Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 19, 2020

Brady, Belichick, And The Patriot Way

Fans should have listened to the old man. That is glaringly obvious now, some five years later. But then it is the very nature of fandom that every person who plights their troth to a franchise, every individual who places an athlete on a pedestal made of equal parts faith and devotion is to some degree a child. No matter our true age, we fans watch our heroes in wide-eyed wonder. And it is scarcely a revelation to point out that children often want no part of listening to their elders.

So it was easy for fans of the New England Patriots, and especially for the multitude among them who pay special devotion to quarterback Tom Brady, to ignore the comments made by his father, Thomas Edward Brady Sr., in the weeks before 2015’s Super Bowl XLIX. In a television interview with CBS’s Andrea Kremer the elder Brady first suggested that if Bill Belichick thought it best for the team, the Patriots head coach wouldn’t hesitate to install someone else as New England’s signal caller. Then days later, as part of a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile on the quarterback who would shortly lead his team to victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Brady Sr. was even more direct with writer Mark Leibovich. “It will end badly,” he said, speaking of his son’s time with New England. “It does end badly. And I know that because I know what Tommy wants to do. He wants to play till he’s 70. It’s a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.”

In the five years since the region’s fans looked past his father’s candor, choosing instead to focus on the big game against the Seahawks, Tom Brady led the Patriots back to three more Super Bowls, two of which were followed by victory parades through the streets of Boston. Amid all that winning he confirmed that his father had been off only by a matter of degree, proclaiming his desire to play until he was 45.

Brady is 42 now, and he will see another birthday before the next NFL season gets underway. His desire to continue taking snaps every Sunday is undiminished, but after twenty years of doing so in a Pats uniform, he will now call Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium home. When that news broke this week, it was the rare event that was able to divert attention away from the Coronavirus pandemic. But that Tom Terrific’s departure came as a shock to so many says more about the natural blind spot of fans than it does about their hero.

Since the term was coined in 2010 by the late Steve Sabol, co-founder of NFL Films, fans who flock to Foxborough have lauded the “Patriot Way” as the secret to their team’s phenomenal run of success. Ask most of those avid Pats boosters and you’ll be told that the phrase refers to an ethos in which individual responsibility is paramount – do your job – but personal achievement is secondary to the greater good of the team. It’s hard to argue with nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships since Belichick reneged on his commitment to coach the New York Jets in favor of the opening at Gillette Stadium, followed shortly by Brady’s move into the starting quarterback role after an injury to Drew Bledsoe.

But that success obscures the reality that there is a cold-blooded and calculating side to a philosophy in which individual players are just cogs in the big, winning, machine. That’s the part of the Patriot Way that Brady’s father saw clearly. It’s an aspect of the team’s approach that New England fans have always understood, but which many apparently thought wouldn’t apply to their beloved quarterback. They were disabused of that idea this week, but to have clung to it in the first place was folly.

Wide receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker. Linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest. Defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork. Placekicker Adam Vinatieri. This is but a sampling of players who were stars for the Patriots and favorites of the fans, right up until they were released or traded or allowed to leave in free agency during the Belichick era. Whether the reason was age or money or simply the coach’s belief that the “next man up” could do a better job, these and many more New England stalwarts were shown the door in a manner that wasn’t remotely familial. Usually that decision proved correct in terms of the future fortunes of the team and the role played by the person taking the former star’s place; occasionally fans longed for the return of their old hero. But it’s safe to say that Belichick never looked back after parting ways with anyone on the list.

Aside from his father’s prescience, the clearest indication that Brady would be treated no differently came last fall, when he and the team were unable to agree on a contract extension that ran beyond the current season. It was a campaign in which Brady’s quarterback rating declined for the third straight year, and one in which the team’s 12-4 record was built largely on the strength of its defense. Brady was widely believed to be unhappy with his supporting cast on offense, a roster that pretty much began and ended with Julian Edelman. But the fact that Belichick didn’t rush out to improve the receiving corps, either during the season or since, suggests that the coach believed at least some of the blame rested on the aging right arm of his star quarterback.

So, in a surprise that shouldn’t have been one, Brady is gone, and many Patriots fans are adrift. In time most will of course rally around a new quarterback and whatever roster Belichick puts together in what will surely be the supreme test of his coaching genius. But those fans will also be keeping one eye on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next season, watching to see if after his long and supremely successful run on Foxborough’s big stage, their departed hero has a second act. Perhaps Brady will make Belichick regret the ease with which he let his partner in football glory walk away.

Then again, maybe Belichick, who’s old enough to remember, was thinking about Joe Montana in Kansas City, or Joe Namath in Los Angeles, or Johnny Unitas in San Diego. Legendary quarterbacks all, each ended his career in less than legendary fashion wearing a different uniform than the one that comes immediately to mind at the mention of his name. Surely Belichick didn’t want to be on the sideline watching a performance like that, no matter the sentiment involved. That’s just not the Patriot Way.

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