It's been a wild and historic week. But it's important to keep in mind that, with the CBA now in place, the Patriots can REALLY begin negotiating with Tom Brady.
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Anyway, I think the strangest post-Brady realization I've had is that we are not looking at a Super Bowl-caliber team for the first time in 20 years.
Since 2002, the opening days of free agency always brought a certain urgency.
When Bill Belichick would sit whittling on the porch while every other team was busy hunting, the collective cry of, "WHAT IS HE DOOOOOOING?!?!" would go up from the six-state region.
How much were the Patriots improving compared to the Ravens, the Broncos, the Colts - whomever they were fighting with for conference supremacy? Who could still be added on offense to ensure Brady had all he needed? Was the defense going to be stocked enough to do its part when January and February came?
Now? It's like a reset button has been pushed. I know we are still "in" the process of untethering from Brady and it's going to take a few days before focus is fully back on Foxboro.
But when it does return, is it even realistic to measure the Patriots in terms of how they stack up against the Chiefs, Ravens, Titans and Texans - teams at the top of AFC that kicked the Patriots' ass with Brady in 2019?
Or do we forget about that and measure where they are compared to their peers in the AFC East? Do they have enough to contend for the division title compared to Buffalo, Miami and the Jets? For most of the past two decades, that was a question that was barely worth asking. And the answer was never, never, never, "Maybe…"
Now it is.
SO IT WASN'T ABOUT THE MONEY
Reaction to Brady's contract numbers? There's a message there.
Many times in the past month when speculating about what Brady might make wherever he went, I said it wouldn't surprise me if he took less than he made in 2019 with the Patriots just to prove his point that it wasn't about the money.
In the end, he took a little more. But barely.
Even though he could have held up the ultra-thirsty Bucs for at least $30M, he instead did a two-year deal with $50 million fully guaranteed. Just $25M per year.
Ian Rapoport from NFL Media quickly alleged the Patriots "likely would have done this contract, though Tom Brady never came to them with his desire to return."
That's ludicrous. The Patriots wanted to go year-to-year with Brady at 40, 41, and 42 but would go to a fully guaranteed two-year deal worth $50M and the $13.5M cap hit on top of it meaning the cap hits would have been north of $31M each year? Come on.
In my opinion, there's symbolism in the deal that pays Brady pretty much exactly what he was hoping to get from the Patriots last summer - a two-year commitment with no qualifiers. Guaranteed and no chance to trade.
It's all it would have taken for the Patriots to sew him up last July - if they wanted to do it.
YES, IT'S A REBUILD
There's going to be attrition at the start of free agency. It's inevitable. But simply looking at who's left since Tuesday misses the context of what's gone on since March of 2018.
In just the past two years - the players leaving New England range from the best ever (Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski) to Pro Bowl-level (Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins) to really good (Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Nate Solder, Trent Brown) to very useful (Duron Harmon, Danny Shelton, Dwayne Allen, Nate Ebner) to "definitely had their moments" (Malcolm Butler, Elandon Roberts, Dion Lewis, Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis, LaAdrian Waddle and Ted Karras).
The team's lost two defensive coordinators (Matt Patricia and Brian Flores), a special teams coordinator (Joe Judge), two wide receivers coaches (Judge and Chad O'Shea), a defensive line coach (Brendan Daly), a quarterbacks coach (Jerry Schuplinski), a cornerbacks coach (Josh Boyer) and I'm probably missing someone.
Obviously, players and coaches have been added and there's promise among those hires with players like Isaiah Wynn and Chase Winovich and coaches like Jerod Mayo and Troy Brown. But this is a rebuild, not a reboot.
And decisions this week on both sides are underscoring that. Ted Karras - a backup center/guard - chose to go to Miami on a one-year deal despite the Patriots reportedly offering a two-year deal worth more money.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are all set with guys who are either graying - Brady, Ebner and Harmon (dealt to the Lions) - or pretty expensive (Collins and Van Noy). They'll keep Belichick's most trusted lieutenants - Devin McCourty and Matt Slater - because their voices are vitally important now. But for the most part, they are getting younger and cheaper. They need to get their books balanced and their roster restocked.
The Patriots aren't adding guys at a fierce clip but those they have reportedly added - 28-year-old, 333-pound DT Beau Allen, versatile 28-year-old safety Adrian Phillips, 27-year-old receiver/returner Damiere Byrd and 26-year-old fullback Danny Vitale - have very specific skills that fit the Patriots needs.
Allen is in for Shelton. Phillips tags in for Harmon and will potentially be the replacement for Patrick Chung. Byrd at least gets a chance to fill the punt return role left COMPLETELY VACANT for much of 2019. And Vitale replaces James Develin if Develin doesn't return.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
There's no arguing with the overall pitch-perfect tone of Bill Belichick's statement on Brady's departure.
A source close to Brady told me Tuesday that, if Belichick wore that kind of appreciation on his sleeve over the past few years, Brady wouldn't be a Buccaneer today.
I sensed that might have been a bit of hyperbole. Still, the overall point remains - Brady knew Belichick was ambivalent (at best) about his continuing as Patriots quarterback into his mid-40s. A statement summarizing how Belichick felt about Brady's overall contributions should not be read as a lament that it was over.
There was one phrase in the 267-word statement that was strange, though.
"Nothing about the end of Tom's Patriots career changes how unfathomably spectacular it was. …"
Does that refer to Brady's final throw against Tennessee in the playoffs? The loss to Tennessee? The 2019 season? The fact he was leaving?
What was there about the "end of Tom's Patriots career" are we not supposed to hold against him when considering how spectacular he was?
SPEAKING OF WEIRD
Matt Patricia, doing it up big out in Motown. This week, after being dealt to the Eagles, former Lions corner Darius Slay explained that Patricia lost him in his first year as head coach in Detroit back in 2018.
How? By standing in front of the team and ridiculing Slay for posting a picture of an opposing wideout on social media. Patricia didn't just tell Slay it was a bad idea. Instead, he told Slay to stop performing oral sex on opponents. Figuratively.
Additionally, Patricia criticized Slay for working out with Aqib Talib and Richard Sherman in the 2018 offseason because, Slay said, Patricia thought those were elite corners and Slay was not elite.
Just a refresher: Patricia's Patriots defense allowed 41 points and 538 yards of offense to Nick Foles and the Eagles in SB52. In the game before that, Patricia's defense allowed Blake Bortles to complete 23 for 36 passes for 293 yards and the JAGUARS!!!! led the Patriots 20-10 with 10 minutes left before Brady made sure the Patriots didn't lose that game.
And still, Patricia got hired as a head coach.
In two seasons with the Lions, Patricia has led them to a record of 9-22-1. Opponents scored 20 or more points on them in 14 of 16 games last year and his defense was 31st in the NFL in yards allowed.
Just take a sip from the cup of self-awareness one time, Matt.
IT CAME OUT WRONG
Throughout this Brady process, I felt well-informed by the Patriots as to what the team's mindset was.
I reported from the Super Bowl that owner Robert Kraft was willing to extend to meet Brady on a deal if there was one to be struck.
I also reported that Kraft was letting Belichick make the decisions on engaging Brady and negotiating. I appreciated Kraft's call Tuesday morning after Brady made his decision which provided me with context as to how the news was broken to Kraft.
And I wrote on Wednesday that - while the overall messaging about Brady's departure was very good - the intimation that this was Brady's decision and the Patriots would have gotten something done if he wanted to stay was tone-deaf.
Since then, I've gotten a little more explanation as to what Kraft was driving at. He wasn't trying to cast Brady as unilaterally making a decision that was unforseen.
Kraft was saying that the most important element in trying to get a contract done before free agency was Brady signaling there was an opening. That's what Kraft believed was going to happen when Brady reached out Monday night - Brady was going to say, "What can we do to get this done? I don't want to leave."
But Brady was showing up to say goodbye. So that was what Kraft was referring to - that moment - not the backstory of the years of fruitless negotiations that brought Brady to Kraft's door.
THE AB FACTOR
How much has Brady kept up with Antonio Brown since the troubled wideout was cut loose by the Patriots in December? Plenty.
In fact, Brady visited in person with Brown when the quarterback was in South Florida for the Super Bowl.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Brown began an apology tour that is still ongoing.
Whether that results in his eventually being reinstated by Roger Goodell and whether he ultimately lands with Brady in Tampa still has to be deemed a longshot. But so too would the idea of Brady billboards in Ybor City at this time last year.
LEARNING CURVE? MASSIVE
In the weeks leading up to Brady becoming a free agent, there was no wavering among Patriots sources as to whether Brady leaving was a wise move.
Personal agitations aside, New England represented the best chance for Brady to win and close his career chasing championships.
"If he goes, it's a mistake," was the tidy summation I got from one source.
What Brady doesn't appreciate, another source told me, was the myriad things in place in Foxboro that ensured a winning culture. Facilities. Nutritionists. Daily scheduling. Situational smarts.
The institutional knowledge in place in Foxboro built up over two decades of Brady working with the same head coach and owner meant any other franchise is utterly beyond compare. Never mind the differences on the field where Brady - who wrote the book on cautious and controlled quarterback play - is now joining a grip-it and rip-it head coach who's never seen a 10-yard route he couldn't turn into a 20-yard route.
Brady is brilliant. Unparalleled, the thinking goes. But I clearly got the impression that folks in Foxboro believe the secret sauce to the team's success is the way it does things as much as who is doing them.
That secret sauce, they believe, doesn't travel well.