FOXBORO — Under the cover of COVID, a historic day for the Patriots, the NFL and American sports unfolded on Monday. And nobody really seemed to notice.
For the first time in 20 years, the greatest dynasty in league history took the field for a padded practice. The greatest quarterback in league history wasn’t there. And he ain’t ever coming back.
I don’t know if it’s the pandemic and everything that has led to it — the delayed start to camp, the fact there weren’t 10,000 fans packing the bleachers and hillsides around the practice fields, the tamped-down media horde — but in many ways it was just another day.
What did I expect? Flag at half-mast? Black armbands? A solitary bagpipe player emerging from the mist? There was none of that. Mist included.
And just as there was nothing signaling the end of one era, there was no pomp and circumstance accompanying the start of another.
Cam Newton bounced, danced and made everyone in the media say the word “energy” a lot after practice. But there was no figurative torch-passing. There was nobody there to funnel the love sent to Brady for 20 years toward Newton. No spontaneous cheers after a routine completion, no ovations for jogging from one end of the field to another.
There was no tangible evidence of a page-turning. But the page has been turned.
Tom Brady’s last throw as a Patriot — a pick-six at the end of a demoralizing loss to the Tennessee Titans — maybe that was the closure. Maybe it was that whole night. Getting bullied at home in the playoffs a week after getting undressed by a Dolphins team that had nothing to play for. Both losses administered by former members of the organization — Mike Vrabel and Brian Flores.
And for the next two months, as Brady’s former coaches and teammates lined up to insist he’d never play anywhere else, that Robert Kraft wouldn’t let him go, that Brady would retire before leaving Foxboro, too few realized the book was already finished and the back cover had been slammed shut.
Which brings us back to Monday.
For the first time since 1992, the Patriots began full-contact work not knowing who their starting quarterback would be. There’s Newton, the reclamation project who’s probably here on the Darrelle Revis Plan — one year and gone. There’s the overlooked, underrated kid, Jarrett Stidham, hoping he can follow even a few steps down the trail blazed by Brady. And there’s a reliable journeyman, Brian Hoyer.
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None of them are a walking football deity. And none of them are on the practice field this year feeling as Brady did for the past three seasons — that Bill Belichick would love to find an escape route away from Brady’s over-40 body, his cap-clogging contract and his set-in-his-ways methods. With all due respect.
And none of them are feeling, like Brady did, like the string’s been played out. That input wasn’t welcome and that the way Brady approached football, his health and his life wasn’t cause for eye-rolling.
Really, it’s a credit to Belichick, the Krafts and — most of all — Brady that this ended as tidily as it did. Quietly. With a little bit of dignity. A late-night visit to Kraft’s Brookline home in March telling the owner it was over. Two more conversations that night which you’ll read in the soon-to-be-released book by Jeff Benedict called, “The Dynasty.” And done. Gone.
“I spent 20 years in one place and I left on great terms,” Brady said on the Peter King Podcast. “I have so much respect for everybody … that are close friends and that will continue to be that way. But I made a decision to do something different. And it was a very thoughtful decision. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, it was some people that I really talked with and confided in and … it’s really worth it to me. I’m really excited about this opportunity for me as a player.”
King spent two days watching Brady practice in Tampa Bay. One of the big takeaways he had was all the coaching Brady did. All the input he had. The role he was assuming.
And King’s anecdotes from Tampa reminded me of one from last summer when the Patriots were in Tennessee practicing and Brady saw one of his receivers lined up incorrectly. It was just days after Brady’s last hope for an extension had been rebuffed. He knew it was his last year in New England. He truly believed his input wasn’t valued.
Brady didn’t tell the receiver to move. He looked at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and waited for McDaniels to move him to the right spot.
The symbolism was clear. Brady was doing what he believed Belichick wanted. Stepping away. Letting go.
Monday morning, the Patriots took the field without Tom Brady. Miss him. Love him. But he gone. There are no more pages to turn to see if the story’s going to end differently.
It probably ended as well as it possibly could have.