No. 1: Tom Brady
You might not have Oct. 9 circled on your calendar yet, but maybe you should get on that. Tom Brady has it marked. And if the guys who know him best are right, it’ll be a day to remember.
“This dude is gonna be more motivated than he’s ever been,” says Donté Stallworth, who did two tours as a Patriots receiver. “He won’t say it, but I know he has a fire burning now. It’s gonna be like Game of Thrones.”
“Go back and look at any game we lost where the team didn’t play well—and there aren’t many of them—and see how he came back after people wrote the team off,” says Troy Brown, who caught passes from Brady for eight years. “Just look at that next game, and multiply that by four or five.”
“It’s bigger than beating the Browns,” says Rodney Harrison, his teammate for a half-dozen seasons. “It’s sending a message to the league.”
Brady’s place as a newsmaker after 21 months of Deflategate is good enough to secure his spot atop The MMQB 100 for the second straight year. But what he’ll do on the field could be even more interesting. This is Brady’s 17th NFL season. He turned 39 in August. He’s been to five consecutive AFC title games and made it to two Super Bowls, winning one, inside that stretch. He’s thrown 134 more touchdown passes and six fewer interceptions in his 30s than he did in his 20s.
There are few measures that say he hasn’t improved with age. And now a stick of dynamite’s been thrown. Detonation is set for Cleveland in a month.
“You get older, and sometimes you need something to motivate you,” Harrison says. “Tom will come back bitter, he’ll come back angry, and he’ll use that as fuel.”
• ROB GRONKOWSKI, MASTERMIND: He’s thought of as a good-old-bro, but the Pats’ All-Pro tight end is really one of the brainiest players at his position. Just ask the coaches who game-plan for and against him.
See, as great and consistent as Brady has been for almost two decades, he does have a switch. Brown remembers seeing it flipped in 2002. That was the only nonplayoff season the Patriots have had with number 12 as starter, and the team was down 27–6 to the Bears in Champaign, Ill. The defending Super Bowl champs were 4–4, and their season was on the brink. Then Brady, 25 at the time, threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns in the final 22 minutes, and New England left with a 33–30 win.
“He became a different dude,” Brown says. “It was this whole other level—he couldn’t do anything wrong. It was like he couldn’t miss.”
And Harrison swears it wasn’t limited to games. He’d see the switch flipped on Fridays in practice, when Bill Belichick set his first-team defense loose on the first-team offense for two-minute work—“yelling, screaming, cussing, and if you intercept him, he won’t talk to you for two days.”
Brady’s consistency, of course, is a cornerstone of his greatness, and a reason why he has so few peers. But there is another level of play he’s capable of summoning that makes you think that, in a roundabout way, the league may have actually done him a favor by making him endure everything he has gone through since January 2015.
“Look at the truly great players—and there aren’t a ton of them—and they can do that,” says Brown. “Whenever [Michael] Jordan got challenged, he’d take it to another level. You think he can’t go any higher, then he does something you’ve never seen before. Tommy’s the same. There’s another level he can reach.”
Which brings you to maybe the only conclusion you could draw after talking to these guys: poor Browns.
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