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Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s Patriots Dynasty

The best partnership in sports history is breaking up. Brady and Belichick were synonymous with greatness for two decades. What will they be known for apart from each other?

It was right there, printed in The New York Times Magazine in January 2015. Tom Brady Sr. said, “It will end badly. It does end badly. And I know that because I know what Tommy wants to do. He wants to play till he’s 70.” He continued: “It’s a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.” It seemed impossible then that things would end badly between Brady and the only NFL team he’s known. It still seems impossible. No one solved problems and created storybook endings like Brady, who wants to play this season at age 43, not yet 70. I guess dads know. The ending came five years later and, yes, it ended badly, with Tom Curran reporting that “a tangible effort by the Patriots to keep Tom Brady in New England never happened. No negotiation.” His last pass in New England was a pick-six. Brady’s talent was such that not winning the Super Bowl counted as a bad ending. It does end badly.

Brady announced that he would not be returning to New England on Tuesday morning in a thank-you post on social media. “My football journey will take place elsewhere,” he wrote. Elsewhere could mean a lot of things: Tampa Bay, or the Los Angeles Chargers, or a mystery team that hasn’t been linked to the six-time Super Bowl winner. Multiple reports Tuesday said he’d wait before making his decision.

This is one of the biggest breakups the sport has ever seen. Bill Belichick is the best coach in history; Brady is the best quarterback. They fed off of each other’s talent for two decades, and now they’ll have to do it with someone else. Belichick has coached without Brady in Cleveland and stints in New England, to some OK results. Brady has never played without Belichick.

Brady will be 43 in August. Belichick will be 68 in April. They could not have done this forever—but we’ll never know how long they could have kept it going. The Patriots won every division title since 2003 except one—the year Brady tore his ACL in the first game of the season. They not only won, they also rewrote record books, were ahead of every trend in football, and reinvented themselves a handful of times. The players Brady and Belichick shared the sideline with when they started their run are now in broadcast booths, or are head coaches, or executives. Those two are still in their exact roles—star quarterback and head coach—despite first teaming up during the Clinton administration. The Brady-Belichick run will never be duplicated. It was one of the greatest partnerships in sports history, with each person making the other better, and making every player and coach involved better, too. It was a two-decade triumph of football smarts, work ethic, and competence. It’s easy to think of the best partnerships in history: the Wright brothers, or the Google founders, or Bill Gates and Paul Allen. All of the above, as with Belichick and Brady, could beat the Jets.

“Tommy initiated contact last night and came over,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “We had a positive, respectful discussion. It’s not the way I want it to end, but I want him to do what is in his best personal interest. After 20 years with us, he has earned that right. I love him like a son.”

Almost all of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history ended their career with a different team than they started with, but Brady is unique within the genre. Most of those quarterbacks were forced out due to an emerging replacement: Joe Montana went to Kansas City to make way for Steve Young. Brett Favre went to New York, and later Minnesota, because Aaron Rodgers was waiting in Green Bay. The Colts could cut Peyton Manning loose because they were about to draft Andrew Luck. New England’s situation following Brady’s departure is less clear—the Patriots have second-year passer Jarrett Stidham, a fourth-round pick last season, and can acquire a veteran from a deep pool of above-average quarterbacks, like Andy Dalton.

This ends one of the strangest free-agent negotiations in recent years. Reports saying Brady will likely depart have popped up since late last fall. At the combine, those reports seemed even more concrete: A source told the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian that the Patriots hadn’t approached Brady and that it “wasn’t looking good.”

It wasn’t like Brady Sr. was simply plucking a sad ending out of thin air when he predicted this in 2015. The “Patriot Way” is many things, but a big part of it is ruthless salary cap management and making almost no exceptions for any player. Brady, mind you, has taken a number of pay cuts to help the Patriots, ensuring the team was able to corner the market on midlevel veterans with the cost savings. Even in 2019, Brady’s biggest payday ever, his cap hit was less than Derek Carr’s and slightly more than Alex Smith’s. The book on this negotiation is that Belichick was being Belichick—which is to say, not going out of his way to shower Brady in attention and money. Belichick became famous for discarding players too early instead of too late: He trades stars under contract if he thinks they will become more expensive than their production warrants. Popular Patriots like Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, and Willie McGinest had to finish their careers elsewhere. Star defenders like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins once seemed like indispensable talents, but were both dealt before they were in line for lucrative extensions. The Patriot Way is not pretty. The assumption was always that Brady would be different. The way this negotiation has played out, it was clear he wasn’t. Brady Sr. was right. The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin reported that the Patriots “Gave Tom a number. He didn’t want it.” It is a cold business.

Belichick, one of the great tinkerers in NFL history, could choose almost limitless paths for the quarterback position: No one thinks about football better, or more creatively, and it’s no sure thing he decides to sign a sturdy veteran to try to get by. He could get weird: This is a guy who has played multiple receivers at defensive back, and linebackers at tight end. He once signed Tim Tebow as an experiment. He changes playbooks on both sides of the ball from week to week. This could get weird. He might bring in someone like Dalton, or he might try to re-invent the position—everything is on the table with Belichick. That’s the beauty of the coach.

From a football perspective, there was a real case to be made for Brady to opt to stay. The Patriots have one of the best defenses in the sport and Belichick is one of the best defensive minds in the history of the game. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been at the helm for some of Brady’s best seasons. Brady’s chemistry with McDaniels is one of the more overlooked aspects of the Patriots’ run. It not only propelled the 2007 Patriots juggernaut, it allowed the duo to have deep knowledge of each others’ tendencies, to go back and call plays from previous playbooks. It’s possible Brady could quickly build chemistry with the Chargers staff, or with Bruce Arians in Tampa, especially with weapons like Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen or Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans to throw to. But it will not be the same. Nothing like the Brady-Belichick relationship has ever lasted this long, so nothing will be the same for either man next year. That is why this is one of the most impactful breakups in sports history.

In the next few days, there will probably be a lot of reminiscing about Brady’s time in New England. There are a lot of moments that stick out, but I thought Tuesday morning about the Patriots’ 28-3 comeback in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons. How unflappable Brady was. How, afterward, Brady deadpanned “There was a lot of shit that happened.” Well, yeah. There was a lot of shit that happened. That’s all over now. Brady is departing, Belichick is staying, and football is much different on Tuesday than it has been any day in the past 20 years.