The transcendent athletes are not only incomparable they’re incorporeal. There is an element of their greatness that can’t be quantified, measured, or defined. Like the air, it’s palpable, but invisible.
It’s just a visceral feeling — one the athlete’s fans get, one his or her teammates get, and one the athlete’s opponents get that he or she will somehow prevail. That their mere presence invites eventual victory.
It’s exceedingly rare. Michael Jordan had it, Wayne Gretzky had it, Joe Montana had it. I imagine that Babe Ruth and Bill Russell had it when they played before my time. And Tom Brady has it.
Patriots fans know that feeling well. They enjoyed it for 19 seasons with Brady as their football touchstone and talisman. Now, it’s a feeling another franchise is wearing and riding to the cusp of a Super Bowl. Brady has guided the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC title game, and it’s bittersweet for Patriots fans (just pure bitterness for some). It will be his 14th conference title game appearance.
It’s a tough pill to swallow to realize that Brady didn’t cease being Brady, didn’t cease being football’s one-man fountain of youth and good fortune, didn’t cease being the GOAT once he left the New England nest. He and Belichick aren’t the Wonder Twins, requiring each other to activate their powers.
TB12 is still the same player and the same presence without Belichick. He’s instilling belief and inspiring wins in someone else’s helmet — the greatest of his many football gifts
That’s the thing about greatness. It’s not all tangible. There is an intangible quality to it. So, you can look at Brady’s relatively meager stats (18 of 33 for 199 yards with two touchdowns) from the Buccaneers’ NFC Divisional round win over the Saints and dismiss his impact.
Or you can look at the big picture of the Bucs going into the lion’s den of a divisional opponent that had eviscerated them twice earlier this season, including the most lopsided loss of Brady’s career, and still believing they could beat them. Then doing it.
Here in New England, it’s In Bill We Trust. But it’s In Brady They Believe wherever he goes. Brady has changed the mistake-prone mien of one of the NFL teams most prone to self-harm and squandering its talent.
“Tom really hasn’t changed. His preparation is unbelievable every game, whether it’s September or January. When you’ve been there and done it, guys just follow you,” said Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, the beneficiary of Brady’s transformational talent.
But we live in the age of numbers. If something can’t be quantified, captured, or shared it doesn’t exist. So, you demand empirical evidence of Brady’s impact when it comes to attention to detail and on the 11-5 Buccaneers, a franchise that hadn’t won a playoff game since the 2002 season, hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2007, and hadn’t posted double-digit wins since 2010 before he arrived?.
In 2019 and 2018 the Buccaneers led the NFL in turnovers each season. They recorded a ghastly 41 last season — led by Jameis Winston’s 35 from the QB position — and 32 in 2018, before Arians was hired to replace Dirk Koetter. This season, the Bucs set a franchise record for fewest turnovers with 17. Brady has thrown four touchdown passes this postseason with no interceptions.
“That was a major emphasis – that and eliminating penalties,” said Arians. “Getting more disciplined was a huge part of our offseason. Obviously, Tom doesn’t turn it over much, but we’ve hammered everybody about protecting the football, anybody with their hands on the ball. That and penalties.”
Last year, Tampa Bay tied for the most penalties called in the NFL with 158. This season they finished tied for ninth with 97, the fewest penalties ever called on an Arians-coached team.
It’s cliche to call someone a winner. But in Brady’s case, it’s factual. He has never won fewer than nine games in any of the 19 seasons he has been a starter. (He didn’t start as a rookie in 2000 and missed all but 15 offensive snaps of the 2008 season with a torn ACL.) In those 19 seasons, he has gone to the conference title game a staggering 14 times.
Take that in.
Brady has 32 playoff wins. That’s more than all but four NFL franchises, the Patriots (37), the Packers (36), the Steelers (36) and the Cowboys.
His first conference title game was during the 2001 season with an 11-5 team. His most recent is during the 2020 season with an 11-5 team, even though the teams are quite different and so is he.
He was a fairytale curiosity in 2001. Now, he has career accomplishments that read as long as “War and Peace” and its history every time he takes the field.
He’s brought the same aura to Florida that he had in Foxborough. The best way to extrapolate what Brady means to a team comes from the greatest comeback he’s ever authored, the Patriots rallying from a 28-3 deficit to win Super Bowl LI in overtime. One of Brady’s teammates on that team was Chris Long, who had experienced a lifetime of losing with the Rams.
“In the locker room, I always remember: Duron Harmon went, ‘We’re gonna win this game,’ ” Long told “Zolak and Bertrand” of 98.5 The Sports Hub. “And I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Let’s just get a stop. What are you talking about?’
“But guys in that locker room believed it. And I think that’s the effect of being on a winner long enough, is that you’re not cynical. You think you can come out of anything. And that’s what having the GOAT on your side is.”
Having Brady on your side means never having to say you’re sorry or say that you’re out of a game.
Brady is like the pigskin placebo effect. Teams believe they’re going to get better. They’re going to pull through because they have a heavy dose of No. 12 to cure what ails them.
One of the oft-repeated arguments from his estranged fans against Brady’s individual impact on his team’s collective success is that he went to a team loaded with weapons in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers certainly have more offensive weapons than the Patriots, who have been starved of playmakers in the passing game. But who doesn’t?
But this notion that Brady was Kevin Durant joining the football equivalent of the Golden State Warriors in their heyday is disingenuous. No one saw the Bucs as a prohibitive favorite to win anything this season.
For the record, the Patriots had more Pro Bowlers this year (three) than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (one). Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, special teams captain Matthew Slater, and punter Jake Bailey made the Pro Bowl. The Bucs only selection was defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The same goes for All-Pro selections. That Patriots had three on special teams (Gunner Olszewski, Bailey and Slater), and the Buccaneers had linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David make the second-team. No offensive players.
The Buccaneers certainly have plentiful talent and some big names on offense. But some of those names are only there because Brady is. He coaxed Rob Gronkowski out of retirement and convinced the Buccaneers to roll the dice on volatile wideout Antonio Brown mid-season.
There’s no question that a lot of what Brady learned about winning football traces back to Professor Belichick. You can take the golden boy out of Foxborough, but you can’t take the Foxborough out of the golden boy. Brady even parrots some of the same bromides that Belichick has pushed for years.
But there is no doubt that Brady can stand on his own. He’s on the verge of becoming just the fourth quarterback to take two different teams to the Super Bowl, joining rival Peyton Manning (Denver and Indianapolis), Kurt Warner (Arizona and Rams), and Craig Morton (Dallas and Denver).
Brady won his first Super Bowl by going through the league’s No. 1 scoring offense and an MVP quarterback who led the league in touchdown passes, the St. Louis Rams and Warner. To get to his 10th Super Bowl, he’ll have to go through the league’s No. 1 scoring offense and an MVP quarterback who led the league in touchdown passes, the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers.
History has a sense of symmetry.
The odds are against Brady and the Bucs becoming the first team to play the Super Bowl on their home field. But Brady has made a career of beating the odds. He’s already done it by simply being on the field at age 43 and reaching this point in the playoffs without the hooded aegis of Belichick.
You can rail against Brady. You can root against him. You can resent him. You can cling to your religion that worships an iconic coach who is 26-26 in New England without him as the starting quarterback and 63-71 overall in eight seasons with other starting QBs.
But you can’t deny that he’s giving that familiar winning feeling to another franchise.