TAMPA — The story will always begin in New England, as it should. That is where Tom Brady became Tom Brady, and that is the setting for most of his memorable moments.
But, from this day forward, Tampa Bay is no longer just an addendum in the chronicle of the NFL’s most accomplished quarterback. Laugh all you want at the juxtaposition of franchises, but Brady’s greatest achievement has come in the uniform of the Buccaneers.
You heard that right. If you step back and view it from a historical perspective, no season will do more for Brady’s legacy than the one that just concluded with the 31-9 victory over Kansas City in Super Bowl 55.
This was Brady taking his legend to another level. This was him thriving without Patriots coach Bill Belichick. This was him turning the fortunes of a Bucs franchise mired in an 18-year malaise. This was him redefining the way athletes grow old.
“For him to come to another ballclub and do what he has done,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said, “is just absolutely remarkable.”
We all know the stories from New England. Driving 53 yards with no timeouts in the final 81 seconds to set up Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal to win Super Bowl 36. Completing four consecutive passes for 47 yards to set up another Vinatieri game winner in the final minute of Super Bowl 38. Two late touchdown drives to win Super Bowl 49. The comeback from being down 28-3 in the third quarter of Super Bowl 51.
But those are all part of one continuous saga. It’s Brady, but it’s also Belichick and the Patriot dynasty.
And there’s not a single season out of the previous 20 that can compare to Brady’s debut in Tampa Bay. Between the pandemic and the lack of preseason games and the learning of a new offense and the changing of a locker room’s culture, the past six months have cemented Brady’s reputation as something more than just a guy throwing completions.
That was always part of the equation in Brady’s greatness. He wasn’t a gunslinger like Brett Favre, he didn’t have the arm of John Elway and he’s never been as nimble as Aaron Rodgers. Brady’s super powers were always harder to pinpoint. He was smart, he was prepared and those Patriots teams seemed to reflect his cool and methodical approach.
Now we know it wasn’t all Belichick.
In Tampa Bay, it was Brady’s confidence and expectations. It was how he convinced his teammates that they could win, then went out on the field and showed them how to do it.
Ridding the offense of all the interceptions of a year ago may have been the big difference in the regular season, but Arians insisted it was Brady’s demeanor that turned the Bucs into an unstoppable force come January.
“As far as a leader, that’s what he’s brought to this team,” said run game coordinator Harold Goodwin, who was a graduate assistant at Michigan when Brady was a freshman. “He’s done a fabulous job and he gets a lot out of my offensive line to the point that I don’t have to yell at all. He does all of the yelling.”
It’s not supposed to happen this quickly. You don’t just turn a franchise’s outlook between September and January, especially in a season when a virus kept teammates an arm’s length from each other.
That’s where Brady’s reputation played a role. This wasn’t just another cocky quarterback trying to take over a huddle, this was the most successful player in NFL history telling his wide-eyed teammates that he could show them the path to the promised land.
It wasn’t his best season statistically, but it was better than most. He threw for more yards than he had in three years, and hit the 40-touchdown mark for just the second time in his career. He also had three fourth-quarter comebacks, which is more than he had in the previous two years combined.
While the Patriots had gone 12-4 in his final season in New England, there were troubling signs inside Brady’s numbers. The worry was that his arm strength was starting to fade, and his mobility was waning too as he started creeping toward his mid-40s.
Yet, as it turns out, the problem was with New England’s roster and not Brady’s birth certificate. Given a talented cast around him, what Brady did in Tampa Bay this season was incomprehensibly beyond what any other quarterback has accomplished at this age.
And of all the ridiculous accolades he has compiled — 230 regular-season victories, 10 Super Bowl appearances, seven Super Bowl titles — this may be the most amazing of all:
Brady won his first Super Bowl MVP award on Feb. 3, 2002, at age 24. He won his fifth on Feb. 7, 2021, at age 43. Nineteen years later, he was still the most important player in the season’s biggest game.
So does Brady think this season has been the most impressive or rewarding of his career?
“They’re all different, they’ve all meant something a little bit different to me,” he said. “They’ve all been unique in their own way.”
That’s the polite answer. It may even be a heartfelt answer.
But the truth is, Tom Brady’s first season in Tampa Bay slammed the door shut on any arguments about the NFL’s greatest quarterback.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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