TAMPA, Fla. — “Hey dude,” Bruce Arians said to Tom Brady as confetti fell on their world champion heads Sunday night. “You remember our first conversation?”
“Vividly,” Brady said.
“Me too,” Arians said. “ ‘You come, and we’ll win the Super Bowl.’ “
He came, he saw, he conquered . . . even though so many were convinced Brady was kaput after the embarrassing wild-card loss that ended his New England career 13 months ago; even though the meticulously-organized Brady didn’t have his first competitive practice with his new team till Aug. 14; even though the three men who scored the four Tampa Bay touchdowns in Super Bowl LV weren’t on the team 10 months ago; even though the Bucs lost at home to the Saints, Rams and Chiefs by a total of 41 points in November; and even though the Bucs’ road to winning a Lombardi Trophy would necessitate victories over Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes in the span of 22 days.
But by the time Brady’s seventh Super Bowl title was captured Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium, it didn’t seem anything but logical.
That’s because Brady had so much help from his new pewter friends in routing the defending world champs 31-9. Gronkowski, coaxed out of retirement by Brady last April (“What else was I gonna do in a pandemic?” Gronk told me post-game) scored the first two touchdowns on throws from Brady. Antonio Brown, coaxed onto the team, in part, by Brady in October, ran a great route and caught a laser TD from Brady for the third score. And Leonard Fournette, mopey when Ronald Jones grabbed the running back job in midseason, scored a redemptive TD among his 135 scrimmage yards. “Rob and Antonio are never on this team without Tom,” agent Drew Rosenhaus said at halftime, and he would know: He reps Gronk and used to rep Brown.
The help came from a defense that smothered Patrick Mahomes, who has the best chance in this golden age of quarterbacks to be the heir to Brady. (Someday. Not now.) Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles came up with the game plan of his life. The line contained Mahomes so well Bowles called only four blitzes all night. And the kid secondary—all six who played the back end against Mahomes are 24 or younger—came up huge. One other thing: The Chiefs stunk. Hard to remember an Andy Reid team looking so shaky and poiseless in a big game.
Back to the field, post-game. Back to the strangest season we’ve ever seen.
“What else did you say to Brady?” I asked Arians, when he finally had a chance to take a deep breath in his office post-game.
“That [first] day we talked,” Arians said, “Tom said he knew we had the talent. I just told him, ‘You gotta get them to believe.’ He did. And it came to fruition.”
Arians would have loved to dissect the moment with Brady right there. But when ownership, Arians and Brady moved to the stage to accept the Lombardi, the coach stepped back.
“I wanted my wife to have some time with him,” Arians said. “She’d never met Tom.”
“Just that kind of year,” Arians said. “You know, the virus. It’s been tough to build a close team in times like this. They couldn’t eat together. Gronk still doesn’t know everybody’s name. So when we got on stage, I just let my wife have the moment with Tom. That was precious to me.”
Arians mused: “My wife not meeting Tom till we’re on stage after winning the Super Bowl. That speaks volumes of this whole year.”
There has never been a year like this one, and never a Super Bowl like this one, and not just because of one of the great quarterback pairings of the 55 Super Bowls ever played. Actually, everything surrounding the game was America in this crazy time—good and bad.
The NFL hosted 7,500 vaccinated U.S. health-care workers at the game, to say thanks for their tireless work during the 11 months of the pandemic. I guess it wasn’t too shocking that there was a protest outside a perimeter fence at Raymond James Stadium Sunday afternoon against, of all things, actually being vaccinated. “VACCINES CAUSE INJURY AND DEATH,” one protester’s sign read. Seriously. But the health-care workers seemed to have a glorious time, enjoying a Miley Cyrus pre-game concert and the game—which pleased the majority of the health-care workers, because the majority was from Florida, like the winners.
The football gods gave the NFL a few more gifts Sunday. The Brady-Mahomes matchup, of course. Brady tying the great Otto Graham for most football championships won by a quarterback (seven). The 269th game of the season, exactly on schedule while COVID-19 still ravages parts of the country. The NFL was smart to invite so many American heroes, for free, to a game most of them would never have the chance to see. And the pre-game “Chorus of the Captains” poem by 22-year-old Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman was a different, and nice, touch in hard times, honoring a teacher, a nurse and a veteran who have acted selflessly in the pandemic. Gorman’s words included these:
For while we honor them today,
It is they who every day honor us.
Poetry at a football game. The teams stopped, the world stopped, to listen. “What a time to be alive,” young Amanda Gorman tweeted.
What a season to see, too. The Bucs, as it turned out, rode the wings of Brady to an unexpected world championship, running up an 8-0 record since Dec. 1. Those who’ve been around Brady wouldn’t be shocked. By the time the calendar turns to December, his voracious practice habits rub off on his mates, and things that were rough and ugly in Week 3 look pretty impressive by the playoffs. For example: touchdown passes in the final 10 seconds of the first half in both the NFC title game and the Super Bowl, with each being an unexpected dagger in the game.
Brady created a culture of selflessness on both sides of the ball. When star linebacker Devin White complained about not making the Pro Bowl in December, Brady pshawed. “D,” he said. “Come on. There’s a bigger bowl I‘m chasing.” Arians had it lucky. Most teams talk about stars lowering their egos for the common good, but listen to Arians: “Mike Evans is the most unselfish superstar I’ve ever met. He’s told us to use some of his money if we need to contracts to keep the team together! And Gronk—never once all season did he ever say a word about getting the ball more, even though he might get one pass, two passes in games. He just blocks his ass off, and when I’d say to him, ‘You okay?’ he’d say, ‘I’m good, coach. I’m good.’ “
Gronkowski has been eclipsed by KC’s great tight end, Travis Kelce. But on this night, till the game was out of hand, the night belonged to Gronk (two TDs) over Kelce (a big drop, zero TDs). “Playing with Tom,” Gronkowski told me after the game, “you just learn if you want to win championships, you can’t care about your numbers. If you’re good, numbers will come. If you’ve got great players, maybe they’ll get the numbers. Who cares? I’ve had no problems all year how I’ve been used. I love blocking. Blocking’s just as important as catching the ball at my position.”
Brady was obviously the conduit to Gronkowski. “Once Brady signed,” Rosenhaus said, “that was the impetus for everything to happen. I called coach [Bill] Belichick in New England and said it might make sense for Rob to reunite with Tom. They worked out a trade. Rob’s body felt good. Being in Florida was good. He’s the only quarterback Rob ever wanted to play with.”
You could see Sunday night that Gronkowski has the fresh legs he used to have in September in New England. He was quick sprinting across the formation on his first TD catch, and so fast when he caught the ball that no Chief touched him on his eight-yard run to the end zone. On the second, he broke free from coverage by precocious rookie L’Jarius Sneed and then jutted left quickly in the back of the end zone. Easy touchdown.
“People seem mind-blown about Tom at his age,” Gronkowski said. “I’m not. He has lost no zip on his passes from when I first came in the league. People think he eats crazy and they question his methods. Well, I’m doing some of his stuff and all I know is I feel great.”
Brady found Brown with a dart to make it 21-6 by halftime, and by the time Fournette ended it with a 27-yard TD run to the right pylon midway through the third quarter, the Brady indoctrination season was complete. Think of the timeline: When Brady agreed with the Bucs on March 18, he told GM Jason Licht (mind you, this was very early in the pandemic, so no one knew how restrictive life was going to be), We’ve only got so many hours before opening day, and every hour counts for us. Brady actually had figured out the number of hours—maybe 4,300, or close to that—which amazed Licht. But then he pushed to trade for Gronkowski (April 21), supported the signing of Fournette when the Jags cut him (Sept. 6) and was wholly behind the Antonio Brown reclamation project (signed Oct. 27).
Four touchdowns scored in Super Bowl LV: Gronk, Gronk, Brown, Fournette.
Wayward Souls of the NFL, Tampa Bay chapter.
Maybe Brady knew what he was doing in petitioning for his freedom from New England.