It was Halloween night, 2017.
Hours earlier, Bill Belichick stunned the San Francisco 49ers with a surprise gift: Jimmy Garoppolo, would-be successor to Tom Brady, was swaddled up and laid on the Niners doorstep in exchange for a second-round pick.
Months earlier, the Patriots made it clear Garoppolo was not available no matter the offer. The reason? Worry the then-40-year-old Brady would get hurt or show signs of decline. Garoppolo was quarterback insurance for a Super Bowl-caliber team.
Then the season began. Brady began authoring the third MVP season of his career. The Patriots realized their worry was misplaced.
Garoppolo, Belichick knew, was not as good as Brady.
It wasn’t financially possible to keep Garoppolo around under the franchise tag in 2018. Garoppolo wasn’t going to accept a lucrative offer to sit behind Brady – in fact, no official offer was ever made even though it was reported Garoppolo was offered extensions to sit behind Brady that would have been in the “$18M-dollar range.”
The Patriots ran out of time.
“They had no plan,” a source close to negotiations said that night. “They didn’t know what they wanted to do.”
Belichick’s comments after dealing Garoppolo bolstered that contention.
“It’s definitely not something we wanted to walk away from and I felt like we rode it out as long as we could,” Belichick said. “We over a period of time explored every option possible to sustain it but just at this point felt like we had to make a decision. It’s a very complex situation on multiple levels and this is really the last window we had.”
Nobody can say they made the wrong call relative to Brady. And Belichick got no ownership edict to keep him around.
But just a second-round pick in return for Garoppolo with no effort to shop for better offers? From a franchise that drummed the notions of maximizing value and doing what’s best for the football team into everyone’s skulls? Had they prioritized sending the most coveted player in the league to a good home rather than getting as many picks as they could?
Not specifically. The problem was, they didn’t know what they wanted to do. They had no plan. And it’s hard to figure out what the plan is now.
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Three years down the road, Brady is the quarterback for the 6-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has 20 touchdown passes and four interceptions and is an MVP candidate.
Garoppolo has – for the second time in three full seasons with San Francisco – suffered an apparent season-ending injury. He’s been paid $85M since getting to San Francisco.
The Patriots are 2-5 and reeling. They’ve drafted two quarterbacks since Garoppolo left – seventh-rounder Danny Etling in 2018 and fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham in 2019. Etling’s gone, Stidham is persistent about throwing it to the wrong team and Brian Hoyer – who the Patriots got back from San Fran as part of the Garoppolo trade – had one very sad appearance for the team this year.
Cam Newton, signed for a song in late June, is the only man standing between Stidham and the starting job. As badly as Newton’s played recently, the confidence in Stidham is so low the team does not want to be forced in his direction.
To summarize: The Patriots had no exit plan for Garoppolo. Their tepid succession plan for Brady since trading Garoppolo isn’t working. Ironically, on the night Garoppolo was drafted back in 2014, Belichick snorted at any team that would fail to have a sturdy backup quarterback in house.
“In our organization I don’t think we would put together a team the way Indianapolis did it when they lost Manning and they go 0-16, 1-15 or whatever it was,” Belichick said when asked why the team spent a second-rounder on a quarterback.
“I don’t think that’s really what we’re looking for. Unfortunately when we lost Tom (Brady) in 2008 — we had a player that could step in and we won 11 games,” he continued. “We want to be competitive even if something happens to a player at any position.
“I think depth is always important. You never know when you’re going to need it. But I don’t think we’d be happy going 1-15 if we had an injury at one position. But other people have different philosophies. I’m just saying that the contrast to that example. I don’t think that’s really what we’re trying to do.”
More irony? Being Brady-less in 2020 isn’t the same as the Colts being without Manning.
This wasn’t something the team didn’t see coming.
After the dysfunction of 2017 and the still-lamented Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, Brady wanted to leave. Owner Robert Kraft convinced him to stay. Brady’s services secured, Belichick then tried to trade Rob Gronkowski as part of the ongoing tweakfest between Belichick and Brady.
Gronk refused to go. Brady made it clear he wouldn’t play without Gronk. The trade was dropped. Then the team further irked Brady by giving him five $1M bonus incentives instead of the extension he’d hoped for.
We don’t need to write the whole biography here. The upshot is that Belichick was actively trying to move away from Brady yet doing little to prepare for his hoped-for departure.
In short, Brady was too old, too expensive and too much work to keep happy.
Expense being a major part.
Which brings us to another irony. Brady’s play in 2016 and 2017 saved the Patriots from a huge financial commitment to the injury-prone Garoppolo.
Had Brady not played as he did and Belichick had seen his way clear to keep Jimmy G., the Patriots would now be tethered to Garoppolo’s brittle body and onerous contract. Who could have known Garoppolo was injury prone? Considering he survived only five-plus quarters of work when he got his chance to start in 2016, there were indications.
Yet Belichick last week was talking about the salary cap strife the team was experiencing this year – Brady’s $14.5M in dead money being part of that. Garoppolo’s on the books in San Francisco this year for $26.6M.
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Perhaps the strangest thing about the post-Brady nosedive is Belichick indicating that the Patriots are victims of circumstance.
They “sold out and won three Super Bowls” since 2014, Belichick contends.
The cap, the COVID, the injuries, the missed practice time, youth, opt-outs – what can you do?
His tenor with his team at 2-5 reminds me of his answer to a question about what he’d say to fans who stuck by the team through “thick and thin” after the team’s playoff loss last season.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been all that thin around here, personally,” he said. “Maybe you feel differently, but I haven’t heard too many fans say that.”
He was absolutely right. But he was also whistling past the graveyard.
If we’ve learned anything the past few months, you can be sick before you show any symptoms. The team is symptomatic now. Roster decisions since, really, 2016 have left it exposed.
When the roster needed a reboot last decade, the Patriots got it done through the draft with (to name a few) Jerod Mayo, Matt Slater, Patrick Chung, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones.
Seven of the players I mentioned were first or second-round picks. The Patriots were hitting in the draft over and over and Brady was in his prime.
Since 2013, these are their top two selections each year: Jamie Collins, Aaron Dobson, Dominique Easley, Garoppolo, Malcom Brown, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Joe Thuney, Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche.
They’ve arguably had more success finding overlooked and undrafted players – Jonathan Jones, Malcolm Butler, Trent Brown, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Shaq Mason, David Andrews – than they’ve had scouting and selecting the purportedly good ones.
And instead of having a young core built up with players from the last five drafts, their core players and their BEST players are in their 30s – Chung, McCourty, Hightower, James White, Edelman and Slater.
Who are the core players the Patriots will turn to now that the quarterback position has gone from the best situation in the league to the worst?
Brady was the dress that covered up the multitude of skill position sins the Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio committed annually.
Low-budget receiver buys that didn’t work out followed by in-season panic purchases of defective players. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
As long as Brady was back there and either Gronkowski or Edelman were available, nobody would notice the offensive dry rot settling in.
Now – as you’ve heard – he’s gone. And it’s not a surprise the Patriots aren’t as good without Tom Brady.
Holding the door open for Brady to leave while doing next to nothing to prepare for his departure was a surprise.
Whining about cap constraints when Brady continually took a fraction of what he could have commanded? Also a surprise.
Victory-lapping about three Super Bowls last decade when the team’s been driving into a bridge abutment in the draft every April for the past five seasons? Also a surprise.
There are paths out of this 2020 morass. Even though it took years of subpar decisions for them to get here and Brady’s departure to shine a light on their surroundings, the Patriots are going to be in better financial shape in 2021 than just about every other team in the league.
They will have a shot at extracting themselves. All they need is a plan.