Patriots

Patriots

Nineteen years ago, standing in a stadium that no longer exists, Bill Belichick delivered the ultimate Tom Brady understatement.

The quarterback, just 24 years old then, was a few days away from his first professional start. The Patriots were 0-2. Drew Bledsoe was injured. Patriots fans were freaking out. Belichick, speaking to a group of media doubters, was annoyed.

“I really don’t think I’m going to be standing here week after week talking about the problems that Tom Brady had,’’ the coach said. “I have confidence in him.”

We’ve come so far, and seen so much, since that September 2001 moment at old Foxboro Stadium. Confidence in Tom Brady? Well, yeah.

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It’s obvious now as we sit here in March 2020, looking back on a staggering amount of his regular and postseason games (326), wins (249) and touchdown passes (614). It was the on-field confidence and intelligence and presence of Brady that helped lead us here, well-fed and sufficiently spoiled, bouncing on the lap of NFL history.

Nine Super Bowl appearances? Seriously?

Six Super Bowl titles.

Nine consecutive years in the conference championship game.

Twenty-one wins in a row.

Three titles in a four-year span at the beginning of the 21st century, bookended by three titles spread over five years at the end of the decade.

Annexing the entire AFC East and grafting it into ordinary New England life each football season.

Even our heartbreak is privileged: Most notably, there was that time in February 2008 that an 18-game winning streak couldn’t be extended to 19, leading to a Super Bowl loss to the Giants and an identity crisis at the six-year mark of the dynasty.

 

Really, who will talk like this again? Six-year mark of the dynasty. Come on.

We have the ability to rank favorite Super Bowl memories and cities because the Patriots have been involved in 45 percent of them this century. Not one, but two Super Bowl visits to Houston since 2001. Two visits to the Arizona desert. A Super Bowl win over Atlanta and a Super Bowl win in Atlanta. Pause and think about the absurdity of it all.

Here in New England, this is either how some of us were raised or — for those old enough to remember the bumbling Patriots and their wack stadium with the aluminum seats — what we now expect normal to be. Thirty-one other NFL cities hope for dynastic fragments; maybe a four- or five-year championship window or even an unexpected championship run every now and then.

We, on the other hand, have witnessed a 19-year championship settlement. No one has ever balanced 19 contending seasons with 19 fiscally responsible ones. No one has ever taken the constant exasperation out of NFL Sundays like this; Brady-led teams won 85 percent of the time at Gillette Stadium. There is rarely a shortage of talent. Several draft picks have developed into Pro Bowlers, All Pros, and — the clock is still running on this — in a few cases, Hall of Famers.

The hardware has grown, and gotten shinier and gaudier, over the years. Friends have bonded together over championships and against Patriot/Brady-haters. New England Vs. Everyone.

* * * * *

The two characters who were always there at field level, from Day 1 until this morning, were Belichick and Brady. They were there. Which brings us back to those understatements.

Tom Brady is now a former Patriot.

How can something so significant be reduced to a handful of words like that? And how can that sentence even be true?

Tom Brady ... plays for Someone Else. 

Even that doesn’t compute. It’s hard to imagine him running out of a tunnel in another city — another world — that has nothing to do with New England. It feels like the small print should have been studied more closely: Brady always said he wanted to play the game until he was 45, not necessarily the game in New England.

And what now, with this new rivalry of Belichick versus Brady?

Will Brady blow past his target age of 45 and push for 47, or even 50, to prove a point to the coach?

Many of Belichick’s A-plus students, like Brady, sat in the front row of the coach’s meetings and absorbed all the coach had to teach them. Some of them still have notes taken from those sessions, five, 10, or in some cases 15 years ago. Brady has the most extensive library of them all, 20 years’ worth, and the question now is do all those credits transfer?

 

The challenge for the rest of Brady’s career is to try to intelligently take years of intel that he got from Belichick to use against Belichick.

Brady said it many different ways over the years, and when he didn’t say it, people said it about him. Strip away the dimpled smile, the celebrity life, the commercials, the stacks of money, and what you have is a devoted guy who just wants to ball. A cast of admirers, from Richard Seymour to Rex Ryan to Julian Edelman to Gerald McCoy said that about him over the years.

Maybe they were all right and, this time, Belichick got it wrong.

* * * * *

There is no real comp for Brady because no one has ever been so intentional about playing to this point and beyond. Two years ago, the 40-year-old Brady was the oldest MVP in league history. Last season, his completion percentage and touchdown passes were among the lowest of his career, and it still was the best performance ever produced by a 42-year-old quarterback.

Brady’s perspective is that he could have done more with more help; Belichick’s perspective is that he should have worked better with the help that he was given.

Who’s right about predicting what the next few years will bring? Honestly, the odds are with Belichick. He’s moved on from dozens of players before, and yet there still isn’t much of a database for Belichick’s regrets. This is the steely way that Belichick does business, and always has.

That’s not the surprise. The shocker is that it got to this point with Brady.

It’ll be strange this fall. If Brady, the greatest player in league history, wins a seventh Lombardi Trophy, he’ll be a long-time champ parading down Someone Else’s boulevard for the first time. The early February rides through Boylston Street and mid-June ring celebrations at Robert Kraft’s house are all archived with an official “end” date of March 17, 2020. 

It’s been 76 days since the Patriots lost on Wild Card weekend to the Titans. The Brady Watch has been nonstop since, with detective work being done on his Instagram posts; his interviews with Jim Gray; his conversations with Mark Davis and Dana White; his body language with Edelman and Jimmy Fallon in Syracuse, with a FaceTime cameo from Mike  Vrabel; his emojis with Antonio Brown, and, it turns out, his commercial for Hulu.

 

I confess that I never took any notion of a Brady departure seriously in the first 50 days of discussion. My expectation was that Belichick and Brady would meet, vent as necessary, and then once again agree that they give each other the best chance to win. Just like they always have. All anyone on my side of that argument had to do was look at their history.

For most of their time together, their relationship lacked drama.

They told each other “I love you” after playoff games. Brady said there’s no other coach he’d rather play for; Belichick said there’s no other quarterback he’d rather have. Brady, consistently, never referred to the head coach as “Bill.” It was always “Coach Belichick.” When Brady was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, Belichick offered that he should have been named Person of the Year as well.

* * * * *

The foundation was set in 2000, when Brady was drafted on Belichick’s 48th birthday, and it began to flourish the next year when Brady got that first start.

He was one of the youngest players on the team, but he had a way about him that allowed him to connect with a range of locker room personalities. Matt Light, a rookie in 2001, called his quarterback a “model American.” 

For Belichick, Brady’s emergence completed the total trust that the coach hungered for in Foxboro.

He had it at the ownership level with Kraft as soon as he took the job. He got it in the management of his inner circle with one of his first hires, Berj Najarian, an assistant who shared his obsession with detail and organization. He had it in the office down the hall with Ernie Adams, a similarly bookish football mind he’d known since he was a teenager at Phillips Andover. He knew he had it in the front office because Scott Pioli had chosen to come to Foxboro with him, even if it meant leaving his father-in-law, Bill Parcells, in New York.

While Bledsoe was an established, Pro Bowl quarterback, Belichick was drawn to the grind and leadership of Brady.

Bledsoe had it, too, but Brady wore it differently. You might say it’s the difference between knowing that someone will call your name first or second on draft day, and wondering if you’re going to have to sell insurance if they don’t call you between the 190s and 200s.

It was the distant failures that fueled them.

The Cleveland Browns were literally moving away from Belichick in 1996 while Brady, a couple hours north at the University of Michigan, was being ignored by the Wolverines’ coaching staff. When Brady and Belichick arrived in New England, their partnership was staked on collective brainpower and the constant desire to improve. 

 

So Brady took Bledsoe’s job under the label of game manager. He then removed that label and earned two Super Bowl MVPs before he was 27.

Belichick outran his labels, too. He was respected strictly as a masterful defensive coordinator until he won that first Super Bowl, as a 14-point underdog, in 2001. He showed his real-time smarts by calling for an intentional safety to improve field position during a game in Denver in 2003. In that same game, Brady adjusted on the fly and noticed that a receiver was in the middle of running the wrong route. He made a great throw to the wrong route anyway, and the Patriots won. 

Brady said what fans wanted to hear in 2006. He continued to speak about trying to become a better player every year. When asked about his contract he said, “How much money does a person need?”

Three years later, now a father and married to supermodel Gisele Bündchen, his comments changed. There were no sharp edges yet, but he did allow, “I think we are all underpaid.” 

They pushed each other from their parallel tracks. Belichick let Brady have the offense and Brady never asked Belichick for personnel power. Along the way, they broke records that had been set by their childhood icons.

In 2010, the same year that Brady was the NFL’s first unanimous MVP, Belichick passed the legendary Paul Brown in career coaching wins. The next year, Brady returned to his native Bay Area and threw his 274th regular-season touchdown pass, one more than Joe Montana had in his regular-season career. The same season, Belichick and Brady made another Super Bowl appearance, their fifth.

In the next two years, 2012 and 2013, there were two more conference championship appearances. They were both losses. Brady’s ’13 was statistically unimpressive and he was 36. There was tension in the spring when the Patriots drafted a quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, in the second round. Belichick was unsentimental when asked about the selection. 

That was quickly forgotten by fans months later when the Patriots went on a run and won their fourth Super Bowl, and first in a decade. The post-Super Bowl conflict in New England was over deflated footballs, DeflateGate, and how the league and public interpreted Brady’s role in it.

The blessing for Brady was that this was the most serious criticism of his career, and he was 37. The quiet anger came from the same place: he was 37 and hadn’t done anything wrong, in the league or in his locker room, and yet his credibility and contract were in question.

* * * * *

 

The relationship, with the league and the Patriots, could never return to what it was.

It was good with the New England fans, though. They claimed the Californian as their own, so much so that people who never believed in conspiracies swore that Brady was being railroaded; by lawyers, by Roger Goodell, and by the Supreme Court if it didn’t hear Brady’s case about deflated footballs.

Scientists called sports-talk radio shows about the ideal gas law. Respected lawyers filed amicus briefs. Goodell became the red-nosed star of a T-shirt that portrayed him as a clown. No one could touch Brady; Brady was family.

New England never poured out its soul and intimacy on an athlete like it did for Brady. The relationship with the employer, though, slid into a cool professionalism.

Where he once raced to Foxboro for offseason activities, Brady skipped them to spend more time with his family. Where his personal trainer and confidant, Alex Guerrero, once had free access to players and facilities at home and on the road, Belichick suddenly restricted it. Where a Brady Super Bowl win once brought him even closer to immortality, all it earned him at 39 was a “year to year” promise from Belichick.

The remarkable winning continued, even if warning signs of the end flashed.

Why couldn’t Brady get a contract extension? He didn’t get one after leading the Patriots back from a 25-point deficit to the Falcons in the Super Bowl, his fifth title, in 2016. He was MVP of the league in ’17, the same year Garoppolo was traded to San Francisco. Brady threw for over 500 yards in his eighth Super Bowl appearance, a loss to the Eagles. 

Still no extension.

He was asked about his relationship with Belichick, and for the first time he didn’t give a gracious response. In fact, he gave nothing. “I plead the Fifth!” he announced to his friend, broadcaster Jim Gray.

Everyone in attendance laughed, but Brady wasn’t joking. Beyond that, Belichick, who has a pulse on all player and media minutiae, knew that it wasn’t a joke.

It didn’t appear to matter, though. Belichick and Brady were just too good together.

One would oversee the weekly scheme in a staff meeting and the other would perform and perfect it on the field. They started doing that in 2001, when they went 11-5 in the regular season and won their first Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams. They did the same thing in 2018 and won their sixth Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams.

* * * * *

 

It began as a good business relationship. It started to expire in 2019 as just business. At times it was indifferent business. Too often, inefficient business.

There was no extension for Brady, 41 going on 42, and he asked to be a free agent. He put his Brookline house on the market. He seemed agitated by teammates who were either too young, too limited, or too injured to make his offense credible.

He didn’t just lack an extension; he frequently lacked a starting left tackle, center, and number two wide receiver. His tight ends were the least productive in football. Over 11 days, talented receiver Antonio Brown signed, caught a touchdown pass, was accused of sexual assault, and released.

The Patriots went 12-4, and by the end of the season, it felt like a hopeless team with the opposite record.

We’ve been here waiting since January, but we all saw it coming for months, didn’t we? How could we miss it?

Look at all the clues. Look at how misaligned Belichick and Brady were in February and March. Look at how it unraveled at the end, just like all relationships that collapse, in a pile of excuses and no communication.

We should have seen it coming. Still, the official announcement stings: Tom Brady, Someone Else's quarterback. 

The words just clash. He got the commitment he wanted, finally, but he had to travel outside of New England to get it.

Years ago, he saw this day coming. He said when it happens, the world will keep spinning and the sun will come out without him.

He’s right. The New England sun indeed came out this morning.

At dusk, it will set on what used to be a dynasty.