| The Detroit News
Tom Brady made his debut against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 2000. Two decades later, owning the most Super Bowl rings of any player in league history, he will become just the 12th to appear in 300 games.
“Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool,” Brady said this week. “I don’t get caught up too much in statistics and those types of things, but football has just been a very important part of my life for a long time, 30 years. I love the ability to go out and compete with my teammates, compete for our fans. And I love the game, I love the nuances of the game, I love the relationships that I’ve built, all the memories that I’ve had and I’ve very blessed to be 43 years old and still doing it.”
Among positional players, only Brett Favre (302) and Jerry Rice (303) have played more games than Brady. The rest of the top 10 is made up of kickers and punters, as well as George Blanda, who played quarterback, but primarily kicked his final nine seasons.
So yeah, not a bad career for the former Michigan quarterback selected 199th overall in the 2000 draft.
But this trip to Detroit, the fifth and potentially final one of his career, will be different. For the first time, Brady will be wearing a different uniform after making the bold offseason decision to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And while none of the involved parties have directly stated as much, not that they’ve had to, it’s been an unofficial proving ground for who was more important to the New England Patriots’ dynasty; Brady or New England coach Bill Belichick.
Assuming it’s fair to judge on the pandemic-warped sample size this season has provided, the legendary quarterback has emerged the clear winner in the split with the legendary coach.
At 6-8, the Patriots have been eliminated from the playoffs, while the 9-5 Buccaneers are on the cusp of their first postseason berth since 2007.
And Brady, playing in an entirely different scheme, one that focuses on pushing the ball downfield, has been a big part of the franchise’s turnaround. Through 14 games, he’s completing 65.1% of his passes for 3,886 yards, 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
With five more touchdown passes in the final two games, Brady will have thrown his most in nine years, while his completion percentage is up over four points from a year ago, despite an average pass length (8.73 yards) that’s increased more than 15% from 2019 and is at its highest since 2017.
“Yeah, the chemistry really started on our first meeting, when we first started talking offensive football and the Tampa Bay Bucs, and his excitement level and my excitement level, I think, just kept growing,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s still growing. To watch him play, when we protect him and put him into situations where he can play like he did in the second half of that ball game, he’s still as good as there is in this league.
“It’s been a long process,” Arians continued. “We’re still learning each and every week there are little things in the game plans and situational football that we talk out. … It’s still fun. The collaboration has been awesome. Like I said, it’s our job to keep him healthy and keep him upright and let him do his thing.”
Lions safety Duron Harmon, who played his first eight seasons with Brady in New England, said while you can see the quarterback’s fingerprints on Tampa Bay’s offense, it’s definitely Arians’ scheme, the same one he ran in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Arizona.
The ability for Brady to leave New England and jump into something entirely different, particularly in a season when the offseason was truncated by the pandemic, answers whatever few questions remained about whether he was a product of New England’s system.
“Yeah, obviously I have a ton of respect for him,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Anywhere he goes, he’s going to be playing at a high level, there’s no question about that. I think going to a different system and learning that after as long as he was in one, that’s a challenge. Obviously, you gotta learn the little intricacies of that offense and he’s still putting up great numbers like you said, got his team in position to win a bunch of football games, so gotta give him a ton of credit. He’s obviously a great player, an all-time great player at the position.”
The other part of what’s always made Brady as good as he’s been is his competitive drive. He thrives on proving people wrong. And although many of the pieces have changed, there will be a vengeance factor to Saturday’s matchup given that the last time he came to Detroit, the Lions held him to one of his worst performances in recent memory.
In what was arguably the best game of coach Matt Patricia’s tenure in Detroit, the Lions held Brady to 133 yards passing in a 26-10 victory over the eventual Super Bowl champions in Week 3 of the 2018 season.
“Whenever you get an opportunity to play someone as skilled and as celebrated as Tom Brady, you definitely have to be at your best,” Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara said. “We’re definitely looking forward to it. Like you said, the last time he was here, we had some success, but I’m sure he’s going to remember that and try to do some damage, so we have to be prepared.”
It doesn’t figure to go as well for the Lions this time around as the Bucs are heavy favorites, the Lions are dealing with significant injury issues and the team’s defensive coaching staff, including coordinator Cory Undlin, have been ruled out because they had close contact with an individual who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Happy 300th, Tom.
Buccaneers at Lions
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: NFL Network/760 AM
Records: Buccaneers 9-5; Lions 5-9
Line: Buccaneers by 9.5