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The End of the Brady Era Will Not Be Pretty

Any Patriot fan born since the late 80’s probably cannot remember a time when Tom Brady was not the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots.  They don’t remember what it is like to root for a team that rarely made the playoffs.  It has been an abundance of riches for Patriots fans since Mo Lewis nearly killed Drew Bledsoe and Brady stepped in as the starter, a job Brady has not given up to this day.  Enjoy it all while you can, Patriots fans, because the end is coming, and it will not be a pretty one.

            It is been well documented that despite turning 40 at the outset of the 2017 Training Camp, Brady has stated he wants to play at least five more years.  He has touted his diet, exercise and lifestyle program as the key to his longevity in a game dominated by younger, faster and stronger players.  It is hard to argue with his results - two Super Bowl victories over the last three seasons with a trip to the AFC Championship game sandwiched in between.  But no one, no matter how much avocado ice cream you eat or how much sleep you get in your $200 high-tech pajamas, escapes time. 

The perfect ending to Brady’s fairy-tale career would be for the Patriots to win the 2018 Super Bowl and Brady decides to go out on top.  The Patriot’s moves to bolster their roster in the offseason certainly has the feel of making one last run for Tom.  But Brady is still saying he wants to play five more years, so obviously this isn’t in his plans.

So the big question looms out on the horizon like an approaching storm; how will it all end?  There’s been a lot of time spent on talk radio going over the different scenarios and speculations.  I have no possible way of knowing, but I do know one thing, it will not end well.

It is inevitable that Brady’s performance and skills will dip at some point, if not this coming season, then soon.  Will Belichick trade or release Brady.  Ask Ty Law, Lawyer Malloy, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinnest, Logan Mankins or Vince Wilfork if you think it’s not possible.  Belichick did not become the greatest coach of the modern NFL by being sentimental.  When a player’s value to the team starts to show signs of dropping, they find themselves heading down Route 1.  Two almost exceptions to this rule were Tedy Bruschi and more recently Rob Ninkovich, who were both smart enough to know when to get out.

Belichick would never do that to Tom Brady, you say?  Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time; you don’t trade away the greatest quarterback of all time.  Don’t count on it.  Besides being so coldly logical he would make a Vulcan jealous, Belichick is also a fanatic about the history of football.  And NFL history has not been kind to aging great quarterbacks.

Many of you may have heard of Johnny Unitas, who was the considered the greatest quarterback of his time when he played in the late ‘50s into the early ‘70s.  He had a long and distinguished career with the Baltimore Colts, winning three NFL Championships (pre Super Bowl), one Super Bowl, and was a five-time NFL MVP.  But when his skills declined, he was traded to the San Diego Chargers to end his career in one last miserable season.

Or perhaps you have heard of Brady’s boyhood idol, Joe Montana.  When Montana began to succumb to injuries and his skills declined, the 49ers brought in Steve Young to be his heir apparent.  After two injury plagued seasons for Montana, which allowed Young to establish himself as a star quarterback in his own right, the quarterback controversy was resolved with Montana’s trade to Kansas City.  Montana played fairly well for Kansas City for two more seasons, leading them to the playoffs both years, while Young went on to eventually win a Super Bowl on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame.

Lastly, I know you all know the story of Peyton Manning and his departure from Indianapolis to Denver for the final four seasons of his storied career.  The Colts had their eyes on someone younger, stronger and faster, which made saying goodbye to Manning that much easier.  Although Manning bounced back from missing the 2011 season to have a couple of good years with the Broncos, his ability rapidly dropped as he approached his 40th birthday.

Which brings us to today and the case of one 40-year old Tom Brady and his supposed heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo.  When Brady’s performance dipped in his mid-30’s, and his quarterback rating began trending downward from 105.6 in 2011 to 98.7 in 2012 to 87.3 in 2013, Belichick drafted Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft, the highest Belichick has ever drafted a quarterback in his tenure with the Patriots.  Belichick cited Brady’s age and contract status as reasons for expending such a high pick to bring in a back-up quarterback.  Belichick, the astute historian that he is, saw a quarterback on the decline and, also being the brilliant tactician that he is, saw the opportunity to bring in his next quarterback and took it.  Does that sound like the sentimental type?

Brady, to his credit, also saw the writing on the wall.  Whether it was the avocado ice cream or his (insert sound of Felger clearing his throat) alternative training methods, Brady reversed the decline and cemented his legacy as one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks off all time.  He saw the young gun coming for his job and wanted no part of it. 

Garoppolo added fuel to the fire with his stellar, albeit brief play during Brady’s four game suspension at the beginning of last season.  Even though it lasted less than six full quarters, Garoppolo showed flashes of being able to take the reins from Brady and lead the Patriots into the future.  But Garoppolo’s readiness to assume leadership of the team is far from a lock.  Countless quarterbacks have come into the league and showed the ability to make plays.  But the ability to turn those flashes into sustainable play is far more elusive.  One needs only look to the case of Matt Flynn, who was handed a huge free agent contract by Seattle in 2012 based on one outstanding start in place of Aaron Rogers the previous season, only to be beaten out for the starting quarterback job in training camp by rookie Russell Wilson.  Flynn has bounced around the league to six other teams and has been unable to hold on despite being signed by teams, such as Buffalo and the Jets, starving for quality quarterback play.

Garoppolo is now in the final year of his four year rookie contract.  The Patriots did not trade him during the off-season when they reportedly could have received a high pick in the first round from the Bears or the Browns.  Is Belichick simply holding on to him for insurance in case Brady suffers an injury in 2017, or is Belichick concerned that age will catch up with Brady sooner rather than later?  Belichick’s unwillingness to deal Garoppolo for a high draft pick would seem to indicate Garoppolo has long term value to the Patriots. 

Garoppolo will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2017 season.  The Patriots have the option to retain him, but they will likely need to place the Franchise Tag on Garoppolo to do so.  This will cost them over $20 million dollars to retain a back-up quarterback.  Even with an ever escalating salary cap, this does not sound like a move that will sit well with a value conscious Belichick.  Bolstering the depth of the defensive backfield or the offensive line would be a more efficient use of surplus funds.

Let’s now consider two scenarios for the post 2017 Patriots.

1.      Belichick releases or trades Brady and hands the job to Garoppolo.  Such a move would surely shock the fan base to its very core.  Tremendous pressure would be placed on Garoppolo to live up to the almost impossible expectations.  In a Boston sports media that attacks it victims like a shark attacks an injured seal, the scrutiny and comparisons to Brady will be relentless.  Steve Young eventually led the 49ers to a Super Bowl but was never able to escape the long shadow that was cast by the legend of Joe Montana.  Garoppolo is likely to have the same fate even if he is able to deliver on the promise he has shown.

2.      Garoppolo is traded or allowed to leave via free agency and Brady continues to quarterback the team into his 40’s.  This alternative leaves the Patriots with no parachute should Brady’s skills begin to decline.  If Jacoby Brissett makes the 2017 roster, far from a certainty as of this date, he has not shown the ability to take over the reins of one of the most complex offenses in the NFL.  The NFL is a quarterback driven league, and only those with elite quarterbacks have any hopes of successful seasons.  The Patriots made only four picks in the 2017 draft, and a future quarterback was not among the selectees.  There is no one behind Brissett to groom for the future.

Another wild-card in the mix is Patriots owner Robert Kraft.  Kraft has stated on numerous occasions that he does not interfere with Belichick to run the on-field football operation.  He has also stated that he loves Brady like one of his sons.  Will Kraft allow Belichick to make the football decision to move on from Brady in favor of Garoppolo?  Or will he step in and intervene and potentially risk losing the premiere coach in the NFL?  Kraft lost head coach Bill Parcells because of a dispute over “shopping for the groceries”, which is one of the reasons Belichick has been allowed to run the team personnel without interference from the owner’s box.  Would all that change when Tom Brady is the item in the shopping cart?

Given all the possibilities and variables in this equation, a definitive answer to the question of how will the Brady era end cannot be derived.  However, I think it is safe to rule out one outcome.  This fairy tale will not have a happy ending.

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