Inside Tom Brady’s triumphant return to New England

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FOXBORO, Mass. — Just before he left Gillette Stadium this morning, a few minutes before 1, Tom Brady ducked into the foyer of his team’s locker room, away from the madding crowd of former teammates, coaches, Patriots employees and curious media in the concourse he’d walked 10,000 times.

“I’m tired,” Brady told me in a voice that started the week hoarse and stayed that way. This is the kind of week it was for Brady: When his voice was very scratchy and soft at his weekly Thursday news conference in Tampa, Entertainment Tonight called the PR staff and wondered if there was any chance Brady was getting sick. No, it was just the weight of the hardest non-Super Bowl game Brady has ever played, his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returning to play his old one, the New England Patriots.

“I am really tired,” he said again. Suddenly, he looked and sounded his 44 years, the intensity of Tampa’s tight 19-17 win taking its toll. “For a regular-season game, that was pretty intense.”

There was the emotion of the week, of course—Brady returning to the place he put on the football map with two decades of greatness, and playing the coach who was his boss for 20 seasons. This place was nuts Sunday night. A crowd of 65,878, including a man in one end zone dressed in a goat costume and bleating like a crazy person, stood for most of a rainy New England night and at least three times broke into “BRAY-dee, BRAY-dee, BRAY-dee” chants. But there was exhaustion, too, because of the detective work Brady and his Tampa buddies did to beat the odds. I’m not talking about the odds of a betting line. I’m talking about the odds of figuring out Bill Belichick.

Brady walked into work Tuesday morning in Tampa and told quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever really studied New England—studied them like an opponent. I can see now it’s gonna be an unbelievable challenge to try to figure them out.” So Brady, backup quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin and veteran Christensen spent the week mining old Patriots game footage going back to 2013, to try to divine clues into how Belichick would play Brady. The mission struck gold on Thursday when Brady got the video guys in Tampa to unearth a New England-Minnesota game in 2018—but more about that later. Point was, Brady over-prepared for this game because he knew his rival for the week, Belichick, would be doing the same 1,325 miles to the north.

The extraordinary night ended with Belichick himself walking into the Tampa Bay locker room to seek out Brady for a face-to-face they never had in the 18 months since Brady phoned him one night in March 2020 to say he’d be moving on in free-agency. Gabbert was sitting in the locker room with receivers Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin when they saw Belichick walk in. “We were like, Did we see what we all think we just saw?” Gabbert said. Sure did. One Buc source said he thought Brady and Belichick talked for about 15 minutes; Brady declined to get into specifics about their meeting. He did, however, push back against those who have characterized their parting as acrimonious.

“It was a very personal, private thing,” Brady said. “We’ve always had that type of relationship where we can say things to each other. You know, whoever characterizes our relationship is completely wrong. People want to focus on so much stuff that’s so unimportant. You know? We were together for 20-plus years and we were so productive and successful and I learned so much from him. Loved my experience here, loved my relationship with him.”

Both men could be magnanimous Sunday night, because both men—both teams—won here.

Brady won because he came back to his two-decade home and his team won, and Tampa Bay is 3-1, and he doesn’t have to come back to this emotional maelstrom . . . perhaps forever. The Bucs are shaky and beat up and Brady was just okay all game, but that’s the way good teams win sometimes. Belichick won because his quarterback was equal to the moment, and the post-Brady rebuild seems on-track. Mac Jones completed 19 passes in a row at one point, and it’s arguable that a batted pass by a Tampa rusher with a minute to go was the difference in the game. Instead of a reasonable, say, 48-yard field goal try by Nick Folk, he had to try from 56—and the ball loudly clanged off the left upright.

It was almost justice for the fans who sat through the rain. The New Englanders watched their team outplay the Super Bowl champs for much of the night, and watched the next automaton quarterback put aside whatever nerves he might have had to play very well.

It felt like old times, really: Brady won, the Patriots look like they have a quarterback for the long term, and New England’s defense confounded a strong offense. Patriots fans can wake up this morning feeling good about the past, present and future.

Strange game, as you saw. It’s not often—or ever—that you hear Tom Brady’s coach describe his play as “very careful.” That’s how Bruce Arians saw it. “He wasn’t going to make mistakes that cost us the game.” Usually it’s Brady attacking the opposition. But the way Brady played showed the immense respect he had for Belichick.

One Buc operative put it this way: “Remember the Super Bowl against Seattle, when everybody’s screaming in the last minute for Bill to take a timeout, but he won’t take it because he knows the Seahawks aren’t sure what they want to do. So he’s putting pressure on them, and he figures maybe that pressure will cause a mistake. And Russell Wilson throws the pick to Malcolm Butler at the goal line. In this game, Tom wasn’t going to make the big mistake. He knows Bill thrives on forcing good players and coaches into mistakes.”

One of Brady’s confidants, Christensen, said Brady’s misses were on the conservative side. But he overthrew Tyler Johnson in the first quarter, negating a big gain. He missed two easy passes in the flat to open receivers. On a night he broke the NFL record for career passing yards, he finished 22 of 43 (52 percent, his low in 20 regular-season games in Tampa). His best throw of the night got wasted. On the first series of the third quarter, Tampa trailing 7-6, Brady rainbowed a perfect 44-yard strike to Antonio Brown. That would have put the ball on the Patriots’ 38-yard line and changed the momentum of the game. But tackle Donovan Smith got a hands-to-the-face call, and the Bucs were pushed back to the Tampa 9. That was a 53-yard penalty, in effect, and wrecked the Tampa drive.

The Bucs just weren’t in sync all night—but one of the plays they researched hard came to fruition. Late in the first quarter, Brady lined up to see seven New England defenders milling around the line. Who’d rush? Who’d drop? He didn’t know, but he knew he’d seen this before. This is the kind of defense Belichick played in 2018 against the Vikings, and it’s one of the defensive formations Brady and his band of football researchers found when doing their homework.

“What we did this week was look at games throughout the last 10 years of opposing elite-level quarterbacks,” Gabbert told me. “We looked at how Belichick played Denver and Peyton [Manning] back in 2013. We found this defense against the Vikings in 2018, sort of like a walk-around, a lot of DBs on the field. We picked games and tried to get as much knowledge as we could of what we could potentially see. It was fun. It was great. At least we felt prepared.”

Gabbert, like Christensen, clapped back at my take that completing 52 percent with no TDs was an issue for Brady on this night. “He’s the best ever at mitigating risk in playing the quarterback position,” Gabbert said. “What he did tonight I thought was surgical. He knew where his issues could potentially be, he knew where to attack and when to attack, and there was a couple of big plays that got called back.”

Now for the personal side of it. Brady’s mom, dad, wife, kids and extended family were here. Just before the game, some tears were shed in the box; the emotions hit a few in the family as kickoff neared.

On Saturday night, Christensen told Brady he wouldn’t blame him for being emotional in the game. Brady’s whole adult life, post-college, was here from age 22 to when he was nearly 43. His had three children while living here. He married one of the world’s most famous women while living here. He used to be able to scalp a ticket and walk over to Fenway Park in the first summer or two here without being noticed, or take the train to New York City for an off-day without being noticed. Then he won three Super Bowls early in his career, had a decade-long drought, and won three more. From the 199th pick in the 2000 draft to being called the great player of all time by 2019 . . . that’s some heavy stuff.

To return to the scene of his prime, while still being in his prime (odd as that sounds, at 44), is something that very few great ones have done. “I just think it all weighed on him,” Christensen said. “I think he went between feeling tremendous pride, tremendous emotion and tremendous pressure.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady waves to fans as he leaves the field following Tampa’s victory over New England. (Getty Images)

During the week, Brady told Christensen how much respect he had for teams that came into Foxboro and won games. And when Christensen first saw him after the game, Brady smiled and sighed.

“God,” Brady said, “is it hard to come in here and win a football game.”

It was a weird week of nostalgia and fans in New England not being sure what they wanted. There was a sector of the crowd that bemoaned the loss of Brady after the 2019 season, including the teacher in Vermont who told me last week fans viewed Brady as a traitor for not returning. But if Brady came back in 2020, how to fit at least an eighth of the team’s salary cap into the quarterback—keeping in mind the Patriots desperately needed an offensive infusion? I thought the lobsterman I saw on the Maine coast, Craig Simons, had it right when he told me: “You knew the Patriots didn’t have the depth or the money to get anyone to help him. If he had stayed, it would have been sad to watch.”

Brady wished he could have stayed, but by the time 2019 was reaching its end, he actually wanted to leave. Simons had it right: Brady knew the team needed so much, and for him to take up an eighth of the salary cap, or whatever his contract would have cost, just seemed like staying for staying’s sake. Plus, as he told me 14 months ago, he was energized in his 30th year of playing high school, college and pro football by playing for an offensive head coach, Arians, for the first time in those three decades.

That’s why it was best for everyone to move on, and for the Patriots to draft a quarterback in 2021. Mac Jones handled the pressure and the task Sunday night. One thing this night proved was that it was smarter, for the continuum of a great franchise, to move on to Jones. Belichick had to drive away from the stadium early this morning feeling he’d turned a corner with his team, brawling with the Super Bowl champs with only the clanging of a ball off the upright the difference between winning and losing. (Though I’m not sure he’ll be as sanguine about having Nick Folk try a 56-yard field goal in the rain and a slight wind, instead of having a quarterback who’d gone 31 of 40 attempt to convert a fourth-and-three. Not smart, in my opinion.)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New England Patriots
Patriots coach Bill Belichick. (Getty Images)

As Brady left the stadium early this morning, I’m sure the meeting with Belichick filled his head. “We’d known each other for 20-plus years,” Brady said, “and when I left here, we just didn’t have a chance—he was out of town—to meet. When I went down to Tampa it was Covid. I was thinking about my season and so was he. It was just, we’ve known each other for a long time, and we didn’t have a chance to talk, and tonight we did, and it was great.”

I thought of a conversation I had last week with Wayne Gretzky. His career reminds of Brady’s in one very big way. He won four Stanley Cups in Edmonton before being traded to Los Angeles in 1988. Brady won six before leaving the Patriots in free-agency. Manning won one before leaving Indy, Favre one before leaving Green Bay. Winning four, as Gretzky did, and still being great? That’s Brady ground.

“I don’t see any end in sight,” Gretzky said. “I’m not so sure he’s just playing one more, or two more years.”

But there was something else.

Said Gretzky: “Me and my coach, Glenn Sather, weren’t best friends when I played. Magic Johnson and Pat Riley might not have been best friends when he played either. I don’t know, but from what I’m seeing and hearing, Tom and Bill might have a couple of issues. But the one thing about great coaches—they push us to be great. From the outside, it seems like Bill did that with Tom. I know this: Glenn pushed me harder than any coach ever pushed me in my life. He made me better.

“Great coaches drive us to be better. When you’re done, I think that’s what you’d hope your coach was for you.”

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Inside Tom Brady’s triumphant return to New England originally appeared on NBCSports.com