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The story behind the split of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots

WE LOOKED FOR clues. Tom Brady‘s final news conference — was that a clue? We wondered what he would say after the New England Patriots lost to the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the playoffs. More than that, we wondered how he would act.

“Well done is better than well said,” his father always told him, and so we’d been trained to watch his body language for hints into his thinking. We’d watched him as he bit his lip and gutted through the Patriot Way when Bill Belichick would cut or trade key players; watched when he stood alone during his Deflategate news conference; watched when he sat onstage with Jim Gray in 2018 and, in response to a question about whether he felt appreciated by his bosses, blurted out, “I plead the fifth!”; watched to see how he handled a postseason win, when he would hug Belichick, or loss, when he could look almost physically ill.

Facing the media after the loss to the Titans seemed to warrant whatever physically ill looks like for a 42-year-old quarterback who had thrown a pick-six on his final pass. But this time felt different. After Belichick finished his news conference, Brady emerged from the locker room — no, he shot out of the locker room, with a flurry of people behind him. It was unclear whether he had even showered or just thrown on his jeans, shirt and stocking hat. A man who always looked pristine now didn’t care. Behind a lectern he had stood at hundreds of times before, he did something he never did after a loss: He took his time. He was unrushed. He smiled a bit. He answered every question, many of which concerned his future as a Patriot. He took last questions even after we were told that he would answer just one last question. He did not say anything revelatory, but he carried himself like a person who knew this might be the last time he did something he had done many times.

Then he picked up his bag, hugged safety Devin McCourty, who was next at the podium, and whispered, “See ya tomorrow.”

No one knew what tomorrow held. For the first time in his career, Brady would be a free agent, with the emphasis on free. But already he looked liberated. A few minutes later, he walked with purpose through the tunnel at Gillette Stadium — walked fast, walked to put off a clear vibe that he did not want to be stopped — with his sleeping daughter in his arms, his wife at his side and his assistants behind him. Brady entered a parking lot in the dark New England rain, and it seemed obvious, if not official, that a partnership that spanned two decades was over.

ON MARCH 17 — St. Patrick’s Day, a day on which many of us were told not to leave our houses for the foreseeable future due to a rapidly spreading virus — Tom Brady announced that he was moving. He didn’t say where at first, but soon we learned that it was to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an icon joining one of the least iconic teams in sports — a storied career as the starting quarterback in New England that began shortly after 9/11 now bookended by another international crisis. Of course, Brady did not just leave the Patriots. He sparked a debate over the meaning of the past, setting off a war for credit for six Super Bowls. Was it Bill? Was it Tom? History is now up for grabs, and both men know that how we think of them now is not how we will think of them in a decade.

Once the shock of Brady’s announcement settled in — it still seems strange to imagine him in another uniform, devising a game plan with another coach — the question of why consumed us. What did Brady need that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft failed to deliver? Was it an extension? Was it joy? Were the relationships, strained for the past few years, broken beyond repair?

Nobody knows what motivates great athletes. It’s as mysterious and unique as their own DNA. Brady has struggled to explain it for himself. Sometimes the motivation came from anger that he was draft pick No. 199; other times from understanding and learning from why he was pick No. 199. But in interviews with people close to Brady, team and league executives, coaches and owners involved in the Brady sweepstakes, it’s clear that there’s a feeling he is chasing, and has been chasing for years.

Not just to prove the Patriots wrong, but to find — no, rediscover — an essential version of himself.

THERE HAVE BEEN many moments in recent years when the relationship between Brady and the Patriots had been strained — in the years following his knee surgery in 2008, when he spent more time in Los Angeles and less in Foxborough, culminating in a “disconnect,” as Yahoo Sports reported, in contract talks in June 2010; during Deflategate, when many close to Brady felt that Kraft and Belichick had left him alone to take the fall, even after he had defended the franchise during Spygate and throughout his career. But it all reached a fever pitch in the fall of 2017. The team was defending its fifth Super Bowl, and for the first time, Brady used his platform to advocate a philosophy other than the Patriot Way. He used it to advocate his own business, TB12 Sports, and its accompanying book, “The TB12 Method,” which he wrote with the help of his trainer and friend, Alex Guerrero. The issues in the Patriots building caused by The Method — how it pitted players against the team training staff, how Belichick felt forced to curtail Guerrero’s access — are widely reported and well-known, but the heart of the problem between Brady and Belichick in late 2017 was the same as it was in March 2020: Brady wanted a contract extension.

Brady made it clear that he was playing football until his mid-40s. He preferred to sign a deal to ensure that he retired a Patriot, but if the team refused, he was fine moving on. He wanted clarity. He met with Belichick, and the meeting ended with a “blowup,” a source said. He met with Kraft. He got mixed signals. Team president Jonathan Kraft told NFL Network in January 2018 that Brady had “earned the right” to decide when he wanted to stop playing for the team. On the other hand, that right never came in the form of a contract extension, at least not one Brady felt would last the rest of his career.

After the Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII, Brady was deeply dissatisfied. The offense had put up 613 yards with no punts. When Belichick addressed the team upon its return to Foxborough, Brady mostly stared straight down, barely glancing up at his coach. Brady told people in the building that he wasn’t coming back. Needing distance, he detached from the team that spring. He left passive-aggressive comments on social media. He pleaded the fifth. He looked lost at the end of his Facebook docuseries, “Tom vs. Time,” saying of his passion, “What are we doing this for? … You gotta have answers to those questions.” ESPN’s Ian O’Connor, in his book “Belichick,” reported that Brady wanted a “divorce” from his coach. And Brady made it clear to author Mark Leibovich in the book “Big Game” that he was fed up with Belichick’s culture, which is to say that he was fed up with Belichick. When asked in Leibovich’s book how he would feel if the Patriots released him, Brady was blunt: “They can do whatever they want.”

“These last two years have been very challenging for him in so many ways,” Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, disclosed in “Tom vs. Time.” “He tells me, ‘I love it so much, and I just want to go to work and feel appreciated and have fun.'” Her words didn’t just serve as confirmation of long-standing issues inside the building. They set a new bar, to which we should have paid more attention: Brady wasn’t just looking to win Super Bowls, victory at all costs, the ethos of most of his career, fabulously successful and spectacularly unhealthy. He wanted what everyone wants from an employer: to feel valued and to love work. They seemed like two reasonable asks — until Brady realized that in New England, under Bill Belichick, he might be asking the impossible.

WE LISTENED AS those close to Brady insisted he would be the first to go. Tom Brady Sr. once told me that once Belichick found a quarterback “who is better for a dollar less, [Tom will] be gone.” Brady Sr. also told Leibovich, “It will end badly.” Some close to Brady actually looked forward to that day, in a weird way, believing that the team would collapse without him — without the human backstop who bailed out everyone’s mistakes, who helped Belichick to all but two of his winning seasons as a head coach, who engineered five Super Bowl wins when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter.

In August 2018, Brady received a revised contract — with incentives adding up to $5 million, boxes he never checked. He was mostly throttled in Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams, but with the game tied 3-3 and less than eight minutes left, as always, Brady delivered. In maybe his last legacy throw as a Patriot, he hit Rob Gronkowski down the sideline between three defenders to set up what would be the decisive touchdown. In retrospect, the win might have served as a sign that the team could compete at a high level without him. The franchise has always been ruthless in its internal evaluation of players. Its scouting reports would shock fans if they could see them, even when it came to Brady — especially when it came to Brady. So a sixth Super Bowl earned him nothing but another difficult negotiation. NBC Sports Boston reported that last August, Brady was prepared to walk out of camp in anger. Eventually, he signed a new deal, spun as an extension. It was, in reality, a one-year deal, which he could void at the end of the season. He put his Brookline, Massachusetts, home up for sale, and so did Guerrero. A quarterback who once starred in a cheeky comedy sketch in which he yelled “I’m the f—ing quarterback!” would now refer to himself as just a Patriots “employee.”

Brady seemed invigorated after the Patriots signed Antonio Brown in September. Weirdly invigorated — weirdly off brand for Brady — considering all of the bizarre behavior that led to the wide receiver’s release from the Raiders. Brady seemed to see Brown not just as a matchup nightmare, like he had in Gronk and Randy Moss, but as a rehabilitation project, allowing him to stay at his house, taking him under his wing, posing for selfies with him on social media. But it lasted one game. Brown was accused of rape, and after a Sports Illustrated article detailed more troubling behavior — after Brown sent threatening texts to the woman who accused him — Kraft stepped in and, according to NBC Sports Boston, “insisted” that the team release Brown. It was a business decision, from an owner who has always claimed to not be involved in football decisions. When Brown apologized to the Patriots on social media, all but begging for another chance, Belichick made it clear that it wasn’t his call. “You’ll have to talk to Robert about that,” he said.

This wasn’t fun, and Brady didn’t feel appreciated. In the words of a confidant, “He was like, ‘Why am I doing this?'” The Patriots’ defense was winning games, but the offense was stagnant. Brady told friends that he felt Belichick had taken the offense for granted because of how good it had been for so long. Brady told NBC that he was the “most miserable 8-0 quarterback in the NFL.”

But it still seemed inevitable, when the Patriots took on the Titans in the playoffs, that somehow, someway, Brady and Belichick would find a way. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots took over at their own 11-yard line, trailing 14-13 with 4:44 left. The crowd summoned that familiar energy in anticipation of Brady magic. Sure enough, he hit James White over the middle for 20 yards and Phillip Dorsett II for 6 yards. He then dropped back and looked left to Julian Edelman, who was running a short out route, a route the two of them had executed to perfection dozens of times in games, hundreds of times in practice, an automatic connection …

… but the ball bounced off Edelman’s stomach and fell to the ground.

The air left the wet stadium, from the stands down to the Patriots sideline. Brady misfired on third down and the Patriots walked off the field. On the next possession, he threw a desperation pick-six. After 19 years of excellence, after nine Super Bowl appearances and six wins, after Mo Lewis, after the Tuck Rule Game and the spike in the snow, after throttling “The Greatest Show on Turf,” after Adam Vinatieri‘s clutch kicks, after the intentional safety on a Monday night against the Denver Broncos, after Deion Branch, after Champ Bailey’s interception in 2006, after Troy Brown forced Marlon McCree to fumble, after blowing a 21-3 lead to the Colts, after Spygate, after 16-0 and the Helmet Catch, after Matt Cassel’s 11-5 year, after Mario Manningham, the comeback against the Saints, “On to Cincinnati,” the “Baltimore” formation, Malcolm Butler, Deflategate, 28-3, the TB12 Method, Jimmy G, the Philly Special, Dee Ford lining up offside — after all the glory and fines and suspensions, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s Patriots were exhausted.

It was over.

BUT NOT OFFICIALLY, of course. Nobody, not even those close to Brady, knew officially. Brady was in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, attending parties and NFL 100 festivities. So was Kraft, and league executives who conversed with him came away with the impression that his dream of Brady retiring a Patriot was unlikely. Nobody was budging. Brady wanted a commitment; the Patriots would commit only year to year. The tenet that had made the Patriots so hated and successful over the years — the emotionless pursuit of victory — seemed to finally touch the untouchable quarterback.

After the Super Bowl, Brady was back in Boston, in a house his family had largely emptied out. He was acting on his own, quietly putting out feelers, leaving owners and executives to wonder whether he had a free-agency plan. To many of the executives who did due diligence, Brady seemed so driven by an animus toward Belichick that they couldn’t tell if he actually wanted a fresh start or if he just needed leverage to force Kraft to step in.

Reporters took sides. Some of us believed he would leave; some of us believed he would stay. All year, ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Jeff Darlington and NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran had warned fans this might be it in New England. Rumors flew. The Colts. Raiders. Chargers. Titans. Dolphins. Panthers. Broncos. One hot piece of speculation in league circles gained steam after the Pro Bowl, when reports emerged that Drew Brees was considering a move to broadcasting. It opened the door: Brady to the Saints, playing for Sean Payton, in a dome. Fire emojis everywhere. But no: Brees decided to return to his longtime home, opining that Brady would return to his longtime home, as well.

By early March, some reports claimed that Brady’s options were down to the Patriots, Titans and, surprisingly, the 49ers. Brady made it clear through various channels that the team of his childhood would be the team of his future, if the 49ers wanted. The 49ers discussed it, but in the end, the team was committed to Jimmy Garoppolo. The Titans figured to be the likely destination, especially after Brady and Edelman were filmed FaceTiming with Titans coach Mike Vrabel during a Syracuse basketball game. Edelman and Brady sat courtside, and at one point, Edelman said to a camera, “He’s coming back!” Brady looked less than thrilled and mumbled something that set off a social media hysteria of lip-reading. But the Titans preferred Ryan Tannehill over Brady — a decision that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

A deadline neared: The league year would begin on March 18 at 4 p.m. ET. A call earlier that month between Brady and Belichick ended without an agreed-upon extension, with Brady’s camp viewing it as further proof that the team wanted him only under its rigid terms and the team exploiting the chance to leak that it had an offer for him and that the ball was in Brady’s court. For all of Belichick’s greatness, and for all of the praise that he had thrown on Brady in public and all of the hard coaching he had dished in private, the relationship had run its course.

Brady needed something new.

On Monday night, March 16, Brady called Kraft and made the short drive to his house for a conversation about which he had long imagined. Kraft, in a round of phone calls to Patriots beat writers the next day, would say that he assumed Brady was visiting to finalize a new contract. “I thought he was coming over as he has for the last 10 years to quietly get things done,” Kraft told NBC Boston, despite reports that he would leave all negotiations to Belichick. But Brady told Kraft that it was over, and the owner would leave little doubt as to why. “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,” he told NFL Network.

In a social media announcement the next morning, under the headline of “Forever a Patriot,” Brady informed the world that he would not be forever a Patriot after all.

Three days later, at 9:31 a.m. on March 20, the Bucs tweeted a photo of Brady in his kitchen, wearing a black hoodie, signing his new contract. He looked young, but more than that, he looked relieved. He had his pick of teams, the Chargers or the Bucs, and he went with what felt right. Tampa is a short flight to family in New York. The weather is warm. Head coach Bruce Arians has spent a career not only fostering a fun environment but also nurturing and learning from some of the game’s best quarterbacks, from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. “He’ll win some games down there,” an executive from a rival team said. “He’ll change the culture of the building.”

In the flurry of the past few years, especially the past few months, it was easy to forget. But maybe, in wondering what motivates the most accomplished quarterback ever, we lost track of a simple and human fact: Sometimes we chase what makes us happiest.

THE END IN New England made some of us remember the beginning, before anyone debated whether it was Bill or Tom, before there was a legacy to fight over. In November 2001, Brady pulled up to the old Foxboro Stadium. He and I had a meeting at the team shop. Brady was wearing a gray sweatsuit with a large backpack filled with beer to be delivered to teammates after he had lost a locker room bet on the previous weekend’s Michigan-Michigan State game. We had both recently graduated college, both getting our respective career breaks at the same time. It was a slight bond. Brady asked the first question, about 9/11 and what it was like to be in New York City that day. It hovered over everything, the way COVID-19 does today. But we soon moved on to football.

Brady said that the game had always come easy to him, which seemed strange coming from a sixth-round pick. But there was a sincerity and purity — a sincere purity — to it. His Michigan years had broken him, and he had reassembled himself, and while he played football to win, yes, and to achieve the impossible, yes, and because his decision-making was impeccable, yes, and because, on the most basic level, he knew he could throw the damn ball as well as anyone ever, football was about something deeply personal to him. It was about self-actualization. What could he become? What could he prove, not to us, but to himself? He was his most essential and true self out there, and he loved that feeling, maybe to an addictive and unhealthy degree, but he meant it to the bottom of his soul, and he means it now to the bottom of his soul.

After about 40 minutes, the conversation ended. He had work to do, even though it was well into the evening. So it was, so it will always be. We walked outside. Next to us, in the short distance, was the skeletal frame of Gillette Stadium, dull steel in the darkness. Gorgeous, Brady said, before adding:

“I hope I play in it.”

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How NFL players are staying busy during coronavirus isolation

NFL players, like the rest of us, are adjusting to their strange new realities. Much of their offseason is typically spent inside a gym or, for a nice little break, maybe on a stretch of white beach in a far-off land. For now, that lifestyle is on hold and it’s all about the home life.

What happens when all that energy and ability are confined to a smaller footprint and routines are disrupted?

What we’re seeing, thanks to social media, is that former and current NFL players — as well as a few NFL coaches — are finding other outlets for their talents, while the flair for entertaining remains intact.

More coverage:
Drew and Brittany Brees commit $5 million to help Louisiana
SoFi Stadium construction ongoing in L.A. within ‘Safe’ guidelines
Saints’ Sean Payton says he’s ‘doing well’ dealing with coronavirus

Creative workouts

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz calls agreeing to start up a TikTok account with U.S. national team midfielder Julie Ertz “one of the three worst quarantine decisions I’ve made!” But at least it’s providing joy for their subscribers. Once their respective playing careers are over, the star couple has a future in synchronized workout videos.

Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Ben Jones, meanwhile, shows you don’t need a fancy home gym to get swole. All it takes is a wall, a medicine ball and a pickup truck.

We’re not sure if San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk is training for the upcoming football season or to fight Ivan Drago.

Party of One

Being home alone is hard, so it’s important to have a sense of humor about it. Titans linebacker Jayon Brown makes light of his reality in this creative TikTok.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is in the midst of a 14-day isolation following a trip abroad. He’s using that time to polish his woodworking skills. Hey, that garden is not going to build itself.

Poor Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Stefen Wisniewski is celebrating his birthday solo. But, as John Clark of NBC Philadelphia points out, he can always break out his two Super Bowl rings if he gets lonely.

Trick shots, windmill dunks, video games

Quarantine life is a time to nurture untapped talents. Take Eagles kicker Jake Elliott who, it turns out, can make magic with a golf club, a cup and a flight of stairs.

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett just needs a 10-foot net and some runway to start a fire.

It helps to have online friends to talk to, even if they’re not really into football. That didn’t stop Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans from gushing to his Fortnite partner about Tom Brady while sipping on some Hennessy.

Family time

Taking the training wheels off of your bike is a big deal — at any age. Just ask New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead and his son Beckett.

Being at home with the family day after day has its own set of challenges, but it’s good bonding time, as former NFL players DeMarcus Ware and Jermon Bushrod show.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his kids replicate some of the great slam dunk tricks — all on their home’s replica Purdue basketball court.

Science experiments are always a fun way to pass the time. The family of Titans punter Brett Kern finds a cool way to show the importance of washing your hands.

Dance party

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III isn’t about to stay still while in isolation.

In-home training

Who needs to go some fancy facility to get work in? As Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen show, the best training partners can be found right at home.

Survey says

Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey and his family take board games to a whole new level.

Coaches’ edition

Add a little music and kitchen ambiance and Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio is ready to cook some pasta and meatballs.

Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul has all the tips for your home workout.

And finally, for your viewing pleasure …

Here’s Bucs linebacker Devin White riding a horse.

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Drew and Brittany Brees commit $5 million to help Louisiana

METAIRIE, La. — Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany, announced a $5 million commitment to the state of Louisiana in 2020 to help “our communities get through this tough time.”

The New Orleans Saints quarterback said via Twitter last week that assessing the need in New Orleans is “a daunting task” in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak because of how many people it has affected in different ways.

In Thursday’s announcement on Instagram, Brees said, “After considerable research and conversations with local organizations, we will be mobilizing our partnerships with Second Harvest Food Bank, Ochsner Health Systems, Walk-Ons, Jimmy Johns, Smalls Sliders and Waitr to prepare and deliver over 10,000 meals per day throughout Louisiana for as long as it takes to children on meal programs, seniors, and families in need. Let’s all do our part, maintain hope, and get through this together.”

Drew and Brittany Brees are owners or investors in the restaurant chains and food delivery service he mentioned in his post. They have been heavily involved in the New Orleans and Gulf South communities through their Brees Dream Foundation since Brees joined the Saints in 2006 — providing instrumental help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“So many people are without so much right now,” Brees said Friday on Good Morning America.. “And I think for Brittany and I, the most important thing was about fulfilling some of their most basic needs and being able to feed their families and to be able to feed those kids of health-care workers who are on the front lines right now and are having to drop their kids off at day care as they go to work to save lives. And we want them to know that their kids are taken care of. We want the seniors to know that they are taken care of.”

Last week, New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Gayle Benson also made a personal donation of $1 million to create the Gayle Benson Community Assistance Fund, among other endeavors.

And Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson pledged to cover the salaries of Smoothie King Center workers for 30 days while the NBA season was suspended.

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Source — Broncos DE Shelby Harris back on 1-year deal

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After checking what the market had to offer, defensive end Shelby Harris has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Denver Broncos.

The deal is for a guaranteed $2.5 million with the potential for $725,000 of additional incentives, a source confirmed to ESPN. As the 2019 season drew to a close, Harris said he had hoped to find a multi-year deal in free agency, but that deal didn’t materialize.

Harris, who was third on team with six sacks, finished the season with career-bests in sacks, tackles (49) and passes defensed (nine). He was also one of three defensive linemen who started games last season — Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis were the others — who were unrestricted free agents.

Wolfe and Gotsis still remain unsigned.

Harris flourished in Vic Fango’s defense and had discussions with Fangio this week about what his role would be moving forward. He is the second move the Broncos have made in the defensive front after they traded for defensive tackle Jurrell Casey last week.

At the scouting combine last month Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway said Harris was one of the players the team would allow to hit the open market, but Elway had also left open the possibility of bringing Harris back.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the player and what they want to do,” Elway said. “We’ll see where they fit in the plan. Obviously, you always want guys back like that, but you never know how it’s going to happen.”

In 2019, Harris had signed a one-year, $3.095 million deal last year to return to the team. After he had been waived six times in his first three years in the league, Harris found his defensive niche with the Broncos.

Former coach Vance Joseph said Harris had been close to being released at one point, but Harris went on to play in 48 games over the last three seasons in Denver with 22 starts.

Before he landed with the Broncos in 2017, when he was signed a futures contract in January of that year, Harris had spent time with the Raiders, Jets and Cowboys.

Harris, who turns 29 in August, has 136 tackles and 14 sacks in his career.

Terms of his new deal with the Broncos were first reported by The Athletic.

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Best signings of 2020 NFL free agency

Most deals signed in NFL free agency turn out to be disappointing. Teams pay players expecting the best seasons from their past, but it rarely works out that way. As a result, most of my grades tend to be a C+ or below. Call me a tough grader, but ask the Jets how their massive free-agent haul from last offseason turned out.

Of the more than 100 grades I’ve handed out for free agents this offseason, just nine earned a grade of B+ or better. Here are my favorite free-agent signings so far:

The deal: Two years, $50 million
Grade: A

For two decades, Bill Belichick has put the New England Patriots ahead of any single player on the roster. Virtually every veteran who contributed to the greatest dynasty in modern sports has been shipped out or allowed to leave once he was no longer useful or willing to contribute at the right price. Mike Vrabel was traded to the Chiefs. Randy Moss was shipped to the Vikings. Vince Wilfork finished up with the Texans. Adam Vinatieri had a whole second career with the Colts.

If there were to be one exception to that rule, I always figured it would be star quarterback Tom Brady. Nobody ever referred to the Patriots dynasty as Belichick and Vinatieri or Belichick and McDaniels. Belichick and Brady were equals as (arguably) the best head coach and quarterback of all time. They were the two pillars of the Patriots dynasty, the two centerpieces everyone counted out before they came together for a legendary run in New England. The six championships the Patriots won belong equally to both of them.

Last week, it became clear that the rules weren’t different after all. After years of being lauded for taking less than market value to help the Patriots win, in August 2019, Brady decided it was time for a raise. The Patriots boosted his compensation from $15 million to $23 million and lowered his cap hit by $5.5 million. In the process, Brady got the Patriots to agree that they wouldn’t franchise him in 2020.

The threat of the franchise tag would have limited Brady’s leverage and likely led the Patriots to keep the best player in team history for at least one more season. Instead, when the two sides started to negotiate an extension, it appears that Belichick got that familiar feeling. Brady had an offer of $30 million per season on the table, and by all accounts, the Patriots weren’t willing to compete. This moment was always going to come if Brady didn’t retire after a Super Bowl victory, but when it did, I figured Belichick or Brady would blink. In the end, neither did.

Now, Brady is a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a combination that would have seemed impossible even a few months ago. There will be a time to discuss Brady’s legacy, how it is impacted by the move and how the Patriots will account for his absence. This is about Brady’s new opportunity and what comes next for the new pairing of Brady and Bruce Arians.

Was Brady foolish to pick the Buccaneers? Should Tampa have gone for one of the other quarterbacks? Can he be competitive with his new team and even compete for a Super Bowl? Let’s run through what we know about this new marriage and get a sense of what to expect for Brady in Florida.

The deal: Two years, $50 million
Grade: A-

I’m admittedly not always the easiest grader, but it’s hard to find much wrong with bringing back a Hall of Fame quarterback on a below-market deal. This is more likely to be a one-year commitment with a voidable year to help create short-term cap space, which is just fine when you’re making space for a franchise quarterback.

Brees didn’t let his slow end to 2018 carry over and was excellent yet again in 2019. There’s always going to be a chance that the 41-year-old will drop off in a way similar to how Tom Brady did in 2019, but the Saints rightfully are going to take another shot at a Super Bowl with Brees in the fold.

The deal: One year, $5 million
Grade: A-

Non-tendered by the Falcons last offseason, Poole responded by turning into something truly rare by 2019 standards: a bright spot for the Jets. With Poole serving as their primary slot corner, the Jets allowed a passer rating of 87.7 to wideouts who came out of the slot or out of a tight split, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the third-best mark in football. By comparison, they ranked 22nd in the league in passer rating on throws to receivers who were split out wide.

This is a deep draft class for competent cornerbacks (without many great ones available), but the logical entry point for Poole was going to be something close to the four-year, $36 million deal Justin Coleman signed with the Lions last season. Instead, I’m shocked that the 27-year-old Poole wasn’t able to attract a significant multiyear offer. The cornerback market has been stagnant, but this is a great deal for the Jets, who get back one of the few positive contributors for another campaign on a modest deal.

The deal: One year, $8 million
Grade: A-

Although Suh has seemed content to wander the league on a series of one-year deals since he left the Dolphins after the 2017 season, the Bucs saw enough from the five-time Pro Bowler last season to keep him around for another season. Suh didn’t dominate as a pass-rusher, but his alliance with wildly underrated tackle Vita Vea was the biggest reason the Bucs improved from 31st in rush defense DVOA in 2018 to the league’s top rush defense this past campaign.

Suh also brings an underrated asset to the table: availability. The 33-year-old has never missed a game due to injury and has appeared on the injury report only three times in 10 seasons. The Bucs can feel confident that Suh is going to show up and play about 875 defensive snaps at a high level, which is not the case for a majority of free-agent signings. Tampa still has about $16 million in cap room to play with and should continue to attract veterans who want to get one final run with Tom Brady.

The deal: Three years, $30 million
Grade: B+

The best case for Bulaga’s indirect value has been observing what happens to Aaron Rodgers when Bulaga isn’t on the field. In 2019, when the right tackle played 16 games for only the third time in 10 pro seasons, he missed most of two games and parts of six others. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers’ numbers fell off: The quarterback’s passer rating dropped from 96.6 with Bulaga on the field to 83.8 across 101 dropbacks without him. Rodgers’ sack rate was actually worse with Bulaga on the field, but he went from averaging 7.2 yards per attempt with him on the field to just 5.8 yards per throw without him. Rodgers is no fool: When Bulaga wasn’t protecting him, he got the ball out more quickly.

Those seven other pro seasons are the most plausible reason the Chargers might regret this deal. Bulaga has missed 45 games in his career, including all of 2013 because of a torn ACL. He has another 13 games in which he was active and in the lineup but failed to play more than 50% of the offensive snaps, often owing to injuries prematurely ending his night. Bulaga turns 31 next week, so it’s tough to imagine him getting dramatically healthier over the course of this deal, though he has missed only two full games the past two seasons.

Even given those injury concerns, though, the Chargers have to be happy with this contract. George Fant got three years and $30 million from the Jets, and he barely has 16 games’ worth of experience as an NFL lineman. This is an easy win for the Chargers and a major upgrade on what was a dismal right tackle situation for Anthony Lynn’s team in 2019.

The deal: Two years, $12 million
Grade: B+

Nobody can accuse the Steelers of ignoring the tight end position. After trading for Vance McDonald in 2017 and Nick Vannett last year, Pittsburgh is replacing the latter by handing Ebron a two-year deal. A healthy Ebron is an upgrade on both McDonald and Vannett as a receiver, so this is a nice under-the-radar move for Pittsburgh in a rare foray into free agency.

Steelers fans looking up Ebron’s stat line from 2018 and eyeing those 13 touchdowns are too optimistic. That touchdown rate was out of line with both Ebron’s history and the broader history of tight ends in football, given that he turned just 66 catches into 13 scores. The Colts made Ebron a focal point of their offense under Andrew Luck that year with 110 targets, but Ebron’s numbers fell across the board last season. He disagreed with the organization about undergoing ankle surgery in December, which led to his departure this offseason.

A healthy Ebron gives the returning Ben Roethlisberger an upper-echelon athlete with a large catch radius. The Steelers can move Ebron all over the formation to try to create mismatches, which should allow them to leave McDonald in line when they work out of 12 personnel. Drops have been a problem for Ebron in the past, which might bring back ugly memories of Donte Moncrief‘s disastrous September with the Steelers. But if Ebron were consistently healthy and didn’t have the occasional drop, he would be looking at Austin Hooper money.

This is a good risk/reward opportunity for the Steelers, and it’s shocking that tight end-needy teams such as the Patriots didn’t compete here.

The deal: Two years, $23 million
Grade: B+

While there were rumors that one of the organizations stocked with former Patriots coaches and executives would make a run at McCourty, the presence of twin brother Jason and coach Bill Belichick made it more likely that the 10-year veteran would return to his only professional home. The two-time Pro Bowler was one of the best safeties in football a year ago, picking off five passes for the first time since 2012 while allowing a passer rating of just 50.6 as the nearest defender in coverage. This is hardly top-of-the-market money for a safety, so while McCourty is likely to have most or all of this deal guaranteed up front, it’s a logical win-win for both sides.

One other subtle thing about this deal is the structure. McCourty was New England’s second-most-pressing free agent behind Tom Brady and the only other player the team was likely to consider signing to a deal north of $10 million per year. If the Pats were desperately concerned about their cap space, they would have given McCourty a longer deal with a big signing bonus to try to create short-term cap room. (Note: This deal was agreed to before Tom Brady signed with the Bucs.)

The deal: One year, $25 million
Grade: B+

If Tom Brady leaving the Patriots for Tampa Bay isn’t weird enough, get ready for Rivers in silver and blue. I wondered whether the post-Brady Patriots might try to hijack Rivers’ long-rumored move to the Colts, but the reunion between Rivers and former Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich just made too much sense for all parties involved. I’m a little surprised that this isn’t more than a one-year pact, even if future years weren’t guaranteed, but Indianapolis has the cap space to absorb a one-year deal and shouldn’t have much trouble bringing Rivers back if things work out.

I’m optimistic that we’ll see a better Rivers in 2020 than we did in 2019, in part because he is going from one of the league’s worst offensive lines to what might arguably be one of its best. The Chargers ranked 19th in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric last season, and even that was likely a product of Rivers’ ability to read defenses and put his linemen in the right place. Anthony Lynn’s offense was overcome by injuries up front, with veterans Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey missing a combined 21 games and never playing a snap together during the season. The Chargers had what was likely the worst tackle situation in football with Sam Tevi and Trent Scott in key roles.

The Colts ranked third in pass block win rate and did a solid job of protecting Jacoby Brissett, whose sack rate in his second run as Colts starter was nearly half of what it was the first time around. With steady, competent protection, expect Rivers to do a better job of protecting himself pre-snap and have fewer plays in which he gets blown up by a failed block attempt immediately afterward. Indy already brought back Anthony Castonzo, which should provide Rivers with one of the league’s best left tackles on his blind side.

Rivers’ interception rate spiked last season, but as I mentioned in my column about possible Brady replacements, a league-high seven of his 20 picks came in the final five minutes of games while his team was trailing. Those are moments when he typically had to try to put the ball into tight windows to try to make something happen. The previous season, playing on a Chargers team that often had leads in the final five minutes, Rivers threw just one pick in the final five minutes of games.

I’d also count on him playing better in front of fans who actually want to root for his team. With the Chargers forced to resort to silent counts in front of rabid fans who were cheering for the opposition in Carson, California, Rivers was 25th in passer rating at home in 2019. He was 13th in the same category on the road. In 2018, Rivers was ninth in passer rating at home and fourth on the road. I wouldn’t usually put much stock in a two-year sample of home/road splits, but few teams have faced the sort of home-field disadvantage the Chargers were up against.

This move isn’t without risk, of course. Rivers turns 39 in December, and you can’t chalk all of his interceptions up to desperate decisions. The Chargers’ offense wasn’t moving the ball effectively early in games, which is why they were often trailing in the fourth quarter. It’s hardly as if the Rivers-Reich partnership was a roaring success the first time around; Reich was fired after a 4-12 season in which the Chargers ranked 26th in points per game and 15th in offensive DVOA. The Colts also don’t have the sort of weapons the Chargers had for Rivers and need to add at least one wide receiver to work alongside T.Y. Hilton and second-year wideout Parris Campbell.

Even given those concerns, Rivers was the best quarterback the Colts could have targeted in free agency. He should be an upgrade on Brissett. With the Jaguars rebuilding, the Titans likely to see some sort of regression from Ryan Tannehill and the Texans seemingly undergoing an existential crisis, the Colts are well-positioned to make a run at the division title if they can get their draft right.

The deal: One year, $1 million
Grade: B+

Robey-Coleman is always going to be synonymous with that play against the Saints, but he has been an above-average slot cornerback in his time with the Bills and Rams. Los Angeles declined his option in order to create cap space, but at this price, I’m surprised the Rams weren’t able to bring him back for another season.

This is an easy victory for the Eagles, who have upgraded two of their three cornerback slots by signing Robey-Coleman and trading for Darius Slay. The slot cornerback market seemed to take off in 2019, when guys such as Bryce Callahan, Justin Coleman and Tavon Young were able to sign significant multiyear deals, but with Brian Poole and Robey-Coleman each taking a one-year deal for modest money, things appear to have swung in the other direction.

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Source — Cowboys, kicker Greg Zuerlein reach 3-year deal

Veteran kicker Greg Zuerlein, who had nine missed field goals in 2019 for the Los Angeles Rams, agreed to a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys, with $2.25 million guaranteed, sources confirmed to ESPN’s Todd Archer on Friday.

Also Friday, the Cowboys and defensive tackle Dontari Poe agreed to a two-year deal worth up to $10.5 million, according to a source.

The move for Zuerlein reunites the 32-year-old with John Fassel, his special-teams coach with the Rams who was hired by Dallas in January. NFL Network was the first to report the agreement.

The Cowboys had already re-signed Kai Forbath to a one-year deal this offseason. Forbath started the final three games last season, going 10-for-10 on his attempts after the Cowboys cut Brett Maher, who missed 10 attempts in 13 games.

Zuerlein has converted 201 of 245 field goal attempts in the regular season (82%) and is 264-of- 270 on extra-point attempts since being selected by the Rams in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft.

Zuerlein has booted 33 field goals of 50 yards or more, which is tied with Adam Vinatieri for fourth in the NFL over that span — behind Matt Prater (41), Justin Tucker (39) and Matt Bryant (34). His reliability over his eight NFL seasons has earned him the nicknames “Greg the Leg” and “Legatron” among teammates and fans.

He experienced a dip in production last season, however, converting 24 of 33 field goal attempts for a 73% conversion rate — his lowest since 2015, when he made 67% of his kicks.

In three playoff appearances, Zuerlein converted 8 of 10 field goal attempts, including a 57-yarder in overtime to help his team win the NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome in 2018, which sent the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

The addition of Poe is the surest sign yet the Cowboys’ defense will be operating differently in 2020 than it has since 2013.

At 6-foot-3, 346 pounds, Poe brings a size to a defensive line group that relied on speed and quickness under former line coach and coordinator Rod Marinelli. Poe, who turns 30 in August, spent the last two seasons with the Caroline Panthers, who ran a 3-4 scheme. New head coach Mike McCarthy said the Cowboys will continue to use a four-man front but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has an extensive background in the 3-4.

Poe is the second addition to the Cowboys from Carolina. The Cowboys reached an agreement with Gerald McCoy on a three-year, $18 million deal last week. McCoy had five sacks in 16 games last season.

Last year’s defensive tackles for the Cowboys, Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill and Christian Covington, weighed 310, 310 and 300 pounds.

The Panthers declined to pick up Poe’s 2020 option, which made him a free agent, but his addition will not affect the 2021 compensatory picks the Cowboys could gain for having lost Byron Jones and Robert Quinn, among others, in free agency.

ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.

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Packers’ Aaron Rodgers details frenzied departure from Peru

Aaron Rodgers and his travel party that included three other people got out of Peru nine days ago, within minutes of the airport closing due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Green Bay Packers quarterback revealed Friday on a radio show.

Rodgers told Pat McAfee and former Packers teammate A.J. Hawk, who co-hosted the show, that it was “quite the ordeal.”

“Have you seen the movie, ‘Argo’?” Rodgers asked. “The scene at the end where they’re racing to the airport. Nobody was chasing us thankfully or holding us. We didn’t have to speak Farsi to get back into the country, but there were some moments where we worried we were not going to get out. It was absolute pandemonium at the airport.”

Rodgers returned to his home in Malibu, California, and has followed stay-at-home guidelines along with girlfriend Danica Patrick. He said of the four people on the trip, none had any symptoms at the time or in the days since.

“So I think we’re in the clear,” he said.

He said there were other parts of his trip planned to South America, but they cut it short. The group flew via private plane, which Rodgers said helped them get out of the country so quickly. Had they flown commercial, he did not think they would have gotten out when they did.

“Probably not, not right away,” Rodgers said. “I know there’s been some planes and some folks who were down there who’ve gotten brought back [since then]. … When we rolled up to the airport at like 7 in the morning, it was wall-to-wall people and you couldn’t move. I was thinking, ‘This isn’t very safe.’ Not many masks on, and there was definitely a panic in the air. But somehow [we] made it down and then they shut the airport down because it was really bad weather. They had a drop-dead time where they were going to shut the entire airport down. We made it by about 15 minutes.”

Rodgers said his group was in remote areas near Cusco, where there were not any reported cases of the virus.

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Peyton Manning to Broncos a preview of Tom Brady to Buccaneers? – Denver Broncos Blog

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The billboards are up on Florida’s Gulf Coast and folks are waiting on hold to buy tickets as Canton-bound quarterback Tom Brady readies to reset everything for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And if Bucs fans want to see a preview of how a future Hall of Fame quarterback can completely impact his new franchise, they need look no further than when Peyton Manning joined the Denver Broncos.

On March 20, 2012, Manning stepped to a podium in south suburban Denver and said, “I’m very excited to begin the next chapter of my playing career with the Denver Broncos.”

Manning, who had played 13 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before a neck injury derailed his entire 2011 season, was already a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, just as Brady is. Brady has six Super Bowl rings and has played in nine of the league’s title games — a portfolio not seen since Otto Graham threw touchdown passes in the post-World War II NFL.

Broncos general manager John Elway, who knows a few things about being the hub of a franchise, said at the time that Manning’s signing “raises all boats.”

And that is what the fire-the-cannons Buccaneers are hoping for with Brady. Nothing will be the same in Tampa as long as Brady is there. He will be at the root of every decision, every practice plan, every person in the building, every single day.

The Broncos organization had experienced this before with Elway, but this will be mostly new to the Buccaneers. Because coach Bruce Arians has seen Manning up close as a former Indianapolis Colts assistant, though, he will have some quality intel on that front.

As former Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall once said: “You could just tell, by everybody, and that’s everybody, upstairs, downstairs, at lunch, whatever, if Peyton was even in the building, because of who he is, what he’s done and how he does it. He’s been successful at every point in his career — of course you want to be a part of that. But you could tell even with the coaches, people in the office, everybody, it’s rare because those players are rare.”

The late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen knew it, wanted it, and thought it was missing from his team. When he introduced Manning, he said: “We’re very fortunate to have two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in this room. One is already in. The other is definitely going in after he retires. Peyton is one of the best ever to play this game. I feel very fortunate to have him here. Our goal has always been to win Super Bowls; Peyton gives us a chance to win another world championship. I’m thrilled that he has decided to become a Denver Bronco. This is a great day for me, personally, and for our organization, our city and our fans.”

And even as he said it, Bowlen knew he was essentially giving up much of the direction of his franchise and handing it to Manning. He also, as Elway did, knew that was how it had to be.

So much so that when Manning arrived, Elway said: “The last thing we want to do is not do what Peyton does best, and that is use his mind. We are going to try and take advantage of all that.”

The results in Manning’s four years were four AFC West titles, 50 wins, two Super Bowl trips and one Super Bowl win. That resulted, in part, because Manning pushed every person, every day, starting with himself.

It is what Brady will do for the Buccaneers, even as he reaches out to his new teammates over the next few weeks.

They will be pushed more than they ever have before because Brady, like Manning did eight years ago, will arrive believing that how he does things works.

As Aqib Talib, who has been a teammate of both Brady’s and Manning’s, once put it: “We knew Peyton was ready, every day, so we had to be ready every day. People say they understand what that means, we all do, that they know, that they’re on point and all that, but it’s different than you’ve ever done and you know right away. People say they want it, but everybody’s going to know if you really do once you’re in it, man. I’ve seen both of those guys. They’re the greatest, and you better really want that greatness, man, or you won’t be around to live it — you know what I mean?”

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Melvin Gordon says he has ‘huge’ chip on shoulder as he joins Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Newly signed running back Melvin Gordon said Friday he believes he can co-exist in the Denver Broncos‘ offense with Phillip Lindsay and is eager to prove he is “better than just average.”

Gordon missed the first four Los Angeles Chargers games last season due to a contract holdout and then averaged less than 3 yards per carry in the first three games he did play. For the season, he had just one 100-yard rushing game on his way to a career-low 612 yards rushing.

The 26-year-old — he’ll turn 27 in April — said that looking back, if he could do it again, he likely would have come back to the Chargers sooner, and the experience put a “huge” chip on his shoulder as he arrives to the Broncos.

“I just felt like a lot of people doubt my talent as a back,” Gordon said. “Just during the holdout, saying, ‘He’s just an average back, he’s not this, he’s not that.’ Just this year saying, ‘He’s not the back that he was.’ … I’m going to take that and use it as fuel because I know what type of player I am and I want to show that. I want to show that, and I am going to show that I’m better than just average.”

Gordon’s two-year, $16 million deal with the Broncos raised some eyebrows among some of the team’s faithful given that Lindsay has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and the South High School (Denver) graduate has been one of the most popular players on the team since he made the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2018. Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said he’d like to “look at” getting Lindsay a new contract and has said publicly he sees Lindsay and Gordon as a needed “one-two punch.”

“He’s a great back, obviously I watched him up close, in person, and these past few days I’ve been watching film on him as well, just kind of seeing how they opened things up for him, analyzing a little bit,” Gordon said. “I think we could be a great one-two punch.”

Last season Lindsay led the Broncos in carries (224), yards rushing (1,011) and rushing touchdowns (seven). Royce Freeman was second on the team in carries, with 132 and no other running back had more than two carries.

For the Chargers last season, Gordon led in carries, with 162, while Ekeler had 132 carries to go with his 92 receptions. Gordon said Friday Lindsay had already reached out to him to talk about the upcoming season.

“Me and Austin [Ekeler] were kind of that one-two punch, one of the better tandems in the league,” Gordon said. “I just hope to continue that with Lindsay. I know people are wondering, what is his position, getting carries things like that. Right now it’s about winning football games, we’ll worry about that later. … I think he’s great with everything.”

Last season Gordon had been a holdout in hopes of a new deal — his contract at the time was 27th in the league in total value among running backs — and the Chargers had given Gordon the chance to seek a trade. However, they didn’t offer him the contract he desired and no trade was made, an experience Gordon said Friday he probably would have skipped if he had to do it again.

“At times, it was definitely difficult,” Gordon said. “You could kind of feel some tension, I could feel some tension walking around, but I just tried my best … to show up and work every day.

“I can’t take back what I did,” Gordon continued. “I probably would come back. More so because of my legacy, what I’m trying to do as a player.”

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Sources — Lions agree to deals with LBs Reggie Ragland, Elijah Lee

Linebacker Reggie Ragland has agreed to terms with the Detroit Lions, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler on Friday.

The Lions also agreed to a one-year deal with linebacker Elijah Lee on Friday, a source told ESPN’s Michael Rothstein, confirming a report by the Detroit News.

The additions of Ragland and Lee, along with the signing of Jamie Collins and release of team captain Devon Kennard last week, signal a major shift in the Lions’ linebacker room. At the very least, Detroit is trying to find added competition for a group that often struggled on one of the league’s worst defenses last season.

Jarrad Davis, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, is likely to be pushed by Ragland for his role in the middle along with last year’s second-round pick, Jahlani Tavai. The signing of Lee could put more pressure on veteran special-teams players Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Steve Longa as well as Jason Cabinda, who was called up from the practice squad late last year to fill a special-teams role.

Ragland, who turns 27 in September, became a part-time player after the Kansas City Chiefs switched to a 4-3 base defense last season. After being a healthy scratch in the first two games of the season, Ragland started seven of the next 14. He also started Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers.

He joined the Chiefs in a trade with the Buffalo Bills before the 2017 season and was a full-time starter for Kansas City over two seasons. In three seasons, the linebacker had 160 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a fumble recovery, an interception and a defensive touchdown.

The 2016 second-round pick out of Alabama was with the Bills for just one season, but he never played in a regular-season game in Buffalo after he tore his ACL in training camp and was placed on injured reserve.

Primarily a special-teams player, Lee played 40 percent or more of special-teams snaps every year he was with the 49ers. He also started five games for San Francisco in 2018.

ESPN’s Michael Rothstein and Adam Teicher contributed to this report.

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