Tom Brady does not forget. He weaponizes snubs and slights, even now, even after four Super Bowl titles and an MVP and an assured spot among the all-time greats. In a new Under Armour commercial, he wears a jersey faintly emblazoned with 199, the number at which the New England Patriots chose him in the 1999 NFL Draft. He will not let that go, and so what should we have expected him to do with the offseason he just endured, other than metabolize it into rocket fuel?
The offseason was all about Brady, and now he is making certain the season will be about him, too.
In a 40-32 victory Sunday afternoon against the blustering Buffalo Bills, Brady submitted another vengeful performance following nine months of scrutiny, insults and legal squabbles with the National Football League. He passed for 466 yards, the second-highest total of his career, and tossed three touchdowns with no interceptions. The gaudy totals came after he torched the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. Brady has taken no prisoners in the wake of DeflateGate, which is precisely what the league should have expected.
“I think he’s relaxed now,” said former Patriots running back Heath Evans, Brady’s teammate for four seasons. “I think he’s knows [DeflateGate] is pretty much over. A relaxed, motivated Tom Brady is a dangerous, dangerous man.”
The NFL has seen this Brady before. At the dawn of the Spygate scandal in 2007, Brady and the Patriots decimated the rest of the league in the regular season. Starting off the Patriots’ 16-0 rampage, Brady completed 47 of 59 passes for 576 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception in the first two weeks of the season, a campaign in which he won the MVP and threw 50 touchdown passes. The smearing of his name drove him then, and a new deluge of accusations is driving him now, at age 38, as he comes off another Super Bowl title.
Brady has taken his production, and possibly the chip on his shoulder, to a new level this season. Through two weeks, he has completed 63 of 91 pass attempts (69.2 percent) while throwing for 754 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions. The season is not even two weeks old, and so it may be early to start naming MVP frontrunners. If it’s not, the leader is Brady.
These Patriots are not the same as the 2007 juggernaut. They’re not as dominant on defense, as evidenced by Buffalo’s comeback from a 37-13 hole to make it a competitive fourth quarter. They’re not as experienced, as the two rookies on the offensive line can attest. But the parallel that will be drawn all year, especially if the Patriots continue to roll offensively, is how they were motivated by outsiders doubting the legitimacy of their achievements. It was video cameras then; it is deflated footballs now.
“Listen, the truth is, the Patriots ignore that stuff,” Evans said. “There was always a lot of hype. We were confident. We knew we were going to win, and we were picking how much we were going to win by some weeks. We wanted to embarrass the league and humiliate anyone that stepped on the field with us. But it wasn’t because of Spygate.”
Brady, it seems, does take doubts personally, which made the Bills a perfect target. All week, the Bills declared the Patriots’ reign in the AFC East would end, that this year would be different, that they would push the Patriots around. The Bills scored on their first drive to make it 7-0, and Ralph Wilson Stadium erupted with fans who had been tailgating since dawn, an official from the Guiness Book of World Records on hand to record potentially record-breaking crowd noise. “It was really loud, there was no doubt,” Brady said.
The Patriots needed to call timeout as their first drive sputtered. On their second, Brady rifled a pass to Rob Gronkowski down the seam to quiet the crowd. He silenced the fans when he rolled right and fired an 8-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman. Behind a youthful offensive line and without injured wide receiver Brandon LaFell, Brady gunned precise passes to nine receivers. By the end of the afternoon, the Brady had improved to 23-3 in games he has started against Buffalo. There would be no new order in the division.
“The game’s not won in the first series,” Brady said.
Postgame, Brady said the clock had started already on next week’s game. The Patriots thrive on narrow focus and detailed preparation, but Brady also has another horizon on his mind at this stage of his career. One of the bizarre results from DeflateGate is that we came to better understand Brady’s ultimate motivation. In an e-mail released by the NFLPA in conjunction with his appeal of a four-game suspension, Brady, 38, measured himself against Peyton Manning to a college friend. “I’ve got another 7 or 8 years,” Brady wrote. “He has 2. That’s the final chapter. Game on.”
He wants nothing less than to be remembered as the greatest player in the history of football, a desire that only grew fiercer this offseason.
“He’s human,” Evans said. “No one likes being called a cheater. There’s plenty of motivation from it. It’s just never talked about. Good teams aren’t made around bulletin board material. Can it help? Sure. Tom has always been overlooked. Until he won his fourth ring, a lot of people didn’t want to put him in the conversation for greatest ever. When it’s all said and done, there’s not going to be any question who’s the greatest ever to strap it on.”
After the strangest of offseasons, Brady has returned better than ever, as smart and surgical as he has ever been. He made the Bills pay on Sunday for what the NFL put him through, and many more teams face the same fate. There are 14 games remaining, and Tom Brady’s memory is plenty long enough.