For the past few weeks, various reports have suggested the New England Patriots aren't looking to trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, despite having a five-time Super Bowl champion ahead of him on the depth chart and a favorable market this offseason for his services. Assuming it's true and not some springtime subterfuge, the decision to keep Garoppolo is an interesting, risky decision. The backup plays on the cheap (he'll have a $1.1 million cap hit in 2017) and was excellent in Brady's place for the two games he played at the start of this season. But 2017 is the last year of Garoppolo's rookie contract and he's scheduled to hit the open market next March, which makes the whole situation far more complicated.
Why keep Garoppolo around? What are New England's plans at quarterback? Does it make sense to keep a guy whose future with the franchise is undefined? Here's what we can decipher today -- on March 1, 2017 -- about the future of Brady, Garoppolo and the Patriots. These are the team's options should it live up to these reports and play 2017 with Brady and Garoppolo at QB1 and QB2, respectively, on the depth chart. None of the options are altogether promising which is why standing pat appears to be the move (for now).
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Get rid of Tom Brady in 2018 and sign Garoppolo as the long-term quarterback
This is New England's problem. It appears to believe it has Tom Brady's heir on the roster, but since the king isn't ready to abdicate his throne, the Patriots are at an impasse. Garoppolo will be an unrestricted free agent next year, and there are only two real ways of bringing him back. The first -- giving him the long-term deal he'll seek -- is untenable if Brady is still around. Though he's playing far below his own market value, Brady is still scheduled to count $22 million against the cap in 2018. There's nothing New England could offer Garoppolo to keep him around playing understudy. The starting role would have to be his.
A few teams have encountered such a problem before. Aaron Rodgers was 25 when he took over from a soon-to-be 39-year-old Brett Favre. Steve Young didn't become 49ers starter until he was 31 and Joe Montana was a banged-up 37-year-old. (Though that situation was slightly different given that Young had played professionally before.) Garoppolo will turn 27 next season while Brady will be 41 - an age at which no quarterback in NFL history has ever performed at a high level. Historically, quarterback production falls off a cliff. When it does, will anyone be there to catch the Pats?
The bigger question is whether there's any chance the Pats show Brady the door. On one hand, this is the Patriots, the team that treats the NFL like the coldhearted business it is. Beloved players who've helped the team to dynastic success often go traded or unsigned. It's the NFL's ultimate "next man up" franchise. Brady isn't Mike Vrabel, though. This is his team as much as it's Bill Belichick's, and it's unfathomable to imagine him playing anywhere else. But if Brady slips at 40, can the team bring him back at 41 knowing that the future of the franchise might leave? How far does loyalty go?
Keep Brady around in 2018 and give Garoppolo the franchise tag, paying him $20 million to be a backup
This is the corner in which the Patriots have painted themselves. Barring a new contract, Garoppolo can go anywhere next year and the Patriots would get nothing for their troubles. The only way to retain him would be by giving him the long-term deal mentioned above or tagging him (either with the franchise or transition tag), neither of which is very enticing. The Pats could theoretically tag and trade Garoppolo, but they'd have zero leverage in such a deal and any potential trade partner would have to be willing to take on $20 million for a quarterback who may have only played seven quarters in his career up until that point. The impending free agency is the reason most assumed Garoppolo would be dealt this offseason. Get something for him while you can.
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Trade him now
During the entire NFL offseason, remember one thing: It pays to lie. Do the Pats really intend to keep Garoppolo in any circumstance? Doubtful. Nobody is untouchable -- not at the right price. If somebody put together a Godfather-type offer, Bill Belichick would listen. But saying he's coming back is a wise move, as it gives the Patriots the upper hand in any potential negotiations. Even if the Patriots are desperate to part with Garoppolo, why would they give up the high ground? The starting offer for, say, the 49ers might be a little higher if they think they're going to have trouble prying away Garoppolo. (Or maybe not. Who knows?) Regardless, there's no danger or potential repercussions in letting teams believe Jimmy G is staying put. If New England agrees to hear offers, it starts in the position of power. If it doesn't, there was nothing lost in leaking its intentions.
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Wait and see
There's an old Yiddish proverb "we plan, God laughs." There are dozens of things that could happen between now and next March. The Patriots may just be riding this one out, delaying their decision by a year in which any number of things could happen that would change the landscape of the team's quarterback situation. Consider any of these very real possibilities:
• Brady gets hurt, Garoppolo comes in and never gives the job back.
• Brady is ineffective and is relieved by a successful Garoppolo, who forces Brady's hand at the end of the season. Does Tommy risk the indignity of losing his job or retire with good cause and no damage to his legacy?
• The same things happen but Garoppolo is ineffective and the Patriots let him walk, choosing to find Brady's heir elsewhere.
• Brady keeps playing well and the Pats keep rolling with him because he's Tom Brady.
• The Patriots go back-to-back and Brady walks off into the sunset, handing the reins to his successor. (Or he just retires either way. This way is more romantic.)
No one, not even Belichick, can see the football future. Why rush into making a decision? The worst-case scenario is that Brady continues to play well, Garoppolo is deemed expendable in 2018 and the team missed out on a chance to get a few draft picks by keeping the backup around. But the greater risk is hinging your future on a quarterback about to turn 40 and leaving your franchise with no safety net for when he goes downhill.
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2017 is what matters
Looking down the road can be like searching for fool's gold. What matters most for the 2017 Patriots is the 2017 Patriots. If Brady gets hurt, who's the best quarterback to lead the team? If they're okay with Jacoby Brissett then Garoppolo becomes expendable. If Brissett isn't viewed as the quarterback of the future, then Garoppolo should stay simply because it's the best thing for 2017 and doesn't mortgage 2018 and beyond.
But be careful buying any whispers about the intentions of Belichick. You don't get to be a five-time Super Bowl champion by tipping your hand.