FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady would be foolish to leave the New England Patriots as a free agent, and Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick would be even more foolish to let him leave. Brady as a Los Angeles Charger? Brady as an Indianapolis Colt?
But as much as Brady would love to do something Jordan did not — win a seventh championship ring — the modern-day athlete who might serve as a better comparison is another former Michigan man, Derek Jeter, who understood the power of being a one-uniform icon and who might enter the Baseball Hall of Fame later this month as its second unanimous inductee.
Jeter was big in New York. Brady is bigger in New England. If the 42-year-old quarterback had a perfect end-of-career situation waiting for him, such as a chance to play for the hometown team of his childhood dreams, then maybe this would be a pretty tough call. The problem is that the would-be successor Brady conquered, Jimmy Garoppolo, has that job nailed down in San Francisco. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.
If nothing else, you should understand this after Tennessee made everyone remember the Titans on Saturday at a Gillette Stadium wrapped in a London fog: You have not seen the last of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. in shotgun formation. After he initially deflected a news conference question about his future following the Titans’ 20-13 AFC wild-card victory (“I just came off the field,” he said), Brady called the possibility of retirement “pretty unlikely.”
Given his restraint when it comes to saying anything of substance for public consumption, this was Brady clearly Gronk-spiking any chance that the pick-six he threw to former teammate Logan Ryan will go down as his 11,614th and final NFL pass.
Brady has said more than once that he might play beyond age 45. In September, his father said Brady was in the best shape of his life and capable of going another five or six seasons. Tom Sr. also talked to ESPN.com at the time about his son’s decision to put his Brookline, Massachusetts, estate up for sale (the price has reportedly been slashed to a bargain-basement steal, at $33.9 million).
“You don’t want the house sitting on the market two, three, four years if you get cut,” Tom Sr. said. “It’s a two-way street. The Patriots may feel they have the arsenal to continue on for many years after Tommy’s gone, and that makes Tommy disposable. You know as well as I do that Bill is not the least bit sentimental with his ballplayers. If Tommy regresses in Bill’s eyes, then he becomes expendable, and Tommy would have no choice but to go somewhere else.”
Although Brady played this season at around the same declining level at which he played in 2013, right before Belichick drafted Garoppolo to replace him, he just won his sixth Super Bowl title 15 minutes ago. He’s still good enough to win No. 7 with some improved playmakers on the outside and with the return of his left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, and his center, David Andrews. Brady played the entire season without his starting center — and without Rob Gronkowski as a bailout option — and managed to go 12-4, an improvement on last season’s 11-5.
Brady was still good enough to win the AFC East for the 17th time. Then he was asked after this gutting defeat if his 11th consecutive division title would be a factor to consider as he enters free agency for the first time. Brady was essentially asked why he would walk away from the AFC East when nobody has succeeded in taking it from him.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, “and I’m not going to predict it. And no one needs to make choices at this point. I love playing football. I love playing football for this team. I’ve loved playing for this team for two decades and winning a lot of games. And again, I don’t know what it looks like moving forward, so we’ll just take it day by day.”
Right from the start Saturday, the fans tried to make Brady’s decision for him. “PLEASE STAY TOMMY” pleaded one large sign in the stands. When Brady took the field for New England’s first possession, the crowd welcomed him with a profound roar. Fans chanted throughout the game: “Bray-dee … Bray-dee.”
But it wasn’t meant to be for the man who had won 20 of his previous 23 playoff games at home and whose 30 postseason victories were four better than the combined total of the other 11 starting QBs in the tournament. Brady delivered a few vintage passes, including a third-down dart to Julian Edelman late in the third quarter that cut through four Tennessee defenders, but his offense couldn’t score a single point in the second half, marking only the third time that Brady’s Patriots went scoreless in a half in his 41 postseason starts. What’s more, New England’s league-leading defense couldn’t stop Derrick Henry, who was good for 182 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries.
Down 14-13 with 4 minutes, 44 seconds left and the ball at his own 11, Brady heard the fans chant for him one more time. He answered by going three-and-out, but only after his cherished target for eternity, Edelman, dropped an easy ball that would have earned a first down and might have rewritten the story of the entire night.
In the end, pinned on his 1-yard line in the final seconds, Brady watched Ryan make good on the almost certain pick-six he dropped near the close of the first half, leaving the Patriots to star in a tragicomedy that was the kickoff return that finished their season.
“Thank you for being the best fans in the NFL,” the public-address announcer told the crowd as fans headed into the wet and miserable night. “Please arrive home safely.”
Looking stunned, Brady engaged in a series of handshakes and hugs with a Titans team that features a wide circle of players, coaches and executives who learned their trade under Belichick’s watch in Foxborough. Meanwhile, after he was finished with his midfield handshakes, Titans coach Mike Vrabel ran off the field like a kid running to see his new puppy.
A three-time champion linebacker with the Patriots, Vrabel was the right guy to put his old team to bed. Asked about “the Patriot Way” during the week, he joked that Patriot Way is the name of the street the local movie theater is on. Yet Vrabel embodied Belichick’s system as much as any player who passed through it. He had 56 sacks, 11 interceptions and 10 receptions — all for touchdowns, including two in Super Bowls — during his New England career. He clubbed St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner in the head (no flag thrown) on the pick-six he threw to Ty Law in Belichick’s first Super Bowl victory, and he recovered the onside kick against the Giants to preserve the Pats’ 16-0 regular season in 2007.
A jokester who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, Vrabel sometimes gave Belichick suggestions for what he should run on defense. “When you’re a coach and you’re calling the defenses,” Belichick told him then, “you should go ahead and do that.”
Vrabel did that Saturday night, and he sent his former teammate, Brady, reeling into the most important offseason of the rest of his life. Would Brady really follow offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels out the door? Would he really leave New England behind if Kraft and Belichick don’t finally pay him market value — or close to it?
“I love the Patriots,” Brady said. “I mean, this is the greatest organization, and playing for Mr. Kraft all these years and for Coach Belichick, there’s nobody that’s had a better career, I would say, than me, just being with them. So I’m very blessed, and I don’t know what the future looks like, and I’m not going to predict it.”
This should be an easy call for the quarterback and the people who employ him. The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls broke up after winning title No. 6, and their lead actors — Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson — all played and coached after their premature end in Chicago.
Even if he’s intrigued by the idea of winning without Belichick, Brady should not leave for the unworthy franchises that appear to be fits for him. He was born in California to be a one-uniform lifer in New England. It’s time for Mr. Brady to sign back up.
It’s time for No. 12 to get to work on ring No. 7.