Tom Brady’s sideline outburst: Bad behavior or strong leadership?

jim davis/globe staff

There is no doubt that intensity is part of the Tom Brady profile.

By Globe Columnist 

When all you want is everything Boston sports: “Season Ticket”

When is it passion, and when is it petulance?

Sunday’s sideline outburst between Tom Brady and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was brief, and by all accounts quickly resolved as nothing more than a heat-of-the-moment reaction over the frustration of a missed opportunity.


The fiery exchange between a player and a coach familiar enough with each other and close enough in age to feel like colleagues didn’t drive the next-day NFL conversation the way Rob Gronkowski’s ugly extracurricular tackle did, and in the wake of the frightening level of violence in Monday night’s Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game, it isn’t likely to pick up any more steam as the week goes on.

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That all makes perfect sense. But neither should what happened between Brady and McDaniels be obscured, because it opens an interesting NFL conversation. Where is the line between passion and petulance, and why are some players lauded for such intense behavior while others are lambasted?

Brady’s postgame explanation of the exchange (“It’s nothing. It’s just football. Just football. Bring two competitive people and it’s just the way it goes.”) was similar to the one he shared during his WEEI interview Monday, though he did add that he apologized to McDaniels.

Later Monday, on Westwood One radio, Brady chalked it up to the frustration of not connecting with receiver Brandin Cooks on a third-and-11 play deep in Bills territory, a failure that forced New England to settle for a 50-yard field goal.

When McDaniels apparently greeted Brady by saying Cooks was wide open, Brady fired back.


“I realized I wish I made a better play, first of all,” said Brady. “Because that would have put us in position to score a touchdown. I got to the sideline, took a deep breath, and then got refocused on what we needed to do.

“You just move on. I’m happy we won, and hopefully we can do the same this week.”

McDaniels concurred during a conference call Tuesday, saying, “It’s a competitive game and an emotional game and things like that can happen, being in the game a long time and understanding Tommy’s a very emotional person and emotional player. It’s a part of what makes him great. You understand those things happen.

“It’s never personal. You move on quickly. We did and we have, and I love Tom and all those things he stands for and all the things he does for our team.”

And so we move on. But had it been a different player, would that be the case? That was the discussion door Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. swung wide open Monday, using Twitter to say what many of his NFL colleagues no doubt were thinking.

Responding to a tweet that wondered how Beckham would have been perceived, he answered, “Listen when I say this is the craziest thing someone ever has tweeted or posted to me because I LITERALLY had this same conversation today about the EXACT thing ur takin about it. There’s rules..and then there’s rules..”


Beckham is probably the wrong guy to argue the point. As a reporter and columnist in the New York market for more than 20 years, I saw his antics up close, from the most recent dog-peeing touchdown celebration to the goofy extended kicking-net marriage proposal, from his on-field skirmishes with Josh Norman to his off-field boat trip to Miami.

Those are the main reasons he hears so many of the pointed criticisms he listed in a subsequent tweet: “immmaturity , or ‘needs to grow up’ or ‘selfish’ or… umm what else is it exactly that ‘they’ say…. or ‘umcomposed’ no bro , I’ve watched that man do that exact same thing for years.”

But he isn’t completely wrong, either. Teammates love Beckham’s passion for the game, often crediting him for being the emotional heartbeat of the locker room, and they are thus inclined to accept his occasional outbursts.

Angry Sideline Brady also has made previous appearances, most notoriously when he screamed at then-offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien during a 2011 game.

Brady’s flashes are generally accepted as part of his leadership profile, his absolute ownership of an offense he expects to perform at its highest level at all times.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t ask: Why is it leadership in one guy but insubordination in another? When Dez Bryant was caught yelling at teammates during a Cowboys game, he was instantly criticized. Turned out he was rallying his troops with encouragement. Lip readers can easily decipher the Brady-McDaniels exchange as nothing so positive.

The heart of the answer isn’t complicated. When you win, you earn more latitude. Brady is the NFL’s all-time winner. Five Super Bowl rings carry an awful lot of weight, as do consistency and longevity, the combination of which have the 40-year-old quarterback atop the NFL stat sheet yet again.

Winning earns leeway, and Brady has it, most importantly with his coaches, but to a similar extent with the NFL audience at large. The line dividing helpful and harmful emotions in sports is thin, demanding balance. Just ask Gronkowski, who lost his right — deservedly so — to play in Monday night’s game because his frustration went too far. That was petulance.

Brady? We’ll let him call this one passion.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist She can be reached at
Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.