TAMPA, Fla. — The story about the Bucs this summer is whether they can be the first NFL team in 16 years to win consecutive Super Bowls. The quarterback back then, for Super Bowls 38 and 39, was Tom Brady. The quarterback trying to win a second straight title now, almost a generation later, sweating a few feet across from me, in a sliver of shade next to the old equipment shed on the Tampa Bay Bucs’ training ground, is Tom Brady, of course.
It always comes back to Brady, right? I’ve taken his temperature a lot over the years, and what I found in 19 minutes with him the other day was the kind of happiness and contentment we’d all want to have in the twilight of our professional lives. His 14-year-old son, Jack, is a ballboy at camp this summer, and dad and son have been playing catch a lot. Brady is mentoring another kid receiver in camp, fourth-round rookie Jaelon Darden of North Texas, a continuation of the fulfillment he’s gotten as a player-coach since arriving here last year. And the football . . . it’s just something he feels more in control. “When he calls a play this year, he knows the picture in his brain,” coach Bruce Arians told me. “Last year, it was just words.”
There’s nothing about the way Brady acts, talks, smiles, teaches, throws, throws, and throws that suggests he’ll retire in 17 months, after his contract realistically expires. (There are three void years built in to make his cap numbers tolerable in 2021 and 2022.)
In 2009, Brady told me in an interview he wanted to play till he was 41. In 2017, he raised that to his mid-forties. Now, I’d be mildly surprised if he doesn’t play beyond 45, beyond the 2022 season. Last year, in his age-43 year, he didn’t get in a huddle with his new offense (literally) till one month before the season-opener, and proceeded to throw for more touchdowns than Patrick Mahomes and more yards than Aaron Rodgers, and the Bucs won the Super Bowl by 22 points.
Read that again, what Brady did at 43. Threw for more touchdowns than Patrick Mahomes, more yards than Aaron Rodgers, won the Super Bowl by 22 points. Wayne Gretzky was in decline at 35 and out of hockey at 39. Michael Jordan was 34 in his last great year. Peyton Manning retired at 40.
Do we realize exactly what we’re seeing?
Wisely, after turning 44 this month, Brady will go year-to-year, but with life so marvelous for him right now, why put limits on himself?
“I’ll know when the time’s right,” Brady said about retirement. “If I can’t . . . if I’m not a championship-level quarterback, then I’m not gonna play. If I’m a liability to the team, I mean, no way. But if I think I can win a championship, then I’ll play.”
Brady was excited about football, pensive, grateful, reflective about New England and the White House, and critical of the rising ethos in this country that says blame is a good substitute for work.
“Life,” Brady said, “is about always changing and adapting to different things. Today, the world wants to blame, and shame, and guilt, and fear everything all the time. We would never teach our kids that, you know? We would never say, ‘This is how you’re gonna get through life the best—you’re gonna blame everyone when things don’t go right.’ Or, ‘I always get it my way but you should never get it your way.’ It’s not how to live a joyful life.
“For me . . . I love playing football. [Offensive coordinator] Byron Leftwich said something really good the other day: It’s a very simple game that’s so hard to execute. It’s a totally imperfect game that you’re trying to do as perfectly as possible. Every day I come out trying to do it. I’m hoping this is my best year.”
Think it will be?
“That’s a prediction and I’m not for that. I’m into doing the work. Is the process gonna be right? I’m gonna work my ass off to get it right.”
Last year, in camp, Brady was a personal tutor for tight end O.J. Howard. Coaching points every day, up close and personal. This year, that guy is a fourth-round pick from North Texas, smurfy receiver Jaelon Darden. Nearly every day, Brady’s close to him in practice, giving teaching points about precisely where he wants him on every route of the route tree. He does this so, in the biggest games, he’s got weapons not named Mike Evans and Chris Godwin (likely to see blanket coverage) who he can trust. Think back to the Super Bowl comeback win over Atlanta. Brady’s most important wide receivers down the stretch of a 25-point comeback? Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell.
Arians said what he learned most from Brady last year is the complete understanding of what it takes to win at quarterback. “He is such an unbelievable coach to younger players,” Arians said. “Not just on the field, but off the field, with TB12 and some of the things that he does to teach young players how to do it the right way.”
Brady embraces that role, being precise with guys on route-running, because it’s so essential to winning. Doesn’t it make sense? If he’s going to work on being precise throwing to a spot 15 yards downfield, say, of course he would want to work on techniques and strategy to be sure that receiver is open at least a small window at 15 yards.
“The first time I met him after the draft, I was star-struck,” Darden said. “He said, ‘Hey Jaelon. Happy to have you on the team. I studied your film.’ What an honor. Then he took time to teach me how to win against coverages. Like, ‘When the corner plays you here, I’m gonna have the ball at this exact spot.’ Every day, I put my hard hat on and work and learn.”
“It’s really hard for a rookie receiver in the NFL,” Brady said. “Everything is new. You have a play, then I change the play, then I look at you and I change the route, then I see a defense that we didn’t necessarily talk about. Every play I’m like, hey this is what I’m thinking. And you gotta have someone who can take the critique.
“No one can fix it except the quarterback and receiver. Doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I’m throwing the ball. You’re catching it. We gotta literally have a bond, a connection between us. You gotta think what I’m thinking all the time. The more you talk and the more you do it, the better it is. The longer I play with guys, the better it is. The shorter you play together, you can’t cover everything in five weeks of training camp. Or in two years together. Five years together? Maybe. Seven years together, okay, that’s pretty good. You play seven years together with a receiver, you can make a lot of magic happen. But after a year or two, there’s still things. There’s so many variables that you gotta get right. We’re playing a chess game.”
Brady has figured out that football is a collection of the things no one sees—like spending 20 seconds here, two minutes there, day after day, with an awestruck fourth-round receiver who might make it and might not. So that, in the NFC Championship Game, nursing a five-point lead with 1:37 to play, with third-and-four at his own 37-yard line, knowing if he failed on this play Aaron Rodgers would get the ball back with 90 seconds and three timeouts left . . . and he picked out the 161st pick in the draft just nine months earlier, Tyler Johnson, to target. Super Bowl berth on the line. Brady threw to Johnson, who got grabbed by a cornerback for pass interference. First down. Two weeks later, the Bucs lifted the Lombardi.
To lift another one, Tampa’s got the ultimate resource person in Brady. In the last four seasons after getting to Super Bowls, the Brady/Belichick Patriots won 12, 12, 13 and 12 games. They didn’t repeat in any of those, but they played in January in each of the following seasons. The feeling around camp here is, as VP of Football Administration Mike Greenberg said, “Tom Brady won’t allow it.” I heard 19 similar refrains in my day at camp.
Let’s get a little granular about the gang’s-all-back story. You know about all starters and the six or seven key reserves/kicker/punter being back, and the key coaches and front-office staff. But the Bucs got a little greedy. There were two players the Bucs really wanted on the team this year, two non-starters who would fill specific roles: third-down back Gio Bernard (the Bucs didn’t have a good third-down back like James White was for Brady in New England) and backup guard Aaron Stinnie.
Bernard you know. Nice player who should get 80 touches for the Bucs if healthy. Stinnie you don’t know. When right guard Alex Cappa broke his ankle in the Bucs’ wild-card win at Washington, Stinnie subbed for him in wins over the Saints, Packers and Kansas City, allowing one sack in 106 Brady pass-drops. As a fourth-year free-agent, Stinnie would have demanded the Bucs pay him a restricted free-agent tender of $2.3 million. That’s money they didn’t want to allocate to a swing guard. But look at what happened to KC in the Super Bowl when injuries the offensive line. “Our depth was huge in carrying us through the playoffs,” GM Jason Licht said. Stinnie wanted to be a Buc, and so eschewed the chance to make a little more elsewhere.
Each signed a one-year contract, Bernard for $1.2 million, Stinnie for $1.25 million. That investment in one player Licht is sure will help them win (Bernard) and one player who will help him sleep at night (Stinnie) cost Tampa Bay a combined 1.3 percent of its 2021 salary cap. Seems extremely smart.
These are players who want to be part of a winner. There are others who’ve made big money and just want a shot at another ring and love playing with Brady (Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh). Such a mass return to take one more shot has never been done exactly this way in recent NFL history.
“In the end,” said Licht, “we didn’t want to disrupt a good thing, and we could afford to use the credit card with the salary cap.” Example: Brady will be owned $23 million in 2023 if he walks away from football—or if he chooses to play more, the Bucs could extend him again with more phony years, pushing the money they owe him further down the road. It’ll come due, of course; but Licht and Arians obviously want to take their best shot, cap be damned, while Brady still has some prime left.
The other important part of having Brady in the house, as one Buc operative told me: “Nobody’s a turd when Tom’s around.” Meaning no one on offense is going to bitch about not getting the ball enough, or about his contract, at least now. Tampa’s got a real chance to win again. But no one ever sees the disease of complacency coming. We shall see.
“Football’s the ultimate blame game,” Brady said. “General managers, head coaches, players, quarterbacks, receivers, defense, offense. It’s so easy to blame someone else. It’s so hard to say, ‘I didn’t get the job done and we collectively didn’t get the job done.’ That’s the best part about team sports. I picked a team where everybody’s like, ‘Hey, we gotta get better.’ It’s not, I got all the answers. You guys just all screwed it up except me.’ Exact opposite way to play the game. You know? You gotta play it together.
“If you’re doing what you love doing and you’re with people you love doing it with, it’s all good. You can go to the Bahamas and play golf with the worst threesome of all time and you’re gonna have a horrible time. Or you can go to the local muni with your three best friends and have the best time. I love the guys I’m working with. This is nothing about New England. I love New England. I love the players. I love the coaches. It was magical.
“I’m very fortunate to find something I love and get to do it a long time. I was doing my treatments this morning with [personal trainer] Alex [Guerrero] this morning, and I told my son Jack: ‘I hope you find something you love to do in life. Your dad loves this. Alex loves this. If you just find what you love, you’re gonna love it every day.’”