Down at ground level, where you can only see what’s directly in front of you, the concern for the New England Patriots this week is getting from 10-2 to 11-2 against Kansas City.
It’s about bottling up Patrick Mahomes. It’s about putting the paddles to the chest of their offense hoping to get a heartbeat. It’s about getting a win to start the final quarter of the 2019 season. Nothing else matters.
To see the bigger story? You have to go up above the trees and look down. From up there, you can see the organization fast approaching the most wrenching, controversial, certain-to-be-scrutinized period in its history.
The end of Tom Brady’s career as a Patriot.
They can, will and should ignore it now. But unless there’s a radical course change in the next 90 days, that’s what’s coming.
The clock starts ticking in earnest when the Patriots season ends and early March approaches. That’s when Brady’s contract expires and he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
The team had every chance the past few years to give Brady an extension that would allow him to play until he’s 45 – a goal he’s stated on numerous occasions.
They passed on it repeatedly, most recently last August when the extension Brady was waiting on turned into a simple salary bump for 2019. And that raise, which got him to $23 million ($4.5M less than Jimmy Garoppolo’s average salary; $10M less than Jared Goff’s) only came after the opening offer – a $3M raise and incentives similar to the ones he agreed to (and didn’t come close to hitting) in 2018 – was rejected.
With the reworked agreement, Brady also got the Patriots to agree they wouldn’t use the franchise tag on him after this year. For the first time since 2000, Brady will have no owner, no boss, no team.
Unless the two sides get back to the table before he becomes a free agent.
If they do, do you have any guesses on how that’s going to go? I do.
The Patriots didn’t want to ante up for a 42-year-old quarterback this year the same way they didn’t want to ante up for Brady in 2017 when he was 40.
With his 43-year-old season approaching, Brady and his agent Don Yee are going to sit down and ask for a bump to bring him in line with the rest of the league’s best quarterbacks after Brady has one of the worst statistical seasons of his career?
Doesn’t that seem like a request that Bill Belichick would begin to answer with the words, “With all due respect …”?
So where’s that leave Brady?
Taking a pay cut after a year spent throwing to Gunner, Jakobi and N’Keal?
Taking a pay cut after the team – for the second straight year – hauled aboard a troubled wideout after they realized they forgot to pack enough wide receiver personnel in the offseason?
Taking a pay cut after that plan blew up on them for the second straight year?
Taking a pay cut after the team failed to replace Rob Gronkowski in free agency and let the position grow stale by failing to draft anyone at the position there over the past several years except Ryan Izzo (seventh round, 2018)?
Taking a pay cut to stick around when he knows the team’s been earnestly trying to prepare for post-Brady life since 2014, that the players around him aren’t going to magically morph into what he wants, that Gronk’s gone, Julian’s 34 and the thrill is gone?
Do they even bother sitting down at the table to talk or do they just realize they’ve come to the end of the road?
Do they agree on an amicable divorce because of one irreconcilable difference: Brady believes he can still play at a high level, the Patriots don’t want to take that on faith and don’t love the idea of throwing $25M at the position so Brady can follow that muse.
This season has done nothing to bring the two sides closer together.
IT’S BEEN BUILDING
What the two sides are headed for isn’t about Sunday’s game or even the 2019 offseason. The night in April 2014 when the team drafted Jimmy Garoppolo and Belichick mentioned Brady’s age and contract status, the die was cast.
Brady beat back that challenge but in doing so he scuttled Belichick’s succession plans when the Patriots reluctantly traded Garoppolo in 2017.
The Brady-Belichick relationship from early 2017 after Super Bowl 51 to the start of the 2018 season was strained and while the two sides smoothed things over nicely before the 2018 season, the incentive-laden deal Brady was given for 2018 was unsatisfying.
And even though the 2018 season ended well, it was a difficult year offensively for Brady who went from a guy throwing for 505 yards in Super Bowl 52 to playing more of a supporting role for a team that morphed into one more reliant on its defense and its running game to win Super Bowl 53. Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola were both gone and the offense sputtered for most of the season.
This past offseason, Gronk retired and the Patriots had no luck replacing him or stocking the wideout position.
It was clear in August that Brady had concerns about how raw his receivers were.
“I think training camp’s an interesting time with a lot of bodies,” Brady said when the team was in Tennessee. “There’s a lot of guys in and out. Some years, you might have three guys set or four guys set, and I think this year, we haven’t really had that. It’s good work for the quarterback to just make a read and then make a throw. Whether we come up with it or not, at least we’re going to the right place and making a good, decisive play. So there’s still a lot to be gained with guys moving in and out, and that’s just the way it’s been.
“I think the chemistry between a quarterback and a receiver or a quarterback and tight end is so important because it’s all anticipation,” he later added. “If you’re waiting for things to happen in the NFL, you’re too late. You’ve got to just anticipate and expect them to be a certain way, and that’s how they turn out. I have, obviously, a lot of experience. I know where guys should be, so I’m trying to tell them, ‘If you want the ball, this is where you’ve got to be,’ which is hopefully good learning for those guys, and it’s good teaching for me.”
It’s now December. Sunday night was a good illustration that it’s not what he hoped but more of what he feared.
Brady’s been at a low simmer most of the year. His frustration with where the team is offensively has been well-documented.
He’s made it clear on a few occasions that personnel isn’t his job. Or coaching. He is an employee, one of the 53.
His, “Don’t ask me, I just work here…” pose whether it related to bringing in then releasing Antonio Brown or cutting Benjamin Watson when Watson came off suspension? It spoke volumes.
A KRAFT INTERCESSION?
There’s been a presumption that Brady won’t ever be anything but a Patriot because – in the end – Robert Kraft won’t let that happen.
But Brady’s response when asked about a contract extension at the end of July was interesting because he – with a smile – invoked Kraft’s name when discussing it.
"Have I earned [an extension]? I don't know, that's up for talk show debate," Brady said. "What do you guys think? Should we take a poll? Talk to Mr. Kraft, come on."
Just days after Brady got the raise for 2019 but not the hoped-for extension, he put his Brookline, Mass., home on the market.
Kraft tried very hard over the years to make sure Brady retired a Patriot.
Here’s what he said in 2013 when Brady signed an extension to take him through 2017.
“I was probably wearing my fan hat as much as anything else. I just didn't want to ever see this become like Joe Montana leaving San Francisco, Emmitt Smith leaving Dallas, Brett Favre leaving Green Bay, Peyton Manning leaving Indianapolis,” Kraft told then-Sports Illustrated writer Peter King. “If Tom Brady played out this current contract and left us, there was no doubt in my mind that someone out there would pay him top dollar, and they should, for his ability, his leadership and his unselfishness.
“I was just trying to stay ahead of the curve. If we were going to have to pay him elite-quarterback money and have elite-quarterback cap numbers, I just didn't think we would be able to build a team. We don't want to have a team where we're paying 18 to 20 percent to a player on the cap. I 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. I presented an idea to him that I thought could work for both sides…We're taking a chance making this commitment, and he's taking one, in terms of his ability to maximize pay. I just thought if winning is the most important thing to him, and I think it is, and it certainly is to our family, this gives us the best chance to win. Hopefully, we have an elite quarterback that, even if his skills decline even a little bit, he'll still be better than 90 percent of the quarterbacks in the league. And his legacy -- I already believe he's the greatest of all time -- if we win one or two more, he can solidify that.”
Well, they’ve won three more. And Brady’s legacy is solidified. Now, Kraft has to decide if – seven years later – he wants to pay a 43-year-old close to that 18 to 20 percent of the cap just to avoid the sad sight of Brady playing in another uniform.
SO WHAT HAPPENS?
In early 2015, just before the Patriots played Seattle in Super Bowl 49, New York Times writer Mark Leibovich wrote a piece titled, ironically, “Tom Brady Cannot Stop.”
In it, Leibovich talked to Brady’s father, Tom Brady Sr., who predicted, “It will end badly. It does end badly. And I know that because I know what Tommy wants to do. He wants to play till he’s 70.”
“It’s a cold business,” the elder Brady told Leibovich. “And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.”
But does it really have to end “badly” in New England? Certainly, Brady playing elsewhere is jarring to even visualize, but if he is resigned to the fact that – without Gronk, with a 34-year-old Edelman and an offense trying to reboot and rebuild – New England isn’t where his future lies, does it have to be bitterly disappointing if an end-of-career change of scenery becomes what’s best for him and for the Patriots?
Can the two sides part politely and come to a mutual understanding that that’s what’s best?
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Brady’s outlived Belichick’s “replace a year early rather than a year late” philosophy already.
Despite what his statistics say this season, his arm strength and pocket mobility are about where they’ve always been and his football IQ is unmatched. He’s got more football in him. He once said he’d play until he sucks. He doesn’t suck. Not by a long shot. But his tone and expression this season have often conveyed a feeling of frustration that his current situation sucks.
Does he want to stick around to try and change it? Do the Patriots want him to? If the answer to both of those questions is “no” does he try to find a situation where he can feel like he’s building to something rather than stagnating?
Those are questions only he can answer and – truth be told – he’s not thinking about them right now. He’s concerned with Kansas City, the rest of the season, the playoffs.
But the reality of the big-picture situation is inescapable and it’s the underlying tension to this season. It’s ironic when you think about it: So many teams part with their stars because – after years of over-indulging his needs – they just can’t do it anymore. In this case, Brady’s time in New England may end because he was under-indulged.
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