By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — By now, we really should be used to Bill Belichick executing surprising deals when we least expect them, but we still tend to be taken aback whenever they take place.
That was certainly the case on Monday night, when Belichick sent Jimmy Garoppolo packing, dealing the backup quarterback to San Francisco in exchange for a second-round pick. Given that a potential Garoppolo trade hadn’t really been discussed since the spring, the news caught most people off guard. As a result, reaction was all over the board, with the trade spurring debates, criticism and questions around New England.
But within a few hours, the major takeaway as it relates to the Patriots became crystal clear. Tom Brady is going to be the quarterback for the foreseeable future.
That is to say, Brady will be the quarterback in 2017, in 2018, and 2019.
The most likely successor to Brady as New England’s starting quarterback is currently on a collegiate — or, if you’re an extreme optimist, a high school — roster.
The process the Patriots underwent with Garoppolo will need to be rebooted, because Brady’s not going anywhere.
That may seem elementary to some; he is arguably the greatest quarterback in history, he’s performing at age 40 as well as he ever has, and he’s publicly expressed a plan to play for at least five more years.
But by trading away a quarterback in whom the Patriots invested a second-round draft pick who also happens to be the only backup quarterback on the roster, the Patriots announced to the world that Brady is their QB for 2017, and he’ll be their QB for multiple years to come.
Consider the draft capital the Patriots have spent on quarterbacks during the Brady-Belichick era. After Brady became the starter in 2001, the Patriots used a third-round pick or higher just twice to draft a quarterback (Kevin O’Connell in 2008, Ryan Mallett in 2011).
Yet in 2014, when Brady was 36 years old, Belichick used a second-round pick on a quarterback for the first time with the Patriots. And the no-nonsense head coach was pretty straightforward about his reasoning, too.
“I think you’re better off being early than late at that position,” Belichick said, before adding: “We know what Tom’s age and contract situation is.”
You know the story by now, but still, the message was clear. Brady was getting old. His clock was ticking. The eye was on the future.
Circumstances were, understandably, different last year, when the Patriots used a third-round pick to select Jacoby Brissett out of NC State. With Brady facing a four-game suspension to start the season, the Patriots needed a backup to the backup. Still, the expenditure of a third-round pick to acquire that backup was rather significant, another sign that the Patriots continued to invest in the future at the position.
So, after using a third-round pick or higher on a quarterback just twice in 12 years, the Patriots used a second and a third on quarterbacks twice in a three-year span — all while the quarterback atop the depth chart approached 40 years old.
And even this year, when the Patriots traded away Brissett for a small return instead of trading Garoppolo for a much more significant package of picks, it seemed as though Belichick was playing it safe with his 40-year-old quarterback.
Yes, Brady obsessively takes care of his body. Yes, his performance didn’t dip at age 39. Yes, he was coming off a preposterous comeback in Super Bowl LI. And yes, he speaks regularly about his desire to play into and perhaps through his mid-40s.
But Belichick is too pragmatic to just buy into the fairy-tale of a 40-year-old sustaining that level of play. Despite the past accomplishments of Brady, it is simply too rare a feat for any 40-year-old to perform in that league at that position for Belichick to feel comfortable putting the fate of the franchise in such a precarious position.
That just does not happen in the NFL — unless Tom Brady is involved.
As Brady tends to do, he responded to the cautious doubt by being nearly perfect. Through eight games, he leads the league in passing yards, in completions, and in pass attempts. He’s thrown 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He’s withstood an avalanche of heavy hits each week; he’s popped back up every time. He has the Patriots at 6-2, tied for the best record in the conference.
He’s not slowing down. And he has been every bit as good as he’s ever been.
Brady’s reaction to the trade was not sentimental or emotional. It was the response of a quarterback who instantly understood the implication of the trade.
“I’m trying to do the best I can do for our team, like I always do,” Brady told Jim Gray on Monday night. “I’m going to bring it every single day, like I’ve tried to do for the last 18 years.”
And so, rather than having to slap a franchise tag on Garoppolo after the year and try to get a late-round pick in a deal before the draft, Belichick pulled the trigger. His highest-ever draft selection at quarterback, gone, for a pick that won’t help this year’s team unless it’s traded for a player before Tuesday’s trade deadline.
You now have, int he span of just two months, the Patriots trading away two quarterbacks in whom they invested a high-round picks in recent years. They were supposed to be the future. Now they are gone. And Brady remains.
Now, in discussing the trade, some questions will linger. Would they have gotten more if they had traded Garoppolo back in March? Certainly. Are they in trouble this year if Brady needs to miss a game or two with a minor injury and Garoppolo’s not there to take his place? Undoubtedly.
But the main takeaway if you’re someone who enjoys watching Tom Brady play quarterback for the Patriots? You should be ecstatic. Brady’s in position to keep his job for a few more years. His tall tales about leading the Patriots through his early 40s? It’s becoming a reality.
His contract had an expiration date of 2019, but for as long as Belichick kept Garoppolo around, there was always some speculation that Brady’s final day in New England could come sooner.
On the strength of a tremendous start to the 2017 season, the best to ever do it has bought himself more time in the only NFL city he’s called home.