Tom Brady and the Patriots need each other. If the sides hadn’t come to that realization yet, it should have set in Sunday watching the Kansas City Chiefs lift the Lombardi Trophy.
Both Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the figure in the franchise who needs to display the most pliability regarding committing to the will-be-43-year-old Brady, were on the field at Hard Rock Stadium before Super Bowl LIV, honored as part of the NFL 100 All-Time team. Who knows whether they stuck around, but if they want to retain AFC eminence and win a seventh Super Bowl as quarterback and head coach, they need to stick together.
The best path for the Patriots and Brady to stave off a changing of the guard initiated by the Chiefs and wunderkind QB Patrick Mahomes, who supplanted Brady as the youngest Super Bowl MVP, is to extend the greatest pigskin partnership in NFL history. As tantalizing as it must be for both men to imagine burnishing their legacies by striking out on their own after 20 years, their calculating football CPUs have mapped out the scenarios by now. Brady and Belichick must know that they don’t have any better options than each other.
That’s why you had the report Sunday from NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport that the Patriots were prepared to pay Brady the franchise quarterback going rate of $30 million per year to return, a stark departure from precedent. (A looming new collective bargaining agreement with a 17-game season and the resulting increased revenue and salary cap also factor into the team’s newfound thinking.)
With another NFL season completed, there is no offseason story line larger than Brady. The ghost years on the iconic QB’s contract adjustment that boosted his 2019 pay to $23 million automatically void on the final day of the 2019 league year, setting him up to reach free agency for the first time in his storied career March 18.
He doesn’t plan to retire. He commercialized that point for effect in a Super Bowl ad. Reports on Super Bowl Sunday from NFL insiders Rapoport and Adam Schefter indicated that the Los Angeles Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders are prepared to woo Brady.
Brady has always behaved as if he were beholden to the Patriots and truckled in contract negotiations. For the first time, he’s in the driver’s seat. That was important to him when he agreed to the adjusted contract and asked that it include a provision that barred the team from using the franchise tag on him. Brady grew frustrated with repeated attempts to squeeze a long-term commitment out of Belichick being rebuffed.
So the Patriots can’t begrudge Brady his free agency foray. Sometimes it’s just nice to feel appreciated, to be wined and dined and reminded of how special you are. But they have to leave the Gillette Stadium lighthouse on for him, a beacon that allows Brady to find his way home. The Patriots shouldn’t make a move at the position until they know whether Brady is moving on.
There is no obvious alternative for Brady. The same rings true for the Patriots. They have a team constructed to win now; New England had the NFL’s oldest opening-day roster in 2019. They can’t wait for a young QB like Jarrett Stidham to find his footing. Does Belichick want to gamble on going gridiron Joanna Gaines, reclaiming some piece of abandoned QB scrap wood and fashioning it into a centerpiece under center?
Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr — potential QB collateral damage of a Brady move to Vegas — none of them give Belichick as good a chance of going toe to toe with Kansas City and Mahomes as Brady would. All of them would be like bringing a Super Soaker to a gunfight.
This wouldn’t even be a conversation if the Patriots were convinced that Stidham was ready to take the reins the way Belichick felt San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl-losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was when he was TB12’s understudy. Despite the hype machine being fired up to warp speed for Stid the Kid, it’s obvious the team isn’t completely sold on him.
Bringing Brady back will require making a multiyear contract commitment and upgrading the feeble weapons that reduced him to mere mortal status during a frustrating and challenging 12-4 campaign that fizzled out with a first-round playoff exit.
With the retired Rob Gronkowski playing pitchman instead of pitch and catch with Brady, the Patriots finished with the league’s lowest percentage of targets to tight ends (9 percent). The league average was 21 percent. Brady also lacks reliable and viable wide receiver targets outside of Julian Edelman. Brady’s BFF turns 34 in May and could be the new face of the board game Operation he’s taken so much damage.
Brady steadfastly refused to give the offense his imprimatur all season, turning saturnine about its feckless state after wins over Buffalo and Philadelphia.
He wasn’t the only one underwhelmed by Patriots pass-catchers in 2019.
An AFC personnel evaluator expressed surprise at how threadbare Belichick left the offensive arsenal, relying too heavily on rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers.
The commitment Brady is looking for will be measured in a pledge to upgrade his contract and the talent around him. The latter is a promise Brady has heard before, only to watch talented teammates depart.
However, Brady has to realize that the lure of the Patriot Way and Belichick’s brilliance can best attract the upgraded supporting cast he seeks.
There remains no better place for Brady to compete for championships, continue to play in an offense tailored to him like a bespoke suit, and proselytize the TB12 Method to the masses than Patriot Place.
With the Chargers or Raiders, he’s in the same division as the Chiefs. The Chargers have talent, but tight end Hunter Henry and running back Melvin Gordon are earmarked for free agency. LA’s offensive line is questionable, and the Chargers are institutionalized underachievers.
If Brady rolls with the Raiders, he would have a proven coach in Jon Gruden and a talented young back in Josh Jacobs. But the Raiders defense pales in comparison to the Patriots’ dominant unit. Only the Arizona Cardinals allowed opposing passers a higher QB rating last season than the Raiders’ 103.8.
Joining old friend Mike Vrabel in Tennessee would make sense. But Brady would have to learn a new system. Plus, as well as the rough-and-tumble Titans played in reaching the AFC title game, they only squeaked into the playoffs at 9-7.
And Brady isn’t going to subject himself to some NFC rebuild in Carolina or Tampa Bay.
So, where does all of this leave Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots? Right back where they belong, with each other.
It’s the only sensible option.