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Ben Volin | On football

The more Tom Brady talks, the more it seems to be about leverage over the Patriots

(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Apparently it takes only 16 months for Tom Brady to accomplish full metamorphosis.

Here is Brady in February 2017, on Peter King’s podcast:

“Other than playing football, the other thing I love to do is preparing to play football . . . Football to me is more than just a sport. It has become my life . . . I love the game, I love the sport, I love playing . . . It doesn’t ever feel like a sacrifice for me . . . I’ve got the answers to the test now . . . It’s not as hard as it used to be . . . Now, finally, you get to a point where you really know what to do. I don’t want to stop now. This is actually when it’s enjoyable, to go out and go, ‘Man, it’s a great time to start playing football.’ ”

And here is Brady in his interview with Oprah Winfrey Sunday:

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“I think about [retirement] more now than I used to. I think I’m seeing that there’s definitely an end coming — sooner rather than later . . . [I will play] as long as I’m loving the training, the preparation, willing to make the commitment. But . . . there’s other things happening in my life, too. I do have kids that I love, and I don’t want to be a dad that’s not there.”

The quarterback who has been telling us for years that he wants to play into his mid 40s suddenly doesn’t know how much longer he wants to do it. And this comes after Brady won the power struggle with coach Bill Belichick and got former backup Jimmy Garoppolo shipped out of town.

This has been Brady’s message all spring, and it’s a stunning about-face from the quarterback, who before this offseason has been loath to discuss his football mortality in such direct terms.

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We all know what’s going on: Brady is upset with Belichick, who publicly humiliated Alex Guerrero last year (thereby hurting Brady’s TB12 brand). And Brady is tired of Belichick’s relentlessly critical style.

Robert Kraft has said all the right things and defended Brady throughout the offseason, but he has to be fuming. The Patriots appeased Brady by trading Garoppolo, and Brady responds by skipping the voluntary offseason program and speaking openly about retirement?

Uh, thanks.

Brady retiring so quickly after forcing the Patriots’ hand with Garoppolo would represent one of the greatest heel turns in all of sports, and could inflict lasting damage to Brady’s legacy.

Unless.

Unless Brady isn’t really thinking about retirement.

Unless Brady is just using his newfound leverage, and this is all a negotiating ploy.

What, exactly, could Brady be negotiating for? It’s likely to revolve around two issues:

1. Getting a new contract. He is signed through 2019 at $15 million per season, or half of what Matt Ryan will earn. 2. Getting Guerrero’s VIP access restored, after Belichick took it away last season.

And the more that Brady talks, the more I think that’s all this is — negotiating.

Brady’s “interviews” all offseason are staged and controlled: the Facebook docu-series, the chat with Jim Gray, the sitdown with Oprah (with Gray listening in the background, strangely). None of this is organic. Brady is getting his message out in safe, friendly environments.

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Brady’s chat with Winfrey was littered with what I interpreted as negotiating buzzwords: reminding us that he is going to retire “sooner rather than later”; that he’s going to keep playing as long as he’s “willing” to make the commitment; that there are “other things happening in my life.”

And when Oprah asked Brady if he still plans to play until he’s 43 or 45, Brady answered, “As long as I’m still loving it.”

In other words, “Sure I’ll keep playing, Mr. Kraft . . . as long as you make it fun for me.”

Another reason this just looks like one big negotiating ploy: If Brady is truly conflicted about how long he wants to play, he has a hard time staying on message.

In the Oprah interview, Brady said, “I still think there’s still more to be accomplished . . . I still feel like I can be better, be a percentage better . . . I still think I want to go out there and compete and play with a bunch of 22-year-olds. It’s still a lot of fun.”

He also told the crowd at the Milken Institute in April that, “I’ve talked two years with my wife. I’ve negotiated that thus far. I’ve still got a little further to go.”

It’s hard to believe that Brady’s feelings about football and his career changed so drastically over the course of a year, even knowing how sticky things have gotten between Brady and Belichick.

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A year ago, Brady was enthusiastically talking with King about playing several more years, and how easy the game has become because he has mastered the mental side of it and is still in peak physical condition.

“Football is something I love to do,” Brady said then. “It’s a job, but it’s never felt like a job for me. Going to study film has never felt like a burden.”

We didn’t hear one word in 2017 about Brady wanting to spend more time with his family, or wanting to pursue some of his off-field opportunities during spring workouts.

Those issues existed then, but Brady was still all about football.

And he remained that way throughout last summer. As he said in the trailer to his Facebook docu-series: “If you’re going to compete against me, you better be willing to give up your life, because I’m giving up mine . . . There is a warrior’s spirit about me . . . When I see myself out there, I feel like, ‘Man, I still do this, and I do it better than I’ve ever done it. So why should I stop?’ ”

Even Gisele Bundchen said then, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who loves to do something as much as he loves football.”

Now, less than a year later, coming off an MVP season and 505 passing yards in Super Bowl LII, football suddenly doesn’t mean so much to him?

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Hopefully, this is just Brady flexing his muscles and extracting some concessions from the Patriots. If Brady has any honor, he’ll give the Patriots at least two more seasons, and maybe a third. Forget Belichick — Brady owes it to Kraft, who mortgaged the future of the franchise to appease his star.

With all this talk about retirement and not knowing how much longer he wants to play, it’s hard to take Brady at face value, knowing everything he has said in the past.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.