BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL
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The Patriots built a two-decade-long dynasty by being more shrewd, cunning, and cutthroat than other NFL teams.
They boast about their track record of trading players right before they hit their decline. They get good value on talent, manage the salary cap expertly, and are always three steps ahead of the competition.
Yet when it comes to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots want us to believe that they just plum ran out of options. That they exhausted every avenue and tried as hard as they could to keep him, but in the end, it was “just not sustainable,” as Bill Belichick put it back in October. That they had no choice but to dump Garoppolo at the trade deadline and salvage whatever they could for him — in this case, a second-round pick from the 49ers.
This, of course, is nonsense.
Why can’t the Patriots just tell the truth?
The Patriots clearly traded Garoppolo out of loyalty to Tom Brady. Belichick wanted to keep Garoppolo for the future, but Brady is serious when he says he wants to play until he’s 45, and the Krafts made it clear to Belichick that Brady isn’t going anywhere this offseason.
It’s the only scenario that makes sense.
And you know what? That’s OK! Everyone in New England loves Brady and can see that he’s still going strong at 40. And even if he does lose a step, so what? If there’s one player worth breaking the rules for, it’s Brady.
This is all Robert Kraft has to say:
“We love Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s a terrific football player and person, and he’s going to have a great career. But there’s only one Tom Brady, and his impact on the Patriots, my family, and millions of fans has been immeasurable. For everything he has done for New England and all of Patriot Nation, we stand by Tom Brady.”
That would be plenty for Patriots fans, who want nothing more than to watch Brady play football for another five seasons. No one would blame Kraft. It’s a completely understandable position.
But the Patriots won’t admit that this is what happened. For some reason, they want us to believe that they mismanaged the asset, got pennies for the dollar, and gifted a franchise quarterback to another team. They want us to believe that they executed one of the worst trades in the NFL in a long time.
Which they absolutely did.
The Patriots botched this trade every which way — giving up a great player and getting little in return. It’s the exact opposite of the supposed Patriot Way.
“I think that was a mistake trading Jimmy, because Jimmy’s an unbelievable quarterback,” former Patriot Rob Ninkovich said last week on WEEI. “He’s a guy that you can build a franchise around. Obviously, he’s going to be the franchise guy in San Francisco.”
This isn’t just 20/20 hindsight. We fans and media didn’t know how good Garoppolo was, but Belichick sure did.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jimmy,” Belichick said in a fawning post-trade conference call. “I couldn’t ask for him to give us any more than he’s given us. The 49ers are getting a good player, and they’re getting a good person, and they’re getting a great teammate and they’re getting a good quarterback.”
This Brady/Garoppolo decision didn’t sneak up on the Patriots. They had known for four years that Garoppolo would be a free agent after the 2017 season.
The Patriots had several options, but only two decent ones: trade Garoppolo before last year’s draft, or keep him for 2018 with the franchise tag and buy more time.
The first scenario would have netted them at least one first-round pick, probably more. It would have eased the sting of having to trade away a talented quarterback.
Yet they never prepared for this scenario. They didn’t draft Garoppolo’s replacement last year. They traded away Jacoby Brissett, the young, cheap, and capable backup.
The Patriots never explained why they didn’t trade Garoppolo before the draft, but they didn’t even consider it.
“There was no interest on our end in making that deal,” Belichick said in November. “It didn’t really matter what the offer was, or what the offer would have been. I don’t really know what they were because we never entertained it.”
The Patriots never intended to trade Garoppolo — until suddenly they did. And they dropped him right in the 49ers’ laps, without taking other bids.
The only plausible explanation for this sudden about-face is that Belichick was told that he’s not moving on from Brady after this season. Why else would the Patriots hold on to Garoppolo in April but dump him in October? The other explanations offered by fans and media make no sense:
1. The Patriots held on because they wanted to see if Brady would fall off a cliff.
That was never going to happen. Brady was coming off a transcendent season and Super Bowl victory, and remained as dedicated as ever to his training regimen and diet. There was zero chance that he would decline dramatically between the draft in April and the trade deadline in October. If anything, Brady would fall off a cliff over the second half of the 2017 season, which is even more reason to keep Garoppolo for the rest of the year as the backup.
2. They wanted to see if Garoppolo would sign a deal.
This also was never going to happen. It was no secret that Garoppolo wanted a chance to start and wouldn’t sign a “bridge” deal with the Patriots to back up Brady for a couple more years. The Patriots were never going to sign Garoppolo to any sort of deal as long as Brady was in the fold. They knew this.
Clearly, by keeping Garoppolo this long, Belichick believed he had the franchise tag in his back pocket. Either he was going to keep both quarterbacks for 2018, or trade Brady.
This notion that the Patriots couldn’t tag Garoppolo because it would wreck the salary cap is nonsense. It ignores the fact that most of the team’s impact players are already under contract for next year: Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, James White, Kyle Van Noy, Patrick Chung, Trey Flowers, and four-fifths of the offensive line, among others.
The Patriots need to figure out what they’re doing at left tackle and with Malcolm Butler’s spot, and they need to re-sign Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. But they’re not going to be major players in free agency.
That notion also doesn’t take into account the importance of a franchise quarterback. Setting up your organization with a long-term answer at quarterback is far more important than worrying about your cap space for one season.
Belichick got a degree in economics. Jonathan Kraft went to Harvard Business School. I have no doubt they could have found a way to keep Garoppolo in the fold and still field a championship-caliber team next year.
I’ll even do some of the work for them. The salary cap should be around $177 million next year, and the Patriots currently have $166.9 million committed. But I can create $18 million in cap space without breaking a sweat, releasing Dwayne Allen, Martellus Bennett, Phillip Dorsett, David Harris, and Shea McClellin, all likely moves. Brandin Cooks ($8.459 million) and Mike Gillislee ($2.4 million) also might not be worth their contracts. And there are several other players that can be restructured or released to create more space. It happens every offseason.
Paying Garoppolo $23 million next year could have been done. It could even be considered smart business, making an investment in the future. But the Patriots didn’t even bother trying to figure it out.
Why not? Because spending that money on Garoppolo is a clear sign to Brady that his time is drawing to an end. And the Krafts don’t want to be the ones to tell Brady that he can’t be a New England Patriot anymore. They are loyal to Brady to a fault.
And that’s OK. Everyone in New England understands it, and most fans embrace it. Why can’t the Patriots just admit it?
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