Moments after triumphing in his 14th conference championship game last Sunday, Tom Brady jogged over to the Lambeau Field stands and waved down a security guard. “Can I say hi to my son?” he asked.
And though the kid’s body was covered from head to toe against the cold and his face shrouded against Covid, there was no doubt that this was Brady’s oldest, Jack. The scene, captured by NFL Films, stood out as much for the boy’s size as its sentimentality. It is hard to believe that kid, not even a glint in his old man’s eye when Brady made his first Super Bowl start in 2002, is 13-years-old now.
Such is the undeniable staying power of Brady, who will extend his unprecedented streak of 10 NFL championship appearances into an unfathomable third decade when the Super Bowl kicks off in his home stadium in Tampa on 7 February. That he managed to pull this off barely a year since leaving New England, with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that hadn’t so much as sniffed the postseason since 2007, is all the more stunning. On top of that, Brady is 43 – a fact that was not immediately obvious from his performance in Tampa’s 31-26 road victory over the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers last week.
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To watch that game was to witness a pocket-dwelling throwback who not only still had plenty of zip left on his fastball, but also did not hesitate to chuck it deep. Of his 36 attempts, none was cheekier than the 39-yard touchdown pass he made to Scotty Miller just before the half. And while Brady’s aggression eventually caught up with him, to the tune of three second-half interceptions, it was nonetheless striking in comparison to the baffling passivity of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
Here, after all, was the presumptive league MVP, the quarterback who is unquestionably more physically gifted than Brady, who plays the most difficult team game with the greatest of ease. And yet when the Packers found themselves eight points behind and eight yards from the Bucs’ end zone with less than three minutes left in the game, Rodgers – despite all the moxie he showed a week earlier on a short scoring run against the Rams – couldn’t find the temerity to exploit a similar opportunity against the Bucs. Rather than seize the moment and run to daylight, Rodgers winged a tweak third-down ball at the knees of a double-covered Davante Adams. It’s no wonder Packers coach Matt LaFleur settled for a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, all but guaranteeing that Brady would never return the ball.
Somehow, Brady continues to draw rocket fuel-grade motivation from a Florida-sized inferiority complex that dates to his time sharing snaps at Michigan and that fateful day the Patriots selected him 199th overall in the 2000 NFL draft behind the Browns’ Spergon Wynn, the 49ers’ Giovanni Carmazzi and other throwaways. Ever since the Jets Mo Lewis knocked out Patriots franchise passer Drew Bledsoe the very next year, Brady has essentially fulfilled his destiny as football’s Lou Gehrig – who was six years younger than the QB when he succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1941, by the way. Hell, the rumormongers at PFT feared Brady “could be sliding out of the league’s elite quarterbacks” 11 years ago.
But now? Brady’s more like the Serena Williams of football, a stubborn legend who has endured long enough to see too many rivals come and go. Peyton Manning, Brady’s regular nemesis, left the gridiron behind almost six years ago; he barely even turns up in commercials anymore. Eli, the younger Manning brother who swiped two Lombardi trophies from Brady, hung up his cleats last year. Drew Brees, the statistical marvel, probably played his final NFL game after Brady beat back his Saints in the divisional round two weeks ago. Phillip Rivers, the fiery gamer, announced his retirement last week. Only Brees played past age 40. That Touchdown Breesus had to spend his probable last moments on the Superdome field watching Brady play catch with his own begotten son before sauntering off to throw another day, on some level, had to smart.
Football has always been a marathon sport for Brady. And in the process of breaking with the tradition of Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and other declining Hall of Famers put to pasture away from their original teams, Brady now stands on the precipice of defying an even deeper entrenched convention: the idea that a player-built super team cannot win in Year One. Consider: Brady just divorced longtime coconspirator Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots. And after signing with the Bucs, he soon found himself being chased out of public parks and otherwise robbed of time to mesh with his new receivers and coach Bruce Arians’ chancy vertical pass attack because of Covid restrictions. And then: putting on a brave public face as his parents waged a private battle with the virus.
But in little more than 10 months in Tampa, Brady set every single-season franchise mark imaginable – in passing yards (4,633), in touchdowns (40), and that’s just during the regular season – while transforming a mistake-prone offense into a league juggernaut. He strung together 11 regular-season wins in a new conference and then, as the No 5 seed, buzzed through Brees and Rodgers to set up a Super Bowl clash with the team that nearly ended Brady’s career in 2008. That Brady has gone from winning the big game as a Patriot in the season of 9/11 to this year’s big game during the pandemic just makes it easier to say that he did not rely on Belichick for his greatness.
And if Brady were to somehow get the better of the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs? Well, besides making LeBron James insanely jealous, it would redefine what it means for a pro to be past his prime. Of course the task ahead of Brady isn’t easy. The Chiefs quarterback he faces, 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes, is a wizard who gutted the second-seeded Buffalo Bills on a bad foot a week after suffering a concussion – and also pipped Brady’s Tampa team in Week 12 to draw even with his elder in their four head-to-head matchups.
What’s more, Mahomes not only has an array of weapons at his disposal, but a cunning play designer in offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a masterful play caller in coach Andy Reid and an ace in the hole in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo – the architect of the pressure-packed schemes that tripped up Brady in those Super Bowls against Eli’s Giants. Finally: this will be Mahomes’s second time playing in a Super Bowl in the past three seasons. Not since Michael faced Magic in the 1991 NBA finals has there been a torch-passing ceremony with potential this rich.
Much as the odds favor Mahomes, a surefire Hall of Famer if he were to quit right now, there’s something to be said for Brady’s singular experience. In a game where players are chewed up and spat out like the rubber that sods so much of the field underfoot, the fact that Brady is still topping himself in overtime may be the most remarkable of his myriad achievements. (Imagine, a seventh championship ring at this stage…) And now that the daddy of them all, the Super Bowl, is on the horizon again? Boy, you better think twice before betting against Father Tom given how often he gets the last laugh.