Rarely does must-see television get a date several months out, but fans of football in general have had October 3rd, 2021 circled on their calendars for quite a while. When the NFL announced the schedules for its 32 teams, one date in particular leapt off the page and became instant appointment television. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be coming to Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots and Tom Brady would be on the visiting side.
The news broke the internet, and the wallets of fans as well. Stubhub.com listed tickets from $757 all the way to a cool $10,000+ and this wasn't even a playoff game. The storylines wrote themselves and fans reacted accordingly: fickle. To truly understand the magnitude though, we have to take a little journey spanning over 20 years.
On November 8th, 1987, ESPN made history as it aired the first Sunday Night Football broadcast as ESPN Sunday Night Football. Then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue needed a little help raising the profile of the league, and ESPN was the proper channel, at least at the time, for that to happen. ESPN had the property until January 1st, 2006 when NBC took over, and that's when things really got interesting. It took 5 years, but eventually NBC perfected the broadcast as the program has been number one in the ratings for the last nine years, and is trending towards ten with each game broadcast.
The last two weeks of Sunday Night Football have done nothing except further cement that expectation. On September 27th, The Green Bay Packers visited Santa Clara to take on The San Francisco 49ers while the SNF broadcast the Packer victory to 21.1 million people making it the most-watched SNF game since 2015. By comparison, The Return crushed that, as fans wanted to watch the GOAT return to New England, the place that made him a legend. SNF drew in 28.5 million viewers, making it the second most-watched SNF game in history only behind the 30.3 million viewers who watched The Cowboys vs. Washington in 2012 which wound up being for the NFC East title.
So why was this such a big deal? Unless you've been living under a rock, you have heard of Tom Brady, as well as other prominent sports figures such as Joe Montana, LeBron James, and Tiger Woods. Tom Brady was not pegged as a major superstar in the beginning, however. While he and his family have gone on record stating they thought he would be drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round of the NFL draft, the Michigan quarterback wound up going 199th, a compensatory pick given to the New England Patriots for the 2000 NFL draft. He took that personally.
Although some do not care for the polarizing figure that is Brady, whether it be for NFL cheating claims, team bias, or flat-out jealousy, no one can deny the impact he has had on the game. He has done nothing but win, winning six Super Bowl titles (out of nine appearances) for New England along with head coach Bill Belichick. Twenty years later, the GOAT went to Tampa Bay as a free agent, where he immediately paid dividends winning the franchise their second NFL championship in 2021.
The SNF crew of Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth were on record saying the fans had a plan. That plan could have been a factor in the end result of the game. Vegas had the Bucs as 7 point favorites, but in the end, the Bucs won by two, 19-17, in an uncharacteristically bad Brady performance. Brady threw for 269 yards and no touchdowns on 22 of 43 attempts, earning him an abysmal QB rating of 70.8.
The fans' game plan the hosts were alluding to? Simple really. Cheer for the one and only Tom Brady as he and the Bucs ran onto the field as they were introduced but throw out deafening boos when he ran onto the field for his first series. The environment mixed with the rain did not bode well overall for the championship quarterback, but he did manage to break the regular season passing yards record, previously held by Drew Brees, who was also present at the game as part of the NBC crew.
Love him or hate him, you have to recognize Tom Brady as one of the best that has ever played, and the environment, pageantry, and nice little promo (seen below) which features the music of Adele along with action shots of Brady and a sour-faced Belichick, all combined for an electric and stellar broadcast. What did you think of The Return? Leave your thoughts below, and try not to laugh too hard at sour face Bill in the NBC Adele promo.