Patriots

The Patriots are done; but now they are only just beginning

The Patriots are done; but now they are only just beginning

FOXBORO — Less than 12 hours after the Patriots were whisked from the postseason, Bill Belichick was at a podium in the Gillette Stadium media room on Sunday morning.

It was his wrap-up press conference, an exercise that usually comes a lot later in the month.

Nine times in 20 years, it’s happened in February. This year is a marked exception: the Patriots are done playing football earlier than they’ve been since the 2008 season.

The only times the Patriots were done playing football by the first week of January were after the ‘00, ‘02 and ’08 seasons — the years they didn’t make the playoffs under Belichick.

Sunday morning’s session was long on solemn appreciation for the team’s effort, short on explanations about what went wrong over the team’s last nine games.

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Future plans were treated as a third-rail topic since Belichick knew that cracking the door open to 2020 projections would invite a stampede of “What about Tom?” questions.

“We’re less than 12 hours here from the end of the game; I’m sure there are a lot of questions about the future,” he said in a preemptive strike. “Nobody has thought about the future. Everybody’s been focused and working on Miami and then Tennessee, and that’s where all the focus should have been and where it was. Whatever’s in the future, we’ll deal with at some later point in time. We’re certainly not going to deal with it now.”

Truth be told, they can use every second between now and the start of free agency in mid-March to get ready for the reboot, reload or rebuild.

The Patriots need more coaches. That’s not even taking into consideration that some — most prominently Josh McDaniels — may be leaving.

Belichick was the defensive czar in 2019 even if Stephen Belichick was the one on the headset talking to Dont'a Hightower.

It was a role the elder Belichick kind of had to take. Brian Flores, Brendan Daly and Josh Boyer all left the organization a year after Matt Patricia went to Detroit. Greg Schiano backed out of the defensive coordinator job he seemed to have taken so Belichick basically said, “Screw it, I’ll do it myself.”

On offense, Joe Judge was splitting time between his specialty — special teams — and working for the first time with wide receivers. And not experienced wide receivers, either. With N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers, Judge was working to get NFL kindergartners ready to play with the Steven Hawking of quarterbacks.

McDaniels will probably leave a year after receivers coach Chad O’Shea and quarterbacks assistant Jerry Schuplinski left.

The Patriots need to draft better. Twelve of the 32 players the Patriots have selected in the past four drafts have made measurable contributions. Not horrendous. But Joe Thuney is the lone Pro Bowl-caliber player. The others are N’Keal Harry, Chase Winovich, Jake Bailey, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Deatrich Wise, Malcolm Mitchell, Jacoby Brissett, Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras. That’s a collection that’s mostly unproven or just OK.

Nowhere in that mix will you find a tight end, a position the Patriots ignored in the draft for most of the decade.

The Patriots need to do a better job in free agency.

Last March, they were beaten to the punch on wide receivers Adam Humphries and Cole Beasley. They couldn’t entice tight end Jared Cook to sign.

In both 2018 and 2019, they scrambled for wide receiver solutions after starting the season understaffed. They wound up bringing aboard two of the league’s most undependable players at that position — Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown.

A parade of old, injured or mediocre personnel has been cycled through — Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, Bruce Ellington, Demaryius Thomas, Jordan Matthews (you get the point). A dynamic, reliable player like Danny Amendola wasn’t replaced. An explosive player like Brandin Cooks hasn’t been either.

The Patriots went from having the best tight end in NFL history to cycling through a group that included Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Lance Kendricks and Ryan Izzo before settling in on Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse, who combined for 30 catches.

Belichick: Brady 'iconic' but QB's future not up to coach alone

The Patriots need to figure out what they want to do with the most successful player in NFL history. In the short span of time between the end of the game and Sunday morning, I’m encouraged by the tenor of the conversation.

Brady stated his love and appreciation and Belichick — thankfully — didn’t give a merp-shrug-snort response when pressed on the fact Brady’s expiring contract is a liiiiiittle different than everyone else’s.

“Tom’s an iconic figure in this organization, and nobody respects Tom more than I do,” Belichick said.

Anything less than that and we’d have a week of “Bill hates Tom” talk.

He loves him. Whether he wants him around to play quarterback for him at the going rate for greats? We’ll see. Whether Brady wants to take what he’s offered, try to find a new gig or reluctantly retire? We’ll also see on that.

What’s the process look like from here? Belichick wasn’t too revealing so I looked back to look forward. At the breakup press conference following the 2009 season there was a 5,100-word bull session.

Asked about next steps, Belichick said, “The first thing we do is try to evaluate our team in all the things that we do — how much motion do we use, how each player played, what type of progress was made or wasn’t made, if there was a direction — whichever way the progress was going, whether going forward or if it was declining, and take a look at the team going forward in terms of what players we have, what players we don’t have and then gradually make determinations on how to improve those things.

“We’ll take a look at all of our practices, all of our mini camps, training camp schedules, all those things,” he continued. “We’ve done that a little bit along the way, but then we put all that together and discuss it, whether it’s as a coaching staff, or an organization, or sometimes in consultation with different players, whether it’s a specific situation or a group situation, whatever it happens to be.

“All that is put together, we talk about it and eventually we make decisions on players, on system, on scheme and how we do things. Some things stay the same and some things change. It’s inevitable there will be change next year.”

The change then was drastic — by October the following year, Randy Moss was out, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch were in, a string of eight consecutive AFC Championship game appearances began the very next season. That was Patriots 2.0.

The 3.0 relaunch is in development.

Curran: The offseason of uncertainty begins

Where things stand between Tom Brady and Patriots as free agency looms

Where things stand between Tom Brady and Patriots as free agency looms

All’s quiet on the Tom Brady front at the moment.

Perfectly reasonable.

In contract negotiations, the Patriots are traditionally a team that waits … and waits … and waits … and then gets down to business clinically and dispassionately.

If an impasse hits, their approach is often, “See what’s out there. We’ll leave the light on for ya.”

They’ve done that with Moss, McCourty, Hightower, Bruschi and many others over the years. All came back and re-signed after brief free agent tours. Will they do the same with Brady?

Perhaps. But there are two big problems the team faces if it decides to do that.

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First, the Patriots can’t sit in the parking lot drumming their fingers on the steering wheel while every other team is in the store, trying Brady on for size.

They need to get in and shop for a quarterback too just in case Brady does decide to go to Indy, Tampa, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Carolina, Washington, Chicago or Miami. Saving Brady’s spot until he’s ready to answer? Dice roll. 

Second problem? The $13.5M that hits New England’s 2020 salary cap if/when Brady becomes a free agent on March 18 at 4 p.m. is a wrench in the works.

(SKIP ON DOWN IF YOU DON’T WANT THE BUSINESS BLAH, BLAH)

Need a refresher on why exactly that hit even exists? Here’s the simple summation from CBS’ Joel Corry where he explains the Patriots borrowing a bookkeeping strategy the Saints used with Drew Brees to give Brady a raise (not an extension) last August:

The Saints restructured Brees' contract last March for salary cap purposes by converting $16.2 million of Brees' $23 million in 2019 compensation into a fully guaranteed third day of the league year roster bonus. Since the roster bonus was fully guaranteed, it was treated like signing bonus under the salary cap where it was prorated over the life of the contract. The Saints added a 2021 contract year that also automatically voids on the last day of the 2019 league year. 

Brady's contract was reworked last August to raise his 2019 salary from $15 million to $23 million. Brees' most recent contracts with the Saints were seemingly used as a template in Brady's renegotiation. Two contract years for 2020 and 2021 with $30 million and $32 million salaries automatically voiding on the last day of the 2019 league year were included for cap purposes, so Brady's fully guaranteed $20.25 million roster bonus could be prorated over three years at $6.75 million annually through 2021 instead of just 2019. The renegotiated contract also contains a clause prohibiting the Patriots from designating Brady as a franchise or transition player.

The Patriots can’t play the same financial shell game. The expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement means teams can’t kick the financial can down the road into phony future years as the Patriots and Saints did with Brady and Brees.

If a new CBA is agreed to prior to free agency, that’s good news.

If not, they can play a new game with different toys using option bonuses or completion bonuses.

The issue with that is, the $13.5M cap hit from the voidable years and a competitive compensation plus making sure there’s room to get Brady better offensive support means a multi-year deal has to be done because his 2020 cap hit would be astronomical.

If a multi-year pact wasn’t what the Patriots wanted to do with a 42-year-old, they won’t love doing it with a 43-year-old. And if they do agree to a three-year deal, the team will then be in the uncomfortable spot of having to release Brady if he wants to keep on past 2020.

There is an existing sliver of cap-relief hope for the Patriots. According to our friend Miguel Benzan of the Boston Sports Journal (a crutch for me whenever I write cap-related stories), the Patriots could get credited for past charges against the cap related to Antonio Brown ($9M) and Aaron Hernandez ($3.25M).

I’m trying to find out if the team is anticipating that and/or actively trying to recoup. It would be a boon if that $12.25M were credited back before March 16, though, since it would nearly offset the Brady dead dough.

(REJOIN HERE IF YOU SKIPPED THE BUSINESS BLAH, BLAH)

So where do things currently stand? After conversations over the past few days, this is my understanding of where things are.

Negotiations will begin "in a couple of weeks." I interpret that as during or immediately after the NFL Combine which starts about February 26 and concludes March 1.

By that time, Brady should have back-channeled his way to an understanding of what’s out there. Last week, I wondered whether it was advantageous for the Patriots if teams did make their pitches to Brady before "legal tampering" begins on March 16.

My understanding is that the Patriots aren’t worried about other team’s financial pitches. Their business with Brady revolves around the direction of the 2020 offensive personnel,  Brady getting some input on that and Brady’s role in the team’s future. They aren’t going to be super-vigilant about tampering. 

Something worth noting is there is very little rancor right now. The situation is what it is. The sides are going to work to make it work. Why they are here, what could have been done to avoid this, who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame? I’m not sensing it.

There’s been plenty in the past. Now – with Brady having the freedom to say, “No thanks, it’s been great…” and the team truly being in the “year-to-year” contractual situation they wanted, nobody seems to have an active resentment. Also, I think the gravity of what may loom – the specter of a historic 20-year run ending – has added an air of solemnity.

I’ve also heard we shouldn’t be expecting TOM BRADY FREE AGENT TOUR 2020: COAST-TO-COAST WITH THE GOAT! If Brady hits free agency, he may try to set up meetings at one location instead of creating a circus. That’s a “what I’m hearing…” so take it for what that’s worth.

Reiterating what I’ve previously reported but have had again mentioned, the “Patriots are willing to go north of $30M” report wasn’t something either side loved.

For the Patriots, it created a false expectation before any negotiations began and, from the perspective of the Brady camp, it missed the point of what his main issue is. 

Also, while negotiations haven’t begun, the team is plotting a course for adding players that fit Brady’s strengths to help on offense whether through free agency or trade. Tight end is a position of emphasis.

Finally, if Brady goes to another team? The people he’ll leave behind in Foxboro will be highly, highly motivated to have a 2020 season that will make Brady wonder if he made the right decision.

Report: Raiders prepared to offer Tom Brady two-year, $60 million deal

Report: Raiders prepared to offer Tom Brady two-year, $60 million deal

We have an actual dollar figure attached to the swirling rumors of various Tom Brady free agency landing spots.

The Brady-to-Las Vegas speculation has been out there since TB12 was spotted chatting up Raiders owner Marc Davis at the Connor McGregor-Cowboy Cerrone fight in Vegas last month. Now, veteran NFL reporter Larry Fitzgerald Sr. (father of the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver) reports that Davis' Raiders are prepared to offer TB12 a two-year, $60 million deal.

It's interesting to note that Larry Fitzgerald Jr., like Brady, is a long-time interviewee of Jim Gray on Westwood One's broadcasts of Monday and Thursday night NFL games. 

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While Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported on Super Bowl Sunday that the Patriots are willing to go beyond $30 million a year to retain Brady, it's unclear if New England would make a multi-year offer, since the face of the franchise, who'll turn 43 in August, essentially worked under a one-year deal this past season. 

Our Tom Curran has reported that while the Patriots will "extend themselves" financially to retain Brady, money is likely not the most important factor to the QB.

As Curran wrote Friday:

The persuasion in the Patriots pitch has to revolve around "who" and not "how much." The team that Brady plays for in 2020 won’t be the winner of a bidding war, it will be the one that provides the best ready-made landing spot to compete for a championship and have a shitload of fun while doing it.

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