TAMPA, Florida — It’s a laboratory befitting a six-time Super Bowl champion. Or a garage on Davis Islands, but football geniuses can work anywhere.
Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen arrived at Tom Brady’s mansion — the one he was renting from baseball legend Derek Jeter — greeted with quite a sight.
A dozen or so footballs sat perched on a drying rack Brady had bought on Amazon. Next to them were several different brushes and various mixtures of leather cleaners and conditioners.
A Bucs equipment manager was there last spring to inspect the setup. The NFL allows teams to remove the sheen and waxy gloss from new footballs. Each team has 12 to 24 balls groomed to the specifications of their quarterback that can be used during games, as many as a dozen each half.
“I watched him take our equipment guy through the process,” Christensen recalled of his first meeting with Brady. “He said, ‘Here’s how we prepare the footballs. Here’s the brushes we use. Here’s the brush we use if it’s going to be warm. Here’s the brush we use if it’s going to be cold. Here’s the fluids that work good in humidity. Here’s one I found on Amazon that for some reason makes the ball real nice and tacky.’ He had this whole laboratory where he works on the footballs.”
Although it was still several months before the first kickoff, Brady was hard at work.
“In New England, I’d set these out in the snow and see how they react,” Brady told Christensen. “Coming to Tampa, I have to set these out in the humidity and see how they do in the rain.”
Christensen had coached Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts. But this process wasn’t taking place at the team facility. This was Brady conducting his own experiment at home.
“It was just trial and error, how footballs react to the weather,” Christensen said. “But that’s how thorough this guy is. Our first meeting, I left there going, ‘Wow.’ This is a special quarterback.'”
Nine Super Bowl appearances already were proof of that. But watching Brady look for imperfections in footballs the way a gemologist inspects diamonds was just another example of the kind of attention to detail and competitive drive that would help him eventually lead the Bucs to Super Bowl 55 in Tampa.
Shortly after Tampa Bay beat the Green Bay Packers, 31-26, to win the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, coach Bruce Arians summed up what Brady has meant to this organization after one season.
“The belief he gave to this organization that it could be done,” Arians said. “It only took one man.”
Belief is a word you hear a lot in relation to Brady. Belief in the painstaking preparation of his body at age 43. Belief in the new teammates and coaches he has worked with in Tampa. Belief that even during a pandemic, with no offseason program or preseason games, he could transform a team that hadn’t reached the playoffs in 12 years into the best in the NFC.
Brady wasn’t just persistent, he was prescient.
Before he ever practiced with the Bucs, he described almost exactly how the season would go in a conversation with general manager Jason Licht.
“Walking out there the first day of camp, he said, ‘Hey, Jason, this is going to be great,'” Licht recalled. “‘I’m ready. We’re going to have our ups and downs. It’s going to take a while until we’re fully clicking on all cylinders as a team. There’s going to be some peaks and valleys. But it’s just important the head coach, GM, players, the entire team all stay together through all this. We’ll get better and before the end of the year, we’ll hit our stride.’
“I had to remember after we lost the Chiefs game [Nov. 29 at home] to go 7-5. I said, ‘So far, he’s been right.’ And you know what? He ended up being right.”
How did Brady pull off what may be the greatest accomplishment of his career, one that first spanned 20 seasons in New England? How did he transform hyperbole in the offseason to real hope in the regular season and an improbable run of three straight playoff victories on the road to reach his 10th Super Bowl?
Brady had to collaborate with coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, all three unwavering in their pursuit of the right formula that would produce what has been, in the quarterback’s words, “a magical season.”
Of course, Brady made an immediate impact on his new teammates, organizing sunrise workouts at Berkeley Preparatory School in the spring and summer.
“When he first called me after we signed him, we talked about normal, everyday things for about three minutes,” center Ryan Jensen said. “Where are you going to live? How do you like Tampa? Things of that sort. Then we went straight to business and we started talking about (putting) the towel down [my] pants with baby powder. I used to wear a glove on my right hand and I’d cut the tips of the fingers off. He brought up, ‘Hey, do you always wear a glove?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, “All right, you’re not going to wear a glove anymore.’
“There were little quirky things like that and attention to detail you wouldn’t think would matter that much. But it does with Tom.”
Arians marveled at the patience Brady had for teaching, especially young players, calling him “a coach on the field.”
Following one training camp practice that went well but wasn’t particularly up to his standards, Brady asked to address the team, saying they needed more urgency, that time was short and they needed to maximize every rep.
“I have the ability to help people through my experiences and help them be the best they can be,” Brady said. “It’s one thing to go out and throw passes. That’s fun. I love that. I love winning and all that. But we all have lives. …
“We need to care for people more so they can trust you.”
Brady knew to win the NFC, the Bucs would have to take down the New Orleans Saints. But Sean Payton and Drew Brees had been together since 2006. Drawing a game at New Orleans to start the 2020 season was almost unfair.
Brady led the Bucs to a touchdown on the first drive, spiking the ball hard in the end zone when he scored on a quarterback sneak.
Not much else went right, however. With a national TV audience tuning into his first game with the Bucs, Brady threw two touchdowns and two interceptions, including a pick-six, in the 34-23 loss.
“Sitting on the bus after that game was interesting,” Christensen said. “I didn’t know how [Brady] would react. It was the first game we’d ever been in. I just remember he sat down and said, Whoa, was that ever a nightmare. But I know exactly what we have to do to fix it. … This is some of the stuff I have to get comfortable with. I’ve got to be more patient on that.’ He had a mental list already 45 minutes after the game on the bus.”
The next breaking point came during a Week 5 20-19 loss at Chicago on Oct. 8. The Bucs were flagged 11 times for 109 yards. On one drive, they were flagged six times with five enforced.
Brady lit into some of his offensive linemen on the sideline. But Brady wasn’t blameless, forgetting what down it was on the final drive and unwittingly creating a meme holding four fingers in the air after his final pass fell incomplete.
Injuries to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin prompted the Bucs to sign talented but troubled receiver Antonio Brown, a deal Brady wanted but never pushed too hard for. Brown came to the Bucs fresh off an eight-game NFL suspension and with a civil suit still pending after a former trainer accused him of sexual battery.
“He likes Antonio, but he didn’t demand anything,” Licht said. “Obviously, he’s on our radar. He said, ‘Oh, geez, I think I can work with him.’ It wasn’t ‘Please go get him,’ or coming into my office all the time. It was, ‘You can take my recommendation and I’ll stand up for him.'”
Brady’s parents were seriously ill with COVID-19 when the season began. They made it to only one game: the 38-3 loss to the Saints on Nov. 8 at Raymond James Stadium.
Christensen listened to the FaceTime calls on the bus from Brady to his parents, and to his wife Gisele Bundchen and three kids.
“I wasn’t eavesdropping, but you could hear what a good son, good husband, good brother he is,” Christensen said. “How a superstar interacts with his parents is a pretty good tell.”
As Brady predicted, the Bucs were floundering at 7-5 with the loss to Kansas City when they hit the bye week.
“He and Byron met a long time that week,” Arians said. “Ironing out things they liked and simplifying the direction we wanted to go.”
They returned with more play-action, more pre-snap motion, a bigger commitment to the run game and attacking more early on downs and in games.
“It was go time,” Licht said. “We can’t mess around now.”
The biggest win of the year came in New Orleans on Jan. 17 when the Bucs beat the Saints, 30-20. The defense forced four turnovers and Brady was efficient, passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
The next week, the Bucs took down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field. Brady was solid in building a big first-half lead, but his three interceptions in the second half made the final score closer than it needed to be.
Sitting on the bus after the game, Brady seemed almost embarrassed by his success. He was more excited for teammates like Evans and linebacker Lavonte David, who were headed to their first Super Bowl.
While the rest of the team celebrated on the plane, Brady pulled out his laptop and started going to work on the defending champion Chiefs.
“That’s the story. He’s been so used to playing at such a high level and everything working and that wasn’t the case for about 13 weeks,” Christensen said. “To not panic and not get frustrated and pull your hair out and everybody else’s hair out, it shows what a special leader this cat is.
“I’ve been around a quarterback savant. I’ve been around some masters at their trade. This guy is the whole package.”
Story by Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times.