Patriots fans woke up Monday morning to these headlines:
Tom Brady is “open-minded” about free agency and will “embrace it with open arms.”
And Jimmy Garoppolo is taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Oof. A 1-2 combo, right to the gut.
Brady may still return to the Patriots for another season or two. But Garoppolo was supposed to be the Patriots’ heir apparent at quarterback. Bill Belichick believed in him, and wanted him to be the Steve Young to Brady’s Joe Montana. Belichick had the Patriots lined up for another decade of championship-level competitiveness with Garoppolo in the fold.
Instead, just 27 months after Belichick shipped Garoppolo to San Francisco at the 2017 trade deadline, the 49ers are reaping the benefits of Belichick’s plan, while the Patriots are stuck in quarterback limbo. They don’t know if Brady will be back, or for how long, and don’t have much of a succession plan behind him.
The way this trade has unfolded conjures two reactions:
1. Belichick was right. Garoppolo can play.
2. The Patriots still got what they wanted. This was a rare trade in which both sides got exactly what they bargained for.
The 49ers took a chance that a kid with two career starts would be a franchise quarterback, and their faith has been rewarded. Garoppolo, who turned 28 in November, is definitely the real deal. Since the start of the 2017 season, the 49ers are 4-20 without him in the lineup, and 21-5 with him. The 49ers went 1-10 without Garoppolo in 2017, then he entered the lineup, and they won their last five games.
This year, Garoppolo finished third in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.4), fifth in completion percentage (69.1), second in explosive throws (38 completions of at least 25 yards), and eighth in passer rating (102.0). In the same stats, Brady finished 27th (6.6), 27th (60.8), 11th (31), and 19th (88.0).
The fact that Garoppolo has the 49ers in the Super Bowl in his third season — and first full season as a starter, as he missed 13 games last year with a torn ACL — is fairly remarkable. Getting to the Super Bowl is difficult, even for the best quarterbacks (ask Aaron Rodgers, who has been only once). When he drafted Garoppolo in 2014, Belichick said the qualities of a top quarterback are “being able to manage the game, being able to do what the team needs to win, be accurate, be smart, and be productive.” That describes Garoppolo to a T.
The Patriots, meanwhile, knew they were giving up on their future to a degree when they traded Garoppolo. They violated the Patriot Way by choosing the old guy (Brady) over the young guy (Garoppolo). But they did it out of loyalty to Brady, who at that point had won the franchise five Super Bowls, including two in the past three seasons.
Brady, 40 years old at the time of the trade, had just pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history to defeat the Falcons. He was adamant about wanting to play for several more years, and the Krafts overruled Belichick, forcing the trade of Garoppolo.
The terms of the trade overwhelmingly tilt in favor of the 49ers. Getting a franchise quarterback for a measly second-round pick (43rd overall) is the steal of the century. In 2016, the Eagles traded two 1’s, a 2, a 3, and a 4 to get the No. 2 overall pick to draft Carson Wentz. The Patriots ended up trading that 43rd pick into oblivion, ending up with a handful of rookies (including quarterback Jarrett Stidham), none of whom has made an impact in the NFL yet.
But we can’t say the Patriots, or at least the Krafts, didn’t get what they wanted, either.
Belichick may have wanted to move on from Brady, but Patriots fans largely did not. And Brady delivered. After the trade on Oct. 30, 2017, Brady took the Patriots to two consecutive Super Bowls, winning one, to give them a sixth Lombardi Trophy. And in 2017 he was named the league’s MVP, the first player age 40 or older to win the award.
Is it better to plan for the future or go all-in for the present? There is no right answer, just a personal preference. The Patriots chose the here and now, and it worked out about as well as possible.
The future might very well be a disaster for the Patriots. But they also have a chance to find another Garoppolo in the next couple of years. It’s not as though Garoppolo is the only other quarterback on the planet.
If there is criticism to be levied, it’s that Belichick didn’t get enough for Garoppolo.
The Patriots were sitting on a gold mine, and essentially gave away Garoppolo. Niners general manager John Lynch called the decision to accept Belichick’s trade offer a “no-brainer,” and couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“It took us, [coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and I, about 10 minutes to decide that this was the thing to do,” Lynch would say.
The Browns were ticked off that Belichick never called them. They reportedly were willing to give up the No. 12 pick for Garoppolo before the 2017 draft. An ESPN Magazine report from two years ago intimated that Belichick traded Garoppolo out of spite, and hand-delivered him to the 49ers because Belichick respected Shanahan and wanted to put Garoppolo in a good situation.
At minimum, Belichick should have called the Browns and Bears before the 2017 trade deadline and played them off the 49ers to get the best possible deal. And the smart move would have been trading Garoppolo prior to the 2017 draft, when Belichick potentially could have gotten the 12th pick from Cleveland (a pick that eventually was traded to Houston and used on — wait for it — Deshaun Watson, who could have been Brady’s heir).
The notion that Belichick had to hold onto Garoppolo for the start of the 2017 season to see if Brady’s body and performance would hold up is not based in reality. Brady was just coming off one of his best seasons and a record-setting Super Bowl, and was as committed as ever to his training. Brady was not going to fall off a cliff between Super Bowl LI and the first half of the 2017 season.
In actuality, Belichick waited as long as he could to trade Garoppolo because he wanted to get Garoppolo to sign a two- or three-year bridge deal to wait out Brady. And/or because he thought he could use the franchise tag to keep Garoppolo for the 2018 season.
But Garoppolo had no interest in waiting out Brady. He wanted to start, and he wanted to get paid. This competitiveness endeared Garoppolo to the 49ers.
“I know New England wanted to keep him there and keep him on ice before Tom eventually retired,” Shanahan later told Sports Illustrated. “But what was exciting for me was that New England knew he wasn’t going to re-sign there. He wanted to start and he wanted to play. He forced their hand.”
And the Krafts likely had no appetite for paying more than $20 million for a backup quarterback, even if it could have been viewed as a one-year investment in the future. Paying Garoppolo that kind of money would signal to Brady that his time was coming to an end, and that did not fly with Brady or the Krafts.
So Belichick’s hand was forced, and he delivered Garoppolo to the 49ers on a platter. He did what was best for Garoppolo, not the Patriots.
The 49ers got a franchise quarterback out of the trade, and two years later, a spot in the Super Bowl. But the Patriots got two trips to the Super Bowl, one Lombardi Trophy, and an MVP season out of the deal, too.
We can quibble about the Patriots not getting enough for Garoppolo. We can wonder whether Garoppolo would have led the Patriots to a Super Bowl last year, too. And the Patriots’ future at quarterback is certainly murky.
But ultimately, both the Patriots and 49ers got exactly what they bargained for.