If you’re a fan of any team in the National Football League other than the New England Patriots, you spent much of the past two decades hating quarterback Tom Brady, by which I really mean fearing and resenting Tom Brady, because he and the Pats won so damned much that they were bound to throttle your team at some point, probably on their way to yet another Super Bowl appearance and victory. It just wasn’t fair.
My team, the Denver Broncos, actually beat him and the Pats en route to a Super Bowl win five years ago. But since then, the Broncos haven’t even made the playoffs, while Brady and the Pats competed in three Super Bowls and won two of them.
By the time Brady left the Pats at the end of the 2019 season, he had led the team to nine Super Bowl appearances and six wins in all. No other quarterback in the history of football comes anywhere close to those numbers. He’s a superstar in a galaxy all his own.
Now he’s back in the Super Bowl — appearance No. 10 — in his first season with a different team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At 43, he’ll be the oldest starting quarterback to perform on his sport’s biggest stage, but then that was true two years ago, when he made it to the Super Bowl (and won) at 41. Many fans call him “the GOAT” (greatest of all time), but I’m thinking “the Hog” makes as much sense, given his gluttony for glory. And I should be cheering to the point of hoarseness this coming Sunday for the Kansas City Chiefs and their young quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, 25, who has only one Super Bowl victory so far.
But I’m not. To my own astonishment, I’m rooting for Brady. Here’s why:
∙ He has actually been disrespected, and victory on Sunday would shame the naysayers forevermore.
Brady played his entire professional career before this season under one coach, the brooding, brilliant, arrogant Bill Belichick, whose reputation as a tactical genius raised questions about how much credit Brady, versus Belichick, deserved for the Pats’ success over the two decades that the two men were partnered.
Belichick was congratulated simply for homing in on Brady, whom he picked in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, after six other quarterbacks had already been claimed. It’s a gas to revisit their names, most of which you’ve never heard of or won’t remember: Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger and Spergon Wynn.
Because Brady didn’t swagger into the NFL swathed in promise, his emergence as a marquee quarterback was seen at least in part as a feat of coaching and a function of the Pats’ system.
And his split with the Pats reflected Belichick’s doubts about Brady’s continued viability. When Brady then signed with the Buccaneers for the 2020 season, many observers expected the Pats, not the Bucs, to have a winning record and a decent playoff run.
Oops. Without Brady, Belichick and the Pats went 7-9 and didn’t make the playoffs, for the first time since 2008, when an injury took Brady off the field. Without Belichick, Brady made the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season — but with the Bucs, which hadn’t done so since 2007.
∙ He’s a testament not merely to personal excellence but also to a culture of excellence.
The Bucs finished the season before this one with a 7-9 record. To get to the Super Bowl this year, they went 11-5 and then 3-0 in the playoffs.
What changed? Not all that much, apart from Brady’s arrival. But while he played almost as well as he ever had, his individual performance didn’t adequately explain the Bucs’ reversal of fortune, not when you consider that he threw three interceptions in the National Football Conference championship against the Green Bay Packers a week and a half ago and the Bucs still won.
The example that Brady set — and the inspiration that he provided — made the difference. With him, the Bucs discovered new purpose. They demanded more of themselves than in the past. The lessons of that apply far beyond football.
∙ The game itself has always mattered most to him.
Don’t get me wrong. Brady obviously enjoys his fame, takes ample advantage of it and tends fastidiously to his personal brand. He’s rich beyond almost anyone’s dreams. And he’s no angel. I direct you to Deflategate, among other bad behavior by the Pats, and to the nearly $1 million that TB12, his health and wellness company, took in Paycheck Protection Program loans less crucial for it than for businesses with less affluent owners.
But he refrained from holding the Pats up for as much money as he could have because he wanted there to be enough left over to field a team with strong players at every position. And both on and off the field, he has exhibited grace. Two years ago, after Brady and the Pats beat Mahomes and the Chiefs in the playoffs, Brady asked if he could stop by the Chiefs’ locker room to talk with Mahomes and communicate his admiration.
And what you see in Brady’s smile, as bright as when he threw his first NFL pass, isn’t pride in his legacy but sheer joy in the actual moment. He’s a powerful endorsement for following your passion and doing what you love.
∙ He doesn’t just cheat Father Time. He cackles at him.
That’s how I described his surreal stamina in a column that I wrote more than three years ago. He’s as potent now as then. So maybe I am too? Brady’s continued dominance gives hope to current and future geezers the world over.
∙ He’s the work ethic made flesh.
Other quarterbacks have stronger arms. Others have nimbler feet. But a greater devotion to reviewing and figuring out how to improve every facet of their play? No one tops Brady at that.
He’s fanatical in his cultivation of his best self, an ascetic on a legendarily exacting diet and fitness regimen. You want a meritocratic world in which the people with the fiercest commitment come out on top? That’s what Brady models.
∙ He proves that superheroes walk among us and nothing is impossible.
In Brady’s seventh Super Bowl, the Pats trailed the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 with just 1 1/2 quarters to go. And then, under Brady’s command, they staged the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history and won. Days later, I was still scraping my jaw off the floor.
To get to this 10th Super Bowl, Brady had to guide the Bucs to three consecutive playoff victories on the road, a titanic challenge. He met it.
If he proceeds to lead the team to victory on Sunday, it will be a kind of miracle.
I want to believe in miracles.
And at the end of my days, I want to know and crow that I watched, in real time, an athlete of unrivaled majesty who settled that fact at a juncture when America, brought low by its weaknesses, needed a show of unimaginable strength.