The year was 2003. And while the Patriots had a title in their back pockets already, few had any idea what would unfold over the two decades to follow. Some thought Bill Belichick might’ve been the beneficiary of a single season sprinkled with fairy dust. Others believed the physically underwhelming Tom Brady was still just a system quarterback.
But behind closed doors, in the smallest of groups, the NFL’s future was on display.
Ted Johnson, a Patriot linebacker from 1996 to 2004, was there for this 7:30 a.m. captains’ meeting—a once-a-week ritual Belichick used to get the pulse of his locker room on Fridays—as the coach went around the room to hear player feedback on the game plan. Most guys addressed Belichick like a player would a coach. Brady, in this particular moment, didn’t, instead pushing back on where the conversation had gone.
Bill, I think we go up top on these guys a lot in the first, Brady said.
You’re right, Belichick responded. We’ll torch these a------- deep.
“The casual nature, the way he talked to Bill was so instinctive, so comfortable,” Johnson says. “It was shocking to me. You see that and let’s face it, Tom’s like a lot of people have been in that organization. He’s like Lawyer Milloy, maybe Ty [Law], maybe [Richard] Seymour. They all think, Yeah, I’m different, though. I’m Lawyer Milloy. Bill’s not gonna do that to me. Bill’s not gonna ask me to take pay cuts; he’s not gonna screw with my contract.
“Oh yes he will. He will.”
The lesson resulting from this particular anecdote is complex. It shows that Brady, as much as Belichick, was on the ground floor in building the Patriots into one of America’s greatest sports dynasties. It shows where the Patriots’ resolve that Brady would go from caretaker to superstar was born. It also shows how Brady earned his voice in the organization, in that Belichick so quickly agreed with him at a very early age.
But mostly, it showed why it’s been so hard the last two decades to figure who was most responsible for trips to nine Super Bowls, six championships and 17 division titles, and why the end was always going to be bumpy, with the line blurred between employee and partner.
This year, finally, with the guys apart for the first time since the turn of the century, it seemed like we’d get some answers. Maybe we have. Brady’s on a new team and has taken the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl, his 10th. Belichick, conversely, finished 7–9 and is going into a second consecutive offseason with a big question at the most important position.
Is that validating for Brady? Does it kill Belichick?
Over the last few days, we looked to answer those questions, going to guys who’ve been in the trenches with both. More than anything else, it brought insight like Johnson’s: Just based on the ultra-competitive nature of both, sure, they’re probably paying attention to the scoreboard on this one. But the truth is, neither would be what he is without the other.
By the time you read this I’ll be en route to Tampa—but we wanted to get you the Super Bowl LV mailbag. So here it is, and coming are answers to your questions on …
• The 18th week (17th game).
• The Colts’ QB plans.
• The Jets and Sam Darnold.
• The Niners and Jimmy Garoppolo.
• The offseason ahead.
• My old NCAA Football habits.
So let’s start with that simple question: Are Brady and Bill keeping score, like exes checking each other’s Instagram pages?
The answers varied.
“I don’t think they’re keeping score,” says Matt Cassel, a Patriots quarterback from 2005 to ‘08. “Tom is motivated to win. And win championships. If he couldn’t compete at a high level, he wouldn’t be out there. … I think Brady, at the end of the day, wants to win another Super Bowl, and he was going to Tampa because of the roster, the weapons; it gave him the best chance. That’s why he goes there. In terms of Bill, he’s ultra-competitive too, but I’m not sure the motivation is, ‘Oh, we gotta have a better record than them.’ ”
“I don’t know if that’s a big thing to them,” says Tedy Bruschi, a Patriots linebacker from 1996 to 2008. “There’s parts of both characteristics in both of them. … Tom, would you look back on New England and say, Look at you guys without me, you’re not making the playoffs? I just don’t think that’s the kind of guy he is. But there’s the guy that’s super highly competitive: I still got it; I told you. He’d never say that publicly, but would he think that once in a while? Sure. There’s little bit of both. I’d go with both. I’m not sure, I guess.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” says Johnson. “I think [Brady]’s scratching an itch he’s had for a while; I really do. And so it’s very important for both these guys. Neither of them will say it directly. I think they are obsessed with trying to prove the other wrong right now. And I think you’re seeing it from Tom. He’ll never say it; Bill will never say it. But I think they’re both obsessed in their pursuit of proving they can win without the other.”
“Yes, absolutely,” says Dan Koppen, Brady’s center from 2003 to ‘11. “And I’m not saying that it’s malicious. They’re just both highly, highly competitive people. Regardless of who it’s against, they probably want to win more than anyone else. … And at the end of the day, they’re human. It doesn’t matter if you’re No. 1 or 53 on the roster, anytime you leave for whatever reason—and [Brady] wasn’t cut, but in a sense he was, because they could’ve brought him back at that price—there’s going to be that feeling there. … They’re human.”
And then there’s Rodney Harrison’s take. A Patriots safety from 2003 to ‘08, Harrison was a favorite of both Brady’s and Belichick’s, and initially keeps it conservative in saying, “When you spend 20 years with somebody and you’re directly connected with them, you’re always gonna pay attention and watch what they’re doing.”
But I know Harrison—a master of manufacturing motivation back in his playing days—has a little more than that. Which is why I ask, then, if it would push him if he’d accomplished what Brady did, only to see the team he did it with let him go.
“Absolutely,” Harrison says, laughing. “Tom’s like me. He’s gonna create motivation. O.K., they didn’t believe in me? O.K. They finally gave me weapons? This is what I’ve been saying. All that, yeah. I think Tom creates his motivation. Let me tell you something: My level of success was what it was, but I always had to find ways to motivate myself. Tom is way, way, way at the top. He constantly has to find ways to motivate himself, because of all the levels of success that that he’s had. … And Tom hears freaking everything.”
So our consensus answer here, I think, winds up being right where Harrison is. It’s not intentional, but these guys are so competitive about everything that … yes, of course they’re keeping score. After all, they keep score on everything. And the deeper we dive into it, the more it reveals about just who Brady is, and how his relationship with Belichick helped him get here, and where it’ll probably be after both are done doing what they’re doing.
One of Brady’s best personality traits has always been a remarkably simple one—he’s capable of being the star and, simultaneously, one of the guys. That’s been proven on a day-to-day basis with stories of introductions to new teammates (“Hi, I’m Tom”), little things he’d do to take care of guys (ex-Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich once told Brady he liked his watch, and a watch like it was in his locker the next day), and even how he’d always want in when his offensive linemen would play games during their down time.
But that would also bring out the other famous side of Brady, if things didn’t go his way.
“The offensive linemen played backgammon during the media period or when we had breaks,” says Koppen. “Tommy started to pick it up and wanted to play with us. So we ended up playing backgammon with Tommy. And he was still just learning to play the game. But he’s almost like OCD. When he gets something in his head and he’s not that good at it at the start, he’s gotta keep going, keep going, keep going.
“And if he’d lose a close game? He’d chuck that board clear across the room if he lost.”
Koppen’s not kidding, either. Brady, backgammon novice, would lose to an experienced player, literally pick up the board and throw it.
And that led to a lot of muffled snickering—“Oh yeah, we were dying laughing,” says Koppen—but also a window into Tom Brady, Psychotic Competitor. He was incapable of turning it off. There are more, too, like the time he took on Danny Amendola in Ping-Pong. Amendola was considered the team’s best at that particular game. But when Brady lost, that didn’t make it O.K. In fact, after scoring the winning point, Amendola, the story goes, heard Brady’s paddle whistle past his ear. He looked back at Brady, who was glaring at him.
Brady was in his late 30s at the time.
“Tom is such a competitive guy. He can shake your hand and pat you on the back,” Harrison says, “but he wants to destroy you. Tom wants to destroy you.”
Belichick is the same way, and the competitive tension between the two, for 20 years, wound up producing a sort of Molotov cocktail that blew up the record books, and the standards for coaching and playing the game as we knew them.
That part of the equation is fascinating, too, and goes back to Johnson’s story from the captain’s meetings and those private moments that showed how one guy would pretty regularly, if you were privileged enough to get behind the curtain, make the best in the other show up. For ex-Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, that came in seeing his boss, Belichick, going into Tuesday meetings with Brady to set the table for the week.