TAMPA, Fla. - In 2020, on a rain-dampened field, a practice squad receiver named Cyril Grayson -- who hadn't played a down of college football and had one NFL catch for three yards to his name prior -- now had arguably the greatest quarterback of all time running the show.
On the first route Grayson ran, he slipped.
"I was making excuses, and I was like, 'Man, the ground.' He was like, 'It's a perfectly laid ground.' Just being hard on me," Grayson said. "And then he throws me the ball that's in the sun, and he goes, 'Hey, I don't need any excuses. You're an NFL receiver.'"
For a moment, Grayson, who had been on five other practice squads prior to Tampa Bay, put his head down. He felt defeated.
He thought to himself, "Man, he's being too hard on me," Grayson said.
And then Tom Brady came over.
He told him, "The reason I'm so hard on you is because you have this talent -- I just want to pull that out of you," Grayson recalled. "I see that in you, and I just want you to see that in yourself."
"From that moment, I knew he felt something in me," Grayson said.
Neither knew a year later, after the unexpected departure of Antonio Brown, in the Bucs' Week 17 game at the New York Jets, that Brady would hit Grayson with the winning 33-yard pass late in the fourth quarter.
Getting the most out of virtually every teammate is one of many reasons Brady has been so good down the stretch in nearly every one of his 22 seasons, with the exception of his first season as a starter (2000) and 2008, when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 1.
Brady owns a staggering 112-31 (.783) record after Thanksgiving, and 43-14 (.754) in January and February. When other teams fade, as rosters are whittled down because of injuries, Brady's teams ascend. He finds a way to pull out the perfect play in the perfect situation. How does he do it?
'I think it was him testing me - Is this guy gonna fold?'
What Grayson didn't know was Brady was testing him because, somewhere down the road, he might need him. He wanted to gauge chemistry.
When teams are trying to make a final push late in the season, but are too hobbled by injuries, Brady needs to know who can be counted on.
"It's important to put a lot of pressure on guys because you don't know how they're going to react, and if they're not in there playing, you don't get to see it very often," Brady said. "When they get their chance, you don't want it to be the first time they're put in a pressurized situation. So, I am tough on those guys.
"Sometimes I do something where I kind of force the issue and create some arbitrary pressure, just to kind of see how they react. It's not like Mike [Evans] needs that or Chris [Godwin] needs that, but young guys who haven't played -- they need that, and you want to see how they respond to the adversity."
Former Patriots running back Danny Woodhead, who came over from the Jets, felt the wrath of Brady even before Kevin Faulk went down with a season-ending injury in 2010. Woodhead would run into the huddle, calling the personnel grouping and Brady would chide him for not saying it loud enough, despite the fact Woodhead had barely scratched the surface of his new playbook.
"Literally everything that he could yell at me for, he'd yell at me," Woodhead said with a laugh. "I remember like, 'What is this cat's deal? Did he just have a bad day? Did he sleep terrible? This is the greatest of all time, and the only thing I've experienced is him berating me," Woodhead said.
Woodhead wound up scoring the first touchdown of his career that week in the two-minute offense. From then on, the two had what Woodhead describes as a "good football relationship."
"That was his way of testing me to see if he could trust me," Woodhead said, adding that there were instances where players did not go into games or remain with the team because they couldn't do what Brady asked consistently.
"There's been many times in New England where guys would get injured, but we'd figure it out because obviously we had the talent -- because if you're in the NFL, you have the talent - but you have the accountability of the quarterback," Woodhead said.
"Under pressure, is someone gonna cry under pressure like my 4-year-old when she has to clean up her toys? I don't want that either, so let's make sure that they can handle the pressure."
'This is the time we've gotta put the jets in full throttle'
In New England, there was always an emphasis on playing the best ball after Thanksgiving, and it was discussed all throughout the offseason and regular season by coach Bill Belichick.
It's when teams start to position themselves for the postseason, when seeding can be clinched and wild cards won or lost. Other coaches on other teams do mention it, but it's distinct with Belichick.
"Bill didn't make any secret to how much more difficult it becomes to win in November, December, when teams are making the final push," former Patriots guard Rich Ohrnberger said. "He explained to us that right around Thanksgiving, the week changes, and you've gotta be ready for that. You've gotta be up to the challenge. ... And obviously you get to the postseason -- it gets ramped up once more."
Former Patriots wide receiver Donte Stallworth remembered those talks, too.
"We had to be playing our best ball. We had to be technically sound on everything -- mental errors to an extreme low, minimal," Stallworth said, adding he believed Brady learned to divide each season into two. "Like once Thanksgiving week happens, and after Thanksgiving, that is the beginning of the playoffs. For the average human ... November, Thanksgiving, that's like towards the end of the season. For this dude, this is the beginning of the second season for him, and you have to come out sprinting. ... This is the time that we've gotta put the jets in full throttle."
Brady's numbers aren't dramatically different from the regular season to the postseason -- in fact, they're remarkably consistent across the board -- but he does tend to find more of a groove. The ball tends to come out quicker, and those around him improve.
For example, against disguised coverages, Brady's average "time before play" -- which calculates his release time -- drops from 2.6 seconds in September through November to 2.48 seconds in December through February. Shaving those tenths of a second off can be the difference in a touchdown or an interception.
"You don't do much different -- you just do more of what got you here," Brady said. "The things that work, you do more of. You try to eliminate the other distractions. ... This isn't the time for trips to the movie theaters, this is the time to lock in on football because this is all we have.
"You just look at it like that. Everything you can kind of put off until the end of the year, [you put off], and we just certainly hope the end of the year isn't Sunday night. But we have to earn it. We've gotta go win to move on."
To echo that sentiment statistically, his teams tend to cut down on mistakes. Over the last two seasons, the Bucs accepted 6.17 penalties per game from September through November. But after December, the Bucs accepted 3.933 penalties per game. Turnovers dropped from 1.35 per game to .857 per game.
"You constantly want to be able to learn and grow from your mistakes so that you're playing your best ball in December and January because that's when it really matters," Godwin said. "I think we have a lot of guys on the team that realize that."
"The accountability factor is unreal and then when you get to the playoffs -- it's even higher because it's like, 'This is do or die,'" Woodhead said. "And Tom's thought process is, 'We're not dying.'"
'He's like a professor'
For Brady, nothing is left to chance. No detail is overlooked. In practices, he's coaching everyone at every position. He studies the way his receivers run their routes. He'll tell a wide receiver to pump his arms more on a route and how he prefers them to release.
"If you're running a certain route, he may want you to give 'eyes quick' instead of maybe you gave him 'eyes' a little too late, trying to finish your route, but maybe he wants you to give him eyes as soon as you come out that break," wide receiver Breshad Perriman said.
"If they're not on the same page, you see Tom go over and talk to them," tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "He does the same thing with me if I ran a route that he thought I was going to be [here], but I was really over there. He's going to come over to you and talk to you like, 'Hey, why were you there and what were you thinking?' That's how he gets on the same page as you so then you're ready for the game."
Brady also conducts his own meetings, something that's not common in the NFL. In New England and now Tampa Bay, he runs one prior to the team meeting Saturday night, after he goes over every play on the call sheet with his offensive coordinator -- and sometimes it's 100 plays.
In Tampa, he's also incorporated a Friday meeting that he leads each week.
"He would talk about a play that, in practice, he would never throw to me because it was kind of like a clear out route or a dead route essentially on paper, but he would let me know in that meeting, 'Hey, Donte, stay alive on this if we get this coverage. I'm gonna be looking for you. You're an alert, so stay alive on that play," Stallworth said. "He's like a professor up there."
"I remember when [wide receiver] Wes Welker was in the room, he'd be like, 'Hey Wessie, when you come out of that break, you've got to snap your head up right now, because the ball's gonna be [there]," Ohrnberger said.
"It's that sort of communication -- on this play, on this route, you need to understand that the ball's coming out. Because if they're showing this coverage, or these guys - you're hot, you're the outlet pass on that blitz look, so you need to get to the spot and be ready to catch because it's firing out."
He would tell Julian Edelman, "'Hey, Jules, don't wait for your corner to bite. You just go,'" Ohrnberger said. "It's these little pointers he'll pepper in just like a coach would. It's important for him to have that communication and be able to communicate those thoughts."
The coaching happens in games, too. In Week 16, during the third quarter, when the Bucs were at the Carolina Panthers' 7-yard line, Brady noticed wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who's been thrust into a larger role because of Godwin and Brown's absences, was in motion, and because there were multiple players in motion, the Bucs would have gotten a penalty. Brady yelled "Freeze!" and put out his arm to stop Johnson dead in his tracks, followed by, "Go ahead!"
The Bucs avoided a penalty, and running back Ronald Jones came out of the backfield and raced to the edge for the touchdown. But Brady made sure to go over to Johnson right after the play to explain what happened rather than wait until watching film Monday.
"It's important just because any time you do it in the moment there is awareness with it," Brady said. "There are a million things that happen on every play, so you could wait to address things, but when I see things at practice, I try to tell him right away like, 'Hey, this is the route. This is what we are thinking. This is the depth. This is the angle. This is the throw.'
"In football, you've got to be on the same page. All of us have to see things the same way. It's all about constant communication. If you don't communicate, you're not going to get any better at it."
'He's the greatest football mind we've ever seen'
The ideas Brady brings not only to teammates but members of the coaching staff are endless.
"All me and him do is talk football," Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. "We're talking football every second we see each other, and we both love it in that way. It's a blessing to have someone to love the game the way that he loves it, to approach the game the way that he approaches it. As a coach, it's ball, ball, ball all the time. That's a special thing that you just love being involved with -- that love and going to work with him every week."
Former Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel remembers Brady approaching offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels the morning of a game in 2007 about changing a play, after they'd gone over every single play the night before.
Brady said to McDaniels, "Hey, do you want to move Randy Moss inside?"
They had run a particular play in practice with Moss on the outside, but Brady thought they could get a better matchup inside, with the idea of creating a double team over the top and leaving a one-on-one matchup underneath.
Moss had lined up in the slot a few times, but at no point had they practiced this particular play with this particular personnel group with him inside.
"It was unbelievable," Cassel said. "This is the morning of the game!"
But Brady said, "What do you think about putting Randy on the inside? Because if he gets one-on-one with the safety, I have a lot of trust that I could just throw it up," Cassel said.
Brady's teammates last year recall receiving text messages at all hours leading up to the Super Bowl of tendencies of the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive backs.
"He's the greatest football mind we've ever seen," Evans said. "We definitely saw it last year, from the start. We saw it Week 1, but in the postseason, obviously it heightens a little bit."
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said watching Brady crack the code on a defense and move the ball at will is "the most fun that there is for me in this game."
"Watching him play, he's a surgeon," Arians said. "He's going to figure you out if you're going to play two-deep shell, if you're rotating -- he'll figure that all out real quick. It's hard on the defense, that's for sure."
'He wants to be the greatest of all time'
After the Bucs' wild-card round victory over the Washington Football Team last year, they had to wait to find out who they'd play in the divisional round. Brady posted a video on Twitter, which he does after every win, and at the end, he said, "I know who I want."
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he was referring to the New Orleans Saints, who defeated the Bucs twice already during the regular season. Many had pegged the Saints as a Super Bowl favorite. He wanted to take down whoever he thought was at the top of the mountain.
Cassel saw it when the Patriots played the Jets in the 2006 wild-card round, a team that defeated them 17-14 during the regular season as the Patriots struggled to defend the Jets' amoeba front.
"When they called the Jets' name to play us in the first game of that playoff season, I was like, 'Oh boy, they're in for a beating,'" Cassel said. "We were so dialed in going into that game because we had gone over it, Tom had an exact plan of how he was gonna attack it, what he was gonna signal outside and executed it to perfection that game. We just blew the doors off of 'em."
Simply put, Cassel states that Brady's preparation consists of leaving "no stone unturned." The Patriots won 37-16, just like Brady and the Bucs defeated the Saints in the divisional round last year 30-20, in what would be future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees' last game.
That's why Brady wasn't wincing when he found out that the Bucs would be hosting coach Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams this Sunday in the divisional round (3 p.m. ET, NBC). The Rams beat them 34-24 in Week 3 of the regular season and 27-24 last year.
Brady may be without his starting All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who suffered a high ankle sprain last week, and center Ryan Jensen is dealing with an ankle sprain, which could be disastrous given the Rams' pass rush led by Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
"There's not an opponent he hasn't faced or a challenge where he hasn't risen to that occasion," Cassel said. "And when you look at the Rams, he knows that, one way or the other, you've gotta win four games straight, and you've gotta beat the best teams in football when it comes to playoff time. And he knows that because he doesn't play to just win divisions. He doesn't play to get to the playoffs. He plays this game -- for as long as he has -- to win Super Bowls.
"He didn't prepare, and he doesn't work as hard as he does, he doesn't put his body through what he does year-in and year-out to be great - it's to be the greatest."