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.
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."
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.
"We've got a quarterback," Mayock said, "who runs Jon's offense at a very high level."
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.
— Craig Kolodny (@NBCBostonCraig) February 25, 2020
"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."
Tom Brady handed Mike Vrabel a small trophy with last year’s game score between the #Titans and #Pats and told him, “Just keep that. ... You’ve won a lot of big games. ... We got a lot of trophies.” pic.twitter.com/eeqEsIzgUi— Justin Beasley (@JBeasleyWSMV) August 16, 2019
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.