‘What’s up, babe?’ How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wooed Tom Brady

On the first day of the free agent negotiating period – it started at noon on Monday, 16 March –Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht sat in his office at One Buc Place and phoned Brady’s longtime agent Don Yee at precisely fifteen seconds after 12. “I’m calling about Tom,” Licht said.

“You made the right call,” Yee told Licht. “You really made a good decision to call me.” Yee went on to explain that Brady had been paying close attention to the Bucs and Arians. He emphasized how much Brady respected Arians – who had written a book in 2017 called The Quarterback Whisperer – and Yee noted that Brady had been impressed with the work Arians had done with quarterbacks through the years. Brady had researched Arians, watching a documentary on him, and he admired how close Arians had been with all of his past quarterbacks. “You’ve got a good nucleus of talent at Tampa,” Yee told Licht, “and it’s important that the head coach, general manager, ownership, and the quarterback have the same commitment to winning.”

Licht drove to Arians’s house for a call with Brady on 18 March, the first day the new league year opened at 4pm EST. Licht arrived around 3pm. The two former bartenders “got some personality inside of them,” according to Licht, before the call. Then, at exactly 10 seconds after 4pm, Licht phoned Brady just as free agency officially began.

“What’s up, babe?” Brady said as soon as he answered his cell. “Jason, this is going to be a hell of a lot of fun.” Brady then gushed about the Bucs’ talented wide receivers, the way the Tampa Bay defense had played during the second half of the 2019 season, and the way Arians had coaxed great seasons out of so many quarterbacks during his career. At one point Brady said, “I think we’ve got something. We’ve got a chance to be very special.” Brady then told Licht why it would make sense for the Bucs to sign him.

After Brady uttered those words, Licht locked eyes with Arians, who was sitting two feet away in his kitchen, and flashed the closed fist thumps-up sign. Licht silently mouthed: I think this is happening. Like Captain Ahab, they figured they had their great white whale on the hook.

After 30 minutes of talking to Brady, Licht handed the phone to Arians. “If you come here, we will win the Super Bowl,” Arians said. “You’re the missing ingredient. We’re a very talented team, but they just don’t know it.”

Arians kept talking, trying to pitch Brady on the virtues of playing in Florida for the Bucs. “Hey, Florida’s great, it’s warm, no state taxes. And we do have receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, all these guys.”

Brady interrupted, saying, “Hey, I think Gronk might want to come out of retirement.”

“Let’s get you signed up first and then we’ll work on that one,” Arians replied.

Brady then took command of the conversation, repeating what he liked about Tampa. While he and Arians spoke, Licht paced back and forth in the kitchen like he was on some kind of guard duty. As the minutes passed and the smile on Arians’s face grew, Licht understood what it meant: they had their man.

Arians eventually told Brady he’d talk to him soon and then handed the phone back to Licht. “Hey, there’s one other thing here,” Licht said. “It’s a small thing, but maybe a big thing. We have a No 12 [the shirt number Brady had played in for the Patriots] on our team and he’s pretty good – Chris Godwin. What are you thinking about that?”

“Oh, he’s a great player,” Brady replied. “I’m not going to take his number. I don’t care about that. You know what number I’m thinking of? I’m thinking of taking maybe No 7. Is that available?”

“It is,” Licht said. “Why do you want that number?”

“I want that seventh ring,” Brady said.

NFL players have taken extreme measures in the past to secure their favorite jersey number. Back in 1995 Deion Sanders of the Dallas Cowboys bought a BMW for Alundis Brice in exchange for No 21, which had been Brice’s number. The Washington Redskins’ Clinton Portis paid $38,000 to Ifeanyi Ohalete for the privilege to don the No 26 jersey. And in 2014 Tennessee Titans backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who had worn No 6 since his rookie season of 2006 with the Chargers, arm-wrestled punter Brett Kern for the right to wear No 6 – and lost.

But Godwin had other ideas. A few days before Brady had talked to Licht about the No 12, as rumors swirled in the Tampa facility that the team may sign Brady, Godwin was lifting weights when he told teammates, “If we get Tom Brady, I’ll gladly give up No 12.” When the two finally spoke, Brady told the receiver that he had no problem wearing No 7. But Godwin, wanting to start his relationship with Brady on a positive note, eventually told Brady he’d change his number to 14 and let him wear 12 because of the “respect” he had for his new quarterback. Like any wise wide receiver – especially one entering the final year of his contract – Godwin wanted to win over the man who would be in charge of how many throws came in his direction.

After their call with Brady ended, Licht, Arians, and Arians’s wife, Chris, enjoyed a celebratory dinner at Ava, an Italian restaurant on Howard Avenue. Licht shared another nugget of information from his talk with Brady: The quarterback asked for the cell phone numbers of all the Tampa players. “Damn, that shows his commitment right there,” Arians said. “He hasn’t even signed his contract yet, and he’s already thinking about how he’s going to connect with his teammates. This is what leadership looks like. He’s going to make us better the second he walks into the building, even before he makes his first throw.”

During dinner at Ava, Arians spotted Raheem Morris sitting at another table. Arians waved Morris – the former head coach of the Buccaneers from 2009 to 2011 – over. “What are you guys celebrating?” Morris asked.

“Oh nothing,” Arians said, concealing his joy. “Just out enjoying a good meal.”

After more small talk, Morris walked away. Only three people in the state of Florida knew the biggest secret in sports.

In retrospect, the fracturing of Brady’s relationship with Bill Belichick and the Patriots could be seen for years. Each time a high-profile player was cut from the New England organization – the list includes linebacker Willie McGinest (who was selected to play in two Pro Bowls), running back Corey Dillon (four Pro Bowls), safety Lawyer Milloy (four Pro Bowls), and cornerback Ty Law (five Pro Bowls), to name a few – Brady would stand at a podium at One Patriot Way, summon a half-grin, and then tell the assembled media in a monotone voice that he had nothing of substance to say about the subject. But his dejected body language and manufactured smile always suggested displeasure.

As successful as it was, the Patriot Way – the guiding principle of the New England organization – could be bloodless and soul-crushing. What is the Patriot Way? Bill Belichick has claimed that he has never uttered that term (he once excoriated a reporter for implying he did), but it essentially means that the New England franchise is all business, all the time. Winning is the only thing that matters in the Patriot Way, which explains why the organization isn’t afraid to take chances on high-risk, high-reward players other teams refuse to pursue (see Randy Moss in 2007, LeGarrette Blount in 2014, and Antonio Brown in 2019).

At the same time, Belichick and Company won’t hesitate to trade a Pro Bowl talent who isn’t viewed as a team player (defensive tackle Richard Seymour in 2009 and linebacker Jamie Collins in 2016). They also won’t shy away from shedding beloved former stars on the back end of their careers (linebacker Mike Vrabel in 2009) or those seeking a contract above their level of play (wide receiver Deion Branch in 2006). In the Patriot Way, the team always trumps the individual, and decisions to protect locker room chemistry and the organization’s future are made swiftly and without emotion.

“I swear it seems like Bill has listening devices in their locker room,” said a longtime NFL coach in 2017. “If there’s a player with a bad attitude, he’ll know about it and then that player will be gone. There is an element of fear on that team – the fear of getting shipped away to a place like Cleveland – but that keeps everyone in line. It keeps everyone going the Patriot Way. Everyone is expendable. Unless you’re Bill Belichick or Tom Brady, you could be gone at any minute.”

Yet for years, people around the league wondered whether the Patriot Way would ever make Brady, too, expendable. Brady’s father once said that as soon as Belichick had a quarterback who was as talented as his son and was a buck cheaper, Tom would be shown the door. In a 2018 interview with Jim Gray, Brady was asked whether he felt appreciated by his bosses for all that he accomplished. “I plead the fifth,” Brady said. A few close to Brady say he never felt fully respected by Belichick. Everyone wants to earn the admiration of their boss and – whether it was due to a communication breakdown or not – Brady simply didn’t receive the positive reinforcement from his head coach that he was seeking, that he needed. During the 2019 season, after most Patriot victories, the ultra-fast embrace he typically exchanged with Belichick was the definition of awkward, like a couple hugging moments before signing divorce papers.

Brady’s last pass as a Patriot was on 4 January 2020, in a 20–13 wildcard game loss to the Tennessee Titans. Facing a first and 10 on his own one-yard line in the fourth quarter, Brady unleashed a ball that landed in the arms of Titans cornerback Logan Ryan, who returned the interception nine yards for a touchdown. After the game it appeared Brady didn’t even shower – a rarity for him –before he held a brief postgame press conference and rushed through the concrete bowels of Gillette Stadium with his daughter in his arms, clearly not wanting to be bothered. With his wife next to him, the Brady family strode into the rainy New England night, disappearing into the darkness.

About three months later, on the evening of 16 March – two days before his call with Arians and Licht – Brady drove to Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s mansion. The two had a friendly, extended discussion. Kraft believed that Brady had come over to work out a new contract, but no: it wound up being their final goodbye.

“Look, I just want to say I love you and I appreciate what we’ve done together,” Brady told Kraft. “I know that we’re not going to continue together, but thank you. Thank you for providing what you have for my family and my career.”

Tears ran down Brady’s face as he spoke. Sitting close to Kraft, he then pulled out his cell phone and called Belichick to tell him he was leaving the Patriots. It was important for Brady that his coach hear the news of his decision from him, not from a reporter or another secondary source. Brady wished his coach “the best” and, his eyes still wet, he thanked Belichick for all he had done for him over the previous two decades. Kraft later didn’t directly say the reason Brady was leaving was Belichick, but he implied that it was. “Think about loving your wife and for whatever reason, there’s something – her father or mother – that makes life impossible for you and you have to move on,” the owner told the NFL Network.

The next day, 17 March, in a series of Instagram posts, Brady said he was moving out of New England. He thanked everyone from Kraft to Belichick to his teammates to the low-level staffers. But he made it clear that – after three MVP awards, 41 playoff starts, 13 conference championship appearances, four Super Bowl MVP trophies, six Super Bowl rings – that he was ready for a change.

So why did Brady ultimately leave? Even he has trouble articulating his complicated, nuanced, often challenging relationship with Belichick – the two would never be mistaken for regular dinner-party companions. But one fact is clear: Brady wanted to play until he was at least 45 years old, and dating back to 2017, Belichick would not give him a contract extension. As a result, Brady didn’t feel that Belichick truly valued him, which in turn made football a job for Brady, not a joy. He was searching for fun again. He was searching, in the end, for a season in the sun.

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