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From the GOAT to just ‘Tommy’

TAMPA, Fla. — With 11:10 to go in the fourth quarter Sunday and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trailing the Los Angeles Chargers by three, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady found rookie fourth-string running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the flat for a 9-yard touchdown to regain the lead and help seal the Bucs’ 17-point comeback, the fifth largest of Brady’s career.

“I love you, Sneak!” Brady said, calling Vaughn by his nickname.

Prior to Sunday, the Bucs had lost 42 consecutive games when trailing by 17 or more points. Also prior to Sunday, Vaughn had played zero offensive snaps after missing a large chunk of training camp due to COVID-19 and being inactive for two games. But the Bucs were down two running backs — Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy — due to injuries, so Brady went to Vaughn, who leaped into his QB’s arms to celebrate.

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“Like Tom Brady is somebody I watched growing up. He’s 43, I’m 23 — he’s got 20 years on me,” Vaughn said. “Having him throw me my first touchdown — it just gets no better than that. Not a lot of people can say that.

“I feel like I gained a little bit of his trust catching that ball when it meant the most.”

That’s what these past six months have been like for all Brady’s new teammates and coaches, who travel to face the Chicago Bears Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network). First the “awe” factor of joining forces with a quarterback who has six Super Bowl rings, a player known as the GOAT. And then getting to know him on a level few can — a human level — and building trust.

After almost 20 years in New England, Tom Brady had to adjust to a new offense, culture and teammates in Tampa. AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio

They will need that bond to turn a roster with seven starters (three who are new this year) who have been to the playoffs into a championship contender.

“He still is the GOAT to us. He still is Tom Brady. Not in that starstruck kind of way, but more so his leadership and his presence,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “We respect it so much for everything he’s been able to accomplish in his career and the way he does lead the team right now, that he is still kind of up on that pedestal.

“But as far as him being some superstar, that’s like, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s Tom Brady’ — that kind of wears off after a while. It went pretty quick during training camp, when we’d see each other [or], ya know, he’s yelling at us and stuff like that.”

Becoming Brady’s team

One of the first things Brady did when he signed with the Bucs in March was call center Ryan Jensen. Within five minutes, the topic of discussion turned to sweat and the Florida heat.

Brady can’t stand when his centers have sweaty backsides, as they lead to wet hands and bad passes. So he has them put towels and baby powder inside their pants.

Center Ryan Jensen quickly discovered Tom Brady likes things a certain way. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

“He goes right into business,” Jensen said laughing. “He starts talking about the sweat and what he’s had centers in the past do — the towel thing, the baby powder. I knew it was coming. I had seen an article last year … so I knew that conversation would be had.”

“It’s been an adjustment, a little bit, having a towel down the rear side,” Jensen added. “But if that’s what Tom wants, and that’s gonna help him be a better quarterback, then I’m gonna do what I have to do.”

You can see the Bucs have become Brady’s team in many other ways.

In practice, you’ll hear Brady telling wide receiver Scotty Miller to pump his arms more and Justin Watson he’s too stiff in his routes and needs to be more fluid with his upper body. In the film room, he’s helping defensive backs like Sean Murphy-Bunting understand how to better disguise their coverages. It’s a mix of constructive feedback and positivity that trickles into meeting rooms, where he tells receivers to shave a step or two off their routes or to bend them.

“If we ran a bad route or it was incomplete, [he said], ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll get the next one.’ Then, [he’s] really encouraging when you had a good catch or you ran a good route — stuff like that,” Brate said. “But there’s been times, too, where he’s kind of gotten on guys as well if it’s not up to the standard we’re hoping for. I think he does a good job balancing the two.”

Bringing energy — and trash talk

Brate recalled the first time Brady chewed out the offense.

“Probably the first time, he didn’t really like how slow we were running into the huddle during the first scrimmage,” Brate said. “That was kind of a new thing for us. It’s something that, over the years, probably a bad habit that we developed getting on and off the field pretty slow so, he got on us pretty good about that.”

There’s trash talk too, like when he ran up the middle and into the end zone untouched on the first day of goal-line work in training camp.

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“He’s still the same old Tom, talking trash,” said outside linebackers coach Larry Foote, a teammate of Brady’s at Michigan. “After every big pass he’s celebrating, hooting and hollering. You see him in the hallways talking about [how] they won that day [of practice]. He’s just like the rest of the coaching staff — they don’t count sacks or those things. He’s a competitive guy from day one when I met him as a freshman over 20 years ago and that’s why he’s one of the best, or the best.”

And then there’s his intensity on game day, which his new teammates have seen for four Sundays now.

“When game day comes, you finally get to see that next level of competitiveness out of Tom,” said tight end O.J. Howard, referring to the gamut of emotions and outbursts Brady and those around him experience. There’s cursing and shouting (the FCC once received three complaints on a single Sunday because of Brady’s use of the F-word) when things go wrong, and jubilation when things go right.

They love it all.

“That’s just his competitive nature,” Brate said. “I think that’s kind of what sets him apart.”

Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, who was with the Indianapolis Colts from 2002 to 2015 and tutored Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, recalled being so intimidated by Brady’s game-day demeanor he was afraid to introduce himself.

“I always tease him that we played him so many times, I’d stand on that sideline and he’d do his little lap when he was loosening up and I’d always go, ‘I think I’m gonna say hello and just meet him this year, which is kind of common [among quarterbacks and quarterback coaches] and he always looked so angry, that I’d never say anything,” Christensen said. “So I never met him until he came here to Tampa.”

You could argue, in some ways, Brady’s not much different from 68-year-old coach Bruce Arians, who is known for shouting on the sideline to the point that his face turns red and spit goes flying.

“You watched it from the other side and you just knew, that to beat him, you were gonna have to kill him,” said Bucs QB coach Clyde Christensen, who was with the Colts from 2002 to 2015. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

“I’ve seen Tom have these bursts of energy — both of them love these bursts of energy where they have to get it out. I love it, though. I love everything about it because it’s who they are,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “… That’s the great thing about having a guy like Tom — he brings that every day. … I think it helps our football team, especially our young guys seeing a guy like that who’s 43 years old [and] still comes out every day with that type of energy.”

Some say Brady provides a jolt that’s missing in games with no fans, and it’s felt on the other side of the ball too.

“Having great passion and energy is a key part and is something that’s gonna be very important with kind of how COVID has made it to where we don’t have fans in the stadiums,” defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh said. “I think it’s great. I think it’s a form of accountability as well, and I welcome it.”

“The guy’s an elite leader. The guy motivates people, he’s into it, he’s been really really good. It’s what we need,” Christensen said. “He’s done a great job with it. You watched it from the other side and you just knew, that to beat him, you were gonna have to kill him. That he was gonna will the thing into being. That’s what those great ones do.”

‘We caught 50 back shoulders’

The Bucs have seen vulnerability and accountability from their leader too, particularly with no offseason or preseason games. He threw two interceptions in the Bucs’ season opener at the New Orleans Saints — one of which came on a pass intended for Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans.

On the next Friday, Evans stood in the corner of the end zone and caught pass after pass from Brady. The two missed about 10 days together because of a hamstring injury Evans suffered late in camp.

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“We caught 50 back shoulders,” said Evans, who two days later caught that same back-shoulder pass for a 3-yard touchdown against Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson in a 31-17 win.

Seeing Brady make mistakes and correct them — even in games — has provided important lessons for his teammates. Brady has said many times things aren’t going to be perfect right now. The coaching staff still feels, at times, that he looks like he’s running someone else’s offense versus his own. But the belief is that, in time, it will all come together.

Similar to how Brady rebounded from a pick-six in the first quarter to throw five TD passes against the Chargers, the Bucs’ defenders recovered from allowing multiple passes to sail over their heads in the first half against L.A. before clamping down in the second half.

“He may make a mistake but he’s gonna come right back and just overcome that mistake, make it seem like it never happened. That’s just the years that he has in the league. That goes to show why he’s one of the greatest to play this game,” inside linebacker and longtime captain Lavonte David said.

“To have a guy like that, with our back, that still has that killer instinct even after making a mistake, just staying positive and keeping his head held high, then to come back and throw four touchdowns after this — it was incredible to see.”

Tommy, Gronky and dad jokes

Coupled with that killer instinct is a loyal teammate and friend. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was in so much pain after their last Super Bowl together that he couldn’t walk, jumped at the chance to come out of retirement and rejoin Brady.

The two even have an internet show on the Buccaneers’ website and YouTube Channel called “Tommy and Gronky,” where you can see Brady’s sense of humor shine through. It features the two sitting in beach chairs and sunglasses, flanked by palm trees, flamingo lawn ornaments and a small kiddie pool.

In one episode, Gronkowski asks Brady, “What’s it like being a daddy?”

Brady responds, “It’s kind of like being around you and my teammates all day.”

The two then proceed to rattle off dad jokes, including one Brady said he made up that was inspired by his daughter, Vivi, who loves ponies.

“Why couldn’t the pony sing?” Brady asks.

After a few moments, Gronkowski responds, “Ooh! Ooh! Because he was a little hoarse!” before they both sink into a fit of laughter.

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Christi Bedan, the Bucs’ vice president of digital and media, saw the pair’s chemistry and approached them about doing the show, which has helped boost the Bucs’ YouTube viewership to the top of the NFL for the month of August.

“They were actually really receptive right out of the gate,” said Bedan, adding that some topics are her department’s ideas and some are the players’. “We wanted to approach them separately, not together, and it was, ‘Yeah, I’m on board. Is Rob on board?'”

“That laughter that you saw the first episode, they were laughing the whole time, like walking to the locker room afterwards,” Bedan said. “That was such a genuine reaction and they’ve had a blast.”

The playfulness is a stark contrast from what Christensen thought Brady was all about.

“All those years in Indy, you just kind of — I thought that everything that came out of New England was dark. I painted a mental picture of Darth Vader and his crew up there,” Christensen said in an interview on the Buccaneers Radio Network. “And you then meet him and he’s about as nice a guy as you could possibly meet. So I had to change some paradigms and shift some things and un-brainwash all my grandkids and kids.”

Christensen still teases Brady about looking so angry. Brady gets a kick out of it, and gives it right back to him, joking during the Bucs’ first scrimmage that they must have used piped-in crowd noise at the old RCA Dome where the Colts used to play.

“It’s been really delightful and really a pleasure,” Christensen said of getting to know Brady. “A fine human, not just a football player, but a fine human being and a good man, a good father, a good husband, a good son. I admire a lot about him — a great worker.”

‘A different level of love’

Despite the fact that Brady has won six Super Bowl rings, in contrast to 75% of the players on the Bucs’ roster, who haven’t even been to the postseason, the QB doesn’t regard himself as better than his teammates.

He thinks their input is as important as his is for them. Earning and keeping their respect is just as important as it is for them to earn his.

“Us being around one another, learning different things about one another, just only develops trust, dependability, consistency,” Brady said. “Then, these guys [are who] you go to battle with and you compete hard with. You gain a different level of love for them as people because you see the way they compete, the way they treat people, and the competitors they are on the field, what they do off the field with their families and the community. It’s just been really great to see.”

Evans gushed, “He’s already up there as one of my favorite teammates,” after just a few practices, but also cited that underneath it all, Brady wants to be seen as a normal guy, as “Tommy,” which Arians called him for the first time at the podium Sunday.

“But as far as him being some superstar, that’s like, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s Tom Brady’ — that kind of wears off after a while. It went pretty quick during training camp, when we’d see each other [or], ya know, he’s yelling at us and stuff like that.”

Cam Brate

“He’s the GOAT, on and off the field. It’s crazy. He’s a superstar — the most accomplished player in our game in history, and he’s just like everybody else,” Evans said. “He loves his family. He loves family time. He’s just cool. He’s a real down-to-earth guy.”

Jensen added, “I didn’t know what to expect at first, but when [I] first met him, he’s a down-to-earth guy. One of the boys in the locker room. That’s who he is and it’s nice for sure.”

Those relationships Brady is developing mean as much to him as they do to his teammates.

“What you have with this sport is you have your memories and you have relationships — that’s what it comes down to for me,” Brady said. “To have the opportunity to come here and develop relationships with a different set of people — and that’s happened in my 20-year career, but to come down to Tampa, to join a team and to be embraced the way that I’ve been embraced — it’s been amazing for me.

“[I] just enjoy every minute of it [and] I take that responsibility being a quarterback, being a leader [and] being a captain — I take those not lightly. I want to show up and be the best for my teammates every day. I know they count on me to be dependable [and] consistent. They depend on me to be a great player for the team and I want to deliver for them.”

Miller, a sixth-round draft pick like Brady, but in just his second year, believes what separates Brady from others is the way he treats people.

“He’s never treated me like I was ‘sub-Tom Brady.’ Nobody on this team gets treated like you’re beneath Tom Brady,” Miller said. “He treated me with respect from the very first day I met him. He just treats us like we’re equals. To me, that makes me want to play incredibly hard.”

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