In Tom Brady's fever dream, he walks down a long, antiseptic hallway filled with artificial light. This week. This week. This week we get it right. A mantra on repeat in Brady's mind.
Smooth, soothing elevator music plays. Is it N'Sync?
A door is at the end of the hall. He pushes it open. It's like a high school chem lab. Every seat at every table is full. Everyone is in full uniform. Brady recognizes none of them from the back of the room. They are all hunched forward, writing, their backs turned to him.
Bill Belichick stands at the front of the class. He's dressed differently. A hooded cloak. A long white beard. A scythe leans against the wall behind him.
"So, like I said, we're gonna play to our strengths …" Belichick is saying. He spots Brady. Belichick's voice tapers. His face spreads into a grin. But it doesn't stop. It keeps stretching wider.
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"I'm late?" Brady says, his voice a mixture of anger and disbelief. "Why am I late? What time is it?!"
"No, Tom, just finishing up here, not late. Right on time. I was just saying we're looking to get the ball to Jake Bailey this week. Get it to Jake and let him do his thing…"
Bailey is at a lab table to Belichick's right.
"Hi Tom!" he says, waving like a lunatic. "I'm here to help!"
In his left hand, he holds an hourglass. He flicks at it absently with his right index finger. Flick. Flick. Flick. Sand falls down.
Panic rises in Brady's throat. How could he have gotten the time wrong? Is everything already done, really?
"We're looking to get it to the punter? That's the plan? What can I do, though? I can do things." Brady asks, eyes darting around the room. He can remember ever feeling so exposed.
"You know what, I think we're all set for now, Tom," Belichick replies, his grin somehow broadening so that his eyes begin to bulge slightly.
One player sits up straight, pivots rigidly and looks at Brady with dead eyes. It's Ryan Izzo.
"All set for now, Tom," he says.
Every other player sits bolt upright. They slowly turn in unison to face Brady. They are all Ryan Izzo.
"All set for now, Tom," they say robotically. Then they smile and all the Ryan Izzos give a big thumbs-up.
"This shit ain't real," Brady mutters. Turning for the door he spins into a body that's blocking it.
"This is serious as a HEART ATTACK!!!!" Marshall Newhouse says and throws his head back. All the Ryan Izzos laugh.
Pushing past Newhouse with surprising ease, Brady is now in a different hall. There's a door with a small picture taped to it. He looks at the picture. A goat. With a cane. And a top hat. His cane points at a door. Squinting, Brady sees that, on the door in the picture, there is also a picture. Of a goat. With a cane. And a top hat. That is pointing at a door.
The door opens on its own. Slowly. It's Brady's locker room. Same as it's been since 2002. But at his locker, there's a scrum of people. They are holding cameras and tape recorders. They are interviewing someone at HIS locker. The MOTHERSCRATCHER!
"Hey!!!" yells Brady. No one turns.
Brady rushes over and grabs a shoulder. Rohan Davey turns to face Brady. Then Matt Guttierez. And Matt Cassel. And Kevin O'Connell. Ryan Mallett. Jimmy. Jacoby. Jarrett. Damon Huard. Michael Bishop. John Friesz. Drew Bledsoe. They all look at Brady with detachment then turn back to the figure at Brady's locker.
Wedging himself through Brady sees someone in a full-body cast. Only the head is visible. The face looks familiar. Brady can't place it.
"Hi Tom!" the head suddenly cries. "I'm Tua!!!! We're gonna work together!"
The music. Brady hears it again. It's louder now. Deafening. "Bye, bye, bye!" It is N'Sync.
Tom Brady's purgatory season of 2019 activates the imagination so if you're still with me, I appreciate you.
Facts are facts, Tom Brady is New England's Achilles and his NFL Odyssey has never failed to fascinate.
Now – in season 20 – quarterbacking a team that stylistically resembles the 2001 team that won the first of six Super Bowls, it's hard to overlook the ironic symbolism.
The joy that coursed through that season radiated from Brady. He was the sun around which the team revolved. This season, he's a dark star of despondency, morose about the direction of the offense and his inability to do anything but stay out of the way.
On too many Sundays, it feels like the thrill is gone for the greatest quarterback of all-time.
His team keeps stacking wins and is 9-1 and atop the AFC. But his job right now is to not eff anything up. In less than two years he's gone from being revving the engine of a Formula One car to pushing a bike with training wheels around a parking lot.
He's Jimmy Page playing with a garage band, Picasso with crayons, Steve Jobs with an abacus.
Brady's on record saying he'll keep playing until he sucks. Maybe sucking won't be an inability to throw hard, far and accurately and avoid a pass rush.
Maybe sucking will be being unable to play like he's capable because of circumstances beyond his control. Maybe sucking will be an inability to suck it up and deal with what's around him because, he figures, should he really have to at this point?
And that's where the real conflict exists.
The most selfless and accomplished professional athlete of his generation, the guy who's probably taken about $50 million less than he could have in salary over the course of his career, the quarterback who's buttoned his lip and succeeded with a succession of merely OK players around him, the player who dealt with Bill Belichick's verbal slings and arrows and attempts to replace him so that he could try and win the all-important "next one"?
Are some going to see him bummed out after a win on the road that moved his team to 9-1 and say he's being a bad teammate? Are some going to accuse the player that authored perhaps the most memorable comeback in team sports history of running up the white flag?
Some could. Some will. Some are.
Are others going to see the whole picture in full relief and realize Despondent Tom has been marinating for a while. Through attempts to replace him. Through lowball contract offers that took advantage of his aversion to conflict. Through the lopping off of talented offensive pieces and the half-assed or lamebrained efforts to replace them.
Others could. Others will. Others are.
The Eeyore act isn't a hit in Foxboro.
It's understood that he's used to a certain level of performance. And nobody believes this offense is about to transform into a unit that will approach Brady's accustomed level. But the moping creates a firestorm and – even if Brady was publicly sounding the alarm about the offense as far back as training camp – now is not the time for "I told you so …" Even if he did tell us so.
The Patriots offense will improve over the final six games. Isaiah Wynn will help. N'Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu are still new additions. Tight end Matt Lacosse is working his way in. It's not going to get "good" relative to what we're used to but it will be better.
Brady's got valid reasons to be pissed off about how his contracts have been handled, how the offense has been constructed, the team's reluctance to believe he's got enough in the tank to play until 45. Things pile up over two decades. It might seem like he's mad after Jakobi Meyers runs a bad route but that anger may really have its root in a mistake he saw Chad Jackson, Aaron Dobson or Brian Tyms make 13, seven or four years ago.
After all he's done, if Brady wants to continue kicking rocks in press conferences about what the Patriots can't do, that's his prerogative. For me, it won't undo a millisecond of the Tom Brady Experience or change my belief he's been the ultimate teammate and still is.
But do you know what it sounds like the longer it goes? A death rattle.
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