The 2007 season, one that saw the New England Patriots rewrite the offensive record book and post the NFL's only 16-0 regular-season record, is remembered as one of Tom Brady's finest. The additions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth led to some "Madden"-worthy performances, particularly over the first 10 games, when the Patriots averaged 41.1 points per game (and allowed just 15.7).
But for my money, the season I remember as the one that cements Brady's standing as the greatest quarterback ever was the one before. In 2006, Bill Belichick traded away Brady favorite Deion Branch and handed him a receiving corps of Reche Caldwell, Benjamin Watson, 35-year-old Troy Brown and Doug Gabriel (who? exactly) to work with.
And damn it, Brady did. New England was 12-4 that season, upsetting the top-seeded San Diego Chargers on the road in a memorable divisional-round game and nearly advancing to the Super Bowl.
In the AFC title game, the host Indianapolis Colts featured Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Brady had castoffs and soon-to-be retirees, and still that game was a 38-34 shootout not decided until the final minute.
That Brady is gone. And it's OK. Brady got so many more years at an extremely high level than any position player can ever hope to get and, really, ever has gotten.
But it's time.
While watching Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose 31-14 to the Dallas Cowboys in Monday's NFC wild-card playoff game — full disclosure, I watched not the entire game but much of the first three quarters — there were times when I talked to my laptop. Usually, my unconscious go-to phrase in times of exclamatory need is "holy crap!" But this time, I wasn't saying it with excitement. It was almost sadness.
Brady looked like an athlete who had done the one thing you hope your favorites never do: stayed one year too long.
On his second-quarter interception in the end zone, Brady saw pressure coming and just flung the ball, too high and to the left of anyone in a Bucs jersey. In the second half, there was another moment when the pocket broke down, and Brady appeared to discard the ball like it was a red-hot shot put, wanting no part of being tackled.
One of the things Brady has been celebrated for is his subtle pocket movement, his ability to slide away from danger, reset his feet and still complete the throw. On Monday, he almost cowered.
No one blames him for that — not here, anyway. He's 40-freaking-5 years old. Time eventually gets to all of us. Even the ever-pliable Brady.
He has long since gotten away from quarterback sneaks, another small but critical part of his game he excelled at. But sneaks and taking hits sometimes are things a quarterback has to do — has to be willing to do. Brady seemingly wanted no part of it.
One other thing that seemed to melt away this season: the mystique. There was a long stretch of time when it seemed like no lead was too big for Brady to overcome. It was just a matter of time until he'd make a critical play. Then another. Then another. Watching the game Monday, ESPN commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman mentioned Brady's career comeback magic multiple times, but it never materialized.
Supporters will point to Tampa Bay's offensive line issues this season and lack of rushing game, and those things are true. Brady's raw statistics look remarkably similar to what they've been for years, and he even led the league in pass completions and attempts.
But he needs too many things to be perfect now in order for him to look like the guy we've become accustomed to seeing — a perfect line, a perfect run game, the perfect group of receivers and tight ends, and, according to Yahoo Sports colleague Charles Robinson, the perfect coaching staff. Maybe that's the Las Vegas Raiders, as many in the NFL media ecosystem are speculating now, but this league is so volatile, a Las Vegas team that looks like a perfect fit today could look entirely different come August or October.
Brady has been great for so long that it seems like many people take it for granted. We could be here for paragraphs and paragraphs detailing all of his incredible games, beyond those seven Super Bowl wins, and would still never paint the full picture. He is one of one.
Watching Manning in his final season with Denver was almost uncomfortable because we all knew what he'd been at his best. Even though he won his last game, Super Bowl 50, his play was forgettable, his contribution minimal.
Brady might well keep playing, keep chasing postseason glory and the feeling that winning gives him that maybe he fears he won't get from anything else. He has been written off before, declared cooked or washed or whatever the term du jour was at the time. It has happened more than once, and he always proved his detractors wrong.
But on Monday, it looked for all the world like that day has finally come. Time gets to all of us eventually.