Maybe Tom Brady said, “I’m not.” Maybe he said, “This guy.” But whatever the quarterback mouthed courtside at the Syracuse basketball game, the weekend exchange between him and buddy Julian Edelman is just the latest episode of the most picked-over free agent saga the NFL has ever seen. And to think, Brady isn’t officially a free agent.
If it happens? Hold on for the ride.
Not since Peyton Manning went on a free agent tour to find a post-Indianapolis football home have we seen something like this. Brady, of course, could fulfill Edelman’s wishes and be back with the Patriots, either before or after the afternoon of March 18, when NFL free agency opens. That possibility separates his situation from Manning’s, whose divorce from the Colts was clean and efficient and left no possibility of return.
After Manning missed the entire 2011 season recovering from a neck injury, the Colts had already drafted Andrew Luck as his replacement. So they released Manning, a decision mutual enough to allow Manning to hold an emotional goodbye press conference yet seismic enough to open the door on an unprecedented NFL shopping frenzy.
The Broncos won the sweepstakes, but as much as that was exhilarating in the moment, it also signaled the start of a new reality. Manning’s reputation wasn’t built just on winning or compiling statistics, but on demanding the best from his bosses and teammates. How does a coach handle having one of the game’s GOATs walk into the locker room? In other words, what happens after the headlines?
That fascinating flip side to the conversation also applies to Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. What does a team face in satisfying someone as established, respected, and demanding as Brady, a six-time Super Bowl winner, three-time league MVP, and 14-time Pro Bowler?
“As far as leadership, there wasn’t one thing I had to do,” says John Fox, then the Broncos coach whose longstanding friendship with Manning helped bring him to Denver back in 2012, along, of course, with the presence of general manager John Elway, himself a Hall of Fame quarterback.
“When he walks in, he raises all boats. Guys are not going to let him down, and Brady has the same juice. That part’s going to happen, you know what I mean?
“That culture, outworking everybody, being prepared, doing your job, all those things militaristically speaking like, ‘Don’t let your brother down,’ all that stuff is going to happen. That’s the beauty of getting a guy like that, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, because they carry that weight. And it’s real. And you can see it as it occurs.
“The biggest thing is who’s around you. And what’s let Tom down, is [New England’s] lack of going out and getting people. Deep down inside, that pisses him off and it broke a little trust. Your supporting cast is huge, and it’s huge no matter where you go. The trust is convincing him you’re going to get him the people. This league is about players, not plays.”
The Broncos sold Manning on a roster that included Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Brandon Stokley, one that would later add Wes Welker. From there, Fox knew it was all about working together, making sure Manning got what he needed.
“Really good coaches put players in position where they have success,” said Fox, now an ESPN analyst. “So you have to be able to do that. With Peyton, I brought in his old-time coach [Tom Moore], I tried to put some of the things Peyton had success with in our offense.
“You don’t run plays because they’re your plays, you run plays that the quarterback is comfortable with. You’ve got to put some of that in your offense and we did that in Denver.
“There will be things Brady will want to do — play-action, motion indicators — and whoever it is better be bright enough offensively to figure it out. You better be ready to let him do some of his stuff. It can’t be, ‘This is our stuff and shut up, because this is what we run.’
“That will be part of the deal, what that organization and head coach are going to be willing to do for his comfort zone.”
In Fox’s case, it meant hiring an additional video person to meet Manning’s demands. While most advance scouting would include the previous three or four weeks of the opposing team’s games, Manning always wanted the entire season. If it was Week 15, he wanted to see 14 breakdowns. Brady is known for studying just as diligently.
“In Peyton’s experiences, there could be a play from Week 1 that a team might run again, and it’s the same with Tom and New England — they are that prepared,” Fox said.
He used an example from his own coaching life, when his Panthers lost to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
“In ’03, against us in Houston, they used a direct snap for a 2-point conversion,” he said. “Ten years later, against Atlanta in the Super Bowl, they ran the same play. I guarantee Atlanta didn’t go back 10 years and watch that play. But guys like Peyton or Tom remember that stuff.”
Manning’s time in Denver is remembered well, with one trip to the Super Bowl under Fox (they lost to Seattle) and a second career Super Bowl win in the 2015 season under Gary Kubiak. He’s the only QB in NFL history to win Super Bowls as a starter for different teams. If Brady leaves, and if he chooses well, he could match that feat, but only if the team he goes to is ready to do its part too.
“No. 1, there has to be a connection,” Fox said. “There’s got to be respect. Whoever he goes to, there’s got to be admiration for that coach. He’s not just going to go to anybody or any franchise.”
Whatever franchise it is, it had better be ready.