The Patriots hatched a Tom Brady succession plan after the 2013 season when they drafted Jimmy Garoppolo.
Brady blew that up.
Now, five years, four Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl MVPs and a regular-season MVP later, it’s time to gingerly -- caaaauuuuuutiooooousssssllllyyyyy -- begin the process again.
This time should be different.
Even though Brady’s contract hasn’t been extended past the 2019 season, the love and happiness we saw on the field after the Rams were dispatched in SB53 is a good sign.
Brady’s wariness about the Patriots' plans for him, and Bill Belichick’s wariness about wedding his team to a quarterback who’s closer to 50 years old than he is to 30, has dissipated.
Once a new deal is in place -- Jonathan Kraft indicated that might be before training camp, though as of the Super Bowl conversations hadn’t started -- Brady will have a written assurance that he will leave the Patriots and the NFL on his terms.
That wasn’t the case in early 2014 when the soon-to-be-37-year-old Brady saw the Patriots spend a first-round pick on a defensive tackle (Dominique Easley) and their second-rounder on Garoppolo. That, after a '13 season Brady spent throwing to the likes of Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins and Austin Collie.
Garoppolo was a stick of dynamite under Brady’s behind. He was the existential threat Brady feared made flesh.
Jimmy might have thought he was drafted to learn how to play quarterback in the NFL and have a nice career. To Brady, Garoppolo was there to take his job, throw his career into upheaval, uproot his family and see Brady cast out into the NFL wilderness.
And, in contrast to the guy Brady succeeded in 2001 (and, by extension, did all those things to), Brady wasn’t going to snort derisively at the plucky little draft pick here to take his job. He would crush the threat.
Brady played so well that -- despite Garoppolo developing into a bona-fide front-line quarterback under Belichick and Josh McDaniels (and Brady) -- Brady left the ever-prepared Patriots with no recourse when Garoppolo’s contract was about to expire.
Brady was too good to bench and too important to trade. Garoppolo was too expensive to franchise and too smart to take a “bridge” contract so he could watch Brady from the sidelines while his own hair started to gray at the temples. So off he went around Halloween, 2017.
A lot’s happened in the 16 months since.
But now here we are, in the offseason of Brady’s 42nd year. And the complex question of how to find the player who will eventually replace the greatest quarterback in NFL history still lingers.
Do you draft his successor? If you do, do you do it this year? Do you do it next year?
Do you try to get into the top 10 to get your pick of the litter? Do you stay put, confident that the muttonheads across the league will miss out as they did with Brady and Garoppolo (or Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas . . . you get the point)?
How much will it cost to get into the top 10? Do you package picks from this season -- when you will have six in the first three rounds -- and pick a sucker who will suck next year and fleece them for their 2020 first-rounder? How high do you have to go for a blue-chip, given the number of first-round quarterbacks that will be taken this year and that were taken in 2018?
Is it a trade for somebody another team’s given up on or has no work for, like San Francisco’s Nick Mullens? A veteran who will hit free agency like Nick Foles, Case Keenum or Teddy Bridgewater?
How does the successor play the position? Similar to Brady in that brain/eyes/accuracy/commitment trumps legs/arm strength/versatility?
Or is there an embrace of the fact that trying to find a quarterback similar to a guy who came into the league after four years at Michigan at the end of last century with a once-in-a-lifetime work ethic is a pipe dream?
Aside from who the successor is and how he plays, can Brady -- the lion in winter -- be tapped to help groom whoever is being brought aboard to take over?
Brady -- contrary to sexed-up speculation -- didn’t actively undermine Garoppolo at any point. They were teammates. He helped Garoppolo play the position better. They became close. But he wasn’t quite showing him his world, either. Brady is famous for saying he’s not giving away his secrets to younger quarterbacks until after he’s done.
With the end-date likely to be agreed upon when he signs an extension, does he become more a mentor so that the success of the franchise has a better chance to continue after he leaves? Would the Patriots want him to do that?
Or would they want a blank(ish) slate to work with that isn’t saying, “But Tom said . . . ” when they try to shape him to succeed?
And that contract? What’s it look like? Does Brady demand pay commensurate with what he’s accomplished? Is he in the mood to do the team another financial solid given the only bump they have him in 2018 was incentives he never reached? How does that impact the structure of the team?
These questions aren’t new. What is new is the level of angst and anxiousness. It’s dissipated tremendously.
That won’t make finding his replacement or choosing the means by which the Patriots will do it any easier. But it’s less fraught now.
The irony is, the Patriots already successfully found Brady’s successor. It’s just that 2014 was too soon to go looking for him.
Now, can they do it again?
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