Tom Brady has the Buccaneers off to a 5-2 start and first place in the NFC South, he’s playing some of the best football of his career, and he’s shown no indication of slowing down at age 43.
One man who’s not surprised that Brady continues to rewrite history: the guy who set his own standards of brilliance during his Hall of Fame career.
"I expected it," Joe Montana told Newsday. "I didn’t expect anything less from him."
Having won four Super Bowl titles with the 49ers, Montana experienced a second act similar to Brady's after being traded to Kansas City in 1993 at age 37. He went to the playoffs both years with his new team, reaching the AFC Championship Game in his first season. He retired after leading Kansas City to another playoff spot in 1994.
Montana believes Brady has an even better situation with Tampa Bay than he would have had in New England, where he came to chafe under Bill Belichick’s style.
"He goes down there [to Tampa] and they can give him a little more leeway with things he wanted to do offensively," said Montana, who spoke during a promotional tour for his involvement with Guinness, in partnership with Notre Dame, his alma mater. "And you look at the weapons that he has. How could he not?"
Brady’s receiving corps last season was considered a major weakness of the Patriots, but he went to a Tampa Bay team featuring receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as well as tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Brady also recruited former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement — a timely addition, considering Howard was lost for the season in early October because of an Achilles injury.
"Now they have knucklehead Gronk in the mix, and that’s a good thing," Montana said, using "knucklehead" as a term of endearment for the happy-go-lucky tight end.
Brady struggled in his first two games, throwing three touchdown passes and three interceptions. But in his last five games, he has 15 touchdown throws and only one interception and was named the NFC’s offensive player of the month for October.
"It takes a week or two to get things ironed out," Montana said of Brady’s early-season adjustment. "Now it’s look out, the rest of the NFC."
Brady's Buccaneers will visit the Giants on Monday night at MetLife Stadium, where the quarterback will go up against Joe Judge, the Patriots’ former special teams coach.
Montana addressed several other topics during our chat:
* On the attempted abduction of his granddaughter in late September: Montana and his wife, Jennifer, stopped an intruder at their home in Malibu, with Jennifer wresting the child out of the woman’s arms.
"It was just scary. She’s safe now,'' Montana said. "It was a scary situation, but we were fortunate things happened the way they did."
Sodsai Predpring Dalzell, 39, has been charged with the attempt to take the 9-month-old and faces eight years in prison if convicted.
* On the struggles of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones and Jets quarterback Sam Darnold: "It’s hard to find a quarterback sometimes, and sometimes when you play too early, you ruin a guy and it’s hard. Some guys need a little extra time. Working with Bill [Walsh, the former 49ers coach], could I have played my first year [in 1979]? Probably not. We were 2-14, so there were a lot of things he wanted to change.
"Is that the same? With the Jets and Giants, maybe there’s other things that come into play for those guys. One thing we were fortunate about is that we had great defenses all the time. You could afford to make mistakes. You didn’t have to worry about somebody scoring all the time."
* On the most important requirement for an NFL quarterback: "One of the biggest things is accuracy throwing the ball. Quarterbacks play earlier, but not everyone has success playing early. I honestly thought the guy who would have a good start was going to be Baker Mayfield [of the Browns]. One of the biggest things when you get up there [to the NFL] is accuracy. He had two of the most accurate years in college football history, and I just thought he would have a better start."
* On whether a part of him wishes he could play now, given the rules that favor offenses and quarterbacks: "I think it would have been fun being a part of this league, throwing the ball-wise, with the rules the way they are today. It would have been fun to see what we could have done. Bill [Walsh] still would have liked to run the ball, but I think with the kind of receivers we had with Jerry Rice and John Taylor, it would have lent itself to throwing the ball more often than we did."
* On quarterbacks being protected better in today’s NFL: "Nobody wants to get pinned into the ground by 300-pound guys. Playing today is a little different. You don’t have to worry about taking those big hits as you’re trying to look down the field and throw accurately. It’s a difference at that level for these guys. The game’s still not easy, but it does make a big difference there. The guys that played before me would like to have played when I was playing. The game keeps changing, and it will always be that way."
* Does he watch many games? "I like to watch when two good teams are playing, or if there’s some quarterback I want to see play. In most cases, up until the craziness with the pandemic, we’d catch a game here or there. Still like to watch some of the younger guys. Like the game the other night with Seattle and the Cardinals, I wanted to watch that game. It was fun. Those are the games I like to watch."
* On whether Trevor Lawrence is the real deal: "He’s playing at that level. He appears to have all those things [to be great], but you never know. You can go back and look at guys who were first-round and you’ll see as many first-round busts as first-round successes. You just don’t know who’s going to make that transition. Just because you’re picked first doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed."
* On his partnership with Guinness and Notre Dame: "The combination of those two, I always wonder why it took so long to happen — the values, the traditions, the things they’re doing to help people. It made a lot of sense to me when it was brought up. The match was perfect for me between the two."
Le’Veon Bell’s revenge
Le’Veon Bell surely will be motivated to get the last laugh when he plays the Jets on Sunday with Kansas City. And who can blame Bell for being bitter about how things went with the Jets during his ill-fated run with them?
But in one very real sense, Bell ought to be thankful for his time with the Jets. After all, they delivered on a contract that no other team would come close to matching.
Though he won’t make the entirety of the four-year, $52.5 million contract he signed in 2019, he did get a whopping $27 million guaranteed. That’s a handsome sum for a player who wasn’t in the league in 2018.
And now that he is a part of the best team in football and has a brilliant coach in Andy Reid, Bell has a chance at a longer-term deal in 2021.
Bell was mishandled — badly — by Adam Gase, who never found a suitable role for a back with Bell’s accomplishments. That’s on Gase, not Bell, who mostly played the good soldier until his venting on social media made it imperative that he and the team part ways.
It’s personal for Bell in this one, but let’s face it: After Kansas City presumably beats the Jets badly, Bell can think a lot bigger than just getting back at his old team. He’ll have his greatest chance to win a Super Bowl since he entered the NFL in 2013, putting his problematic time with the Jets in the rearview mirror.
One of the NFL’s greatest rivalries will be renewed Sunday when the Ravens host the Steelers with first place in the AFC North on the line. Since John Harbaugh became the Ravens’ coach in 2008, he and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin have met 27 times, including playoffs, with the Ravens holding a 14-13 edge. Baltimore has won three of the last four.
"I don’t know if it needs to be described very much," Harbaugh said. We have great respect for them and their program. Coach Tomlin does a great job. The coaching staff has been intact, pretty much, for many, many years. They have a very good understanding of who they want to be, how they want to play. Their style, they don’t vary from it very often. They stay true to themselves, and that’s what they’re all about."
Baltimore won the AFC North title last year and earned the top seed in the AFC playoffs before being eliminated by the Titans in the divisional round. At 6-0, the Steelers are the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten team, with Baltimore a game behind at 5-1.
Ben Roethlisberger is having a terrific year with 13 touchdown passes and four interceptions after returning from elbow surgery. Last year’s MVP, Lamar Jackson, has 10 TD passes and two interceptions and leads the Ravens with 346 rushing yards and two scores.
How important is Sunday’s game? Consider that it’s only the sixth matchup in which both teams have one loss or fewer in Week 8 since 1970. And the eventual division winner won three of the past four matchups.
Around the league
Scoring continues at a torrid pace, with teams averaging 50.8 total points per game, the highest mark since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 . . . The Packers have scored at least 35 points in four of their first six games. If they put up at least 35 against the Vikings on Sunday, they’ll become the sixth team to score 35 or more in at least five of their first seven games in the Super Bowl era. Three of those teams — the 2007 Patriots, 2009 Saints and 2013 Broncos — advanced to the Super Bowl . . . Quote of the week: Cam Newton on what he’s learned after two straight losses: "Losing is not acceptable in this locker room, in this county, in this state, in this area, in this region. So, Cameron Newton, you need to pick your [expletive] up. That’s what I’ve learned."