What do you get a guy with seemingly everything for his 40th birthday?
In the case of Tom Brady, it’s a trick question because for someone who professes, and appears to follow, values and work ethic out of some old Chip Hilton book, he doesn’t want to be given anything. He’d just like the chance to work for it.
“Just got to catch the ball, that’s all he wants,” tight end Rob Gronkowski told the media Wednesday.
You can – and many do – roll their eyes at Brady’s endless talk about preparation and opportunity, and the joy of focusing on this single rep of this single practice rather than fourth-quarter drives or Super Bowls or legacy.
It’s how he got here though, August drills leading to five rings. It’s how he doesn’t panic even when he’s sprawled out after a futile tackle attempt, watching Robert Alford return an interception to give Atlanta a seemingly insurmountable Super Bowl lead.
Someone recently dusted off an old local television clip of Brady being interviewed as a high school senior in San Mateo, California, where he described his game.
“Everybody tells me I have a pretty strong arm, which is good,” Brady said then. “I’m pretty accurate with it. I think I need to work on my speed a little bit, but hopefully that will come in time. Pretty good work ethic so I think I can get the job done.”
He was 18 then. Not much has changed.
So don’t bother wrapping anything up for Brady. And understand that Brady is never really looking for new challenges, just accomplishing the old ones again – getting the job done, if you will. He’ll tell you each Super Bowl, each victory, each touchdown pass is as sweet and as satisfying as all the others.
When it comes to football though there’s probably only one thing left that Brady hasn’t managed, the one thing that at 40 he could do that he never did before – go 19-0.
Brady is a team player and that’s the ultimate team accomplishment.
Yes, it’s absurd to hang a perfect season out there as something tangible to accomplish, rather than just something glorious that might occur en route to winning the Super Bowl (which is no less sweet after an 11-5 regular season).
It’s not unfair though. It just speaks to Brady’s greatness. What else is there? He’s done everything. It’s more in line with team play, or important results (winning is always the goal, after all), than say, reclaiming the single-season touchdown pass record from Peyton Manning, or throwing for 5,500 yards or any other individual stat.
USA Today, among others, has predicted it. In Vegas, New England is the favorite in all 16 regular-season games (the shortest odds are as a 1.5-point favorite at Pittsburgh in Week 15). Online bookmaker prop bets of a generic NFL team going 19-0 (let’s assume no one is wagering this with an eye on the Jets) are running anywhere from 12-1 to 20-1.
“It’s even stupid to think about that,” wide receiver Julian Edelman told the Boston Herald. “It’s never been done. You don’t really want to talk about it. My focus is more on trying to get ready for the season, trying to learn your teammates, form you identity. It’s stupid. That’s it.”
Sounds like something Brady would say.
The perfect 19-0 season has, indeed, never been done. It almost happened, most famously by the 2007 Patriots. Edelman was attending Kent State at the time but Brady was New England’s quarterback, rifling a then-record 50 touchdown passes en route to being named the league’s Most Valuable Player. The Pats got to 18-0, and then lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants in crushingly close fashion.
That’s football. And while Brady would likely declare every loss of his career to be equal, there’s a good guess that if there was ever one that causes him the occasional nightmare (if Tom Brady even has nightmares) it’s Super Bowl XLII.
Brady doesn’t need to engineer a perfect season to prove anything. That is too ridiculous of a stat to use as a benchmark. A sixth Super Bowl this season would create the same euphoria for Brady, Bill Belichick and everyone else in New England. Each season is its own capsule. Yet when it comes to legacy (for whatever that’s worth) 19-0 is about the only accomplishment left.
It might be a tad sweeter, knowing a benchmark has been put out there for generations to chase.
And so as Brady begins life as a 40-something NFL player, a kid born in the 1970s lining up alongside guys increasingly from the 1990s (four guys in Pats camp were born in 1995, Brady’s senior year of high school), this is at least the one new accomplishment hanging out there to chase.
If Gronkowski, Edelman and the others want to get their ring-rich, gold-plated, not quite over-the-hill friend something he doesn’t yet have, well, they might as well start with everything.