1) “Who’s the new guy?”
“What new guy?”
“The guy who isn’t Drew Bledsoe,” my Bartender/Friend asks while staring at the grainy set in the corner.
“Tom Brady? He’s been starting since like Week 3. Were you with Patty Hearst all this time?”
“I have real responsibilities, man,” Bartender/Friend informs me. “Besides, I’m rooting for the Raiders. Not these baby-soft Pats.”
Jan. 19, 2002.
Lifetimes ago, when the more casual among us were still being intro’d to New England’s rosy-cheeked quarterback. The same Tom Brady who would find himself, a mere 15 minutes later, at the frozen core of the Tuck Rule Game, with me watching in silent awe and Bartender/Friend suddenly morphing into Gene Steratore, shouting at the screen with authority: “Total robbery! Fumble! Call the cops!”
Our scene — this little pub in Nederland, Colorado — is mostly empty, save for a couple of lovebirds in the corner: a red-haired guy in dreads and a girl in tie-dye, both staring at the madman shouting at the television. Dreads is alarmed (and evidently quite high), asking: “What’s going on, bro?”
“It’s this AFC Divisional Round game. Patriots-Raiders,” I tell them. “Huge clash in a snowstorm. And it looks like New England’s quarterback, Tom Brady, fumbled. But the refs say he didn’t, and Phil Simms is going crazy. Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback.”
“That’s heavy, man,” says dreads fellow in a way that tells me, That’s Far Too Much Information So Let Us Go Back To Our Conversation About Sustainable Wind Turbines.
Thing is, it’s nearly two decades later, and we’re still talking about this player. Maybe not dreads and tie-dye, but the rest of us. Those mesmerized by Brady’s longevity and those just waiting for him to finally flounder and fizzle out. The spectrum is vibrant.
I thought about that evening in the Colorado mountains on Sunday, watching (the now pewterized) Brady ravage the Raiders defense for 370 total yards and five touchdowns in a 45-20 romp that crystalized reality: Despite the flurry of poems over his soon-demise, Brady keeps penning signature victories. Over his past five games, he’s whipped 15 touchdown passes against just one pick. A late-game stumble against the Bears brought out the haters, but Twitter Middle School can’t lessen the glow of a 43-year-old signal-caller making throws players 20 years his junior struggle to pull off.
Tampa’s search for itself on offense has rounded into something dangerous for the rest of the NFC. It begins with Brady’s unchained youth, but it extends to a flock of surrounding pieces beginning to click in unison. Rob Gronkowski is finding the end zone again as something more than an ex-wrestler cashing in. Scotty Miller (6/109/1) crossed the 80-yard mark for the third time in four weeks. Mike Evans landed just two passes, but Bucs fans barely noticed as Tampa turned the Las Vegas defense into a traveling circus.
Off-the-field questions linger over adding Antonio Brown to the soup, but the football side leaves me asking: Where does he fit in? Who becomes de-emphasized? Maybe he is indeed just insurance, considering the banged-up status of Evans and Chris Godwin, who returned to great effect on Sunday (9/88/1) but is now out for Week 8 after having surgery on a broken finger. Those questions come next for a Bucs juggernaut with a genuine shot to play Super Bowl LV in the comfort of their own home. Right below that crusty, old pirate ship where Brady has seemingly locked up Father Time in the cargo hold.