FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady surely deserved to leave Gillette Stadium on Sunday night with a souvenir. It stuck out from the brown satchel that he slung over his shoulder. It was the football that Brady used to set the NFL’s all-time passing record.
“This one’s for me,” Brady said of the football, beaming at the thought.
It’s weird. Brady made another type of history by surpassing Drew Brees’ temporary record of 80,358 career yards, a fait accompli moment in the 19-17 Bucs victory that, admit it, was so much more dramatic than you thought it would be.
The fall of the record was such a routine act that they didn’t even stop the game to acknowledge it. Brady called a timeout himself, which allowed enough of a pause for the message to go up on the video board and for the Patriots faithful to give TB12 some of the due they showered on him all night.
It was strange, too, that the mark came during a game in which Brady didn’t even throw for a touchdown. Maybe that’s because Bill Belichick knows him so well. Perhaps it was because the Patriots defense is still stocked with several players – hello, Devin McCourty, hi, Kyle Van Noy – that Brady used to play against in practice. And let’s not forget the Gronk factor. Brady threw for 10 touchdowns during the first three weeks of the season and four were to Gronkowski, but with “Red Zone Robby” not even making the trip because of a rib injury, Brady couldn’t find a scoring strike and the Bucs offense sputtered so much after getting into striking range.
Sure, it was a night for strangeness, with Brady returning to his home turf for two decades and nearly getting upstaged by rookie Mac Jones.
But it was cool, too, that Brady left with that football. It was fitting Brady, 44, set the record in front of the fans who were there for much of his remarkable journey – which includes winning six Super Bowls in a Patriots uniform.
Yet on Sunday night, the “record” football really seemed like the classic “game ball,” which in this case would be for lifetime achievement … and for beating Belichick?
For all that has been discussed, debated and dissected – and intensified over the past week – about the relationship between Brady and Belichick, the optics between the two on Sunday night was all about humility.
Typically, Belichick came off like an ogre (again) in his postgame news conference when someone else asked about Brady after the matter was broached earlier in the session. That’s his sorry schtick. Yet the coach demonstrated respect and, well, humility by visiting with Brady for an extended time in the visitor’s locker room. After exchanging pleasantries briefly on the field after the game, Belichick was in the Bucs locker room for about 20 minutes, according to multiple reports.
Now that’s humbling.
And in 20 years, it’s a good bet they never met there before.
Brady, for his part, seemed eager to move past the narrative that has persisted about friction in their relationship as the most crucial factor that prompted him to bolt from the Patriots as a free agent in 2020, allowing him to win Super Bowl No. 7 in his first season with the Bucs.
“So much is made of our relationship” Brady said during a postgame news conference that was delayed by his visit with Belichick. “You know, as I said earlier this week, from a player’s standpoint you just expect the coach to give you everything he’s got, and I’m sure as a player that’s what he was hoping from me. But nothing is really accurate that I ever see (of the reports). It’s all kind of – definitely doesn’t come from my personal feelings or beliefs. I got a lot of respect for him as a coach and obviously a lot of respect for this organization and all the different people here that try to make it successful.”
Fair enough, but it’s still a bad look for the Patriots that it came to this. The icon is a Buc.
And Belichick’s team, 1-3, is trying to find its footing in this rebuilding after Brady.
On the return visit, that meant experiencing his old stomping grounds as a visitor. Of course, there was a “Brady’s Corner” sign situated next to the tunnel where the visiting team enters, so maybe no visitor has ever been showered with the type of affection that Brady received.
Still, it was a bit surreal to see The Razor from the other side.
“Very tough to come into the environment,” Brady said. “I thought the fans did a great job. That little – what do they call that horn, that foghorn or whatever? That thing is loud as can be. You don’t think about it much when the defense is on the field. I just happened to be on the field when that thing was going off. It’s a great home field advantage.”
Yet somehow, like with the help of a running game that’s been suspect all season and with some key plays from the injury-battered Bucs defense, he survived to leave the place as a winner.
“I tried not to predict what was going to happen and how I would feel,” he said. “Had a few emotional moments this week just thinking about the people that have really meant so much to me in my life and that are a part of this community. Just very grateful for an amazing time here. Like I said, my football journey took me somewhere else, but I’m really enjoying that, and great to get a win.”
Brady’s reputation among teammates includes his keen ability to compartmentalize issues as a pillar for focus. That had to be put to the test this week.
“You know what this game entailed for him,” said Bucs receiver Antonio Brown, who contributed seven catches for 63 yards to the cause. “As soon as the season started, you knew what this would entail.”
Brown, who briefly joined Brady during his last season in New England in 2019 before being released due to off-field issues, knows all about the emotion that wrapped with this return.
Someone asked Brown whether he sensed that Brady was more nervous than usual in the days leading up to the game. Brown smiled.
“You know … it’s hard to get into his head,” Brown said. “He’s a trooper, man.”
It might not have been picture-perfect and it might have been weird. But Brady was still so much in his element again, winning, at the same ol’ place.