Last spring, when Bruce Arians knew he had Tom Brady in the fold as the new quarterback of the Buccaneers, he was thrilled for the franchise (WE GOT TOM BRADY, BABY!), thrilled for himself (Man, I get to coach Brady!) and just as thrilled for the players on his team. One night in March, Arians told me: “We’re so young. We’re good. I think we’re really good. But we need Tom to teach these guys how to win, teach these guys how to be pros. I can’t wait to see the impact he has on our players.”
The impact showed up Sunday on the last game of a historic weekend of football. Historic because we almost certainly saw the last of the greatest athlete in the history of New Orleans team sports, we saw Tom Brady make his 14th (!!!) conference championship game, we saw the stage set for a Brady-Aaron Rodgers title game (at Lambeau, and maybe in the snow), we saw the Bills make the Final Four for the first time in 27 years, and we saw five new head coaches either get named to jobs or prep their finest suits for press-conference announcements.
Brady is 43. The play Arians said won the game was made by a couple of 22-year-old sudden franchise cornerstones on Tampa’s defense, Devin White and Antoine Winfield Jr. And it was all so perfect for the Bucs (there’s a phrase that hasn’t been written much in Tampa history), the calming influence of the veteran who’s been there so many times and acts like it, and the effervescent joy of players who were teenagers 20 minutes ago. They need each other to win two more games in this crazy season.
So you want to know Brady’s influence on this team that’s one win away from being the first team in 55 Super Bowls to play on its home field? I asked Devin White, still all hopped up 45 minutes after the game. Over the phone from Louisiana, White sounded like he was still playing this 30-20 Tampa victory over New Orleans.
“Thing I love about Tom is he’s always teaching,” White said. “Teaching me how to be a great leader. Every single day, every single practice, he puts the team before himself. First few days he’s in the locker room, we’re all like, We’re in the locker room with the greatest quarterback of all time! Like, I wanna talk to him, I wanna get a picture with him. But then, he’s your teammate. You’re here for a reason.
“Few weeks ago, I was kinda upset I didn’t make the Pro Bowl. He’s like, ‘D, there’s a bigger bowl I’m chasing. We’re all chasing it. C’mon.’ I just thought, man, it’s a blessing to hear that. I need to hear that. This thing’s about us. He’s still chasing those bowls in his forties. I am just so grateful to be able to spend this time with him.”
“Consummate leader,” Arians said. “Has been all year. Got the air of confidence that permeates through our team every day. I allow him to be himself. Like, New England didn’t allow him to coach. I allow him to coach. I just sit back sometimes and watch.”
The stakes Sunday were obviously, particularly in the wake of the news Sunday from FOX’s Jay Glazer, confirming what most thought was a looming reality: Drew Brees would retire after this season. And whatever happened Sunday, it was going to be Brees’ last game in New Orleans. For 15 years, while he climbed over every great quarterback in history and become the all-time leader in passing yards, Brees became an active citizen, maybe the single most important ambassador to making New Orleans whole after Katrina. No one doesn’t love Brees, including his coach, Sean Payton.
Brees turned 42 Friday, and Payton forgot to mention it to him or the team. So after practice Friday, Payton called Brees in his car.
“I forgot one thing in red zone today,” Payton said.
“What?” said Brees.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” Payton said.
Everyone wanted to win it for Brees. It’s tough, though, when you lose the turnover battle 4-0, which the Saints did. Arians said the biggest was the White/Winfield combo platter with 20 minutes left and the Saints driving to lengthen a 20-13 lead. Brees threw to vet tight end Jared Cook to the Tampa 47, and Winfield stripped the ball, White recovered, and White returned it to the Bucs’ 40. Five plays later, Brady’s second of two TD passes tied the game. “Changed the whole game,” Arians said. “Could have gone to a two-score game right then. To me, that was the play of the game.”
With the Bucs up 23-20 and the Saints about to go on offense with 10 minutes left, White prowled the sideline. He told one of the Tampa assistant coaches: “Coach, I’m trying to put the dagger in it now!” He told his mates, “Whoever makes the big play on this series, that’s a stack!” Stack. A thousands bucks. Of course White did it. He cut under Alvin Kamara on the fifth play of the series, picking it off near midfield and returning it to the Saints’ 20. Four plays later, Brady sneaked it in from the 1. Ballgame.
Arians loved how this game was played. It could be the kind of game Tampa will need to play to beat Green Bay in the title game. Passes: 33. Runs: 35. Though the Bucs rushed for just 3.6 yards per carry, it was more about the mentality and the approach to Arians. They’d lost to the Saints twice this year by a total of 46 points. They’d been pushed around. Not this day.
“First thing I said to the team this week was, ‘You gotta be a man in this game.’ They tried to be bullies. I couldn’t ask for a better ending, running it down their throat at the end of the game to kill the clock. We set a tempo, and nobody’s bullying us. You know, I always hear this ‘they only want to throw-deep’ s—. But we always start with punching teams in the mouth.
Feisty Arians. The good Arians. He’ll need to be on Rodgers’ turf Sunday.