TAMPA — Tom Brady apologized for his sandpaper voice. He had spent several days barking signals over piped-in crowd noise in preparation for his raucous return to Gillette Stadium.
“That was loud (Thursday),” the Bucs quarterback said. “I’ve had a few of these days. I don’t know what the deal is. I’ve got to figure it out. My throat’s more tired than my arm. Imagine that.”
What has come out of Brady’s mouth has been mostly platitudes about his 20 seasons with Bill Belichick and the Patriots. But he doesn’t have to do any more talking. Without saying another word, Brady’s teammates know what Sunday’s game in Foxborough, Mass., really means to him.
“I want to be sure we get the job done,” linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. “I want to win every game, but especially this one because of Tom being there for a while and now he’s down here and there’s just something about when you leave home and you want to come back there and let them know they made a mistake. ... Whatever we can do to help him get that win, we’re going to do that.”
Safety Jordan Whitehead noted that some things in the Bucs locker room remain unspoken.
“Knowing that Tom and (Rob) Gronk(owskI) have got a little chip on their shoulder, it gives everybody that,” Whitehead said, days before news surfaced the Gronkowski (rib injury) will miss the game.
“They’re our teammates, our brothers, so you’re going to give everything you’ve got for them.”
Focus is on the field
Of course, Brady has kept his laser focus on the field. He has tried to treat it like any other game, insisting there is increased urgency to get a win Sunday following the Bucs’ loss last week to the Rams.
Despite networks preparing Super Bowl-like pregame programming, it’s only Week 4 and the Bucs saw their 10-game winning streak end Sunday with a 34-24 loss in Los Angeles. To suggest Brady’s nerves may be a bit frayed by the time he gets to Foxborough is to disregard his status as the best big-game quarterback in NFL history.
“I’ve played in a lot of big games,” the seven-time Super Bowl winner said. “This is a big game for our team, this is a big game for our guys. We had a tough loss last week. We want to get back on track. We want to get back to winning.”
But no matter how much Brady tries to bury his emotions, the prodigal son is returning to New England. Whatever challenge the Patriots present will be secondary to the internal scrimmage he must win first.
Remember that most of Brady’s adult life was spent in New England, where he rose from the 199th player taken in the 2000 draft out of Michigan at age 22 to an iconic, celebrity athlete with three children and a supermodel wife. In between, there were nine trips to the Super Bowl, six championship banners hung from Gillette, Spygate, a torn ACL, Deflategate and the four-game suspension that resulted from it.
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This week, his coaches and teammates have largely avoided the subject altogether around Brady, even though some of them have witnessed similar homecomings.
Not just another game
Peyton Manning didn’t handle his returns to Lucas Oil Stadium very well, going 0-2 with the Broncos. In his initial return in 2013, the Colts played a video tribute to Manning before kickoff. The ovation lasted at least 90 seconds. Manning removed his helmet, turned and waved to every corner of the stadium. The Broncos snapped a streak of 17 straight regular-season wins, falling 39-33.
Former Colts and Bucs head coach Tony Dungy put up a brave veneer before his return to Raymond James Stadium to face the Bucs in 2003. Fired after four playoff appearances in six seasons, Dungy was one of the most popular head coaches in club history. But Jon Gruden took many of those players and won Super Bowl 37.
“My experience is you go all week telling everybody, ‘It’s just another game,’ and you want to make it that way and that’s you plan and that’s your idea,” Dungy said. “But when we landed in Tampa, it changed. You see all the familiar faces and all those plans come to a halt. All the memories come flooding back.
“But you’re going to the other locker room. Once you get to the stadium, it really got to me, in spite of me saying all week, ‘We can’t make it about me.’ And the players feel that and they want to play well and win for you, and I don’t think we played our game for 55 minutes and that was part of it.”
Of course, the Colts rallied from a 35-14 deficit and scored three touchdowns in the final four minutes of regulation before winning 38-35 in overtime.
“I was on Keyshawn (Johnson)’s show, and he said they wanted to beat me, obviously, but when it was really looking bad, they didn’t want to see me get destroyed. So it’s emotional on all sides. I’ll say this, I don’t know how Tom is going to be, because it was only six years for me and no championships. It’s 20 years for him, and they had championships.”
Barrett was simply the odd man out in Denver as a free agent. As an edge rusher, he was stuck behind Von Miller, Demarcus Ware and Bradley Chubb.
Even so, he wasn’t prepared for the emotional tsunami that washed over him once he arrived at Empower Field at Mile High with the Bucs in 2020.
“It felt like a normal game all the way up until arriving at the stadium, then there were some different emotions,” said Barrett, who had two sacks, three tackles for loss and a safety in the game. “It felt good to be back and see some of the old guys, having my friends back there.
“... It was great to go out there and perform. I didn’t have anything against Denver. They couldn’t have kept me, anyway. It was just a great feeling to go out there and perform the way I did, even though I didn’t feel I played my best game.”
‘I want to kick their butt’
Gronkowski, who spent nine seasons in New England and won three Super Bowls, didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday and didn’t make the trip to Foxborough. Citing health reasons, he retired after the 2018 season before resurfacing in Tampa in the spring of 2020. It’s clear after his trade to the Bucs following Brady’s arrival that the Patriot Way weighed on Gronk as much as anything.
Strategically, Brady has never had to study the Patriots defense until this week. He’s certainly familiar with Belichick’s tendencies and may even know how they will attack him.
“He’s a great coach, obviously a great coach,” Brady said. “(He) has everyone prepared, does a great job of that. Obviously, I’ve said before, he taught me a lot. He was a great mentor for me for a long time, and I enjoyed my time in New England.
“But at the same time, I’m super excited about what we’ve done (in Tampa). I’ve got a great group of coaches here, an amazing group of guys that still motivate me and inspire me to be the best I can be for this team and this organization.”
The fact is that the Bucs are a better football team. Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones is facing his own pressure with the living legend he replaced across the field. The Patriots are 8-11 since Brady left New England, including a 1-2 start this season.
Brady wouldn’t even give much run to Jones, the Patriots’ first-round pick who is more than 21 years younger.
“I haven’t seen him much at all,” Brady said.
That’s just more of the Brady bravado and focus. But it’s undeniable he will have to battle more than the Patriots Sunday. First, he has to defeat his emotions, whether he admits it or not.
“The last 18 months have been very fulfilling in a lot of different ways, and I love my football experience here, as well,” Brady said. “I’ve been very blessed. I went (to) high school football, where I fell in love with (football). I went to Michigan, which was amazing for me — had its challenges, but I learned a lot. The 20 years in New England was incredible. I learned a lot.
“Coming down here for a year and a half, I’ve learned a lot, so I have nothing but incredible thoughts, memories, emotions towards all kind of football experiences I’ve had. That’s obviously the one that was the longest, and I still have a lot of great friends there. But they know I want to kick their butt this week, so they know exactly how I’m feeling once I’m out there.”
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