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Tom Brady Great For Business in Tampa Bay; Bill O'Brien in Over His Head

Our business of football analyst draws a parallel between Tom Brady and another QB who left his long-time team. He also offers perspective on Bill O'Brien's situation in Houston.

With some time having passed since the two-part decision by Tom Brady to (1) leave the Patriots, and (2) join the Buccaneers, I thought I would share my perspective looking back. I completely expected the first decision and was completely surprised by the second. Let’s examine.

Goodbye, New England

As I commented at the time, Brady’s renegotiation of his Patriots contract a year ago framed what was to come. Along with his usual cap deferral (Brady now counts $13.5 million on the Patriots cap while no longer there), Brady strategically negotiated an end to the contract after last season, making him a free agent for the first time in his two-decade career. Negotiating that “out” was purposeful; he wanted out.

I see some parallels from my time with the Packers and the end of the Brett Favre era. Both Favre and Brady were signature players of their franchises for over 15 years. And in both cases, while management did not push them out the door, they were allowed to exit without a fight.

For several years during my time in Green Bay, we in management fought back against the rumored prospect of Favre’s retirement. We would very much hope for his return, often with our coach or general manager visiting him to express those views in person. After the 2007 season, however, even on the heels of hosting the NFC championship game, there was no recruitment. Instead of wooing him to return, the Packers’ position was: “Brett, it’s your decision.” Favre clearly felt that indifference and it contributed to his decision to retire in March 2008 only, of course, to return in July when Mike McCarthy told Favre those three poignant words: “We’ve moved on.” The keys to the franchise had been turned over to Aaron Rodgers, who had apprenticed for three years (that, in my opinion, will never happen again).

The Patriots obviously do not have an Aaron Rodgers in waiting (they shipped off Jimmy Garoppolo a couple years ago) but there are clear parallels. Management could have negotiated an extension with Brady at any time over the recent weeks and months, but either the team or Brady—or both—chose not to. When asked about it in January and February, the Patriots said they were waiting for clarity on the CBA. Umm…really? New CBA or not, every NFL team was talking to its free agents that it wanted back, but the Patriots were not talking to Brady. This appeared to be a mutual parting.

Although Brady showed a consistent willingness to take below market contracts from the Patriots throughout his career, a renegotiation a few years ago was striking in its structure. While other teams were adding no-strings-attached money to the contracts of underpaid stars, the Patriots required Brady—the bell cow to the most successful run in NFL history—to earn new compensation with hard-to-achieve incentives (none of which he earned). Seriously?

I had seen this “enough with the Patriots” attitude before with another former Patriot great. In 2006 I brought Adam Viniatieri, who was a free agent (and a former client of mine) to Green Bay for a visit. I fully expected that he was just using us and wanted to go back to New England, but he was adamant; he wanted out (we lost him to a dome team, the Colts).

The stark reality, however, is that even for the elite of the elite, it rarely, if ever, ends well. The story of a franchise quarterback starting and finishing with the same team is the exception, not the norm, and it usually ends not by choice. The list includes names like Favre, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and now we can add Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady.

Hello, Tampa Bay

While I was correct in predicting Brady would leave New England, I thought he would have a LeBron-like sojourn to Los Angeles. I saw him playing for the Chargers, on a good team in a splashy new stadium, allowing for a seamless transition into entertainment and other post-career opportunities for Brady and his TB12 business.

But alas, TB is going to TB (maybe that is part of the reason). And what a win that is for the Bucs and Tampa Bay, no matter the upcoming results on the field.

Brady’s choice is not quite as monumental as that of the first well-known NFL free agent, when Reggie White picked the Packers over dozens of teams in 1993, but it is not far behind. The “Bay of Pigs,” as ESPN’s Chris Berman once referred to Green Bay and Tampa Bay, has risen.

From a business perspective, Brady’s arrival will not only generate ticket sales, both home and away, but will also bring various incremental revenue gains in elevating the Bucs brand. Revenue gains will come from sponsorships, premium seating and other ancillary gains from increased exposure, as the team will now be featured often in national broadcasts. Brady’s jersey will certainly be the biggest selling jersey in the NFL for quite some time. The previously irrelevant Bucs are now highly relevant after the signing of a certain 42-year-old free agent.

Perhaps most importantly to ownership, if the Bucs’ asset value was, say, $2 billion a couple of weeks ago, it may now be worth $2.1 billion, $2.2 billion or even more. The Bucs’ $50 million (plus incentives) investment in Brady will pay off many times that in the next two years.

O’Brien O’ver his head

One of Brady’s former coaches, Texans’ coach and general manager Bill O’Brien, has quietly become one of the most powerful figures in the NFL. While O’Brien has the cherished “control” that many coaches desire, I would say to him: “Careful what you wish for.”

During my time with the Packers, there were a few years—after general manager Ron Wolf retired—that Mike Sherman stepped into the role of coach/general manager. At times Sherman would come to me and say “Andrew, I need you to be the bad guy here.” And I totally understood; Sherman needed the players’ trust and had to remove himself from being the one controlling player purse strings. Someone else (me) needed to serve that role. Longtime Eagles President Joe Banner served that role in Philadelphia when Andy Reid was coach/general manager, and others have served similar capacities. O’Brien is that “bad guy,” and the team has suffered as a result

O’Brien has been exposed in his general manager role, most recently in dealing star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals for a second-round pick and a running back (David Johnson) that may well have been released. The “comp” for the trade came that same day when the Vikings secured a first-round pick for Stefon Diggs, a lesser wide receiver than Hopkins.

Last year, O’Brien gave up two first-round picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and did not negotiate a companion contract extension for Tunsil, another mark of an inexperienced front office. In contrast, the Colts acquired DeForest Buckner earlier this month for a first-round pick and negotiated a contract extension simultaneously along with the trade.

And O’Brien’s most puzzling move as general manager was trading Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle at the end of training camp last year in exchange for a couple of middling players and a third-round pick. And that was not the worst part: the Texans also paid half of Clowney’s salary (so he could play for the Seahawks). Yes, O’Brien traded a premier player at a premium position AND $7 MILLION for a couple of average players and a mid-round pick.

O’Brien is being taken advantage of by savvy NFL general managers who smell blood in the water. And, in some ways, it’s not his fault that he is underprepared for the role. It is a role that, even if desired, O’Brien should not have. Unless your name is Bill Belichick, those roles should be handled by different people. And that is on Texans’ senior leadership, not O’Brien, to correct.

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