ON FEB. 7, 2021, Tom Brady stood with his children beneath a shower of victory confetti. He had just won his seventh Super Bowl. Three more than Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, one more than his former New England Patriots bosses Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. In NFL lore, he now stood alone. Up in a private suite, his family looked down with many emotions. Nobody who'd ever played the game had won more, been more of a winner, and it felt to him and the people who loved him that he hadn't merely beaten the Kansas City Chiefs but also had beaten his old team, after it had doubted him and opened the door for him to leave. Brady held his kids close. Watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' celebration unfold below, his parents opened a bottle of champagne. Nobody said a word about New England. It was simply understood. His mom and his dad and his sisters raised a glass, and if you listened carefully in that moment, the delicate sound of stemware was a bell tolling for the Patriots dynasty.
Brady and Belichick and Kraft were no longer fighting for credit. Brady had claimed that credit undeniably on the most public stage in sports. His seventh title meant Bill and Bob were now fighting not to be blamed. Both men sent Brady congratulatory texts, but they had lost control of the narrative of their own careers -- and they both knew that the team celebrating a seventh title should have been their team, and that wound began to fester.
"Bill had told me he couldn't play anymore," Kraft said privately afterward, "and then he goes out and wins the f---ing Super Bowl."
BELICHICK AND KRAFT ENDED their partnership four days after losing at home in the snow to the New York Jets. "We're moving on," Belichick said, and Kraft said they had "mutually agreed" to part ways. A somber mood had permeated throughout the football offices at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, since the loss to the Jets, with most assistant coaches and staffers kept in the dark on the future of the franchise even as they wrapped up a 4-13 season with exit interviews and meetings. Belichick had sent clear signals internally for weeks that he thought he was coaching his final games for the Patriots. He also made it clear that he was ready to move on, telling confidants that Robert Kraft and his son, team president Jonathan Kraft, had eroded the culture he had built over two decades.
Belichick believed the erosion had been going on for a while, at least since Brady's last season in New England. Belichick and Kraft met multiple times after this season ended, which is custom, but this year's series of meetings was different. Both men had lists of things that needed to change. And both men knew it was unlikely they'd find a way forward. Three days after losing to the Jets, Belichick had started to move items out of his office.