By Rich Levine
When I think back to Tom Bradys storybook 2001 season, there are three scenes that always stick out in my mind:
1. The Snow Bowl, fourth quarter: Brady scrambles six yards to cut the Patriots' deficit to 13-10 with 7:52 left in the game. It's the first touchdown run of his NFL career, and easily the most important TD of any kind. After crossing the goal line, Brady's overcome with emotion, and spikes the ball so hard that he loses his footing and face plants into the snow. It was an ironic first playoff TD for a guy who would come to personify poise in the clutch.
2. The Tunnel, right before Super Bowl XXXVI: Brady walks up to Drew Bledsoe and initiates one of the greatestmost awkward interactions in Patriots history. He gets right up into Drews face, starts slapping Bledsoes helmet, jumping around and screaming Come on!! Yeah!!! Lets do it!!!!! Meanwhile, it appears there's nothing in the world Bledsoe wants to be doing less than playing patty cake with the kid who stole his job. But the cameras are on, and hes honestly trying to be a good teammate, so Bledsoe humors him but you can tell hes not into it. Bledsoe's so timid and uncomfortable; like me the last time I was pushed into the middle of a wedding dance circle. It's pretty obvious that he just wanted Brady to leave him alone, but Brady didnt care. He probably didnt even notice. He was too lost in the moment.
3. The Podium, right after Super Bowl XXXVI: His hands are on his head, the black's still under his eyes, and Brady's about two seconds away from crying. Hes holding nothing back; hes baring every emotion on international TV. Zero inhibitions.
That was Tom Brady. He loved football. He loved his life. He wanted to scream it from the rooftops like Seth in Superbad.
Unlike Bledsoe who sometimes made you wonder whether he really loved football, or just played because he was good at it Brady never let you forget how much fun he was having. While everyone wanted to portray him as this super-cool, larger-than-life individual, in reality, he was just a normal kid living his dreams. He grew up obsessing over Steve Young; now he was Steve Young. And he never stopped appreciating or enjoying that fact.
After the first championship season, and throughout the team's next two title runs, Brady maintained that passion and intensity. On touchdown passes, he was typically the first guy to greet his receiver in the end zone. Sometimes it felt like he got there even faster than the ball did. He treated every score like his first; every game like it was his last. Those are awful clichs, but also awfully accurate. He still had the same fire, and it didn't appear there was any chance of it burning out. Back then, there was never a question as to whether hed win another title. "At least one more!" we thought. "What's going to stop him?"
But after that third ring, things started to change, Not Brady, per say, but his surroundings. The 2005 season ended with an uncharacteristic collection of killer turnovers in Denver. After that, the Pats let his two favorite targets Deion Branch and David Givens slip away. This, after Brady left money on the table when signing his extension a year earlier, money that everyone assumed would be used to keep his core around him. Suddenly, everything wasn't so pure. He was realizing that the NFL wasn't necessarily the fantasy land he dreamed about his whole life, but a business like any other. He was still great, still dominant. But not quite as exuberant. And you couldnt blame him.
The 2006 season ended in disaster, with an epic collapse in the AFC Championship Game against Indianapolis. Then Peyton earned his first ring.
Which brings us to the 2007 season, when, in my opinion, Brady himself started to change. Now, he's never touched on this publicly (as far as I've heard), and I doubt he ever will, so I can't sit here and pretend to offer any definitive word on his mental state during that historic season, but here's one thing I can say for sure:
At some point, he stopped celebrating the touchdowns. Whether or not he was actually having less fun than he was before, I can't say for sure. But he stopped showing it on the field. This definitely happened; I consciously watched it happen so many times. He would throw "another" touchdown, barely react, then put his head down and calmly jog toward the sideline. If this were Peyton Manning, then it wouldn't have been a big deal. Peyton's always taken that approach to the game. But Brady wasnt always like that. Brady was the guy who would run down and jump on his receivers back after a score. He's the guy who would spike the ball so hard that he fell on his face. Maybe not every time, but enough that it became part of his persona which had now completely disappeared.
There were a few possible explanations.
For one, maybe it just got a little old. I'm not saying he got sick of scoring, but after so many touchdowns, doesn't it just naturally become less exciting? Let's say you won the lottery 100 days in a row. You wouldn't be angry when the winning numbers were announced on Day 100, but you wouldn't be as enthusiastic as you were on Day 1. It's impossible. When you score a touchdown in the NFL, you're supposed to act like youve been there before, and Brady was getting there more than anyone ever had. It was bound to get a little stale.
On top of that, I'm not sure Brady was ever truly comfortable with how that 16-0 regular season played out. Of course, the winning was great, but the Pats were embarrassing teams, and this wasn't like Monday's blowout over the loud-mouthed, archrival Jets. The Pats were doing it every week and against some defenseless teams. And that's not really Brady's style. Get him on the field and he'll rip your heart out if it helps him win. But in general, he's not a ruthless guy. He sings show tunes on Saturday Night Live. He does photo shoots with baby goats. He wears fancy hats. He grew up with three older sisters. He's definitely got a soft side. He's not a villain.
Brady was used to being the NFL's golden boy. Now he was the face of the NFL's most hated team a team of cheaters. He was a cheater. And I don't think he ever made peace with that perception of him. Belichick thrived off it, but not Brady. And even though he adopted the Sweatshirt's mentality the same way everyone did and said all the right things, he didn't seem like himself. He was a trained killer. He was Jason Bourne. There was no time for emotion.
Unfortunately, you know how that season ended. And, maybe even more unfortunately, you know the next season started. After a year off, Brady came back in 2009 and never reclaimed that fun-loving, emotional style, mostly because he was still struggling to come back physically. There was the knee, the ribs (and, of course, that sore shoulder that's bothered him for the last 10 years.) Again, he wasn't himself, but at this point, we didn't even know who he was.
Did he still have that exuberance in him, or had he been too jaded by everything that had happened over the last few years? Was real life getting in the way of football? Had he lost touch with that kid who grew up dreaming of playing in the NFL?
I'm not saying any of this was true, but the questions were there and they only intensified after the Pats' embarrassing loss to the Ravens in last year's playoffs.
But a funny thing happened after that game the Pats hit rock bottom. At that moment, disgraced at home in the first round of the playoffs, with a defense in steep decline and Wes Welker on the shelf for presumably the next nine months, the Patriots were lower than they'd been at any point since Brady had taken over the job in 2001. They had nowhere to go but up.
And suddenly, their identity began to change again.
During the offseason, Belichick cut ties with the players who'd most brought the team down in recent years. He cut ties with history, removing any and all physical reminders of New England's past success signs, banners, pictures, etc. And by the time Randy Moss was swapped out for Deion Branch, the transformation was complete.
Some people will hate the Patriots organization as long as Belichick's in charge, but now, the general hatred had dissipated. The Jets had taken most of the attention away. Tom Brady's team wasnt the big, bad Patriots anymore. They were back to being scrappy underdogs.
And now, once again, they're the team that's hard to hate. And Brady's the guy who loves every second of it. He's got that look again. He's regained that energy. He's the guy celebrating with receivers in the end zone.
The icing was that last touchdown to Welker on Monday night, when he ran over and grabbed No. 83's helmet, put his own helmet up to it and wouldn't let go. You could tell that Welker wanted to break free after a couple seconds. He knew it probably looked a little weird. He honestly didn't seem quite as excited. Again, just like that interaction with Drew (not comparing Welker to Drew, don't worry), it was a little awkward. Yet Brady had no clue. He was completely lost in the moment. He was so ridiculously happy to be playing football.
Maybe he's not the same guy who beat up Bledsoe in the tunnel before Super Bowl XXXVI. After all, he's nine years older. He's married. He's got two kids. He's got more responsibility. His life is much more real and normal than it was during that crazy 2001 season. Nothing can be completely as it was.
But the same magic is back, and it's only picking up steam.