With all that is going on in a world reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, it is hard to believe that a sports story could steal the spotlight.
Except one did: Tom Brady is leaving the New England Patriots after 20 history-making seasons as quarterback. He is expected to sign with Tampa Bay.
Brady announced his exit Tuesday morning, ruining an already ruined St. Patrick’s Day for football fans in Boston. Many tweets responding to the news expressed almost the same sentiment: “I can’t even go to a bar and drown my sorrows.”
How great was Brady? He could have retired 10 years ago and been a lock first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. He has won six Super Bowls and played in nine. Brady not only has an extremely accurate arm and a remarkably quick release, but he makes decisions under pressure in the pocket quickly and, almost always, correctly. His ability to seemingly always make the right decision, even with huge men bearing down on him, set him apart from other quarterbacks.
Boston has a plethora of sports icons: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and David Ortiz in baseball; Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in hockey; Bill Russell and Larry Bird in basketball.
But Brady is the football hero. The Patriots had never won a Super Bowl before his arrival. And over the past two decades, Brady, who is among the most accomplished quarterbacks in the sport, and Bill Belichick, the greatest of NFL coaches, built a franchise that consistently outperformed all rivals. Led by Brady and Belichick, the Patriots became the NFL’s version of the Yankees, Duke basketball and the old Celtics — a team both revered and reviled.
Brady was the perfect hero for the city and most of New England: handsome (with a supermodel wife); an underdog (he was a sixth-round draft pick), and a player with a knack for dramatic finishes. New England’s first four Super Bowl victories were by a total of 13 points; its fifth was an overtime victory after they had trailed 28-3. It was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Brady’s golden-boy sheen was tarnished in 2016, when the NFL suspended him for four games for allegedly ordering footballs to be deflated to make them easier to grip. Whatever “Deflategate” symbolized to the rest of America, it is generally viewed in Boston as the greatest injustice to take place there since 1978, when Bucky Dent of the New York Yankees hit his infamous home run against the beloved Red Sox to ruin a Boston October.
Blame for the catastrophe of Brady’s departure almost certainly will fall on Belichick. He and Brady will be forever linked by history, but Belichick’s only concern right now is the coming season. Brady’s in the rearview mirror and fading fast.
That’s who Belichick is.
When it comes to football players, Belichick has always subscribed to the theory that the key to financial success is not buying at the bottom and always selling too soon. Brady is the prime example of both sides of the coin: Belichick famously took him with the 199th pick in the 2000 draft — not at the bottom but close to it — and now he’s letting him walk when he may have two or three good years left.
Brady will be 43 in August. In 2018, at the age of 41, he led the Patriots to a sixth Super Bowl victory. Last season, he found himself with a crippled receiving corps. Even so, the Patriots went 12-4 and won the AFC East title for the 17th time in Brady’s 18 seasons as the starter; he missed 2008 after tearing a ligament in his knee during the season opener.
But they lost this past season in the first round of the playoffs to the Tennessee Titans and, within seconds of the final gun on that Saturday night, speculation began to run rampant about Brady’s future.
It is almost impossible to think of Brady playing in another uniform — except for the fact that great quarterbacks often finish their careers with a team other than the one with which they gained their fame. That list includes Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning.
Now, Brady joins them. There will be all sorts of speculation about why this happened, but Patriots owner Robert Kraft wanted to make it clear on Tuesday that this wasn’t his decision.
Kraft said that Brady had come to see him on Monday night and that this wasn’t the ending he’d wanted but he wanted only the best for Brady. As in, “blame Belichick, not me.”
To Patriots fans, the ideal ending would have meant doing what was best for them: staying in New England. No one knows what’s next for Brady or for the Patriots. All we know for sure is that life will never be quite the same for either. Or for football.