Sitting at the poker table with the New England Patriots, Tom Brady is representing a monster hand. Two face cards, at least.
For the better part of two years, the greatest quarterback of all time has been flexing his muscle with the only team he’s ever known. This week he escalated that behavior with two important life decisions, made in quick succession.
For the first time in his career, Brady is set to become a free agent when his newly minted contract voids at the end of this upcoming season. It appears the days of discounts are over, and Brady’s 2019 salary of around $15 million got bumped up to $23 million. Reports indicate contract language precludes the Pats from tagging him, and with the two voidable years tacked on for cap purposes, Brady has the ability to enter free agency next March.
If that alone isn’t good enough to be considered a leverage play, he and wife Gisele Bundchen put their mansion on the market for an impressive $39.5 million. These two moves, combined, show Brady’s apparent willingness and ability to spread his wings by springtime.
A logical interpretation of this indicates Brady is making a power play, and the Patriots know better than to think he’s bluffing.
While locally known, the cracks in the foundation became national news toward the end of the 2017 season when ESPN’s Seth Wickersham published his inside story of the Patriots internal struggle, highlighted (of course) by New England’s trade of Jimmy Garoppolo. Not to say that story was a catalyst, but look at what has happened since:
• Brady has skipped organized team activities the past two offseasons. He says it’s to spend more time with his family.
• He had already let filmmaker Gotham Chopra into his world for a documentary film series, and Tom Vs. Time dropped on Amazon shortly thereafter.
• When asked by his good friend Jim Gray whether he felt appreciated by the Patriots, Brady pled the fifth. “I think everybody in general wants to be appreciated more at work in their professional life,” Brady said politely.
• At every opportunity, Brady reiterates his desire to play into his mid-40s and be the oldest starting quarterback in NFL history. That would mean he plays, at least, for the next four seasons.
One of these items by itself does not create an incredible amount of leverage. But view them all as sort of microaggressions aimed at the Patriots, then combine them with this week’s news, and you see Brady grabbing control of the situation like so few NFL players can.
Brady may be taking a page out of the NBA playbook with his latest deal. Might this begin a series of short, one- or two-year deals like we saw with Kevin Durant in Golden State or LeBron James in Cleveland? Should Brady continue down this path, he could theoretically become a free agent—or threaten to become one—each offseason, thus doing his best to maximize his on-field earning potential after years of taking discounts.
Most importantly in all this, Brady is still playing at an incredibly high level. He earned NFL MVP just two seasons ago. He’s been in four of the past five Super Bowls and won three of them. He’s not getting honorary contracts at the end of his career a la Kobe Bryant. If a healthy Tom Brady went on the free-agent market next March, it’s possible (probable?) he’d command the highest one-year contract in NFL history from any given team.
Brady isn’t beating us over the heads with his leverage, but the Patriots have to know it. He’s not acting out publicly, like Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell. He’s not holding out of training camp. He and his camp aren’t carefully placing leaks across the media about his ulterior motives. Brady knows the art of subtlety.
He was savvy enough to protest the NFL during Deflategate by removing the shield sticker on the back of his helmet. He’s featured product placement in his locker for a red-hatted friend in 2015. He has attempted to trademark a nickname he doesn’t even want so that others can’t use it.
Even though Brady and Bundchen are millionaires hundreds of times over, selling one’s home should still be considered a major life decision, especially for a couple with children. Dictating your own contract terms on a contract with no equal is another.
Brady is at the table signaling he’s in control. The others at the table should know it, too.
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