FOXBORO, Mass. — The interesting takeaway from spending 10 minutes with Tom Brady before he left Gillette Stadium near midnight Saturday? He didn’t seem at all surprised by the 20-13 wild-card loss to Tennessee. He was sad but not distraught, knowing how stupid it would be for him, after playing in nine Super Bowls in a magical 20-year run, to be somehow unfulfilled after the Patriots played pretty much the same desultory football against Tennessee that they’d played for the past two months. I kept thinking as he spoke: Tom Brady could see this coming.
What Brady can’t see with similar clarity? The future.
Brady, clear-eyed, looking more like 32 than 42, sat in an office near the Patriots’ locker room near midnight, less than an hour after the New England dynasty was shaken to the core, and maybe shuttered. He wore a navy button-down shirt, blue khakis, tan boots, a navy ski cap and the look of a man who absolutely does not know what 2020 and beyond holds for him as he faces true freedom for the first time in his career. Brady is scheduled to be a free agent without the franchise tag when the league year begins in March.
“I’m not crushingly disappointed,” Brady said, looking me straight in the eyes. “I think we fought hard. Our head is held high. We’re competitors. Every season doesn’t end in a Super Bowl win. It’s exciting when it does. You relish those when you have those opportunities and we’ve had them more than anyone else. I’m proud of the guys for fighting hard. But those other guys [the Titans] are competitive too, and they deserved to win tonight. We just didn’t make the plays the last half of the season that we needed to make. Didn’t make the plays tonight.”
“First time in 20 years you’re truly a free man,” I said. “How do you feel about that right now?”
“Yeah,” said Brady. “I think I’m just . . . I’ll explore those opportunities whenever they are. If it’s the Patriots, great. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know. I just don’t know. I love playing football. I still want to play football. I think I still can play at a championship level. I’ve just got to go do it. I’m motivated to get back to work and training.”
Somewhere. And when Brady considers his future, my gut feeling is this: He’s going to prioritize needing a better offense around him in 2020 than he had in 2019, when his body language and clipped post-game press conferences—even after a big but offensively frustrating win in Buffalo—told the story of a frustrating season.
New England was 4-6 in its last 10 games. Not including the 34-13 win over the worst team in the league, Cincinnati, the Patriots scored 16.6 points a game after Halloween. That’s one of the reasons why Belichick might think: With all the holes we need to fill on an old roster, now’s not the time to be emotional. Now’s not the time to try to wring one or two more years at huge money out of a quarterback who turns 43 in August. A fresh start for Brady won’t be the best thing for Robert Kraft. But it might be the best thing for the man who controls the roster, William Stephen Belichick.
“The sun’s coming up tomorrow,” Brady said. “Especially as I’ve gotten older, you realize that life goes on. I’ve been so fortunate to play for such a great owner and for such a great coach. Nobody could have had it better than me. I absolutely still do love this game. . . . I think a lot of other people who are great at what they do—great artists or great actors or great businessmen—they don’t have to stop what they love as they get older. I know there’s football still in here.”