THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
I can’t say I love it, but it is something to behold when sports coverage starts to read like the tabloid press, the gossip columns, supermarket checkout magazines, TV celebrity tracking shows and even reality programmes. The NFL itself dipped its toe into this particular swamp with its training camp ‘reality’ show Hard Knocks, but this year football and celebrity tittle-tattle came together, what you might call the pearl/swine interface, with the much publicized divorce between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
After twenty years together, six Super Bowls, almost constant divisional success, and even after seeing off a flirtation with the younger, more handsome, Jimmy G, Brady decided to pack his bags and move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa?!? Maybe it was a chance to move closer to Gisele’s native Brazil, though Ybor City is nominally Cuban - it’s Spanish, not Portugese you hear round town. Or maybe it was a marketing opportunity too good to pass up: TB12 moves to TB. Tompa Bay! Tampa Tom! The baseball caps would be flying off the shelves.
Despite the cynicism directed at Brady’s eye for trademarking, the roots of his split lay primarily on the field, with the fast fading football future of a 41 year old QB. The 2019 season in New England provided Brady a “mirror mirror on the wall” glimpse of the present, and for him, the present was the future. So his move grew out of his discontent at home and the opportunity on offer away.
At home many people thought there was a shadow over the Brady/Belichick relationship caused by the eventual trading of Jimmy Garoppolo. The sports gossip columns claimed Belichick had wanted to trade Brady, following the Branch Rickey dictum that it’s better to lose a player a year too early than a year too late, but that owner Robert Kraft intervened. When Jimmy G eventually went off to San Francisco for a second round draft pick (and Brian Hoyer), the same mouth-clowns decided this was Belichick’s ‘revenge’ on Kraft. But Belichick also banned Brady’s personal trainer and health guru from travelling with the team, forcing him to work with Patriots players in their gym/shop in the Patriot Place mall.
Still the Pats won their sixth Super Bowl, and last year jumped off to an 8-0 start, helped by the easy part of their schedule and by the league’s top defense allowing them to win in what looked like high-scoring routes. Their 16-10 victory over Buffalo should have sent alarm bells ringing, and sure enough, over the 4-4 second half of the year, that offense wasn’t good enough to carry them through games against top teams unless the D generated points with turnovers and field position. They lost to the Ravens and Texans, and narrowly beat the not-very-good Eagles and Cowboys before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs 23-16 in a game where a potential game-changing fumble-recovery TD was blown dead. The D kept the high-powered KC offense in check, but Brady & Co. couldn’t keep pace.
The problem was two-fold; a makeshift offensive line and having no one to throw to. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had retired after making the Super Bowl winning catch against the Rams, and his absence was key in both areas. Gronk’s blocking ability was like having a third offensive tackle, and even as limited by injury as he was, he remained the kind of match-up nightmare Belichick craves. He’s primarily a defense-first, ball-control coach, but when he has the weapons, he can use them, and mis-matching is what he loves. Randy Moss. Then Gronk (and Aaron Hernandez). They open the areas for the little guys (Wes Welker, Julian Edelman) underneath. In 2019, there was no replacement anywhere close to what Gronk offered. Edelman was their number one receiver, and as he wore down over the season he was increasingly unable to get himself open. Which was a problem because he was the only receiver Brady trusted, and trust is a crucial thing.
In December 2016, the Pats had signed Michael Floyd, a talented but troubled underachiever released by Arizona after a DUI. On New Year’s Day, Floyd flattened Miami’s Tony Lippett to spring Edelman for a 77 yard TD; he scored one of his own on a play where, with his back to the goal line, he bulled two receivers backward into the end zone. Instantly, he became a Patriots’ legend. In their first playoff game two weeks later, Floyd dropped a crossing route pass from Brady. He never saw another ball, was inactive for the rest of the playoffs, and released after the season.
Last year Brady was hesitant to throw the ball to any receiver other than Edelman, or his backs. The Pats had for the first time ever spent a first-round pick on a wideout, N’Keal Harry, but he spent the first half of the season injured, and his one great play of the second half, a TD against KC, was called back erroneously by an official who thought Harry had stepped out of bounds. Replay showed his hadn’t, but Belichick was already out of challenges. When the Pats were beaten by Tennessee in the playoffs, the Titans stopped their run and Brady had no response.
Belichick had provided Brady with another receiver he could trust, however, when he signed the troubled former-Pittsburgh star Antonio Brown. Here was another chance for the Patriot Way to transform a problem into a positive. Brady and Brown bonded instantly. He was put on “double secret probation”, as Dean Wormer told the Delts in Animal House. He practiced for a week, played in one game, caught four passes for 56 yards and a score. Days later, he sent a threatening tweet to one of the women suing him for sexual assault. The Patriots released him, and eventually he was issued yet another suspension by the league. Brady’s disappointment was palpable, and his displeasure became more and more apparent as the Pats struggled in December and January. When the time came, Brady announced he was leaving.
Brady signed with the Bucs. On the surface, the mix with Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians wasn’t an obvious one; Arians had always preferred strong-armed QBs who could stand tall in the pocket for his slower-developing downfield plays (Andrew Luck in Indy, Carson Palmer in Arizona, Jameis Winston in Tampa). But he was also a sharp offensive mind, and his partnership with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, an even-sharper defensive mind, was a good one. With Winston at QB throwing 33 TD passes, Tampa had finished the 2019 season 7-9. Looking behind that, there were another three, maybe four, games which were winnable had not Winston also launched 30 interceptions, and fumbled the ball 12 times. He had a great arm, but was a slow reader with faulty pocket presence, prone to holding the ball too long and not sense the impending pass rushers. In some ways, the antithesis to Brady.
Plus the Bucs had weapons in Mike Evans and Chris Goodwin, maybe the best pair of big downfield receivers around. OJ Howard and Cameron Brate were a good pair of tight ends and Ronald Jones a strong runner. Their O line was decent, especially inside, and their defense had a number of first-rate play-makers. Brady was signing on to a team he might, potentially, push over the top, maybe all the way to a Super Bowl which would be played in the Bucs’ own stadium. And he brought with him another bonus: Gronk, who came out of his one-year retirement to again hook up in a partnership which had combined for more TD passes than Joe Montana and Jerry Rice; more than anyone except Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
Tampa started strongly, and Brady for the most part looked sharp; his throws had zing. He still was vulnerable to the rush; in week nine New Orleans and their passing old-timer Drew Brees shellacked Tampa as the Saints rushed Brady the way the Giants had when they won Super Bowl 42, coming right up the middle. The Bucs had made more moves; underachieving runner Leonard Fournette arrived from Jacksonville, Steve McLendon replaced the injured Vita Vea, but they saved the best for last: almost inevitably, Antonio Brown literally moved into the house Brady was renting from former baseball star Derek Jeter, and when his suspension ended, stepped on field for the Bucs. He caught ten passes for 100 yards in his first two games, before an incident surfaced from October, where he tore down a security camera at the gated community where he lives in Miami.
As I write this, Jameis Winston will start for the Saints after Brees was injured, and TB12 is preparing for the Bucs’ showdown with the Rams, looking for their revenge against Brady and Gronk for Super Bowl 53! What goes around, comes around!
Meanwhile in New England, the Pats made a last-minute signing of Cam Newton, the former league MVP with Carolina and, until Newton went down with Covid, were making noises. In an interview of extraordinary frankness, Belichick admitted the team’s poor start was down to some bad decisions, but also to their being stretched having ‘sold out’ in salary cap terms during their twenty years of dominance. In the off-season New England had lost eight starters, mostly from the defense; then a number of key veterans decided to take Covid opt-outs.
With no space on their salary cap, they managed to squeeze Newton’s deal in, but as injuries and corona bit, they had few answers. Belichick was accused of making excuses, when in reality he was describing pretty accurately what had gone on, and frankly, he might have said that still having Brady would have made little difference.
Then, in week 10, Cam Newton started to return to form and the Pats upset the Baltimore Ravens, bringing their record up to 4-5, and spark hopes they might be able to squeeze into a playoff expanded by one team per conference. That wouldn’t be a bigger story than Brady and Tampa’s march toward the hometown Super Bowl, though it probably ought to be, but it would rekindle the argument of whether Belichick the coach made Brady the quarterback, or whether it was the other way around.
Nobody in today’s sports world devoid of nuance would ever suggest it might be a little bit of both.