Patriots

Patriots run feels like it's winding down

Patriots run feels like it's winding down

Back in 2005, a friend of mine started on the Patriots beat. We were discussing the team’s run of success and how they’d won three Super Bowls in four seasons. I remember estimating that, if the Patriots run of excellence was a football game, at that point they were late in the third quarter.

And here we are, 12 years, an undefeated regular season, eight conference championship appearances, four Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl wins later. Same guy coaching. Same guy playing quarterback.

So I miscalculated.

I’m thinking about that now because the air around this 2017 season has an “end of the party” scent to it. Like people are gathering up their coats and saying their goodbyes.

By the end of the weekend, around 10 head coaching jobs are going to open up. It’s been almost 10 years since Josh McDaniels was hired by the Broncos. Since coming back to New England in 2011, he’s annually been looked at as one of the likely hires. He’s taken plenty of interviews. He’s looked but he hasn’t leaped. He’s due.

Matt Patricia took interviews the last two offseasons. He’s probably due too.

Coordinator continuity is the under-appreciated underpinning of the Patriots success. The reins were passed from Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel after three Super Bowl wins to McDaniels and Eric Mangini. Then they were passed to Bill O’Brien and Dean Pees. Then they went back to McDaniels and Matt Patricia. And they’ve held them since 2012.

When they leave, there’s a reboot.

Meanwhile, Tom Brady has two years left on his contract. Since winning the Super Bowl last February, Brady’s post-football plans have crystallized. He and Alex Guerrero have – with the release of a book, an app, a cookbook, etc. – demonstrated just how serious Brady is about making TB12 far more than just one shop in Patriot Place.

That push didn’t come without pushback from the Patriots, as the past month demonstrated. Guerrero’s been exiled from the sidelines and his access to players is now limited to the ones who go up to the shop. Whether Bill Belichick was right or wrong to draw a bright red line between Guerrero and the Patriots training and medical staff is moot. What’s important to this discussion is what impact coverage of Guerrero being pushed to the periphery has going forward.

That it became an issue Belichick had to mitigate, deal with and answer questions about … to borrow a Belichick phrase, that’s not what you’re looking for. And from Brady’s point of view, Guerrero’s been around the team for about 13 years. He gets results. He’s helped players get better. And now he’s been publicly shunned.

The Guerrero situation followed on the heels of the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. The plan from the time Garoppolo was drafted was to groom him to replace Brady. And the Patriots did a masterful job of it. They hit on the pick. They nurtured him along. He played great when given the chance. And then the Patriots had to trade him.

From the night Garoppolo was drafted in 2014 (punctuated by Belichick mentioning Brady’s age and contract status) until the Patriots picked up the phone and called the Niners, there was never a moment Brady didn’t view him as the kid anointed to take his job.

How many times did Brady open up and talk about the fact he wanted to finish his career here but that he understands better than anyone how these things go not just in New England but in the NFL. Dozens? Brady “won” but that wasn’t the plan.

And the casual flipping of Garoppolo to San Fran for a second-rounder has an air of resignation. “Well, we didn’t think we’d be here, but here we are. And we can’t trade Tom because it makes no sense to trade the likely MVP coming off two Super Bowl wins in three years. The kid’s gonna be great and we helped make him. Let’s find him a good home and just get it over with.”

The decision to trade Garoppolo still hasn’t been embraced. Trading Brady wasn’t broached but there’s sentiment in Foxboro that the team should have played it out even longer. To the end of the season, through 2018 if necessary. Whatever, figure it out, the thinking goes. Garoppolo was a chip too valuable to give up with a time-defying 40-year-old approaching 41.

Brady and Belichick have always had an employee-boss relationship. It’s not frigid, but it’s not warm either.

Add in the matter of ownership. Robert Kraft is 76. His record as an owner and the arc of his tenure is astounding. He just saw Jerry Jones get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame ahead of him. Kraft has every right to expect he’ll join him. He deserves to. But his legacy here, in New England, could be more important to him than what the football world thinks of him.

And there are Patriots fans still pissed that Kraft stood down on DeflateGate in May 2015 because they feel he abandoned Brady. Even if Belichick went to Kraft with the idea of moving Brady and keeping Garoppolo, that would have gotten a hard no.

Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Lawyer Milloy, Drew Bledsoe … OK. At this juncture, asking Kraft to get on board with moving on from Tom Brady was a non-starter. So it never started.

For a while now, I felt it would all be a wrap after the 2019 season. Brady’s contract would be up. So would Rob Gronkowski’s and Julian Edelman’s. Brady and Belichick would have been in New England for 20 seasons. Brady would be 42 and his kids would be nearing their teens. Belichick would be 67.

That seemed tidy. But it’s also a little naïve. It usually doesn’t end tidily, just like you expected it to. Sometimes it ends before anyone expects it to. And sometimes it goes on years longer than you ever thought it could.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a topic that no one wanted to touch. Well, almost no one. 

Chris Ballard laughed it off. Mike Mayock was terse. Brian Flores repeated what felt like a well-rehearsed company line. Even the ever-confident Mike Vrabel fidgeted a bit, but in the end, he couldn't help himself. 

So, guys, Tom Brady...any interest?

Right alongside the topic of the new multi-billion dollar collective bargaining agreement being discussed by union leaders and NFL owners, Brady's future whereabouts have dominated early-week conversations here in Indy. The league and anyone associated with it may be in town for the scouting combine, but draftable players and their futures took a backseat to the Brady buzz Tuesday. 

The Patriots are still in play for Brady. Whether or not the Patriots make an effort to retain Brady will be coach Bill Belichick's call, from what I've been told. Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft wants nothing more than to see Brady remain in New England, as he's stated, and if the difference between Brady staying and going is a manageable amount of money then the owner would happily step in. But Belichick has yet to show his hand, and so the football world continues to wait and see what's next for the 42-year-old quarterback. 

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.

That means other front-office chiefs and head coaches around the league, those with quarterback questions of their own, will be peppered with Brady-related questions this week.

Even questions that didn't invoke Brady's name -- coaches and general managers are wary of publicly discussing players who are still technically on other rosters, as Brady is, until the new league year begins -- were dodged. 

Joe Judge, former Patriots special teams and receivers coach, was the first up. He was asked if Daniel Jones is his team's "franchise quarterback." 

"It's not going to be fair for me," Judge said, "to go ahead and set expectations for anyone on our roster at this point."

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast here:

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but consistent with Judge's policy of leaving individual evaluations out of his public comments at this point in his coaching tenure. 

So what about Brady? He's owned property in New York City. Maybe he'd like the idea of playing in New York? 

I asked Judge about that hypothetical without mentioning Brady specifically. 

"Could you envision," I asked him, "a scenario in which the best way to teach Daniel might be to sit a year or two and allow him to grow that way?"

"We're going to let our players compete," he said. "Whoever our best player is going to be is going to be on the field. I don't have any scenario of letting anybody sit down if they're the best player for the job at the time. I'm not trying to create a hypothetical scenario where I think there's a timetable for any of our guys to contribute. I don't care how old or young you are. I really don't. I don't care about what your experience is before you get in our building. All I care about is can you help our team improve? That's it."

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was quicker with his dismissal. After acknowledging that any and every position will be evaluated, including quarterback, he noted that one of the things that's critical to playing that position in Vegas is being able to grasp Jon Gruden's offense. 

What if, though, there was a quarterback who'd run another offense better than Gruden's? It stands to reason that any team Brady would join would end up running some variation of Brady's offense. 

So...? 

"We've got a quarterback," Mayock said, "who runs Jon's offense at a very high level." 

OK then. 

Brian Flores said essentially what Miami general manager Chris Grier and owner Stephen Ross have said of late, which is, why would Brady want to join a rebuilding team like Miami? 

Curiously consistent in that response have been the Dolphins, but with Chad O'Shea's departure -- the former Patriots receivers coach who was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties in Miami after the season -- and Chan Gailey's hiring as coordinator, the Dolphins make less sense for Brady than they did two months ago.

Up next: Chris Ballard, Colts GM.

Indy is flush with cap space. They've been reluctant to commit to Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback of the present or the future. They have a roster, though, that looks talented enough to compete if they had consistent quarterback play. 

Ballard said multiple times that he wouldn't comment on impending free agents potentially joining his team; Philip Rivers has been linked to Indy multiple times already this offseason because of his connection to certain members of the coaching staff there. 

Still, I asked him about Brady. As a longtime competitor, could Ballard envision Brady in another uniform? 

"So," he laughed, "you're going to ask me a question now? You don't want me to comment but you're going to ask me?" 

"I'm not going to talk about that," he said, eventually. "Great career, though."

As the day wore on, a couple of coaches were a bit more loose-lipped. Bruce Arians of the Bucs flat out named Brady as a potential target for Tampa Bay when asked for examples of quarterbacks he'd consider next month. 

"Tom Brady," he said. "Philip is another guy. We'll see."

Tell us how you really feel, Bruce. 

Seriously. And why not? Maybe Arians is an NBC Sports Boston reader. Maybe he knows there's really nothing to worry about when it comes to tampering with Brady because the Patriots probably aren't going to pursue tampering charges involving their quarterback. Tampering might actually help Brady gauge his market more quickly and allow the Patriots to act one way or the other as they construct their team. 

Here's what our Tom E. Curran wrote earlier this month: "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."

That brings us to Vrabel, the Titans head coach, a friend of Brady's, who straddled the tampering fence as well as anyone Tuesday. It looked uncomfortable for him at first, though. Vrabel looked down when asked about Brady potentially playing elsewhere during a podium session at the Indianapolis Convention Center. At one point he fidgeted with the recorders in front of him.

"Tom's a teammate, former teammate," Vrabel said. "He's a friend. He'll always be a friend. He'll do what's best for him and his family. Wherever that may be, I'm not sure."

Vrabel was quick to compliment Brady as an opponent. Though his defense beat up on the Patriots offense in the Wild Card Round in January, he clearly still holds Brady's game in high regard. 

"Very accurate passer," Vrabel said. "A player that's got great command of the pocket . . . Tom did a great job of staying in the pocket when we mixed some of those three-man rushes in. Great command of the offense. Great leader."

Pressed further on Brady, and told that the Titans look like a good fit for Brady if he was to leave New England, Vrabel interrupted. 

"Why would you see it would be a great fit," Vrabel asked? "I'm just curious."

The Titans have shown they can win now, I told him. Good weapons. Good offensive line. Brady knows the coach.

"We were 9-7," Vrabel interrupted. "We played a couple of good games. I know a lot of players. I played in the league 14 years. Friends with some. Tom's under contract. I was just curious why you thought he'd be a great fit."

Do you agree, I asked?

"Do I agree that I know Tom, or that I'm friends with Tom," he replied?

No. Is Tennessee a good fit? 

"I think when you look at players that are still under contract," Vrabel said, "it's important for us to evaluate each and every position but understand that there's a time frame to have those conversations."

Outside of Arians spelling out his Brady interest, that was as close as we came to another organization acknowledging it'll make a play for the six-time Lombardi-winner. "There's a time frame to have those conversations..." 

Technically that's the legal tampering period, starting on Mar. 16 and running right up to the start of the new league year on Mar. 18. But the reality is those conversations begin now, this week, in Indianapolis, where agents, coaches and executives mingle to discuss their options. 

No one wants to admit it, but if those conversations haven't started already, they will soon. 

Vrabel, while complimentary of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off of what was far and away the best season of his career, didn't necessarily commit to Tannehill as the team's quarterback of the future. That might simply be a leverage play; Tannehill is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. But it might also mean the team is leaving its options open. 

Vrabel and Brady remain close. When asked about his relationship with Brady, Vrabel said Tuesday, "undefeated," referencing Tennessee wins over New England in 2018 and in the playoffs last season. 

"I asked him for a bigger trophy this year," Vrabel said. "Still waiting for it."

In just a matter of weeks, Brady and Vrabel can legally discuss any kind of trophy they'd like, and how Brady might be able to bring a big one to Tennessee.

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

The Patriots staffers who questioned Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton at the NFL Scouting Combine just came right out and asked it.

How would he feel about replacing a legend at QB?

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.

Luton, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound QB projected as a late-round pick, told USA TODAY he was a bit taken aback to get the Tom Brady question right off the bat. 

“I think that was a great question," he told Patriots Wire's Henry McKenna. "It was a fair question for them to ask.”

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast here:

Luton said his demeanor would be an asset if he was indeed that next guy for the Patriots.

“Those are big shoes to fill. But for me, I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. I kind of reiterated that,” he said. "I’ve never let any of the outside noise distract me, so I don’t think that would be an issue. I’d bring it every day and prove that I’m a leader, no matter if it’s a high or a low. Keep doing it every day, however that works out. I’m not going to worry about filling anyone’s shoes. Just doing the best that I can do.”

Injury concerns have dropped Luton down most draft boards. He spent six years playing in college between Idaho and Oregon State and a forearm injury kept him out of what would've been his final college game against Oregon.

Luton was one of four QB prospects the Pats have met with at the combine in Indianapolis. Jake Fromm of Georgia, Jordan Love of Utah State (projected as New England's first-round pick in Phil Perry's latest mock draft) and James Morgan of Florida International, who met with them at the East-West Shrine Game, are the others.

It stands to reason that the others were asked the Brady question, too. And it was probably put to current backup Jarett Stidham before he was selected last year in the fourth round.