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 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 seventh Lombardi trophy and 10th Super Bowl.
At the age of 43. On his home turf at Raymond James Stadium.
But Sunday night, playing for the first hometown crowd in Super Bowl history and 7,500 health care workers, Brady and the Bucs defeated Patrick Mahomes and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9, giving the Bucs their second Lombardi trophy. Brady was 21-of-29 for 201 yards and three touchdowns.
It was an incredible defensive performance and game plan from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The Bucs’ defense — making a quantum leap this postseason after being torched by Tyreek Hill for 269 yards and three touchdowns in Week 12 of the regular season — took Mahomes out of rhythm, pressuring him heavily without starting offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. He was continuously throwing off-balance, with the Bucs’ defensive backs all over the ball, with Antoine Winfield Jr. notching a third-quarter interception.
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” into “Tampa Brady.”
“Tompa Bay” has a nice ring to it too. Hey, a deal’s a deal.
Three players Brady personally recruited to join him in Tampa — tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Leonard Fournette — all scored touchdowns, with Gronkowski catching two in the first half.
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, 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 tied with Michael Jordan, one of his idols. But Sunday night, he surpassed Jordan and Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Now he’s 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, as did Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Tom “Satch” Sanders and John Havlicek. And don’t forget about his 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.
Coach Bruce 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’d ever known in the Patriots, the only head coach he’d ever known in Belichick and the only way he’d 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. He admitted after the loss to the Chiefs in Week 12, where 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 haven’t looked back, winning three postseason games on the road — including trips to New Orleans and Green Bay to face Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers — 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: win back-to-back, something Brady did only once with the Patriots, in 2003 and 2004, and something the Chiefs fell short on in 2020. Brady will be in his 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 they’ll need to re-sign Godwin, who becomes an unrestricted free agent. So too will 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 receiver Antonio Brown. Can they re-sign him, and can he continue moving his life in a better direction without the structure of a season? His civil suit was moved to December 2021 due to the coronavirus. There’s also running back Leonard Fournette, whose 313 scrimmage yards heading into Sunday were the most of any player during the playoffs. Will they 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.”