten back the doubters, beaten back the former Super Bowl MVP QBs in his way — Drew Brees first, Aaron Rodgers second, and Mahomes Sunday — beaten back the Patriot memories that once would have told his entire story but now move behind this Tampa headline.
“Hands down, one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history,” Gronkowski said.