A look of trepidation came over Tom Brady’s face on Wednesday afternoon in the Patriots’ locker room. I asked if I could hit him with a couple of quick questions at his locker, before his news conference started. He didn’t know where I was going with this.
“Just about Jacoby Brissett, his opportunity in Indianapolis and his new contract,” I assured Brady. A smile quickly came over his face.
“He deserves it,” Brady said. “He’s gone through a lot in a young career. I’m proud of him embracing the opportunity. He showed a lot of mental toughness through all of it, so it was great to see. I’m happy for him.”
Brissett, the Colts’ fourth-year quarterback, has gotten his golden opportunity, one that never comes to many backups. Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement two weeks ago elevated Brissett to starter, and the Colts are putting their full faith behind him. They rewarded Brissett with a new contract this past week, tearing up the final year of his rookie deal to give him a two-year, $30 million deal, with $20 million fully guaranteed.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard believes Brissett is a top-20 quarterback, and proved it by increasing his pay from $2 million to $15 million for this season.
“He’s our guy. We believe in Jacoby,” Colts coach Frank Reich said this past week. “Everything we’ve seen from Day 1 about the way he handles his business, about the way he performs, he’s our guy. And we wanted to make that statement going forward.”
Brissett has a lot of people around the league rooting for him, but especially so in New England, where his bonds still run deep. Brissett, the Patriots’ third-round pick in 2016, remains close with Brady and players such as Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, even though Brissett spent just one year with the Patriots before being traded at the start of the 2017 season.
“When he was here he was kind of the little brother that would hang out with us. That relationship kind of stuck even though he’s gone to play elsewhere,” McCourty said. “I texted him as soon as Luck retired. ‘Obviously, not the ideal way you thought you’d become a starter, but this is what you prepare for, this is what you’ve been in the league for the last couple years.’
“He was always saying, ‘I don’t want to be a backup,’ and this is an opportunity to go out there and show everybody.”
While Luck’s retirement caught the world by surprise, it didn’t affect the Colts’ operation too much. Luck barely participated with his team all year; instead it was Brissett leading the way during offseason workouts and training camp and film sessions.
And now Brissett gets his chance to prove himself as the Colts’ long-term solution. Unlike in 2017, when Brissett was acquired right before Week 1 and dropped into the lineup, Brissett has now had 1½ years of working with Reich and his system. Brissett’s stats in 2017 weren’t outstanding — 193 yards per game, 13 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 58.8 completion percentage, and a 4-11 record as a starter — but the Colts gained a deep admiration for Brissett for the way he handled himself that season.
Now they believe Brissett is ready to take the next jump. Brissett has been working hard with quarterbacks coach Tom House to improve his mechanics and accuracy. Another AFC executive said his team believes Brissett is a top-20 quarterback, as well.
“We talk about trust, toughness, and team. We think Jacoby represents all three of those things,” Reich said. “Jacoby has way-above-average arm talent. On top of that he’s just continued to develop as the complete passer, making touch throws, moving in the pocket, off-schedule throws. Just really happy with how he’s thrown the football right now.”
The contract extension adds another fascinating dynamic to Brissett. Only 26 years old, he doesn’t have an agent, and negotiated the deal himself. He also negotiated his rookie contract with the Patriots in 2016, and got more money than 18 players drafted above him (all non-quarterbacks).
“I did it my rookie contract too, so I kind of had the gist of it,” said Brissett.
Of course, Brissett also has a unique support network. He continues to maintain close relationships with Bill Parcells, Ron Wolf, Dan Henning, and former seven-year safety Abram Elam to help him navigate his career.
And Brissett knows that this contract is not a reason to necessarily celebrate. Realistically, Brissett will play out this year and renegotiate next spring, so this is still a prove-it season.
“Money doesn’t define me, so therefore it doesn’t change me,” Brissett said. “I’m obviously grateful beyond words for this opportunity, for the Irsay family and Ballard and the team for trusting me. It’s hard to put that part of it in words. But still got to play football.”
Brady said he is thrilled to see Brissett get his opportunity.
“You never know when you’re going to get it, so you’ve got to prepare like it’s going to be the next day, and when you get it you got to seize the opportunity,” Brady said. “I try to tell that to a lot of young guys. It’s great to see him take advantage of it.”
Hoyer a welcome addition for Colts
Speaking of the Colts’ quarterback room, they couldn’t have been more thrilled to add Brian Hoyer this past week as Brissett’s backup.
“This guy is super, super smart,” said coach Frank Reich, who worked with Hoyer for a few weeks with the Cardinals in 2012. “I just forgot how smart he is. This guy has been around the block, in different systems. I really think he’ll be a calming voice and a steady influence on Jacoby [Brissett].”
The Colts quickly scooped up Hoyer after the Patriots released him at roster cutdowns last weekend. And the Colts paid him, too — Hoyer got a three-year, $12 million deal that will pay him $5 million this year and $4 million next year. Hoyer was only going to make $2.8 million from the Patriots this year, making it even more curious that they released him and didn’t trade him.
“There’s a lot of things involved with that situation. That’d be a longer conversation,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this past week. “We did what we did. We’ll stand by that.”
Hoyer’s head was spinning as he tried to adjust from the Patriots to the Colts. “I was telling Jacoby, ‘Imagine it’s studying Spanish for four years in college, and then the last week before finals they’re like, all right, here’s French, the final exam is on Sunday,’ ’’ Hoyer said.
Hoyer and Brissett just missed each other in New England — Hoyer was acquired in 2017 because Brissett was traded — but they became friends this offseason. They shared a hotel room at the Tom Brady Kentucky Derby bros trip extravaganza.
“When everything went down with Andrew [Luck], I texted Jacoby, ‘Hey man, this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, best of luck,’ and I had no idea that three weeks later I’d be here,” Hoyer said. “I’m kind of learning from him right now, but I just hope to be able to help him however I can.”
Luck’s retirement sent expectations crashing for fans and the gambling community, but it might be foolish to count out the Colts. With Brissett and Hoyer they have two tough, smart, and poised quarterbacks, and their coach, Reich, is Mr. Backup — he led the Bills back from a 35-3 deficit as a backup to beat the Oilers in the playoffs, then won a Super Bowl in Philadelphia as an offensive coordinator with backup quarterback Nick Foles.
The Colts have a great offensive line and an ascending defense, and are just fine with everyone counting them out right now.
“As much as everyone loves and appreciates how much of a player Andrew was, we all know this game doesn’t revolve around one player,” Reich said. “This is the start of the climb, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Milestones riding on 2019 season
A handful of notes on the new season from the NFL’s “Kickoff Guide”:
■ Tom Brady has a few noteworthy achievements at stake. He can become the oldest quarterback to start all 16 games. This will also mark his 20th season, tying Washington’s Darrell Green and the Rams’ Jackie Slater for the second-most seasons with one franchise (Detroit’s Jason Hanson, 21).
Brady, currently No. 3 on the all-time touchdown list (517), needs 22 to tie Peyton Manning (539). Manning will also likely be surpassed by Drew Brees (520) this year. And Brady, No. 4 on the all-time passing yardage list (70,514), should surpass Brett Favre (71,838) and Manning (71,940) sometime in October. Brees is No. 1 all time (74,437).
■ Only one active quarterback has a career winning percentage better than Brady’s .772 (minimum 10 starts, including playoffs) — Jimmy Garoppolo, at .800. Of course, Brady has a 237-70 record, and Garoppolo is 8-2.
■ With another championship, Bill Belichick would surpass Curly Lambeau and George Halas as the only head coach with seven titles. Belichick is also just eight wins away from 300 (including postseason).
■ The Patriots’ 10 straight division titles is already three more than anyone in NFL history. A 10-win season would be their 17th in a row, and would break a tie with the 49ers (1983-98). They can also join the Bills as the only teams to reach four straight Super Bowls.
■ Meanwhile, since 2002 realignment, the Lions, Browns, and Bills have yet to win a division title.
■ The NFL is coming off a record season of combined passer rating (92.9), completion percentage (64.9), and touchdown passes (847).
■ Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald (1,303 catches) is 23 away from surpassing Tony Gonzalez for second-most in NFL history (Jerry Rice, 1,549). Bills running back Frank Gore (14,748 rushing yards) needs 522 yards to surpass Barry Sanders for third-most in NFL history. And Rob Gronkowski (80 touchdowns) is tied with LeSean McCoy for the most TDs scored in the 2010s, followed by Antonio Brown (79), Dez Bryant (75), and Marshawn Lynch (75).
■ When making your season-long predictions, make sure you pick at least one team to go from worst to first, which has happened in 15 of the last 16 seasons. Last year, Houston and Chicago did it. The 2009 Saints and 2017 Eagles went from worst to champs.
■ This year marks the NFL’s 100th season, the 50th anniversary of “Monday Night Football,” the 25th season for the Panthers and Jaguars, and the 10th anniversary of RedZone channel.
■ Seven teams will travel “around the world,” or surpass 25,000 miles. The teams with the most travel miles this year: Raiders (40,188), Rams (36,186), Seahawks (33,216), Chargers (32,892), 49ers (30,210), Buccaneers (27,670), and Jaguars (25,336).
Meanwhile, the Patriots travel the fifth-fewest miles, thanks to a schedule rotation that includes the NFC East and AFC North. The teams with the fewest miles: Jets (7,854), Giants (9,246), Bills (10,158), Redskins (11,170), Patriots (11,960).
Brown’s behavior proved costly
The Brown ordeal came to an inevitable conclusion on Saturday, with the Raiders first voiding his guarantees, then releasing the talented receiver after tiring of his antics.
What’s amazing is the amount of self-inflicted damage that Brown caused, before earning a single penny. He didn’t get a signing bonus, and the Raiders had recourse to void his guarantees.
The Raiders badly wanted Brown to be their star player and were willing to pay him handsomely for it. But Brown just couldn’t behave or do anything that wasn’t on his terms.
Brown had $29.1 million in fully guaranteed money coming to him over the next two seasons, and earning it should have been easy. Brown could have made $500,000 this spring had he participated in 85 percent of the Raiders’ spring practices, but he skipped them.
And all he had to do to collect a $14.625 million salary this year was be a good teammate, and show up for Week 1. The entire salary would have been guaranteed had Brown been on the roster at 4 p.m. Saturday. But he lashed out once again at GM Mike Mayock and the organization on Saturday morning, and the Raiders swiftly cut him before the guarantees kicked in. The fact that Brown couldn’t behave for even one day, with $14.625 million at stake, is unbelievable.
“Nuts, man,” one Raiders player told me. “They had his back all through the stuff through camp. This is all on him.”
Apparently neither Jerry Jones nor Ezekiel Elliott paid attention to recent NFL trends when agreeing to the new contract this past week. With teams increasingly reluctant to pay running backs given their injury risk, Jones sunk a record $50 million guaranteed into his. And with players now trending toward shorter deals, in order to hit free agency as many times as possible, Elliott agreed to an eight-year deal, effectively signing control of his entire career over to the Cowboys. Elliott will soon enough be in a Gronk situation, where he is annually griping about his contract . . . Boy, do the Houston Texans reek of desperation. First they gave away Jadeveon Clowney for a lousy third-round pick, then gave up two first-round picks and a second-rounder for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills, who was possibly going to get cut in Miami. The Clowney trade was made even worse by the fact that the Texans agreed to pay $7 million of his $15 million salary, and still got practically nothing in return. Bill O’Brien is clearly in win-now mode, and if the team flops this year, he probably will get fired, and the lack of first-round picks will be someone else’s problem. If anyone in Houston is to blame, it’s owner Cal McNair for signing off on the deals and allowing O’Brien to mortgage the team’s future . . . Stills is in a tough spot in Houston. He was one of the most outspoken voices on social justice matters and has continued to kneel for the national anthem through this year while with the Dolphins. Now he joins the Texans, who have one of the league’s most conservative owners and fan bases. If he continues to kneel, he risks alienating his new owner and fans. If he stops kneeling, he risks alienating his supporters . . . For the first time this year, the NFL rulebook has been written in Spanish . . . Kyler Murray will be the first rookie quarterback to start in Week 1 for the Cardinals since Lamar McHan in 1954. Only the Packers have gone longer (Tobin Rote, 1950) . . . Clete Blakeman, the referee for Patriots-Steelers on Sunday night, has quite the history with the Patriots. In 2012, he worked the “U Mad Bro?” game against Seattle. In 2013, his crew didn’t call pass interference on Luke Kuechly covering Gronkowski in the end zone on the final play on “Monday Night Football.” In 2015, he was one of the football testers at halftime of the Deflategate game against the Colts. Also in 2015, he presided over Matthew Slater’s coin toss controversy against the Jets, which forced the Patriots to kick off in overtime. And Blakeman worked both the 2018 and 2019 AFC Championship games.
Much like the Patriots have brought Jerod Mayo and Troy Brown back into the coaching staff, they need to find a spot for Hoyer whenever he hangs up his cleats.