WE LOOKED FOR clues. Tom Brady‘s final news conference — was that a clue? We wondered what he would say after the New England Patriots lost to the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the playoffs. More than that, we wondered how he would act. “Well done is better than well said,” his father always told him, and so we’d been trained to watch his body language for hints into his thinking. We’d watched him as he bit his lip and gutted through the Patriot Way when Bill Belichick would cut or trade key players; watched when he stood alone during his Deflategate news conference; watched when he sat onstage with Jim Gray in 2018 and, in response to a question about whether he felt appreciated by his bosses, blurted out, “I plead the fifth!”; watched to see how he handled a postseason win, when he would hug Belichick, or loss, when he could look almost physically ill.
Facing the media after the loss to the Titans seemed to warrant whatever physically ill looks like for a 42-year-old quarterback who had thrown a pick-six on his final pass. But this time felt different. After Belichick finished his news conference, Brady emerged from the locker room — no, he shot out of the locker room, with a flurry of people behind him. It was unclear whether he had even showered or just thrown on his jeans, shirt and stocking hat. A man who always looked pristine now didn’t care. Behind a lectern he had stood at hundreds of times before, he did something he never did after a loss: He took his time. He was unrushed. He smiled a bit. He answered every question, many of which concerned his future as a Patriot. He took last questions even after we were told that he would answer just one last question. He did not say anything revelatory, but he carried himself like a person who knew this might be the last time he did something he had done many times.
Then he picked up his bag, hugged safety Devin McCourty, who was next at the podium, and whispered, “See ya tomorrow.”
No one knew what tomorrow held. For the first time in his career, Brady would be a free agent, with the emphasis on free. But already he looked liberated. A few minutes later, he walked with purpose through the tunnel at Gillette Stadium — walked fast, walked to put off a clear vibe that he did not want to be stopped — with his sleeping daughter in his arms, his wife at his side and his assistants behind him. Brady entered a parking lot in the dark New England rain, and it seemed obvious, if not official, that a partnership that spanned two decades was over.
ON MARCH 17 — St. Patrick’s Day, a day on which many of us were told not to leave our houses for the foreseeable future due to a rapidly spreading virus — Tom Brady announced that he was moving. He didn’t say where at first, but soon we learned that it was to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an icon joining one of the least iconic teams in sports — a storied career as the starting quarterback in New England that began shortly after 9/11 now bookended by another international crisis. Of course, Brady did not just leave the Patriots. He sparked a debate over the meaning of the past, setting off a war for credit for six Super Bowls. Was it Bill? Was it Tom? History is now up for grabs, and both men know that how we think of them now is not how we will think of them in a decade.
Once the shock of Brady’s announcement settled in — it still seems strange to imagine him in another uniform, devising a game plan with another coach — the question of why consumed us. What did Brady need that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft failed to deliver? Was it an extension? Was it joy? Were the relationships, strained for the past few years, broken beyond repair?
Nobody knows what motivates great athletes. It’s as mysterious and unique as their own DNA. Brady has struggled to explain it for himself. Sometimes the motivation came from anger that he was draft pick No. 199; other times from understanding and learning from why he was pick No. 199. But in interviews with people close to Brady, team and league executives, coaches and owners involved in the Brady sweepstakes, it’s clear that there’s a feeling he is chasing, and has been chasing for years.
Not just to prove the Patriots wrong, but to find — no, rediscover — an essential version of himself.
THERE HAVE BEEN many moments in recent years when the relationship between Tom Brady and the Patriots had been strained — in the years following his knee surgery in 2008, when he spent more time in Los Angeles and less in Foxborough, culminating in a “disconnect,” as Yahoo Sports reported, in contract talks in June of 2010; during Deflategate, when many close to Brady felt that Kraft and Belichick had left him alone to take the fall, even after he had defended the franchise during Spygate and throughout his career. But it all reached a fever pitch in the fall of 2017. The team was defending its fifth Super Bowl, and for the first time, Brady used his platform to advocate a philosophy other than the Patriot Way. He used it to advocate his own business, TB12 Sports, and its accompanying book, “The TB12 Method,” which he wrote with the help of his trainer and friend, Alex Guerrero. The issues in the Patriots building caused by The Method — how it pitted players against the team training staff, how Belichick felt forced to curtail Guerrero’s access — are widely reported and well-known, but the heart of the problem between Brady and Belichick in late 2017 was the same as it was in March 2020: Brady wanted a contract extension.
Brady made it clear that he was playing football until his mid-40s. He preferred to sign a deal to ensure that he retired a Patriot, but if the team refused, he was fine moving on. He wanted clarity. He met with Belichick, and the meeting ended with a “blowup,” a source said. He met with Kraft. He got mixed signals. Team president Jonathan Kraft told NFL Network in January 2018 that Brady had “earned the right” to decide when he wanted to stop playing for the team. On the other hand, that right never came in the form of a contract extension, at least not one Brady felt would last the rest of his career.
After the Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII, Brady was deeply dissatisfied. The offense had put up 613 yards with no punts. When Belichick addressed the team upon its return to Foxborough, Brady mostly stared straight down, barely glancing up at his coach. Brady told people in the building that he wasn’t coming back. Needing distance, he detached from the team that spring. He left passive-aggressive comments on social media. He pleaded the fifth. He looked lost at the end of his Facebook docuseries, “Tom vs. Time,” saying of his passion, “What are we doing this for? … You gotta have answers to those questions.” ESPN’s Ian O’Connor, in his book “Belichick,” reported that Brady wanted a “divorce” from his coach. And Brady made it clear to author Mark Leibovich in the book “Big Game” that he was fed up with Belichick’s culture, which is to say that he was fed up with Belichick. When asked in Leibovich’s book how he would feel if the Patriots released him, Brady was blunt: “They can do whatever they want.”
“These last two years have been very challenging for him in so many ways,” Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, disclosed in “Tom vs. Time.” “He tells me, ‘I love it so much, and I just want to go to work and feel appreciated and have fun.'” Her words didn’t just serve as confirmation of long-standing issues inside the building. They set a new bar, to which we should have paid more attention: Brady wasn’t just looking to win Super Bowls, victory at all costs, the ethos of most of his career, fabulously successful and spectacularly unhealthy. He wanted what everyone wants from an employer: to feel valued and to love work. They seemed like two reasonable asks — until Brady realized that in New England, under Bill Belichick, he might be asking the impossible.
WE LISTENED AS those close to Brady insisted he would be the first to go. Tom Brady Sr. once told me that once Belichick found a quarterback “who is better for a dollar less, [Tom will] be gone.” Brady Sr. also told Leibovich, “It will end badly.” Some close to Brady actually looked forward to that day, in a weird way, believing that the team would collapse without him — without the human backstop who bailed out everyone’s mistakes, who helped Belichick to all but two of his winning seasons as a head coach, who engineered five Super Bowl wins when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter.
In August 2018, Brady received a revised contract — with incentives adding up to $5 million, boxes he never checked. He was mostly throttled in Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams, but with the game tied 3-3 and less than eight minutes left, as always, Brady delivered. In maybe his last legacy throw as a Patriot, he hit Rob Gronkowski down the sideline between three defenders to set up what would be the decisive touchdown. In retrospect, the win might have served as a sign that the team could compete at a high level without him. The franchise has always been ruthless in its internal evaluation of players. Its scouting reports would shock fans if they could see them, even when it came to Brady — especially when it came to Brady. So a sixth Super Bowl earned him nothing but another difficult negotiation. NBC Sports Boston reported that last August, Brady was prepared to walk out of camp in anger. Eventually, he signed a new deal, spun as an extension. It was, in reality, a one-year deal, which he could void at the end of the season. He put his Brookline, Massachusetts, home up for sale, and so did Guerrero. A quarterback who once starred in a cheeky comedy sketch in which he yelled “I’m the f—ing quarterback!” would now refer to himself as just a Patriots “employee.”
Brady seemed invigorated after the Patriots signed Antonio Brown in September. Weirdly invigorated — weirdly off brand for Brady — considering all of the bizarre behavior that led to the wide receiver’s release from the Oakland Raiders. Brady seemed to see Brown not just as a matchup nightmare, like he had in Gronk and Randy Moss, but as a rehabilitation project, allowing him to stay at his house, taking him under his wing, posing for selfies with him on social media. But it lasted one game. Brown was accused of rape, and after a Sports Illustrated article detailed more troubling behavior from Brown — after Brown sent threatening texts to an accuser — Kraft stepped in and, according to NBC Sports Boston, “insisted” that the team release Brown. It was a business decision, from an owner who has always claimed to not be involved in football decisions. When Brown apologized to the Patriots on social media, all but begging for another chance, Belichick made it clear that it wasn’t his call. “You’ll have to talk to Robert about that,” he said.
This wasn’t fun, and Brady didn’t feel appreciated. In the words of a confidant, “He was like, “‘Why am I doing this?'” The Patriots’ defense was winning games, but the offense was stagnant. Brady told friends that he felt Belichick had taken the offense for granted because of how good it had been for so long. Brady told NBC’s Al Michaels that he was the “most miserable 8-0 quarterback in the NFL.”
But it still seemed inevitable, when the Patriots took on the Titans in the playoffs, that somehow, someway, Brady and Belichick would find a way. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots took over at their own 11-yard line, trailing 14-13, with 4:44 left. The crowd summoned that familiar energy in anticipation of Brady magic. Sure enough, he hit James White over the middle for 20 yards and Phillip Dorsett II for 6 yards. He then dropped back and looked left to Julian Edelman, who was running a short out route, a route the two of them had executed to perfection dozens of times in games, hundreds of times in practice, an automatic connection …
… but the ball bounced off Edelman’s stomach and fell to the ground.
The air left the wet stadium, from the stands down to the Patriots sideline. Brady misfired on third down and the Patriots walked off the field. On the next possession, he threw a desperation pick-six. After 19 years of excellence, after nine Super Bowl appearances and six wins, after Mo Lewis, after the Tuck Rule Game and the spike in the snow, after throttling “The Greatest Show on Turf,” after Adam Vinatieri‘s clutch kicks, after the intentional safety on a Monday night against the Denver Broncos, after Deion Branch, after Champ Bailey’s interception in 2006, after Troy Brown forced Marlon McCree to fumble, after blowing a 21-3 lead to the Colts, after Spygate, after 16-0 and the Helmet Catch, after Matt Cassel’s 11-5 year, after Mario Manningham, the comeback against the Saints, “On to Cincinnati,” “the “Baltimore” formation, Malcolm Butler, Deflategate, 28-3, the TB12 Method, Jimmy G, the Philly Special, Dee Ford lining up offside — after all the glory and fines and suspensions, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s Patriots were exhausted.
It was over.
BUT NOT OFFICIALLY, of course. Nobody, not even those close to Brady, knew officially. Brady was in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, attending parties and NFL 100 festivities. So was Kraft, and league executives who conversed with him came away with the impression that his dream of Brady retiring a Patriot was unlikely. Nobody was budging. Brady wanted a commitment; the Patriots would commit only year to year. The tenet that had made the Patriots so hated and successful over the years — the emotionless pursuit of victory — seemed to finally touch the untouchable quarterback.
After the Super Bowl, Brady was back in Boston, in a house his family had largely emptied out. He was acting on his own, quietly putting out feelers, leaving owners and executives to wonder if he had a free-agency plan. To many of the executives who did due diligence, Brady seemed so driven by an animus toward Belichick that they couldn’t tell if he actually wanted a fresh start or if he just needed leverage to force Kraft to step in.
Reporters took sides. Some of us believed he would leave; some of us believed he would stay. All year, ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Jeff Darlington and NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran had warned fans this might be it in New England. Rumors flew. The Colts. Raiders. Chargers. Titans. Dolphins. Panthers. Broncos. One hot piece of speculation in league circles gained steam after the Pro Bowl, when reports emerged that Drew Brees was considering a move to broadcasting. It opened the door: Brady to the Saints, playing for Sean Payton, in a dome. Fire emojis everywhere. But no: Brees decided to return to his longtime home, opining that Brady would return to his longtime home, as well.
By early March, some reports claimed that Brady’s options were down to the Patriots, Titans and, surprisingly, the 49ers. Brady made it clear through various channels that the team of his childhood would be the team of his future, if the 49ers wanted. The 49ers discussed it, but in the end, the team was committed to Jimmy Garoppolo. The Titans figured to be the likely destination, especially after Brady and Edelman were filmed FaceTiming with Titans coach Mike Vrabel during a Syracuse basketball game. Edelman and Brady sat courtside, and at one point, Edelman said to a camera, “He’s coming back!” Brady looked less than thrilled and mumbled something that set off a social media hysteria of lip-reading. But the Titans preferred Ryan Tannehill over Brady — a decision that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
A deadline neared: The league year would begin on March 18 at 4 p.m. A call earlier that month between Brady and Belichick ended without an agreed-upon extension, with Brady’s camp viewing it as further proof that the team wanted him only under its rigid terms and the team exploiting the chance to leak that it had an offer for him and that the ball was in Brady’s court. For all of Belichick’s greatness, and for all of the praise that he had thrown on Brady in public and all of the hard coaching he had dished in private, the relationship had run its course.
Brady needed something new.
On Monday night, March 16, Brady called Kraft and made the short drive to his house for a conversation about which he had long imagined. Kraft, in a round of phone calls to Patriots beat writers the next day, would say that he assumed Brady was visiting to finalize a new contract. “I thought he was coming over as he has for the last 10 years to quietly get things done,” Kraft told NBC Boston, despite reports that he would leave all negotiations to Belichick. But Brady told Kraft that it was over, and the owner would leave little doubt as to why. “Think about loving your wife and for whatever reason, there’s something — her father or mother — that makes life impossible for you and you have to move on,” he told NFL Network.
In a social media announcement the next morning, under the headline of “Forever a Patriot,” Brady informed the world that he would not be forever a Patriot after all.
Three days later, at 9:31 a.m. on March 20, the Bucs tweeted a photo of Brady in his kitchen, wearing a black hoodie, signing his new contract. He looked young, but more than that, he looked relieved. He had his pick of teams, the Chargers or the Bucs, and he went with what felt right. Tampa is a short flight to family in New York. The weather is warm. Head coach Bruce Arians has spent a career not only fostering a fun environment but also nurturing and learning from some of the game’s best quarterbacks, from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. “He’ll win some games down there,” an executive from a rival team said. “He’ll change the culture of the building.”
In the flurry of the past few years, especially the past few months, it was easy to forget. But maybe, in wondering what motivates the most accomplished quarterback ever, we lost track of a simple and human fact: Sometimes we chase what makes us happiest.
THE END IN New England made some of us remember the beginning, before anyone debated whether it was Bill or Tom, before there was a legacy to fight over. In November 2001, Brady pulled up to the old Foxboro Stadium. He and I had a meeting at the team shop. Brady was wearing a gray sweatsuit with a large backpack filled with beer to be delivered to teammates after he had lost a locker room bet on the previous weekend’s Michigan-Michigan State game. We had both recently graduated college, both getting our respective career breaks at the same time. It was a slight bond. Brady asked the first question, about 9/11 and what it was like to be in New York City that day. It hovered over everything, the way COVID-19 does today. But we soon moved on to football.
Brady said that the game had always come easy to him, which seemed strange coming from a sixth-round pick. But there was a sincerity and purity — a sincere purity — to it. His Michigan years had broken him, and he had reassembled himself, and while he played football to win, yes, and to achieve the impossible, yes, and because his decision-making was impeccable, yes, and because, on the most basic level, he knew he could throw the damn ball as well as anyone ever, football was about something deeply personal to him. It was about self-actualization. What could he become? What could he prove, not to us but to himself? He was his most essential and true self out there, and he loved that feeling, maybe to an addictive and unhealthy degree, but he meant it to the bottom of his soul, and he means it now to the bottom of his soul.
After about 40 minutes, the conversation ended. He had work to do, even though it was well into the evening. So it was, so it will always be. We walked outside. Next to us, in the short distance, was the skeletal frame of Gillette Stadium, dull steel in the darkness. Gorgeous, Brady said, before adding:
“I hope I play in it.”