TAMPA, Fla. — Eleven months ago, it was inconceivable that quarterback Tom Brady would choose, of all teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to continue his football journey.
Equally implausible was that this partnership — forged in an offseason ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, with little time to connect with new teammates or master a new playbook — would yield Brady’s 10th Super Bowl appearance and seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy.
At the age of 43. On his home turf at Raymond James Stadium.
But on Sunday night, playing in front of the first hometown crowd in Super Bowl history and 7,500 health care workers, Brady and the Buccaneers defeated Patrick Mahomes and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs 31-9, giving the Bucs their second Lombardi trophy. Brady was 21-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns, including two to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“To come down here to Tampa, come to an organization that was ready to win, come down here with the players — they’re all fantastic players, great guys, just everyone overall — the story is unbelievable, and it definitely ranks up there with one of my biggest accomplishments ever,” Gronkowski said.
It was a brilliant defensive performance and game plan from coordinator Todd Bowles. The Bucs’ D — making a quantum leap this postseason after being torched by Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill for 269 yards and three touchdowns in Week 12 of the regular season — took Mahomes out of rhythm, pressuring him heavily, as the Chiefs were without starting offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz.
Mahomes was continuously throwing off balance, and the Bucs’ defensive backs were all over the ball, with Antoine Winfield Jr. notching a third-quarter interception.
“I can’t give him enough credit,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of Bowles. “You know, I think he got a little tired of hearing about how unstoppable they were. I thought he came up with a fantastic plan just to keep them in front of us and tackle real well. Patrick wasn’t going to beat us running …”
Mahomes was sacked three times, intercepted twice and held out of the end zone.
You couldn’t make any of this up if you tried.
The same with Brady walking into the wrong house and getting kicked out of a public park during stay-at-home orders, which resulted in a semi-awkward run-in with the mayor and a promise she’ll have to try to fulfill: renaming “Tampa Bay” to “Tampa Brady.”
“Tompa Bay” has a nice ring to it too. Hey, a deal’s a deal.
Three players whom Brady personally recruited to join him in Tampa — Gronkowski, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Leonard Fournette — all scored touchdowns in this Super Bowl, with Gronkowski catching two in the first half.
“Great to see big-time players making big-time plays,” Brady said.
“Just love what they did, what they added to the team. Gronk is an unbelievable player, teammate, talent, work ethic, commitment. And AB is just — since he got here, he’s done everything the right way. So impressed by him.”
On Fournette, Brady said: “He was amazing and just did it all. Blocked, ran, just had an incredible season. We got him pretty late, and he just showed up big. It was amazing how he performed in the biggest moments.”
Brady called his shot early. When he first signed with the Bucs and indicated he wasn’t keen on taking wide receiver Chris Godwin‘s No. 12 (Brady did get the number, eventually), he asked general manager Jason Licht if No. 7 was available.
“Why 7?” Licht asked.
Brady responded, “Going after that seventh Super Bowl.”
Audacious? Perhaps. But he earned it.
Brady was already in rare company prior to Sunday, with his six championship rings tying him with Michael Jordan, one of his idols. But on Sunday night, he surpassed Jordan and Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Now, he is tied with Nick Saban, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, to name a few.
The sports figures who have won more? Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles and Sam Jones won 10. In baseball, Yogi Berra won 10 World Series rings, Joe DiMaggio won nine and Phil Rizzuto, Frankie Crosetti, Bill Dickey and Lou Gehrig each won eight — the same number of titles that Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Tom “Satch” Sanders and John Havlicek claimed in the NBA. And don’t forget about Brady’s former coach Bill Belichick, who has eight Super Bowl rings — two with the New York Giants and six with the New England Patriots.
Almost all of those players and coaches did it with the same team, year after year, building the greatest dynasties in professional sports. Brady started over, at a time when Father Time was supposed to catch up to him.
Arians pointed to “the belief he gave everybody in the organization that this could be done” after the NFC Championship Game. “It only took one man.”
Many argued Brady took the biggest risk of his professional career, leaving the only team he had ever known in the Patriots, the only head coach he had ever known in Belichick and the only way he had ever known: winning. He traded those things for a Bucs team that hadn’t been to the postseason in 13 years, hadn’t won a playoff game in nearly two decades and still owns the league’s worst winning percentage (.393).
In Tampa, Brady wasn’t untouchable. He struggled, at times. The lack of an offseason hurt him in terms of getting on the same page with Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Brady admitted after a loss to the Chiefs in Week 12, when the Bucs failed to score a touchdown and fell to 7-5, that “we weren’t great.”‘
The Bucs closed out the regular season on a four-game winning streak and didn’t look back, winning three postseason games on the road — including trips to New Orleans and Green Bay to face Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, respectively — before dethroning the Chiefs on Sunday night, becoming the fourth team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl as a road wild-card team. Now comes a new test for a team still adjusting to life in the spotlight: repeating as champions, something Brady did only once with the Patriots, in 2003 and 2004, and something the Chiefs fell short of in the 2020 season. Brady will be in the second year of a two-year, $50 million contract, and this week he said he would “definitely consider” playing beyond age 45, which could extend the Bucs’ window to contend.
Gronkowski has already pledged his return. But the Bucs need to re-sign Godwin, who becomes an unrestricted free agent. So too does pass-rusher Shaq Barrett — with whom they couldn’t get a deal done last offseason, forcing him to play under the franchise tag — and linebacker Lavonte David. The Bucs will have roughly $30 million in salary-cap space.
The coaches and front office have been thrilled with Brown. Can they re-sign him? And can he continue to avoid off-field trouble without the structure of a season? His civil suit was moved to December 2021 due to the pandemic.
There’s also Fournette, whose 313 yards from scrimmage heading into Sunday were the most of any player during these playoffs. Will Tampa Bay be able to bring him back?
“We were obviously all-in for this season, but the way that we’re set up right now — there’s a lot of questions and a lot of unknowns right now in terms of what the salary cap is going to be, but I think we’re set up beautifully,” Licht said. “A young defense, a young secondary, young receivers [and] a fairly young offensive line. I wouldn’t say it changed on March 20 [when Brady signed]. We’re still looking long term, and we still have a plan long term [with] the way we set things up.”
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