Looking back, September 25th was the day when Tom Brady made it as clear as he could about what his future in New England looked like.
Speaking to his friend Jim Gray on Westwood One radio, Brady was asked specifically if he objected to Antonio Brown being released by the club after a little over a one-week stay.
"The reality is I don't make any personnel decisions," said Brady. "I don't decide to sign players, I don't decide to trade them, I don't decide to release them, I don't decide to draft them. I don't get asked. I show up and I do my job. I'm an employee like everyone else."
The "I'm an employee" refrain played a few more times before the season ended, and you could almost see Brady distancing himself from the Patriots during this time. His demeanor during press conferences changed; he was moodier and unwilling to play "the game" during exchanges with reporters. A number of those sessions were cut short by the player himself, not PR. While that had happened on occasion, it became a more regular occurrence this past season. But there was that Brady, and then the one who would speak to a national audience every Monday and Thursday with Gray. Brady would entertain similar questions to the ones he received from the regular media corp, although even more pointed and direct. Veteran Brady watchers -- yours truly included -- wondered if these questions were approved, allowing Gray to be the heavy hitter and then for Brady to deflect? Gray denied it. But clearly, the road to an exit was being paved, something Brady willingly offered when asked Wednesday morning during a two-plus hour interview with Howard Stern.
"I don't think there was a final, final decision until it happened," he said. "But I probably knew before the start of last season that it was my last year. I knew that it was just -- our time was coming to an end."
Brady's appearance on Stern led to a revelatory interview, with Brady opening the curtains a little more on his personal life, including the admission that he and wife Giselle Bundchen had a rocky time in their marriage a couple years ago and that perhaps that's what led to Brady skipping OTAs the last two seasons. The 42-year-old also had no problem dropping the occasional F-bomb. Hey, he's human after all. But from the football perspective, it all led back to his relationships in New England and what happened.
Make no mistake, it was an odd ending, unnecessarily drawn out. Three of the game's biggest power brokers -- owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and Brady himself -- were unable to get into the same room and agree that this union -- one that may never be matched in the history of professional football -- had run its course. Perhaps that's because Kraft didn't believe that was true. He made it clear he would have loved to see "Tommy" retire as a lifetime Patriot. But time had run out on that dream -- Brady outgrowing Belichick's master plan, both in performance and -- perhaps -- in a greater willingness by the quarterback to put himself and his interests ahead of the team. Nothing egregious but just enough to erode some of the structure that had been built and sustained. Had he earned the right? Perhaps, but it was a departure from the norm, a norm that led Belichick to recall that, "Tom was not just a player who bought into our program. He was one of its original creators."
But what happens when one of those creator's tone changes and sets the bar in a different spot? The answer is simple: time for a new beginning for all parties. That doesn't diminish what was accomplished. Never should. And Brady's comments to Stern about who was more responsible for the organization's unprecedented success was telling.
"I think it's a pretty s---- argument that people would say that," Brady said when asked whether he or Belichick carried more weight in that run. "I can't do his job and he can't do mine. So, the fact that you could say, 'Would I be successful without him?' The same level of success, I don't believe I would have been.
"But I feel the same and vice versa, as well. To have him allow me to be the best I can be, I'm grateful for that, and I very much believe he feels the same about me because we've expressed that to each other."
Now, as Brady says, it is time for something new and all the challenges that it brings. For Belichick and the Patriots, they too have questions to answer but for the first time in two decades, those queries will have to be fielded without Brady under center. But should legacies be altered? No. They are cemented in stone.