It’s a game of deception and disguise, and Tom Brady plays it well. As free agency approaches, the pre-snap hints and clues of the NFL’s greatest quarterback have the rest of the football world on a hair trigger. Everyone is trying to predict what the New England Patriots star will do next.
Brady is selling his mansion in Boston. He’s gone.
He mugs for a photo at a Syracuse basketball game with Julian Edelman, who proclaims Brady will continue to be a teammate. He’s staying.
He’s captured, at the same game, on a FaceTime call with Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, a former teammate. Gone.
He opened a big new TB12 store on Boylston Street in Back Bay. Staying.
Brady, 42, one season removed from winning his sixth Super Bowl, is seeking a multi-year deal that would enable him to play until 45.
He only knows winning. Just twice in the past 19 seasons have the Patriots failed to win a division title, and one of those seasons Brady sat out with a shredded knee.
Few athletes have been more emblematic of a team or city than Brady is of Boston. So in Beantown it was as welcome as a nor’easter when, in a recent live chat on Instagram, Brady’s supermodel wife, Gisele Bündchen, told her 15.7 million followers: “Well, I would love to know where I’m going to be living this year, but I don’t know yet. But hopefully somewhere nice, and wherever my husband is happy playing.”
The situation is complex and nuanced, with rumors swirling that Mr. Six Rings could be heading west on Route 66 to finish his career in Las Vegas or even Los Angeles, where glistening new stadiums are opening next season.
The Raiders have already made a splash in Las Vegas, and there aren’t enough spotlights on The Strip to outshine a billion-watt pairing of Brady and coach Jon Gruden.
Meanwhile, in L.A., the Chargers have yet to create a buzz since relocating from San Diego in 2017, even when they advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs two years ago, losing at New England to the Brady-led Patriots.
Would signing Brady supercharge ticket sales for the Chargers, or would it simply be a fleeting high?
There are other potential landing spots, too, even with a cadre of experienced quarterbacks available — Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota among them — and several highly touted prospects in the draft.
NFL teams can’t discuss interest in Brady now. That would be tampering. But any quarterback-needy team that hasn’t weighed the merits of signing him is guilty of malpractice. It’s a safe bet that he has been a centerpiece of countless closed-door conversations. Which brings us to the first, most important, scenario.
Why might he leave New England?
His legacy is a big factor. The doors of Canton will swing wide for both Brady and Bill Belichick, but it’s logical to think each would like to prove he can win without the other. Neither has explicitly stated that, yet it has been a topic for debate the past 15 years: Who is most responsible for the team’s phenomenal success, coach or quarterback?
Belichick has answered that to a degree: the Patriots went 11-5 in 2008 with unheralded Matt Cassel in place of the injured Brady, and went 3-1 in 2016 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett during Brady’s four-game suspension.
Even though the Patriots won their division, Brady is coming off a forgettable season. His stats were down across the board, though the dip can be attributed to a variety of factors. He lost his center at the end of training camp, and his left tackle in Week 2. There was a reason the Patriots signed mercurial receiver Antonio Brown; besides Edelman, the playmaker cupboard was bare.
Still, Brady wants a long-term commitment from a team, and the Patriots haven’t given him one. Other than a couple of graying kickers who may or may not resurface, he’s the oldest active player in the league, and any team would be cautious about tying its future to him.
Somebody really important to Tom Brady… who he spends every day with… his other half… doesn’t like it out here in California.
If they let Brady walk, the Patriots wouldn’t have to worry about losing their fan base. They will still sell jerseys and sell out games. Not many teams can say that, but that’s the respect afforded Belichick. People trust he knows what he’s doing, even if he turns to Jarrett Stidham, who threw four passes last season as a rookie — one of them a pick-six.
The left coast scenario
The notion of Brady returning to California makes some sense. He was born and raised in San Mateo, and he and his wife built a 14,000-square-foot, eco-conscious home in Brentwood they referred to as their “sanctuary.” The place was encircled by a koi-filled, man-made river — the “GOAT” had a moat — and featured five bedrooms, nine bathrooms, seven fireplaces, and a lagoon-shaped swimming pool with a spa. They sold the place in 2017 for $40 million, to Dr. Dre.
Brady’s L.A. ties run especially deep. When he suffered a devastating knee injury in 2008, he left Boston and had his knee repaired here by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, now regarded as the preeminent orthopedic surgeon in sports. And Brady did his early rehab, his first throwing and running, in secret workouts at Will Rogers State Park in Pacific Palisades.
So the idea of Brady playing for the Chargers isn’t far-fetched, although his old Patriots teammate Willie McGinest offered this nugget in December when he was a guest on Dave Dameshek’s podcast: “Somebody really important to Tom Brady… who he spends every day with … his other half … doesn’t like it out here in California. So that may factor into the decision, too.”
The Chargers do not have a history of taking big risks or backing up the Brinks truck for free agents. They announced last month that they won’t be re-signing Rivers and are, for now, going with fleet-footed veteran Tyrod Taylor, who is elusive, protects the football and throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the league, but has struggled with accuracy on passes over the middle. After a 5-11 season in which they were winless in the AFC West, they have the sixth pick in the draft, and are positioned to take a top-rated quarterback.
For business, Brady makes sense. He would certainly attract attention. For football, he’s similar to Rivers, an immobile drop-back passer in the sunset of his career. If coach Anthony Lynn is trying to head in a different direction and catch the current wave of dual-threat quarterbacks, signing Brady would only delay the inevitable. No one believes the Chargers are a quarterback away from the Super Bowl.
Whether Brady were to go to the Chargers or Raiders, he would also be facing Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes twice a season in an AFC West that’s far stronger than the AFC East.
“Tom Brady’s not going to be afraid of playing Patrick Mahomes,” Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner said. “He’s not going to be like, `Oh gosh, I’ve got to try to avoid him at all costs because he’s great.’ No, he’s going to compete. But when you have a chance to pick your path…
“You tell me, what quarterback in the AFC is ready to compete against Patrick Mahomes year in and year out? I don’t think there’s a single one. Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson are a long ways away. Now, can their teams come together and do it? Of course. But I’m talking about a quarterback that you know when they step on the field is ready to go swing for swing with Patrick Mahomes. There’s not one.”
The going South scenario
Should he weigh offers from new teams, Brady will consider multiple factors, and the competitiveness of the division is a big one. In that regard, Indianapolis and Tennessee of the AFC South are potential suitors.
The Colts have Brissett, a former backup to Brady in New England, who got off to a good start last season in the wake of Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement but faded as the Colts lost seven of their last nine games. Colts coach Frank Reich does a good job of designing quick throws, of which Brady is a master. The Colts offensive line was intact for all 16 games last season, and the five starters are back. T.Y. Hilton would be Brady’s best receiver since Randy Moss.
However, it would be bizarre to see Brady playing for Indianapolis, and not only because he was on the other side of those legendary duels with Peyton Manning. It was the Colts who blew the whistle on the Patriots allegedly deflating footballs on behalf of their quarterback.
The Titans make more sense. They have an outstanding running game, dynamic young receivers, a stout offensive line, and a respectable defense. They also play in a winnable division. Ryan Tannehill had a terrific season for them at quarterback, but that cuts both ways. Looking at what Tannehill did, imagine what Brady could do.
There’s also a long-standing relationship with Vrabel, the coach. “When I was there, practices were always competitive and the two most vocal people were Brady and Mike,” former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria said. “Any competitive period that we had, there was always a lot of yapping back and forth. They just grew to really respect each other, not only with the way they carried themselves, but their philosophy towards life.”
The wild, and wildest, scenarios
One scenario making the rounds has Brady going to San Francisco, his favorite team as a kid, and the 49ers parting ways with Garoppolo — perhaps trading him back to New England. While that might sound preposterous, it isn’t often that a player of Brady’s caliber is on the open market.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have been effusive in their praise of Garoppolo, both before and after the Super Bowl loss to Kansas City. Lynch often extols the “culture” of the 49ers’ organization, and abruptly changing quarterbacks could jeopardize that delicate chemistry.
“We’re extremely proud of Jimmy and committed to Jimmy going forward,” Lynch said at the scouting combine last week. “He’s our guy.”
However, the Peyton Manning experiment was so successful in Denver, with the former Indianapolis icon leading the Broncos to two Super Bowl appearances late in his career, that unquestionably piques the interest of teams that come oh-so-close to the ultimate prize.
And there’s another potential suitor, an out-of-the-blue franchise that checks a lot of boxes for Brady and should be taken seriously: the Dallas Cowboys. They have yet to make a long-term commitment to Dak Prescott, who turned down a take-it-or-leave-it offer at the beginning of the season. Owner Jerry Jones has never been risk-averse, and has a team that has gone 4-10 in the playoffs since last winning a Super Bowl 24 years ago.
It’s well known in league circles that everything is on the table for Jones at all times, and that he’s particularly infatuated with quarterbacks. By way of example, in the 2014 draft, Jones had to be talked out of taking quarterback Johnny Manziel instead of a far safer pick, tackle Zack Martin from Notre Dame. Manziel has long since flamed out; Martin has made six Pro Bowls.
In a 2017 Sports Illustrated story, Cowboys GM Stephen Jones recounted a conversation with his father about that choice.
“Son, I hope you’re happy,” Jerry said, according to the story’s author, Austin Murphy. “But let me tell you something: You don’t get to own the Cowboys, you don’t get to do special things in life, by making major decisions going right down the middle. And that” — taking an offensive lineman over Manziel — “was right down the middle.”
The Cowboys have an elite running back, an offensive line that can be dominating, receivers who can get open and, best of all, play in a middling division that Philadelphia won last season at 9-7.
As decision time nears, maybe all this talk and conjecture is just pre-snap motion and deception. Brady has had unprecedented success with the Patriots. He has total control and command of the offense. He’s synonymous with the market. Would he really choose to leave? Warner doesn’t think so.
“I’ll be surprised if he’s not in New England,” Warner said. “… The Chargers and the Raiders, I say no. It doesn’t make sense to me to be in that division. And to me, it doesn’t make sense to be in the NFC because there are more elite quarterbacks there. So to me, it really comes down to New England or Tennessee.
“Last year, as bad as it was for the Patriots offensively, they were one game away from being the No. 2 seed. … Best opportunity to win your division? The AFC East. Best opportunity to win 12 games? AFC East. Best opportunity for Brady is to have a top-10 defense, which he has every year, and they’re going to be more advanced offensively than they were last year because guys are a year older.”
In this instance, Patriots fans are praying that Brady is who they always have known him to be: Gloriously immobile.