TAMPA, Fla. -- To rank them seems ridiculous. How could any championship be harder than the first, when everything was unfamiliar and unpredictable? Or the second, which required a one-minute drill for the victory, or the fifth, when a ferocious comeback from a 25-point deficit was needed? What about the last, perhaps the most uncomfortable because the key to another ring was out of his control and in the hands of the defense.
Few people have the luxury that Tom Brady has, to be able to contemplate which hurdles were highest, which of his six Super Bowl titles the sweetest. Like children, all six Lombardi Trophies sparkle and are worthy of love. Also like children, there was plenty of angst attached to each of them.
On Sunday, Brady will play in his 10th Super Bowl and perhaps win his seventh title, and it is enough just to marvel at those numbers. But is it possible Brady's latest would be his greatest?
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Brady would be only the second starting quarterback -- Peyton Manning was the first -- to win Super Bowls with multiple franchises. He would be the first to do it, though, in the same season in which he switched teams and conferences, during a pandemic, with no offseason practices and no preseason games, in a new offense, when face-to-face meetings were largely forbidden. At age 43. It would make this, arguably, Brady's crowning achievement, the twilight of his career lit by a bonfire of obstacles he has overcome.
"I think this ranks close to the very top, just because a lot of people wanted to pair his success with (Bill) Belichick and New England. A lot of people questioned if he could do it without Josh (McDaniels) and Bill," said Willie McGinest, Brady's teammate and friend, who won three Super Bowls with Brady in New England. "The uncertainty of moving, being able to fit in, gel with other teammates, understanding the system. He was in New England for 20 years -- that's a lifetime for two careers. When you leave, there is a little uncertainty and you are nervous. The guys you're playing with, will they work hard, will they buy in? Will it be the same?"
Maybe nothing will be the same as the two decades of Brady's life that turned him into a superstar and brought him six championships. But this one title might be, in some ways, even better.
When Clyde Christensen, the Bucs' quarterbacks coach, had his first meeting with Brady after he signed as a free agent in March, Christensen told him this would be the most difficult thing Brady had ever done. It would not go smoothly, Christensen warned him. But it might turn out, Christensen promised, to be the most rewarding thing Brady ever accomplishes in his career.
Even before they knew how very much the season would be altered by COVID-19, it was clear Brady's task would be about more than meeting new teammates and learning new play calls.
Brady would later rave about the warm weather -- he would regularly emerge for December and January practices, when it was sunny and 80 degrees and declare to teammates, "This is unbelievable." -- and anybody who has watched him in recent years could see that he has been energized by the change of scenery. He had told Christensen he had watched Manning start over in Denver and it had looked like fun to him, and there has been an apparent lightness to Brady's public appearances this season that was absent last season. But this was a heavy lift well beyond Brady's own learning curve.
"You take a place that hasn't won, with no culture, down for so long, it wasn't like he joined someone who has been winning," Christensen said. "He joined a place that had been in a drought."
Christensen said the two have talked about that first meeting a lot since then, each practice, each game, each week underscoring how prophetic Christensen was. Christensen believes this season has presented the highest possible degree of difficulty for Brady because he did something that even Manning did not -- he left his old offense behind and picked up a new one. That had been the agreement when Brady signed. Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich liked the offense they had. Arians had been calling it for years, and the rest of the Bucs players had already spent a year with it. The Bucs were not looking to change the offense. So when Brady signed, he got his new playbook and a computer, sat at his new house and got to work.
Christensen was asked to put, in layman's terms, how different the Bucs' offense is from the one Brady ran, uninterrupted, for 20 years in New England.
"One-hundred percent different," he replied. "What you call a formation, they use numbers for their formations, we use words. It's like learning a new language. You spoke English your whole life and now you find yourself in French. You know you still want a hamburger, but to order that hamburger, you have to learn a new way to order."
The challenge for Brady was to get the vision of what the play was designed to do, and then to figure out what to do if something unexpected -- an all-out blitz, for instance -- happens. Where does the ball go? That had become second nature to Brady in New England -- he knew all the answers to those questions. But now he had to learn a new offense and merge what he saw as the answers with what the Bucs thought were the answers.
"You have to rewire your brain," said Brady's backup, Blaine Gabbert.
All without any offseason practices or minicamps with coaches. Brady knew some of the challenges he would face -- when he signed, he immediately demanded the phone numbers of his new receivers -- and he organized his own workouts at a local high school despite pandemic-related mandates against gatherings. Gabbert was at those thrice-weekly sessions and raved about how much was accomplished, with the focus mostly on giving Brady a chance to learn about his receivers, what their body language meant, how they run routes, when they break.
Just before the regular season began, Christensen estimated that because of pandemic restrictions on offseason work, the Bucs had missed out on about 1,500 practice reps. Brady had to accept, Christensen said, that he wouldn't have everything down by Week 1 against New Orleans. Brady threw two interceptions in that game and was noticeably frustrated.
"It's really hard for a guy like Tom Brady to play average football, which is what we did for two-thirds of the season," Christensen said. "He's not used to that."
Christensen had expected from the beginning that it would be a long process to get Brady caught up -- that maybe it would take until Week 9. Then, in Week 9, when the Bucs got blown out by the Saints in what may be remembered as one of the worst games of Brady's career (he threw three interceptions, no touchdowns and completed less than 58 percent of his passes), Christensen thought it was taking longer than he expected.
"I never doubted it would happen," he said. "I did have some anxiety -- is it going to happen this year? Maybe it's next year."
Gradually, as the deficit from the lack of an offseason finally grew smaller late in the season, Brady grew more comfortable and the Bucs began to take on some of his preferences. Some of the way the Bucs handle pressure, and how they practice came from Brady. Brady likes to do blitz walkthroughs between practice periods, for instance, so now that is what the Bucs do. And Brady started working on the side with Antonio Brown and Mike Evans. They put in plays together -- one with Evans later led to a touchdown in the playoff game against the Saints, Christensen said. It is still Arians' offense at heart, but Brady figured out how to make it work and how to make it better.
"We were talking about it two months ago -- this is when we should be starting the regular season if you count all of the reps we missed," Gabbert said. "That's when you saw us hitting our stride, post bye week. We started to click as an offense."
Christensen disagrees. He thinks the Bucs are still operating at a practice-rep deficit, that they are still an ascending team. And they did it the hard way. When McGinest left New England and went to Cleveland, then-Browns coach Romeo Crennel wanted him to bring the Patriots culture to his new team, the same way the Bucs wanted Brady to bring it to Tampa. New teammates would resent it if McGinest immediately went in and said, "This is how we did it in New England." He had to show them, he thought. It is clear that was Brady's approach, too.
"He did it exactly perfectly," Christensen said. "He just took the pill. It's probably the slower way to start, but it's the right way to do it. Once he learned it, he said, 'Here are some things I know and am comfortable with that I think will make us even better.'"
When the Bucs' bus was pulling out of Lambeau Field after the NFC Championship Game, Brady and Christensen reflected on the journey they had taken in less than a year. At this time last year, Christensen was going through his usual free-agent evaluations. The list he was given of 20 or so quarterbacks was arranged alphabetically. Brady and Drew Brees were the first two names. He started writing up a report as if he was writing up any other free agent, with not one thought that Brady could eventually be a Buc. But Christensen noticed how the Patriots had won a bunch of games in 2019 with lesser talent than they had had in the past. Christensen wondered if he was missing something. He walked into Arians' office and asked why the Bucs wouldn't make a run at signing Brady.
Recently, Christensen did a Google search: How many quarterbacks have played a full season of good football past age 40? Brett Favre had one, the 2009 season, during which Favre turned 40. Brees had two good statistical seasons after he turned 40, but he missed games in each because of injuries.
Then there is Brady, whose team still hasn't peaked even as it is 60 minutes from a Super Bowl championship, whose quarterbacks coach wishes he had eight more games to get to where the offense could really go, who may -- all this time, all those titles later -- finally be reaching the pinnacle of his career.
"It's maybe one of the great accomplishments by any quarterback ever," Christensen said. Then, he paused, contemplating how, even now, Brady could still be topping even himself. "Even in Year 21, he comes out like he's got to make the roster."