Today was the start of the Patriots first OTA workouts. It’s another 2018 offseason checkpoint passed with no Tom Brady.
Even knowing a Brady no-show wasn’t just possible but likely, the reality still makes an eyebrow rise.
The reigning king of competitors saying “no thanks” to playing football with teammates on a perfect week in May? It underscores just how dug in Brady is.
On what, though? In the first episodes of "Tom vs. Time", Brady said, "If you're going to compete against me, you better be willing to give your life, because I'm willing to give up mine."
By the end of the docuseries, he’d done a 180 and was openly questioning just why he does what he does.
Brady said, days after the Super Bowl, "When you go, 'What are we doing this for? Who are we doing this for? Why are we doing this?’ You've got to have answers to those questions, and they have to be with a lot of conviction. When you lose your conviction, you should probably be doing something else."
The most benign reading of Brady’s absence is that, “Hey, the guy wants to spend time with his family. He said it’s all about them this offseason. He’s cleared the decks for his wife and kids and is giving them all the time they haven’t gotten in years past. He’ll be there when the bell rings.”
He told everyone this is what he was going to do when he said in that same TvT episode, “This offseason is gonna be about my family, and they deserve it. There's more to think about than just me, and I think that's what you commit to when you have a family. And they commit a lot to me. That obviously goes both ways."
No half-measures. If he says he’s going all-in for the family, he’s all-in for the family. The sun will rise, the sun will set, he’ll keep his body fat low, his arm pliable and when it’s time for the mandatory stuff, he’ll be there.
But that reading is willfully obtuse. All the bread crumbs, tea leaves and smoke signals scream that this work-to-rule approach is more than just being able to be at the bus stop when the kids get home.
The foundation of Brady’s professional identity hasn’t just been work ethic. It’s also about being willing to subjugate himself for the good of the team. Or to allow himself to be subjugated. Team first, Tom second.
The desired impression was that Brady was just another replaceable widget produced on the Belichick Inc. assembly line. But Brady didn’t desire that. And, for the first time, he’s pushed back. Hard. But in a maddeningly murky fashion.
Is it about money and contract?
That seems part of it, given recent comments by Brady’s agent Don Yee that Brady “thinks about” his contract and “management knows this.” Seth Wickersham’s January story about the Patriots power struggle reported that Brady agitated for a new deal with both Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft.
And it’s probably not just the money but the principle of it. If the team could ponder franchising Jimmy Garoppolo at a rate of about $24 million in 2018 or make overtures to him about a bridge contract paying him more than $15M per year and Garoppolo wound up being traded, maybe the guy who helped win those five rings at bargain basement prices should have some of that dough allocated to him?
All the other ambiguous issues related to atmosphere, fun and respect are quite clearly part of it as well.
After Deflategate, a four-game suspension, an upstart over his shoulder, a fifth Super Bowl win, an upstart still over his shoulder despite the Super Bowl win, a tug-of-war over his trainer and a Super Bowl loss that featured an inexplicable benching, the bill came due. And here we are.
Would we be here writing this if Garoppolo had been franchised or agreed to a bridge deal and was in Foxboro taking all the reps? Probably not. Brady’s got leverage and he’s using it. Which, again, is the complete opposite of what he’s outwardly done for 18 seasons.
Based on this, some will suppose that Brady’s radically changed. Others will allege that it was a fable all along. And the rest will applaud him for standing up to Belichick.
Which brings us to the coach.
How will Brady’s decision to withholding services change things? Does Belichick, after some introspection, yield on some things? And which things deserve yielding? Tone? Trainer? Contract?
Meanwhile, does this very public decision by both Brady and Gronk to go their own way chip away at Belichick’s authority? Or have the potential to.
There have been assorted player crises in the past – Law, Seymour, Wilfork, Mankins, Welker – none came close to being an eye-to-eye power struggle as this is between Brady and Belichick.
And maybe that’s how it gets resolved without there being any greater impact. Brady doesn’t reside in the same universe as his teammates and those guys know that.
Whatever acquiescence there is – money, tone, whatever – nobody’s going to begin a sentence with, “How come Brady...” because they know the answer will be, “Because he’s Brady...”
But even that puts us in a weird spot. Realizing that the bottom line to all this is that the reason Tom Brady isn’t coming in until he has to is because he’s Tom Brady. And it’s never really been that way.