Teams can't legally pursue Brady until the NFL-sanctioned two-day "tampering period" ahead of free agency. But people will talk, feelers will be sent, and values will be gauged well before the start of the new league year on March 18. If those things haven't started already, they'll undoubtedly be underway when the league descends on Indianapolis for the combine later this month.
By the time teams have made their surreptitious pitches there could be 10 that have entered the race for Brady's services, Tom E. Curran explained on the Patriots Talk Podcast this week. That'll leave the 42-year-old future Hall of Famer with mounds of information to digest and decisions to ponder.
How much can his next team offer? With whom will he be taking the field? From whom will he be taking coaching? How much does his next team's location really matter? What does his family think? Can he build a super team?
It was Brady's childhood idol, though, who highlighted another critical factor in whatever comes next for him. Joe Montana spoke to NFL Media's Michael Silver and briefly hit on the fact that there's something the layman wouldn't necessarily consider when a quarterback makes a life decision like the one Brady faces: What's in the playbook?
"It's a process to go through, and it takes time to get used to the team," Montana said, describing his late-career transition from quarterbacking the 49ers to the Chiefs. "I was fortunate because (former Niners quarterbacks coach) Paul Hackett was there running the offense, and so I was pretty familiar with probably three-quarters of the offense going in. And, if they let [Brady] have his own offense, yeah, that makes it a little bit easier. But still, the transition of moving . . . I just can't see how they would let him leave there, myself."
'YOU DON'T GO START ALL OVER SOMEWHERE ELSE'
Montana made a Pro Bowl in Kansas City after being traded to the Chiefs in 1993 thanks in part to having a grasp of the West Coast system that Hackett — a Bill Walsh disciple — brought with him.
Brett Favre had one of his best seasons in 2009 with the Vikings, completing a career-high 68.4 percent of his passes when he was reunited with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who had served as Favre's quarterbacks coach in Green Bay.
Even for quarterbacks who weren't Hall-of-Fame talents, it's easy to find instances in which players changed teams yet found success in familiar systems. Matt Cassel made a Pro Bowl in his second season in Kansas City when the team brought Charlie Weis aboard to serve as offensive coordinator. Jeff Garcia made three Pro Bowls in West Coast offenses in San Francisco, bounced around to four teams in four years, and at his fourth stop — in Tampa Bay under West Coast whiz Jon Gruden — turned himself into a Pro Bowler again.
"You want to go to places where you have that comfort and familiarity of a similar type of offense," said Garcia, who now works as an analyst at NBC Sports Bay Area. "I was fortunate in that most of the changes I made throughout the NFL were generally to systems where I had a previous experience in. West Coast-type systems. I'm sure that'll weigh heavily on the decision Tom makes moving forward. I see it hard to envision him not being in New England."
Before we had any inkling as to which teams might make a play for Brady, our resident quarterbacking expert at NBC Sports Boston pointed out just how challenging it could be to land someplace new. Either Brady will have to do some adjusting to a new system — something he's never done before — or an entire team will have to adjust around him.
"The biggest factor is terminology," Cassel wrote last month. "I had 12 offensive coordinators in 14 years, and everybody is a little different. When you are accustomed to the same word for a route concept for so many years, and then all of a sudden it’s a different word but the same route concept, it takes a second to process that in your brain.
"When I had to learn a new offensive system, I would make flash cards, write down plays and watch film like I was cramming for a test. And that was before I even got onto the field. Brady has never been a part of a different system. There has been nothing brand new that needs to be learned in the offseason; it's just building on what you did the year before.
"That's going to be a factor for any team that brings Brady in: How much is their offensive terminology related to New England's? And how much leeway do they have to change what's already in place?
"Because if you completely change what you did from the year before, it sets everybody back. The receivers, the offensive line, the running backs — it’d be a learning curve for everybody. If Brady leaves New England, I believe his best bet to be successful would be joining a team with similar offensive terminology."
Kurt Warner ran "The Greatest Show on Turf," won a Super Bowl, and was named league MVP twice doing things a certain way in St. Louis. When he signed with the Giants in 2004, he was matched up with former Patriots assistant John Hufnagel as his offensive coordinator, eventually losing his job to rookie Eli Manning. Warner endured a pair of coaching changes at his next stop in Arizona yet led the Cardinals to their first-ever Super Bowl in 2008 — one of the most satisfying feats of his Hall of Fame career.
"You don't, as Tom Brady, you don't go start all over somewhere else," Warner said in the days leading up to Super Bowl LIV. "That's not what you do when you're 42, 43 years old. I think there's components that have to be there. I guess the question is, is there another team on the landscape that doesn't have their guy that would make for a good fit for Tom Brady — or a better fit than New England? I don't see it right now. But I might be looking at things differently than Tom Brady is . . .
"Go back through the history of our game. How many great quarterbacks had great moments with two different organizations? You don't hear about it. The great ones stay in a system for 12, 15 years because it's what they do well. That's where I think it's really, really hard. There's a lot at stake for Tom Brady, if he goes somewhere else.
"Does it tarnish that he's the best ever? No. But we all know how we want to go out. We all have egos. 'I want to go out, I want to go out on top.' To go somewhere else and prove you can win? I'll tell you, it's pretty good. It's a special feeling to be able to win in two places. But go somewhere else and lose, people see that. Nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to do that late in their career, especially with all he's accomplished."
Working against Brady in that regard is that while there are a number of former Patriots assistants working across the league at the moment, they all appear to have starting quarterbacks in place.
Miami looked like the best landing spot for Brady until the Dolphins parted ways with offensive coordinator and former Patriots receivers coach Chad O'Shea. He's in Cleveland now, where Baker Mayfield remains the guy. O'Shea's assistant in Miami was Jerry Schuplinski, assistant quarterbacks coach in New England through 2018, who's now quarterbacks coach for the Giants and last year's No. 6 overall draft choice Daniel Jones. Texans coach Bill O'Brien, Brady's old offensive coordinator, has one of the game's best young quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, another former Bill Belichick assistant, works for a team that has already said — seriously, it seems — that Brady would have to be Josh Allen's backup in Buffalo.
Odds are, if Brady lands elsewhere, it'll be with a team that doesn't have a wealth of experience in the Erhardt-Perkins system he's developed over the last two decades with Belichick, Weis, O'Brien and Josh McDaniels.
"He can play in any system," Weis said. "He's so mentally ahead of everybody else because of his knowledge of the system, he's like a coach. If he had to go through a translation, if he had to do that, no problem. He could do it. But I don't think it's as easy. I think it's easier to end up in the same system."
'WHAT IS TOM GOING TO DO, GO IN AND INSTALL THE OFFENSE?'
Steve Mariucci stopped himself quickly. He'd been asked a question about how difficult it'd be for a team to change its identity to fit what Brady likes schematically. Mid-answer, he remembered there was some precedent.
"Without Josh McDaniels," the former Niners and Lions head coach said last week, "what is Tom going to do? Go in and install the offense with the coaching staff?"
Then, an epiphany.
"Peyton did it! I knew you were going to say that! That was pretty strange, but it worked," Mariucci continued. "I thought maybe if [Brady] leaves, Josh leaves. It's a package deal someplace. That would make sense so you don't have to teach a 42-year-old guy a new wishbone offense or something. God, it's going to be interesting to see where Tom ends up. I just can't see him playing for another team without that Patriot uniform.
It would be like watching Santa Claus wear green or something, I don't know. It doesn't make sense to me. But you never know.
What Peyton Manning did shifting from running a certain style of offense in Indianapolis to becoming Broncos quarterback late in his career is likely the closest comparison for that upon which Brady would embark if he left the Patriots.
Brady doesn't have the health issues Manning did in his late-30s, but they are both among the best and brightest to have ever played the position. Manning was released, allowing him to have a more prolonged (and public) courtship directed by a handful of quarterback-needy clubs in 2012. Brady will be a free agent in March, meaning he's technically still a member of the Patriots until the start of the new league year. But like Manning, Brady could still be changing teams during the sunset of his career.
Manning made the most of his move, winning a Super Bowl in 2015, winning league MVP in 2013, making three Pro Bowls and earning First Team All-Pro honors twice. How'd he do it?
The Broncos indicated early in their marriage that Manning would be adapting to their offense.
“When he first came in, that was the first thing he said: ‘I want to learn your system.’ And we’ve changed some things, don’t get me wrong," Broncos coach Mike McCoy said at the time. "But the majority of it is our system that we run, the terminology. To Peyton’s credit he said, ‘Listen, the organization knows the terminology we’ve used, so I’ll learn certain things, ask for some flexibility to call certain things a certain way.’ And that’s what we’ve done. There’s a happy medium.”
That was before the season began. Denver proceeded to lose three of its first five games with Manning behind center, trying his damnedest to run whatever amalgamation of his offense and his coach's they'd come up with. But, as Chris Brown explained masterfully for Grantland at the end of that season, the offense looked its best in the second halves of those early games with the Broncos trying to orchestrate comebacks by paring down the scheme. In those situations, they turned almost exclusively to Colts concepts Manning was most comfortable with.
Eventually the entire playbook was overhauled to incorporate the calls Manning ran best. When the Patriots prepared to play the Broncos that season, Bill Belichick was asked if there were similarities between what Denver was running and what the Colts ran with Manning.
"It’s identical," Belichick said. "It looks the same to me."
When Carson Palmer was asked about Brady's future last week, he reflected on the change he had to make going from the Bengals-style offense he ran in Cincinnati and Oakland to a Bruce Arians down-the-field passing game in Arizona. Palmer wasn't able to incorporate his own system with the Cardinals late in his career — "I didn't have the clout," he said — but he doesn't see any other way for Brady.
"I think wherever he goes, he's going to run his own system or what he's used to," Palmer explained. "I would assume, if he's going to leave, he would sign with a team that knew that he was going to bring in his own system and some of his philosophies and schemes. Not to say it's just his playbook, but I'm sure it would be a mesh of two playbooks.
"Yeah, there's no doubt, he's not — at 42 — going to start a new offense that he knows nothing about. He's going to probably be in the same terminology one way or another. If the terminology changes, it'll be a lot of the same concepts so that he won't be flipping his mind. 'Oh this was this play in this system, and now it's this play in this system.' I think if he does leave, he's going to make sure all of that does mesh really well.
"To be in Year 20 and go into a completely new system wouldn't make sense. I think he would, as he's looking at free-agent destinations, I think he would look at that as almost as important as how good is the offensive line, the running backs and the receivers."
What Manning had working for him was that — though he was one of the smartest quarterbacks in football — the Colts had a famously thin playbook. They ran 11 and 12-personnel packages, they played uptempo, and their targets in the passing game had a limited number of responsibilities. Their concepts were so sound, and their players so talented, that when run correctly the majority of the league had no chance of stopping them.
"Despite media intimations to the contrary," Brown wrote at the time, "the most sophisticated quarterback in the NFL ran what was arguably its simplest offense."
Brady's offense, on the other hand, is voluminous and has proven to be difficult to absorb for rookie and veteran newcomers alike. That doesn't mean Brady couldn't simplify things someplace new, taking a handful of his favorite plays and making them staples. But the strength of the system into which Brady's brain has been plugged is its complexity. No matter what a defense presents, there is an answer — provided Brady and his teammates are on the same page.
Yet it's that complexity that would make it difficult to install Brady's offense outside the walls of One Patriot Place. This wouldn't be Manning tossing a manila folder on a desk and asking the Broncos to roll with it. This would be Brady wheeling in a box of external hard drives and asking his new team to have it downloaded in a matter of months.
The most recent bit of evidence suggesting just how difficult it can be to pick up the Patriots offense didn't even come out of New England. The Dolphins cut ties with O'Shea after the season in part because, according to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, the offense as he envisioned it was a challenge for fresh-out-of-college players to grasp. Miami quickly hired Chan Gailey — a spread aficionado with a wealth of college coaching experience — to coordinate their young offense instead.
How enticing would it be for Brady to go through that teaching process, detailing to coaches and players exactly what it is he wants in given situations? It might depend entirely on the players he's surrounded by. Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Martellus Bennett, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon LaFell, Brandon Lloyd, Malcolm Mitchell, Brandin Cooks — even Antonio Brown, for one game — were productive as novices in the system. It's not impossible. Finding the right pieces would seemingly be worlds more palatable than Brady cramming to learn, say, Gruden's offense in Las Vegas.
"These great players," Warner said, referring to Manning and Brady, "any smart team is going to let them come in and then go, 'OK, how do you want to shape this offense?' They're not going to go, 'OK, this is what we do, fit yourself into it.' Or it's a bad situation.
"You take your greatness, you say, 'How do you want to do this?' Help us develop an offense that fits you and fits what you can do at this point in your career. There is a part to that that I think you always worry about.
"It's not a knock on coaches, but there are coaches that are limited in what they can see offensively. And they can't really grasp or have the creativity to go, 'Oh! Peyton wants it this way? That's easy! I can do it!' Peyton is this whole different beast over here. It's like, 'I don't really understand that, but teach us and we'll try to do that.' Tom Brady is another guy. It's finding that mesh so you can develop that, and having a guy to call plays to fit into what your mindset is."
Will Brady find a fit where a coach would be open to the idea of hitting pause on his system in order to run someone else's? Will Brady be willing to meet a new coach's scheme halfway? Or will he be reluctant to play it out either way and end up back in New England?
The pieces around him will matter. The coaching staff will matter. But the playbook and its contents could be an under-the-radar influence on wherever he ends up next.