If you were watching Tom Brady’s Buccaneers as they were besieged late Sunday afternoon by the Chiefs, and particularly if you gave up on the Bucs when they had dug themselves into a 2 1/2-touchdown hole, you might have been struck by the same comparison as took up residence inside my frame of reference.
Brady with the Bucs is starting to feel like Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform.
Jordan’s sojourn to Washington largely is remembered as a fiasco. This was true only when viewed through the MJ prism, though. The Wizards went 37-45 both years; not a playoff team, but not tanking-level terrible. Jordan averaged 22.9 points in the 2001-02 season — which would have ranked ninth in the league if he’d qualified for the scoring title — then an even 20 ppg the next year, his last.
So Brady wandering into that context wouldn’t necessarily be a calamity. It wouldn’t be Tom Brady, either, and it’s quite likely that it will be viewed over time as the same sort of refusal to acknowledge the impact of aging as once carried Jerry Rice to Seattle.
Brady did not leave New England for Tampa in order to find himself clinging to a lower-tier playoff seed and a passer rating slightly better than Gardner Minshew’s. He did not leave to find himself in still another passive-aggressive kerfuffle with his head coach.
He left for better protection in the pocket, more weapons at his disposal and maybe a chance to prove that a 43-year-old quarterback need not be finished if his initials are “TB.”
The optimistic view of Brady and the Bucs is that they will play nobody this week, followed by four nobodies. It’s a bye in Week 13 followed by the Vikings, then the Falcons, Lions and Falcons. That’s four games against losing teams with a combined record of 17-27, a record almost as dismal as the Bucs’ since they added Antonio Brown. It would take a cataclysmic performance to keep Tampa out of the playoffs, and it would have a chance at an opening game against the pitiful NFC East champs.
The realistic view was on display through most of Sunday’s game. Even with Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski and the ghost of AB at his disposal, Brady threw two interceptions, presided over a trio of three-and-outs and retreated from a first-and-goal at the KC 5, with chance to slice the deficit to less than a TD, into a 26-yard field-goal from Ryan Succop.
This circumstance, directly out of halftime, was most obviously representative of Brady’s struggles. On first down, the Bucs chose to hand off to back Leonard Fournette and got a single yard from it. The second-down play featured a jet-sweep misdirection action to the left, with Fournette flaring out, as the primary target, to the right flank. Brady followed through the with play as if he were a high school QB intent on following his coach’s every order, even though Fournette obviously had been blasted off his route by defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon and linebacker Anthony Hitchens was there to destroy the play for a 4-yard loss.
Had Brady acknowledged the plan was an instant failure and held the ball an instant, he might have seen Gronk streaking, relatively undefended, toward the right end zone corner. Even if he missed that, he should have known a throw into the end zone stands would have been a better option than a double-covered Fournette several yards behind the line. In this game, as it turned out, the difference between a touchdown and field goal on that possession was the difference between victory and defeat.
This may seem like it’s magnifying a single error, but there were plenty of essential third-down throws that bore little resemblance to the Brady of Foxborough.
If you think Brady isn’t feeling this, you might not have heard about him walking out of his postgame press conference after a question from ESPN’s Jenna Laine, posed about as diplomatically as possible, regarding his apparent discomfort with the Tampa offense and head coach Bruce Arians.
Brady responded, having lost for the third time in four weeks, that suggestions about his relationship with Arians are “external noise that when you are losing, that’s what you deal with.” He said he loves his teammates, coaches, organization and declared, “I think I have to go out and, certainly, do a better job the last four weeks of the year.” And then he left.
He can do this because he still is Tom Brady. He can talk or not talk. He still is going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame about 60 seconds after he becomes eligible, and it’s almost certain he never will see another quarterback win six Super Bowls.
He no longer is the Tom Brady who lifted those Lombardis, though. He is wearing a different uniform, performing at a different level, producing middling results. It’s always been a selfish conceit for fans or journalists to insist that superstar athletes continuing well past their peaks are damaging their legacies. Brady should play as long as he wishes, and as long as someone is willing to pay him. No one should expect it to be the same.