By Jason Keidel
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Long ago, Tom Brady reached a cultural and financial orbit none of us will ever reach.
Pick a feature. From his looks to his talent to his temerity to his wife to his life, Brady is either the American dream, or just the Dream. What made Brady even more maddeningly admirable was his selflessness, not only on the field, but also his willingness to take less money from his employer — the New England Patriots — to carve out cap space for other players to keep the team stout.
Then we just read or heard about the journalistic bomb ESPN’s Seth Wickersham dropped on the NFL’s version of Mayberry, which ripped the curtain back on the pastoral Patriots franchise. It turns out that, after all this success, there are some egos, particularly a swollen one at quarterback.
It turns out Brady is no longer employee No. 12, but now TB12, a hybrid quarterback, celebrity and brand with tentacles that have snaked into the organization, with deleterious results. First we heard his fitness guru, Alex Guerrero, had his hall pass revoked, and now must stand on the wrong side of the team’s velvet rope, with the other peripheral contractors.
Guerrero isn’t just Brady’s boy or the one who recommended the avocado ice cream or the space-age pajamas. He’s the brains behind the TB12 bundle, a place where athletes train, think and try to be Tom Brady. It seems the TB12 seed has grown into a cultural farm so big that young players don’t know whether to use the team’s training staff or Brady’s personal spa.
And that was just a preamble to the major move of the year, which has rocked the halls and walls of the organization and reportedly widened the wedge between Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
It seems Brady was not only feeling his age, but also the heat from young stud quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was not only Brady’s successor, but was looking better each time he took a snap. They drafted him and developed him into the perfect replacement for Brady. The Pats were so sold on Jimmy G they had already offered their backup QB a four-year, $70 million contract, which he declined.
Brady, either implicitly or directly, said he didn’t want Garappolo around anymore, according to the report. It’s not the quarterback’s move to make, unless you’ve finally morphed from Employee No. 12 into TB12. No longer just a worker, but a worker with implicit privilege. This is not a move Belichick wanted to make. Part of Belichick’s football genius is his ability to see three moves beyond the rest of us. Why trade tomorrow’s franchise QB to appease yesterday’s?
But New England owner Robert Kraft made a rare corporate cameo and ordered Belichick to jam the eject button on Jimmy G, the report said. And he did, essentially dumping a franchise quarterback — rarer than a boom cyclone — for a MetroCard. New England got a second-round draft pick in return, which is a relative pittance. Moreover, Belichick’s authority was usurped in a crucial move that will impact the Pats for the next decade. (Garoppolo then went 5-0 with the 49ers, who couldn’t beat a Big Ten team before he arrived. Now his native San Francisco handle is “Jimmy Jesus.”)
It’s easy to understand Belichick. He’s not only a great coach and legendary football brain; he’s the architect of this football dynasty because he doesn’t crumble under the weight of friendships or nostalgia. If a player has breached his expiration date, Belichick will sweep him out with the week’s waste. Perhaps you can keep his phone number and call upon Coach for some avuncular wisdom, but there’s no romance behind who stays and who goes.
Sure, the gems in this story were leaked by someone who wanted to toss a PR dart at Brady, either a Patriots coach or someone from Garoppolo’s camp. (Brady and Garoppolo share the same agent, but that means nothing in this case.) But that doesn’t make it untrue. And no matter how many tweets or social media group hugs the Pats post, the illogic behind that trade trumps any denials. Belichick made it clear that he was not accepting offers for Garoppolo, until the week of the trade deadline, when he coldly booted him for gridiron crumbs.
The sprawling report by Wickserham makes Brady look vain, petty and boorish. Brady has now graduated from football star to movie star to America’s mentor to the NFL’s Oprah. And everything about it is antithetical to the sterile, scientific way Belichick molds his squads. And it was a clear, counterintuitive move by Kraft, who built a bubble around Belichick and the football operations while he stacked Super Bowl rings.
Brady, who turns 41 in August, says he wants to play until he’s 45. There is zero precedent in pro football history to suggest he can do this. And Belichick knows it, which is why Garoppolo was the pivot point in the team’s future.
The Patriots are 13-3, the top seed in the AFC, so, superficially, nothing has changed. But toss out a climate cliche — the night is darkest before the light, the calm before the storm, etc. — and you can see this surreal football machine falling apart soon. No matter how great the system is, no matter how soporific yet successful the process has been for the Patriots, you don’t win in the NFL without a superior quarterback. And now the Pats went from having two to one, from a young buck in rut ready to replace Brady, to TB12 flexing his corporate and cultural muscles, looking way too childish.
The media and the masses are ready to pick the Pats apart, suck the bones dry on this dynasty. Will Belichick return next season? Or was this thumb in his eye, by his boss, too much for him to handle? No matter who stays or goes, the end is near. Like the hit show “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming to Foxborough.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel