There are three main figures in the Patriots’ present. One owns the team. One coaches it. And one quarterbacks it.
And if we’re going to start in on the future of the franchise, and where we go in the wake of Friday’s bombshell report from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, it has to begin there.
The owner, Robert Kraft, is clearly going nowhere. The quarterback, Tom Brady, isn’t either, not after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade that left Brady as the only long-term option for the team at the game’s most important position, and not with his desire, at 40, to play another half-decade in the NFL.
That leaves Belichick, 65 years old and the greatest coach in the sport’s history.
So here’s what I believe: Belichick didn’t want to deal Garoppolo but knew Kraft wouldn’t entertain the idea of trading Brady. And here’s the chain of events, as I know it …
• In a quarterback-starved market last spring (Mike Glennon was the top veteran available, Mitch Trubisky was the first QB drafted), the Patriots flatly told teams showing interest in Garoppolo that he wasn’t available. That made one team, already smitten with the QB, even more interested. “You respect so much the way the Patriots do things,” 49ers GM John Lynch told me last week, “the fact they weren’t willing to let [Garoppolo] go said something.”
• One reason the Patriots hung on to Garoppolo was a belief that they could keep Brady and Garoppolo together past 2017. Through the spring and summer there were attempts to get Garoppolo to agree to a new deal, and a willingness to carry two starting-quarterback-level contracts on their books. The problem? They couldn’t give Garoppolo the one thing he wanted: playing time. Another solution would be franchise-tagging Garoppolo in 2018, which would be logistically difficult but could facilitate a trade. In fact, the Patriots pulled off such a trade in dealing Matt Cassel while he was tagged in 2009.
• The Patriots traded 2016 third-round pick Jacoby Brissett to Indianapolis for receiver Philip Dorsett, leaving the team without any depth at quarterback behind Garoppolo. That was on September 2 and wasn’t the move, on paper, of a team that knew it would have to move from its 25-year-old prodigy seven weeks later. Brissett has since acquitted himself well starting in Andrew Luck’s place for the Colts.
• The Niners/Patriots deal came together very quickly on Oct. 30, and other quarterback-needy teams, Cleveland in particular, were caught off-guard and miffed that a player of that value at that position was moved without being shopped. And Lynch and Kyle Shanahan had their man—a quarterback Shanahan showed affection for going back to the Niners’ personnel meetings last winter—for a second-round pick.
Simply put, Belichick’s legendary cutthroat style in managing his roster, and his laser focus on doing “what’s best for the football team,” don’t match up with the idea that he’d trade Brissett with knowledge that the sand was running out of the hourglass on the Brady/Garoppolo arrangement, or that he’d send Garoppolo off to San Francisco without first trying to maximize his value as an asset.
So why did Belichick go through with it? His respect for Shanahan is well-known, and so it’s easy to deduce that he knew Shanahan would get the most out of Garoppolo, and that would, in turn, put Belichick on the right side of history.
It’s been no secret within the Patriots organization, and for years, that Belichick wanted to usher the team into the post-Brady era and try to win a championship without him. As Garoppolo improved, the idea crystallized and became more and more plausible. The 2014 second-round pick went from project to heir apparent, and everyone had a pretty good idea of how good he would be.
In October, on the NBC Sports Boston’s Patriots Pregame show, we were discussing whether or not dealing Garoppolo was a good idea. I said that if he looked like, say, an Andy Dalton-level player, then you probably deal him. Then I said that if you think you have Aaron Rodgers on your hands, you do whatever you need to in order to keep him.
I couldn’t get through that thought without former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich—Garoppolo’s teammate from the spring of 2014 to last summer—stopping me and saying, “I’m just telling you, Jimmy is really, really good.”
We’ve seen that since. And when I mentioned to one Patriots source how well Garoppolo was playing a couple weeks ago, the response I got was simple: “He’s going to do that for a long time.”
Bottom line: Belichick knew what he had, the bridge to the next era of the franchise, and he clung to it like Linus to his blanket in the spring. And then, he didn’t. (Wickersham reports that the Garoppolo move came after a contentious October meeting between Belichick and Kraft, the owner having met with Brady several times that month to discuss Brady’s future. According to the Wickersham story, Belichick was “furious and demoralized” over the “mandate” to trade Garoppolo.)
I don’t think this will all mean that Belichick’s gone in a few weeks. But with the strain on relationships inside the building—and the existing tension over what the post-Brady Patriots will look like—I absolutely believe all of this could accelerate Belichick’s departure, whenever it happens.
Like everything in the NFL, the greatest dynasty of the modern era, captained by the greatest quarterback ever and greatest coach ever, and overseen by a potential Hall of Fame owner, will eventually come to an end. We all knew it eventually would.
Now, we may be finding out how.
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