Patriots

How Tom Brady’s new contract fits Bill Belichick’s plan

"It's a unique situation I'm in -- 20th year with the same team, I'll be 42 years old."

Tom Brady prepares to take a snap at practice in Foxborough. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

COMMENTARY

Sporting a boys’ regular straight out of a back-to-school ad, Tom Brady stood before the media in Michigan on Monday looking more like he belonged over in Ann Arbor trying to make the Wolverines than he did just outside Detroit, two decades into his pro career, practicing against the Lions. His baby face may be defined by its sleek jawline, chiseled cheekbones, and unwrinkled skin — but, to paraphrase a phrase made popular in Motown, birth certificate don’t lie. And even the age-defying quarterback himself has to acknowledge as much on occasion.

“It’s a unique situation I’m in — 20th year with the same team, I’ll be 42 years old,” Brady said, two days after his birthday. “So, pretty much uncharted territory for everybody.”

He was answering questions about his latest contract agreement with the Patriots, which was initially said to be a two-year extension, but after the revelation of further details appears to more accurately be an $8 million raise on what’s effectively still a one-year deal.

As those facets have surfaced, so has the perception that although Brady did not achieve long-term security by re-configuring his contract, he now holds power over the Patriots moving forward. He is likely to be a free agent next spring, which could potentially force the Pats to pay full market value in order to keep him. Brady also reportedly negotiated a condition that New England can’t use the franchise tag on him in 2020, with NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran espousing that career “autonomy” was a priority for the QB’s camp with this latest reworking.

Then Tuesday came word that Brady’s Brookline home is up for sale as he and his wife explore properties and schools within commutable distance to Manhattan. It’s only natural that Brady’s bunch would start preparing for the family’s next phase, but the timing sure seems like a flex of leverage from a guy who’s now one $39.5 million real estate transaction from having no contractual obligations to greater Foxborough come next March. Brady is currently in control of his legacy.

And yet, the reality remains: Brady is 42. He’s starting his 20th NFL season. His situation is indeed unique and uncharted.

So, ultimately, it’s Bill Belichick and the Patriots front office who deserve credit for striking a deal that not only brought Brady fully on board for 2019, but also doesn’t disturb the ongoing (and mostly complete) contingency plan for survival if those uncharted territories quickly become treacherous.

The first contingency plan was set afoot in 2014, when the Pats spent a second-round pick on Jimmy Garoppolo. He was groomed as the heir apparent, and in case he didn’t stick, a couple years later the team used a third-round choice to acquire Jacoby Brissett. Clearly, with Brady then in his late 30s, the idea was to prepare for his demise or departure by having a quarterback ready to take over.

Brady’s performance thwarted that plan in a most gleeful way, as-yet producing three more Super Bowl titles, and in the midst of his 2017 MVP campaign both Garoppolo and Brissett were traded away.

Since then, the Patriots have drafted a couple of quarterbacks — Danny Etling in the 2018 seventh round, and Jarrett Stidham in the 2019 fourth round — but it no longer appears that the post-Brady plan is based on having a replacement ready at that position. Not knowing what lies ahead for Brady, in terms of neither tenure nor performance, the new path to sustainability seems to be bent on putting together a roster that requires the quarterback to be consistent and reliable, but doesn’t demand that he be a star.

From both a business and football perspective, the most important thing for the Patriots isn’t that they find a way to transition into life after Tom Brady, it’s that the transition doesn’t tear down everything that’s been built — so a plan that deemphasizes one player in favor of relying on dozens of others is simply logical. Especially when that one player is the best who’s ever done it.

The idea that there’s a malicious plan to dump, or diminish, or devalue Brady doesn’t make any sense — but the Patriots can’t leave themselves in a position where they’re unprepared for the day Brady can’t carry the offense anymore. Particularly when there’s no track record on which to determine when that day could be coming. By building up the defense and committing to the running game, the club has granted itself greater leniency if Brady’s play were to gradually decline.

And in the cold and cruel world of pro sports, Belichick can’t be blind to the possibility that a slow slide has already begun.

The narrative changes forever once the Lombardi Trophy is lifted in the air, but for stretches of last season Brady was being criticized for bailing out of throws and looking unsettled in his pocket. He threw a bad interception in the Super Bowl, and Dee Ford lining up offside undid another that would’ve canceled the comeback in the AFC Championship. He toasted the Jets and Dolphins for 12 touchdowns last year, but totaled 19 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in the season’s other 15 contests. He ranked in the middle of the pack by completing only 52.4 percent of his passes on third down, and only 43.4 percent when it was third down and his team needed four to six yards. He was the NFL’s 17th most accurate passer in the red zone (57 percent), hitting on just 16 of 40 throws within the opponents’ 10 yard line.

And Patriots fans who would’ve been in favor of giving Brady whatever he wanted probably don’t want to go look at how similar his numbers were last year to those of Eli Manning — who’s four years his junior, temporarily lost his job two years ago, and saw his team take a QB early in the first round this April.
All that said, there is zero doubt that Tom Brady is the best quarterback for the New England Patriots this season. There’s nobody a reasonable Pats fan would rather see behind center in September. And there’s almost as little doubt that’ll still be true come January or, for that matter, the September that follows.

The guess here is that Brady will still be good enough to be the Patriots’ quarterback in 2020. Probably 2021 and 2022, too. But the brilliance of what Belichick has successfully done is that he’s changed what qualifies as “good enough” from that position. He’s effectively reset the franchise to where it began this dynasty, when the QB was more of a game manager who was capable of occasionally making big-money throws.

As such, when he evaluates that position moving forward, it won’t be with an expectation that he needs it to produce what it did from 2007-17. That’ll make it easier to stay the course with Brady, and the uncertainty resulting from his advanced age. It’ll also make it easier to find the next guy, given how much easier it will be to acquire a competitive, reliable quarterback than to follow up a hall of famer with another superstar.

So will Brady’s year-to-year status. If he continues to perform, they’ll pay him what he deserves. And if the Patriots decide they need to pay someone else, or if Brady determines his role no longer fits with his desire (or brand or legacy), the Pats have the left themselves with the flexibility to move forward without being encumbered by dead money or an undetachable commitment.

Which plays out remains to be seen. It’s as unpredictable as it would’ve been for Brady to win Super Bowls at ages 37, 39, and 41.

But thanks to Belichick, the Patriots enter this uncharted territory with a plan to help them stay the course.