Tom Brady spent two decades on the same team with the same head coach, making the playoffs in nearly all of those 20 seasons and playing in nine Super Bowls with an NFL-record six championships. As such, it is not particularly surprising that he sees keen value in having a deep well of shared experience.
"I've always said: Continuity is the key in the NFL because there's so many situations that come up on a weekly basis," said Brady on Thursday. "For you to have the years of experience with a play-caller to think, 'Oh, this is exactly how we're going to handle this particular situation on the fly.' You don't have to wait until Monday to correct it."
What launched Brady into this observation on Thursday, however, was not his 20 years with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots but of the roughly decade-and-a-half that Drew Brees and Sean Payton have spent together with the New Orleans Saints. Brady, now in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will lead his team into the Superdome on Sunday evening to take on Brees and the Saints in a Divisional Round playoff game. It's an historic matchup, the first ever in the postseason between two passers older than 40. Brady and Brees also happen to be the top two names on the NFL's all-time lists for passing yards and touchdown passes.
Not only have Brees and Payton been partners in success since 2006 (with one suspended season for Peyton in 2012) but the 2020 Saints as a whole featured a lot of continuity on a very talented roster. As many expected before the season began, teams with that type of continuity had an advantage in an environment that featured no offseason program and no preseason games. It certainly was one of the factors when Brees' Saints won the opening-weekend matchup against Tampa Bay in Brady's Buccaneer debut.
"We're getting ready to play a tough football team, a team that's been together a while now," said Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich, the play-caller with which Brady had to forge a new relationship on the fly in 2020. "These guys have been in a lot of these situations together – coaches and players – so we know what we're up against. It's exciting for us to have this opportunity to compete against a team like that, so we're going to do what we need to do to get ready this week and get ready to roll Sunday evening."
The Saints won both games against Tampa Bay during the regular season – the second one, a 38-3 decision in Week Nine, involved a lot more than just continuity problems for the Bucs – and that was the difference in the final division standings. The Saints finished 12-4 to win their fourth straight NFC South title; the Bucs were one game back at 11-5, playing their best ball in December but still having to hit the road to start the playoffs.
That road now turns back to New Orleans for a third chapter of the Brady-Brees divisional rivalry, but one that comes 18 weeks after the first one and two months after the second one. The Bucs of right now certainly look like a different team than they were in those previous meetings…they might just have some continuity of their own now.
Tampa Bay's offense has averaged 34.8 points per game since that second loss to New Orleans and almost exactly 500.0 yards of offense over the last four weeks. Brady, whose only interception in the last five games (against 14 touchdowns) was a fluky play in which the ball popped up in the air off the hands of a diving Scotty Miller against Atlanta in Week 17, is clearly much more in tune with his talented cast of receivers now.
"I think we've certainly come a long way," said Brady. "I think we're just going to keep improving. The more we're together, the more we're talking about football, the more we're trying to be on the same page, the better it is. It's a complex game – there's a lot of moving parts, there's a lot of coordination involved between a lot of different positions. I think the quarterback-receiver relationship is really important. The more that I've been around Mike [Evans], Chris [Godwin], Antonio [Brown], 'Scooter' (Miller), Tyler [Johnson], 'Mick' (Jaydon Mickens) – the better it gets. The tight end position, I've been around Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) for a long time – I know exactly what he's thinking [and] how he looks. Cam [Brate] is a pretty easy guy to get up to speed with, too. We're just going to keep trying to make improvements. We've got a big test this weekend [against] one of the great teams in the NFL [that has] consistently been one of the great teams for a long time. We're going to have to go play a great football game."
Brady knows he's not going up against Brees directly, as great of a storyline as it is for those two to share a playoff field, and he calls the Saints' defense "phenomenal," and one with plenty of continuity of its own, particularly in the secondary. Brady referred to New Orleans as a whole as a "pretty spectacular" team, and he recognizes how much it helps to have had Brees under center for 15 years running.
"I think situational football is really important and you can't cover 1,000 situations every week because you're just guessing at what the situation will be," said Brady. "At least in my past, I looked at those and say, 'Hey, remember this in 2014? Those same things happened six years later.' You can't really do those things [in a new system]. Whether it's offense, defense or special teams, all of those things are really important."
No, the Brady-Buccaneers combination can't match that level of continuity, and none of his teammates can match Brady's overall wealth of experience. But those teammates have had more than four months together now, working tirelessly to improve their communication and coordination week by week by week. It could be enough to make this the best chapter yet in the Brady-Brees rivalry.