Contract figures, underlying tension contributed to Patriots-Tom Brady split 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady makes his long-awaited return to New England tonight to face Bill Belichick and his former team, a storyline that perhaps you’ve heard about. And Foxborough will be ready.

Sources say the Patriots will do what's right and classy, offering a tribute to recognize Brady upon his return and also briefly stopping the game to commemorate him surpassing Drew Brees' all-time passing yards mark of 80,358. He needs only 68 yards to do it.

Over 500 media members have been credentialed, with NBC accounting for roughly 300 of them -- playoff levels. The Today Show broadcasted live from Gillette Stadium this week, as did Nightly News with Lester Holt. In short, Tampa Bay-New England is the most anticipated regular-season game in years.

Before the Patriots play host to Brady's Bucs on Sunday Night Football, let's take a look back at how we got here. Based on interviews with sources over the last two years, here's a look at how and why the greatest QB ever broke up with the greatest coach ever.

Why was Brady a free agent?

Prior to the 2019 season, Brady and the team mutually agreed upon a contract extension that wasn't an extension at all. Instead, it was a one-year raise that included a provision that did not allow the Pats to tag Brady, while voiding the final two years. He was to be a free agent. The idea was simple: After years of off-again, on-again tension -- and many, many Super Bowl titles with unprecedented victories -- owner Robert Kraft felt you can't force a marriage.

At some point, the two parties have to want to be with each other and stay with each other. By allowing Brady to be a free agent, it ensured that if he was back in New England for 2020, it was because he wanted to be there and because Belichick wanted him back. It also allowed him to test the market and really be free, which he had always wondered about.

Why didn't Brady and Belichick break up earlier?

Brady and Belichick, pretty clearly, had the most successful coach/player relationship in sports. But it wasn't perfect. The respect was endless, but they weren't best friends. And there was tension, especially after the 2017 season when Brady began to express himself a little bit doing previously unthinkable acts such as not attending voluntary OTAs. That was where Kraft proved essential, serving as a go-between when necessary. He listened to Brady, worked with Belichick on negotiating Brady's contracts, and provided what either side lacked in the relationship. That's why when Kraft decided to agree to allow Brady the freedom to decide his own destination and become a free agent, it was meaningful.

How close did the Patriots come to keeping Brady?

Not very close. Talks between Brady and New England simply didn't work out, as the two sides were not able to reach a resolution. There may not have been an official, written offer, but the team was willing to go where the Bucs did -- up to $30 million per year. They made it clear in conversations what they would offer and how far they would go. What they were not willing to do was guarantee two years fully as Tampa did. Brady knew that when he arrived at Kraft's house to say goodbye, which is why there was no breakdown of negotiations or acrimony. It was simple and black and white: the Patriots would only guarantee one year, while other teams were willing to guarantee two.

Did the Patriots just want to rebuild anyway?

Brady's play dipped in '19. Statistically, his passer rating was the lowest it had been since 2013. At his age, one could have inferred he was declining for a team without an impressive array of weapons. One could have inferred he just had a year left. Perhaps that's why New England didn't want to guarantee two years. Clearly, that read was wrong. Brady has been as good as ever. What was the case -- mostly because of their cap situation -- was the team around him in '20 may not have been enough to compete for a Super Bowl. This year's team, for instance, is far more talented all around. That may also explain Brady's willingness to leave, knowing that if he stayed the team would not have been what he wanted. But New England did not want Brady to leave so they could rebuild around a new QB, even if they've embraced that reality now. They wanted Brady on their terms, which had always been acceptable. It just wasn't in 2020.

All of which leaves us where we are now: The greatest player ever facing the greatest coach ever in the most anticipated regular-season game in years.

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