It never should have ended this way for Tom Brady. Arguably the biggest icon in Boston sports history should have been a career-long quarterback keeper. Instead, the Patriots and cold-blooded coach Bill Belichick compelled the GOAT to roam to greener pastures.
Cue the separation anxiety for fans blessed by Brady’s brilliance for 20 seasons and the rejoicing from a league that has lived under the Patriots’ heels since 2001.
What Tom Brady would be without Belichick and Belichick without Brady was always the great hypothetical of Hub sports debates. It’s no longer a hypothetical. It’s cold, hard reality. There’s no need to recite Brady’s unparalleled six-time Super Bowl champion oeuvre. Like the pledge of allegiance, we know it by heart. Anyway, you can’t capture a feeling in numbers.
The truth is that Brady always knew this day would come, the day when Belichick nudged him out the Fort Foxborough door like so many of his former teammates. The best he could do was to make it look like his choice, free diving into free agency before he got pushed. So, even though Brady and the Patriots don’t have better options than each other, Brady is bolting. He becomes Bobby Orr finishing as a Chicago Blackhawk.
TB12 fired the shots heard around the football world at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, taking to social media to offer his gratitude and a heartfelt goodbye. “Although my football journey will take place elsewhere, I appreciate everything that we have achieved and am grateful for our incredible TEAM accomplishments,” he wrote as hearts sunk across New England.
I think Brady is leaving because Belichick pushed him to his breaking point and pushed him out. This isn’t all about a new challenge, or embracing change, or experiencing a different football life. It’s about escaping Belichick even if he might be spiting himself in the process. It’s about pride and disrespect, frustration and lack of appreciation, not contract terms.
This serves as the ultimate test of the “In Bill We Trust” mantra. Belichick showed none of the pliability that Brady preaches to change his ways or alter his relationship with Brady, who is an almost-43-year-old man, not Belichick’s boy wonder. Belichick wanted the lottery-ticket QB he stumbled upon in the sixth round of the 2000 draft to return on his terms. Not this time.
Understand this: There was a path for Brady to return to the Patriots. He was open to it when the offseason began. After behind-the-scenes militancy about testing free agency, he had softened. He would have accepted an olive branch. Instead, he got another stick poke in the eye from Belichick when they spoke a few weeks ago over the telephone.
Belichick remained determined to treat Brady like just another player instead of like a cherished business partner in the most enduring dynasty in modern NFL history. Brady is both at this stage of his gilded career.
We live in a time of social distancing. In the end, the social distancing Belichick engaged in with Brady will serve as the pathogen for his departure.
Belichick has mismanaged the wide receiver position and his relationship with Brady in equal measure the last two seasons. The winningest quarterback in NFL history (249-75, including playoffs) has been telegraphing what he wanted for years.
Go back to the “Tom vs. Time” docuseries when his supermodel spouse, Gisele Bundchen, said, “And he tells me, ‘I love it so much, and I just want to go to work and feel appreciated and have fun.’ ” The image from the docuseries of Brady receiving a rubdown from his body coach/business partner in his suite at Gillette Stadium next to the chafing dishes and Sterno cans after Belichick revoked Alex Guerrero’s privileges is enduring.
Remember the Milken Institute Global Conference in 2018 when Brady’s media maitre’d Jim Gray teed him up with a question about whether the Patriots had shown him the proper gratitude for his achievements? Brady famously said, “I plead the fifth."
Someone high up on the Foxborough food chain once referred to Brady as the Crown Jewel of Patriot Place. Instead of a crown jewel, he was treated like just another cog in Belichick’s soul-crushing football machine, a machine Brady helped build by being the consummate winner on the field and the consummate team player in contract negotiations.
Belichick used Brady’s willingness to sacrifice money as a cudgel to beat the rest of the roster into salary cap shape. The artificial salary depressant was one of the most useful team-building tools Belichick wielded during this undying dynasty.
“Tom was not just a player who bought into our program. He was one of its original creators. Tom lived and perpetuated our culture,” said Belichick in a statement. Belichick also expressed great gratitude for Brady, who helped him win 17 division titles, 249 games, six of nine Super Bowls, and author the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history, calling him “a special person and the greatest quarterback of all time.”
But actions speak louder than words, and Belichick’s actions never conveyed that same sentiment. That’s in part why Brady and the Patriots never really got down to digging into the details of a deal that would have allowed him to sign off as a Patriot.
Brady and Belichick couldn’t get past their philosophical differences. Despite always saying it’s about the players, Belichick wasn’t willing to change for the greatest one he’s ever coached.
It wasn’t good when excellent ESPN reporter and Certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) Field Yates reported the Patriots (Belichick) were waiting on Brady to respond from their last offer from last summer. That offer was two years at $25 million per. The Patriots kept waiting for Brady to blink during the passive-aggressive posturing. Instead of blinking, he’s bolting.
This was a situation that cried out for an ownership intervention. The Krafts love and respect Brady like a family member, and the feeling is mutual. That’s not fluff. There is no other player they would have surrendered the franchise tag for in contract renegotiations. Brady ventured to owner Robert Kraft’s Brookline home Monday night to break the news. The two shared laughs, love, respect, and tears as they closed the book on this 20-year chapter.
But it was made clear last August during contentious contract negotiations that Brady’s future in Foxborough would be Belichick’s call, much to Brady’s chagrin. Kraft recused himself from the most important decision in franchise history. That was the death knell.
It’s still hard to gauge just how much Belichick wanted Brady. (Bill, grunt once if you wanted Tom back, twice for no.) Or if he thought Brady was past his best-buy date and was eager to further burnish his legacy by showing he could win sans TB12 and with the assorted Daltons and Bridgewaters, plus the untested Jarrett Stidham.
That’s a dangerous proposition, considering how we’ve seen the Patriots’ AFC East brethren wander through the quarterback wilderness.
There’s no denying last year was a joyless slog for Brady, as he sulked through press conferences and lamented/resented an understocked offense. Some believe Father Time finally clamped his resistance bands on Brady. Brady’s quarterback rating last season was 88.0. The league average was 90.4.
But his numbers were remarkably similar to 2013, the last time he was saddled with such an undistinguished receiving corps. All he did was win three more Super Bowls, two more Super Bowl MVPs, and his third league MVP after that.
Sadly, Brady’s last pass as a Patriot goes down as a pick-6 by former Patriot Logan Ryan in an inglorious 20-13 AFC wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans Jan. 4, The Last Night of the Patriots Dynasty. The pass was a harbinger of the difficulty Brady would have completing his career here.
Brady and Belichick never enjoyed a warm and fuzzy relationship. There has always been a healthy mutual admiration between the principals of the Patriots’ six-ring success story. That relationship ran its course and ran Brady out of town.
It shouldn’t end this way, but it does.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.