Patriots

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Howard Stern interview shows post-Patriots Tom Brady is staying on the high road

Howard Stern interview shows post-Patriots Tom Brady is staying on the high road

If you asked Bill Belichick his opinion of Tom Brady’s media tour this week – Player’s Tribune, Howard Stern – he’d probably snort and wonder why it’s necessary in the first place. Why feed the jackals at all?

But for Brady, not having to ask Belichick’s permission to speak freely (or to deal with the passive-aggressive consequences if he failed to) must be liberating.

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Which is a little sad for an accomplished 42-year-old in a public position, but that was what it was.

Even if Belichick is somewhere rolling his eyes about newly-liberated Brady unburdening himself, it’s obvious this is not a grievance-airing exercise on Brady’s part.

Will that day ever come? Maybe. There are plenty. But the person Brady’s chosen to be in his adult life doesn’t fixate on negativity. And looking at the rough patches and irritations in his 20-year professional marriage to the Patriots – even if they are salacious and interesting because they are secrets well-kept – isn’t the way he rolls. 

He’s a love guy. He’s a Four Agreements guy.

He is publicly living on the post-Patriots high road as the 129-minute interview with Howard Stern showed on Wednesday.

Here are a few takeaways from the fascinating interview.

IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES

It seemed important to Brady that the takeaway to his leaving the Patriots be the simple fact that his desires as a player and Belichick’s as a GM/team builder were at cross purposes.

It wasn’t primarily because Brady felt unappreciated or disrespected at the bargaining table. If he was hit with the truth serum, Brady would concede they were there, but they were symptoms of how Belichick viewed Brady and as opposed to how Brady viewed himself.

And Brady gave Belichick a complete pass for that.

"I think he has a lot of loyalty,” Brady said. “He and I have had a lot of conversations that nobody has ever been privy to, nor should they be, that so many wrong assumptions were made about our relationship or about how he felt about me. I know genuinely how he feels about me," Brady said.

“Now I'm not going to respond to every rumor or assumption that's made, other than what his responsibility as coach is to get the best player for the team -- not only in the short term but in the long term as well. … I got into uncharted territory as an athlete because I started to break the mold of what so many other athletes had experienced.

“I got to the point where I was an older athlete and he's starting to plan for the future, which is what his responsibility is. I don't fault him for that. That's what he should be doing. Not that I would ever coach, but if I was ever in a position of authority, I would understand that too."

This wasn’t a revelation for anyone paying attention.

In December, I laid out the scenario, writing that: 

The Patriots didn’t want to ante up (in 2019) for a 42-year-old quarterback year the same way they didn’t want to ante up for Brady in 2017 when he was 40.

With his 43-year-old season approaching, Brady and his agent Don Yee are going to sit down and ask for a bump to bring him in line with the rest of the league’s best quarterbacks after Brady has one of the worst statistical seasons of his career?

Doesn’t that seem like a request that Bill Belichick would begin to answer with the words, “With all due respect …”?

So where’s that leave Brady? …

Do they even bother sitting down at the table to talk or do they just realize they’ve come to the end of the road?

Do they agree on an amicable divorce because of one irreconcilable difference: Brady believes he can still play at a high level, the Patriots don’t want to take that on faith and don’t love the idea of throwing $25M at the position so Brady can follow that muse.

This season has done nothing to bring the two sides closer together.

What the two sides are headed for isn’t about Sunday’s game or even the 2019 offseason. The night in April 2014 when the team drafted Jimmy Garoppolo and Belichick mentioned Brady’s age and contract status, the die was cast.

People shouldn’t have needed a neon sign pointing them in the direction of what ultimately was going to happen. 

Especially after last August.  

WHEN THE END WAS NEAR

Brady went into training camp last July waiting on a contract extension to take him through 2020. It’s what he expected. The truth was spoken in jest when he was asked about it on the first day of camp and he told the media to “Talk to Mr. Kraft…” before adding “hopefully we can keep it going.” 

When he didn’t get the extension and only got the raise after it came clear how miffed he was, the gig was up. We discussed it at the time on our podcast and the timing of his Brookline home hitting the market was not a complete coincidence. It happened just days after the extension didn’t come to pass. 

As Brady told Stern on Wednesday, “I would say I probably knew before the start of last season that it was my last year," Brady said. "I knew that our time was coming to an end."

Brady’s demeanor in Tennessee when the Patriots showed up for joint practices soon after he agreed to the 2019 raise was somewhat telling. Just Employee No. 12 reporting for duty.

And after Antonio Brown was released, Brady gave an answer to Jim Gray that said exactly that: "The reality is I don't make any personnel decisions. I don't decide to sign players, I don't decide to trade them, I don't decide to release them, I don't decide to draft them. I don't get asked. I show up and I do my job. I'm an employee like everyone else.” 

ICING OUT WIDE RECEIVERS

Brady told Stern candidly that there were times he bluntly told his coaches that he wasn’t going to throw to players he didn’t trust.

“I would say, ‘I don’t have any trust this guy can help us win the game,'” Brady said. “I definitely expressed my opinion to say, ‘If you put him out there, I’m not going to throw him the ball.’

“Fortunately for me, coach Belichick always saw it the same way, which is why I think we have such a great connection. He saw football very much the same way I saw it...We saw the process of winning very much the same way.”

That set off a round of recency bias in which folks pointed to first-rounder N’Keal Harry as being a player Brady wasn’t interested in throwing to. That was followed by a round of, “Well, if Tom showed up to OTAs …”

The truth is, Brady was resistant to throwing to guys he didn’t trust for most of his Patriots career. Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Chad Johnson, Joey Galloway, Aaron Dobson, even Chris Hogan for a big chunk of 2018 and Phillip Dorsett this past season all found themselves outside Brady’s circle of trusted targets.

The fact is, Brady’s demands aren’t just high in terms of route precision, he also wants players to be intuitive in their route-running. If something is taken away, they need to see it like he sees it and react. Which is a very hard tightrope to walk for a player who doesn’t want to screw up and piss Brady off.

It will be interesting to see how tolerant Brady is with brand new targets in Tampa who he won’t have the time to develop chemistry with.

LEGACY

Brady dismissed the notion legacy means much to him. And you have to believe him. But that’s now. Winning his fifth Super Bowl meant something because it pushed him past Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. Winning his sixth championship tied him with Michael Jordan. He won an MVP at 40 in 2017. If he played a full season in 2016, he probably would have won it that year as well at 39. He won a Super Bowl at 41. His legacy is intact.

Tampa Bay is gravy and he can play with less stress and more enjoyment, it seems.

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“We all think we’re going to live forever but the reality is we don’t know when our day is going to come,” Brady said. “I could stop playing football because I’m worried about what’s going to happen. Why don’t I live my life the way I want, and enjoy it, the way that is most fulfilling to me? For me, that’s doing what I love to do. You don’t tell a musician to stop singing at age 42. You don’t tell a painter to stop painting at 42.”

Rex Ryan says Tom Brady, not Bill Belichick, was the key to Patriots dynasty

Rex Ryan says Tom Brady, not Bill Belichick, was the key to Patriots dynasty

It's a question we'll never get a definitive answer to. Who was more important to the New England Patriots in their 20-year dynasty, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick?

That debate will only heat up once Brady begins his new chapter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In fact, it was mentioned to Brady on Wednesday during his interview with Howard Stern on SiriusXM, and the ex-Pats quarterback called it a "sh---y argument."

Still, the argument was made shortly thereafter by Rex Ryan on ESPN's "First Take." The former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills head coach says it was Brady, not Belichick, who was the key to New England's six Super Bowl titles.

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“It was definitely Tom Brady,” Ryan said. “If I’ve got to take one I’m taking Brady.”

“Let’s give [Belichick] somebody else, let’s give him [former Jets quarterback] Geno Smith, let’s give him whoever, and let’s see how many Super Bowls he would have won. We saw the answer was zero in Cleveland.”

Watch the full clip below:

Ryan actually makes a fair point, although there certainly seems to be some saltiness on his part since Geno Smith was his QB from 2013-14. Smith didn't take too kindly to his former coach's remarks, either.

Although we'll never know how Brady's Pats career would have gone without Belichick and vice versa, 2020 will be a true test for both New England icons. Brady will look to prove he can duplicate his success in Tampa with Bruce Arians as his head coach, and Belichick will look to do the same likely with Jarrett Stidham under center.