Tom Brady literally has done it all. His 20-year NFL resume is so jam-packed with accomplishments and highlights that you could divide it into thirds, and it would still put that of almost any other star quarterback to shame.
So as he said goodbye to the New England Patriots on Tuesday, three rings on one hand, three on the other, and hours later agreed to start anew in Tampa, where the Buccaneers have had just three winning seasons and zero playoff appearances in the last 12 seasons, the question loomed large: Why?
Of all the teams, all the locations, why would he risk the embarrassment of starting a new chapter in a place where success is uncommon and where he could be exposed as an aging has-been?
Brady surely went over all kinds of reasons as he discussed his decision with his camp prior to accepting the deal.
But the real answers are simple:
Because he can.
Because he wants to.
Because he doesn’t care what you think.
At this point, Brady has nothing left to prove. Nothing that he does next season, when he’ll be 43, can take away from what he accomplished in New England: winning his first three titles in a four-year span and shaking off Super Bowl losses to the Giants in 2007 and 2011 to win three more rings in four additional tries from 2014-18.
Whether he puts the Buccaneers on his shoulders and wills them to a postseason appearance or whether he falls short in his quest to defy Father Time one more time, Brady already has distinguished himself as the greatest quarterback of two generations, if not of all time.
But in taking his talents to Tampa, he deserves admiration of a different kind.
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Brady certainly could have taken an easier route as he closed out his career. He could have chosen the familiar and made one more run at a seventh Lombardi Trophy with Bill Belichick at his side.
Or he could have chosen to go back to his home state of California and infuse the Los Angeles Chargers with life. All Brady would have had to do would have been to make them remotely competitive and fill seats in the forthcoming SoFi Stadium, and he could have declared “mission accomplished.”
But he seemingly wanted an even greater challenge. The Bucs offer that, and a good shot at success.
Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were so good that they positioned Jameis Winston to lead the NFL with 5,109 passing yards while also tossing 33 touchdown passes (second-most behind Lamar Jackson’s 36) for an offense that ranked third in scoring despite his 30 interceptions (seven of them pick-sixes). When you consider all that, you can’t help but feel like maybe, just maybe, Brady, with his unmatched feel for the game and understanding of defenses, actually can make this team a contender in the NFC South and beyond.
Sure, starting over isn’t easy. And yes, there’s lots of competition within that division. But even though the Saints are still the Saints, their window appears to be gradually closing. The Falcons seem primed to rebound based on their strong finish to 2019, but still have things to sort out. And though the Panthers will be intriguing, they’re still very much rebuilding.
So, why shouldn’t Brady be able to take a 7-9 roster and account for at least three more wins? Five of those nine losses were decided by a touchdown or less. And wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans represent significant upgrades over the blend of injury-plagued and inexperienced targets Brady last worked with in New England.
The biggest challenge for Brady will be finding comfort in new surroundings. He’ll get a handle on the playbook. He’s seen it all in his two decades of football. But he’ll have to learn a new language, and he’ll also have to connect with new teammates — some of whom are young enough to be his sons.
On more than one occasion, I talked to Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon about this kind of challenge. He encountered it when, after 10 years in Houston, he started over in Minnesota at 38, and then again in Seattle at 41, and in Kansas City at 43.
At one point, he looked around his new locker room and realized he was sitting next to kids whose fathers he had played with and against.
But Moon figured out that the best way to acclimate himself was to not change anything.
“Go in, be yourself, which will create the culture,” Moon told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday evening. “Embrace your teammates because they will be somewhat intimidated, and collaborate with Arians about what he likes (and) dislikes on offense.”
You can be sure collaboration will take place as Arians and Leftwich tailor the play book to Brady’s strengths. He’ll likely receive plenty of freedom.
And in talking to former teammates, Brady has a gift for connecting with people of all ages and diverse backgrounds.
He’s personable. He sets the tone, and teammates eagerly follow.
The only unknown is Brady’s ability to defy the aging process. His fastball has lost a little something. But he compensates with instincts and savvy. He takes care of his body like a shrine. Will it continue to respond accordingly?
Ultimately, Brady is gearing up for this challenge because he wants to, and because he still loves the game, the thrill of competition, the camaraderie and the chance to prove doubters wrong.
Nothing else matters. And so, he’s betting on himself, and he just might deliver again.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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