We look for clues.
Tom Brady‘s final news conference — was that a clue? We wondered what he would say after the New England Patriots lost to the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the playoffs. More than that, we wondered how he would act.
“Well done is better than well said,” his father always told him, and so we’d been trained to watch his body language for hints into his thinking. We’d watched him as he bit his lip and gutted through the Patriot Way when Bill Belichick would cut or trade key players; watched when he stood alone during his Deflategate news conference; watched when he sat onstage with Jim Gray in 2018 and, in response to a question about whether he felt appreciated by his bosses, blurted out, “I plead the fifth!”; watched to see how he handled a postseason win, when he would hug Belichick, or loss, when he could look almost physically ill.
Facing the media after the loss to the Titans seemed to warrant whatever physically ill looks like for a 42-year-old quarterback who had thrown a pick-six on his final pass. But this time felt different. After Belichick finished his news conference, Brady emerged from the locker room — no, he shot out of the locker room, with a flurry of people behind him. It was unclear whether he had even showered or just thrown on his jeans, shirt and stocking hat. A man who always looked pristine now didn’t care. Behind a lectern he had stood at hundreds of times before, he did something he never did after a loss: He took his time. He was unrushed. He smiled a bit. He answered every question, many of which concerned his future as a Patriot. He took last questions even after we were told that he would answer just one last question. He did not say anything revelatory, but he carried himself like a person who knew this might be the last time he did something he had done many times.
Then he picked up his bag, hugged safety Devin McCourty, who was next at the podium, and whispered, “See ya tomorrow.”
No one knew what tomorrow held. For the first time in his career, Brady would be a free agent, with the emphasis on free. But already he looked liberated. A few minutes later, he walked with purpose through the tunnel at Gillette Stadium — walked fast, walked to put off a clear vibe that he did not want to be stopped — with his sleeping daughter in his arms, his wife at his side and his assistants behind him. Brady entered a parking lot in the dark New England rain, and it seemed obvious, if not official, that a partnership that spanned two decades was over.
ON MARCH 17 — St. Patrick’s Day, a day on which many of us were told not to leave our houses for the foreseeable future due to a rapidly spreading virus — Tom Brady announced that he was moving. He didn’t say where at first, but soon we learned that it was to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an icon joining one of the least iconic teams in sports — a storied career as the starting quarterback in New England that began shortly after 9/11 now bookended by another international crisis. Of course, Brady did not just leave the Patriots. He sparked a debate over the meaning of the past, setting off a war for credit for six Super Bowls. Was it Bill? Was it Tom? History is now up for grabs, and both men know that how we think of them now is not how we will think of them in a decade.