Deep inside the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Ariz.—past the hundreds of revelers, the open bars and the buffet stocked with beef taquitos—a smaller, quieter Patriots party carries on well into Monday morning. This is the Buzzard Room.
Tom Brady poses for a picture. He chats with old teammates, the men he won Super Bowls with a decade ago, guys like Tedy Bruschi and Deion Branch. He takes another picture. Word arrives: The rapper Rick Ross is on his way. Another picture. The QB is wearing designer blue jeans and a sweater and a white hat with SUPER BOWL XLIX CHAMPIONS across the front. Yet another picture, Brady's celebration reduced to a series of snapshots, smile after smile. It's 1:43 a.m.
Hours earlier Brady was named MVP of a Super Bowl that will be remembered among the most dramatic ever. New England had trailed by 10 at the start of the fourth quarter and then scrapped ahead by four. But as the clock displayed 26 seconds remaining, the Seahawks sat one yard—one Marshawn Lynch dive, one Russell Wilson rollout—away from a touchdown and an improbable comeback of their own. Instead an undrafted rookie cornerback from West Alabama named Malcolm Butler (Scrap to his teammates) intercepted what would have, should have been a game-winning slant pass from Wilson at the goal line. The play (a call savaged by the Twitterverse and defended to death by Seattle coach Pete Carroll) sealed far more than a Super Bowl. It bolstered the argument that Brady, already on the list of history's best quarterbacks, is in fact the greatest of all time.
Perhaps Brady considers that. Perhaps he thinks about how one of the darkest years the NFL has ever seen—Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, ongoing concussion litigation—ended with a Super Bowl viewed by more people than any other, a game that overshadowed, if only momentarily, what often seems like a sport in crisis.
February 9, 2015
Maybe he doesn't.
Another photo. Outside the drama continues, but not in the Buzzard Room. These folks have been here before. No one mentions deflated footballs or Brady's record for the most completions in a single Super Bowl (37) or the Pats' 10-point rally, the NFL's largest second-half championship-game comeback as New England implausibly held on for a 28--24 victory. "Last picture and we're out," a friend says.
Snap, snap, snap, and then Brady makes his way toward the exit, past owner Robert Kraft and everyone else who navigated beyond three security guards into the VIP room. The buzzards that circled this team in late September—who suggested that perhaps Brady was nearing the end after a 27-point drubbing by the Chiefs—are long gone. In the Buzzard Room, only the loyalists remain.
Brady spies Jay Feely, a college teammate from Michigan. He was a groomsman in Feely's wedding. They embrace and Brady leans in close to kiss Feely on the cheek.
"Your ego is going to be back up here now," Feely jokes, holding his right hand above his head.
"Awesome, man," Brady replies. "It's awesome."
He makes his way toward the back exit and slugs down what looks like a vodka soda. He hardly speaks; teammates will do that for him. "Tom Brady is the best ever," says cornerback Darrelle Revis. He repeats himself for emphasis. "The best ever, period. Tom Brady. Michael Jordan. The best. Write that down."
Down the hall, in the main ballroom, Darius Rucker is performing an old hit from back when he was the lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish. This one's called "Time."
He sings: Time, why you punish me.
Funny thing, time. It can be measured in decades (it had been one since the Patriots' last Super Bowl triumph), years (three since their last painful loss on that stage), months (four since their season teetered near collapse) and weeks (two since another controversy, Deflategate, threatened their collective legacy).
Time, the past has come and gone.
Time can also be measured in seconds—a completion here, a miscue there, the slim margins between victory and defeat. Brady knows that as well as anyone. All six of his Super Bowls have been decided by four points or fewer. All six could have gone either way. And with 12:10 remaining in his latest appearance, time, it seemed, was running out.
The Seahawks led 24--14, but Brady methodically drove the Patriots down the field from their own 32. On first-and-goal from the Seahawks' four-yard line, he had receiver Julian Edelman open in the end zone but misfired hard and high. It seemed like a second critical mistake inside the red zone; in the first quarter, Brady had backfooted an errant attempt that Seattle's nickel cornerback, Jeremy Lane, easily picked off. But on the next play Brady found Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone. Four-yard score.
The game clock read 7:55.
Time is wasting.
The Patriots forced a punt, three and out, and got the ball back at their own 36 after only a minute. Brady threw nine times on the ensuing drive, spreading the ball among his targets. On second-and-goal, Edelman again gained separation at the line on nickelback Tharold Simon (who replaced the injured Lane and found himself in Brady's Hall of Fame crosshairs) and cut left into the end zone, toward the shallow corner. It was the same play Brady had botched earlier, but this pass sailed straight and true. The touchdown vaulted the Patriots in front, 28--24. And yet plenty of clock remained, 2:02 to be exact.
Time is walking.
You ain't no friend of mine.
The Seahawks, two weeks removed from a miracle NFC championship game comeback against the Packers, marched forward with another round of fortuitous bounces and late heroics. The game's final stretch would determine through which sort of lens Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, would be viewed. Lose, and they'd be the pair that has fallen in three close Super Bowls. Win, and they'd join Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw as the only coach-QB tandems with four championship rings.
On first down from New England's 38, Wilson lofted an impossible pass deep up the right sideline. Jermaine Kearse, the same receiver who'd hauled in the overtime game-winner that beat Green Bay, tipped the ball (along with Butler, who made a near-perfect play) as he fell to the ground and, after several bounces, somehow managed to corral it as it caromed off two hands and his inner leg—a crotch grab minus the five-figure fine. The play went for 33 yards and put the Seahawks on the Patriots' five. Brady's legacy, it seemed, would be determined in part by two plays over which he had zero control, two of the most unlikely catches in postseason history: Kearse's grab and David Tyree's head-pinned catch for the Giants on the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLII.
On the next play Marshawn Lynch took a handoff and barreled to the one-yard line. With a minute left a Seattle touchdown seemed imminent. Curiously, Belichick elected not to use either of his two remaining timeouts, the logical move to save time for a last-gasp drive by his offense—but he'd never have to explain that one. On second down, as Carroll later tried to explain, the Patriots packed the line of scrimmage with defenders, forcing Seattle into a passing play. The idea, he said, was to throw the ball away if no receiver got open, then run on the next two downs. Instead, Wilson tried to cram a pass to Ricardo Lockette on a slant route, and Scrap came down with the pick. "I'm just as surprised as everybody else," said Brandon Browner, the cornerback the Patriots had signed away from the Seahawks after last season. "You've got the best running back in the game.... Sometimes coaches get too smart."
Afterward, teammates noticed the tears that welled in Butler's eyes. He'd spotted Wilson glancing toward the Seahawks' receivers, guessed that the QB would pass and then jumped the route.
As the final seconds ticked off, Brady knelt on the field, taking a moment to himself.
Time, you left me standing there.
At the Patriots' hotel, the party rages on. The WWE wrestler Triple H mingles alongside Alex Karpovsky, from HBO's Girls, and UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones, brother of Patriots defensive end Chandler.
Gordy Gronkowski Sr. meanders by them all, through a hallway packed with Patriots jerseys and cheerleaders and acolytes. He carries a drink in his left hand and on his right wears a bracelet that blinks neon blue. He's ready to celebrate, but first, he says, "I'm looking for my boy."
What most of America considered the low point of the Patriots' 2014 season—a nationally televised 41--14 knockdown delivered by the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sept. 29—the elder Gronkowski views as the opposite. For him it was the moment New England's season changed for the better, and for good. With barely seven minutes remaining in that game, from the 13-yard line, Gronk hauled in a short pass from backup Jimmy Garopolo and carried three defenders across the goal line. It was a meaningless touchdown in a blowout, but in the stands, the tight end's father fought back tears. "That's when I knew," he says. "That's the first time I saw Rob look the way Rob used to look."
By this he means before the injuries—before the twice-broken left forearm in 2012 and the torn right-knee ligaments a year later. Gordy was in the stands the day his son shredded his knee against the Browns, in December '13. "Weird things go through your mind," he says. "Is he paralyzed? Is he moving?" He was also there, 13 months ago, when Rob underwent surgery, when Rob suffered through months of rehab and his prognosis for this season seemed bleak. "Anybody else probably would have bagged the game," he says. "You had to wonder: Is he ever going to get his speed back? Is he going to be an average tight end?"
In October the swelling in Gronk's knee finally subsided. Belichick groused through a press conference after that Chiefs defeat, answering question after question with "We're on to Cincinnati." And then Belichick's tight end proved his point: six catches for 100 yards and a TD in a 43--17 win over the Bengals the following week. On to the Bills and the Jets and the Bears and the Broncos.... The Patriots won seven straight and 10 of their last 12. Over those dozen weeks Gronk caught 69 passes for 977 yards and nine scores. In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, Belichick agreed with Gordy Gronkowski: The turning point, he said, came at halftime of that game in K.C.
"When people started going after Tom, that motivated Rob," Gordy says. "He took that personally."
The Gronkowskis arrived in Arizona early in the week, complete with their party bus, which has its own Twitter account. Whereas Rob spent the Patriots' last Super Bowl run, in 2012, under constant cross examination about the status of his sprained left ankle, this year he gleefully said things like "kittens are cool" and read aloud from a fan's erotic fiction, A Gronking to Remember. When someone asked why every party he attends draws such attention, he responded calmly, "Because I'm a baller."
On Sunday the Seahawks got their own Gronking to remember. Brady found him twice in single coverage against linebacker K.J. Wright, an obvious mismatch. The first time, Gronkowski settled under a fade and leaped to secure a comfortable 22-yard touchdown that gave New England a 14--7 lead.
That set Belichick on the path to his fourth Super Bowl title, tying Noll, the former Steelers coach, for the most ever. Brady, meanwhile, joined Joe Montana, his idol as a child growing up in the Bay Area, as the only QB to win three Super Bowl MVPs.
But outwardly no one celebrated quite like Gronk, who joined Gordy and Kraft onstage as Ross belted out "Ima Boss." Kraft shuffled and Gronk flailed. "In our next life, a lot of people will want to be Rob," Kraft had said earlier in the week, before Gronk burnished that notion against the Seahawks. "He never has a bad day."
At the party, nobody mentioned the Patriots' bad days. Their latest controversy is forgotten, or at least shelved.
Deflategate had turned Super Bowl XLIX into a remedial science class and spawned a national conversation about air pressure, atmospheric conditions and equilibriums. Those words came straight from Professor Belichick's mouth in a lecture he delivered two days before the Patriots departed for Arizona.
Belichick did not dispute what had prompted an NFL investigation, that 11 of the 12 footballs New England had used against the Colts in the AFC championship game were inflated below the league's accepted range. The Patriots' internal examination, he announced ambiguously, had found that the discrepancies resulted from the way the team prepared its footballs and from the drop in temperature between the equipment room and the field. That telling failed to explain how, under the same conditions, Indianapolis's footballs remained within the normal range, a point of contention raised by, among others, TV mechanical engineer Bill Nye (the Science Guy). "Even if you're being generous with the numbers," Nye says, "you can't make sense of Belichick's explanation."
Then things got really weird. Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter. "Smart, concise, truthful!" he opined of Belichick, who himself demurred that he was no Mona Lisa Vito—a reference to Marisa Tomei's scientific testimony in My Cousin Vinny. Kraft scolded the NFL for alleged leaks and demanded an apology should his team be cleared of wrongdoing. And way too much time was spent on a ball boy (ominously, "a person of interest") who took two bags full of footballs into a Gillette Stadium bathroom, where perhaps he was just urinating. Saturday Night Live, naturally, turned the whole saga into a bit.
The fuss was all a little—ahem—inflated, and yet it bolstered the notion of the Patriots as a team that circumvents and breaks rules ... or maybe just finds loopholes that other franchises wish they'd discovered. Here was New England, another Super Bowl in Arizona, another controversy. In 2008, Spygate had threatened their legacy in the lead-up to XLII as the late senator Arlen Specter called for congressional action over the league's investigation into the Patriots' illicit videotaping of defense signals. That ordeal cost the team a first-round draft pick and $750,000 in fines. In the end they lost that Super Bowl to the Giants.
If you love the Patriots, Deflategate simply reinforced a persecution complex, the idea that the franchise is singled out for scrutiny by opponents who are angry, envious—and defeated. If you hate them, it strengthened the notion that they are arrogant, devious. While the Patriots could cast Spygate as an isolated, misunderstood incident, Deflategate added to a perceived pattern of nefarious scheming. Last week, Slate published an analysis of fumbles lost since 2007, an area in which softer, more-grippable footballs could give a team an advantage. On average, teams lose one once every 105 plays. The Patriots: one every 187. Haters gonna ... make some good points.
"I always thought they were involved in some questionable things," says Mike Westhoff, an assistant for a dozen years with the rival Jets, now retired. "I never felt they won because they did any of these things. But [Deflategate] raises the level of suspicion. I know one thing: They explore every single factor. You get the impression that they think they're the smartest guys in the room.
"Enron used to think like that."
And yet the Patriots' performance on Sunday provided a counterpoint to critics. What Brady did to a Seahawks defense that had been labeled by its players (and by others, to be fair) as one of the greatest of all time came down to a game plan. Brady threw 50 times but took only one sack, because most of his throws were short, quick and delivered with clinical precision. He threw two interceptions, but his patience and decision-making otherwise allowed New England to control the clock.
In other words: No tricks. No strategic tomfoolery. They won with footballs properly inflated, as we were reminded again and again by TV cameras displaying the well-protected game balls. "People just hate the Patriots," says Lawyer Milloy, who spent seven seasons playing safety in New England. "They don't even remember why anymore."
Back inside the Buzzard Room, Kraft works the crowd in sneakers bedazzled with Patriots colors, his feet glowing under the dim lights. "They're amazing," Donte' Stallworth, a former Patriots receiver, says of Kraft's kicks. The owner's Super Bowl--ring cuff links protrude and glisten as he carries around the Lombardi Trophy. He stops for a selfie with wideout Brandon LaFell, the Patriots' latest bargain-bin free-agent find, who scored the game's first points on an 11-yard strike from Brady. It's easy, after New England becomes the sixth NFL franchise to win four Super Bowls—all under Kraft's watch—to forget the inauspicious start to this all.
Before there was such a thing as the Patriots Way, Kraft was a paper magnate and a season ticket holder since 1971. He also owned Foxboro Stadium. Kraft purchased the franchise in '94, back when no one around the league bothered to hate the Patriots. The previous owner, James B. Orthwein, wanted to move the team to St. Louis, but Kraft countered with an offer of $172 million to take the franchise off his hands instead. Orthwein accepted.
Foxboro Stadium? It stunk. So did the team. Linebacker Willie McGinest, whom New England drafted in 1994, recalls the leaky roof in the training room. Hugh Millen, a backup quarterback in '91 and '92, remembers the team improving to 6--10, from 1--15 the year that he arrived, and two local columnists described that season as the most exciting in franchise history.
Kraft's Patriots did make the Super Bowl following the 1996 season, but even their success failed to mask a deep rift between Kraft and the coach that he'd inherited, Bill Parcells. "The story line of the Super Bowl," McGinest says, was "we're going to lose our head coach." They lost the game to the Packers and their coach (eventually) to the Jets, who hired Parcells a few weeks later. Pro Bowl running back Curtis Martin followed Parcells to New York one year later, delivering a major blow to the Patriots' new coach.
That man's name should sound familiar. Pete Carroll went 27--21 over three seasons in New England. It was, Milloy says, "a quantum leap between personalities" from Parcells to Carroll. While Carroll's approach—loose, free spirited, relaxed—is credited for helping Seattle win its first Super Bowl, back then it wasn't yet fully formed. Players walked out of team meetings. They showed up late or hung over. "You have to blame it a lot on the players," McGinest says. "He was more lax, and a lot of players took advantage of it."
Kraft's handling of that hire and his next one, the authority he took from one coach and gave to his successor, would shape two NFL franchises and one college power. After being fired in 2000, Carroll turned USC into a dynasty. His successor, Belichick, would do the same for the Patriots, but only after Kraft granted him the control over personnel that he refused to cede to Carroll. "Coming off the situation I had been in, I believed in more checks and balances," Kraft says. "I probably handicapped Pete, because I was coming off a situation that I was reacting to."
Belichick took over in 2000. "As smart a person in football as I've ever met," says Charlie Weis, then his offensive coordinator. That first season they lucked into a sixth-round quarterback from Michigan. A year later, in training camp, Belichick's quarterbacks coach, Dick Rehbein, died from a heart condition. Belichick decided not to hire a replacement; instead, every week he began to meet with Brady himself to go over each opponent's defensive personnel. They still do that. Brady, of course, stepped in for an injured Drew Bledsoe during the 2001 season, and history unfolded. Weis even believes he can trace the birth of a dynasty to a single play.
Week 5. The Patriots were hosting the Chargers. New England rallied in the fourth quarter, forcing overtime. Brady—in his second year but basically still a rookie—recognized a blitz that San Diego hadn't shown all game, audibled and drew a pass-interference penalty on a deep throw that led to the winning field goal. Elite, Weis thought as he watched.
A few years later Carroll received a surprise phone call from Kraft. "I was wrong about you," Kraft told him.
But right, also, about Belichick.
The locker has no nameplate, no number, nothing to distinguish it from the other cubicles underneath University of Phoenix Stadium. And still the cameras hover, going over every inch: the handmade sign in toddler scribble, the family photo on a beach, the half-consumed smoothie, the big, black-handled scissors. Four index cards with phrases such as "Stay behind ball" and "Bend knees more on dip" written on them are arranged precisely, none overlapping, none askew. There is no occupant at this locker—not yet, at least. The pressed clothes hang still, and the video rolls, panning over this collection of inanimate accoutrements. On this night anything Tom Brady has touched is worthy of a feature film.
Eventually the quarterback appears, still in his base layer, fresh from his press conference, absent footwear. He has done his press for the night, but he's surrounded. Photographers and reporters inch in, almost imperceptibly, as Brady rests with his back to the room—and then finally a p.r. staffer decides this is too much. (It is.) "There's no reason to take any pictures!" he yells. "He's not doing anything! Let him get undressed."
This fazes no one. The rest of the locker room celebrates and the media throng silently watches. It grows impossible to even spot the QB in this fray, but there's no doubt where he sits, resting, waiting, taking a moment to digest. Brandon Bolden hops onto a chair. Shane Vereen, standing beside his fellow running back, wiggles onto his tip-toes. "Tommy! Tommy!" they yell in unison. "What's up, man?"
Brady nods. He barely says a word—just sits and smiles. Eventually he stands up, grabs his leather Dopp kit and gets escorted away. "I've got a lot of football left," he'd already told reporters.
The awkward Deflategate interview with Bob Costas, the first-quarter pick, that awful day in K.C.... Those are distant memories. Brady had sent Feely a text message as the Super Bowl--week controversy unfolded. "I have nothing to hide," he tapped.
Eventually, on this night, he ends up in the Buzzard Room. Friends, family and executives cycle in and out. Brady, unflappable, unfazed, poses for another picture.
"Enjoy the show," he says, and he heads into the night.
"The best ever, period," said Revis. "Tom Brady. Michael Jordan. The best. Write that down."
"Anybody else would have bagged the game," Gronk's dad says of his son's injuries. Instead, it was: On to Cincinnati.
In the lead-up, things got really weird: Bill Nye, My Cousin Vinny and a ball boy who did or did not urinate.
For the moment, at least, it seemed Brady's legacy would be determined in part by two plays over which he had zero control, two of the most unlikely catches in postseason history.
The Patriots' win provided a counterpoint to critics. No tricks. No strategic tomfoolery. They won with footballs properly inflated.
Inside the locker room Vereen and Bolden yelled in unison: "Tommy! Tommy! What's up, man?" Brady just sat and smiled.