Actual sports news! Brady leaves Pats for the NFC South!

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), with his children, hugs teammate Julian Edelman after the Patriots’ win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII Feb. 3, 2019, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12), with his children, hugs teammate Julian Edelman after the Patriots’ win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII Feb. 3, 2019, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The NFL has worked to make an autumn sport a year-round source of conversation. Why are OTAs a thing? Why is the combine — which consists of prospects running, jumping and talking — prime TV material for more than a week? Why does anybody need to see the draft in person?

Say this for the Shield, though. At a time when absolutely nothing else is happening in sports, the NFL is keeping us going. There's a new CBA. Day 1 of free agency saw the Falcons shed their leading runner and a Pro Bowl tight end. It saw the Houston Texans, for no reason whatsoever, trade away DeAndre Hopkins, among the league's  best wideouts. Today it yielded a story that would have been the week's biggest news even if the NCAA tournament had gotten going.

Tom Brady. Leaving New England.

Greatest quarterback ever. Leaving the greatest coach ever.

Stop the virtual presses.

But wait. It gets better. Or, if you're fan of the team that once led Brady's Patriots by 25 points with 17 ½ minutes left in a Super Bowl, much worse. NFL.com reports that he has agreed to join Tampa Bay, which plays in the NFC South, which means ...

Two annual reminders of the score (28-3) we can never forget.

We knew Brady leaving New England was possible. For the first time in his 59-year NFL career (slight exaggeration), the 81-year-old Brady (ditto) is a free agent in the fullest sense of the word. He can’t be slapped with the franchise tag. He can go where he pleases. Apparently what pleases him is playing in a stadium that has a pirate ship in one end zone.

Even as we grasped that Brady might go elsewhere, we never believed he would. There were two pillars in the Patriots’ dynasty. Bill Belichick is one. Brady’s the other. Belichick has coached other pro quarterbacks, though not many lately; Brady has played for only one NFL coach. Deep down, we always figured they’d ride into the sunset more or less in tandem, wheeling away on motorcycles with underinflated tires.

But no. TB12 posted Tuesday morning — on both Twitter and Instagram, in case anybody happened to miss it — that “my football journey will take place elsewhere.” (Which was, you’d have to say, horribly written. His football journey just included 20 seasons in New England. Perhaps TB12 meant to say, “My football journey will lead me elsewhere.”)

He didn’t say he plans to sign with another team, but he didn’t make it sound as if his Football Journey would carry him to that long-coveted post as quarterbacks coach for Fresno State. He’s 42 and he’s starting over. He’s 42 and he’s coming off a season that saw him look pedestrian not just by TB12 standards but by NFL standards — he finished 19th in passer rating, 27th in yards per pass — and he’s going to play for a franchise that hasn’t spent two decades catering to his every whim.

There are some who believe the Patriots will crumble without Brady. I believe that, in his new environs, he’ll prove the reason that the Patriots faded last season wasn’t just because the talent around Brady was indifferent. They faded because the Greatest Of All Time finally proved incapable of elevating indifferent talent.

If you’re a Falcons’ fan, that part is important. Tampa Bay has good receivers and a good coach in Bruce Arians. It failed last year because Jameis Winston kept throwing the ball to the wrong team. (Deion Jones’ overtime pick-6 is how the Falcons got to 7-9.) Brady has never thrown many interceptions, but he’s not apt to throw for 5,109 yards, which Famously Erring Jameis also did. For the first time in his career, his supporting cast might have to prop up the GOAT.

No athlete is as good at 42. You could see in the playoff loss to Tennessee that Titans coach Mike Vrabel, once a Brady teammate and still a Brady pal, was doing what  defensive play-callers once quit doing. He was blitzing the unflappable Brady, who used to eat blitzes for breakfast, and it was working.

Good players become great players, it’s said, when the game slows down for them. Great players become good players when THEY slow down. Joe DiMaggio retired at 37 because, he said, “I can’t be Joe DiMaggio every day.” Tom Brady still thinks he’s Tom Brady, which is technically true, but he’s no longer the GOAT Tom Brady. He’s the GOAT at twilight.

I give him one year in Buccaneer red and pewter. That’s how long Johnny Unitas lasted as a Charger and Joe Namath as a Ram. Joe Montana, previous GOAT, spent two seasons as a Chief, but he was 36 when he left San Francisco. I figure Brady tries once, fails and calls it a career. I also figure the Patriots will miss him less than you’d expect. Remember, Brady missed almost the entire 2008 season with a torn ACL; behind the legendary Matt Cassel, New England became one of the few 11-5 teams to miss the playoffs.

Nothing that happens can take away from what Brady has done. He has won six Super Bowls, 50 percent more than any other quarterback. He won his first in February 2002, his most recent in February 2019. But he hasn’t been 42 before, and when he takes his next snap in a regulation game, he’ll be 43.

The day we, or at least most of us, thought would never come has arrived. For those of us who make our living discussing sports, it’s heaven-sent. My brother asked me last night, “What do you write about when nothing is happening?” The kindly NFL has made it so that nothing never happens.

To be fair, sometimes the league takes a nothing and deems it something. Tom Brady leaving New England -- and landing in Tampa -- isn’t nothing. Thanks, Tom! You really are the greatest!

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