The backlash surely was stronger than the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady had anticipated. Via carefully leaked partial details, Brady’s new contract was sold as a team-first gesture by a player who had opted to take less.
Initially, it worked. To the casual fan (and to the zealous fan with only a casual knowledge of how NFL contracts work), news of the three-year, $27 million extension that cleared $15 million in cap space over the next two years created the unmistakable impression that Brady was taking less — not only in the future, but now.
The full truth, which emerged one day (and, in today’s world, multiple news cycles) later, told a different story. Instead of earning $30 million over the next two years, Brady will be getting $30 million right now, along with an extra $3 million. As a result, Brady and the Patriots quickly were criticized by many for trying to pull a fast one in the characterization of the contract.
Yes, Brady eventually will be taking less starting in 2015, when his compensation will be $7 million. But few believe that, if Brady is playing at a high level, the deal will be honored as written.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft insists that it will be.
“No, no, no,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told Peter King of Sports Illustrated regarding the possibility of another new contract. “This is a real deal. Look at our track record. We don’t do fake deals. The contract we have with Tom Brady is a real contract we will both live by.”
The problem for the Patriots is that, if Brady continues to play at a high level over the next two years and the deal isn’t reworked, suspicions will persist that Kraft and Brady likewise brokered a wink-nod side deal that will kick in once Brady’s career ends. The fact that Kraft laid out this contract directly with Brady on a long plane flight, bypassing agent Don Yee, will serve only to increase those suspicions.
Let’s be clear once again on this: There is no evidence of a side deal. And there’s currently no tangible reason to believe there is one. But when unusual things happen, reasonable minds yearn for a reasonable explanation. The idea that Brady opted to do a multi-million-dollar solid for an organization worth well over a billion dollars makes no sense to many.
From a salary cap standpoint, the deal makes plenty of sense, because it reverses the trend of gigantic cap dollars for one position at a time when the cap isn’t going up by very much.
“If we were going to have to pay him elite-quarterback money and have elite-quarterback cap numbers, I just didn’t think we would be able to build a team,” Kraft told King. “We don’t want to have a team where we’re paying 18 to 20 percent to a player on the cap. I wanted to do something elegant that would work for everybody. I had been talking to him off and on for maybe 18 months, about how I wanted him to finish his career here, and about how we both have to be smart about it. I just really want him to end his career a Patriot.”
Eighteen months ago, another contract in which Kraft had been directly involved had just been completed — the labor deal between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Kraft knew at the time (and has said so since then) that the salary cap won’t be shooting up any time soon. In the interim, Brady saw for himself that the cap went up by only $600,000 per team in 2012 (a 0.5-percent increase) and by only $2.4 million in 2013 (a 1.9-percent climb).
So, yes, the Patriots’ reason for doing the deal makes sense. Brady’s decision to commit to three below-market seasons in the name of creating cap space now doesn’t. He could have insisted on higher base salaries in 2015, 2016, and 2017, realizing that he could be faced with a request to take a pay cut (or take a hike) in the out years. Instead, he took the future pay cut in advance — without knowing whether his skills will be the same or whether the cap will indeed go up once the TV deals kick in.
Then again, maybe Brady finally has gotten to the point in his life where he realizes that no amount of money (his or his wife’s) can buy the feeling he last experienced more than eight years ago. The feeling of being a champion.
“We’re going to spend to the cap,” Kraft said. “Tom knows that it’s not like whatever we don’t pay him we’re putting in the Kraft family pocket. He gets it, and now he’s rooting for us to make the right decisions in building the team.”
The fact that Brady took less surely will be used to help build the team with other players who, influenced by Brady’s gesture, will do the same. There’s nothing unfair or improper about it; the system is the system, and the goal for every team is to find a way to win within the confines of the rules.
Of course, that won’t stop some from wondering whether the team is indeed coloring outside the lines.
“These people don’t know the relationship between Tommy and this team,” Kraft told King. “Maybe they hate the Patriots, or they’re jealous. I understand the naysayers are out there, but we want to build a team capable of winning every year, and while this is not perfect in every way, we think this will help us get there.”
There’s no doubt the Patriots will continue to knock on the door of their fourth Super Bowl win. And if one comes in the next two years, the question will be whether Brady is knocking on Kraft’s door for a raise in 2015.
Either way, the skepticism will persist. And it’s a small price to pay for being a consistent contender for more than a decade.