“You know what I want,” Kraft said when asked about Brady.
But as a wise man once said, you can’t always get what you want. And the procedure to which the team and the player have agreed may result in the Patriots needing a new quarterback.
Consider this explanation of the situation from Ian Rapoport of the NFL: “There’s a reason why the option was to allow Brady to test free agency, to not get franchised, to not get transitioned, just to have a clear path toward free agency. And from what I understand, Kraft’s thinking on this was basically if the sides came together, if Brady decided that the Patriots were his best option after testing free agency, and if Bill Belichick who of course is making the decisions for New England, if he decides that Brady is his best option at this price, then in the end after all of this, after going through everything, that it will mean that it’s basically meant to be and that’s it’s the best thing for all sides. Kraft wanted them to get apart, to see what’s out there, and try to come together in the middle, and the hope is if that works out for 2020 that everyone will be happy they went through the process.”
So what does it mean within that context to “test free agency”? If Brady and the Patriots wait for free agency to open to “test” the waters, other viable options for the Patriots could be gone before Brady and the Patriots decide to part ways, if that’s what they eventually choose to do. At a minimum, Brady would accumulate significant leverage if/when various fallback options for the Patriots end up signing elsewhere.
Thus, for both sides to know whether they’ll be continuing their relationship for a 21st year, the Patriots will have to welcome other teams tampering with Brady, encouraging his agent to talk to other teams well before the free-agency period begins. Actually, the tampering must be completed before the legal tampering window opens on March 16, because that’s when teams with money to spend and positions to fill begin insisting on commitments from the players at the top of key position lists, intent to move on to No. 2 and so on, if top option isn’t interested.
This practical reality gives credence to an ESPN report from last month that the Patriots want to know what Brady is doing before the March 16 negotiating window opens. Thus, the testing of free agency necessarily will happen before free agency — and in this specific case the rampant tampering that happens in February (reaching a fever pitch at the Scouting Combine) will expedite the process of determining whether Brady will stay or go.
In other words, Brady is becoming a free agent without technically becoming a free agent. Because he’ll be staying in New England only after knowing what is behind Door No. 2 or Door No. 3 or any other door that may be out there before deciding whether the Patriots have said and done enough to get him to stay, Brady will be a free agent before choosing whether to stay put. If his agent already is testing the waters on interest in Brady, Brady is already a de facto free agent now.
After Brady knows what’s out there, the question becomes whether Belichick will do what he has to do to get Brady to stay. And that continues to be the most overlooked aspect of this situation: To get Brady to stay, Belichick will have to say and do enough to get Brady to believe that Belichick will truly appreciate Brady in the final years of their time together.
Brady’s habit of taking less has arisen, as some believe, not from a desire to ensure that cap space is available for other players but from fear that Belichick would cut Brady if/when Belichick thinks Brady is making more than his performance level justifies. Brady has basically exhausted his lifetime supply of dealing with that anxiety, and he’ll choose to continue to associate with the man Bill Parcells called “Doom” only if there will be much less gloom in Brady’s day-to-day relationship with his coach.