Let’s get this right, right now. It was not an era that ended at 8:44 a.m. Wednesday when Tom Brady took to the usual social media channels to tell us that for the first time since April 15, 2000, he would no longer be a member of the New England Patriots.
It was THE era. The unison between Brady, the greatest quarterback ever, and Bill Belichick, the greatest coach, is over, after 20 seasons, 17 AFC East championships, 13 AFC Championship game appearances, nine Super Bowls, and six Super Bowl victories.
Look at those achievements again, even if you know them by heart. They are real and unfathomable at once. In a league designed for parity, the Patriots basically bookended dynasties without any downturn in between them, winning three Super Bowls in Brady’s first four years as a starter, and three in his final six seasons as a Patriot.
We’ll never see anything like it again. We’ll never see anything like him again. And even if the parting was expected, it’s still shocking, and a little sad too, when the moment comes.
Both Brady and the Patriots had poured on the foreshadowing for months, but denial is an effective neutralizer of the truth. I knew he might leave. I didn’t think he would. And now that it is happening, it stinks. We don’t even know what team’s jersey he’ll be wearing yet, and it already looks so wrong in our mind’s eye.
That doesn’t mean the departure is wrong, for either side. Oh, I wanted him to stay. I wanted him to be Yaz, to be Ted Williams, to be Larry Bird, icons that belonged solely to our city. Even at 42 years old, and coming off a season in which his regression was at times blatant, I thought he was still far and away the best option for the 2020 Patriots, especially once they kept around a couple of their great winners and leaders in Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater. His institutional knowledge of their offense and what Belichick wants was built up over two decades and so valuable. This, to my subjective eye, was still the best place for him.
Belichick, so often unsentimental down to the marrow in his bones, clearly did not agree. We do not know now when he decided it would be OK to move on from Brady, but this surely is not a decision made on a whim. I always assumed Belichick would see the cracks in Brady’s foundation before anyone else, including Brady himself. Well, we saw them last year. Belichick saw them sooner, for sure. Perhaps he has one more fine year in him, maybe two, wherever he goes. I hope it works. He deserves better than a Johnny Unitas-as-a-Charger coda on his career. But I think Belichick’s presumed current view of him will prove the accurate one.
Right now, as we sort through the facts and fiction while rolling our eyes at Robert Kraft’s it-wasn’t-me media tour, it seems like Belichick would have taken Brady back only at the right price, meaning an untenably low one for Brady. Brady, who has been the greatest bargain in sports for much of his career, chose not to do that. Their mutual prerogatives deserve respect, and we’ll save the parsing of who was more important this era, the brilliant coach or the brilliant quarterback, for slower days.
It is satisfying to see Belichick handle this with grace. He’s given lovely sendoffs to retiring players – Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi come to mind – but the goodbyes are typically more muted with players heading elsewhere. Brady is a special case, the special case, and while Belichick didn’t treat him that way when it came to building his roster, he did when it came time to bid farewell.
“He didn’t just perform. He didn’t just win. He won championships over and over again,’’ said Belichick in a warm and thoughtful statement put out by the team.
“Sometimes in life, it takes some time to pass before truly appreciating something or someone, but that has not been the case with Tom. He is a special person and the greatest quarterback of all-time.”
There is no doubt about that. None, and there’s shouldn’t even be any in the Manning household, either. I keep thinking about all of the layers to the Brady legend, the singular moments and scenes that had they stood alone as the only brilliant plays of his career would have still made him unforgettable.
The casual cool, including the power-dribble of the football, after guiding the drive to set up Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI. The comeback from down 10 points with less than 8 minutes left against a hellacious Seahawks defense in Super Bowl XLIV, the one that birthed phase two of the dynasty. The like-hell-this-is-over poise against the Falcons in the comeback from down 25 points in Super Bowl LI, the one that made you believe that momentum in sports is real and palpable. The dart to a triple-covered Rob Gronkowski late in Super Bowl LIII against the Rams, the perfect exclamation point on the nonpareil tight end’s career. And those are just the most obvious ones. Good heavens we were lucky to watch this guy for so long, weren’t we?
I think that’s part of the reason why his departure stings so much, even if you expected it. He did his job so well for so long that watching him move on feels like a life change. In a way, it is. There is an adult generation of Patriots fans who can’t remember anyone else as the Patriots quarterback (save for Matt Cassel, who took the reins as the understudy when Brady blew out his knee in 2008). Brady’s excellence was a constant through phases and waves of our lives. When he won the first Super Bowl against the Rams, I watched it with my girlfriend on our couch at our Dover, N.H. apartment and daydreamed of working for the Globe. When he won his sixth Super Bowl, this one too coming against the Rams, that girlfriend had long since become my wife, we had two teenage children and at least one too many cats, and I was blessed to cover the game for the Globe. I imagine he’s been a constant through changes for you too. It’s hard to let the grip on something like that slip.
These are strange days, of course, and while the sports world is somewhere down the list of our concerns these days, that doesn’t mean the disappointments don’t get to us. Mookie Betts is a Dodger. The first-place Bruins and the likable Celtics are on hiatus until who knows when. And now Brady is gone. If anyone is ever going to figure out the whole time-travel thing, this would be a good time, Doc Brown.
So now we know for sure. If Brady is going to get his Hollywood ending to his Hollywood story, it will not come with him in a Patriots uniform. Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye, or perhaps there’s a little more magic to be delivered from his brilliant football brain through his golden right arm. It’s going to be so weird watching from afar as the answer is revealed.
This much we do know right now. When he let us know he was leaving with those social media posts Tuesday morning, the header on one – FOREVER A PATRIOT – was somewhat misleading considering it was announcing his departure. Yet it was also as true as anything can be.
No, Tom Brady is not a Patriot right now. But the greatest quarterback, player, and winner we will ever see is forever a Patriot, more than anyone else ever could be.
The era is over. The legacy? That is forever.