By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — On the sliding scale of grading the magnitude of Tom Brady “news”, such as it is, the developments of Thursday morning could be considered significant. Given the way things have been going in the Tom Brady soap opera, that’s quite the rarity.

The “news,” as you’ve surely heard, is that ESPN’s Jeff Darlington said he’d be “shocked” if Brady returns to the Patriots. That’s the headline, and it sure is a doozy.

Surely, Darlington is connected to the situation, and he explained this feeling in further detail. It’s worth paying attention to what he said. Let’s chop it up into four parts.

Part I:

“There are people very close to Tom Brady who are being told by Tom Brady, ‘It’s not gonna happen. Like, I’m going somewhere else.’ Like, that’s the way that we’re operating here within those circles.”

Got it. Big news.

Part II:

“And yet even those people don’t necessarily believe that Tom at the end of the day won’t go into Bill Belichick’s office and Belichick won’t sit there and say to him, ‘Tom, we need you back. We have to have you back.’ And that Tom Brady will return to the Patriots.”

Arguably too many negatives in there, but it’s worth noting that the “inner circle” so to speak doesn’t necessarily believe that there is finality to what Brady is saying.

Part III:

“We need to wrap our minds around the fact that it is far more likely than not that Tom Brady will not be back with the Patriots. I am now at the point where I would be stunned if Tom Brady returns to the Patriots.”

Everyone in New England has surely wrapped their heads around the fact that Brady can leave the Patriots, but perhaps the national football folks are finally catching on.

Part IV:

RIP, my mentions. I know you’ll hate me. I know you’ll tell me I’m an idiot. And I understand why it’s so hard for all of us — myself included — to start accepting this likelihood. Hey, there’s still a chance. But… the reality is… Brady is looking forward to free agency.”

The “RIP, my mentions” bit has to go. Nobody ever cares about anyone else’s mentions. Normal people who don’t use Twitter are lucky enough to not even know what mentions are. What a life that must be! But that’s neither here nor there.

That fourth part came via tweet, and it included an out: “Hey, there’s still a chance.”

And that … that is kind of where everything is at, the same place it’s been for weeks, and really the same place it’s all been since last August, when the Patriots and Brady couldn’t agree on any deal that kept him employed in Foxboro past the 2019 season.

That is to say … not a whole lot has changed!

Of course, the calendar will be flipping to March this weekend, and the NFL Combine is taking place and thus there are many mouths spewing out a lot of words in Indianapolis, and so the story is advancing a bit. But only in the sense that more people are talking about it.

There was also this bit of news from the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian:

On its face, this certainly doesn’t look “good.” And, really, considering the importance Brady has had to the franchise over the past two decades, to leave him dangling in the wind without giving him any intimations regarding his football-playing fate is assuredly a disrespectful way to do business. At the same time, that’s how Bill Belichick and the Patriots have treated most free agents during the two dynastic runs, and it’s how the team has treated other current free agents this very offseason. You may have noticed that the likes of Kyle Van Noy, Devin McCourty, Joe Thuney and Jamie Collins do not know if they have football futures in Foxboro. Even Matthew Slater, the ultimate Patriot among ultimate Patriots, has no idea whether the Patriots will bring him back for 2020, marking the second time in two years that he’s been left in that uncertain position. Way back when, the Patriots casually sat back and let Tedy Bruschi — the heart and soul of the defense for three Super Bowls — take free-agent trips. More recently, Dont’a Hightower flew to New Jersey to be shown some cupcakes by the Jets. The Patriots let another defensive captain in McCourty test the free-agent waters in 2015, only to eventually re-sign him.

Ever since Tom Brady became TOM BRADY, Belichick’s ability to treat the quarterback just like anyone else (and Brady’s ability to be treated just like anyone else) has been one of the cornerstones of the Patriots’ unprecedented run of success. Why would that change now?

(There’s also the unresolved matter of the new CBA to consider, as a new labor deal could allow the Patriots to get much more creative with a Brady contract. Though that is perhaps another story for another day.)

Logic may have dictated that this free-agency situation should be handled differently than all other free-agency situations have been handled. Understandable. But if you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve known that the Patriots — aka Belichick — have been content to sit back, set their plans behind closed doors, and wait until the appropriate dates to get down to business.

That’s been the case for nearly two months. The difference now appears to be that Brady is squirming.

That assessment requires some conjecture, sure, but if Brady is a human being (expert opinions vary on that particular topic) then he’s probably getting slightly antsy at the lack of communication from the Patriots, considering he has a wife and children and a budding health/fitness/lifestyle empire to worry about. If the Patriots intend to make him an offer — both a contract offer and a “we swear we won’t give you two undrafted rookie receivers and no tight ends we swear we promise WE SWEAR” offer — then Brady is likely eager to hear it. Likewise, if the team intends to send him a gift basket and a nice thank you note for his contributions since the year 2000, then he’d surely like to get that message sooner than later.

The man has got a life to plan.

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Outside of that, the dates have not changed. The illegal tampering period has begun in earnest. The legal tampering period begins on March 16. Free agency begins on March 18.

A decision from the Patriots’ end could come before those dates. Despite the most recent round of reporting, that final decision has not yet been made.

Everything else outside of that? It’s just squirming — the same as it’s been throughout the process.

Humans are naturally uncomfortable with the inability to know something. Thus, they squirm. Considering the stakes of this one — for Brady himself, for fans of the Patriots, for media members dying for a scoop, for anyone else dying to know what comes next — it has certainly generated quite a bit of squirming.

But until Belichick emerges from the shadows (or the rain-soaked college field in Tennessee) and reveals the portion of his master plan that affects all interested parties, nobody really knows.

From Darlington’s reporting, we can surmise that Brady has taken Belichick’s silent treatment as an indication that the team is not interested in him. Or, Brady’s doing the best he can to jump on a table, wave his hands, and shout, “Hellooooooo? Anybody? Tom Brady here. Looking for an update. Wouldn’t mind an update.

Whatever it may be, it seems like Brady’s squirming. The question, really, is merely a matter of when or if Belichick might find it in his heart to throw his franchise quarterback a bone. The reality, though, is that Belichick may not have cemented quarterback plans at the moment.

But Thursday’s report doesn’t speak to whatever Belichick’s plan may be, because Thursday’s report came from people close to Brady, who’s been left in the dark on such matters. Thursday’s report is an interpretation of the situation from Brady’s side — that is to say, Brady’s feeling at the moment may be, “Clearly they don’t want me anymore, thus I am looking forward to free agency.”

The reality is that until Belichick makes a final decision and informs Brady and his agent, nobody knows anything more about the fate of Brady today than they did yesterday.

We’re all just squirming.

UPDATE: All of that squirming led to some action. Someone (we can only guess whom) reminded Adam Schefter that the uncertain CBA voting process affects this matter greatly, and then someone told Ian Rapoport that Brady is “in the Patriots’ plans for 2020.” Sometimes, it pays to be a squeaky wheel.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here. You can email him or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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