Perhaps you’ve heard, but after 21 NFL seasons, 10 conference championships, six Super Bowl rings, and one ugly football divorce, Tom Brady is finally happy.
The word itself first left his lips in April, shortly after he bolted New England for the warm shores of West Florida, when he told Buccaneers fans, “I’m so happy to be in Tampa Bay.” In the coming months, he’d say it again a few times publicly: first to Peter King in August, then to Jim Gray in September. In October, he switched up the verbiage: Tom said he “loved” being in Tampa. Most recently, Brady could barely contain his joy last week as he spoke about his new team and its upcoming Super Bowl LV matchup against Chiefs. “As it’s played out, I’ve just thought, ‘Wow, this has really been a magical year,’” Brady told reporters.
Of course, this is a far cry from his final years in Foxborough, when happiness appeared to be at a premium. Relitigating the Brady–Bill Belichick schism will be sports media fodder for decades, but suffice to say that despite copiloting the greatest dynasty in modern pro sports, a lot of animosity had grown between the two. During those last few seasons, nobody called Brady happy—if anything the word they used was “miserable,” as football had turned into an unrelenting grind for him. He reportedly led a “revolt” against Belichick in 2018 and, by one account, told Al Michaels amid the 2019 Patriots’ torrid start, “I’m the most unhappy 8-0 quarterback in football.” (That sound you hear is an orchestra of tiny violins playing the Outfield’s “Your Love.”)
It’s still unclear whether Tom left New England entirely of his own volition last March or Belichick all but drove him to Logan International. It is clear, however, that the split seemed to be a long time coming. Brady’s first season in Tampa wasn’t without turbulence—a video of him yelling at teammates went viral in October and at least one longtime observer noted he looked “pouty”—but the permascowl he’d adorned in New England since Deflategate has largely given way to smiles. On some level, it was to be expected, like watching someone emerge from a nasty breakup and begin to flood Instagram with smiling selfies. But even accounting for the need to win the battle of public appearances, Brady seems to be in a genuinely celebratory mood. As he heads into his quarterback-record 10th Super Bowl, he looks invigorated for the first time in a while.
This puts the Patriots faithful in a complicated position. After witnessing the team’s Brady-led excellence for two decades, fans saw the Patriots regress to a sub.-500 record in 2020 while fielding the most tedious offense in the league. (The most memorable Patriots throw this year didn’t come from Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham—it came from Belichick, who spiked the sideline phone in December during a blowout loss.) Last weekend, Patriots fans suffered yet another indignity when Matthew Stafford reportedly singled out New England as the one team he refused to be traded to. Not only is Belichick’s roster in tatters, so too are his clothes. (Cue the violins for an encore of “Livin’ on a Prayer.”)
This Sunday, Patriots Nation will watch the quarterback who brought the franchise six Lombardi Trophies go for a seventh. Only this time, he’ll be doing it with a pirate logo attached to his helmet rather than a flying Elvis. It stirs up conflicting emotions for fans: It’s not easy to see an ex prosper while you’re down and out, but how does one ignore 20 years of shared history? And what’s the alternative—rooting for the Chiefs, who are looking to cement themselves as the first dynasty of the post-Patriots era? In the minds of some die-hards, Super Bowl LV raises vexing issues of blame, legacy, and the future of a team that’s not even in playing in the game. But perhaps more interestingly, it raises the question of what happiness truly means for sports fans.
Last February, when the thought of Tom Brady leaving New England for Tampa Bay seemed like a drive-time radio fever dream, I asked Patriots insider Tom E. Curran who would shoulder the blame should the exact scenario playing out now come to pass. Curran was unambiguous in his response: “A lot of knives are sharpened for Bill Belichick that remain in people’s socks and will quickly be unsheathed if the Patriots don’t do better than Tom Brady does wherever Tom Brady goes,” Curran said. So far he’s been correct. In recent weeks, Belichick has heard it from national media personalities, from former rivals, from former players, and even from Brady’s dad. Most say that his approach to personnel has finally caught up with him; others wonder whether he can make up ground on his one-time pupil. Dan Shaughnessy of all people has offered the most measured takes.
The local on-air shock jocks have been hammering Belichick for weeks, if not most of the season. The man who coached the Patriots to 17 AFC East titles in 19 years suddenly needs to have a big offseason. He’s on vacation when he should be working, at least according to his dog’s Instagram. Most importantly, they say, he could’ve kept Brady and avoided all of this legacy scorekeeping (which itself seems foolish given the duo’s unprecedented success).
“Tom Brady left the Patriots, as we all know,” 98.5 Sports Hub host Tony Massarotti said the day after the Bucs beat the Packers in the NFC title game last month. “There was a duel there. There was a fight there. One guy showed up, the other one didn’t. Plain and simple: Brady against Bill—one guy was ready for the duel, one guy wasn’t. And the guy who wasn’t got his ass kicked.”
The vitriol directed at Belichick seems to weigh heavier on the minds of Pats fans than the question of whether they’d be happy to see Brady collect hardware with another team. By and large, the answer is an overwhelming yes. This highly unscientific Twitter poll by WCVB-TV’s Chris Gasper would seem to indicate that roughly nine in 10 are rooting for a Brady win—and many of them are betting on him, even against the mighty Chiefs. Digging into the replies reveals a wide range of emotions. Eddie in Connecticut feels “meh” about the whole thing. Stevie hates the state of affairs and just wants the game over. RCL admits that they rooted against Tom early in the season strictly out of jealousy. @BostonDynasty12 is pulling for Tom, if only because they’d view another Brady ring as a seventh for the Patriots. (Remember, Boston once held a parade for Ray Bourque after he won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. Maybe Mookie Betts can get one.)
Last month, The Athletic’s Steve Buckley attempted to dig into the psyche of Pats fans during the Buccaneers’ playoff run. He found it wasn’t cut-and-dry. One fan compared their emotional process to the five stages of grief, while another compared watching the Bucs succeed to having a fingernail ripped off. A few seemed to express empathy for Brady: He had settled for below-market contracts for years, and with reports indicating that the team low-balled him in free agency last year, they felt he was within his rights to leave. But 34-year-old Nick Thompson hinted that Brady’s Super Bowl appearance may represent something greater: “If you claim to be a New England sports fan and you’re rooting against him, you’re either a contrarian jerk or uneducated about the history of the game,” he said. “Or both.”
That second part of Thompson’s quote—about the history of the game—is something that many Patriots fans have been thinking about for weeks now. When the Bucs take the field at Raymond James Stadium this Sunday, they won’t be squaring off against just any AFC team. They’ll be playing the Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions who may have been going for a third straight if not for Dee Ford’s pinky. Kansas City could be the first team to go back-to-back since the Patriots did it in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. And with a loaded roster and Patrick Mahomes playing on a shockingly team-friendly half-billion-dollar deal, it could be the start of a run of dominance similar to what the Patriots pulled off over the past 20 years. The only thing standing in their way for the time being is Brady.
Super Bowl LV is a no-win for the Patriots. Either Brady wins a Super Bowl in another uniform and without Belichick or the Chiefs and Andy Reid become the first team and coach since Belichick and the 2003-04 Patriots to repeat.
— Christopher Gasper (@cgasper) January 25, 2021
Curran wrote about this last week in a piece titled “Brady’s Last Patriotic Duty? Defend the Wall vs. KC.” “He’s been cast out, reborn somewhere else, and left to defend the honor and legacy of the king and kingdom from which he was vanquished against the usurpers,” he wrote.
It’s hyperbolic, but Curran can be forgiven. We all tend to get a little dramatic when discussing our past relationships.
I’m a lifelong Patriots fan. I’m not ashamed to admit that I expected to fall in love with this Bucs team—they added Brady and former New England tight end Rob Gronkowski to an already-stacked roster last offseason. I loved the idea of them before they even took the field, and I could take solace in the fact that Tom was in a different conference on a team with little history, as opposed to, say, the Colts. At the very least, I thought the Bucs would provide a distraction from the Patriots, who looked to be headed for a rebuild. (The violins are now playing “Crazy Train.”)
But then something strange happened. The season started and I felt … nothing? The Bucs were very good at points and very mediocre at others. Same went for Brady, who did things he never would’ve on the Patriots, both good and bad. But it wasn’t just Tampa Bay’s Jekyll-and-Hyde routine that threw me off, nor was it witnessing the series of Patriots embarrassments this season that I’d mostly escaped for the past 20 years. It was the realization that Brady was no longer my team’s quarterback. He was an ex—and while there would always be a connection, it could never be quite the same. I wished him well and hoped he’d win, of course, but it was hard to get invested. Until just before halftime of the NFC championship game.
I’d slowly warmed to Brady on the Bucs in the early rounds of the playoffs as they snuck by Washington and New Orleans. I was actively rooting for them against the Packers in the NFC championship game. Still, I kept my guard up—I’d seen Tom pull off dozens of miracles throughout the years, but Lambeau on the road in January seemed like it could be too much for him at this stage of his career. Then the Bucs jumped out to an early lead. And then Green Bay turned the ball over late in the second quarter, setting up one of the most dramatic throws of Brady’s career.
When Scotty Miller caught that touchdown, I started pumping my fist and cheering involuntarily. Within seconds, my phone blew up with texts from almost every Patriots die-hard I know, all some version of “holy shit” and “let’s go.” No one was mistaken that Tom was ours again, but after so many years and good times and even a nasty split, it was impossible not to get swept up in the moment. Maybe it was just muscle memory after celebrating 20 years of triumphs with these people. Or maybe we had so much invested in Brady that it was impossible to let go completely.
So much of sports fandom always comes down to the tired player-vs.-laundry argument: Who are you really rooting for: the guys on the field or the billion-dollar franchises that employ them? As a Patriots fan, you learn to love the uniform above all else, almost as an act of self-preservation. You’re briefly sad when Belichick cuts Ty Law or trades Logan Mankins, but you move on while keeping some affection for them. With Brady, it would always be different: There was too much history, too much of the team’s identity wrapped up in him. And that makes this Bucs’ playoff run bittersweet—like seeing an ex’s wedding photos when you know they’re better off without you.
When Brady suits up on Sunday, he won’t be playing for Belichick’s legacy; he’ll be playing for his own. He won’t be trying to win New England its seventh ring, but rather Tampa Bay its second. And he won’t be fighting to deny the Chiefs a championship for any reason other than he wants another. Some Patriots fans have made peace with this. Others may still yet. Some may never. Ultimately, it’s up to each to decide whether they can be happy for him not because of what he can do for them, but simply because he’s found happiness himself.