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Magnificent Seventh: How Brady’s Bucs Became Super Bowl Champions

A bold experiment, a midseason slump and a “melding of the minds” between aging coach and legendary quarterback. How the Bucs were built, a season was saved and the Lombardi Trophy—against all odds—came to Tampa Bay.

By the last day of November, the Buccaneers’ grand football experiment was tilting closer and closer to failure. The Bucs—who had taken a young, talented roster and added the most accomplished quarterback of all time, albeit near the end of his career—had dropped three out of their last four, sputtering on offense in a Monday-night loss to the Rams, then falling to the favorites from Kansas City. Both defeats took place at Raymond James Stadium, the future site of Super Bowl LV.

Tampa Bay trudged into its bye week later than usual, 12 weeks into the strangest of seasons. Beyond the pandemic, racial unrest and a country divided—all the serious issues—there were football matters to contend with, a season to be saved.

The two figures who most controlled the team’s fortunes decided to meet, same as they did every week throughout the season. Only this meeting was longer and more important, the kind of summit that could change narratives, legacies and NFL history. One way or another.

Sports Illustrated cover Tom Brady Bucs Super Bowl LV champions

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So Bruce Arians, pro football’s third-oldest coach, and Tom Brady, the league’s most senior QB, scheduled a round at Old Memorial Golf Club. Naturally. But when NFL officials nixed an in-person meeting, the duo adjusted, same as they would throughout this tempestuous season. They hopped on an old-fashioned phone call instead.

The conference lasted over an hour. Both coach and quarterback spoke honestly, aware of the immense stakes. Arians sought to learn which schematic concepts Brady wanted emphasized, and how he could tweak their offense to peak over the final four games. “I wanted him to be going down the stretch as comfortable as possible, because we had to win every game,” says Arians. “[It was] a melding of the minds.”

At one point, he told Brady, “If you don’t like it, we’re throwing it out.”

The gap that needed closing centered around two long-held and long-successful offensive philosophies. Arians tended to call plays by embracing the risks involved, while Brady preferred stabbing defenses over and over for a slow bleed. The experiment was still in the incubator stage, even three months in. New teammates, new coaches, new play calls, new timing. Even Brady’s progressions varied from his two decades in New England.

Coach and quarterback never added a third party to that phone call, but they still managed to hit the merge button. Ultimately, they settled on a compromise, each bending to accommodate the other. Soon after Brady hung up, he told confidants he had a “great talk with B.A.” and “we’re going to get things going in the right direction.”

At that point—with all the novelty, the lack of practice reps, the virtual meetings, no preseason—Arians admits he wasn’t yet thinking about a Super Bowl. “This season,” he says, “was gonna be ‘Let’s all get together and on the same page and win it next year.’ ” The call, though, followed by a 17-point comeback win in Atlanta, he says, “kick-started the rest of our season.”

Flash forward. Sunday night. The same Raymond James Stadium. Super Bowl LV against the Chiefs and one Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback vying to replace Brady atop the NFL universe. There was a coach, at 68, old enough to have already been vaccinated for COVID-19, and a QB to remind the world that, for him, there’s no such thing as old. There were the Bucs, their mighty defense, their tweaked offense. And there was, despite a season defined by newness, the most familiar sight in modern football: Tom Brady, raising the Lombardi Trophy with both hands after a 31–9 victory. He and Arians became the oldest player and oldest coach to win a championship, Brady’s seventh, more than any single NFL franchise has collected. This became a separator, the one that answered, for now, just what a 43-year-old could accomplish after leaving New England.

Arians sensed this the week before the Super Bowl. “Tom is playing for his teammates right now,” he told Sports Illustrated. “He wants those guys to experience what he’s experienced six times. I think personally, too, he’s making a statement. You know? It wasn’t all coach [Bill] Belichick.”

Months before the meeting that saved the season, only a handful of people knew that Brady faced the kind of fear he never encountered on a football field. On every drive to and from his new office, he FaceTimed with his dad, Tom Brady Sr., who had been hospitalized with COVID-19. “It was life or death,” the father says. “They didn’t know if I’d make it or not.”

Both of the quarterback’s parents tested positive. But Brady’s mother, Galynn, who underwent chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer during the 2016 season, developed more mild symptoms. Senior could hardly talk, lift his head or concentrate for more than a few minutes. He spent most of September in a California hospital. And, after three decades of attending most of his son’s games in person—or at least watching on TV—he missed both a loss to New Orleans in the opener and his son’s first win in another uniform, over Carolina in Week 2. “I didn’t even care if there was a game,” Brady Sr. says. “I was having 100% oxygen pumped into my body.”

That meant lying on his stomach, which made it easier for his lungs to absorb the oxygen but also impossible to sleep. Nurses began to mention ventilators, which only scared the family more. Fortunately, Brady Sr. left the hospital in late September, eventually returning to what he calls “better health.”

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Still, this marked yet another obstacle to confront, continuing an often-overlooked pattern embedded in Brady’s Super success. He hasn’t just won and lost an unprecedented number of championship games. He has won and lost Super Bowls while supplanting an injured starter and returning from a serious knee injury, through real scandals (Spygate) and dumb ones (Deflategate), and with both parents in poor health. “The general fan thinks he just puts on his cape,” his father says.