TAMPA, Fla. -- Tom Brady's divorce from New England was still fresh and shocking on the day he signed his contract, but Brady had already closed the book on a storied 20-year run that had somehow grown stale. Brady is one of those people who rarely lives in the past, his good friend and former teammate Willie McGinest would say months later. He wants to focus on the present and the future. Which explains the things Brady said to Buccaneers GM Jason Licht when they talked that day, a conversation that stayed with Licht. First, Brady wanted the phone numbers of his receivers immediately. And second, Brady knew exactly how many hours there were until the Bucs would open the 2020 season.
That Brady knew the kind of uphill climb he faced, starting over at age 43, made Sunday night’s outcome no less stunning. Everybody eventually realized this would be a pandemic-stricken season that would favor continuity, that the scuttled offseason and preseason would rob teams of work that would especially disadvantage those who were in transition.
Last Sunday, on a warm, sunny day, quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen sat on his patio and, in his genial way, bemoaned the lost time. He wished the Bucs still had eight more games to play this season, so the offense could finally get to where it was going, so that Brady would no longer be operating at a severe repetition deficit.
On Sunday, the deficit still not erased, the new Brady era ended its first season the way the old one did six times in New England -- with Brady hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. He elevated a moribund franchise, then won a Super Bowl, 31-9 over the Chiefs, and ultimately, again, pushed off the encroaching future and the demands to pass the baton. Even the Patriots, left behind, tweeted their congratulations to "the greatest of all time."
This outcome seems so routine -- and in hindsight, should have been expected -- for Brady, but that should not dim how extraordinary it is. Brady came to a team that hadn't even been in the playoffs since 2007. And they won the Super Bowl in his first try. That is seven championships for him, five Super Bowl MVP awards (he finished 21-of-29 for 201 yards and three touchdowns) and no end in sight.
"Yeah," Brady said on the victory podium. "We're coming back."
Brady would not compare this championship to the other six -- he said he had been grinding so hard, he hadn't had time to think about his legacy -- but it is inevitable to look at this as the crowning achievement of his career. He left his comfort zone and erased whatever doubt there was that he could flourish beyond Bill Belichick's system under the most impossible conditions.
"Every year is amazing," Brady said. "This team is world champions forever. You can't take it away from us."
"He just played outstanding the whole game," Arians said. "He protected the football."
That, of course, was the most obvious thing the Buccaneers needed from Brady this season. This was a ready-built roster in need of discipline and precision. But Brady also had to infuse a beaten-down franchise with confidence and he did that with pep talks and text messages and pats on the helmet at practice. And he also provided the magnet that drew other players to him and the Bucs. Gronkowski came out of retirement and caught two touchdown passes Sunday night. Brown, who was on his best behavior after finishing a suspension and joining the team, notched his score just before halftime.
"Everybody believed we could win," Brady said. "All year we believed in ourselves."
Brady's energy was obvious this season, particularly compared with his frustration last season. Even when the Bucs were struggling in the middle of the season, he never seemed as disheartened as he was last year. And his glee was obvious Sunday night, as he interrupted his press conference to shout out his teammates.
"Robbie G!," he screamed to Gronkowski. "Congrats, baby."
It was all so familiar and yet unique. Brady has conducted his entire career with the chip of being a sixth-round draft pick balanced on his shoulder. Now, with the football world ready to push him off the stage and anoint Patrick Mahomes, Brady has reasserted himself again, against the most daunting odds. Bet against him at your peril. He'll be back, and Christensen already knows what that might look like -- he expects the offense to finally reach its potential next season.
While he was clutching the Lombardi Trophy, Bucs owner Joel Glazer quoted his father, the late owner Malcolm Glazer.
"My father had an expression: 'If you wanted to know the road ahead, ask the person who's been there,' " Glazer said. "We found that person."
And Tom Brady's not at the end of the road yet.