It is a sign of just how long Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s reign with the New England Patriots lasted that you have to legitimately be sort of old to remember how much the team used to suck. Even among the futile Boston sports franchises of the early aughts — before Cleveland was known as The Tortured Sports City, pre-Brady Boston hadn’t won anything since Larry Bird — the Patriots were considered the town’s other team, the one that played in a beaten-up, outdated stadium and was always threatening to move to St. Louis. Bill Parcells led the team to an AFC Championship in 1996, but the primary story line of that year’s Super Bowl XXXI was his plan to leave the second the game ended to take a more glamorous head-coaching job with the Jets. The team remained very much an also-ran locally, and nobody outside New England really cared about it.
But beginning in 2001, when Tom Brady famously took over for Drew Bledsoe and led his team to a Super Bowl victory just a few months after September 11 — you can claim you weren’t rooting for them to do so in the moment all you want; I know you’re lying — the Patriots became the primary galvanizing force in American sports. Over two decades, until Brady fled to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he and Belichick were almost always enmeshed in some controversy or other while becoming unlikely drivers of the political culture and personifying everything loathsome and soulless in sports … and while winning an unprecedented six freaking Super Bowls and establishing themselves as the best player and coach in NFL history. Their reunion on Sunday night, in which the 44-year-old Brady triumphed over his old team, felt less like a football game and more like a reunion show of a long-running drama, during which viewers watching at home hope the cast members end up slapping each other at the end. It wasn’t a great game — it was rainy, sloppy, and disjointed — but, hey, Matthew Perry isn’t looking so hot these days either. I still watched that HBO Max special, and so did you.
The evening had the unmistakable feel of a greatest-hits special and was certainly packaged as one; at times, it felt like a “30 for 30” about a live event. This made sense because even though both Brady and Belichick are still at the top of their games — Brady is coming off a Super Bowl win with Tampa, of course, and Belichick has a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones, who sure gives off some young-Brady vibes — they also feel like living relics. They are exceptions that will forever prove the rule: Players and coaches are far more disposable than Brady and Belichick ever made them look. This is partly because the two of them are both so uniquely driven and talented. But it’s just as much because the NFL isn’t structured for careers like theirs anymore.
More than two-thirds of the coaching positions in the NFL have switched hands in the past three years; that Belichick could last 22 years (and counting) is impossible to imagine moving forward. The two oldest starting quarterbacks in the NFL now are Ben Roethlisberger (five years younger than Brady) and Aaron Rodgers (seven years). Roethlisberger is about to get run out of town, and Rodgers, as great as he still is, seems more interested in hosting game shows than his career. No one else is close. The NFL is a league that churns through talent and famously has little patience, even for success: The Eagles won the Super Bowl just three years ago and have already fired the coach and traded the quarterback who won it for them. The style of the game has changed the focus on longevity as well. Quarterbacks like Brady, Roethlisberger, and Rodgers — tall, slow guys with strong arms but no mobility — are on their way out; Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and early 2021 MVP leader Kyler Murray, all nearly as dangerous running as they are throwing, fit the model of the modern quarterback. But all that running is going to take a toll: Playing for 20 years is going to be a lot harder for the new brand of QB than it was for Brady. The idea of the lightning-fast Murray still going at 44 is absurd.
A changing NFL isn’t the only reason the Brady-Belichick magic probably won’t be replicated. There’s also the unique confluence of circumstances that created the contours of their dynasty in the first place. So much of the Brady lore stemmed from the fact that he came out of nowhere — a guy who didn’t even start in college, the most unlikely underdog hero of all. He starred in the 9/11 Super Bowl with America behind him — which gave him nowhere to go but down. Belichick was equally disparaged before that game. He was a guy who had quit on the Jets before coaching a game and was thought of as a bit of a rumpled joke who had been driven out of Cleveland, of all places. Their inspiring underdog story emerged as the bubble of athlete-as-unknowable-object-of-hero-worship was popping; within five years of their first big win, they had become villains at the exact moment when blogs — and eventually social media — arrived to take the piss out of them. They were the most-hated sports figures right as sports fans were becoming historically fantastic at hating sports figures. Because they had the single-mindedness of the truly championship-obsessed, they steered into this curve: Your hate just made them stronger. Winning in spite of it all became the brand. This allowed them to run their franchise exactly how they wanted — for 20 years. It made them untouchable in a way no NFL coach and quarterback will be again.
Thus, the game on Sunday seemed like an elegy for something that hasn’t died yet but surely will soon. We have spent the past 20 years arguing about Brady and Belichick, cheering them, booing them, marveling at their achievements all the while. Their place in this era of American history is secure, inside and outside sports. Even if you think Brady’s place in Trumpworld is a bit overstated (and I do), Belichick will forever be connected to the man for his infamous letter to Trump on the eve of the 2016 election along with his refusal to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. You’re going to hiss at these guys long into their retirements.
But moving forward, athletes and coaches won’t last as long as Brady and Belichick. They won’t be as heralded as they were initially; as unsavvy as each of them were when they found themselves drifting, willingly or otherwise, into the political realm; and as universally despised as they were afterward. And, frankly: No one will win as relentlessly as they did either. Brady and Belichick were one of a kind, and there’s no way we’ll see anything like them again. (The great new book about the Patriots dynasty, Seth Wickersham’s It’s Better to Be Feared, which was the subject of much discussion of the telecast on Sunday night, reads more as a historical document than a document of the current league.)
Witnessing this era end might sound great, but I dunno — I bet we’ll all miss booing them so vigorously. Villains in sports have their place; there’s a reason Sunday night will end up as one of the most-watched regular-season games in NFL history. In his hilarious 2007 book, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever — which is, of course, about loathing Duke basketball, the collegiate answer to Brady and Belichick — author Will Blythe quotes from a work by the 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt called “On the Pleasure of Hating.”
Nature seems made of antipathies. Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action … Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: Hatred alone is immortal.
We’ll probably never hate a player or a coach as passionately — or, more important, for as long — as we hated Brady and Belichick. Sunday night was one last chance to do so. Beyond the final moments, the game itself was sort of dull. But Sunday was not about the game; it was about remembering how much it meant to cheer against those guys. And in an almost poignant way, it served as a bittersweet good-bye.