Bill Belichick's Patriot Way doesn't give soft exits, even for legends like Tom Brady

The ruthlessness of Bill Belichick came into focus for all of America to see in 2003, when the New England Patriots got rid of Lawyer Milloy, a hard-hitting safety and beloved team captain.

So much so that when the football reaper came years later for Richard Seymour and Ty Law, two other Hall of Fame-worthy, “Capital P” Patriots, it hardly came as a surprise to anyone.

But the ending for Tom Brady, we can all agree, was supposed to be different.

He’s the certified G.O.A.T., an NFL icon for two decades. And unlike the other guys, he played quarterback, the most important and recognizable position in football. So if any football player could have immunity to the Bill Belichick Special, it was Brady.

But it was not to be, as Brady’s declaration that he would not be returning to the Patriots, which he tweeted Tuesday morning, brought the NFL world to a screeching halt.

Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Head coach Bill Belichick (R) looks on  after defeating the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. The Patriots defeated the Falcons 34-28 after overtime.  / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick partnership has yielded six Super Bowl titles. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

If Tom Brady wasn’t afforded a softer exit out of New England, no player can ever think they deserve it. They will know going in that no matter what they do, or how much they accomplish, that the end will come for them as a Patriot, and it probably won’t be their choice.

Of course, that’s not how the Patriots are framing this. Following Brady’s announcement, the team released glowing parting statements from team owner Bob Kraft and Belichick, with Belichick even stating his relationship with Brady was “built on love, admiration, respect and appreciation.”

What’s more, Kraft began calling various media members and explaining to them that if Brady wanted to return to New England, they could have worked it out. The message: Hey, Brady wanted to leave! Don’t blame us for this!

By any measure, Tom Brady’s best football fit is New England. He knows the Patriots, and they know him. The offense is custom-fit to everything he wants to do, complete with a coordinator he knows and trusts. By going elsewhere, it’s going to be a huge pain in the ass for Brady to get the system – and his coaches and teammates — on the same page with how he wants to run the offense.

What’s more, the biggest problem with a stagnant Patriots offense in 2019 was not Brady, whose decline is real but not dramatic; instead it was a lack of targets he trusts. Outside of James White and Julian Edelman, no one else consistently executed the precision Brady demands. This is something that should have been rectified before last season, of course, but it’s also something that should have been relatively easy to do this offseason.

Brady, of course, knows all this. Yet, he still felt compelled to leave anyway. Why? Well, it certainly feels the type of decision you make when you need a change of scenery (at best), or don’t feel appreciated (at worst).

And the latter sure feels more real, especially considering that the Patriots declined to extend Brady’s contract after the 2017 season, when he was named league MVP. They also declined to do so after 2018, as Brady — who has said he wants to play until he’s 45 — settled for restructuring the deal in a way that prevented the Patriots from franchise-tagging him after the 2019 season.

And over the past several weeks, the signs were there of a breakup, even though we didn’t want to see it. There were reports about the lack of meaningful discussions between the Brady camp and the Patriots. And how, when they eventually spoke, things reportedly “didn’t go well.” And now, even as the Patriots gave Brady his flowers in the wake of his departure, there are reports that the team never made a substantive offer to keep him.

All of which leads to only one reasonable conclusion: by refusing to put the full-court press on Brady to return — which could have only been done through a combination of action, cash and long-term commitment — Belichick also gave his aging star quarterback the push out of town.

And while it may not have been as harsh as a trade or a cut, if you’ve been paying attention to how Bill Belichick has done business over the past two decades (always pragmatic, always a year too early to part with a player rather than a year too late) perhaps this was the best, most compassionate, way that Tom Brady’s partnership with the Patriots would come to its inevitable end.

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