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Amid the plaudits being sent back and forth between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as they prepare for Sunday’s Tampa Bay-New England game in Foxborough, there remains an underlying question fueling the soap opera that is the NFL.
Did the league’s greatest quarterback and coach really need to split back in the spring of 2020?
It was the end of a two-decade, six-Super Bowl titles partnership. Brady is leading (overwhelmingly) the post breakup scoreboard, of course. He added a seventh Lombardi Trophy. Belichick is 8-11 in that time.
Belichick spoke of his “respect” and “appreciation” for Brady on Monday. Last week Brady noted his “respect” and “admiration” for Belichick. It follows 18 months of niceties. At one point Belichick even mentioned the “l-word” — “a great relationship built on love.”
Anyway, that’s all fine, but Brady is running a proxy battle most pointedly via his trainer, Alex Guerrero, who theorized that Belichick drove Brady out by how he treated him.
“I think [Belichick’s] emotions or feelings never evolved with age," Guerrero told the Boston Herald. "I think in time, with Tom, as Tom got into his late 30s or early 40s, I think Bill was still trying to treat him like that 20-year-old kid that he drafted. And all the players, I think, realized Tom was different.
"He's older, so he should be treated differently,” Guerrero continued. “And all the players, none of them would have cared that he was treated differently. I think that was such a Bill thing. He never evolved. So you can't treat someone who's in his 40s like they're 20. It doesn't work."
This is likely the most accurate spot of conflict. Belichick treated Brady as much like a regular player as possible and after all those years, and maturity, Brady wanted more, including a “make-me-retire-a-Patriot” contract. It never materialized, and Brady left for a far better Buccaneer roster, and friendly coach-player relationship with Bruce Arians, where he could win a Super Bowl.
“We weren’t as good an option as Tampa,” Belichick said on WEEI’s "Greg Hill Show" on Monday. “It wasn’t a question of not wanting him. That’s for sure.”
Eh. To Guerrero’s point, of course there were ways to show you wanted him more.
Yet in Belichick’s defense, that isn’t how things work in Foxborough. Ever. Even with Tom Brady.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that a coach should view a 40-something, 20-year future Hall of Famer as more of a partner than a player but Belichick didn’t win all those games being conventional. The team is the team. The players are the players.
One of the strengths of the Brady-Belichick marriage was how new arrivals would marvel at Belichick dressing down Brady — the great Tom Brady — in film sessions like he was some overwhelmed rookie. It helped permeate discipline throughout the building. It’s the Patriot Way. It worked, to say the least.
Brady is an exceptional player but he doesn’t have all those Super Bowls without Belichick being an exceptional coach. Or vice versa, of course. One of Brady’s gifts was recognizing that early on and confining himself to a very difficult circumstance where yesterday never mattered and good enough didn’t exist. The two made each other.
So to suggest that Belichick could switch gears and make an exception isn’t based in reality. He doesn’t make exceptions. That’s the point. If he did, some of his other beloved players — Tedy Bruschi or Willie McGinest or Junior Seau or Rob Gronkowski or Mike Vrabel — would have been previously treated differently.
This is a coach who didn’t hesitate to go Brady over Drew Bledsoe, or cut Ty Law or let talents ranging from Richard Seymour to Chandler Jones leave.
There is no way the system would have held all those years if Belichick had that sentimentality in him. That rigidness delivered so much winning that you have to take seeing Brady as a Buc as part of the deal.
Besides, no coach and quarterback ever lasted this long or won this much. Is it fair to complain about it not lasting … longer?
And while Guerrero might say that “the players, none of them would have cared that he was treated differently,” that’s just a theory. Leave it to Belichick, not a trainer, to know how to lead a team.
If failing to treat Brady special as he became “older” was a bad strategy, how do you explain the four Super Bowl appearances and three titles after TB12 turned 37? Belichick’s system worked fine, even if it meant Brady would eventually leave.
No matter the reason, Tampa was the ideal place for Brady. New England is in a long-overdue rebuild. Salary cap-crunched and suffering from decades of late draft picks, it scratched out a 7-9 season a year ago. It is 1-2 this year, but even with some free agent spending the offense is plagued by the same issues of Brady’s final season — a porous offensive line, a lack of game-breakers.
Brady is 44 years old. The only reason to play at that age is to win championships. He has the team — clearly — to do it, including getting Rob Gronkowski, also treated like he was "unspecial" in New England, to un-retire.
So everyone is where they are supposed to be now, just the way everyone was where they were supposed to be for all those years of success. An uncompromising coach never compromised, even with a quarterback that had, to outsiders, earned a compromise.
It may not be a storybook ending, but those Super Bowl banners Brady will run out under Sunday night while wearing pewter and grey aren't coming down either.