So, anyway, we were down in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, in the bowl-like lecture hall where the coach and the quarterback meet the press after every home game, and the coach had just finished setting a land-speed record for monosyllables. Minutes before, Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots had finished knocking off the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, 43-17, which is quite a knocking-off indeed. He stood behind the podium and did a very passable imitation of Knute Rockne, who has been dead since 1931. If the Patriots had scored one more touchdown, it is entirely possible that their coach might have ossified like one of those ash-covered people they found in Pompeii. The quarterback was a different story altogether. Here we had a 37-year-old, 225-pound cat looking very much like he’d swallowed a four-ton canary.
“It’s hard to be oblivious to things,” said Tom Brady, while attempting to keep his tongue from turning to fire. “We all have TVs and we all have the Internet. The emails I get from people, all of them are so concerned, and I’m always emailing them back, you know, telling them, ‘Nobody died. It’s just a loss, you know?’”
It was the oddest week of Brady’s career since the days at Michigan when Lloyd Carr had him splitting the duties at quarterback with Drew Henson on the basis of standards so whimsical and arbitrary that nobody really understands them to this day. Last Monday night, the Patriots got roasted by the Kansas City Chiefs, 41-14, their worst loss in nine years. Brady took a fearful beating, and he was fearfully awful. The end of the game saw him as the 27th-rated quarterback in the NFL, with a QBR of 46.5. (Wilt Chamberlain had a higher scoring average over the course of the 1961-62 season. Analytics, baby!) There was serious talk — well, as serious as talk can get on sports radio, which is often like attempting to decide who is banging two rocks together with the most nuance — that Brady might be done as an elite quarterback, and/or that, in any case, he might be done in Foxborough. There was even some impatience in the peanut gallery for the start of the Jimmy Garoppolo Era, which was an uncomfortable place to put poor Garoppolo, who, after all, had been a professional football player for all of six months.
The week that followed got progressively stranger. Belichick and the Patriots went out of their way to knock down a story that said wide receiver Aaron Dobson, who’d been DNP’d for most of the season, had gotten into it with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel. (Ordinarily, the Patriots simply no-comment stories like this. If some special-teams guy opened up with a blow gun and poison darts one day at practice, the official line would be that several players were “questionable” for that week’s game with upper-body injuries.) Belichick also came in for intense criticism for his personnel moves, which seemed to have left Brady with no wide receivers to speak of and an offensive line full of unknown soldiers. Then, yesterday, as the pregame shows unlimbered themselves on several networks, the fan was well and truly hit by that which hits the fan in these situations.
Quoting team sources, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on alleged “tension” that existed between Brady and his coaches over the fact that Brady didn’t have enough protection or weapons at his disposal, and that the tension was so severe that Brady’s future with the Patriots was in doubt unless team owner Robert Kraft intervened. This is not the way you want to go into a game against an undefeated team when you’re coming off a short week and the undefeated team had the bye. So, naturally, everything you knew was wrong.
“I love all those guys, all my coaches,” Brady said. “I don’t have any tension with any of them, truthfully. It’s unfortunate that some things get said and talked about, especially when they don’t come from me. That’s the hard thing for our team, to deal with things that are really outside football. It’s personal. It’s a very personal relationship that’s built up over some time. I got a lot of love and trust for everybody in this building. I mean, one thing about this team, when we win, we all spread it around and when we lose, we all take it to heart. I think that’s contrary to human nature. When you lose, you start pointing fingers. When we lose, we blame ourselves. We can learn from our mistakes, be better players, and be better teammates.”
Brady left the Bengals in splinters, completing 23 of 35 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns. The anonymous offensive line not only kept him healthy and upright, they also gashed the Cincinnati defense to the point where Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for 203 yards rushing. (Ridley ran for 113, but Vereen went for 90 yards on only 10 carries.) On the game’s opening drive, Brady took the Patriots 80 yards in 10 plays, completing two passes and taking off on his own three times. There was serious and obvious fire to his play. He was a ferocious presence on the field and on the sideline.
His second big moment came in the third quarter, after Cincinnati briefly made a game of it at 20-10 on a sweet 37-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Mohamed Sanu. On the next possession, the Patriots took the ball 86 yards, the last 16 of them on a pass from Brady to Rob Gronkowski, who also played as though his head might ignite at any moment.
“I told my buddies before I came to the game, ‘I’m going to make Tom Brady look like Tom Brady,’” Gronkowski said. “So I went out there, with my teammates, and we made Tom Brady look like Tom Brady after all you guys, all week, criticizing him, all the fans. I felt so good.”
“I don’t know. It was the next game. It was good to win,” Bill Belichick exulted.
If there is one constant to Tom Brady’s career, right back to the days when he was a lightly recruited high school player who ended up at Michigan, through the days when he was a sixth-round draft pick who ended up in New England, through the days when he was third on the Patriots depth chart, and then second, and then the starter and winner in the Super Bowl, it is that he has had his doubters. This isn’t just the usual nobody-ever-believed-in-me bunkum that every athlete ladles out for the purposes of reinventing his autobiography on the fly. Very few people did believe in him. There really were people who thought he couldn’t play at the level at which Michigan plays. The experience there with Carr, and the way Brady had to carve out respect pretty much on his own, was a genuine crucible, especially those seasons in which he had to deal with the absurd situation involving himself and Henson. Once he left Ann Arbor, it was only through the intercession of the late Dick Rehbein, a New England coach and scout, and the intercession of Mo Lewis with Drew Bledsoe’s ribs, that got him the chance he grabbed onto the way he did.
Now, it’s different. He’s 37, and the doubts are fluttering around him again, but they are different, too. The stakes of them are more mortal. Before, there were doubts about his ability to play. Now, the doubts concern whether he can play the way Tom Brady has played. Every career ends. Some end smoothly. Some do not. But as the doubts flew thick and fast after the Kansas City game, Brady wasn’t looking at a bright and promising path that only he could see. He was being asked to look at the end of the road.
It was a rare night all around. Brady became the sixth quarterback in league history to pass for more than 50,000 yards in his career. The crowd chanted his name, over and over again. But, mainly, it was of a piece with his entire career, a throwback to the days before he was who he has become. And the satisfaction of becoming what he has become looked as fresh on him as Sunday night became Monday morning as it did at the end of the Super Bowl in New Orleans, when he smiled and grabbed his head like he’d won something beyond price. Tom E. Curran, of Comcast Sports New England, who has known Brady longer than just about anyone who covers the team, noticed it, too.
“Tom,” Curran asked, “you have a pretty good track record of keeping track of slights when people doubt you … ”
“That might be unfair,” Brady said.
No, it’s not. These were the nights he was born for, the nights when he can confound expectations, even the diminishing expectations of age. The nights when you eat the canary and everybody else eats crow.