This wasn’t the best season Tom Brady’s career. That was 2007, when he threw 50 touchdown passes, led the Patriots to 18 straight wins, and connected on a go-ahead touchdown pass to wide receiver Randy Moss with two minutes and 42 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLII before some unscripted plot twists ruined the perfect ending to a perfect season.
This wasn’t the most fulfilling season of Tom Brady’s career. That was probably 2014, when he brought the Patriots back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in Super Bowl XLIX against a ferocious Seattle Seahawks defense, throwing a go-ahead touchdown pass to wide receiver Julian Edelman with two minutes and two seconds remaining. Cornerback Malcolm Butler made a play that Ellis Hobbs could not seven seasons earlier, and Brady jumped around like a fourth-grader busting loose on the last day of school after his fourth Super Bowl victory and first since 2004 was secured.
But this season? Well, this season might have been the most admirable of Brady’s career. And it had to be the most exhausting. After the charade of a summer, when the NFL’s relentless quest to nail him for Deflategate (and, theoretically, distract the public from the league’s most serious and shameful problems) turned into a spectator sport, it would have been understandable had he arrived at training camp already weary.
Instead, Brady, at 38, and the defending champion Patriots roared and rollicked deep in the new season, winning their first 10 to start the campaign before injuries and some curious game- and schedule-management resulted in four losses in their final six regular-season games.
It all ended abruptly after some late-arriving harbingers, typical for the conclusion of a season that doesn’t feature a parade in its final scene. The Patriots’ quest for a seventh Super Bowl appearance and fifth victory in the Brady-Bill Belichick era ended with a 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos, who advance to play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, this season’s — and perhaps Peyton Manning’s — final rodeo.
The AFC Championship gamebook confirms that Brady played a poor game — by his high standards, and even by the statistical standards of far lesser quarterbacks — in the season finale. He completed 27 of 56 passes for 310 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions (one a crusher to a wide-open Broncos linebacker Von Miller in the first half). ESPN tells us that his QBR was 22.2; I have no idea what that means, but it seems Whelihan-level bad. His quarterback rating, 56.2, was his lowest in a playoff game since the 2009 one-and-done against the Ravens. Never had he thrown multiple interceptions while completing less than 50 percent of his passes in a playoff game … until Sunday.
Yet it can also be said with a straight face and endless respect that Brady’s performance late in that game was among the more impressive things he’s ever done, and no quarterback has ever done more impressive things than Brady. Brady took 20 hits, was hurried 18 times, and sacked four times. The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin noted that 15 of the 20 hits came in the second half, and he was under pressure on 26 of 38 throws over the final 30 minutes.
You probably know those numbers; you’ve seen them. But if you watch the game again — an act of self-punishment if there ever was one, but certainly a revealing review — you realize that the battering Brady endured make the numbers seem like a vast understatement. He was assaulted, over and over again, to the point that it started to feel like Joe Pesci’s long and horrific goodbye in Casino: You started to look away, just wanting the onslaught to be over, and the onslaught refused to stop.
The Broncos belted Brady with such relentless force that it started to look like a preview of the upcoming 30 for 30 on the ’85 Bears. (Brady, however, did not try to burrow a hole through the turf like Tony Eason did then.) The Los Angeles Clippers assistant equipment manager had a less traumatic few days than the one Brady endured Sunday. The only group of vicious people to treat him worse than the Broncos defense line did? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s brigade of bloodthirsty lawyers. You get the gist.
There were times when Broncos rushers, notably DeMarcus Ware and Miller, spun Brady around as he tried to throw, with the Patriots’ quarterback spraying the football in uncharted directions as his legs collapsed beneath him. You were sure new injuries were being inflicted, and feared that one was coming that would leave him crumpled in a heap long after the whistle blew, not only ending this season but affecting next year. Instead, he kept pulling himself up, and he damn near pulled the Patriots up with him.
Brady’s fourth-and-10, do-or-die throw to tight end Rob Gronkowski, a 40-yard completion into double coverage, was one of the most impressive passes of his career — and that’s without considering the stakes. His touchdown pass to Gronk with 12 seconds remaining and the malice-minded Broncos surrounding him was nearly as impressive and just as important. Had he completed the two-point conversion and the Patriots had gone on to win, it would have been a defining moment in a career with a long index of them. He missed the throw, trying to stick it in to a double-flanked Edelman. Replay showed that Gronk was open in the back of the end zone, and that was a frustrating realization — until you realize Brady, after all the hits he’d endured, was possibly seeing six Gronks and couldn’t decide in time which one was not a mirage.
Brady’s body was battered in defeat, but he and the Patriots ended the season with their dignity intact. That is a solice, but it is not to suggest the roster and coaching staff should remain intact as well. Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo and strength coach Harold Nash have departed. The half-serious conclusion to draw there: Their charges couldn’t block and weren’t very strong.
The fallout isn’t especially amusing, though. The offensive line’s performance Sunday endangered Brady, and thus the franchise. That cannot happen, and yet it did, snap after snap, hit after hit. The Patriots have the pieces on the roster for a decent line. Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell should return, rookies David Andrews, Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason showed promise, and Sebastian Vollmer and Bryan Stork never looked close to 100 percent. Some players will be dismissed too, sure. But the roster, with that talented young defense, will remain one to be reckoned with.
But that’s next year. The Patriots don’t play another game that counts for nearly eight months. There’s time for Brady to recover, rejuvenate, and relax, and he should. Hit the waterslide. Hug some goats. Scare his children. Do whatever he does to find peace in aftermath of a brutal ending to an outstanding season.
Of course, one of the reasons Brady is so admirable is that we know exactly how he’s going to cope with the disappointment of coming up two victories short of the goal: He’s going to do everything in his power to perfect playing the quarterback position so the Patriots can win a fifth Lombardi Trophy. Bless him, the man still has a few rodeos remaining. Presuming he doesn’t keep getting trampled by the bull.