Tom Brady embarks on the latest chapter of his age-defying career on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers launch their quest for back-to-back Super Bowls in a season-opening clash with the Dallas Cowboys.
It is almost 20 years since Brady’s NFL odyssey began in earnest, when the quarterback replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe for the New England Patriots in a game against the New York Jets on September 23, 2001.
No one knew it at the time, but it effectively marked the start of the Patriots dynasty, with Brady retaining the starter’s jersey for the remainder of a season which culminated in the first of his seven Super Bowl titles.
Two decades later, and the 44-year-old Brady remains, incredibly, at the sharp end of one of the most unforgiving crucibles in professional sport, where the average span of a playing career is just 3.3 years.
Last season, Brady flouted conventional wisdom once more, leading Tampa Bay to an upset 31-9 Super Bowl victory over the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in his first season with the club since leaving the Patriots.
Many critics wondered whether last season’s Super Bowl represents the greatest achievement of a career already studded with milestones and records that may never be surpassed.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic decimating pre-season training in 2020, making it harder for the new quarterback to settle in, Brady turned the Bucs into a championship-caliber team over the course of a single season.
“He brought a winning mentality to a really talented team that didn’t know how to win,” was the verdict of Bucs coach Bruce Arians.
Room to improve
Moreover, Brady revealed during the close season that he had done it effectively on one leg, having played the entire 2020 season with a torn knee ligament.
Never one to dwell on his past achievements, Brady has already left last season in the rearview mirror.
His eyes are firmly fixed on the challenges that lie ahead in what will be the 22nd season of his career.
“It’s really just a whole another year and experience,” Brady said on Tuesday. “We’ve got a chance to play as the 2021 team, as the best we possibly can.
“And our coaches have put us in the best possible position to be successful.”
Unusually, Brady will have a familiar supporting cast as he chases back-to-back championships for the first time since leading the Patriots to titles in 2004 and 2005.
The Buccaneers head into the season with all 22 of their Super Bowl starters on offense and defense returning for the new campaign — the first time that has happened since the Oakland Raiders brought back their championship roster in 1977.
“We’ve got a lot of continuity, we’ve got a lot of things to build on, we’re a lot more experienced together,” Brady said.
“That’s really all you can ask for as players. I’d like us to go out there and take advantage of that.
“As good as we were last season, as well as we played, with the same group of guys, I’d love to see how good we can be this year. But it’s not about hype, or BS, or build-up. We’ve got to go and do it.”
Ominously for the rest of the league, Brady believes there is plenty of scope for improvement in a team that finished second in the NFC South behind the New Orleans Saints last season with an 11-5 record.
“It’s not like we won 60-0,” Brady said. “We had a lot of games where we struggled — struggled to move the ball, struggled against certain blitzes, struggled to run the ball, struggled to complete passes.
“We can improve in a lot of areas.”
It remains to be seen which teams will be capable of matching the Buccaneers if they improve as Brady envisages.
After last February’s Super Bowl mauling, Kansas City moved quickly to strengthen their offensive line, bringing in Joe Thuney and Kyle Long to give added protection to quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Few would be surprised to see the Chiefs back in the Super Bowl for a third straight season.
Elsewhere, all eyes will be on the latest class of rookie quarterbacks joining the league, with number one draft pick, Trevor Lawrence looking to refire the Jacksonville Jaguars and Zach Wilson tasked with attempting to transform the New York Jets into a competitive force.
New England. meanwhile, hopes to have found their long-term successor to Brady in the shape of rookie Mac Jones, while Justin Fields will be hoping to make the starter’s jersey his own with the Chicago Bears.
NFL stadiums across the United States will welcome back capacity crowds again after the pandemic-hit 2020 season saw many teams play games in empty stadiums.
New COVID-19 protocols in force will encourage players to get vaccinated, with unvaccinated players facing more stringent rules and more frequent testing than their vaccinated counterparts.
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