Tom Brady’s 10th Super Bowl was both like and unlike his first.
It was alike in that he entered as the underdog, facing a seemingly unstoppable opposing offense. It was alike, also, in that it ended with him holding the Lombardi Trophy and being named Super Bowl MVP, though the real star was his team’s collective defense.
It was different in many ways. This time he was the savvy veteran — at 43, more veteran than any Super Bowl quarterback in history. And rather than being the untested “game manager” of 2001, he was a six-time champion, widely lauded greatest of all time superstar. He was the guy who had, through the years, led the winning drive against the Greatest Show on Turf; battled Peyton Manning for AFC supremacy time and again; run the greatest offense in NFL history, throwing a then-record 50 touchdowns on the way to a 16-0 season; staged the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history against one of the greatest defenses ever; then staged an even more remarkable comeback victory two years later; become so feared that when his team was being badly beaten by Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, an opposing player, instead of celebrating, remarked: “Yeah, it’s Tom Brady, though.” And he was right.
After winning Super Bowl LIII two years ago against the Rams to cement himself as the winningest player in Super Bowl history, there seemed nothing left to accomplish for Brady. But he found another challenge: taking a different team to the promised land. Running a different offense under a different coach and showing he wasn’t just a product of Bill Belichick’s genius.
And that brings us to the most startling difference Sunday evening; that he wasn’t wearing the familiar Flying Elvis logo on his helmet, not playing for the dynasty he played such a part in building.
Part of Brady’s legend is that he brought success to the Patriots even when it seemed he didn’t have much to work with. While early on, a stout, underappreciated defense led the team to championships, as the league evolved to favor offense, Brady made the most of what he had. His greatest success came with Randy Moss and Wes Welker at receiver, but he also won with less-notable weapons. In 2006, he battled Manning and the Colts to the wire in the AFC Championship with Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Doug Gabriel at receiver, alongside an aging Troy Brown, who was splitting time as a defensive back. In 2016, he made that improbable comeback against Atlanta throwing to the likes of Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola, along with mainstay Julian Edelman.
One of the storylines of the past year was that while the Patriots’ offensive talent had declined in recent years, the move to Tampa provided Brady with one of the best offensive units in the league. He joined a team with all-pro receivers Chris Godwin and Michael Evans, talented tight ends and a solid running game. Then, once Brady was in place, along came uber-talented, though controversial, Antonio Brown, plus runner Leonard Fournette, a onetime league rushing leader.
And, of course, there was Rob Gronkowski, the future Hall of Fame tight end, who unretired to play with Brady in sunny Florida, and who caught two touchdowns Sunday night.
For Patriots fans all over New England and elsewhere, the Buccaneers’ march through the playoffs was cause for debate: Was Brady a traitor who jilted New England and thus deserving of scorn, or was he forced out and deserving of continued support from the fans to whom he brought so much joy over 20 years?
Well, it didn’t have to be either extreme, but it seems most New England fans eventually fell on the side of backing the Bucs. Perhaps it was that fan favorite Gronk was also in the mix. Perhaps it was not wanting to see Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs win back-to-back titles. Whatever the case, it was good to have a rooting interest, even in the now unfamiliar situation of not having the Patriots in the big game.
And now, with seven rings, Brady can set his sights on Bill Russell’s 11. Or, perhaps, more realistically, on Belichick’s eight.