It was a day of firsts. It was the opening home game for the New England Patriots during Tom Brady’s first full season as starting quarterback in the new Gillette Stadium. My father, a longtime season ticket holder, and I were there.
Sitting a few rows behind us was a man going on at length about how lucky the defending Super Bowl champs were to have replaced Drew Bledsoe with the new quarterback. “He’s much better,” the fan said. Not long after kickoff, the savior of the franchise threw an incomplete pass. “Kill Brady!” the same man yelled.
Perhaps it wasn’t so out of character for Boston sports fans. When Brady returned to Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, this time as the quarterback of Tampa Bay Buccaneers amid their Super Bowl title defense, a rush of seemingly contradictory emotions flowed through the stadium. Fans cheered when Brady took the field. They booed when he led his first drive. They cheered again after he won and the Patriots lost.
Watching from many miles away in Northern Virginia, hours removed from a trip back to the Boston area, I could relate. I seethed when the fans in Patriots jerseys cheered a Brady incompletion or, even worse, a hit on the quarterback. But I still was excited every time Mac Jones, the Patriots’ youthful new quarterback, made a play. I eventually started cheering both offenses and cursing both defenses.
There was a lot of cursing to be done in the low-scoring game. Jones frequently got hit behind the Patriots’ surprisingly rickety offensive line. Brady was uncharacteristically flummoxed for much of the game, showing that head coach and defensive mastermind Bill Belichick still has a few tricks left up his sleeve.
It was the most uncomfortable sporting event of my life. I have not read a word of the next-day coverage.
Still, the 19-17 Buccaneers win over the Patriots reinforced the pollyannaish take I reluctantly adopted last season: Despite my opposition to the Brady-Belichick breakup, it was probably necessary for either of them to enjoy further success.
If Brady had stayed, it is unlikely that Belichick would have gone on this off-season’s free agency spending binge or done much of anything to improve the offensive talent on the roster, which he had allowed to degrade in his star quarterback’s final years. They would have not won a Super Bowl, as Brady was able to do with the Bucs, but would have prevailed in too many games to have ever been in the position to draft a successor as good as Mac Jones.
While neither team was an offensive powerhouse, the game was representative of what lies ahead under this new path. Brady will continue to add to his laurels, as he did when he moved into first place in all-time passing yards and became the fourth quarterback to defeat all 32 NFL teams. Jones is continuing to develop and perform with mid-career poise, suggesting that when the rest of the team begins to gel (and the line starts to block more consistently) the Patriots’ house will be secure.
It isn’t the storybook ending that any of us in New England would have written. But it is a better conclusion than is seen in most partnerships like Belichick’s and Brady’s.
In Foxboro, the key number was 40. When Brady reached this tender age, he wanted to be treated more like an equal. He has excelled in this role in Tampa, with his recruits Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Antonio Brown and Richard Sherman making an already strong team markedly better. Belichick, however, saw that as a violation of the “Patriot Way” and began to fear he would be left holding the bag when Brady finally lost his battle with Father Time.
The people who bet against Brady were wrong, including Belichick. But the people who are betting against Belichick now, believing he cannot win again with a new quarterback, will also be proven wrong in time.
When the final chapter is written, both Belichick and Brady will be vindicated. Then, the fans will no longer need to feel conflicted about it.
W. James Antle III is the politics editor of the Washington Examiner.