The Patriots appear to be in an enviable position at football's most critical position. According to ESPN.com's Dan Graziano, the defending Super Bowl champions have the NFL's best quarterback situation.
Tom Brady, who turns 40 in August, strengthened his case as the best NFL player of all time in Super Bowl LI. He engineered the greatest Super Bowl comeback ever, erasing a 28-3 deficit to beat the Falcons 34-28 in the first Super Bowl to ever go into overtime.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick rebuffed all trade inquiries before and during last month's NFL Draft to keep Jimmy Garoppolo, who was recently named the NFL's best backup quarterback by Sports Illustrated, despite other teams reportedly being willing to give up at least a first-round pick and possibly more for a largely unknown quantity entering a contract year. Garoppolo, who is making $895,077 in the final season of a four-year, $3,483,898 rookie contract, looked like a quality starting quarterback in the most extensive game action of his career while Brady served a four-game suspension because of Deflategate. In the six quarters Garoppolo played before being sidelined by a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder, he connected on 42 of 59 passes (71.2 completion percentage) for 496 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions to post a 119.0 passer rating.
Belichick's reluctance to deal Garoppolo so he serves as an insurance policy against Brady will potentially invite routine speculation during the 2017 season about how he will handle the quarterback situation in the future. Brady is under contract through the 2019 season and says he intends to play into his mid-40s. Any subpar performance by Brady resulting in a loss will likely raise questions about whether his time as New England's signal caller should or could be quickly coming to an end, especially considering Belichick's clinical approach to roster decisions and the history of older quarterbacks.
It wouldn't be the first time Brady has come under this type of scrutiny. In 2014, it was open season on Tom Brady's future with the Patriots after an early season blowout loss to the Chiefs on "Monday Night Football" where he was benched and Garoppolo performed well in garbage time. Brady quieted critics who started writing him off later that season by leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl XLIX victory in which he was named MVP.
Father Time is undefeated
Brady isn't showing any signs of slowing down. He is coming off a 2016 campaign in which he threw for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns with only two interceptions in 12 regular-season games.
However, Brady is beginning to approach uncharted territory. The NFL's history with quarterbacks in their 40s isn't pretty; typically, there isn't a gradual decline with older quarterbacks. The decline occurs rapidly, as was the case with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Father Time snuck up on both of them like a thief in the night.
Favre is the only quarterback to ever have an MVP-caliber season at age 40. He completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 4,202 yards with 33 touchdowns (second in the NFL) and just seven interceptions for a 107.2 passer rating (second in the NFL) during the 2009 season en route to leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. The wheels came off the following year in 2010 with Favre when he was 41; Favre promptly retired after that season. The oldest quarterback to play in a Pro Bowl is Warren Moon as a 41-year-old.
Brady's wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, didn't do Brady or the Patriots any favors last week when she created an uproar during a "CBS This Morning" interview by proclaiming her husband had a history of concussions, including one suffered last year. Brady wasn't listed by the Patriots last season or at any other point in his career as having a concussion or head injury. Brady's goal of playing well in his 40s, especially at a high level, seemed implausible before his wife's disclosure. Factor in potential head issues and it's even more of a long shot.
The Patriot Way
Brady could pose the biggest challenge to Belichick's clinical approach to roster management if he defies the odds with Father Time. Under Belichick, the "Patriot Way" has been to get rid of a player a year too early rather than a year too late, whether it's because of salary, performance or age. No player has been immune from the philosophy so far, which dates back to early in Belichick's New England tenure when four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy was released a few days before the start of the 2003 regular season because he refused to take a pay cut. Losing Milloy didn't prevent the Patriots from winning the Super Bowl that season.
The Patriots released Willie McGinest, who was 34 years old at the time, in 2006 two months after he set the single-game playoff record with 4.5 sacks against the Jaguars. In 2009, Mike Vrabel was traded to the Chiefs with quarterback Matt Cassel, who was designated as a franchise player, for a 2009 second-round pick. The Belichick favorite had been a starter at outside linebacker for the previous five seasons before the trade. Later in that same year, Richard Seymour, in the final year of his contract, was traded to the Raiders for their 2011 first-round pick a week before New England's season opener. Seymour earned two Pro Bowls berths after the trade.
More recently, the Patriots didn't miss a beat last season after jettisoning arguably their best two defensive players from 2015. Chandler Jones was dealt to the Cardinals early last offseason for a 2016 second-round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper, the seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft, since pass rushers are paid a premium. The Patriots weren't going to pay Jones the going rate for productive pass rushers, which starts in the neighborhood of $16 million per year with more than $50 million in guarantees.
Linebacker Jamie Collins turning down an $11 million-per-year extension during training camp was an impetus for dealing him to the Browns as last season's trading deadline approached. Instead of waiting until next year to receive a third-round compensatory selection at best for Collins leaving in free agency, the Patriots took a third-round compensatory pick in this year's draft (103rd overall) from the Browns.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft has taken a hands-off approach with Belichick where he has complete autonomy with football decisions. Should Belichick want to apply the Patriot Way to Brady, he would surely face a public backlash from Patriot Nation for pushing arguably the game's greatest player of all time out the door. It remains to be seen whether Kraft would intercede because of his close relationship with his long-time quarterback. Brady said he considers Kraft like a second father before Super Bowl LI. Several former Patriots players have referred to Brady as practically being Kraft's fifth son.
Brady's own father anticipates a rocky ending for his son. In 2015, he told the New York Times Magazine that Brady wanting to play as long as he can makes it inevitable that the business aspects of football will eventually take precedence over any personal relationships that have been developed.
Brady is under contract in 2018 and '19 for $15 million each season, which is a bargain for a high-caliber quarterback, with $22 million salary cap numbers. The Patriots would pick up $8 million of cap space by trading or releasing Brady early next offseason, where there would be a residual $14 million cap charge (also known as dead money) relating to the $28 million signing bonus he received in a 2016 contract renegotiation. The cap space gained would increase to $15 million with the dead money dropping to $7 million with a move made in 2019.
The best of both worlds for Belichick
Ideally, Belichick will delay his quarterback decision as long as possible while the situation works itself out over time. Convincing Garoppolo to bide his time waiting for Brady to retire will be a major coup for the Patriots. Garoppolo's representatives, Yee & Dubin Sports, already have an excellent rapport with the Patriots because of their representation of Brady. Garoppolo should have a good sense of Brady's plans because of their shared representation.
In the unlikely event Garoppolo chooses to go this route, it will probably require paying Garoppolo like a low-end starting quarterback to make it worth his while. Garoppolo could be in line for a contract comparable to the four-year, $72 million deal containing $37 million fully guaranteed that Brock Osweiler received as a free agent from the Texans in 2016 after just seven career starts if he hits the market in 2018.
Without a substantial premium, an extension shouldn't run any longer than Brady's contract so Garoppolo would become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 at the latest. One concept that might appeal to Garoppolo is the type of contract that Nick Foles received a couple months after being acquired by the Rams in a 2015 trade with the Eagles involving Sam Bradford.
Foles signed a two-year, $24.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $38 million through incentives) containing $13.792 million in guarantees. There was also a mechanism for Foles to void the final year of the deal (2017). The conditions were at least 50 percent offensive playing time during the 2015 and '16 regular seasons, with the Rams making the playoffs both years, the same playing time requirement with 19 or more regular-season wins in the two seasons, or two Pro Bowl selections.
There would probably need to be more security for Garoppolo than in Foles' deal. Foles lost his job to Case Keenum during the second half of the 2015 season because of ineffectiveness, which led to the Rams moving up to the top of the 2016 draft to take Jared Goff. The Rams released Foles at the start of training camp last season.
A more likely scenario is Garoppolo being franchised in 2018 after he plays out his contract for New England to preserve flexibility. Garoppolo would be ready to take the reins from Brady should Father Time get the best of Brady. He could still be dealt, like Cassel was when he was franchised, if Brady continues to play at a high level and third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett continues to develop.
There's a risk because the Patriots could be be stuck with Garoppolo making as much as a fully guaranteed $24 million with a softer trade market than this year. They could also give him a lot of leverage while trying to sign him to a long-term deal because a second franchise tag could be in excess of $28 million with a mandated 20 percent raise over his 2018 number. Garoppolo would have a de facto no-trade clause, because signing a long-term deal or agreeing to contract parameters would be a requirement for acquiring him. The Patriots would have more than $45 million of the 2018 salary cap devoted to two quarterbacks if Garoppolo played a fifth season in New England under a franchise tag.
Another outcome that can't be dismissed is Brady retiring if New England repeats as Super Bowl champions, which would be another way to solve Belichick's potential problem. Although the possibility seems remote right now, nobody anticipated Tony Romo ending his career as Dak Prescott's backup after losing his starting job due to injury when there were going to be opportunities to continue playing after the Cowboys eventually released him.
It's hard to imagine Belichick's end game with Garoppolo is the third-round compensatory pick New England would likely receive in 2019 for Garoppolo leaving in free agency next season. Belichick might feel compelled to move Garoppolo for a king's ransom if another team becomes desperate for a starting quarterback in the preseason or during the regular season before the Oct. 31 trade deadline because of an injury. He is usually a step ahead of most other coaches and front-office executives, where it seems like he is playing chess while everybody else is playing checkers. It will be interesting to watch how the next 10 to 12 months unfold for the Patriots.