Tom Brady showed a modicum of raw emotion in the immediate aftermath of the Patriots’ rout of the Chargers Sunday and it turned into the biggest story of AFC championship week. For the last year, we’ve talked incessantly about the end of the Brady-Belichick era. There was a rift between the two greats; Alex Guerrero is Yoko Ono; Brady wants to win Patriots Player of the Week. That’s been the prevailing commentary dating back to Halloween 2017, when Belichick suddenly traded Jimmy Garoppolo for a meager second-round pick.
So when CBS’ Tracy Wolfson asked Brady about the Patriots’ upcoming duel with the vaunted Chiefs, he let out some apparent pent-up frustration. “It will be a good game, they’re a good team, and we played them earlier this year,” he said. “I know everyone thinks we suck, and you know, can’t win any games, so we’ll see. That’ll be fun.”
The “nobody believes in us” mantra is one of the oldest motivational tricks in sports. Teams and athletes use it all of the time, even when it’s not entirely founded in reality. And yet, Brady’s utterance of four words –– “everyone thinks we suck” –– propelled a snarky rebuttal from Dan Shaughnessy and hours of discussion on our airwaves. The phrase currently garners roughly 556,000 search results on Google.
It is the perfect example of how even Brady’s most innocuous quips can spark international crises. He once told Patriots fans to “start drinking early” before a Sunday night game, and then had to say he was talking about hydration.
Nobody, or at least this author, is playing the small violin for Brady. Great fame and fortune bring great scrutiny. But it is remarkable that somebody who tries to be so vanilla can be so polarizing. Tom Brady is one of the most maligned athletes in sports, and the worst thing on his rap sheet is playing with deflated footballs and saying nice things about Donald Trump at the onset of the presidential election. (The last one is more than a minor faux pas to me, but since I am an unbiased journalist, I will keep my personal opinion out of it.)
“Brady went from Cinderella to supermodel,” NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran told WEEI.com on the phone this week. “No one wants to celebrate the supermodel. They want to find the flaws –– ‘she doesn’t look good in that.’ That’s how it is. I think he’s been so picked apart, where it almost gets to the point of Onion articles. The Globe is mining for infractions in his helping of developmentally disabled or intellectually disabled children? There’s got to be a point where you look at yourself and say, ‘What are we doing here?’”
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Brady, a sixth-round draft pick who mostly backed up at Michigan, was once America’s darling. He ran a painfully slow 40-yard dash and first met Robert Kraft with a pizza box tucked under his arm –– or so the legend goes.
But then he won three Super Bowls in four years, started dating Bridget Moynahan and marrying Gisele Bundchen, and began preaching the gospel of the 80-20 raw diet.
Those who have covered Brady since the start of his career say he’s just as congenial now as he was then. “I think he’s very much still accessible,” longtime Patriots reporter Mike Reiss told WEEI.com on the phone. “He’s in the locker room –– if you approach him, you’re getting an answer. Within the last week, I looked over and Karen Guregian was doing a one-on-one interview with him in the locker room. If you’re walking into the stadium, and he’s driving by, he’s stopping to say ‘hello.’ I don’t know if that would surprise people based on their perception, but that’s the reality as I see it.”
But approachability doesn’t always equate to candid banter. The Globe’s Nora Princiotti, who started covering the team in 2016, says she’s always found Brady to be “incredibly nice, patient and polite.” But he remains cautious when speaking to the press, which stands in contrast to other star players in the league, such as Chargers QB Philip Rivers, who dazzled reporters on a conference call last week with tales about getting cussed out by Bill Belichick at the Pro Bowl.
“We were all tripping ourselves when we were on the conference call with Philip Rivers last week, because if you ask Rivers a question, he’s like, ‘Yeah yeah, I’ll give you the answer, but let me tell you the story first,’” Princiotti said to WEEI.com in a phone call. “Brady is never going to tell you the story first. I get why he does it, because he’s been under so much scrutiny for so long. I would be cautious, too. But I wish we had more. There’s no doubt he has a zillion stories. He’s been around for so long. The things he’s seen. You wish you got more of that.”
Curran, who’s covered Brady since he entered the league in 2000, says he’s the same person he was then. When Brady first took over the starting job in 2001, Curran says he would saddle beside Brady’s locker every Friday and ask him how the game was going to go. Almost every week, Brady would say they were going to kick the opposition’s ass.
This went on for years.
“In 2011, I was lucky enough to be the pool reporter on Saturday in the stadium, and I was by myself, and he comes in afterwards and he’s like, ‘What are you doing here?,’” Curran told WEEI.com. “I said, ‘I’m the pool reporter. How are you feeling?’ He goes, ‘We’re going to kick their f—- ass.’”
But even 2011 was a different time than now. It was pre-Deflategate, pre-Trump, pre-Alex Guerrero FTC revelations. Nearly four years ago to the day, Brady stood up at the Gillette Stadium podium for 30 minutes and tried to explain his deflated footballs. His affability or jokes –– “This isn’t ISIS. Nobody died” –– did nothing to quell the storm. The silly scandal still led the national news that night, and carried on for a year-and-a-half.
“I think the Deflategate press conference was probably the nadir for him in terms of understanding, ‘So this is what it feels like to be dinner,’” Curran said. “You could see it in his eyes. He didn’t want to leave the podium until he felt as if he had made it OK. And he never made it OK. I think that was, for him, he must’ve walked away that day and said, ‘I don’t think I helped. I’m the bad guy and nothing I say can fix that.’ The interesting thing is, how quickly he was able to embrace that, after some serious mental strife he went through. That’s a fact. He was in dark places, because it did a number on his family to be labeled a cheater. It did a number on his mom, specifically. I don’t know if there’s cause and effect behind her illness, but among her family, there’s a suspicion that it was. That developed a lot of animosity towards the reporting, league and the media from him.”
Trump came right after Deflategate, with Brady fielding regular questions about whether he intended to vote for his golf pal-turned-demagogue or what he would tell his children about Trump’s crude locker room talk. The latter question led Brady to abruptly end a press conference, which has happened in interviews three times since then: twice over questions about Guerrero, and once after some idiot radio host made a stupid joke about his daughter.
When Brady first returned from Deflategate, Reiss noticed he was discernibly shorter with the media. “For me, I feel like if I needed to ask him something in a non-press conference setting, my odds of that being worked out are greater now than they were two years ago,” Reiss said. “Maybe that traces back to what he was going through two years ago, with Deflategate, but I think things have loosened since that point. Even in his news conferences in that specific time period, they seemed shorter –– much shorter. It was almost like, ‘I’m doing this, and just this.’ Now I think that’s loosened quite a bit.”
Still, Brady does seem to be over his penchant of trying to please everybody. This week, for example, he has not issued any clarifications about his “everyone thinks we suck” remark. If he told fans to get lubed up now, it’s easy to see him just letting the comment sit, without any cleanup effort.
“I think his stance has become, ‘Why open Pandora’s box?,’” Curran said. “‘Business is fine with or without this. I’ve seen this movie, and I know what direction it goes.’”
On Sunday, it goes to its eighth straight AFC championship, and 13th in 17 seasons. Win or lose, surely another scandal will follow.
The Brady Cottage Industry: When Brady does eventually retire, all of our favorite trolls are going to have to find new lines of work. It occurred to me this week the only time anybody hears Rob Parker, who hosts a night talk show on Fox Sports Radio and occasionally appears on the lowly rated “Undisputed” with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe, is when we replay his asinine Brady hate.
So, we pay for Rob Parker’s supper. We’re all in this together.
Flaw in Tony Romo’s game: My fawning feelings about Tony Romo as an analyst are well-established. He’s sharper than all of his peers and constantly ahead of the action. In other words, he’s great.
But next season, he should try giving some actual opinions on league issues. Jason Witten was criticized for not talking about his support for Greg Hardy when he lambasted the Redskins for signing Reuben Foster, but at least he delivered a sharp take. It’s hard to imagine Romo doing that.
Here is what Romo said last week when Jim Nantz asked him about Gronk’s looming retirement: “I don’t know. But I can tell you right now, if you’re going against the Patriots, you better have a plan for him.”
Have a better plan for the question next time.