Should the Patriots Consider Trading Tom Brady?
As a bay area native, Tom Brady grew up idolizing Joe Montana. And just like his idol, his career has mirrored that of the 49ers Hall of Fame quarterback. Despite successes at the collegiate level, both were questioned coming out of the draft in terms of their ability to make the leap to the NFL. Scouts slammed both Montana and Brady for their questionable arm strength. They both were rated too slow to avoid the pass rush, and both were seen as too "weak" and "frail" to survive in the pros.
And both would transcend these doubts to win four Super Bowl titles for the teams that drafted them.
But no good thing lasts forever. After his 14th season in the league, despite nine winning seasons and four Super Bowl titles, Joe Montana was traded by the San Francisco 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for a first-round draft pick.
History Repeats Itself
A look into the history books shows us that such a trade is more often the norm than the exception. Of the 14 retired quarterbacks in the top 20 in all-time passing yards, nearly half (six to be exact) were traded near the ends of their careers for fairly high compensation. Johnny Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers. Drew Bledsoe and Joe Montana were moved to Buffalo and Kansas City, respectively, for first-round picks. Boomer Esiason was traded to the Jets for a third-round pick. The Redskins gave up a second- and fourth-round pick for Donovan McNabb. And going into his 17th season, Brett Favre was traded for a fourth-round pick to the New York Jets.
On average, the six quarterbacks who were traded in the final years of their career were moved as they entered their 13th seasons in the league, and would go on to play for an additional three seasons.
Entering his 16th season in the NFL, just like Montana and other greats before him and as surprising as it may sound, Tom Brady now finds himself a prime candidate to be traded.
You Can't Get Something for Nothing
The NFL market is ripe for a trade involving a franchise quarterback right now. Teams like Cleveland, Houston, and St. Louis have spent the last few seasons streaming options in and out of the lineup as they search for their answer at the position. Just last week, news surfaced that Cleveland offered a first-round pick for the former 2010 number one overall pick Sam Bradford.
A first-round pick for a quarterback who has missed nearly as many games as he's started? Imagine what the Patriots could get for Tom Brady.
Such a trade would not be unprecedented for Bill Belichick and the Patriots, too, who have been known to move key players at the height of their values to generate maximal returns. Just recently, Belichick traded six-time Pro Bowl lineman Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay in return for tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round draft pick.
Prior to this, Belichick sent Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch to the Seahawks in exchange for a first-round pick in 2006, team captain Richard Seymour to the Raiders for a first-round pick in 2011, Matt Cassel along with All-Pro linebacker Mike Vrabel to Kansas City for a second-round pick in 2009, and former first-overall draft pick Drew Bledsoe to the Bills for a first-round pick in 2003.
Clearly these players aren't Tom Brady, one of the -- if not the -- greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. That's why this case could be considered different.
But Bill Belichick is a bottom-line type of person. Every player has a price and the risks and rewards of retaining or trading a player are constantly weighed against one another. With the value Belichick could command for four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, and given his age, Brady's inevitable decline looming, it would surprise me if the idea of a trade hasn't at least crossed the mind of New England's enigmatic head coach a few times.
Win Without Brady? That's Unpossible!
Let me begin by stating that Brady's contributions to the Patriots and his role in their immense success cannot be overstated. The awards, accolades, and arguments calling Brady one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time are all well-deserved.
If Belichick trades Brady, it will be because of these accomplishments, not in spite of them. It's exactly Tom Brady's track record, leadership, and skill set that would allow the Pats head coach to extract as much value as possible from a trade partner, allowing the rewards of such a bold move to outweigh its obvious risks.
Trading Tom Brady means Belichick will take on the risk of having to win without his MVP. And if Belichick does indeed pull the trigger on a deal, it will be with the confidence that he will be able to accomplish such a tall task.
That confidence would come from knowing that, in the end, the most important person to this team's success isn't Tom Brady. It's the man with the hoodie who has successfully tailored and adapted it to its strengths and weaknesses season after season, decade after decade.
Love him or hate him, Bill Belichick is one of the greatest minds in the NFL we'll ever see. He's kept the Patriots at the top of the league for nearly a decade and a half now, and has won with both run-heavy schemes (in their 2004 Super Bowl season, Belichick called the fifth-most rushing plays in the league for a pass-to-run ratio of 0.98), and pass-heavy schemes (most notably their Super Bowl last season which saw a pass-to-run ratio of 1.45).
The Patriots have actually garnered 10 or more wins in seasons both when Brady's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), our advanced metric for a quarterback's productivity in the air, has ranked him near the bottom of the league (2001 and 2003 Super Bowl seasons), as well as when he's topped the league in this metric (2007 season).
We see that, in five seasons in which Brady has a Passing NEP below 100.0 (excluding 2008, which he missed the entirety of due to injury), the Patriots garnered 13 or more wins in four of those seasons.
Contrast this now with the fortunes of team's more reliant on their quarterback for wins such as Green Bay. In the two seasons in which Aaron Rodger's Passing NEP failed to hit 100.0, the Packers also failed to reach the 10-win mark both these years (failing to make the playoffs in 2008).
From this, one could make the argument that Bill Belichick will know how to continue to win after Brady is gone. I'm not going to say it's going to be easy, and I'm not saying he'll be able to do it without acquiring an elite running back on the roster; their 2004 Super Bowl season -- in which Belichik's offense ran more rushing plays than passing plays -- had All-Pro Corey Dillon carrying the rock for that team.
But what I'm saying is that it can be done.
And it's been done before.
When a torn ACL suffered against Kansas City in Week 1 cost Brady the entire 2008 season, backup Matt Cassel led that team to an 11-5 record. Let me repeat that: Matt Cassel. The same Matt Cassel who has gone on to average a Passing NEP of -7.33 with the Chiefs and Vikings (a negative NEP was accumulated by just four quarterbacks in 2014, for reference). If Belichick was able to squeeze out 11 wins from Matt Cassel, there's at least hope for life post-Tom Brady.
Still, winning without Brady won't be easy. This is the key risk Belichick will face if he decides to send his franchise quarterback to a new team. But with Belichick's adept ability to mold his philosophies to changing situations and environments, along with the king's ransom he would get in return for Brady, the chances of Belichick being able to mitigate these risks is very high.
The Heir Apparent
In the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected Jimmy Garoppolo, a signal-caller from Eastern Illinois. This would be the highest-selected quarterback drafted by the New England Patriots since Drew Bledsoe with the first pick of the 1993 draft.
However, despite passing for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns in 14 games as a senior (and breaking Tony Romo's school record for career pass completions), Garoppolo was just the fifth quarterback selected in the draft, behind Blake Bortles (3rd overall), Johnny Manziel (22nd), Teddy Bridgewater (32nd), and Derek Carr (36th).
A quick look at his scouting report prior to his selection with the 62nd overall pick turns up an interesting find:
Pros: Can make all the throws. Tough-minded, and poised in the pocket. Highly competitive. Smart. Respected.
Cons: Does not rip the ball on the deep out or drive the ball with high RPM. A tad undersized, with small hands and short arms. Slow on the run, not a dual-threat.
Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like what scouts were saying of Tom Brady back in 2000 if you ask me.
Of the six aforementioned quarterbacks traded near the end of their careers, four had clear successors in place when the trades occurred. Joe Montana was succeeded by Steve Young. Brett Favre was succeeded by Aaron Rodgers. Donovan McNabb was succeeded by Michael Vick. And, of course, Drew Bledsoe was succeeded by Tom Brady.
With a player eerily similar in profile to a young Tom Brady -- and trust me, I'm not crowning Garoppolo the next Tom Brady -- now on the roster, one can argue that the successor to Brady's throne is now in place with Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo is nowhere near the quarterback that Tom Brady is today, but we have to remember neither was Tom Brady. And we have to remember that a future quarterback for the Patriots will more than likely never be Tom Brady.
Recently when describing Brady's progress through the years, Belichick said:
"...his strengths. I wouldn't say they were all in place in 2000. I think each year that they've gotten better, and I'd say his success as a quarterback is in large part due to this hard work, his diligence, and his intelligence to be able to take things that he didn't do well and be able to improve on them to a very high level so that now his game is pretty strong across the board."
Just like his work with Tom Brady over the past decade, the chances are high that Belichick will be able to work with the raw talents and intangibles possessed by Garoppolo to develop another high-level, winning quarterback.
Remember, this is merely a thought. This is something to think about and to consume. They more than likely shouldn't make a trade. But in the NFL, those who succeed are the ones constantly looking forward rather than backwards. Adhering to this creed is what has kept New England at the top of the league during Belichick's tenure as head coach there, and what will likely usher in a new era at their quarterback sooner rather than later.