Do you feel like you are dozens of episodes behind on the latest episodes of the Patriots saga? Are you unsure what to make of the most recent plot development (spoiler alert!): Tom Brady's absence at the start of Patriots OTAs? Is it hard for you to tell whether this latest plot twist is the sign of big changes in the Patriots Cinematic Universe or just something that can be undone as easily as a snap of the finger?
It's OK to feel left out and a little confused. The Patriots drama, like the Marvel Universe, the Game of Thrones series and most of the Netflix shows your underemployed buddies binge-watch on Tuesday mornings, has become so bloated and complicated over the last 20 years that it's almost impossible to keep up.
That's why Bleacher Report is here with a catch-up episode, just like the ones programs like Downton Abbey used to broadcast to remind you that Lord Bigglebottom's affections for Miss Whimplepuff the chambermaid were publicly and shockingly rebuffed during the Saint Swibbleknicker's Day feast at the end of last season. Reading this will catch you up on the last two decades of Patriots drama in just a few minutes. Then, you can decide for yourself whether the current Disgruntled Brady storyline is worth your time, or if you would rather just wait until September to find out what happens.
The Patriots have become a lot like The Simpsons over the last 20 years: initially groundbreaking and culture-changing, then fun-but-repetitive, then eventually excruciating-but-unkillable. This brief breakdown will refresh both new and old viewers on the major themes and plot threads.
Early episodes of the Patriots saga followed the heroic quest structure that dates back to long before King Arthur but still worked for Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter: a young prince/knight/magician (Tom Brady) overcomes adversity to rise from humble roots with the help of a mentor/sensei/wizard (Bill Belichick).
The 2001-04 Patriots seasons were a lot like the original Star Wars trilogy: Those who lived through them fell in love, but later audiences had a hard time getting past all the self-indulgent dreck that came afterward.
Once Brady became an established hero, future installments became formulaic. At the start of each season, the Patriots realm was threatened by an outside force who accused them of cheating or disrespected them in some way. Brady, Belichick and their allies embarked on a quest/spree/rampage that usually ended in triumph, often with their foes utterly humiliated for daring to face them in football games.
At their worst, middle-era Patriots seasons started to feel like state propaganda from some Belichick-ruled dictatorship. The "adversity" or "motivation" for each year's glorious victory began to reach John Wick levels of silliness: they kicked the dog our dog likes to sniff at the dog park; let's wipe all traces of them from the earth. Utter joylessness at the annihilation became a franchise brand. For everyone but a franchise true believer, the Patriots became more fun to hate-watch than watch.
The Deflategate storyline from Season 14 brought some dramatic potential but was drawn out over too many episodes and lacked suspense by the story's end, pretty much like every plot twist in every Netflix series ever.
Most casual fans tuned the Patriots drama out somewhere along this decade of sameness, checking back in with the team around the playoffs each year to root against it. But diehards hung on every twist and turn, because Patriots diehards, like Star Wars fans, want to see the same movie over and over again, just with slightly different cute little robots (or white wide receivers).
Seasons 17 and 18
Last year was The Last Jedi of Patriots seasons, as the new creative team of ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham, 49ers general manager John Lynch and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson conspired to turn the Patriots formula on its ear.
Brady, Belichick and the Patriots no longer acted like omnipotent Olympian gods, but human beings who sometimes became jealous, bickered among each other and sometimes blundered. Wickersham gave real personalities to what had become a bunch of one-dimensional archetypes. The 49ers snookered the Patriots in a trade; the Eagles took them in the Super Bowl. The Patriots were fallible, which also made them relatable and, for the first time in years, a little sympathetic. Some viewers loved it. The Patriots base dubbed it the Worst. Episode. Ever.
Like it or not, this new season begins where the last one left off. The Patriots are vulnerable. Brady's relationships with Belichick and the organization are strained to the point of catty comments at public appearances. Popular supporting characters like Rob Gronkowski are clamoring for their own story arcs. And like the actors who play Marvel superheroes, everyone is a little older, fabulously wealthy, bored with donning their capes and either frightened or curious about what happens when this Golden Age runs its course.
That's what makes the current OTAs story feel surprisingly fresh. Five years ago, a "Brady's a no-show" story would be little more than fodder for some cheesy "underdog" narrative: nobody believed in us during those three days in May; let's show 'em. But in this new era when the Patriots act like humans and movie supervillains sometimes triumph, who knows?
Cast of Characters
If you haven't kept up with the heroes and villains of the Patriots Cinematic Universe over the last year or so, you have missed a lot:
Tom Brady: Bonny prince turned fierce-yet-noble warrior king turned moody Michael Corleone late in The Godfather: Part II, Brady is proof of an old adage: You either die a hero or live long enough to become the weirdo who hires a documentarian buddy to follow you around your mansion asking you questions about immortality.
Now 40 and dimly aware that he won't be assumed body and soul into heaven the moment he retires from the NFL, Brady has become withdrawn, paranoid and resistant to criticism. Potential successors must fear being tossed into the river as infants like bastard stepbrothers in the court of some ancient emperor; the Patriots appeased Brady by appointing ineffectual Brian Hoyer and non-threatening rookie Danny Handoffs (called Danny Etling by the forest gnomes) as his backups, yet Brady still broods within the bowels of his stately keep.
This characterization of Brady might be a tad overdramatic. Like most indispensable middle-aged executives, he may simply expect a little bit of preferential treatment and extra time with his family at this stage of his career. But you need to embrace the overdramatic version of events to enjoy the Patriots saga, just like you have to pretend that dead superheroes will really stay dead even though their solo movies smashed box-office records a few months ago.
Bill Belichick: A mumbling, brooding sage figure who, for storyline purposes, should have turned into a Force ghost by now. Brady and other Patriots now chafe against the still-authoritarian Belichick, causing most of the internal Patriots conflict.
Think of Belichick as Gandalf: you were sick of him barking orders, creating magical MacGuffins and upstaging the titular heroes by the end of the 23rd and 24th hobbit movies, but it was also pretty clear that everyone in the film would be spider food without him, so you tolerated his presence.
Robert Kraft: A character somewhere between King Lear and Jasmine's easily mesmerized father from Aladdin. Kraft just wants Belichick and Brady to stop squabbling. He also wants to be able to support Donald Trump while chit-chatting with Meek Mill, and he probably thinks cats and mice can become fast friends if surrounded by enough "Do Your Job" posters.
Rob Gronkowski, aka "Gronk": The Chewbacca/Groot of the Patriots universe: An adorable oversized manchild in the process of going straight from adolescence to midlife crisis without experiencing much of the growth or self-awareness that come in-between. Gronk, like Brady, was a no-show at the start of Patriots OTAs; he may want a new contract or could be considering retirement or (knowing Gronk) just got the dates wrong.
Gronk just turned 29 years old but has endured a lifetime's worth of injuries. Hollywood, WWE (and the football-flavored programming the wrestling folks plan to launch), an endless summer of motocross events, nightlife and jokes my 11-year-old finds hysterical are all beckoning Gronk out of Brady's shadow and into a world where he will no longer have to endure hits, take orders or submit to NFL rules.
Alex Guerrero: A mysterious Rasputin-like presence, like Jafar or Melisandre, with vaguely defined mystical powers and spooky ritualistic workout regimens. Belichick does not approve of Brady's dabbling in Guerrero's specific strain of the dark arts and worries that Guerrero is using arcane magicks (pro tip: Always spell magic with a "k" if you want to sound like you're into fantasy stuff) to undermine his authority.
As our new season opens, Guerrero is in exile, but his presence and pull are still deeply felt by Brady, Gronk and others. Might they be mounting an infernal army. Is this all just a big commercial for TB12 fitness and lifestyle products?
Gisele Bundchen: Brady's wife and the most internationally famous and successful character in our story—by a wide margin. Casting her as a scheming Lady Macbeth-meets-Yoko Ono would be regressive typecasting if Bundchen didn't have a habit of going full Marie Antoinette when weighing in on her husband's teammates or opponents.
Someday, there will be a Wicked-style reboot of the Patriots drama told from Gisele's side; the current OTAs saga will simply be a short scene where she orders Brady to take the kids to the freakin' playground for once so she can squeeze in a photoshoot with Paris Match—y'know, do her job.
Jimmy Garoppolo: The precocious upstart who came between Kraft, Belichick and Brady and was banished to San Francisco late last season. As this year's drama unfolds, look for Garoppolo to appear in a series of flashbacks. In other words, every column about the "trouble in Foxborough" will include a paragraph along the lines of: This rift dates back to that baleful day when Belichick was forced to trade Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Other Patriots: A mostly interchangeable collection of CGI sprites who fight anonymous battles on green-screen backgrounds while Brady heroically slays enemies in the foreground. The other Patriots used to have distinct personalities but are now as interchangeable as those dozens and dozens of secondary hobbits. Don't worry about keeping them straight.
You know what to expect from superhero movies and Netflix dramas. To enjoy current episodes of the Patriots saga, you also need to know more about the tropes and cliches that have become integral to the storytelling.
The "Patriots are Doomed" trope: A popular category of offseason football fanfic: A column stating that the Patriots empire is about to collapse for reasons ranging from cheating scandals to Brady's age, prideful arrogance, losing to the Chiefs or a poor selection in the fifth round of the draft.
Patriots-are-doomed stories date back to 2006 and become popular after any big-name free agent signs elsewhere or the team loses a September game.
With so much intrigue surrounding the team, Patriots-are-doomed columns, like naughty romance novels, can practically be written by artificial intelligence these days. Look for the market to soon be flooded with them.
The "Panic! at the OTAs" trope: Offseason training activities for all NFL teams and players are voluntary, so making a big fuss about a player skipping them is like condemning someone for not volunteering to spend extra hours at work. That's not cool.
Then again, lots of employees at lots of jobs volunteer for extra work; it's how you get ahead, express camaraderie or galvanize a leadership role, especially when about 97 percent of your colleagues already volunteered to show up. And many players skip voluntary OTAs because they are dissatisfied in some way. So maybe noting their absences doesn't turn us into shameful gossip-mongers.
But skipping some OTA sessions is the NFL's mildest form of protest. It's a manufactured conflict, like that scene in every movie when Superman suddenly gets aggro and beats on all the other heroes for some stupid reason. Everyone will be fighting on the same side in the third act, but even a minor player's absence from minicamp can give a good storyteller a few days of compelling fiction. With Brady, Gronk and the Patriots involved, we all get to be Tolstoy.
The Backlash to the Backlash Trope: No team is more protective of its image than the Patriots, who like to pretend that they aren't protective at all of their image. The Patriots can count on a well-cultivated subsection of the media to fight a proxy war for them, inundating us with stories of how everything is going according to plan and no one in the organization has ever had a personality conflict with anyone, ever. It's just like a movie studio counting on obedient Hollywood insiders to explain that the Flash movie has changed directors 16 times to make sure that the end result represents one coherent, satisfying vision.
So in the days to come, look for articles insisting that Brady doesn't need to practice with his teammates to be successful, many of them written by folks who claimed during Deflategate that denying Brady the right to practice with his teammates would be a crime against history.
The Rest Is Up to You
The current Patriots drama is closer to a bacon-cheese nothingburger than a five-course meal. But once you acknowledge it for what it is—the latest little chapter in a tale that appears to finally be reaching its conclusion—you can appreciate it as both an amusing little spring distraction and, perhaps, a tiny turning point in a much larger story arc.
You can also ignore or disregard it and still keep up with the overarching Patriots storyline. After all, only the deeply obsessed fans try to predict every ending and spot all the Easter eggs.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@MikeTanier.