And so without getting into too many particulars behind Brady's recent contract extension and deciding whether he has truly made a sacrifice, let's all agree on this: From a competitive standpoint, Brady had every reason that the Patriots did (and more?) to restructure his contract. Additional salary cap space for the Patriots means more talent around Brady, and that alone was incentive enough for Brady to agree. Over the next two years, Brady will receive the same money he would have received anyway, actually even a little bit more. But the Patriots now have an additional $15 million in cap space ($8 million this year, $7 million next) to surround Brady with the pieces they all need to make, perhaps, another series of Super Bowl runs.
Here's the point: as good as Brady generally has been over the past six seasons of his career, the Patriots have not been quite good enough. Brady and the Patriots lit the NFL ablaze in 2007 ... and ultimately lost in the Super Bowl. Brady won his second career Most Valuable Player Award in 2010 ... and the Patriots lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. And the Brady of 2012 threw more passes than he ever has in any season ... yet the Patriots tumbled to the Baltimore Ravens while going scoreless -- repeat,scoreless -- in the second half of the AFC Championship game.
The better Brady has been and the more the Patriots have relied upon him, the clearer the lesson.
We all have our wants for this particular group of Patriots at this precise point in time -- defense first, maybe a big receiver second -- and we can all debate the particulars. A safety seems a priority. A coverage linebacker would be another. Brady could certainly use another big target beyond Rob Gronkowski, and that is assuming Wes Welker returns. With those pieces in place -- and the Patriots can now address all of them -- New England might very well be the favorite to win the Super Bowl next year in, of all places, New York.
Think Bill Belichick might enjoy celebrating on both the home field of his beloved New York Giants and his detestable New York Jets?
For Brady, the next two years are critical. If his play slipped at all this year, it wasn't by much. But at some point in the near future, Brady's play will begin to more rapidly deteriorate, because even he cannot beat time. Whether the Patriots can win with him -- and they obviously can -- depends on how much the Patriots improve in other areas of the game while Brady moves closer and closer to 40.
Whether Brady remains "elite" during the coming years is irrelevant. (This is one of the most overrated debates in the modern NFL.) What Joe Flacco and the Ravens just taught us is that a quarterback doesn't have to be elite so much as he has to be good enough to win with, and Brady certainly is that. Barring some sort of unforeseen and rapid deterioration of his skill set -- and Brady's mind remains his greatest weapon -- Brady is likely to be good enough for beyond two years.
If and when his projected $9 million salary becomes a bargain at that stage, Brady always has the right to renegotiate. If the Patriots have found a replacement for him by them, the team will hold the leverage. If they haven't Brady will hold the hammer, just as he has for the last several years. Contract or no contract, the Patriots are not going to play hardball with Brady because their entire on-field operation is essentially built around him.
Vince Wilfork? Logan Mankins? Welker? The Pats could (and did) leverage all of them. But until the Pats find their answer to Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers or even Andrew Luck, Brady is the franchise.
Beyond all of that, let's all again acknowledge what we have acknowledged in the past, namely Brady's undying desire to win. Professional sports are littered with players who win a championship early on, then never win another. Many of them regard a single title as some form of immunity. The greatest of the greats are the ones who win over and over again, who never get tired of it, who guard championships like personal possessions.
Bill Russell. Michael Jordan. Derek Jeter. Wayne Gretzky. Mark Messier. Joe Montana.
In the modern sports world, of course, desire is an immeasurable, which makes it a difficult concept for many to grasp. Yet, it might be the single greatest asset any athlete can have. In 2011, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup largely on desire. Josh Beckett had two championships by the age of 27, then inexplicably lost his competitive edge and has won one postseason game since. Does Kevin Garnett desire a championship as much as he did in 2008 -- or is loyalty now more important to him? And maybe it says something that LeBron James won his first championship when he stopped wishing for it and started wanting it.
Brett Favre won one championship and never won another. Flacco now has as many titles as Peyton Manning. Alex Rodriguez won one World Series and Barry Bonds didn't win any, and all are on a long list of players who won something, but probably didn't win enough.
This week, Tom Brady reminded us that he's on a different list.
A much, much shorter one.
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