Of all the words Tom Brady said in his postgame press conference Saturday night, "hopefully" was one that stuck out.
Q: Is there any possibility you would retire after this offseason?
TB: I would say it’s pretty unlikely, but — yeah, hopefully unlikely.
We all get why it’s unlikely. Every time he’s given a chance to back off his stated desire to play until he’s 45, he doubles down. He loves to play. He doesn’t suck (that being another requirement for him to hang it up). There’s been no measurable physical dropoff to his agility or arm strength. He doesn’t want to retire, as we’ve reported here for months.
But why did he feel the need to tack on “hopefully?” Because Brady knows he’s not in total control of where he plays next.
Even though he’s the greatest quarterback in league history, he still got it in him to believe there’s a chance nobody will want him.
Maybe it comes from being a backup on a winless freshman team in high school. Or buried on the depth chart at Michigan for four years then having to platoon as the starter his senior year. Or being passed over in favor of 198 other players in the 2000 draft. Or Bill Belichick’s sincere effort to find a replacement for Brady beginning in 2014. Or Belichick’s pining for a way to keep Jimmy Garoppolo around. Or the team not giving Brady the extension he expected over the summer.
What’s that old saying? Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you?
Brady is wired to take nothing for granted. To believe he’s as replaceable as Drew Bledsoe and Bernie Kosar were. To understand that, if the Patriots could move on from Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins and all the rest with a handshake and a statement saluting their contributions, the same could happen to him.
Since the Patriots beat Atlanta in Super Bowl 51, Brady’s been hoping for a contract to take him through the 2020 season.
Instead, in the 2017 offseason, the team kept Jimmy Garoppolo around as insurance in case Brady’s play fell off or he got hurt. When the team couldn’t get Garoppolo to bite on an extension, they dealt him to the 49ers.
Going into 2018, Brady didn’t get a slice of the money the team would have paid Jimmy G. to sit and watch Brady. Instead, Brady got a stack of five incentives that — if he hit them all — would have brought his pay to $20M. He hit none of them.
Before this past season, Brady hoped for an extension similar to the one Drew Brees got the year before — a two-year deal worth about $50M.
Instead, Brady wound up with no extension and an $8M raise to bring him to $23M — way less than the going rate for good quarterbacks, never mind legends.
The Patriots made it clear that, at this point, they want to go “year to year.”
Brady didn’t. He wanted a longer commitment. He signed but — as a chaser — got the Patriots to give up the franchise tag. And that’s the evidence that this is not "about the money.” The franchise tag for quarterbacks in 2020 is going to be about $28M. He would have gotten his raise and more than $50M if he left the Patriots the option to tag him.
Brady wants autonomy. And a little bit of leverage.
What does Bill Belichick want? Well, that’s where the “hopefully” comes in.
Brady tipped his hand a little in the postgame and with Peter King that he prefers to stay here.
“If it’s the Patriots, great,” he told King. “If that doesn’t work, I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Robert Kraft said the same thing but replaced Brady’s “I don’t knows” with the R-word.
"My hope and prayer is number one, he plays for the Patriots," Kraft told King. "Or number two, he retires. He has the freedom to decide what he wants to do and what’s in his own best personal interest."
In order for Brady to stay here, Belichick needs to conclude the offensive dip in 2019 wasn’t about Brady, it was a lack of talent around Brady.
And to reach that conclusion, Belichick would have to agree that he and VP of Player Personnel Nick Caserio failed Brady. Alternately, Belichick can put it on Kraft for releasing Antonio Brown. Or Josh Gordon for slipping. Or injuries. Whatever.
Bottom line, if Belichick believes Brady was part of the problem or won’t be part of the solution, he’s not going to give him a big, fat raise.
More likely, it will be, “See what’s out there, Tom.”
Which means Brady is then tottering over the threshold, blinking up into the bright sun and staring at the void that is unrestricted free agency.
And what if nobody wants him? Most any team would have bumped their guy aside for Tom Brady at 36, 39 or even 42. A 43-year-old whose team went 4-5 down the stretch and lost to the Dolphins and Titans to close out the year?
What if he doesn’t want the teams that want him? If Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry drove Brady nuts even with Josh McDaniels there as a buffer, where is the new city with new teammates, a new offense and new coaches that’s going to make life easier for Brady?
Does he then come back and stand in front of Belichick and make like Richard Gere from An Officer and a Gentleman?
Absurd scenario, right? Or is it? If it were, if Brady himself had an idea what the hell’s going to happen the next two months, he wouldn’t have tacked on that word Saturday night that gave a lot of insight if you’re paying attention.