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Tom Brady believes he can drag Bucs across finish line to another Super Bowl

The 45-year-old quarterback was asked to do more than ever this season for the Bucs offense.
This easily was one of the toughest seasons of Tom Brady's illustrious career.
This easily was one of the toughest seasons of Tom Brady's illustrious career. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 16

TAMPA — Tom Brady frequently compares playing an NFL season to running a marathon, a grueling race of endurance that can produce more exhaustion than exhilaration.

Now imagine being 45 years old and competing with runners half your age, approaching the finishing chute, shoulders slumped, physically drained.

“If you talk about running a marathon and everything is right, it’s a hard race,” said Clyde Christensen, Brady’s quarterbacks coach for the past three seasons with the Bucs. “Now you start putting on a weight belt, then you add a couple weights to the belt and the next thing you know, those 26 miles are not just a tough race, they’re brutal. Playing quarterback in the NFL, and especially if you’re Tom Brady, it’s ... a tough, tough, long race and now you wear a weight vest and a weight belt and some weighted shoes. At the 15-mile mark somebody says, ‘Hey, carry this.’ That’s how I would describe it.

“He’s not your average guy. When he goes out there, everyone expects him to play well, week in and week out. It was an unbelievable strain and accomplishment to win the division this year with all that took place.”

The strain, of course, was personal and professional. Brady missed a week of training camp, working through a divorce from his wife of 13 years, Gisele Bündchen. He dropped about 20 pounds. He lost starting center Ryan Jensen to a knee injury on the second day of camp.

“You literally start weighted down with some personal things that are hard and they’re full time,” Christensen said. “I think that would be different than all the other years. None of us knows what that entails but I do know it’s a hard, hard job if everything is right. It’s hard job if all is well around you.

“All of a sudden, you have that, you lose your center on the (second) practice of the season. You proceed to have people in and out of the lineup. I do think it’s a unique (season) and we just never overly played well, which always falls on the quarterback. ... I don’t think anyone will understand the strain it is for the quarterback or the face of the franchise to fight through all that stuff.”

Putting aside his age and personal angst, Brady was asked to do more heavy lifting on offense than at any time in his illustrious 23-year career. Strapped with the league’s worst rushing attack that averaged fewer than 80 yards per game, he had a career-high 733 passing attempts and 490 completions to lead the league in both categories for a second straight season.

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“You want to put pressure on your quarterback? Don’t run the ball well,” Christensen said.

Added burdens

Thanks to a spotty running game, Tom Brady set career highs (and led the league) in completions and attempts.
Thanks to a spotty running game, Tom Brady set career highs (and led the league) in completions and attempts. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

With Todd Bowles taking over as head coach from Bruce Arians, the Bucs were expected to play more complementary football and be more balanced on offense.

“That’s the thing. They wanted to run the ball, dominate the line of scrimmage, play-action pass,” said former Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, an NFL analyst for NBC. “... But other than Week 1 and the game in Germany against the Seahawks, they haven’t been able to run the ball and kind of do that.”

As a result, the Bucs offense, which averaged more than 30 points per game for three seasons under Arians, dropped to only 18.4.

Five times this season, against the Rams, Saints (twice), Cardinals and Panthers, Brady was forced to lead his team to victory with winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. There were two games that stood as the outliers: the season opener at Dallas, in which Leonard Fournette rushed for 127 yards, and against Seattle in Germany, when rookie Rachaad White rushed for 105 yards.

Privately, in production meetings with networks before games, Brady would complain about the Bucs’ poor effort in the run game, on third down and in the red zone. Publicly, he shouldered the extra burden on offense.

“I think we’re just every week trying to figure out different ways to (win),” Brady said. “I’ve always said, it just comes down to scoring points and how you put yourself in a position to score points. If you’ve got to run it, great. I’ve been a part of a lot of those games. If you need to throw it a lot because that’s what the situation calls for … for one reason or another it’s just the way the year went.”

Simms said he has been impressed by the way Brady continues to throw the football with accuracy and velocity. While Brady got rid of the ball as quickly as ever, with his passing yards per attempt plummeting to 6.4 yards (second-lowest of his career), the result was the Bucs allowing only 22 sacks, fewest in the NFL.

“One, yes, he had to carry them a little bit,” Simms said. “Two, I think he’s 45 and he’s in a little bit of a survival mode. ... There was certainly a few plays I watched on film where I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re Tom Brady. Just sit in there and throw the ball. He’s going to be open.’

“But at the same time he understood their offensive line and when you are getting hit. You do have games where you don’t have a lot of time and you rush your clock and especially when you’re 45. But to be 45 and still throw the ball the way he does is truly unbelievable.”

No quit in the QB

Want to tick off Tom Brady's position coach? Question the fortitude of his quarterback.
Want to tick off Tom Brady's position coach? Question the fortitude of his quarterback. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Christensen takes issue with anyone who says Brady isn’t willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit.

“I’d have to punch out anyone who said he looked scared in the pocket,” Christensen said. “I know people have said, ‘Yeah, he looks scared or his age showed because he threw the ball so quick.’ No! Because there were probably 45 sacks he avoided. If you’re an inexperienced quarterback, you take the sacks and the drives are over. If you think anything different, you don’t know football.”

In fact, Christensen said Brady, who wasn’t sure who was available to play in the final regular-season game at Atlanta, still wanted to go all four quarters.

“I think one of the more impressive things I’ve seen in the years I’ve known him is the final game at Atlanta,” Christensen said. “He’s mad because anybody would think he wouldn’t play and he’s mad they pull him out early and he’s mad other guys don’t want to play. That’s him in a nutshell.”

Of course, the playoffs have always belonged to Brady. Somehow, he is rejuvenated when the second season begins.

By any measure, Brady had another exceptional season. He finished with 4,694 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions. But it would be hard to remember a more difficult season.

And despite the professional and personal strife?

“You can’t convince him we’re not going to win the Super Bowl,” Christensen said.

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