Silver: Tom Brady had nothing left to prove
Four months after Tom Brady took over as the New England Patriots’ quarterback, almost exactly two decades ago, I showed up in Pittsburgh to watch him start the first of 14 conference title games. The second-year quarterback was attempting to lead the underdog New England Patriots to a road victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and with 1:40 left in the first half, time seemed to stop at Heinz Field, and the 2001 AFC championship game took a shocking turn.
Brady took a low shot from a Steelers pass rusher and limped off the field with a high ankle sprain, forcing Drew Bledsoe—the Patriots’ former franchise quarterback, who’d been sidelined since suffering a scary sheared blood vessel injury early in the season—into the game. Bledsoe responded with a stirring touchdown drive, closed out a 24-17 victory and created some serious drama heading into a Super Bowl XXXVI showdown against the St. Louis Rams.
That year’s Super Bowl would take place only a week after the conference title games, and with Brady hobbled and Bledsoe’s mojo restored, I had a sneaking suspicion that the trusted veteran quarterback would get the call in New Orleans the following Sunday. Standing near the Patriots’ buses with head coach Bill Belichick—I was covering the game for Sports Illustrated, and yes, Belichick and I were pretty tight back then—I tried to get a read on which way his decision might go.
“We’re gonna have to see,” Belichick said softly. “Brady’s been pretty good, now…”
We said our goodbyes, and then I leaned in a little closer. “You know you’re f---- playing Drew,” I said, smiling.
Suffice it to say I didn’t read that one correctly. Brady started in the Super Bowl, won MVP honors after engineering a last-minute drive to set up Adam Vinatieri’s walk-off field goal, and proceeded to become the most successful player, and most ruthless competitor, the sport has ever known.
Brady officially retired from football on Tuesday, ending, ending a stunning 22-year run that was capped by a stellar two-season stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If this is in fact the end—and based on my personal and journalistic regard for ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, one of the people responsible for the report, I believe it is—Brady can walk away knowing he left no doubt about his emphatic excellence. That young man I saw hobbling to the Heinz Field sidelines 20 years ago turned out to be a stone-cold blade runner who joined forces with Belichick to create the most successful two-decade run in the history of modern professional football.
And then, at the age of 42, he left Belichick and New England and carried a franchise with a mostly dubious history to the top, leading the Bucs to a Super Bowl LV triumph in his first season with his new team.
All of which is, in a word, absurd.
Now 44, Brady owns a long list of accomplishments that’s almost obscene: seven Super Bowl victories in 10 appearances, five Super Bowl MVPs and three regular-season MVP awards, among other accolades. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (84,520), passes completed (7,623) and touchdowns (624), and he crushes the competition in most postseason categories, including career victories (35).
Brady has played in 365 NFL games, many of which I’ve had the pleasure of covering for SI, Yahoo! Sports and NFL Network. I could talk about so many unforgettable performances, from clutch finishes to relentless beatdowns, and over the coming years, I probably will.
Right now, however, as I ponder the end of an unprecedented career, I’d like to focus on one particular game: Brady’s last one.
Last Sunday, Jan. 23, Brady’s Bucs were in the process of getting rolled in a divisional-round playoff clash against the Los Angeles Rams, in their own stadium. Brady was getting pressured constantly. Some of his passes were off target, while others were being thwarted by the Rams’ defensive backs.
The Rams took a 27-3 lead with 7:07 remaining in the third quarter, and it was over. Objectively, it looked like the Bucs’ lifeless offense would need about six quarters to have a prayer of closing that gap. Yet because it was Brady, architect of the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, there was a strain of lingering doubt across the football universe.
Five years ago in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots famously trailed the Falcons, 28-3, before Brady summoned his most magical performance.
Everyone will always associate the score 28-3 with that game. Somehow, last Sunday, Brady proceeded to come hauntingly close to putting his indelible imprint upon 27-3 as well.
How he and his teammates did it is less important than the fact that it happened. To pull off something that audacious, in a setting in which pressure builds and finality flexes its unremitting muscles with each successive play, is incredibly difficult. It takes a measure of defiance, belief and will that few can conceive of, even the great ones. That Brady could do that—again—was awesome and mind-blowing and a testament to what makes him one of the most special athletes who has walked this earth.
It was, for lack of better comparison, Montana-esque.
Growing up in Northern California, Brady idolized Joe Montana, who led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl championships and was the most magical quarterback ever to spin it.
I know a lot about Montana’s career (you can see me talk all about it in Joe Montana: Cool Under Pressure, a six-part docu-series currently streaming on Peacock TV), having grown up in LA (of all places) as a rabid Niners fan, and later having covered him on a daily basis for a pair of Northern California newspapers.
On the night in 1993 that Montana was traded from the Niners to the Kansas City Chiefs, I wrote a column, on deadline, for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. First, I took a quick walk in the dark outside the 49ers’ training facility in Santa Clara, and as I replayed all the Montana memories in my mind, for some reason I kept coming back to the 1983 NFC championship game.
It’s a game I now refer to as Montana’s “Lost Classic,” but at the time it happened, when I was a college freshman home on winter break, the quarterback’s surreal performance was overwhelmed by what I experienced as a hellacious heartbreak of the first degree
The Niners were underdogs against Washington, the defending Super Bowl champions, and were playing in the bitter cold at RFK Stadium. Bill Walsh’s vaunted offense was completely stymied for the balance of the afternoon, and Washington built up a 21-0 lead that could have been much bigger.
And then, in the fourth quarter, Montana suddenly and sublimely changed everything. He led a touchdown drive, then threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Solomon, then engineered a game-tying drive that left virtually everyone in the stadium stunned and silent. It was a sight to behold, and at that moment, it seemed that no force, supernatural or otherwise, could stop Montana from finishing the job.
Washington won that game, 24-21, on a late field goal—thanks to two of the worst calls (a pass interference penalty on cornerback Eric Wright and a defensive-holding flag on future first-ballot Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, who was raising both arms into the air at the time) that have ever been made in an NFL playoff game. (And yes, I know, I’m not completely objective on this particular subject. This was before I became a professional journalist and stopped rooting for the results of NFL games.)
In the record books, it went down as a painful Niners defeat. Yet it imprinted on me, and when I had to write about Montana that night in 1993, it came flooding back and pouring out of my soul and onto the computer screen, because that moment represented Montana’s audacious, defiant magic at its essence, outcome be damned.
So here I am, 29 years later, thinking about the end of the road for another legendary quarterback whose list of conquests is unmatched. And, in all likelihood, never will be approached. And here I am again, against all inertia and logic, talking about an unhappy ending as I attempt to put a bow on a phenomenal career.
Last Sunday, Brady’s Bucs tied the game at 27 on a 9-yard Leonard Fournette touchdown run on fourth down with 42 seconds to go, and bedlam ensued at Raymond James Stadium, and in sports bars and living rooms across the football-watching universe. It made no sense, and yet it happened, and Brady’s Bradyness is the only explanation.
Thanks to a pair of late Matthew Stafford passes to Cooper Kupp, and a Matt Gay field goal on the final play, the Rams advanced to host Sunday NFC championship game against the 49ers, while Brady was denied an opportunity to play in his 15thconference title game. Fourteen remains, by far, the most in history.
In all likelihood, that will be the final time we see Brady play quarterback. Like all great competitors, losing that elimination game left Brady sapped and devastated, and he was almost certainly unable to appreciate the titanic magnitude of his efforts.
In time, I hope he’ll close his eyes and think about the majesty of his walk-off, if only for a few seconds.
The way I see it, having watched him almost from the beginning, he saved his best for last.