Proof or not, I’m sold on this: around this time last year, 40-year-old quarterback Tom Brady walked into Robert Kraft’s office and convinced him to trade his backup Jimmy Garoppolo.
Yes, the Patriots traded their quarterback of the future because their quarterback of the present forced it to happen.
Not only did he feel challenged by Garoppolo – a 26-year-old former second-round draft pick – Brady felt so threatened by his backup that he asked the team’s owner to take executive action. By forcing Garoppolo out, he ensured that his seventeen-year dynasty couldn’t recycle itself the same way it started.
For three reasons, I’ve always believed that Brady’s greatest fear is that he’ll lose his job in the same way that he took Drew Bledsoe’s.
1. Garoppolo motivated him to keep his starting job
Brady elevated his game into an entirely new stratosphere after the Patriots drafted Garoppolo in the 2014 offseason. At 36 years old, the Patriots drafted Brady’s replacement as he was coming off arguably the worst season of his career – 2013 – a year that he posted a career-low QB Rating (62.1), a career-low completion percentage (60.5%) and a 25:11 TD/INT ratio.
Fresh off of a defeat in the 2013 AFC Championship and without a Super Bowl victory in close to a decade, Garoppolo pushed Brady to excel in the last stages of his career. In the following four seasons, he won two Super Bowls, appeared in four straight AFC Championship games, completed the greatest comeback in the history of football, and won MVP at the age of forty. At the ages of 37, 38, 39, and 40, Brady went 41-11 and threw for 113 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 53 regular-season games – all while Garoppolo sat behind him on the bench.
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2. He said “three-to-five years” and “mid-forties” to force the Patriots to commit to him
His plan was simple: Brady created a “TB12” brand that centered on the premise that he would continue to play into his mid-forties. Knowing that he just had to wait out Garoppolo’s contract, he played up the idea that he would remain quarterback for longer than Garoppolo could stick around. He realized that didn’t actually need to play until he was forty-five. Instead, he just had to stay on the field until the Patriots were forced to choose between him and his backup.
3. He forced Kraft to trade Garoppolo
The Patriots’ shockingly bad return of a second-round pick for Garoppolo indicates that Brady was pulling strings to make the deal happen. And it’s been heavily rumored that Brady convinced Kraft to pull the trigger. I believe that Kraft, faced with an ultimatum from his veteran quarterback, chose to commit his franchise to the player that had brought it so much success. He gave Belichick an order: trade Garoppolo.
Kraft’s veto infuriated Belichick, who felt like he was losing control of his own team. Having carefully prepared Garoppolo for a starting role, he wanted a quarterback not named Brady to succeed in New England. Kraft’s decision meant that Belichick would lose his biggest chance yet to prove that he could win without Brady.
It makes sense, then, that trading Garoppolo wasn’t really a financial decision but a decision forced by Brady and Kraft. The Patriots could have put the franchise tag on him, or offered him more than $17 million to stay. If Belichick had been in full control, he would have held onto what he viewed as the future of his franchise and part of his coaching legacy. No, trading Garoppolo was a decision forced by Brady and rooted in the ego of Belichick. Just as Brady wants to cement his legacy as greatest quarterback of all time, Belichick wanted to cement his own as the greatest football coach ever.
What happened next was unprecedented for the Patriots’ mastermind: he deliberately mismanaged an asset. Instead of fielding calls from Cleveland or dozens of desperate teams willing to part with their first-round picks, Belichick sent Garoppolo to a place where he knew he could succeed: Kyle Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco. The draft picks he got in return didn’t matter (they eventually ended up with two 2018 fourth-round picks and a 2019 second-round pick). If Garoppolo was successful, it would prove that Belichick had built his own franchise quarterback – even if he didn’t play for the Patriots.
As usual, Belichick’s decision played out perfectly. Garoppolo tore through the remainder of his schedule with the Niners, going undefeated in six starts, including an impressive victory against a Jacksonville Jaguars team who almost advanced to the Super Bowl. Most impressively, he posted better numbers than Brady did from games 11 through 16 of last season:
- Brady: 124/201 (62%), 10 TD, 6 INT, 1430 yards
- Garoppolo: 120/178 (67%), 7 TD, 5 INT, 1560 yards
Aside from TD:INT ratio, Garoppolo was objectively better in those games. And while Brady played better in his postseason games, Garoppolo didn’t even get a chance – San Francisco was 0-8 before he arrived, which pushed them out of the playoffs entirely.
In the 2018-19 season, Brady will embark on a journey that virtually no quarterback has survived: playing at an elite level at the age of forty-one. But he’s stopped spouting the “three-to-five more years” loop in press conferences – in fact, he’s talked more about retirement and his family. He’s struggled with an injury to his back recently, he arrived late to OTA’s because of a family trip to Qatar, and he’s continued to build TB12 – an extension of his career beyond football. Virtually nothing Brady has done post-Garoppolo has indicated that he’s planning to commit himself to this franchise for the next three to five seasons.
If Brady retires after next season – for whatever reason – he’ll not only have cheated his organization out of Garoppolo for the next ten seasons, he’ll have cheated Belichick out of a chance to create his next Patriots dynasty.
Just to shake my confidence even more, the Patriots finalized a one-year extension with Brady last week that doesn’t suggest that he’ll be here for at least three more years. At a press conference last October, Belichick expressed his own doubts that Brady could play until 45: “I’d say when a player gets to a certain point in his career . . . at some point it becomes year-to-year.” Meanwhile in San Francisco, Garoppolo will make nearly three times more ($42.5m) as his former protege, locked up to a long-term deal that I predict the Patriots will be jealous of next offseason.
Never in the past two decades has this Patriots’ team experienced so much turmoil within the organization. Worse, it hasn’t come close to being fully resolved. From Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl benching to Gronk’s WWE tease to Alex Guerrero to “Tom VS Time,” there’s questions left unanswered that we may never fully understand as fans. Personally, I’ve never felt less confident in the Patriots this close to the start of the season. But until he proves otherwise, Brady is still the best quarterback in football. And I’d love to watch him prove me wrong – on everything.
- Image credit to The Boston Globe