Put aside your calculator and your salary cap figures for a minute. There's another reason why the business of restructuring contracts can get sticky in the NFL.
How deals are put together, who earns new deals, and why deals get re-done when they do . . . all of those things can impact a locker room. They can have an effect on morale. They can leave a mark on a team's culture.
Here's a portion of a back-and-forth Tom E. Curran and Jerod Mayo had about culture on an episode of Quick Slants the Podcast last month. (You can hear the complete podcast below.) This aired soon after it became clear that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski would not be participating in (at least) the early portion of New England's voluntary offseason workout program
Mayo: "What is culture? I think about that. Culture could . . . be this retroactive way of just validating success, if that makes sense. Like, 'Oh, the culture must've been great!' "
Curran: "Right. 'They did this in April, and they won the Super Bowl so that means that's the culture.' . . . I think the culture is selflessness. I think the culture is the best players show up. The best players mentor. The best players are the ones who are at the head of the line."
Mayo: "That is the culture in New England."
Curran: "This is the hardest thing I have getting my brain around is the image of Tom and Gronk going up to TB12 up at Patriot Place working out with Alex [Guerrero], throwing in the field house with Julian [Edelman] and then saying, you know, 'Deuces!' and then driving away without saying hi to any of their teammates. That to me is counter culture."
Mayo: "And will those guys get new deals? Will they get new deals? Because when it's all said and done the culture is dictated by who's getting rewarded. 'What are they doing? I'm going to copy that guy.' That's how a culture is built."
Curran: "How could [Bill Belichick] reward Gronk with a long-term contract?"
It's a balancing act for Belichick. What's best for the team is to have Brady and Gronkowski in the fold and motivated to perform at their best. At the same time, it behooves the Patriots to try to maintain a culture that has contributed to an unprecedented run of success over the course of the last two decades. That means rewarding those who show up, who do what's asked, who go above and beyond.
Here's Curran and Mayo again, from this week's episode of Quick Slants the Podcast. (Again, the complete podcast is below.)
Curran: "[Brady and Gronkowski] have been a little bit off the reservation, yet now here it is May 8th and we're conversing about, 'Oh, gotta give these guys a bump.' It does run counter to all the other guys who've been showing up punching the clock, in and on the program. And it just shows, 'Hey, if you make enough of a stink and threaten to stay away, you're going to get paid.' "
Mayo: "But look at other players who've been booted off of this team or traded to Cleveland or traded to Oakland or traded to wherever because they made a stink about a deal. Now all of a sudden, these guys are going to get deals. What precedent does that set for the rest of these guys in the future? You just gotta be careful."
If the Patriots are looking to give Brady and Gronkowski raises without setting a precedent in the process, they could take solace in the fact that other Patriots players would likely acknowledge Brady and Gronkowski are in a class of their own. Both are, to steal a line from Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, gold-jacket guys. If they're allowed to play by a different set of rules, if they're rewarded after avoiding the offseason program, that probably wouldn't spark a round of holdouts up and down the roster. Plus there's the fact that both players have gone above and beyond in years past while simultaneously playing below market value. That's undoubtedly part of the equation. Other players would recognize that, too.
Say, then, Brady and Gronkowski do get new contracts. What should those look like?
It would make sense for Brady, coming off of an MVP season and headed toward his 41st birthday, to close the gap on some of the top-tier quarterback salaries in the league. He's currently scheduled to pull down $15 million in cash ($14 million base salary, $1 million roster bonus) in each of the next two seasons. If the Patriots could figure out a way to get him close to the average annual value of the contract recently signed by Matt Ryan (five years, $150 million), without necessarily making him the highest-paid quarterback in the league, would that be palatable? Jimmy Garoppolo is currently the third-highest paid quarterback in the league in terms of average annual value ($27.5 million). Would the Patriots have to do better than that in order for Brady to feel more appreciated?
With Gronkowski, a new deal might be less complicated to put together when it comes to the computing. In terms of average annual value, he's currently being outpaced by lesser players -- but the gap isn't what it is between Brady and the league's highest-earning quarterbacks. Gronkowski is scheduled to make $8 million in base salary this season and about $9 million total. Next year, that number climbs to $10 million. Jimmy Graham signed a three-year deal with the Packers this offseason that will pay him $10 million annually. Maybe the Patriots feel as though the best way to tweak Gronkowski's deal is to do what they did last season when he earned $10.75 million as a first-team All-Pro: Offer him an incentive-laden deal that gives him the opportunity to be the highest-paid player at his position. That type of agreement wouldn't get him near the sums earned by the game's top-earning offensive weapons -- the $16 million per year Sammy Watkins will make on his new contract with the Chiefs is shocking by comparison -- but Gronkowski is a prisoner of the position he plays. At his best, he impacts a game more significantly than almost any other non-quarterback, but paying Gronkowski fairly would mean completely re-setting the tight end market . . . and there's no incentive for the Patriots to do that when he has two years remaining on his current contract.
What makes restructures challenging for both Brady and Gronkowski is that neither player is all that far removed from giving indications that they're considering the ends of their careers. Brady gave his "convictions" soliloquy at the end of the "Tom vs. Time" special, and the special's director Gotham Chopra said he had a hard time envisioning Brady playing as long as some believe he will. Gronkowski kicked around the idea of retirement following Super Bowl LII and only recently committed to showing up for the 2018 season.
How much longer do these two want to play? What kind of raises do they deserve? What kind of precedent would new contracts for Brady and Gronkowski set? How, if at all, might rewarding them impact the culture the Patriots have worked to cultivate?
"Balancing act" might be putting it lightly.