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FOXBOROUGH — Before the Patriots broke for their well-earned wild-card break, Tom Brady was reflecting on an uncharacteristic (by New England standards) regular season, choosing a literary metaphor to reflect the high hopes and endless possibilities that would await his return to work.
“Our story’s still being written,” Brady said, “and fortunately, we have an opportunity to write it.”
It was an interesting distinction from a man as accustomed as any athlete in modern history to having others write his story, coming nearly a year to the day that ESPN.com published a bombshell report that continues to resonate to this day. This time last year, the Patriots were the talk of the NFL for all the wrong reasons, a litany of dysfunction while not as overt as what we’ve seen unravel this year in Pittsburgh, was unsettling nonetheless. Just consider how starkly it contrasted the usual silence around Fort Foxborough, where the big three power brokers of owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, and the veteran quarterback Brady had spent nearly two decades presenting the most united of fronts.
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Seth Wickersham’s deeply reported story unearthed many cracks in that façade, revealing what he described as “serious disagreements” among the three men, ones that left serious questions “over who will be the last man standing. Those interviewed describe a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group.” That Wickersham story followed previous reports in the Globe, detailing rancor over the role of Brady’s personal trainer, friend, and business partner Alex Guerrero, and opened a new floodgate of speculation about how much longer the three would work together.
A year later, they are still here, still together, and still winning, having clinched the AFC East for the 10th straight time, having earned a first-round bye for the ninth straight time, and prepping now for a divisional round visit by the Los Angeles Chargers next weekend. But to assume they did so in spite of last year’s questions, to see this as some sort of confirmation that everything was just fine in Foxborough, well, that would be a mistake. Rather, let’s all acknowledge that the Patriots recognized some things had to change, actually made some changes, and then hit the 2018 season with the similar fight to make yet another playoff run.
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Will that stop the conversation from routinely wondering when this all might end? Of course not, but that is as much a credit to the Patriots as it is criticism. The wonder isn’t when it might be over; it’s how it’s lasted this long in a sport that prides itself on parity and forces franchises into democracy.
“One thing that’s certain in the NFL is change,” Brady also said on Thursday, before the team broke for the bye. “Over the years, I’ve seen it all, 19 years. You just do the best you can do. When you sign up to be a part of the team, you give everything you can to help the team win, and I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed most about this organization.”
He wasn’t so happy last year, at least not until the team traded his backup and heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo. But that move didn’t sit so well with Belichick, done as it was at Kraft’s behest, to ease things with Brady. That thorny situation, along with Belichick’s abrasive coaching style, Brady’s uncomfortable devotion to Guerrero, and Kraft being put in the middle, made for awkward times. If you didn’t believe it then, just follow the trail after the story. It was as if the Patriots couldn’t help themselves from confirming the issues.
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Remember Belichick acting so unimpressed with Brady’s ability to play through a cut on his hand, saying “it’s not open heart surgery.” Or Jonathan Kraft saying on various pre-Super Bowl interviews there was “tension” if not “dysfunction.” Or Robert Kraft saying during an NFL Network interview about Brady and Belichick: “There’s a lot of strong-minded people but when you have something good going, everyone’s got to get their egos checked in and try to hold it together.”
Or the ominous ending to Brady’s “Tom vs Time” Facebook documentary series, when his wife said, “These last two years have been very challenging for him in so many ways. And he tells me, ‘I love it so much and I just want to go to work and feel appreciated and have fun.’ ” Or Brady’s own “plead the fifth” line when interviewer/friend Jim Gray asked him in May if he felt appreciated by the Patriots. Or Brady’s no-show at offseason voluntary workouts. Or three offseason books by highly respected authors — Michael Lombardi, Mark Leibovich. and Ian O’Connor — that confirmed the frayed feelings.
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The problems were there. But, as it turns out, so were the solutions. And all of them were rooted in the same thing — these are men who love football, who want nothing more than to continue doing the jobs they love, who know their chances for success are best when they are together. So Belichick backed off some of his harsher treatments of Brady and the two seemed to re-open communication this year. As ESPN’s Jeff Darlington reported prior to the game in Miami, “As one person put it, ‘They are vibing much more.’ It got to a point where it wouldn’t have lasted this year if it went like it did last year. Better communication. He’s treating Tom more like a 41-year-old man.”
More than anything, they needed the game. They needed each other. They are both professionals. And they made it work. Together, they will write this season’s ending.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.