Anyone who thinks the Tom Brady contract “extension” discussion is much ado about nothing, and that he’ll automatically be back in Foxborough in 2020 probably also believed that Kyrie Irving was re-signing with the Celtics simply because he pledged to last October.
This is not business as usual for Brady or the Patriots, and the quarterback’s new deal is a big deal. Sorry. The chances of Brady playing until age 45 with the Patriots have definitely and notably decreased based on events of this week: a contract adjustment that sets him up for unfettered free agency after this season and his Brookline manse going on the market for $39.5 million, while reports surfaced that he and the Mrs. are eyeing real estate in the New York City suburbs.
If this happened to any other prominent Boston athlete — say, Mookie Betts — we would fret about a potential departure.
We could be heading for a Brady breakup sooner than we expected. One way or another, there’s a chance this is Brady’s last year with the Patriots, which was not really on anyone’s radar. This is not fear-mongering or Foxborough fake news. The idea that the greatest quarterback in NFL history could be in his final season playing for the most enduring dynasty in modern NFL history merits more than a yawn or a dismissive wave of the hand.
Understand that there has been a change in the tone and tenor on both sides of the Patriots-Brady relationship. Ambiguity and uncertainty have been injected into what was an unquestioned until-death-do-us-part partnership. Words like “uncharted territory” get thrown around publicly and privately regarding the path forward for the franchise’s crown jewel of a QB. Solemn declarations have morphed into intentions. It feels like both sides are wavering somewhat on what was dynastic dogma. The Patriots were never going to allow Brady to finish his career in another uniform. Brady was going to play until age 45.
While those remain the intentions of both parties, it feels like there is wiggle room on those commitments now. Both sides have outs via Brady’s new deal.
All Brady’s ersatz extension did was pad his paycheck for 2019, increasing his take-home pay from a paltry — at least by NFL QB standards — $15 million ($14 million base salary and $1 million in per-game roster bonuses) to $23 million ($20.25 million bonus, $1.75 million base, and the per-game roster bonuses). The added years at $30 million and $32 million are ghost years for salary-cap accounting purposes. They don’t exist. The Patriots couldn’t have Brady play on them if they wanted to, since they automatically void on the final day of the 2019 league year in March.
The pay raise distracts from the real significant part of the pact. Whenever the idea of Brady playing for another team was raised, the reflexive, dismissive response was that Patriots owner Robert Kraft would franchise-tag Brady before ever letting him decamp Fort Foxborough, so don’t waste your breath. So much for that.
But the Patriots have pledged not to franchise Brady, and there’s a proviso in his new contract that prohibits them from doing so. If Brady wants to go or feels underappreciated or undervalued, he can. There’s nothing the Patriots can do about it. That’s the most noteworthy part of his new contract. The Patriots surrendered the thing they value most: control.
It’s a concession, but for what reason? Ask yourself, who wanted to put that there?
Before, it felt certain that Brady would get to call his own shots as to how and when his Patriots career concluded. The Krafts said in interviews that he had earned that right. Now, it feels like coach Bill Belichick will make that final call, at least contractually, as he would for any other Patriot. No special treatment for Tommy.
If you’re an optimist, the idea of this contract is that it’s designed to spur a conversation after this season to reassess and reset Brady’s value.
Even though Touchdown Tom won his sixth Super Bowl last season, it wasn’t a vintage Brady year. He didn’t hit 30 touchdown passes playing a full season for the first time since 2013 and threw 11 interceptions, his most since 2013. The common thread of the ’18 and ’13 seasons is that in both cases Belichick surrounded him with a deficient wide receiving corps.
The Patriots and Brady have to sit down at some point before his contract voids in March and figure out what the right path forward is and determine whether there is one together. But a lot can happen in the months between now and then.
The doomsday scenario is that the sides can’t agree on a raise for Brady. He hits free agency and is offered upward of $30 million per year by an eager suitor. Belichick turns up his nose at that price for a soon-to-be 43-year-old passer. Brady either exits stage left to another NFL locale or simply takes his ball and his resistance bands home and retires. Either way, it’s over.
Members of Brady’s camp have always felt that his career would end the way it was launched — with a franchise quarterback and favorite son of ownership being replaced when Belichick felt it was time to move on. Brady deposed Drew Bledsoe. If Belichick’s blueprint had gone to plan, Jimmy Garoppolo would have at least been given the chance to depose Brady. But Brady outlasted Jimmy G, blowing up the succession plan.
You have to be more pliable than Brady to stretch this contract situation into the definition of business as usual.
We’ve become numb to Brady’s contract situation because while there is occasional brinkmanship (think 2010), it always gets done. He always backs down. He always takes less. He’s always a good soldier. Lather, rinse, and repeat. So, the expectation is that will continue to be the case. The sun will rise, the sun will set, Brady will re-up. Maybe, in the end, that’s what will happen.
But as Brady said, this is uncharted territory for everybody.