The Brady Conundrum: How do you go about replacing the GOAT?

The Brady Conundrum: How do you go about replacing the GOAT?

The Patriots hatched a Tom Brady succession plan after the 2013 season when they drafted Jimmy Garoppolo.

Brady blew that up.

Now, five years, four Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl MVPs and a regular-season MVP later, it’s time to gingerly -- caaaauuuuuutiooooousssssllllyyyyy -- begin the process again.

This time should be different.

Even though Brady’s contract hasn’t been extended past the 2019 season, the love and happiness we saw on the field after the Rams were dispatched in SB53 is a good sign.

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Brady’s wariness about the Patriots' plans for him, and Bill Belichick’s wariness about wedding his team to a quarterback who’s closer to 50 years old than he is to 30, has dissipated.

Once a new deal is in place -- Jonathan Kraft indicated that might be before training camp, though as of the Super Bowl conversations hadn’t started -- Brady will have a written assurance that he will leave the Patriots and the NFL on his terms.

That wasn’t the case in early 2014 when the soon-to-be-37-year-old Brady saw the Patriots spend a first-round pick on a defensive tackle (Dominique Easley) and their second-rounder on Garoppolo. That, after a '13 season Brady spent throwing to the likes of Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins and Austin Collie.

Garoppolo was a stick of dynamite under Brady’s behind. He was the existential threat Brady feared made flesh.

Jimmy might have thought he was drafted to learn how to play quarterback in the NFL and have a nice career. To Brady, Garoppolo was there to take his job, throw his career into upheaval, uproot his family and see Brady cast out into the NFL wilderness.

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And, in contrast to the guy Brady succeeded in 2001 (and, by extension, did all those things to), Brady wasn’t going to snort derisively at the plucky little draft pick here to take his job. He would crush the threat.

He did.

Brady played so well that -- despite Garoppolo developing into a bona-fide front-line quarterback under Belichick and Josh McDaniels (and Brady) -- Brady left the ever-prepared Patriots with no recourse when Garoppolo’s contract was about to expire.

Brady was too good to bench and too important to trade. Garoppolo was too expensive to franchise and too smart to take a “bridge” contract so he could watch Brady from the sidelines while his own hair started to gray at the temples. So off he went around Halloween, 2017.

A lot’s happened in the 16 months since.

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But now here we are, in the offseason of Brady’s 42nd year. And the complex question of how to find the player who will eventually replace the greatest quarterback in NFL history still lingers.

Do you draft his successor? If you do, do you do it this year? Do you do it next year?

Do you try to get into the top 10 to get your pick of the litter? Do you stay put, confident that the muttonheads across the league will miss out as they did with Brady and Garoppolo (or Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas . . . you get the point)? 

How much will it cost to get into the top 10? Do you package picks from this season -- when you will have six in the first three rounds -- and pick a sucker who will suck next year and fleece them for their 2020 first-rounder? How high do you have to go for a blue-chip, given the number of first-round quarterbacks that will be taken this year and that were taken in 2018?

Is it a trade for somebody another team’s given up on or has no work for, like San Francisco’s Nick Mullens? A veteran who will hit free agency like Nick Foles, Case Keenum or Teddy Bridgewater?

How does the successor play the position? Similar to Brady in that brain/eyes/accuracy/commitment trumps legs/arm strength/versatility?

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Or is there an embrace of the fact that trying to find a quarterback similar to a guy who came into the league after four years at Michigan at the end of last century with a once-in-a-lifetime work ethic is a pipe dream?

Aside from who the successor is and how he plays, can Brady -- the lion in winter -- be tapped to help groom whoever is being brought aboard to take over?

Brady -- contrary to sexed-up speculation -- didn’t actively undermine Garoppolo at any point. They were teammates. He helped Garoppolo play the position better. They became close. But he wasn’t quite showing him his world, either. Brady is famous for saying he’s not giving away his secrets to younger quarterbacks until after he’s done.

With the end-date likely to be agreed upon when he signs an extension, does he become more a mentor so that the success of the franchise has a better chance to continue after he leaves? Would the Patriots want him to do that?

Or would they want a blank(ish) slate to work with that isn’t saying, “But Tom said . . . ” when they try to shape him to succeed?

And that contract? What’s it look like? Does Brady demand pay commensurate with what he’s accomplished? Is he in the mood to do the team another financial solid given the only bump they have him in 2018 was incentives he never reached? How does that impact the structure of the team?

These questions aren’t new. What is new is the level of angst and anxiousness. It’s dissipated tremendously.

That won’t make finding his replacement or choosing the means by which the Patriots will do it any easier. But it’s less fraught now.

The irony is, the Patriots already successfully found Brady’s successor. It’s just that 2014 was too soon to go looking for him.

Now, can they do it again?

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Tom E. Curran: Patriots' imminent reboot seems less ominous now

Tom E. Curran: Patriots' imminent reboot seems less ominous now

The goal is to win the final game of the year. The 2018 New England Patriots did that.

They did it with heavier doses of guile, smarts, scheming and versatility than we’ve seen since the 2001 Super Bowl champs knocked off -- coincidentally -- another Rams team with a mastermind head coach who never figured out how to adjust in the biggest game of his life.

Like that 2001 team, these Patriots went 11-5 and peaked at the very end as they embraced a different way of doing business. Both the ’01 team and the ’18 team relied on smart, efficient, ball-control offense and aggressive, physical defense that forced mistakes.

Their coaching and game-planning over their final five games (six games, if you want to include the defensive performance against the Steelers) was outstanding and -- again -- it hit its apex in the playoffs.

When you have a 66-year-old head coach who’s chasing his eighth Super Bowl ring, a 42-year-old offensive coordinator who’s after his sixth, a 41-year-old quarterback who’s seen and knows more than almost every head coach in the league, a defense led by a couple of on-field Einsteins (Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty) and a defensive playcaller who’s dying to release the hounds, you’re in a great position to overcome any roster shortcomings you may have.

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And there were roster shortcomings in 2018. Especially on offense, where the passing game developed an outsized reliance on Julian Edelman and didn’t get enough from its outside players or -- until the final stretch -- tight end.

In November, I wrote about bills coming due and the reboot the Patriots would face after the season. I wrote it with an air of foreboding because -- at that point -- they were 9-3, on their bye and fresh off an ass-booting by the Titans.

But all the tumblers fell neatly into their slots in the final five games and the safe opened to reveal another Lombardi. And now from the outside and --– more importantly -- within the organization there is a huge sense of optimism that the Patriots are ready for the reboot.

Even though there will be attrition -- Rob Gronkowski could retire, as could Devin and Jason McCourty. Trey Flowers and Trent Brown are pending free agents and losing either means there will be big shoes to fill.

But the Patriots not only have the draft capital and cap space to fill holes, they also have a pack of guys who “redshirted” in 2018.

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For instance, if Trent Brown parlays his season at left tackle into a huge payday -- and it would be a stunner if he didn’t -- Isaiah Wynn, a first-round pick who tore his Achilles in August. is in the bullpen. He didn’t play a snap in 2018.

Neither did Duke Dawson, a second-round pick from Florida. He hurt his hamstring, landed on IR, was elevated to the 53-man roster in November but was too far behind the other corners to get on the field.

Ja’Whaun Bentley, a fifth-round pick from Purdue, started the season brilliantly at linebacker but wound up on IR as well after three games.

Sixth-round picks Christian Sam (speed linebacker), Braxton Berrios (slot receiver) and seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo (tight end) also ended the year on IR. These three are bigger question marks than Wynn, Dawson and Sam, but at least they are in the mix. And they will be challenged because the Patriots have a pile of draft picks.

The Patriots currently have four in the first three rounds. When the compensatory picks for losing free agents Malcolm Butler and Nate Solder are doled out, they will likely have six in the first three.

That gives them a ton of collateral if they want to jump up and get a tight end (there’s a good crop) or wideout, or if they want to package picks and pick some sad-sack team who’ll probably be at the top of the draft in 2020 and fleece them of their first-round pick so they can take a top-10 quarterback.

It will be fascinating to see which course the Patriots choose. It’s likely they don’t even know what it will be yet, given so many things have to happen in the course of the next two months between free agency and the draft.

But one thing is certain. Whether we call it a rebuild, a reload or a reboot, it’s a lot less ominous now than it seemed in mid-November.

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Tom E. Curran: The Hall of Fame case for the Patriots' Julian Edelman

Tom E. Curran: The Hall of Fame case for the Patriots' Julian Edelman

It began after the AFC Championship Game.

After Julian Edelman caught seven passes for 96 yards against the Chiefs and was -- once again -- the player everyone knew the ball was going to but who still couldn’t be stopped.

That’s when discussion about him Edelman turning in historic performances turned into chatter about whether he could be a Hall of Famer.

That musing was met with howls of disapproval from Patriot-fatigued fans and analysts.

Edelman -- a system receiver, a slot receiver, a player who profited merely from taking a series of checkdowns from Tom Brady -- was being pushed forward by homer New England fans and media who have somehow come to think over the last two decades that Boston is the birthplace of football.

Edelman -- a nice little player, to be sure -- had never been a Pro Bowler, never mind an All-Pro. If he was being pushed for Canton, who's next? Ryan Wendell?  

Then Edelman went out and caught 10 passes for 141 yards in the Super Bowl and was named the game’s MVP. In doing so, he moved into second place in all-time postseason yards and receptions behind only Jerry Rice.

To think Edelman -- who dated Rice’s daughter Jacqui from middle school into college -- was now in the same stratosphere as the greatest wide receiver of all-time . . .  that didn’t slow the musing.

Doug Kyed of NESN put together a fascinating story after the AFC Championship Game putting into context Edelman’s numbers.

Kyed wrote:

Prior to becoming an integral piece of the Patriots’ offense, Edelman had nine receptions for 75 yards with two touchdowns in five postseason games. Let’s subtract those from Edelman’s playoff totals for a moment. That leaves Edelman with 96 catches for 1,196 yards with three touchdowns in 12 postseason games since becoming a full-time starter.

Extrapolate that over a 16-game season, and Edelman would have 128 receptions for 1,596 yards with four touchdowns. Only four receivers have had more than 128 catches in a single season. Only 23 receivers have had more than 1,596 yards in a single season. And Edelman’s putting up those numbers when games matter most.

And that was before the Super Bowl.

As for Edelman being a system guy, Kyed addressed that:

Former Patriots receiver Troy Brown appeared in 20 playoff games and had 58 postseason receptions for 694 yards with two touchdowns. Deion Branch appeared in 17 playoff games and had 64 catches for 948 yards with four touchdowns. Danny Amendola played in 13 postseason games and had 57 catches for 709 yards with six touchdowns. Wes Welker played in 13 postseason games and had 88 catches for 866 yards with five touchdowns.

Edelman is tied for second all-time in 100-yard postseason games with six. He’s tied with Michael Irvin and trails Rice by two. The players Edelman was tied with prior to the Super Bowl are Hall of Famers -- Andre Reed and John Stallworth -- or headed there (Antonio Brown and Larry Fitzgerald).

So much of the Edelman “debate” really boils down to pedigree. His candidacy is marginalized because he’s a slot receiver. He was a seventh-round pick, a converted quarterback from Kent State. He doesn’t take the top off the defense. He’s not physically imposing. He looks like that guy at your gym who’s always wearing sleeveless t-shirts and checking out his triceps in the mirror while he’s talking to people. He seems ordinary.

Which, to me, is kind of the point. To be able to look like just anyone but still perform like nobody else ever has except the greatest there’s ever been? And to do it in the most important games? Historic performances? Isn’t that what the Pro Football Hall of Fame wants to have its patrons experience when they walk through its halls? The wide range of NFL greatness?

Take a look at the accompanying video, produced and edited by my great friend Adam Hart, for a little more perspective. 

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