FOXBOROUGH — It was over in an instant, and now, it might be over forever.
At 11:18 p.m. Saturday, Tom Brady threw his last pass of the last Patriots game this season, a ball that bounced off one Titan and into the hands of another and then all the way into the end zone. It was a six-second span that struck like a dagger at the heart of Patriot nation, a pick-6 by teammate-turned-enemy Logan Ryan that would account for the final points of Tennessee’s 20-13 wild-card upset at Gillette Stadium.
Within the next few minutes, Brady would trudge to his sideline one last time, would wait out the interminable final seconds of the playoff loss, would push through the wall of humanity around him to make it to midfield and congratulate his quarterback counterpart Ryan Tannehill, and would ride that same wave of camera-wielding humans back toward the sideline and down into a tunnel beneath the stadium.
By 11:43 p.m. Brady was standing at a podium just outside the team’s locker room, navy jeans, navy button down shirt, and navy cap having replaced the No. 12 jersey, pads, and silver helmet he’d worn less than an hour before. He was here to close the book on one story, to sum up the final chapter of a disappointing season felled by the particularly disappointing offensive unit he directs, to credit the Titans for doing what his own teams had always done so well and making bigger plays in bigger moments, to lament the lost opportunity of those three goal-to-go plays before halftime that turned into an unsatisfying field goal, and to own up to the failures that saw his once-mighty offense get shut out in the second half.
But that, of course, was not the only story Brady was in position to author Saturday night. The book on the season may have closed, but the story of Brady’s future, the questions about what comes next, well, that story is just beginning. At 42 years old, he is, for the first time in his football life, a free agent, free to imagine himself in a uniform other than the red, white, and blue of New England, free to ask for as much money as some team owner is willing to pay, free to take his talents to his own version of South Beach, free to seize a chance to prove that two decades of winning in New England was as much due to him as anyone in this building.
Could he actually see himself leaving? Could he actually see himself coming back? Could he actually see himself retiring? Brady was asked a version of all of them, but as the clock approached midnight in the theater-style interview room in which he spoke, there was no magical Hollywood ending to tie this one all up in a bow.
“I love the Patriots, they are obviously the greatest organization, playing for Mr. [Robert] Kraft all these years, and for Coach [Bill] Belichick, I mean there’s nobody who’s had a better career I would say than me,” Brady said. “I’m very blessed. I don’t know what the future will look like. I’m not going to guess.”
Yet he all but ruled out retirement, so again, the question remains. Could he really find a new football home? Or will the pull of history once again be enough. Will the pride of 11 straight AFC East titles convince him this team is his to keep leading, to hold onto what he has until someone else proves they can come and rip it away? The raw emotion of Saturday night’s loss makes it almost impossible to answer, but with Brady, the end of the season and the start of the offseason are intertwined in a way that is impossible to untie, or ignore.
“I don’t want to get too much into the future and stuff,” he said again. “This team has fought hard, battled every day, worked hard to improve, I’m proud to be a part of this team, not only this year but every year. Again, I just don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not going to predict it. No one needs to make choices at this point. I love playing football. I love playing for this team. I’ve loved playing for this team for two decades, winning a lot of games. I don’t know what the future looks like.”
No one does, and as Brady himself said in response to his advancing age perhaps making this even more bittersweet than losses he’s endured before, “I think we’re all running out of time and chances every year that goes by.”
By the end of Saturday’s game, an offense that tried all season to find answers also ran out of time.
There was Brady late in the fourth quarter of the game, knocked to the turf somewhere in the middle of Gillette, thrown to the ground after yet another missed connection with one of the many wide receivers to cross his path this year. The groan of the crowd was enough to tell him his throw to Phillip Dorsett hadn’t converted a crucial fourth-quarter third down his team so desperately needed, but the quarterback’s hanging chin and vacant look told you he already knew the outcome anyway.
And as he extended his arms to the two teammates ready to pull his butt up from the field, as he unbuckled his chin strap and headed to the sidelines, you had to know what was going through his mind. He’d practically spelled it out for us during the week, when he talked of the crucible of playoff football, when 20 years of postseason experience came spilling out in bites of wisdom that seemed cruel in how much they mocked him now.
“A lot of plays come up over the years when I think about playoff football,” Brady said on Thursday, when he met with reporters following the Patriots final practice of the week. “And if you’re on the wrong end of one of them, it’s your season. And if you’re on the right end, you move on. You don’t know which plays those are going to be, and you can’t take anything for granted.”
No, you can’t.