Patriots

Patriots have their mojo back, but there's still plenty to work on

Patriots have their mojo back, but there's still plenty to work on

Tom E. Curran looks at some Hard Truths of the Patriots' 38-24 win over Indianapolis.

FOXBORO -- The Colts had every excuse to tag out. Coming off a grueling overtime game against Houston, starting the game with just 44 active players rather than 46, down 14-0 early and 24-3 at the break, Indy’s resilience was as much a story this night as the return of the Patriots offensive potency.

IndIanapolis is 1-4 and its losses are narrow ones. It’s a flawed team but it’s also got the arrow pointing up and part of that has to do with the bedside manner of head coach Frank Reich.

He opened his postgame remarks saying, “Just to address it up front, we had a lot of stuff. A lot of banged-up guys going in and I just want to say up front, any questions on that, that is no excuse. We felt very confident going into this game going in. it was what it was, every team deals with the same thing in the NFL.

BEFORE THE GAME, WE SAID . . . 

“It’s the hand that is dealt,” he continued. “We didn’t think about it, talk about it the whole week, all we talked about was coming in here and play good football against a good team on the road. And we got off to a slow start, we cannot do that. You can’t have penalties, turnovers, and drops against a good team, against any team, especially on the road. So, we just got to pick up the pieces and I still have a lot of confidence in our players.”

The Patriots, meanwhile, announced themselves right away with their first drive. They varied tempo. They alternated personnel, toggling between fast-break empty backfield, power with fullback James Develin in front of Sony Michel and the pony formation with backs on either side of Tom Brady in shotgun.

It was a reminder of how when they have Julian Edelman, the playbook expands exponentially and yards are easier to come by.

But the Patriots will have plenty to correct as well heading into their game with the Chiefs. They had seven penalties for 50 yards. Bill Belichick noted there were probably more yards to be made on the ground. And the second-half focus on both sides of the ball seemed to slip after the big lead was built.

MORE HARD TRUTHS

The Patriots had far more talent on the field than the Colts on Thursday night. It shouldn’t have gotten as close as it did. That New England put up 38 and has plenty to work on is a good thing, believe it or not.

Less than two weeks removed from looking listless in Detroit, the Pats have their mojo back. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

What Tom Brady texted Ben Affleck about his pending NFL free agency

What Tom Brady texted Ben Affleck about his pending NFL free agency

At least Ben Affleck tried.

The famous actor and celebrity Boston sports fan joined ESPN's "Get Up!" on Tuesday and dropped an interesting nugget: He had just hung out with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady the night before.

Since Brady is set to become the NFL's highest-profile free agent in a month, there's only one question worth asking Affleck: Where did the 42-year-old say he's playing this season?

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Here's Affleck on that subject, via ESPN:

Me and Matt (Damon) texted him: 'What's the deal? Are you going or are you staying? And this is what we got back: An emoji (shrugs).

So, that's where "Brady Watch" stands with first day of free agency one month (March 18) away: a shrug emoji.

Brady likely wouldn't have revealed his free-agent plans to Affleck and Damon even if he knew them. But it's also likely even he doesn't know where he'll end up.

Our Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran reported Monday that Brady and the Patriots won't begin negotiations until either late February or early March, around the time of the NFL Scouting Combine.

While Brady could have back-channel discussions before then, the 20-year-veteran won't have a clear sense of whether he should "stay" or "go" until he sits down with the Patriots.

Maybe shoot Tom a follow-up text in a couple weeks, Ben?

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.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

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.