The chants were a hallmark of the season.
Coming from a place of admiration, and later in the season perhaps trepidation, they were part of every New England Patriots contest, whether home or away. A vocal show of support, masking a plea lying underneath.
“BRA-DY. BRA-DY. BRA-DY.”
From Foxborough to Houston, and points in between, these chants from the New England faithful in the direction of their quarterback marked the 2019 campaign. Thunderous at times, following Tom Brady’s every move.
Again, partly a show of support, but also a plea: Please stay.
With Brady now facing an uncertain future as he enters free agency, and given Bill Belichick’s history of handling star players, Patriots fans are left to wonder if those chants will be sung by another fan base in the year ahead. Could Brady leave New England? Would Robert Kraft let that happen?
As a Patriots fan, let me chime in on these questions.
From observing and studying Brady over the years, it would seem that two factors would weigh heavily in Brady’s decision this offseason. First, the schematic fit, and yes, I understand that seems odd given what I just wrote about Brady’s desire to prove himself. But Brady will turn 43 during training camp next season. As someone seven months older than him, I struggle to adapt when Twitter releases an update. I could not imagine having to learn a new offense, one different than the system I’ve been playing in for the past 20 years.
Similarly, Brady does not want to learn an entirely new system next season, so either the landing spot will have an offense rooted in familiar concepts, or the new team will transition to something that Brady is looking to operate.
Secondly, the team needs to be ready to win. Now. Brady is not going somewhere to finish 7-9, and he is certainly not going to be part of a rebuild situation. As he said in Wednesday's Instagram post, “[n]obody plays to lose.” But beyond that, think of his legacy. If Brady decides to leave New England, he’ll want to win a Super Bowl away from Bill Belichick. Perhaps that is what he wants to prove. So the team he joins has to be in a position to win it all next season.
Now let’s talk about the potential landing spots.
New England Patriots
This would be the cleanest fit, right?
Whether Josh McDaniels moves on to Cleveland or not, as long as Brady stays in New England, the offense will be the same. So you can check that factor off the list immediately.
Beyond that, New England has been over the past two years in a position to compete for the Super Bowl. Now, admittedly that window is drawing to a close and the Buffalo Bills are nipping at their heels in the division. But with some smart moves in the offseason, particularly in addressing the weapons around Brady, this team could certainly make another run in 2020. That would be an ideal way for Brady to ride off into the sunset, one more ring in hand.
For many Patriots fans, Brady’s IG post was in part a call to arms directed at the organization. “Get me help” it said, if you read between the lines. For years the QB has taken a bit of a “hometown discount,” only to see those salary cap savings used to address the defensive side of the football. Perhaps A.J. Green as a welcome back gift for Brady?
But more than anything else, Brady’s statement about an “organization that believes in him” speaks to the fact that in many other situations, Brady does not become the poster child of the league, or the face of a franchise. Belichick might be gruff and stern and short with the media and all of the things he is criticized for, but how many coaches would turn the keys over to a QB like Brady? A sixth-round pick backing up a first-overall selection, and one who had already led his team to a Super Bowl appearance?
Furthermore, how many owners would endorse such a move?
Brady knows the Patriots are an essential component of his story. That will count for something. If you had asked me Sunday morning whether Brady would return to New England, I would have told you it was 50/50. Now the odds are moving heavily in favor of a return in my mind.
But until pen is put to paper, there is still a chance he moves on. Where to? Here are some potential destinations.
Indianapolis seems like the cleanest landing spot.
While the offense is not identical to what the Patriots have been running under Brady, there is enough similarity in the playbook and philosophically that Brady would feel comfortable. Frank Reich is from the West Coast coaching tree, stressing ball control passing and getting the football out of the quarterback’s hand quickly. Additionally, Reich wisely uses personnel - including heavy tight end sets - to generate mismatches in the passing game. All concepts Brady is experienced in running.
As far as the roster, though the Colts failed to make the playoffs this season, they did so a year ago. With quarterback solidified they could address a position of need with their first-round selection - perhaps a weapon for Brady - and be in position to make a nice run in the AFC South.
Plus, look, you can’t tell me the thought of winning a Super Bowl in Indianapolis for the Colts, a franchise Brady battled so many times earlier in his career, is not enticing to him. To deliver a Lombardi to the Colts faster than Peyton Manning did? Come on...the ultra-competitive Brady would love something like that.
Los Angeles Chargers
Of course, this depends on how Philip Rivers handles his own future and current free agency status.
The Chargers have emerged as potential suitors for Brady, and many outside of the league think a return to the West Coast would make a great deal of sense for the veteran quarterback. A California kid, Brady could return to his home state, and let’s be honest, living around Los Angeles might make sense for his family.
The schematic fit makes sense as well. Although Ken Whisenhunt was was fired this season, his offensive background rooted in the West Coast passing game remains, incorporating shallow crossing routes and the tight ends into the system. Does that sound like something Brady might be intimately familiar with?
The biggest thing holding the Chargers back as a potential suitor might be their overall roster, and how close they are to competing for a title. The Chargers had a fantastic season two years ago, before falling to the Patriots in the Divisional Round, but struggled this season. With the Kansas City Chiefs and the improving Las Vegas Raiders in the division, the AFC West might be a tough spot for Brady to try and deliver a title in short order.
While Cleveland might be the odds-on favorite, this destination makes the least amount of sense to me.
Perhaps the odds are in Cleveland’s favor because of their coaching search. After all, Josh McDaniels is in the running for that job, and if he ends up the head coach of the Browns, he’ll install an offense Brady knows how to run.
Beyond that, however, just how close is Cleveland? Sure, the Browns won the "offseason Super Bowl," but down the street from where I live is FedEx Field, and Dan Snyder has a stadium filled with “Offseason Super Bowl Champions” banners ... but not many current Super Bowl banners. Yes, those in the media - myself included - bought into the idea of the Browns as contenders, but the Freddie Kitchens experiment failed and the team actually seems further away from competing than they did a year ago.
In addition, Cleveland currently holds one of the more valuable commodities in all of football, a young QB on his rookie deal. Are they going to then pay a big money contract to Brady as well? The benefits of a young QB playing at low cost is that the savings can be invested to help the rest of the roster. Sinking a large chunk of that money into the quarterback room seems ... unwise.
Before the Matt Rhule hire, the Panthers were an intriguing option for Brady. Due in part, probably, to Carolina being a potential landing spot for McDaniels. With Rhule in place, however, and holding a long-term deal, the Panthers are probably not the best place for Brady. Rhule will be installing his own offense and will be looking to acquire his own quarterback to prepare for a post Cam Newton Era. Probably best to just move on.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This is a complete wild card, but I keep coming back to it.
The system in place under Bruce Arians might not be the best fit for Brady. Arians is from the Air Coryell school and favors a more vertical, aggressive downfield approach. That is not exactly Brady’s style of play.
But Tampa Bay might be closer to contending than we think. They finished the season strong, winning four straight before losing their final two games by a combined nine points. Quarterback play - or more precisely inconsistent quarterback play - certainly held the team back. Jameis Winston (himself entering free agency) threw a whopping 30 interceptions, which led the league, like his 5,109 passing yards.
Brady has never thrown even 20 interceptions in a year, and over the past three seasons has thrown just 27 combined.
It might be a wild card, but if I am Arians, I’m picking up the phone and trying to get Brady to come south.
This is, after all, a Chicago-based publication.
Yes, Mitchell Trubisky is on the roster, and yes making a move like this probably obliterates the relationship between the organization and the young quarterback. But the NFL is a business, and winning is king.
The Bears are close, but there are areas they need to address. The offensive line, the coaching, and yes, the quarterback. They need to take advantage of the window they have in place with this defense. Again, getting consistent quarterback play would go a long way toward delivering during this window.
Schematically, this potential marriage could work. We know Matt Nagy’s background in the West Coast offense, and with a quarterback like Brady at his disposal, he could open the offense up a bit more. Nagy’s desire to try and generate favorable matchups in the passing game is very similar to how McDaniels constructed his offense. Plus, who doesn’t want to see what Allen Robinson could become with Brady on the other end of the connection?
Another aspect to such a pairing would be the money. The Bears currently (according to Spotrac) have $23M in cap space. They would need to make some moves to fit Brady in under that number and still have the ability to acquire other pieces, sign draft picks, etc. It can be done, but it will be tough and would likely leave the team in a bind financially during the terms of the contract.
So ... it’s possible?
The Final Word
As I said earlier, I still think Brady finds his way back to New England. He and Kraft have a very close and personal relationship, and the owner said just a few days ago that Brady either retires or comes back to New England. With retirement seemingly out of the picture, coming back to the Patriots is the other option in Kraft’s mind. The owner has tried to largely stay out of personnel decisions (exceptions such as Antonio Brown aside) but this might be a situation where he steps in and voices his opinion. Brady has been the face of this organization for two decades, and helped deliver six Super Bowl titles.
But if he somehow finds his way out of Foxborough, I think the landing spot that makes the most sense for him given the various factors is Indianapolis. The offensive system is a good match, the talent is in place, and he’ll have a chance to replicate something his old foe Peyton Manning did: Deliver a Lombardi to Lucas Oil.
I would not rule the Bears out, however, at this point in the process. The logistics under the cap might be difficult, but the Bears certainly have a defense to contend with and an offensive system that Brady could run. If I were a betting man, I’d still bet on the Patriots, but given my history of placing bets in the past (glares in the direction of my pre-season bet on Trubisky) perhaps I’m not the bookie you want to follow...