For someone too often perceived nationally as a silver-spooned golden boy on the level of the Manning sons, Tom Brady has overcome significant obstacles in his brilliant NFL career.
He was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft and a lucky-to-be-here fourth-stringer in his rookie season. He wrecked his knee in the 2008 season opener, and a post-surgery infection threatened to cause even more problems. And once he had to go almost an entire season with Reche Caldwell as his top target. Talk about disadvantages.
But as rumors and gossip and just plain chuck-it-at-a-dartboard guesses careen around us as Brady moves closer to hitting free agency next week, I become more convinced that leaving New England would be a self-inflicted disadvantage that he would struggle to overcome.
Sure, as the clock ticks toward a potential departure from the only NFL home — and head coach — he has ever known, there are potential destinations that might seem appealing. Tennessee, playing for his Facetime buddy Mike Vrabel. San Francisco, if there’s anything to that conjecture. Dallas, maybe, just for the show of it.
But the best fit remains here, with the franchise for whom he has worked since April 16, 2000, when the Patriots took him in the sixth round on the second day of the draft.
It was the most fortunate and important player-personnel move in Patriots history, with the decision to pay Bill Parcells’s ransom to free Bill Belichick a couple of months earlier equally critical.
They’ve been perfect for each other, and they both know it. In fact, they both said as much in each other’s company relatively recently. I happened to be watching the NFL Network a few days ago when the segment of its superb “NFL Top 100 Players” series on quarterbacks came on. Belichick and Cris Collinsworth were the panelists, alongside host Rich Eisen. Brady was the first quarterback to join them on the set.
Here is what Brady said, in part, about playing for Belichick:
“I think some players are confused when they get a lot of information,’’ said Brady. “For me, I love the information, because I retain all the information and recall it when I need to. So every meeting that I sat in with him, he’s giving me knowledge and information. And I’m just writing it down and soaking it up.
“And I think over many, many years, whether it was defensive players we were talking about in our Tuesday meetings, or later in the week, Saturdays, we always meet Saturdays before the game to talk about our final prep and getting ready to go, he was always someone that I relied on, and still do today, so that we’re always on the same page and in the moment.
“I know what he’s thinking, he knows what I’m thinking, and I just think that he has the confidence in me to execute what’s in the best interests of the team. It’s just a great relationship.”
And here’s what Belichick said in response:
“I’ve probably taken as many notes in those meetings as Tom has,’’ said Belichick. “I see the game through a coach’s eyes, and Tom sees it through a quarterback’s eyes. He’ll comment to me, ‘Well, this is what I saw on this play,’ or ‘Here’s what made me do this,’ Especially when we look back on plays, like, ‘What happened on this play?’ or even then during the game, he’ll come off the field and I’ll ask what happened on this play, and he’ll say, ‘The tackle flashed in front, I lost track of the Mike [linebacker] but then I found him, I saw the corner sitting … and then you go back and look at the film and all five of those things happened just the way he said them. So he has a tremendous ability to see the field and see the game.
“He’d be at the very, very top of all the players that I’ve coached intellectually.”
I know, I know, it’s obvious something has affected their relationship since last May, when the segment was recorded. Brady’s play slipped in some noticeable ways, and Belichick is going to be a heck of lot more blunt and unsentimental about that than Brady is.
The Patriots failed to win a playoff game, let alone make the Super Bowl, and that’s going to tick off both of them. Belichick did not give Brady the contract extension he wants. Brady was underwhelmed with the talent in his huddle sometimes.
Despite all of the breathless speculation, we don’t know whether Belichick wants Brady back, and we don’t know whether Brady wants to be back. The suspense is heavy. Maybe there’s a rift that one or the other sees as irreparable now.
If so, well, get over it, you two. Brady isn’t going to be better off anywhere else, even if a team has the guise of having more talent than the Patriots right now. He’s going to be 43 in August, he’s as demanding and particular about the personnel around him as any quarterback has ever been, and he’s going to start fresh elsewhere, with players who don’t know what he likes and a playbook that will be new to him for the first time in who knows when?
There’s no reason for him to do that beyond pride. And even if Belichick sees Brady’s slippage in black and white, he still does not have a better option. Brady’s intelligence and institutional knowledge can overcome small diminishments in physical skill.
There’s one moment in the NFL Network segment that Belichick and Brady would be wise to revisit. Collinsworth tells Brady he knows it’s not a bed of roses playing for Belichick, and asks how he deals with the criticism. When Brady runs a misdirection on his answer, Collinsworth doesn’t recede.
“That’s not what I’m asking. Here’s what I’m asking,’’ he says as Belichick laughs. “When he’s on your butt, and you’re thinking, ‘I’m Tom Effin’ Brady out here, who are you talking to? I have won Super Bowls for you, I’ve put rings on you,’ and at some point, you guys have conversations that are real, right?”
“Absolutely,’’ says Brady.
“And somehow,’’ continues Collinsworth, “that relationship has survived.”
“There are a lot of reasons,’’ Brady says. “We have a great relationship, and always have. It’s been about winning. That’s why I’m still playing today. Because I want to win. And there’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of that. And I feel like that’s the same way for him. And I know it appears we’re different in ways, but we’re so similar in ways that people would probably never see.”
Eisen jokes that Collinsworth isn’t going to get Brady to say he wishes Belichick would “stuff it” sometimes.
“There’s moments when you feel … you do that with your wife, you do that with people you work with, you don’t always see things eye-to-eye, but you have conversations about it too,’’ he said. “And I think you talk about them, and you make it work.”
That’s great advice. Here’s hoping he follows it, because Brady and Belichick working in unison is still the greatest advantage a team can have. In seven days or so, we’ll finally find out whether they remember that.