In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is obsessed with hunting down a massive albino sperm whale. He would rather die than give up. In fact, he does — spoiler alert — die. Moby Dick smashes into the boat and sends Ahab and his crew to the bottom of the ocean, eluding them for eternity.
In the saga of the TB Times — the fake newspaper Tom Brady posted on Instagram and Facebook from 2016 to 2018 — I am Captain Ahab, and Brady’s social media team is my white whale.
For four years, I begged them to speak with me on the record, to no avail. Mentally, they sent me to the bottom of the ocean. I was sure I would perish before my questions were answered.
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Until a few weeks ago.
Before I continue, I have to explain a few things. Since 2016, I have been tracking Brady’s social media as though I were a CIA agent trying to bring down the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The TB Times was a parody newspaper whose ”front page” Brady posted online after the Patriots won games (losses were not acknowledged). Each image usually involved jokes or puns about the teams New England had just vanquished. Over time, they moved away from a newspaper template and morphed into brightly colored illustrations of a comic strip or a single cartoon. Eventually, the posts became very trippy and featured a rotating cast of characters starring a crocodile named Croc.
If you’ve never seen a TB Times before, you probably have more of a life than I do, and this image will likely confuse you:
Do you see what I mean????????????
It became my mission to figure out who or what Croc represented. I have now written over eighteen articles about the TB Times for four different outlets. I convinced beat reporters in Foxboro to ask Brady questions after practices about the TB Times when I couldn’t be there. I examined the backend HTML of the mysterious tbtimes.com for hours. I went to Brady’s press conference before the Super Bowl against the Eagles and screamed, “Who is Croc?!” at the prince of New England himself. Brady told me that if the Patriots won, we would find out.
The Patriots — another spoiler alert — did not win.
But I didn’t stop digging. There’s a scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia when Charlie keeps getting mail addressed to someone named Pepe Silvia, and he loses his mind trying to figure out who that is. That’s the closest I can come to describing what Croc and the TB Times did to me. The worst part is that I recruited fans and readers onto my ship to care about this white whale as much as I did. Call it emotional piracy.
Why was I so obsessed with a cartoon, you might reasonably wonder?
Because for most of his career, Tom Brady had been one of the most buttoned-up athletes out there. He was a good soldier in Belichick’s army, taking pay cuts for the health of the team and sticking to his talking points, whether he was being asked about a win or one of the team’s “-gates.” The Patriot Way meant that players and coaches were supposed to keep all internal business close to the vest. The team’s rallying cry was, “Do Your Job”; it wasn’t, “Have Fun Out There.”
Belichick operates his team with zero emotion, and individuality at Gillette is a luxury, not a right. No player, not even if he’s won the team six rings, receives special treatment. Yet here was Brady, sharing the weirdest posts of any athlete. It seemed so out of character, and they were indecipherable. Here’s one that I spent four hours of one Sunday night trying to dissect:
Depending on whom you ask, the whale in Moby Dick represents many different things — the unstoppable force of nature, a mask for good and evil, fate, even god. Similarly, I felt like Brady was trying to tell us something with the TB Times, and it drove me insane that I couldn’t crack the code. What did it represent? What did it all mean?
I tried desperately to find out. One of the first stories I ever pitched when I started working in sports full-time was about the team behind Brady’s posts, which were getting funnier. Since 2016, I’ve known that the person managing Brady’s social media was a 20-something from the Boston area named Jeff Fine. Then, I tracked down Fine and asked if he’d talk to me about it. He declined to go on the record.
A couple years later, when the TB Times began to pop up every week, I asked Fine again. He said no again. As I got deeper and deeper into the saga, I tracked down the artist illustrating the posts, a friend of Fine’s named Dean Krupka (sometimes I think, “Wow, what if you used these investigative skills on something other than a quarterback’s fake newspaper?” But only sometimes). Krupka wouldn’t speak to me, either, but I held out hope that someday, they’d finally agree to tell me the true story of the TB Times. How did this happen? Why a newspaper? Who is Croc?
Finally, when Brady announced his decision to leave the Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month, I was flooded with messages from friends and strangers. Most were along the lines of, “Do you think the TB Times meant that Brady knew he’d end up in Tampa the whole time?” Tampa does have an actual newspaper called the Tampa Bay Times, after all, abbreviated as the TB Times. The newspaper’s publicist supplied me with a statement when I reached out last week, saying, “We have heard about Tom Brady’s ‘newspaper’ and think it would make an interesting story for our readers down the road.”
So I don’t think they totally get it.
I also didn’t think there was a connection — but I did think it was worth trying Fine and Krupka once more. So I sent Krupka a message on Instagram, which was how we’d communicated for years. Would he and Fine talk to me, now that Brady was gone?
Waiting for an answer, I obsessively (a theme!) refreshed my DMs. And then it happened: Krupka said yes. I lost it. I actually danced around my room when I read his response. He said that if I called him the next day, he would conference Fine in, and they would explain everything.
So I called. They talked. And now, it is one of the greatest, deepest, most profound pleasures of my life to be able to tell you the story behind the TB Times.
Fine’s half brother, Ben Rawitz, is Brady’s longtime right-hand man. After graduating from Syracuse University in 2014, Fine joined Brady’s team as an assistant to Brady and his wife Gisele Bundchen, and began managing Brady’s social media that fall. A few years ago, he was part of a team that started the company Shadow Lion, the media firm that has made all of Brady’s recent hype videos. Fine made it clear that he wasn’t the only one at the helm of Brady’s social accounts, though; Brady himself was very involved, as was Kevin Bonner, another guy who worked for Brady.
Fine and the others injected humor into Brady’s posts. A badly Photoshopped picture of an eagle landing on Brady’s wrist popped up before New England played Philadelphia in 2015. Fine and Rawitz even found Brady’s college resume and suggested Brady post it on Facebook. My favorite post from Fine’s early days was simply a Photoshop of a camel wearing a Patriots helmet on a Wednesday with the caption, “4 days!!! #HumpDay”.
But Brady’s social team wanted something more cohesive to celebrate wins.
“Tom has been super involved,” Fine said, “But we were talking with some friends about coming up with a new idea for Tom’s postgame posts. They performed really well, but they were super lame at the time, just a thumbs up or a thumbs down thing. Our friend Greg Smith had the idea of doing a postgame newspaper with original illustration. Dean [Krupka] is super talented and we thought that’d be fun and different.”
Krupka, a professional illustrator, grew up in Syracuse and went to college with Fine. Krupka was in the air force at the time (he just left the service last year), so illustrating the TB Times became his side hustle. The guys tried to sell real ads, but no company was interested in advertising on Brady’s fake newspaper; they plugged TB12 products instead.
When New England beat the Cardinals in the first game of the season, the first-ever TB Times headline read PATS ANGER BIRDS. It showed Martellus Bennett and Dont’a Hightower using a giant slingshot to fling characters from the video game Angry Birds at the stadium in Phoenix.
“It was about finding a cool storyline for that week,” Krupka said. “And trying to create this incarnation of the other team. Tom saw it as a way to highlight the players around him, to bring some attention to the other folks as well.”
It was particularly important to highlight other players during the first four games of 2016 because, as no one in New England could forget, Brady was serving a four-game suspension for Deflategate. Fine and Krupka were psyched about their idea for Brady’s first game back against the Browns; it featured Brady as Captain Planet, returning to save the day.
“We were like, ‘Oh, this is awesome,” Fine said. “We made this Captain Planet picture with [Matthew] Slater, [Julian] Edelman, and Gronk putting their rings together and Captain Planet Tom comes spiraling out of the universe.”
“But if you remember,” Krupka chimed in, “The post after the Cleveland game ended up being a Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame theme. That was adapted from the Captain Planet image on Sunday morning.”
“We sent it too late to Tom on Sunday,” Fine continued. “And he didn’t want to be the focus of attention. It was another case of him being like, ‘Hey, let’s not make this about me, let’s make this about the team.’”
They sent me the original, never-before-seen post:
And as Fine hinted, Brady requested his team change it so that he wasn’t even in the picture at all:
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In 2016, the posts celebrating victories continued to mimic straightforward front pages of a newspaper. But in 2017, things started to get weird. Because in 2017, Croc showed up. And my life was never the same.
After the Patriots beat the Saints early in the 2017 season, an alligator appeared on a parade float in the image Brady posted on Instagram. Since alligators live in the bayou, Fine and Krupka simply figured they might as well toss one in the picture.
A few weeks later, he morphed into a crocodile named Croc.
“Everyone seemed to like Croc,” Fine said. “We decided at that point it would be fun to try to switch it up and try this comics format, which was an interesting experiment. [Croc] would be a perfect narrator to tie these together and tell a story here, because there’s not a lot of space to tell a story.”
In November, Brady posted this:
I had questions — namely, “Am I missing an obvious internet or football joke? Or is Tom Brady’s social media person just dropping tons of acid before he fires up Adobe Illustrator?”
I tried to make sense of who Croc could be and why he suddenly had dreadlocks. Why were they all underwater? Why was a dolphin peddling fidget spinners?
I attempted to make the dots connect. Readers wrote in with theories. Was Croc actually Belichick, many wondered? No, because when New England beat Buffalo, a post appeared called “Bill’s Got Talent.” It featured a number of famous people named Bill lined up against a wall, including Belichick. Croc was there, too. So if someone asked, “Have you ever seen Croc and Belichick in the same room?” The answer was yes.
My friend Doug Kyed, a Patriots beat reporter, asked Brady about this reptile. “He says we’ll find out the connection and story at the end of the year,” Kyed reported at the time. “He’s keeping us waiting.”
If I had to pinpoint it, I’d say that that’s when I truly started to go insane. Brady said there was meaning, so I was desperate to find it. Why would the QB of my favorite team lie to me? I went so far as to google “famous Bills” to see if the list that appeared was the same list of Bills included in the Buffalo post.
“I remember that article you wrote,” Krupka said. “Your investigative Googling was extremely accurate. That’s exactly how we came to it. We wanted this league of Bills. We were pretty confident in that joke, so yeah, it was just coming up with who would be in the post.”
Fans were getting more and more invested. A website called tbtimes.com popped up, which I scoured for clues about Croc (Fine and Krupka told me they just wanted a place to put a few of the characters they couldn’t fit into the stories — “that was purely selfish”). Strangers were sending me daily messages telling me their theories about what the posts meant; even when they seemed relatively straightforward, I was zooming in on stars, trying to find Croc’s face in the heavens:
But as the TB Times got progressively weirder, I wondered if these guys were just two somewhat recent college grads in a basement somewhere, flying by the seat of their pants. Brady said there was meaning, but what if there … wasn’t?
After one particularly confusing cartoon when the Pats beat the Jets, I wrote a blog called, “Tom Brady’s social media might not be as masterminded as I once thought.”
“We really were just in a basement,” Fine said, laughing. “Me and Dean would be on the phone, because he was in California, but in general a bunch of my friends and I lived in a house at the period of time in Brighton. We called it Funkoland Theater. At one point we had 12 people living there, but it was usually more like six.”
While Fine and Krupka originally wanted to plan the whole narrative arc out at the start of the season, they often ended up scrambling to hit deadlines (like any good journalist worth his or her salt). When I started to question how planned out all of this was, I went back to a post from early in the 2017 season. It featured a narwhal whale saying, “I’m Nellie the Narwhal.” I couldn’t even pretend it made sense.
I thought to myself, did they just totally phone it in?
“I was moving apartments,” Krupka said. “So that was the dip in quality you saw that week.”
“We were like, this is not good,” Fine added. “But we have to finish it.”
After the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Eagles in 2018, the TB Times ceased to exist. Krupka made an illustration in case the Pats won, but it has never seen the light of day, and they won’t show me. Some things are too sensitive.
Fine and Krupka still wouldn’t speak to me for a story at the start of the 2018-2019 season, but after I frantically tweeted about how the Pats had won, yet there was no new TB Times post, one of Fine’s friends messaged me to say that the TB Times was done. Bereaved, I reported the news.
“The reality is that this is not a TB Times cartoon page,” Fine said, when I asked why they shut it down. “This is Tom’s Instagram and Facebook. And the point of these is to celebrate the moment with fans, celebrate the victory. Any time that we lost sight of that was a mistake. Those are the moments where we would relearn the same lesson — this is not about us at all. Kevin would help us rein it back in and refocus.”
“That was also the motivation to not speak with you, Charlotte, about it at the time,” Krupka said. “We just wanted to let it speak for itself and not distract from the player and the team it’s supposed to be depicting. And at a certain point, we felt like we’d explored the world enough.”
(The final TB Times, celebrating the Patriots’ AFC Championship Game victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars)
After his paper shuttered, Brady started posting videos where he talked to fans about the Pats’ most recent win. His social media became more straightforward in general; he mostly put up photos of him, his family, and his teammates.
But in 2019, after the Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl, Brady posted a picture of himself holding a paper copy of a fresh TB Times. It depicted Croc stiff-arming on a ram. The caption read, “Couldn’t leave my TB Times crowd hanging… Boston we’re home. Schools canceled, works closed, see you on Boylston.”
I saw it on the subway platform in New York City as I was on my way to work and almost passed out. It was the best present I’ve ever received. My phone started blowing up. Fans online rejoiced along with me in the brief appearance of New England’s beloved reptile.
But the question remained: who was Croc?
“I think with Croc, in general, we prefer not to speak for him,” Fine said. “I would say there’s something here. There’s something going on, but we’re not necessarily at liberty to talk about that.”
Croc could mean nothing, but I get the sense that he’s an inside joke among Brady’s inner circle. For those of us on the outside, however, it almost doesn’t matter — because for us, Croc represents the quarterback’s private side. The side that, no matter how much we analyze everything Brady says, everything he posts, every phrase he trademarks, we will never know.
That ties in well with another theory about Herman Melville’s magnum opus, that the meaning of the whale is purposely vague. One of the reasons Ahab was so obsessed with Moby Dick is because he couldn’t catch him. But unlike Ahab, I’ve come to terms with the fact that there are certain things about the TB Times that will remain a mystery, and that, on some level, the mystery was the whole point.
I no longer think Brady was trying to tell us something specific, but rather to show he had a silly side. That the Patriot Way wasn’t the only way. That he contained multitudes.
Hearing what Krupka and Fine would share about the inside story of the TB Times will probably be one of the highlights of my entire career (aim high, kids). It was also bittersweet. We did this dance for so long — winking back and forth on the internet, delighting in the fact that fans were following the story — that every time they kindly turned down my requests, I was relieved. It meant the game wasn’t over. But now, the clock has finally run out. Brady left, the dynasty Patriots fans once knew is over, and Fine and Krupka pulled back the curtain. In a world that often feels very dark, it was a gift for me, and I hope for fans, to care so much about something lighthearted and generous. This is truly the end of an era.
But hey, maybe there’s still a chance Croc will show up in Florida. Perhaps even in the pages of a real newspaper.
“There was always a 5% worry, is the Tampa Bay Times going to come after us?” Fine said. “No one from the paper ever reached out. But it feels like we’re on the same team now, right? We hope to be acquired.”
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