FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The game was long over. The midfield hug for the cameras and the news conference where Bill Belichick had to painfully sort out a loss – “you know, we had our chances” – were too. Belichick even had the time to change out of his rain-soaked hoodie.
The clock was striking midnight here, after an evening of anticipation and emotion and, for Belichick at least, disappointment.
Tom Brady had returned to his old home with his new team in front of his old fans wearing his old jersey but now rooting against him. He snuck out a 19-17 victory anyway, despite a Belichick-designed defense that left him throwing nearly as many incompletions (21) as completions (22) and precisely zero touchdown passes.
It didn’t matter. Brady prevailed, as he often does. What’s won was won. What was done was done. So Belichick went looking for Brady, his former quarterback, his longtime player and, perhaps, his occasional adversary. For nearly two decades they ruled the NFL to the tune of six Super Bowls and 17 divisional crowns via a relationship that was never simple.
Then it fell apart. Maybe it was time. Maybe it was ego. Maybe it was just inevitable.
All that was certain was that two men who hadn’t spoken much – if at all – since Brady left for Tampa Bay and won a seventh Super Bowl without Belichick, were about to talk. That had been the plan, getting together postgame.
“We just said we'll catch up for a little bit,” Brady said.
Belichick went to make sure of it, though, walking into the postgame Buccaneers locker room looking for Brady. It was no small gesture for the older man, the coach.
About 25 minutes later, the two emerged. This was more than an exchange of pleasantries. More than a “how’s the family?” or “good luck the rest of the way.”
“I mean, all those are personal,” Brady said, declining to get into the details. “We’ve got a personal relationship, you know, for 20-plus years. He drafted me here. We've had a lot of personal conversations that should remain that way and are very private.”
How it all got to this point, an NFL soap opera culminating into days, weeks and months of speculation about who is right and who was wronged and who had won is the stuff of multiple books, documentaries and endless talk radio discussions. The public can’t get enough of the palace intrigue, of a rivalry between one-time confidants.
Best QB ever. Best coach ever.
Together they formed the longest and most successful dynasty the league has ever known. Brady and Belichick. Belichick and Brady. They worked together to perfection and while the debate will always be who had more to do with the success, the truth is that they needed each other.
Hurt feelings, slights or misunderstandings drove them apart. Perhaps. Or maybe Belichick just bet on the idea that no one could be an elite quarterback at age 44, so he moved the franchise on to the inevitable rebuild. Then Brady proved him wrong. Now Belichick is 1-3 and in search of a running game. Brady is polishing his latest Lombardi down in the Florida sun and building toward January.
What happened? It’s complicated.
“I would say so much is made of our relationship,” Brady said. “... But nothing is really accurate that I ever see. It's all kind of – definitely doesn't come from my personal feelings or beliefs.”
Publicly, Belichick was classic Belichick on Sunday. Asked what it was like going against his former quarterback, he sounded offended at the implication.
“Look we went against Tom Brady every day, every day in practice defensively,” Belichick said. “So it's not like we've never seen Tom Brady before.”
Sure. Same thing. Totally.
Brady tried to be more diplomatic, of course, but it was his own father and his trainer who unleashed the most critical comments about Belichick in the run-up to this game. Brady had a staged joke dismissing his father’s comment that Brady was vindicated after leaving New England. He said nothing of Alex Guerrero suggesting Belichick didn’t know how to adapt to coaching a veteran such as Brady.
That was gasoline on the fire, even if Brady tried to play nice Sunday.
“You know, as I said earlier this week, from a player's standpoint you just expect the coach to give you everything he's got, and I'm sure as a player that's what he was hoping from me,” Brady said. “I got a lot of respect for him as a coach and obviously a lot of respect for this organization and all the different people here that try to make it successful.”
What was said in private is likely far closer to the truth, for both of them. No, this wasn’t just another player coming back. No, this wasn’t like facing Brady in practice. And for Brady, yes, the pregame cheers from fans and the vision of all those No. 12 jerseys in the stands meant something. It meant a lot. This wasn't just another game.
“It was awesome,” Brady said. “I'm not surprised. I tried not to predict what was going to happen and how I would feel. Had a few emotional moments this week just thinking about the people that have really meant so much to me in my life and that are a part of this community.
“Just very grateful.”
Brady would soon walk out with the win, with the ball he used to set the all-time passing yardage record during the first quarter, and with a team that is trying to be the first repeat Super Bowl champions since 2003 and 2004 – when Brady and Belichick did it here.
All these years and all these wins and, yes, all these twists and turns in life later, they were all back together, in a building they made famous. They’d spent three water-logged hours trying to beat each other on the field, now Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were huddled up in the visitor’s locker room, of all places, perhaps finally hashing out what needed to be hashed out.
Long past midnight, long past due.