Everybody has hunches, guesses and informed opinions about what’s going to happen between Tom Brady and the Patriots over the next two months.
Nobody — Brady, Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick included — knows for sure. Too many variables.
But if you trace the path back seven years to when Kraft and Brady laid the framework for the deal that Kraft figured would ensure Tom Brady retired as a Patriot, you can learn a lot.
On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, a contract that would take Brady through his 40-year-old season in 2017 was formulated. Announced at the end of February, it was basically a five-year, $57M agreement that — because it was so modest — allowed the team plenty of maneuverability to sign other players.
This contract was done 14 months before Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted, four months before Aaron Hernandez would be arrested.
When news of the deal broke, Brady posted on Facebook a photo of himself and myriad teammates with the caption: “Every part of what I do depends on the guys I play with.’’
A salute, but maybe also a challenge to the Patriots to spend that money he saved them wisely.
Kraft, speaking to Peter King, indicated he thought the deal would lock Brady down through the end of his career.
“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 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.”
But this is the most important part of Kraft’s comments relative to where we are today.
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.
Think about that. Seven years ago, when Brady was "just" 35, Kraft and presumably Belichick were resistant to the idea of “paying 18 to 20 percent to a player on the cap.”
Now fast forward to 2020.
To get Brady past the end of his last deal, the Patriots signed him to a two-year, $41M extension in March 2016 that added on the 2018 and 2019 season. The Patriots inserted $1M team options for both years just in case Garoppolo was still around (he was not).
With Jimmy G. deposed, Brady spent the past two offseasons hoping for another extension and a pay increase. He got nothing in 2018. In 2019 he got the increase.
He just played his 42-year-old season and made $23M while his cap hit was $21.5M. That was 11 percent of the $188M salary cap.
Now, because of salary cap machinations the team engaged in last offseason, there’s an extra $13.5M hanging out there that needs to be accounted for with Brady’s deal.
The team has until free agency begins on March 18 to give Brady a new contract; otherwise, the $13.5M will count against their 2020 salary cap. And that’s regardless of whether or not he re-signs here after free agency begins.
So if Brady goes out, tests the waters and gets a one-year offer from someone for $25M, matching that would mean Brady carries a $38.5 million cap hit in 2020. That’s 19.25 percent of the projected $200M salary cap for 2020.
If the Patriots sign Brady to a one-year deal for $25M on, say, March 17, half of the $13.5M in prorated money hits the cap so the cap hit is $31.75M — 15.875 percent of the cap.
(As an aside, there’s still $4.5M from Antonio Brown counting against the 2020 cap as well. That may be credited at some point, but until it is, it must be accounted for.)
The Patriots need vast personnel improvement on the offensive side of the ball. They have key free agents like Joe Thuney and Kyle Van Noy coming up and their defense is getting very gray.
If they make the plea to Brady that they can’t sink that kind of money into him because they need to get more people to help Brady, do you know what his answer will be?
That’s what I heard last year. And the year before that. And every year since I did the below-market deal in 2013. I’ve been the biggest bargain in football and — yeah — we’ve had great team success, but it’s not because you populated my huddle with guys who made my life easier.
For Brady to remain a Patriot and not take up an unacceptable amount of cap room he first HAS to re-sign before March 18 to avoid the $13.5M cap charge. So the idea I’ve bandied about that Brady will go take a free agent tour then come back to the Patriots is faulty.
Second, he probably has to accept less than the $23M the team paid him last year since the Patriots aren’t going to give a raise to Brady with the additional $6.75M being tacked on to his salary, especially after a modest season, especially when they need to go shopping.
Third, he has to take on faith promises the Patriots will improve the pieces around him, because free agency would begin after Brady signed an extension. The draft would still be six weeks away. Any trades for superstar tight ends or wideouts would have to wait. And that’s not even getting into the changes on the coaching staff if Josh McDaniels leaves and whether Brady would be willing to be a bigger part of the offseason work or if the team wants him to.
If you hit Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft with truth serum, they’d likely say they’ve done everything they can to reasonably ensure Tom Brady never played anywhere else. More than reasonably.
Again, here’s Kraft from 2013.
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,” Kraft added. “And his legacy — I already believe he's the greatest of all time — if we win one or two more, he can solidify that.
We are three years past the “end” that Kraft projected. The Patriots didn’t win one or two more. They won three. Brady’s legacy, Belichick’s legacy, Kraft’s legacy, the Patriots’ legacy — all are safe. Mission accomplished.
Do the Patriots have it in them to say to Brady, “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here”?
Will Brady mind if they do?
We’ll find out between now and St. Patrick’s Day.