Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Moving on from Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tom Brady. Bringing in Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. Cutting ties with Lawyer Milloy. Taking shots on Randy Moss and Corey Dillon. Drafting Rob Gronkowski, back problems and all.

The Patriots have maintained their level for the better part of the last 20 years in large part because of Bill Belichick's foresight as the team's general manager.

Still, in two decades, as there would be with any personnel czar with that kind of tenure, there are of course moves (or non-moves) that in hindsight prompt us to wonder what might've been.

In this edition of our Hindsight 2020 series, we're focused on the Patriots front office — Belichick's office — to pick out the decision that stands above the rest as the one that could've drastically altered the post-Brady course of the franchise: Not trading Jimmy Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season.

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At the NFL's annual meeting in Phoenix that year, Browns head coach Hue Jackson wasn't evasive. He wasn't playing coy. His team had the No. 1 and 12 overall picks in the draft. The top choice — earmarked for defensive end Myles Garrett — was not up for grabs. No. 12, though? Different story.

"We'll exhaust every opportunity" to find a quarterback, Jackson told a horde of reporters at the AFC coaches breakfast. Though he would not comment on Garoppolo specifically, citing tampering rules, the message was clear: If the Patriots wanted that No. 12 overall selection in exchange for Brady's backup, there was a conversation to be had.

On its face, making that move made sense for both sides. The Browns were desperate for a competent quarterback. They were flush with picks. The Patriots, meanwhile, didn't have a first or a second-rounder that spring. For them, trading Garoppolo with a year left on his contract represented an opportunity to bolster their 2017 rookie haul with a top-15 talent.

The decision wasn't that simple, of course. 

To pull the trigger, the Patriots would have to be willing to bail on Brady's insurance plan for that season — he hadn't missed significant time since 2008, but he was going into his 40-year-old season — as well as his long-term successor.

If Garoppolo remained on the roster, the benefit was that he would provide the Patriots a capable break-glass-in-case-of-emergency passer for a Super Bowl contender. Plus, it gave Belichick and Garoppolo's representatives time to try to finagle a long-term deal to keep Garoppolo in New England for the foreseeable future. 

If they could iron something out contractually, Belichick would be pulling off the near-impossible — something only the Niners and Packers had pulled off in the modern era. Riding into life after a Hall of Fame quarterback almost seamlessly, with a legitimate franchise guy ready to step in.

How likely was it, though, that holding onto Garoppolo for as long as possible would yield the Patriots the maximum possible benefit?

For that to happen, it seems, Brady would have either had to drop off the proverbial "cliff" performance-wise or suffer a serious injury. Again, we have the benefit of hindsight here, but there's an argument to be made that neither seemed imminent at the time. 

Brady was coming off of his fifth Super Bowl win and an MVP-caliber season in 2016. (The MVP went to Matt Ryan, in part, because Brady missed the first four games of that year suspended for Deflategate). Then, at 40, Brady went on to win the award for the third time in his career, and he threw for over 500 yards in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. It was unprecedented stuff for a quarterback his age, and yet not at all shocking given his performance the previous year.

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Garoppolo remained on the sidelines for the first eight weeks of 2017 as Brady played some of the best football of his career. There was no Bledsoevian moment where Garoppolo was able step in because of injury. And there was no reason for him to bite on a long-term contract extension if it meant sitting for another season (or more) behind a guy who at the time was playing better than anyone else on the planet.

We know what happened at that point: At the trade deadline, opting to get something for Garoppolo rather than holding onto him and letting him hit free agency after the season, Belichick dealt his No. 2 to the Niners in exchange for a second-round pick in 2018.

You can point to the team's unwillingness to invest real capital in a young tight end toward the end of Gronkowski's career — how did George Kittle slip to the fifth round in 2017, again? — as a front-office "what if?" 

You can point to any number of swings-and-misses in the draft's first couple of rounds — Dominique Easley, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, Aaron Dobson, Ras-I Dowling, Ron Brace — as easy fixes in hindsight.

But deciding to keep Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season is fascinating to revisit precisely because of where the Patriots stand at the moment, without a clear-and-obvious long-term solution at the game's most important position. And because of what happened with that No. 12 overall selection.

The Browns did end up trading their second first-rounder three years ago, you might remember. It landed in Houston. 

That's right. In an alternate universe, a universe in which the Browns and Patriots had been willing and able to work out a deal for Garoppolo, the Patriots are rolling into next season with a seasoned backup oozing with talent, the No. 12 pick in the 2017 draft: Deshaun Watson.

Patriots Talk Podcast: How invested in Jimmy Garoppolo are the 49ers?

Patriots Talk Podcast: How invested in Jimmy Garoppolo are the 49ers?

Could Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo switch places? It's possible.

While the Tennessee Titans have reportedly cooled their jets on the Brady front, the San Francisco 49ers are perhaps more likely to ride it out with Garoppolo than sign Tom Brady to a big contract.

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On this week's episode of Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast, Curran and Phil Perry are joined by Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area to discuss how invested the Niners are in their current quarterback.

Maiocco isn't so sure that San Francisco would be willing to dismiss Garoppolo so quickly.

I think it's too early to pull the plug. They've worked with him, they like him, they like a lot of things about Jimmy [Garoppolo] and they think he's nowhere near his ceiling. So that's why I think 2020 is going to be a big year for him.

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Garoppolo reached the Super Bowl in his first full season in 2019 after being Brady's backup for a few years in New England, then suffering an ACL injury in 2018 with San Francisco.  

Maiocco told Curran and Perry that Garoppolo hasn't given the 49ers enough of a sample size yet, and that he could give San Francisco more down the line than Brady, who'll be 43 when the season begins, would be able to. Curran also agreed that the 49ers would be crazy to jettison Garoppolo so quickly, adding that they should just ride it out with their current QB.

Maiocco said he thinks the 49ers will do their due diligence on the Brady front -- if Brady wants to return to his Northern California roots -- Niners coach Kyle Shanahan will at least take it under advisement.

To hear more from Maiocco on the Garoppolo situation, if Robert Kraft can mend the relationship between Brady and Bill Belichick, if the August offer the Patriots made to Brady is still on the table, and what went wrong with the Brady and Belichick phone call, be sure to tune in to this week's Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network.

Robert Kraft will not overstep to make sure Tom Brady remains with Patriots

Robert Kraft will not overstep to make sure Tom Brady remains with Patriots

There’s a persistent belief that, before Tom Brady hits free agency, Robert Kraft will swoop in and make sure Brady stays right where’s he’s been for 20 seasons.

That’s not going to happen.

The Patriots, as we first reported Super Bowl Sunday are willing to “extend” themselves to get a deal done. And if the gap between Brady and the team is narrow, then Kraft will actively encourage both Brady and Bill Belichick to bridge that gap.

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But we confirmed this week what we were told a month ago: that if it’s a chasm – and real negotiations have yet to begin – Kraft will not intercede despite his long-stated preference that Brady retires a Patriot.

Kraft opened the door for Brady to decide his future when he agreed the Patriots wouldn’t use the franchise tag on Brady in 2020. The owner is similarly committed to letting Belichick decide the football future of the team.

Kraft knows the fastest route to franchise dysfunction would be forcing the quarterback on Belichick for sentimental reasons.

The Patriots are what they are in large part because of Brady. His play. His leadership. His willingness not to be what the Patriots used to refer to as “a pig at the trough” when it came to negotiating contracts.

But the team-building, economic and cultural values Belichick laid down two decades ago are the real foundation of their success.

Belichick has shown time and again a willingness to make painful personnel decisions other franchises might not have the stomach for. Moving on from Brady is in a different universe than trading Logan Mankins or cutting Lawyer Milloy. He’s objectively the most successful player in NFL history.

Belichick won’t open a vein and bleed sadness publicly but it’s no doubt painful for him as well to envision Brady in a different uniform. But it is what it is.

If you’re paying close attention, you can already see the evidence of Kraft refusing to bigfoot Belichick on this.  

When training camp opened last August and Brady was asked whether he’d earned an extension, he answered, “Have I earned one? I don't know, that's up for talk show debate. What do you guys think? Should we take a poll?  Talk to Mr. Kraft, come on." 

There’s no debate Brady thought he’d earned one. Since signing a very modest two-year, $41 million extension in 2016, the team had been to three consecutive Super Bowls, winning two. Brady threw for 505 yards in the one they lost.

Brady’s appeal fell on deaf ears. There would be no extension for 2019 and beyond. Just a modest pay raise. That outcome so rankled the Brady camp that the request was made to have the franchise tag option removed. Done.  

And here we are.

The fact is, Kraft had thought he drew up the contract to take Brady into retirement back in 2013. The modest five-year, $57M agreement drawn up on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles took Brady through his 40-year-old season in 2017. It allowed the team plenty of maneuverability to sign other players.

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Speaking to Peter King about the deal, Kraft said he “[Wanted] to do something elegant that would work for everybody. I had been talking to him off and on for maybe 18 months, about how I wanted him to finish his career here, and about how we both have to be smart about it. I just really want him to end his career a Patriot.”

So why – despite the fact Brady was desirous of a longer and more true-to-market deal than the one he signed in 2016 and never got one – is there a perception Kraft will intervene to ensure the soon-to-be-43-year-old Brady remains a Patriot?

Because people mistakenly believe that Kraft intervened before.

The most explosive part of Seth Wickersham’s 2018 story for ESPN detailing turmoil in Foxboro was the allegation that Kraft forced Belichick to trade Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers. 

Kraft vehemently pushed back on that part of Wickersham’s story within 24 hours, saying, it was “fiction” that he gave Belichick a mandate or even met with the coach about it.

When I recently asked Kraft about people expecting him to step in now because of the belief he did in 2017, Kraft said of that report, “It’s a lie.”

While much of Wickersham’s story was spot-on about the tension present at that time, the mandate and other details in the story – such as Garoppolo being offered a four-year extension by New England that would have paid him around $17M annually – are suspect.

Despite that and Kraft’s pushback, fans and media don’t buy it. Which is an irritation for Kraft because it plays into a trope that Kraft is a meddlesome owner. The “cook the dinner, shop for the groceries” barb launched at Kraft by Bill Parcells 23 years ago hit its mark and left a permanent mark.

In Pete Carroll’s three-year run with the team starting in 1997, the owner was consistently lampooned in the local media as being overly involved. When Belichick took over in 2000, Kraft took a giant step back and let Belichick do his work which included lopping off valued veterans like Ben Coates, Bruce Armstrong, Drew Bledsoe and Milloy in quick succession. All for the good.

Despite those moves and dozens like them in the 20 years since, the belief that a sentimental Robert Kraft is going to intercede now and overrule Belichick’s wishes won’t go away.

He won’t. There’s no debating how Kraft would like to see this impasse resolved. But this is for Tom and Bill to work out.