A few years back Tom Brady’s father publicly stated he believed things would not end well between his son and the New England Patriots. As the game’s greatest quarterback enters the final season of his contract as reigning Super Bowl champion and a soon-to-be 42-year-old passer in decline, speculation is that that familiar process has begun.
Time will tell whether the two sides can arrive at some sort of contract extension that both can swallow but the larger truth is this: For what high-paid player does it end well?
Did it end as it should have for Johnny Unitas, draped in an unseemly San Diego Chargers' jersey? Did it end well for Joe Namath? Did it end as it should have for Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw or Brett Favre or Peyton Manning?
Perhaps it will go better for Drew Brees or Philip Rivers, but don’t bet on it because when an aging star quarterback wants to keep playing longer than his coach thinks wise or his team believes is financially prudent he has two choices.
He can retire or leave. Either way, he ends up packing.
Both Brady and Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft have said they want his career to end where it began – which is to say in New England. The problem is that his coach, Bill Belichick, has never sounded such a clarion call.
In fact, he was trying to groom his replacement in young Jimmy Garoppolo … only to be outplayed by Brady. That at least gave Belichick something in common with guys like Andy Reid, Dan Quinn, Sean McVay, Tony Dungy and most every other coach who opposed him over the past 20 years, but it did not help Belichick’s long-term planning.
What is going on at the moment is what always happens as the end nears for a superstar heading toward nova. All sides are looking out for themselves.
Brady wants his view of fair salary and a contract with long-term protection, as he should. Belichick is looking out for his team and wants to avoid financial entanglements that would limit his future flexibility, as he should. Kraft wants to look good and avoid -- if possible -- appearing to fire the player most responsible for all the accolades he has received for his team’s success since Brady first slipped under center nearly 20 years ago, as he should.
And therein lies the conundrum the Patriots face. What’s most important?
A year ago, Brady had a contract with five separate incentives, each worth $1 million. He achieved none. Since he played nearly every snap that’s on him. It is also true he agreed to it so he has no one to blame but himself. Yet it is human nature for him to be ask himself -- after all he’s done for the team both on the field and in contract negotiations where he seldom held their feet to the fire -- why, as the end approaches, he is being treated like everyone else who played for Belichick.
The truth, however, is that Belichick is acting the same way he always has. All players are fungible to him. When he sees no further use for them or feels their cost exceeds their value he moves on. One cannot damn a man for acting consistently.
Except in this case Belichick would be wise to remember the words of his old mentor, from whom he learned most of the foundations for his own success. Bill Parcells always said in moments like this, “I’m not trying to be consistent. I’m trying to be right.’’
So what is “right’’ in this case? That is the problem. They’re all right. Or all wrong, depending on your point of view.
Brady is not happy knowing Garoppolo was brought in to replace him and ended up with a contract far in excess of his own. He also knows through his agent, Don Yee, exactly how all this went down because Yee represents them both. Or at least Brady thinks he knows.
Belichick is not happy knowing he does not have full control of this situation because the Kraft family has said publicly it wants Brady to finish his career as a Patriot.
Kraft is not happy because he is the monkey in the middle, not a position the boss ever feels happy about.
The two sides are reportedly now talking as training camp opens, and, if history repeats itself, they will come up with a deal that keeps Brady in red, white and blue without paying him top dollar … but getting him close enough to it to accept it.
Where Belichick fits into equation is hard to know because his history is not to waver when a hard decision has to be made. He fired Bernie Kosar, who was the most popular quarterback in Cleveland since Otto Graham. He traded Drew Bledsoe to a divisional opponent to make room for a young Brady. He traded likely Hall-of-Famer Richard Seymour and refused to pay Hall-of-Famer Ty Law, who went off and led the NFL in interceptions the season after he left.
Agree with him or not, Belichick is fearless when faced with a value-based circumstance.
His problem is that this is not going to be a decision made by him and him alone. It may not even be based on value as he understands it. It may not be made by him at all because the wisest choice here is the most difficult one to make.
The wisest choice for the team and Belichick is to allow a soon-to-be 42-year-old quarterback to play out his final year and see what happens. If he plays great, which frankly he didn’t do last year until it counted most, you franchise him and eat the number or make a favorable longer term deal next offseason. If he doesn’t, you take your chances that he might walk. And if he does, you tell the fans there was nothing you could do about it.
The problem is that Belichick, like his coaching idol, Paul Brown, and Brady, like his boyhood idol Montana, are not the owner of this. They are or were renters like everyone else in football but 32 men. It ends the same for all of them. They leave, and the owner stays after doing what he wants.
So however it goes, in the end, this one is in Bob Kraft’s hands and how it works out – or doesn’t – will be on him too.