Before getting to the column on Tom Brady’s future employer and Patrick Mahomes’s contract, a word about the man receiving a well-deserved love-fest this week: Andy Reid.
I was Matt Hasselbeck’s agent when he was coming out of Boston College in 1998. Matt was not invited to the combine, so we arranged a one-day tryout at BC and invited every team in the league. One team responded: the Packers, who sent a quarterbacks coach named Andy Reid. With Reid our only guest, I offered to pick him up at Logan airport and drive him to the workout. Well, that presented a problem, as 1) I had never met or seen Reid; and 2) I drove a tiny sports car.
When Reid reached my car, we both laughed. I hastily pushed the passenger seat all the way back, threw everything in the trunk and squeezed him in the passenger seat like a jack-in-the-box. Notwithstanding the drive, he loved Matt and convinced the Packers to draft him in the sixth round. And that was how Matt’s 18-year career began.
And when I moved to Philadelphia from Green Bay, 10 years ago, the last thing I wanted to do was to work for another NFL team, but Andy—and Eagles president Joe Banner—called needing some help and I couldn’t resist. I helped them out as a consultant for a couple of years and saw Andy’s calm and thoughtful leadership of the Eagles.
I have lived in Green Bay and suburban Philadelphia, both minutes from where Andy lived. His impact and that of his family clearly resonate; he and his wife Tammy have left indelible impressions on communities. The NFL world loves Andy Reid, and that is rightfully being felt through the football world right now.
On to the column...
We have now reached the NFL offseason, the longest offseason of any major professional sport, with seven months of off-field business before the next meaningful snap in September. And just around the corner, we already have the story of 2020: the unprecedented abundance of free agent quarterbacks on the market.
Quarterbacks without contracts
It is extremely rare for even one productive NFL quarterback to make it to the market, let alone several. The combination of a proven quarterback and an open marketplace is rare, and rarity has meant great value for players (see: Cousins, Kirk). Teams are careful not to let their most important players reach free agency, especially their quarterbacks. In my time in Green Bay, we never let players like Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers even get a whiff of free agency. This year, however, is different, with some unique circumstances creating an unprecedented group of free agent quarterbacks.
First, let’s note the quarterbacks that, although their contracts are technically expiring, will not be free agents in practical terms. Dak Prescott has an expiring contract, but the Cowboys will either place the franchise tag on him, sign him to a long-term contract or both. The Buccaneers will likely place the tag on Jameis Winston to stay engaged while continuing to decide whether to “marry.” And the venerable Drew Brees is a free agent in name only, set to either retire or play for the Saints. Other free agent quarterbacks, including Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, Philip Rivers and more will see what the market bears for their services in the most interesting quarterback marketplace in 27 years of NFL free agency.
And then there is Tom Brady.
Tom Brady: Free at last
Let this sink in: For the first time in a career that has spanned two decades, Tom Brady is now a free agent. Free at last.
Of course, the market value for Brady at age 41 is nowhere near what it could have been were he a free agent at age 25, 30 or 35, but the Patriots never allowed that to happen. However, after a renegotiation initiated by Brady last year, his 2020 contract year was voided, and he is a free man. The fact that Brady wanted his contract to expire was something I took great note of when it happened. He clearly wanted to be a free agent. And why wouldn’t he…
The question is not whether Tom Brady has consistently negotiated undervalued contracts with the Patriots; that is clear. The question is why, which we may never know. The answer is not found in the narrative of “he does it to help the team.” Yes, Brady has done cap renegotiations, as most NFL quarterbacks do to help the team by pushing out the accounting of cap charges. But Brady has clearly gone beyond that; he has taken less cash, which does not really help his teammates (the Patriots are not cash-strapped) but only helps ownership. It is not out of line to suggest Brady has saved the Kraft family over $100 million in taking below-market compensation for over a decade. Oh, and as to the “his wife makes so much money!” argument? Please.
Even with these well-documented financial sacrifices, many suggest Brady should stay in New England and retire a Patriot. But Brady not only sought free agency, but also deserves to survey the market and yes, even join another team. And if he does, who are we to judge? Many want Brady to stay in New England for their own, well, selfish and nostalgic reasons. And nostalgia is nice, but it is merely a mirage we create in our own minds.
While there are a few rare examples of elite quarterbacks spending their entire careers with one team, many separate—often involuntarily. That was the case for, among others, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, and—as I now so well—Brett Favre. And it looks like that will soon be the case for Philip Rivers. Brady may simply want to leave the Patriots before they “leave” him in a year or two.
I believe Tom Brady will leave the Patriots. I also believe that although we don’t know which team he will play for, he does. Brady created a vast storage of wonderful memories in New England; the fact he might create new memories elsewhere will not change that one bit. Brady has been on the submissive side of the business of football; he now has a chance, at age 41, to experience the business of football on his own terms.
MVP-level contract for Mahomes? Maybe, but not now
Another potential quarterback contract involves the most discussed NFL player over the past month, the past week and perhaps the next decade. Now that the CBA-mandated three-year waiting period for renegotiation of a player’s rookie contract has passed, the Chiefs can address Patrick Mahomes’s contract. And the narrative is that 1) the Chiefs will get this done; and 2) the contract will be craaaazzzzyyy!
As readers of this space know, if and when the contract is completed, we need to see through the hype. Numbers will blare with “up to $200 million in total value!” and “up to $40 million per year!,” but, as we know, the saying “the devil is in the details” is nowhere more applicable than with NFL contracts.
Here are the questions that I—and those in the business of football, including agents and teams—will want to know: What is the cash flow after one, two and three years? What is the true (no contingencies) guarantee at the time of signing? Is the third year fully guaranteed, with no contingencies? The fourth year? The entire contract?
NFL teams have fallen into a pattern with elite quarterback contracts: a huge signing bonus and early “guarantees” for up to three years with nonguaranteed earnings after that. Even for the best players in the NFL—save the unique situation of Kirk Cousins—a fully guaranteed contract similar to NBA or MLB player deals has been unattainable.
Far from free
Here is the “problem” for Mahomes and his agent Leigh Steinberg: The Chiefs have two years of contract control over Mahomes, plus potential franchise tags. The rookie compensation system allows management to control the contracts of even the best of the best. Thus, they will not succumb to any groundbreaking structure. Thus, they will likely offer Mahomes a huge bonus that will both give him a lifetime of financial security and be too enticing for he and Steinberg to turn down. And beyond the massive early money of the deal, the Chiefs will have the terms they desire, including contingent guarantees past the early low-risk part of the contract, even for the league’s most important player.
The only way elite players will ever break the guarantee ceiling as NBA and MLB players have done is to gain true leverage by waiting to get as close as possible to free agency. Or, as in the case of Cousins, to make it there. It is very hard for superstar young quarterbacks to wait, knowing teams have the weapon of the franchise tag in their pocket. Teams know this and use it strategically. In the past couple of years, superstars like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson could have really pressured their teams—and the league—by waiting, but they could not resist accepting contracts. We’ll see if Mahomes and, to a lesser extent, Dak Prescott, can wait; my sense is they can’t and won’t.
It is true that the Mahomes contract numbers, when negotiated, will be craaaazzzzzyyyyy! But, unless Mahomes can wait until closer to free agency, it is the Chiefs, not Mahomes, who will ultimately “win” this negotiation.
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