Tom Brady wanted a full meal. Not a dangling carrot.
But even though the carrot is what he’ll get in 2018, he’s taken to the high road now that the games have begun.
Tuesday morning on WEEI’s Kirk & Callahan, Brady placed the contractual ball politely back in the Patriots court while also, “Aw, shucksing . . . ” his way around making a scene.
“I’ve never talked about my contract and that’s never been the top priority for me, as you guys know,” Brady said. “I love being here, this community, this organization. I love winning and I love that my family has had a home for a long time.”
He later added: "I certainly expect to be here next year and hopefully beyond. I have goals to play for a long time. I still love doing it. I still want to do it. But I'm also focused on what I need to do this year. It's a tough challenge, and it's a great challenge. I've loved it for a long time, and I still want to get out there and be the best I can be for our team."
The NFL landscape is currently pockmarked by contractually pissed-off superstars kicking rocks, holding out or satisfied because they got their way.
In New England, the best quarterback to ever play just bears it away.
For some time, Brady has wanted a contract extension past the end of 2019. To date, the Patriots have resisted giving him one.
So near the end of April, Brady’s agent did something he hadn’t done in his previous 18 years representing the Patriots quarterback.
Don Yee made a statement on Brady’s behalf, confirming both Brady’s future intentions and his contract concerns.
Speaking to ESPN’s Adam Schefter on April 23, Yee said, "Tom's intentions have not changed. He's consistently said he'll play beyond this contract and into his mid-40s, or until he feels he isn't playing at a championship level. I understand the constant speculation, but this is one point he's been firm about."
Regarding Brady’s contract, Yee said, "His objective every year is to outperform his contract and his own goals. And like every player, yes, he thinks about his contract -- it's a pretty natural thing to do. Every team's management knows this."
Yee didn’t make that statement publicly simply so that the Patriots would know Brady’s intentions. The Patriots were a phone call away. Yee did it to shut the door completely on public speculation that Brady might not play in 2018.
That speculation was alive because Brady breathed life into it.
Time after time in the offseason, both publicly and privately, the retirement door was left ajar. Brady started it after the Super Bowl with his Tom vs. Time documentary, and filmmaker Gotham Chopra kept it propped open when he said he didn’t envision Brady playing until 45 and that he was “year to year.”
Over the next month, when I asked sources for definitive answers about Brady returning, the best I’d get was, “Probably.” That went on through March and into April.
None of that was putting Yee in a strong negotiating position. If the Patriots didn’t give Brady his extension after 2016 and they didn’t give him his extension after trading away his understudy Jimmy Garoppolo (another Yee client), a soon-to-be-41-year-old Brady now mulling retirement after a contentious season behind the scenes wasn’t going to light a fire under them.
So Yee stated clearly that Brady was coming back, that he still wants to play until 45 and that his contract was an issue.
A day later, Rob Gronkowski made a statement on Instagram saying he’d met with Belichick and that Gronkowski, too, was good to go for 2018. Schefter added a kicker to the Gronkowski news, tweeting that “there will be no Gronkowski trade this season.”
That those announcements overlapped was no coincidence.
Coming days before the draft, they drew Brady/Gronk Watch ’18 to an official close. But they didn’t at all close the book on the ongoing drama.
Instead, February through April gave the Patriots ammo. Ammo they used to slow-play a commitment to Brady past 2019. Their reluctance to commit long-term was demonstrated when they slung that sing-for-your-supper, stat-based incentive package in front of Brady for this year.
He can earn $1 million each for five different statistical accomplishments. If the team wins the Super Bowl, he’ll get DOUBLE! But wait, it’s still capped at $5 million so it doesn’t make a bit of financial difference whether he hits all five and they lose in the Wild Card round or they win their third Super Bowl in five seasons.
In the end, the agreement did nothing to make Brady feel his desire to play to 45, and spend 23 seasons in a Patriots uniform, was something that excited the team.
There are two ways to view this.
From a team perspective, what are they supposed to do? Brady at 41 is in unchartered territory for an NFL quarterback. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about how he’ll feel after the next 39 scheduled games (regular and preseason) before his contract expires. And anyone with Internet access can see the gravitational pull his family has on him and how hard a time he’s having striking his work-life balance. On top of that, he showed in 2017 a desire to do more and more on his terms.
A team needs certainty at its most important position. Brady didn’t ooze certainty after last season.
From Brady’s perspective? The guy’s done everything but tattoo “PLEASE KEEP ME!” across his forehead, stating, restating and saying it one more time for effect that he wants to retire as a Patriot. He’s always done that, then acknowledged in the next breath that the reason this sport is relentlessly unsentimental.
“I don’t ever want to play for another coach. I don’t want to play for another owner,” Brady said after winning his fifth Super Bowl. “But this is professional sports. I’ve seen some of the best players I’ve ever played with on other teams. I’ve seen Jerry Rice play for the Raiders, Joe Montana play for the Chiefs, Brett Favre play for a lot of teams. You never know. That’s why I want to keep taking care of what I need to take care of. That’s what it comes down to.”
He took care of what he needed to take care of. When the Patriots drafted Garoppolo because of Brady’s “age and contract status,” Brady beat back the challenge with his best stretch of football while he was 37, 38, 39 and 40 years old.
And he’s helped make the team some money. In August of 2014, the Patriots franchise was valued at $2.6 billion. The following August, the value was $3.2 billion after beating the Seahawks in Super Bowl 49. The franchise was valued at $3.7 billion last August after winning Super Bowl 52.
Regardless of whether or not Brady “needs” the money, the indignity of being paid about half of what Garoppolo is making after seven NFL starts has to be hard to overlook.
Especially when the team was noodling ways to pay Garoppolo to sit behind Brady for a couple more seasons at a rate that would approach what Brady was making to start.
And that’s why last week’s agreement was unconvincing window dressing rather than progress.
Tom Brady’s been all a team could have ever wanted at quarterback. But the quarterback the Patriots wanted to have leading them into the next decade is now playing in San Francisco.
When the Patriots traded Garoppolo in late October, it looked like Brady had “won.” But the financial spoils of victory so far only confirm that the Patriots remain scared of commitment.
For now, though, it’s over. It is what it is. The football’s begun, Brady’s sheathed his sword and is saying all the right things so that plenty of people will think the issue is dead (if there ever was an issue at all).
It’s not dead. Just resting.