Tom Brady leaving New England Patriots: Truly the end of an era

(UPDATE: Tom Brady, who earlier Tuesday announced he would not return to the New England Patriots for the 2020 NFL season, has an agreement in principle to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.)

Throughout the past few seasons, even longer really, there were tiny clues that the futures of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots might diverge short of his retirement.

"We know what Tom's age and contract situation is," Bill Belichick said on the 2014 day when he drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, a sign that he, at least, was already thinking about the end game.

As Brady reached into his 40s, even as the Super Bowl appearances kept accumulating, New England declined to give him the long-term deal he wanted, the signal that even the greatest Patriot was not immune from the cold calculations that had made the franchise so wildly successful. At Brady's behest last year, his new contract had been structured to force an inflection point, and to present Brady with an incredible opportunity: free agency, for the first time in his career. His irritation with the Pats' offense was a source of nearly weekly venting last season. His Boston home was on the market. Even his decision to give up an honorary post with his longtime charity of choice, Best Buddies, was parsed for what it could mean about where Brady expected to be playing football.

Then came that final loss in the first round of the playoffs to the Tennessee Titans on a gloomy January night, after which Brady was asked if he wanted to stay in New England. Given the chance, he talked about how great his career had been with Robert Kraft and Belichick, and he said he loved the Patriots. He had already pointedly said he would probably not retire.

But he very carefully did not say he wanted to be back in Foxborough, an omission that was surely no accident. In the measured remarks of the last few months -- Kraft saying that he prayed Brady would stay in New England or retire -- it was possible for the first time to wonder if either party even wanted to be with the other anymore.

It was awkward and uncomfortable, and now -- stunningly -- it is over.

On Tuesday morning, Brady announced on social media that his "football journey will take place elsewhere." Near the end of the extensive, heartfelt goodbye to New England, Brady wrote, "I don't know what my football future holds but it is time for me to open a new stage for my life and career."

So there it is. Like his idol Joe Montana and his friend Peyton Manning, Brady will play the final seasons of his extraordinary career, however many there will be, in a different uniform, in an unfamiliar stadium, away from the six Lombardi Trophies he won in New England and the franchise he helped make the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen. It will be weird for the casual fan, and unfathomable for the most devoted New England acolytes who remember the dismal days before Brady and Belichick teamed up.

Unfathomable, except to those closest to Brady.

"It will end badly," Brady's father, Tom Sr., told the New York Times in 2015. "It's a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn't."

The quarterback who took over after Mo Lewis shredded Drew Bledsoe's blood vessel in September of 2001, who gave life to the Tuck Rule and the team-branded Patriot Way, who went to an astounding nine Super Bowls and won six of them, who was as intertwined with his team's image and success as any player could be, is now disentwined, turning the NFL on its head.

Brady's decision is the biggest domino to fall in an offseason that will be dominated by an unprecedented quarterbacking musical chairs stretching from one side of the country (Los Angeles Chargers) to the other (New England Patriots). Even as he approaches retirement, Brady's decision is still the most significant, with the likelihood that it will alter the landscape in at least two divisions, much as Manning's departure from Indianapolis swung the fortunes of the AFC South and the AFC West. For the first time in two decades, it will no longer be safe to simply pencil in the Patriots as the AFC East champions, although the new intrigue will be how Belichick will reshape the Patriots without Brady, an opportunity he is believed to have been contemplating since Garoppolo was on the bench behind Brady.

Most fascinating of all is how Brady will do away from the football machine Belichick has built. In the 18 seasons that Brady was the starter and was healthy in New England -- excluding 2008, when he was lost for the year with a knee injury in the season opener -- the Patriots missed the playoffs just once, in 2002, the year after they won the first of six Super Bowls. Of those 17 playoff appearances, the Patriots advanced to at least the conference championship 13 times, including eight straight seasons, a streak that ended in 2019, with that loss to the Titans.

But even the most successful relationships can grow stale and this one had the whiff of that outcome for some time. Belichick did not want to trade Garoppolo in 2017, as the coach felt the need to lay the groundwork for the Patriots' future whenever Brady was finished. In the meantime, New England declined to give Brady the longer-term contract he wanted. Brady had long taken below-market deals to give the Pats greater flexibility to sign other weapons. But before last season came the last wrinkle, a contract that fell short of the commitment Brady was seeking but that carried the provision he demanded: The Patriots could not use the franchise tag on him after the 2019 season ended -- when his contract would end.

Now he is the most surreal free agent since Manning, certainly, and perhaps ever. What's next for the game's most accomplished quarterback? NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport has been reporting that the Los Angeles Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are interested in the 14-time Pro Bowler's services. Hovering over the entire episode is the obvious question: At 43, the age Brady will be when the 2020 season starts, how much does he have left? He completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns and just eight interceptions last season, with most of those figures well off Brady's career norms, even as recently as 2018.

Still, they are numbers many teams would gladly take, particularly because the talent around Brady in 2019 was subpar. The offensive line struggled to protect him. Julian Edelman caught 100 passes, but the second-leading receiver was running back James White, with 72, and no other receiver had even 30 receptions. Improved personnel figures to be a priority for Brady as he considers his future.

Now comes the task of adapting to his new job, wherever that may be. Brady will arrive with his own system and incorporating it will be critical to his comfort level and the team's chances of quick success. Brady stayed away from all but the mandatory offseason workouts in recent years, which gave him more time with his family and to clear his head, but which also probably didn't help familiarity with new Patriots receivers. It is unclear if he will attend the offseason program this year, as he gets accustomed to his new reality.

The idea of Brady with a new challenge and the energy that will accompany it should be frightening for opponents, even if his skills erode. After all, Brady has motivated himself by chewing on being a sixth-round draft pick and all the perceived and real doubters who came after. He became the greatest quarterback in history. After 20 years, the uniform will change, but Brady probably won't.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.

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