Everyone remembers the photo. A 24-year-old Tom Brady, with both hands on his head, stares into the stands in disbelief just minutes after winning his first Super Bowl. The Tom Brady of the first half of the decade carved his niche as the most clutch quarterback in the NFL.
He was known for an "inner fire" that made him immune to pressure. It enabled him to fight through sickness, snow, and an utter lack of talent on offense to win three Super Bowls.
He was driven by the fact that nobody wanted him. He was a scrawny sixth-round draft pick who would've had trouble beating Vince Wilfork in a race. Why was he so good? Simple—he wanted it more than anyone else .
He was the first in the building every morning, and the last to leave it every night. He was guaranteed every year to have his "special parking spot" as a reward for his hard work in offseason workouts. His receivers were awestruck by his attention to detail, by his ability to make everyone else around him better.
Flash forward to 2010. The Patriots are coming off their most embarrassing playoff defeat in the Bill Belichick era. They didn't just lose, they were dominated. Brady threw three interceptions and his QB rating was a lowly 49. But perhaps the most unique thing about this loss was that it isn't a stretch to say that Patriot Nation saw it coming.
Throughout the year, it was clear that Brady was not the same physically after his return from major knee surgery; that was to be expected. But it wasn't just the timing problems and lack of pocket presence that worried Patriots fans.
Thanks to some fiery trash-talk from Rex Ryan, Kerry Rhodes, and the rest of the Jets roster, the Patriots' Week Two matchup in New York had a playoff feel to it. Most Patriot fans were thinking, "Good. Talk all you want. You'll see what happens." We all knew what fate awaited teams that talked trash to the Pats. You pay for it.
But a funny thing happened in that game. The Jets didn't pay for it. They shut down Randy Moss, they confused the offensive line...and they rattled Tom Brady, whose attempt at a game-winning drive in the final minute of the game was a far cry from New Orleans in 2002.
It would've been one thing if this was a lone occurrence, but it became a common theme in 2009. In Week 12 in New Orleans, the Patriots had a chance for a do-over of their choke job at the hands of the undefeated Colts earlier in the year.
They started off well. Their running game pounded the Saints early and it looked like it was going to be, if nothing else, a close game. After a long Wes Welker punt return, the Pats started with the ball in New Orleans' territory and had a chance to go up 14-3. But Brady was picked off on a terrible throw across the middle. The Saints scored on the ensuing drive and never looked back, winning 38-17 and embarrassing the Patriots on national television.
The following week in Miami, Brady looked like he had rebounded. Despite suffering a finger injury early, he hooked up on long touchdown passes to Randy Moss and Sam Aiken. But, with a chance to put the game away, up 21-19 in the 4th, Brady was picked off on a forced throw to Randy Moss in the end zone.
The Dolphins eventually made it 22-21, and Brady was given another shot at a game-winning drive. But just like in Week Two in New York, the drive floundered quickly. Brady was intercepted on his third pass and he and the Patriots continued on with their pedestrian season. He threw another key interception (albeit in a somewhat meaningless game) against Houston, and then came the epic flop against Baltimore.
Throughout it all, the thought lingered...does he really even care anymore? Sure, there was the anger towards Joey Galloway on the sidelines against Atlanta. But that was it. Throughout one of the most frustrating seasons of his career, Brady seemed to be almost lackadaisical .
Was the disappointing season all his fault? Of course not. The defense was terrible at times, there were injuries at the running back spot, and Randy Moss battled with whatever it was he was battling.
But in the past, Brady could've overcome those things. The Patriots had won Super Bowls with cornerbacks they plucked off the streets. Half a Randy Moss is still probably better than some of the receivers the Patriots have won Super Bowls with.
So what happened? What gives? Has Brady accomplished everything there is to accomplish? Is it tough to motivate yourself when you've got single-season touchdown records, MVPs, three Super Bowls? Maybe.
Was it just a case of lingering injuries in '09? Were those reports of broken ribs and a broken finger not as fictitious as Coach Belichick made them seem? Or does he just have other things in his life now that take priority over winning Super Bowls? It's not too far-fetched to think that maybe his two kids and wife are more important than a trivial game of football. It seems likely.
As the rest of his team gathers in Foxboro this week for the first voluntary mini-camp of 2010, Brady is in California hanging out with the family. The 2001-Brady would've been in Foxboro a week early, but we may just have to accept the fact that that Brady is long gone.