It’s still hard to process that it’s really over. That after two decades of excellence and NFL eminence, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the canonized coupling that turned “Don’t Stop Believing” into the theme song of Patriots Nation, are now humming another Journey tune, “Separate Ways.”
In the wake of the most discussed and most dissected conscious uncoupling in sports, I’m offering five thoughts on the Foxborough fallout:
1. Everyone wants to know why. Why did the winningest coach/quarterback combination in modern NFL history call it quits?
It’s complicated, as all 20-year relationships are. But I think the disconnect can be distilled down to this: It was about Brady’s frustration with the methods and mien of Belichick. That philosophical divide, not money, was the driving factor.
The disintegration of the Brady-Belichick relationship, which always carried the dynamic of impossible-to-please parent and dutiful son, was at the heart of Brady’s decision to try it a different way in a different NFL outpost. If Mike Vrabel or Bill O’Brien were the coach, Brady would still be a Patriot; at least that’s the belief at Patriot Place.
The two-year offer the Patriots made to Brady last summer would have allowed him to make $50 million, maybe more, over the 2019 and 2020 seasons. It wasn’t fully guaranteed beyond Year 1, but it was similar in structure to the two-year, $50 million deal Drew Brees did with the Saints in March of 2018, right down to the amount Brady would’ve made in Year 1.
There are always catches and qualifiers with Patriots contracts, like the ubiquitous per-game-active roster bonuses they hand out instead of regular roster bonuses. But bridging the financial gap wasn’t the biggest issue. Brady and Belichick never really got to that. If they had, Brady might have found Belichick flexible there.
It’s like a marriage where one partner feels underappreciated, taken advantage of, and stifled. Belichick wasn’t willing to go to couples therapy to hash out the issues, to recommit. He’s an old alpha dog with eight Super Bowl rings (six as Patriots head coach, two as architect of Giants defenses) who won’t learn new tricks.
Brady realized His Hoodiness was never going to change. He had to find his own happiness at this point. That might not be satisfying for the fans, but it’s at the heart of the breakup. We’re dealing with human beings, not football automatons.
2. The saddest part of the breakup is that it happened even though neither side had a better option. Pride, ego, competitiveness, and emotion overrode logic and pragmatism.
There’s no way the Patriots, with an aging win-now core, are better off rehabbing their roster with an underwhelming or inexperienced quarterback.
There is no way Brady has a better chance of adding a seventh Super Bowl to his canon without Belichick and the institutional winning of the Patriots.
Brady is wading into uncharted territory with a new team in an offseason when OTAs and passing camps will be threatened by the coronavirus. It’s going to be culture shock for him. Tampa Bay is one of the most laissez-faire franchises in the NFL, led by beatnik coach Bruce Arians.
Tampa Bay hasn’t won a playoff game since it captured Super Bowl XXXVII, capping the 2002 season. The last playoff appearance came in 2007 when the Bucs lost in the wild-card round to the Giants. You know what those Giants did to Brady and the undefeated Patriots.
Someone should’ve blinked. Brady has done more than his share of compromising over the last 20 years; it was the other guy’s turn. It made the most sense for both sides. It didn’t happen. The greatest threat to the Patriots dynasty was always that it would collapse from within.
3. Tuesday was Liberation Day for the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins. Their iron-gripped AFC East overlords, winners of 11 straight division titles, now look vulnerable, the verdigris of invincibility rinsed away.
If the season started today, the Patriots wouldn’t be the favorites in the AFC East. That honor would go to the Bills.
The Bills went 10-6 last year. They’ve made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. They’ve given the Patriots all they can handle lately with sharp coach Sean McDermott. Buffalo did what Belichick couldn’t do for Brady, upgrading its wide receiver corps this offseason by adding Stefon Diggs in a trade.
With the Patriots’ departures, it can be argued that Buffalo pulled even defensively. The Bills (16.2) ranked second to the Patriots (14.1) last year in points allowed per game. They ranked third in total defense and fourth in pass defense.
The difference in the division has always been the Quarterback Gap. But the gap between Buffalo’s Josh Allen and the Patriots’ Jarrett Stidham could be negligible. That’s if the Patriots, not the Bills, are lucky.
4. Belichick is a brilliant coach, team-builder, and strategist. The best ever. Period. But succeeding without Brady will be the ultimate test of The System.
As Belichick said in his statement Tuesday, Brady was one of the creators of the Patriots culture. He was also its financial fulcrum. Players took less to stay and less to come to New England because of Brady’s presence. Without Brady, the Patriots are no longer an NFL exception. They’ll have to pony up like everyone else to recruit players.
What’s going to be interesting is whether players like receiver Emmanuel Sanders still find New England as attractive a destination without Brady and with uncertainty at QB. Will veterans still take a little less to play for Belichick? Doubtful. Playing with Brady was a huge part of the attraction.
Tampa Bay is already reaping benefits, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, as players are reaching out to the Bucs with Brady a pewter pirate.
5. Belichick and Brady have privately remained somewhat intrigued by the idea of proving they’re not dependent on the other for success. Well, now we get to see who was right and who overestimated his ability.
They couldn’t have picked a more fortuitous season in which to part ways, to borrow a Red Sox euphemism. It’s to both men’s benefit that 2020 is slated to be the first with a 14-team playoff field.
With three wild cards per conference, both have a better chance of making the playoffs and protecting their legacies. If one doesn’t make the playoffs while the other one does, it’s going to hurt, placing one erstwhile partner atop the medal stand of history for the Patriots’ success.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.