The NFL stops for no man, woman or videotaping, ball-deflating dynasty. Less than a week after the New England Patriots paraded through downtown Boston to celebrate their fifth Super Bowl title in 15 years, attention has turned to the rest of 2017 and beyond, where the team has a problem only the Patriots could have: too many talented quarterbacks.
Tom Brady will turn 40 in training camp. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo has one year left on his minuscule rookie contract and is a movable commodity with a short-shelf life. What to do?
Given the ages, contracts and cap hits of both players, navigating the next months or years is going to require something Bill Belichick doesn't traffic in too much: nuance. Coming to a decision about how to proceed at quarterback will be a delicate balance of planning for the future, playing for the present and something new for Belichick. Having pangs of obligation and affection (theoretically) for the quarterback that's won him five Super Bowls is a new look for the Pats' coach and general manager who's seemed ruthless at times in getting rid of stars but always in the name of keeping his team on top of the sport. And, of course, none of the stars were quite as big as this. Here are the Patriots options:
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1. Trade Garoppolo this offseason, ride with Brady until he retires and then install Jacoby Brissett as starter
Brady has a few more years (two, at minimum - three, at maximum) as a starter, even though the history of quarterbacking careers after turning 40 is about as solid as Brady playing Eli Manning in a Super Bowl. If/when Brady stays, Garoppolo becomes untenable after next season when he'll be an unrestricted free agent and free to sign with any team. The Patriots could keep him around by slapping the franchise tag on him but what backup gets $20+ million per year? (Besides Brock Osweiler, I mean.) Garoppolo would have to go and then it's either Jacoby Brissett becoming the quarterback in waiting or the Pats scanning the sixth round of the 2019 draft for a doughy Big 10 quarterback fond of softer footballs. Brissett is the key. If the Pats liked what they saw from him during Brady's suspension (when he played three games due to a Garoppolo injury), then he's going to be the guy who gets to follow Tom Brady. Fun!
Pro: The Pats are reportedly going to ask for a first-round pick for Garoppolo (which, in a quarterback-soft draft, may not be the worst investment for a team like the 49ers or Browns) and shouldn't get anything lower than a second-round pick. Not bad for a guy who'll be an unrestricted free agent in 13 months. Though I suppose any trade deal would be contingent on Garoppolo signing a long-term deal with the new team. Then again, we live in a world where Osweiler got $72 million for playing seven games in 2015 without spiking himself, so who knows? One thing that appears nearly certain: Barring crazy, unforeseen circumstances, no team will pry away Garoppolo if he were to somehow get the franchise tag in 2018.
A potential trade partner would be buying pretty much sight unseen with Garoppolo, who has exactly 67 passes, 44 completions, two starts and four touchdowns on his highlight reel. Potential trade partners will do their due diligence on figuring out how much they can foretell based on those 67 passes but it's highly fallible guesswork. Remember Matt Cassel? Any NFL team looking to get Garoppolo is crazy if they don't. Crazy. "Losing 23 yards from the 22-yard line with the Super Bowl in the balance" crazy. (Belichick coaxed Cassel to an 11-5 record the year Brady got hurt, then Cassel signed a six-year, $63 million deal with Kansas City and got 19 wins in four seasons.)
Con: Brady is like a 20-minute-old game of Jenga. He looks strong. You think he can keep going. There are reasons to support your assertion. But - boom - all it takes is one hit, one bout of arm soreness, one one slip during bath time (hey, it happened to Roger Federer) or one offseason where age finally catches up to body and it all comes crumbling down. Can the Patriots really bank on Brady to be playing at a high level for three seasons? And, even more difficultly, what happens if he stops? Bill Belichick is not a man who wallows in sentiment but could he actually pull Brady and subject him to late-career embarrassment? (Said embarrassment is overrated, by the way. Brady getting benched or traded would be an appropriately huge story for a few news cycles but eventually get forgotten amidst memories of the glory days. See: Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, Willie Mays. And no, Brett Favre doesn't count.)
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2. Trade Brady, install Garoppolo as starter
Come on. I mean, it'd be awesome and would give me something to write about daily for the next seven months, but moving on...
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3. Keep Garoppolo, keep Brady and play the "we hope it works out" game.
Belichick has to be feeling out Brady to see how long he's actually intending on playing - for real, not these numbers he throws around to the press. Barring an injury-filled, age-appropriate season or Super Bowl win, there appears to be little-to-no chance Brady would hang 'em up next year. The storybook ending was to leave now. If he didn't do it this February he's probably not going to do it the next. He wants to play on and should: Throwing for 28 touchdowns and two interceptions in 12 games aren't exactly numbers that put you out to pasture. Based on that, let's say he's in for at least two more seasons, minimum. But all these folks who think Brady can play until 45? There's about 100 years of NFL history saying otherwise. If he plays well at 42 (three more years), consider it a miracle.
Pro: You keep your options open, options which include Garoppolo becoming the quarterback of the future should Tommy Boy decide to leave after 2017.
Con: Brady wants to stay around and the Pats would either be: 1) stuck with getting nothing for Garoppolo, who would bolt in free agency; or 2) forced to engaged in the worst public relations move in New England since the Stamp Act by cutting/trading him.
4. Start Julian Edelman
I'm not sure, but I think I remember hearing he played quarterback in college.
There is no right decision for New England, just a lot of predicting the future and hoping they picked the right path on this choose your own adventure. It's a situation other teams would love to find themselves in but proves the that wearing the crown does lead to a heavy head.
The Colts got off easy with Peyton Manning. He had a catastrophic injury, was forced to sit out a season and then became expendable when Indy got the No. 1 pick and the right to select Andrew Luck (or Robert Griffin III). Tom Brady's exit might not be so neat.
For now though, the Patriots are faced with three healthy quarterbacks - one legend near retirement and two would-be successors - and a rare, once-in-a-lifetime chance to pick up some major draft picks basically for free. Who goes? Who stays? The future of the franchise hangs in the balance. But of course, if Bill Belichick follows Brady out the door, will it even matter?