ATLANTA — Tom Brady is still firing passes at 42, an age at which most quarterbacks experience projectile dysfunction.
The last four years have arguably been the best of his career. He made three Super Bowls, won one with the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history and could win another this week. These four seasons all served to erase a word that isn’t even a word, but that hung over him this week in 2015: Deflategate.
If you don’t remember Deflategate, here is a recap: Brady supposedly hired a guy who knew a guy whose cousin was connected to a guy who bribed Carl Yastrzemski and Larry Bird to suck the air out of footballs and cover them in peanut butter so his receivers could catch them, because what’s the difference? Nobody cares about Deflategate anymore.
Oh, sure, Patriots fans still break out in hives at the mention of the non-word, and the Patriots themselves might still be privately ticked about it. But nobody cares about it in any meaningful way. Yet just four years ago, people cared. Four years ago, Brady showed up for a Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks under assault like never before in his career. Brady was 37 at the time. It was reasonable to think that he might be playing in his last Super Bowl.
He won that one at the end. (Hi, Marshawn! Thanks for reading.) But in September of that year, SI and ESPN ran long stories about the lingering mistrust of the Patriots around the league. The Patriots opened the season by beating the Steelers, and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said publicly what other coaches had said privately: his coaches’ headsets stopped working during the game, which is “always the case” in New England.
If Brady had declined like a normal human being at that point, there would always be lingering whispers that his greatness was at least partly a product of chicanery. Instead, Tom Brady did what he has done his whole professional life: he kept winning. And now the only two plausible positions on Deflategate are that a) he did nothing wrong, or b) he did something wrong that helped him so little, it really isn’t worth discussing for very long. If any serious person lists the 20 most important reasons for Brady’s success, deflated footballs are just not on that list. That is what he accomplished these last four years. You know, along with winning the Super Bowl.
And so here was Brady on Monday, showing the same traits that made him one of the most popular athletes in America. He smiled and played the silly media-night game he has been forced to play so often, and he didn’t act like he was being forced to play it.
At various points I heard him say “I’d love to go to Australia and New Zealand” and “we’ll have to go win Super Bowl Sunday,” as though this were a shiny new plan he just thought up Monday morning. He signed a pillow with his face on it. He confided in the Designated Cute Kid Reporter that he loved sports more than he loved school, and then Brady asked for a round of applause for the Designated Cute Kid Reporter, who was, of course, immediately laid off.
It was the kind of serious journalism gathering where the crowd sang happy birthday to a placekicker. (Stephen Gostkowski is 35. Oh, where did our childhoods go?) Brady is at home at these events because answering silly questions with a smile comes naturally to him. This was not the “Let’s gooooo” Brady that we see on Sundays. This was the Brady who was raised well and acts like it.
And that’s the Brady we will, and should, remember. You know, if he ever retires.
The end is coming, but I have given up on guessing when. He has played Hall of Fame-quality football for so long that he has, essentially, had two of the best careers in football history. That is not hyperbole.
Consider: Before Brady’s 2008 knee injury, he won as many Super Bowls (three) and passed for more touchdowns (197) than Troy Aikman did in his career.
After the injury, Brady has made it to as many Super Bowls (five), won at least as many (two) and thrown for more touchdowns than John Elway did in his career.
This is a different era, of course, with inflated passing numbers, but still: that is ridiculous.
Brady has already quashed this year’s round of retirement talk by promising he will play again next year. He may not get to write the very last words of his football story, but the final chapters are his. Monday night, one of his answers was “score more points than them.” I didn’t hear the question. Does it matter?