Tom Brady is one win away from a 10th Super Bowl appearance (Photo by Kevin McNamara).
By KEVIN McNAMARA
He’s back, or actually he never really left.
The sky is dark, the temperatures click lower by the day and the gloom of the winter months is enveloping the souls of sports fans everywhere. That must mean it’s Tom Brady Time, right NFL fans?
Only this time Brady is not in the red, white, blue and silver of New England. TB12 is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
And he’s one win away from the Super Bowl. Again.
Brady added to his already Greatest of All-Time legacy Sunday in a convincing 30-20 upset of the New Orleans Saints. The 43-year old quarterback played well, but didn’t need to play great to win. Tampa’s defense was the star, picking off Drew Brees three times and forcing a key fumble.
Talk instantly began that Brees, 42, will now walk away from the game for good. So Brady, Mr. TB12 method himself, is out-lasting Brees. Next up? Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay quarterback star who is a mere child at 37 years old.
Tampa is ablaze with Brady mania, just the way New England was for the previous 20 seasons. The Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002 but owned just two playoff appearances (with no wins) since. That’s changed with Brady in town and now the Buccaneers are one win away from a Super Bowl.
If that happens, Brady will make his 10th appearance in the big game.
While many (most?) fans in New England are cheering for Brady, a large swath of them are not. They are holding Brady’s cleats to the fire as Traitor Tom, the ungrateful one who walked away from Foxboro when Bill Belichick needed him most.
That’s all rubbish. Here is what Belichick and the Patriots did to help push Brady out of town:
After a superb 2017 campaign that included a record 505 yards passing in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, Brady looked for a multi-year contractual commitment. Belichick and owner Bob Kraft resisted, instead offering an incentive-laden deal that Brady signed. He didn’t click past many of the extra incentives and the message was sent: the greatest player in franchise history, now 40 years old, was on the Year-to-Year Plan.
That season also saw Belichick ban Brady’s workout guru/business partner Alex Guerrero from most areas of the the team training facility and road trips. That didn’t sit well with Brady, or some of his teammates who also chose to mix Guerrero’s techniques with those of the Pats training staff.
In 2018 the Patriots and Brady advanced to a third consecutive Super Bowl, this time beating the Rams in a defensive battle. The QB’s reward was more contract issues, this time demanding that the Pats not place the franchise tag on him so he’d own the ability to become a free agent.
Belichick and the Pats agreed and Brady signed another 1-year deal, this one worth $23 million.
We all know what happened next. The Pats finished 12-4 but were bounced in the wild card round by Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans. Brady’s final pass was a Pick Six TD, courtesy of old friend Logan Ryan. As the legend left the field that night at Gillette Stadium, New England fans seemed to come to grips with the eventuality that Brady was done.
Over the next two months the stories of Will He or Won’t He were constant. Tom and Gisele had already sold their Brookline home, their kids were moving to schools in Connecticut, Tom was sick of Bill, Tom knew the Pats owned feeble passing game weapons.
It was the tale of the winter of 2020 and as the stalemate lingered and the Patriots refused to commit, free agent Brady kept his eyes open. The L.A. Chargers looked good. Mike Vrabel and the Tennessee Titans seemed like a fit. Then there was Tampa Bay, where Bruce Arians owned some nice weapons but no gun-slinger.
When March arrived, something called a coronavirus hit. The sports world collapsed on March 12 but a few days later – March 17, St. Patrick’s Day – Brady called Belichick’s bluff. He took a two-year, $50 million deal with Tampa and said goodbye to New England.
“Playing for one team for 20 years has been an amazing ride and experience,” Brady wrote in the Player’s Tribune. “But doing the same thing year after year brings its own challenges. A familiar rhythm can be comforting and great. But it can also make you lose sight of other rhythms, newer ones that remind you of everything that hasn’t been done yet.”
When Brady left, the Patriots went into CYA Mode. Owner Bob Kraft insisted that if Brady wanted to stay, the team would have made it happen. Well the team could have offered a multi-year deal after the 2018 Super Bowl win, for starters. It chose not to, leaving the door open for Brady’s exit.
That is the franchise’s right, of course. Belichick and Kraft can’t say they were blind-sided in any way. Brady was 42 years old, after all, clearly looking at the end of his run.
So the Patriots must have had a quarterback succession plan in place, right? Well if Belichick had one – or has one today – it isn’t a very clear. New England scrambled in the free agent market and came up with Cam Newton, a former MVP who ultimately wasn’t good enough. Youngster Jarett Stidham hasn’t shown he can play either.
Brady moved on and has shown he can still win and win big. The jury is still out on Belichick and the Patriots. The Pats may have Belichick, easily the greatest coach in NFL history, but no coach wins without ammunition. And no football team wins without a top-flight quarterback.
Tampa – or is it Tompa – has that quarterback to go along with wide outs like Mike Evans (70 catches) and Chris Godwin (65). Brady convinced Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement after Gronk left Foxboro, tired of Belichick. You just know the big guy is going to make a big catch somewhere in these playoffs.
Tampa also squeezed Antonio Brown ($1.6 million) under its salary cap and has two good running backs in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones, Jr. The Buccaneers will be underdogs and on the road once again next Sunday in Green Bay but does anyone want to play Tom Brady right now?
Stat of the week: this is Brady’s ninth conference championship game in the last 10 seasons.
“I’m excited,” Brady wrote in that Player’s Tribune story last April. “Most of all, I’m motivated. I want to deliver for my new team, my new coaches and my new teammates. I don’t want to let anyone down. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”