Friend of the show, Patriots fan and overall football nerd JML gives us a guest post on the greatest partnership in the history of sports ending.
I didn’t expect to be writing this so soon—soon, but not so soon. When Tom Brady signed a two year extension before the 2019 season in which the second year voided on March 18th, 2020, I figured he and the New England Patriots would renegotiate every offseason for the remainder of his career. Sure, the fact that he could become a free agent made his leaving a possibility, but it never made his leaving a reality. I mean, how could Tom Brady leave the Patriots? Surely he of all people remembers what Joe Montana looked like wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey. Surely he wouldn’t underappreciate his relationship with the fans as most athletes do these days. Surely no one who ever lived in Boston for more than the equivalent of a college semester could ever shake the feeling of Mark Wahlberg embracing you while calling you the greatest of all time.
Then reality happened, mainly in the form of the 2019 season.
Nearly everything that could go wrong with the Patriots offense in 2019 did go wrong. Rob Gronkowski’s early retirement left a huge hole at the tight end position that no one was able to fill. (Was anyone ever going to be able to fill Gronk’s shoes?) The wide receiver position dwindled from all-world to staple-gunned due to mental breakdowns, drug relapses, and hobbling injuries. In-season trades underperformed. And though the defense played at a historic level throughout the regular season, the team limped into the playoffs and were upset by the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card round. It was an ignominious end to a season which began with the rest of the league fearing the franchise might finally achieve their 19-0 year—and the cherry-on-top was that Brady’s last throw was a pick 6, the last throw he’ll ever make in a Patriots uniform.
With that context, understanding why Brady decided to leave New England is easy. The franchise had just come off its second set of three Super Bowl titles won over a four or five year period, and there was a ten year gap between those two sets of three titles. Though the team remained highly competitive over that decade (they reached the Super Bowl twice, one appearance being the climax of their infamous 18-1 disappointment), some sort of a rebuilding period is a reality of the modern NFL. Brady doesn’t have another decade left in his career to be spent on rebuilding. If what he most wants is to win, and if there’s one thing everyone knows about him it’s that what he most wants is to win, there are other franchises who can provide him a better opportunity to fulfill that desire. Their championship windows are wide open for the next two or three years. Unfortunately, climbing into their window means closing the Gillette Stadium door behind him.
Brady wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey and winning games with them will be weird, but like his idol Montana’s tenure with the Chiefs, his time in Florida will likely largely be forgotten. Maybe that end of Montana’s career made it easier for Brady to make his choice. Montana isn’t even the only Great to leave “his” team near the end of his career. Michael Jordan famously closed out his career with the Washington Wizards. What makes Brady walking a similar path to Montana and Jordan so odd though is that part of what has made Brady the Greatest of All Time is that he hasn’t done what everyone else has. Likewise, what has made the Patriots such a special franchise is that they conduct themselves in an old school manner. These traits are what made it seem like Brady would go the route of former teammates Gronkowski and linebacker Tedi Bruschi in being a career Patriot. Instead, he feels a bit like Lebron James. Perhaps Boston sports fans will begrudgingly hand a bit more respect to the memory of Kobe Bryant now.
Of course, begrudging respect (well respect at all really) isn’t the Boston sports fan’s biggest strength. But watching them slam and padlock the door behind Brady before turning around and yelling at Head Coach Bill Belichick and Owner Robert Kraft and badmouthing the team’s new presumptive starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham is more heartbreaking than Brady actually leaving. They’re tossing aside Brady’s legacy more than he is.
When you were born in the 1980s and grew up in the 1990s, Boston sports didn’t give you much to cheer about in your early formative years. The Larry Bird Celtics were a vague memory as the Cs, Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots bumbled, suffered, and disappointed through the decade. Then in 2001, everything changed. A sixth round draft pick took over for the injured starting quarterback of the New England Patriots and shocked the world by leading the historically terrible franchise to its first Super Bowl Championship. Well, he shocked mostly everyone. I still remember visiting my high school during winter break of my freshman year of college and telling a student that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl and Brady would be named MVP–a prediction that would imprint on the student as he brought it up to me on my next visit, asking me how I knew. How did I know? When you only see special from afar for so long, it’s really hard to miss it when it’s staring you in the face unless you’re willfully evading it.
That special is what changed the story of the next two decades of Boston sports and how a generation of New England sports fans grew up. Before we knew it, the Red Sox had broken the curse of the Bambino, the Celtics finally won another title, and the greatest professional wrestler on the planet was from Boston. Hell, we were even winning Oscars and the reality show Survivor. Brady had shown a culture that had prided itself on being hardened and uncompromising due to devastating disappointments (the Sox in particular were known for their yearly collapse in the fall) how to believe. For twenty years, we witnessed improbable comebacks, incomparable achievements, and unfathomable outcomes built on the positive feedback loop our quarterback had built with us. It’s why we defended him so passionately during the Deflategate character assasination (and don’t try to convince us that our fervor didn’t contribute to the title at the end of the season that began with that unjust suspension). Now those moments are history, and we’ve reached an inflection point where the future of the franchise hangs in the balance.
In the latter stages of the dynasty, Patriots fans began to amuse themselves (because winning became boring I guess?) by debating who was more responsible for the team’s success, Brady or Belichick. My father adamantly swears that Brady made Belichick’s career. He’s also all but ready to give up on the franchise now, directly recounting how terrible they were in the before times. The next two years won’t provide much closure to this debate, but they will change the future of the Patriots franchise.
What Brady does in Tampa Bay is immaterial. His legacy is cemented by his accomplishments. After the 28-3 comeback in the Super Bowl, I said that the rest of his career was just an epilogue. It certainly was, for his Patriots career. Now begins his curtain call for his football career, and with the talent on the Buccaneers roster, he could certainly win the seventh title he declared he wanted in his documentary Tom vs Time. Can he adapt to a new coaching style and expect his teams to perform with the same level of discipline as a Belichick-coached team? I don’t know. If he doesn’t win though, I doubt he’ll be remembered any differently. (And I’ll certainly be there for a game or two. I fortuitously just moved to the Orlando area, a mere 90 minutes from Raymond James Stadium, and what football fan, at the very least, wouldn’t want to see a Brees vs Brady game live?)
What Belichick does in New England is the real story. There will never be a time or place where Belichick himself undermines Brady’s accomplishments or takes too much credit for the Patriots’ success. When he says that the players deserve the credit because they have to execute the game plan, he’s not deflecting praise out of humility. He’s reflecting a deep metaphysical understanding of the world. It doesn’t matter what you think in your brain if you can’t manifest it in reality. With Brady, Belichick was fortunate enough to work with a quarterback who could understand what he was thinking and execute that plan at a high level. The providence of their relationship is why I think the question of who is more responsible for the twenty years of success is silly. The pair made each other better. They were the ultimate positive feedback loop, only followed by Brady’s relationship with Boston sports fans.
Now the question is, how good can they be on their own? More specifically, how much success can Belichick coach the Patriots to without Brady showing them his vision on the field? Is the streak of division titles over? When’s the next time we’ll see the AFC Championship Game let alone the Super Bowl? (For what it’s worth, FanDuel has Belichick as a slight favorite to win more games in the 2020-2021 season than Brady wins. I might be inclined to take that bet if I believe Brady and Arians’s styles won’t mesh and the Buccaneers players won’t have the discipline Brady is used to his teammates having on a Belichick coached team.)
For the first time in a long time, I don’t have answers to my questions about the Patriots, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching an underappreciated young man become an American icon, it’s what Patriots wide receiver and Brady’s good friend Julian Edelman shouted so succinctly after the 28-3 game, “You gotta believe”–even when, especially when, victory seems unlikely, improbable, or impossible.
I don’t know what comes next, but I do know that if we want our #7, I have to believe that we can overcome anything and come out on top again. Thanks to the last 20 years of Tom Brady, I have no other choice.