At least Tom Brady and Bill Belichick could agree on something in the wake of a Patriots season that ended too soon. Both the coach and the quarterback asked for time and patience before pondering their future together. This is how each deflected questions about whether they would still be together next season: Belichick used an “it’s 12 hours after the game” excuse a day after the wild-card loss to the Titans and Brady used a similar “we are a week removed from the end of our season” during a standing Westwood One radio interview.
But the clock is ticking, with Brady’s contract set to expire March 17 at 4 p.m., at which point he becomes a free agent for the first time in his NFL life. Do the Patriots re-sign the 42-year-old quarterback before then? Do they want to? Does Brady agree to another one-year deal or maybe hold out and get the longer one that would bring him to a preferred finish line of age 45? Does he want to?
If you ask me, the answers lie with Belichick more than they do with Brady or team owner Robert Kraft. For Brady to return — and please, no other solution makes better sense for both sides — Belichick is the one with the real power, positioned as he is between an owner and player who have repeatedly professed their deep emotional attachment to each other and need someone to work out details to make their ongoing union possible. Belichick has the means to massage both sides, overseeing the roster’s financial decisions that Kraft underwrites and crafting the game-day roster that Brady overshadows.
Whether Belichick has the motive is the question.
For one former Patriot who won a couple of Super Bowls along this Belichick-Brady football superhighway, the union needs to continue.
“You would hope those guys want to make another run at it and that they come together and talk about it and figure it out,” former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said in a recent phone call. “Time is ticking and there’s only a few bites left of the apple left for everybody. Tom is 42, he’s going to be 43. He understands that. He knows he only has a few left in him. The same with Bill. He’s been around the game a long time.
“I wouldn’t put it past them. They’re both professionals and they understand the way that the business works. Tom’s been here a very long time. There’s a lot more to it than just football. As you get older, you have family, kids, a wife, they all have input on these things, these decisions. Toward the end of my career I started thinking more about my family than football. Those are all things that factor into it. Starting over with a new offensive coordinator, a new coach, those are all things Tom has to look at. And Bill moving forward has to figure out what this team is with a second-year quarterback.
“I definitely think they could have a sit down and talk about it and figure it out. They’ve done it before in the past. There’s got to be some give and take.”
Ninkovich made his exit from the game simple — deciding after the Patriots’ historic Super Bowl comeback over the Falcons that he’d had enough, and that there was no better way to go out than with a title. After spending a year hanging out with a wife and three children who had been so accustomed to shaping their lives to his NFL demands, Ninkovich recently signed on with ESPN as a commentator, and even more recently, inked a deal with Men’s Wearhouse to promote their new suits, whose linings can be customized with favorite teams.
“As a former player, I can still rock my colors,” he laughed, “I think it’s going to be great for people who have a lot of love and support for their teams, but don’t necessarily want to wear a jersey or if they have to dress up and wear a suit. It’s a great combination of fashion and still having love for your team.”
For the past 20 years in New England, no team, and no player, has been more beloved than the Patriots and Brady, their six Super Bowls together spoiling a fan base that is so appreciative yet at the same time so spoiled, eager for more. There’s simply no way to know if Belichick could win without Brady, just as there is no way to know if Brady could win without Belichick.
“That’s the biggest question, the one I’ve most often received from people when I meet them. Is it Tom or Bill?” Ninkovich said. “That’s a tough one, a tough one to answer. I’ve never seen it, and nobody else has either. There is no Bill without Tom and there is no Tom without Bill. They’ve been together for 20 years.”
For Ninkovich, there’s a hefty dose of “be careful what you wish for,” if indeed the two break up.
“It could go bad for Tom if he goes somewhere else and goes 8-8, and people say ‘It was Bill,’ ” he said. “Then flip it the other way. If Tom, has success somewhere else and the Patriots don’t, people will say, ‘Bill can only win with Tom.’ They’ve had that success because of the fact they’ve had great quarterback play and great coaching. The Patriots wouldn’t be the Patriots without Tom and they wouldn’t be the Patriots without Bill.
“It’s a big question mark going forward.”